06 July 2018

Sutras in Stone for the End of the Dharma

Jìngwǎn (靜琬) was a devout monk who flourished in the early 7th Century and died in 639 CE. He was abbot at the Temple that Dwells in the Clouds (雲居寺) or Yúnjū Temple, on a low peak called Fángshān (房山) or Repository Mountain (In Middle Chinese 居 means a room or alcove, or any space where something is housed). Fángshān is about 65 km south-west of central Beijing.

Although his origins are obscure, we remember Jìngwǎn because he undertook a project to carve Buddhist sutras in stone to preserve them against what he saw as the imminent end of Buddhism. Jìngwǎn and his many followers over centuries created a huge repository of Buddhist texts on around 15,000 stone tablets stored in caves in the nearby ridge, originally called Mount White Stripe (白带山) because of a stratum of white chalk that can be seen in the cliff faces. It is now called Stone Sutra Mountain (石經山) for obvious reasons. The tablets provide important insights into Buddhist texts of the period (several periods in fact) and are part of a bigger story about Buddhist practices in medieval China.

Jìngwǎn and his Time

Most of the biographical information about Jìngwǎn seems to come from a single source, published in 653 CE:
"The oldest account of the caves is found in the Míng bào jì (冥報記), a collection of tales dealing with the miracles associated with Buddhism. The compiler of the Míng bào jì was a government official, Táng lín (唐臨)." (Lancaster 1989; Wade-Giles amended to Pinyin and characters supplied)
At that time, Táng lín was one of two Vice Presidents of the Censorate (御史臺), the branch of the imperial government charged with monitoring and tackling official corruption. They reported directly to the Emperor and were thus very powerful. His collection of stories, the Míng bào jì, was published in English translation by Donald Gjertson (1989). Táng lín records that he visited the region of Yōu zhōu (幽州) in 645 CE and spoke to locals who told him about Jìngwǎn, but that he didn't see the Temple itself "because of the military situation [軍事]" (Gjertson 1989: 166). Táng lín actually refers to "the monk Zhìyuàn (沙门智苑) of Zhìquán Temple (智泉寺) in Yōu Zhōu (幽州)" (c.f. Wikisource), but it is widely agreed that this story must relate to Jìngwǎn (靜琬) at Yúnjū sì (雲居寺). As far as I can tell, there is no Zhìquán Temple and never was (though funnily there is a modern temple in Japan, which uses the same Kanji but pronounced Chisenji).

Jìngwǎn is sometimes linked to another millennialist monk, Huìsī (慧思), the third patriarch of Tiantai Buddhism. For example, Li Jung-hsi (1979), Lewis Lancaster (1989), and Yong You (2010) all state without qualification that Jìngwǎn was a disciple of Huìsī and had lived at Zhiquan Temple. However, the first mention of such a link comes from the Ming Dynasty, in Liu Tong's guide to the Capital, 帝京景物略 (Dìjīng jǐngwù è) or A Summary of Things to Admire in the Imperial Capital, published in 1635. Huìsī died in 577 and it's not known when Jìngwǎn was born. It's not impossible that they met, but Jìngwǎn died 62 years after Huìsī. Had Jìngwǎn been a student of Huìsī, he'd have to have been a monk already and thus probably in his teens by then.

We are not sure where he lived prior to his appearance at Yúnjū sì, but the temple itself is in the region that was controlled from 550 to 577 by the Northern Qi (北齊) during a time when China was divided into a number of states. In 574 Emperor Wu (武帝 543–578) of the neighbouring Northern Zhou held a debate between Confucianists, Daoists, and Buddhist and decided that the Confucianists had won. As a result, he banned both Daoism and Buddhism, appropriated the considerable wealth and property of Buddhist temples and returned monks to lay life.

In 577, Wu of Zhou made an alliance with the Göktürks (Blue or Celestial Türks) and conquered Qi, reuniting the north into a single state. The records of the Northern Zhou are the first to refer to the nomads living on the steppes to the north of China as Türks, although nomads had lived there for centuries. The word they use to represent Türk is 突厥, probably pronounced in Middle Chinese like duot-gwut (IPA duət̚-kʉɐt̚). The Türks would continue to play a decisive role in Chinese and Central Asian geopolitics for the next few centuries, while their cousins from Central Asia would go on to take the modern territory of Turkey from the Byzantine Empire and call it their own.

Wu died suddenly in the summer of 578. The shrewd political operator Yáng Jiān (楊堅) became, first regent, and then, in 581, Emperor of a new Dynasty, styling himself Emperor Wen of Sui (隋文帝). Wen still faced an ongoing series of rebellions from within and threats from the increasingly organised and aggressive Türks in the North. Despite this, he impressed people as a hard-working administrator. He reorganised the state, standardised coinage, and began a series of infrastructure projects such as canals connecting major rivers to facilitate trade. Notably, Wen was born in a Buddhist temple and raised in his early years by a Buddhist nun. As Emperor, he promoted Buddhism as the state religion, thus undoing some of the damage caused by Wu. He reigned until 604.

The second Sui Emperor, Yáng (隋煬帝), embarked on a series of disastrous military campaigns against the Kingdom of Goguryeo (or Koguryǒ) which had been encroaching on Chinese territory. Goguryeo was in what is now North Korea and also had its capital in Pyongyang. Yáng also faced major incursions of Türks from the north, as they also found political unity in their identity as the Göktürk Khaganate. Yáng drafted men for his armies and this led to a shortage of labour for farms and drops in agricultural production. Worse, Yang was a hedonist who squandered wealth on luxuries. Rumour was that he had murdered his father to get to the throne.

In 617 the aristocratic Lǐ (李) family from what is now Shanxi province were deeply unhappy with the situation. Turks and Koreans were increasingly a problem in the north and rebellion amongst the people looked increasingly likely. Lǐ Yuān 李淵 and his two children led an insurgency that soon captured the capital. They forced Yáng to retire and installed the thirteen year old Yáng Yòu (楊侑) as Emperor Gong of Sui (隋恭帝). However, in 618, after just six months, Yáng's own minsters strangled him, at which point Lǐ Yuān forced Emperor Gong to step down and install him as the Emperor of a new Dynasty.

Lǐ Yuān became Emperor Táng Gāozǔ (唐高祖). The new dynasty name, Tang 唐, referred to the Lǐ family's original fiefdom. The first Tang Emperors inherited a unified China, but one still wracked by rebellion and external threats. It took them a few decades to establish peace and prosperity. Even then the Tang era was marked by extraordinary events such as the first and only female Emperor (the Chinese term 帝 is not gendered) and large scale rebellions. During this period Xuanzang travelled to and from India and then Tantric Buddhism arrived with Śubhakarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi. The Tang capital, Changan, was the largest city in the world and, as one end of the Silk Road, was also vastly wealthy (though such wealth was very unevenly distributed). The wealth of Buddhist temples in Tang era Changan was said to be "incalculable" and must have seriously distorted the Tang economy as they paid no tax. The later Tang era also saw renewed persecution of Buddhists and confiscation of their property.

Prophecies of the decline of Buddhism continued to fuel the imagination of Buddhists in East Asia for centuries. And to understand Jìngwǎn we need to understand a little more about these prophecies.

The Three Ages

For Jìngwǎn, who lived in the North of China, less than 100km from the Great Wall, peace and prosperity were likely in short supply for much of his life. In addition to witnessing the rise and fall of the Sui (581-618) he had become interested in the Chinese Buddhist doctrine of the three ages: the age of the true Dharma (正法), the age of the semblance Dharma (像法; when people go through the motions, but do not attain liberation), and the age of the end of the Dharma (末法). The last is pronounced mòfǎ in Mandarin but is perhaps better known in the West by its Japanese rendering mappō. During the last period, the Dharma gradually disappears until nothing is left. It was only at the end of this cycle that the new Buddha, Maitreya, would appear to rediscover the Dharma and begin the cycle anew.

This idea of an age of decline is the subject of the book Once Upon a Future Time (1991) by Jan Nattier, based on her PhD thesis. Nattier notes that there is no Indic term corresponding to 末法 or mappō. Indian Buddhists certainly discussed the Dharma having a strictly limited lifespan, originally 500 years. However, as with other forms of millennialism, when the 500 years were thought to be up, the figure was extended to 1000 years and, when that time approached, to 1500 years, and so on. Despite this notion of a fixed term for the Dharma, Indian texts only mention two periods: the period of the Dharma and the paścimakāla "after time" (which is usually translated as 末世). 末法 is a Chinese coinage with no Indic counterpart. The three ages doctrine is thus distinctively Chinese and only emerged in the 6th Century. The Chinese concept of the decline and end of the Dharma was very influential in medieval East Asia. Those who saw themselves as cut off from liberation through awakening, were very creative in thinking of other ways to be liberated, especially via the Pure Land idea of the intervention by Buddhas from other universes. The doctrine of the three times had a huge influence on the development of the Jōdo Shinshū school founded by Shinran. It also affected Nichiren Buddhism and via that the Soka Gakkai movement. Together these three schools make up a significant proportion of the modern world's Buddhists.

One of the most important sutras for this apocalyptic vision of decline in China was the Mahāsaṃghata Sutra or Mahā (大集經; T 397), also known as the 大方等大集經 [Mahāvaipulya-mahā]saṃnipāta-sūtra (Yong 2010: 130; Nattier 1991: 114). This was translated by Naredrayaśas in 566 CE. Within this collection of sutras we find the 月藏分 Candragarbha-vaipulya-sūtra and within that, a section on the decline and destruction of the Dharma (法滅盡品).

Whatever sources Jìngwǎn was relying on, he calculated that he was living in the last of the three ages, that Awakening was no longer possible and that chaos was only going to increase, the advent of the Tang Dynasty and state Buddhism notwithstanding. Jìngwǎn left a number of progress reports, also carved in stone, as he reached milestones in his project (translated in Ledderose 2010). He clearly states himself to be living in the last age:
"The true Dharma of Śakyamuni Tathāgata and the semblance Dharma have together endured for more than 1,500 years. Now, in the second year of Zhenguan era [628] we have been immersed in the decline of the Dharma for seventy-five years." (Adapted from Ledderose 2010: 393)
It might be hard to imagine taking something like this seriously, but cults with strange beliefs still attract many followers in modern times. The combination of taking the prophecy of decline literally and the geopolitical and social chaos of the Late 6th - early 7th Centuries obviously had a massive impact on Jìngwǎn. From the progress reports we have a glimpse of his motivations:
"The True Dharma and the Semblance Dharma, too, have been lost in the depths, all living beings are heavily stained and faithful hearts are no more... I fear for the day when the scriptures will disintegrate and dissolve, for paper and palm leaves are hard to maintain for a long period of time. Whenever I ponder these matters my tears flow in compassion and sorrow." (Adapted from Ledderose 2010: 392)
For those Buddhists who took the three ages doctrine to heart and concluded that they lived in an age of decline and disappearance, the idea had a profound effect on them. Despite the gloomy tone of his messages to posterity, however, it would be a mistake to characterise Jìngwǎn as pessimistic. To be sure, he understood himself to be living in the age which would see the complete destruction of Buddhism, but his response was in many ways optimistic and heroic. He decided that he would carve important sutras in stone for posterity. Having done this, he conceived of the far grander project of engraving the whole of the Buddhist Canon (as it was in those days) in stone.

The Stone Sutra Project

Goats reading the Diamond Sutra
inscription on Mount Tai, Fall 1995.
Photograph by Ian Boyden
The practice of carving sutras in stone began around 550 CE, with large outdoor carvings like the partial Vajracchedikā Sūtra carved at Mount Tai (泰山) in characters 40–50 cm high. Other collections of stone sutras are found in Shandong and Henan provinces. However, the collection at Fángshān is the most extensive by a wide margin.

Some (later) accounts explain that Jìngwǎn founded Yúnjū Temple, possibly for the express purpose of continuing the stone sutra project. However, since temple construction was controlled by the government, this seems unlikely. Other accounts suggest that the Temple was founded somewhat earlier, in the 550s.

We don't know the exact year Jìngwǎn began his project, but Táng lín says that it was in the Daye (大業) period, i.e., 605-616 CE (Gjertson 1989: 165). One of his first tasks would have been extending a natural cave in the nearby ridge now called Stone Sutra Mountain. This became the eventual repository for the first batch of sutras. Depending on how much help he had, we can envisage the sutra engravings might have begun at the same time.

The stone for the tablets came from a quarry to the south, near the modern-day town of Gaozhuangcun (高庄村), which until recently was still producing fine marble. Industrial approaches to quarrying caused pollution, however, and the quarry has been shut down and there are plans to make it into a tourist attraction. The preparation of the stone slabs for engraving was carried out at another nearby monastery (no longer extant and not named in sources). Next, an expert calligrapher would brush the text onto the surface of the stone. Then, an engraver would have carved the characters. Often the "calligraphy" of Chinese inscriptions is of considerable interest to experts and aficionados (this is very much the case at Mount Tai). All of the actual work was carried out by lay craftsmen, under the supervision of monks. And note that even a small stone tablet like the Heart Sutra commissioned by Yáng Shèshēng (楊社生 ) would have cost a lot more than any of them earned in a year for making stone tablets.

Li explains that carving took place at Yúnjū Temple; then, once a year on the Buddha's birthday (8th day of the fourth month), locals would flock to the temple for a festive ritual as the tablets were carried by devotees to Stone Sutra Mountain for storage (1979: 108)

According to Táng lín, in 611, the Emperor Yáng and his retinue were on tour in nearby Zhuō county (涿郡). Yáng was probably planning ahead for his invasion of the Kingdom of Goguryeo, which occurred in 612. Xiāo Yǔ (蕭瑀), a high ranking official and younger brother of the Empress Lady Xiāo (蕭氏) heard about Jìngwǎn's project. A devout Buddhist, Xiāo used his influence with his sister to arrange for a large donation to the project (as now, funding for projects was crucial). Li Jung-Hsi describes the donation as "1000 rolls of silk and other valuable goods" (1979: 106). The Xiāo's were descendants of the (Southern) Liang Dynasty Imperial family (502–557) which was still both rich and powerful (as indicated by Lady Xiāo's becoming Empress). Bolts of silk often functioned as currency for high-value transactions. A bolt of silk was worth about 1000 standard copper coins.

The brother and sister also inspired many of their peers to make donations. Overnight Jìngwǎn became extremely wealthy and just five years later, in 616, the initial phase of Jìngwǎn's vision was complete.

Léiyīn Dòng 雷音洞 or Thunder Sound Cave is a minor marvel. The ceiling is about 2.5 metres high, and the walls are all different lengths (10.07 x 7.66 x 11.82 x 8.3 metres). The frontage is actually a constructed stone wall. Four pillars support the roof and are decorated with images of Buddhas accompanied by their names (from a sutra listing the names of 1000 Buddhas). Lining the walls in two or three registers, are 147 stone slabs with 19 texts, many of them extracts. Complete copies of the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā-sūtra (T 262) and the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (T 475), both in Kumārajīva's translation, are prominent and together these two take up half the wall space in the cave. Lee notes that the Xiāo family were famously devoted to the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā-sūtra and speculates that they may have had some influence over the choice to complete it first and to give it the most prominent place in the cave (2010: 56).

Amongst the other complete texts found in the Thunder Sound Cave are the Prajñāpāramitā-vajracchedikā (T 236; tr. Bodhiruci) and the Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda-sūtra (T 353; tr. Gunabhadra). Gjertson notes that Xiāo Yǔ was also especially devoted to the Prajñāpāramitā-vajracchedikā (1989: 183). Most of the other texts are very short and include sutra extracts mostly focussed on practical matters such as ethics and monastic etiquette. Thus the cave represents a kind of samuccaya or anthology of Buddhist texts important to a Chinese monk living in the early 6th Century, albeit with some possible influence from his sponsors. It is a valuable snapshot of Buddhism in that time and place.

Lee suggests that Jìngwǎn had "brought together for the first time two strands of Indian Buddhist thought that had been introduced to China in previous generations", i.e., Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. I'm doubtful about this. Both of these post-Abhidharma schools of thought were primarily śāstric rather than sūtric, i.e., based on commentarial literature by Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu, respectively. The distinctions between the schools are not based on different sutras, but in different hermeneutics and exegetical strategies for reading the same sūtras. Moreover, these Indian categories were not so influential in China, which inherited a range of texts from the outset. Distinctions between schools were only nominal in China.

Lee also suggests that the 判教 Pànjiào or doctrinal classification systems, a number of which predate Jìngwǎn by centuries, might have formed part of the context. Again, I'm not sure that this is doing anything more than stating the obvious: i.e., that the Chinese were struggling to make sense of the bewildering variety of texts emerging from India (and also from China!) which often appeared to contradict each other. That said, Jìngwǎn's choices for the Leiyin Cave were idiosyncratic, as is demonstrated by the different choices made in other stone sutra collections at Xiǎngtángshān (響堂山) and Dàzú Shíkè (大足石刻) (Lee 2010: 59 ff.). The latter is focused, for example, on the theme of the end of the Dharma.

Phase two of the stone sutras project is marked by expansion, in many senses. Táng lín mentioned seven caves or "rooms" filled with sutras, though now there are nine in total. The scope of the project became to engrave the entire Buddhist Canon as it occurred at the time. This phase extended long after Jìngwǎn's death.

Award winning Professor of Art History, Lothar Ledderose, characterises the new phase as "changing the audience". The first phase seems to have been aimed at living people. Leiyin cave was not sealed and was arranged as a kind of shrine so that people could come in and read the texts arrayed around the walls. The new caves were simply storage and not easily accessible. In the newer caves, the stone slabs were densely stacked together and Jìngwǎn left instructions not to disturb them unnecessarily. These make up about 5,000 of the almost 15,000 stone tablets associated with Yúnjū Temple (10,000 more were found buried in the Temple grounds). Once they were filled, each of the caves was sealed with a large stone door. However, it is clear that people, particularly Emperors, could not resist peaking from time to time (Li 109).

Xuándǎo (玄導) became abbot and leader of the stone sutra project after Jìngwǎn's death, until his own death in 672. During his leadership, funds apparently ran low and Yúnjū Temple began accepting donations in return for engraving specific sutras. The earliest example of this happens also to be the earliest dated Heart Sutra, from 661. This program is similar in some ways to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Lay people thought that by doing these pious acts they would secure a better rebirth or even liberation for themselves and their families. This led to many copies of the same sutras being created, though, presumably, the funds generated by selling indulgences went back into the main project.

During the life of the stone sutra project, more than one hundred different sutras were engraved, including very long texts such as the Mahāprajñāpāramita-sūtra, the Mahāsaṃghata-sūtra, and the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra. The latter covered 120 tablets on its own and was stored in its own cave, while the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra covered 1,500 tablets (Li 1979). However, multiple copies of some sutra texts make up many of the tablets (Yong 2010).

Buddhists would once again undergo persecution in the late Tang, and a disruptive civil war in the Five Dynasties Era (907-960), but work on the stone sūtras did not completely halt until 1691. Of the 15,000 tablets, as many as 10,000 date from the Liao and Jin Periods and were buried in a pit in the monastery between 1117 and 1200 CE.

During the excavations in the 1950s, rubbings were made of the tablets, including the Xīnjīng tablet that is the earliest dated Heart Sutra. Slabs were engraved on both sides so that a total of 30,000 rubbings were made at the time. Rubbings of such tablets are made by spreading ink directly onto the stone and then pressing (rubbing) paper onto it, in a manner resembling lithographic printing. This, of course, produces a horizontally inverted negative image. A few facsimile images of these rubbings, printed reversed so that they could be read (including the Heart Sutra of interest), were printed in Zhōngguó... (1978) and the entire collection from Fángshān were published (in 30 volumes) by Zhōngguó... (2000). These publications are the main way that scholars can get access to the collection now (though there are no copies of the complete set in the United Kingdom, unfortunately).


I thought it worth telling the story of Jìngwǎn and his stone sutra project in some detail, including as many names and dates as possible, because it is not well known in the West. This essay brings together facts that are scattered amongst many different publications that remain inaccessible to most people. This is despite the story being common knowledge amongst some Western archaeologists and art historians (since at least the 1970s), and amongst Chinese and Japanese Buddhism Studies scholars (since the 1930s), though modern studies of the collection begin 1914. Jìngwǎn's collection includes the earliest dated copy of the Heart Sutra and thus deserves a chapter in the history of the text. It also gives us a stronger sense of how the Heart Sutra was conceived of and used in its original context.

That tiny minority of intellectuals who commented on the Heart Sutra as a text certainly did not see it as ineffable, while the vast majority (including the majority of Buddhist monks) saw it as having magical properties that did not depend on understanding. These properties could be activated, following the advice of other Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, merely by speaking it aloud or by writing it. Writing it in stone was seen as especially efficacious in China, perhaps because of the model of Emperor Asoka and his edicts.



Gjertson, Donald E. (1989) Miraculous Retribution: A Study and Translation of T'ang Lin's Ming-pao chi. Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series; Centers for South and Southeast Asia Studies; University of California at Berkeley.

Lancaster, Lewis R. (1989). 'The Rock Cut Canon in China: Findings at Fang-shan,' in The Buddhist Heritage, edited by Tadeusz Skorupski [Buddhica Britannica 1]. 143-156. Tring: The Institute for Buddhist Studies.

Ledderose, Lothar (2004). 'Changing the Audience' in Religion and Chinese Society (Vol. 1). A Centennial Conference of the École franşaise d'Extrême-Orient. John Lagerwey Ed., p385-409. [This publication includes a review of studies conducted at Fángshān, mostly published in Japanese and Chinese]

Lee, Sonya S. (2010) 'Transmitting Buddhism to a Future Age: The Leiyin Cave at Fangshan and Cave-Temples with Stone Scriptures in Sixth-Century China.' Archives of Asian Art. Vol. 60 (2010), pp. 43-78.

Li Jung-hsi (1979). 'The Stone Scriptures of Fang-shan.' The Eastern Buddhist. Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 104-113

Nattier, Jan (1991). Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Asian Humanities Press.

Yong You. (2010) The Diamond Sutra in Chinese Culture. Buddha's Light Publishing.

中国佛教协会 (1978) ​「房山云居寺石经」. 北京 : 文物出版社. = Chinese Buddhist Association. (1978) Mount Fang, Yunju Temple, Stone Sutras. Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House.

中国佛教协会 and 中国佛教图书文 (eds) (2000) 「房山石经」(全30册)华夏出版社. = Chinese Buddhist Association and Chinese Buddhist Literature Museum (eds) (2000) Mount Fang Stone Sutras. Huaxia Publishing House.

29 June 2018

Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography

In this essay I'm going to try to show some of how I evaluate sources of information using a case study of the two mentions of the Heart Sutra in the standard biography of Xuánzàng written by Huìlì and Yàncóng. This involves a detailed assessment of such qualities as authenticity, veracity, accuracy, precision, and reliability. What knowledge can we obtain from a text, using which kinds of methods? What kinds of caveats apply to this process?

On the 5th day, 12th Month of Yǒnghuī 6 (永徽六年十二月五日) i.e., 6 January, 656, Xuánzàng sent a letter to the emperor celebrating the birth of a new prince the month before. He wrote in a letter: "I dare to offer a copy of the Prajñā Heart Sutra in gold letters, one scroll and a case." (輒敢進金字《般若心經》一卷并函 T 50.272b.12). This piece of information is quite a big deal because this is the earliest literary reference to the Heart Sutra with a precise date that I know of. It is five years before the earliest physical evidence (661 CE) and definitely before Xuánzàng began translating Prajñāpāramitā texts in ernest (660 CE). But this important date is seldom, if ever, discussed in the literature on the Heart Sutra

The information comes from the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a Tang Dynasty (唐) biography (傳) of Xuánzàng (aka "the Dharma Master 三藏法師傳 of the great Ci'en Temple 大慈恩寺") by 慧立 Huìlì and 彥悰Yàncóng from about 688 CE (henceforth, Biography). I say "biography", but as Xuánzàng never puts a foot wrong and is portrayed as conforming to an ideal, the text is clearly part of a trend to elevate him to the status of Buddhist saint. As such, we might better refer to it as a hagiography. Chinese Buddhist saints are quite different in character from Indian Buddhist saints, which is something that requires its own study (and I don't propose to get into it here). Unlike some hagiographies, the Biography was composed quite close to the subject's lifetime, in a literate society that kept good records in both the religious and imperial spheres, and partly by someone who knew the subject personally. So Xuánzàng is not presented as doing many miracles, but more as behaving in an exemplary manner in social, political, and religious spheres. He is, in short, the archetype of a good Buddhist living in a fundamentally Confucian society.

The Biography is included in the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka as text no. 2053. T2053 was translated by Samuel Beal in 1911 (I use a 1914 reprint), and more recently by Li Rongxi  for the BDK English Tripiṭaka (1995). Huìlì was a younger contemporary of Xuánzàng, who knew and worked with him. Yàncóng recounts the  story of how the Biography came about in a preface. Having written down the the Biography, Huìlì lost confidence and buried them "fearing that the contents of his writing might be incomplete and inadequate for the public" (Li 1995: 3). However, on his death bed he asked his students to dig up the manuscript. Within a few years it had become divided and scattered. Some parts were lost. Around 688 CE, the students managed to collect up the remaining works and commissioned 彥悰 Yàncóng to edit it into a book. What remained of Huìlì's work amounted to five scrolls, and Yàncóng added five more. The result is the now famous biography. 

However, there is a slight difference between how Li tells the story in his translator's introduction and how Yàncóng tells it. Li suggests that Huìlì's account ended with Xuánzàng's return to China in 645 CE. If Yàncóng does not supply this detail, then who does? It probably originates from a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by Beal in his introduction:
The five chapters added by [Yàncóng] are probably those which follow the account of [Xuánzàng]'s return from India, and relate to his work of translation in China. (1914: xix)
As far as I can tell, there is no basis for this "probably". Beal is guessing. What Yàncóng says in Beal's own translation is that he was engaged to "to re-arrange and correct the leaves which their master had written and hidden in a cave." (xix).  But compare Li "Then I mixed the original text with supplementary annotations, extending it into a work of ten fascicles" (1995: 9). What this suggests to me is that Huìlì provided the framework for the whole text and Yàncóng expanded on it in general.

Li is not beyond adding little details to pad out the story. Take the example of the famous story of the sick man giving Xuánzàng the Heart Sutra, which occurs earlier in the Biography:
慜將向寺施與衣服飲食之直。(T 50.224b.8-9)
Li: "With a feeling of pity, he took the man to his monastery and gave him money to purchase clothes and food." (26).
However, when I parse this sentence what I get is:
慜 benevolent 將 will 向 to 寺 temple 施 bestow 與 give 衣服 clothing 飲食 food and drink 之 going 直 straight 。
i.e.,  feeling benevolent, [Xuánzàng] took [the sick man] straight to the temple, and gave him food, drink, and clothing. [my trans]
There is no mention of "money" or "purchasing" in the text. And, given that we generally understand monks as not handling money, this added feature is incongruous, although, of course, some monks did handle money (and I haven't checked which kind Xuánzàng was). So the translation here is more precise than the source text (it supplies extra details), but it appears to be inaccurate (because the details don't arise from the source text).

I started out assuming that Li must be fairly reliable to be employed as a translator by the prestigious BDK organisation. Based on assessing these two details, I conclude Li is less reliable than my initial assessment of him. Samuel Beal's translation is, "Pitying the man he took him to his convent, and gave him clothing and food" (1914: 21). Beal, writing in a different era, uses language with an archaic feel to it. We might also wonder why he chose "convent" (usually associated with nuns in English) for 寺. On the whole, however, his translations seems more more accurate, and thus more reliable than Li at this point.

How does anyone assess when a translator is more or less reliable without reference to the source text in the source language? Very often my friends and colleagues make a kind of aesthetic judgement on the grounds of which one reads better. Often the more "poetic" a translation is the more folk like it. Which seems like nonsense to me. Is it fair to judge a translation on a handful of sentences? When we are only interested in a handful of sentences, the importance of them with respect to the text as a whole is magnified.

In this case Li's small amendment to include a reference to giving money has a major impact on my study. Had I taken Li seriously, I might have decided that I needed to spend time looking into the issue of use of money by monks in medieval China. This is a potentially fruitful avenue to go down if it relates to my task at hand, but the fact is that it doesn't. It's just a lapse on the part of a translator. Fortunately, I like to try to see how source texts look before taking translations seriously. Any reader who does not check the source text (for whatever reason) is always at risk of being misled.

譯 = Translator?

One of the interesting things about the Biography is the style of the attribution. In some past explorations of the attribution of the Heart Sutra we've seen that 譯 means "translator". Dictionaries are quite unequivocal on this point. However, in the Biography the attribution is:
沙門慧立本 譯彥悰箋.  
"Originally composed by Monk Huìlì, edited by Yàncóng, with annotations."
Here 沙門* means that Huìlì (慧立) was a Buddhist monk. The character 本 means "origin, root" and tells us that the text originates with Huìlì.  Next, 箋 means "annotation" or "commentary". We know from Yàncóng’s (彥悰) preface that his role was that of editor of Huìlì’s manuscript and notes, 譯 here must mean “editor/edited”, rather than “translator/translated”. However, this work  was composed in Chinese, so 譯 cannot mean "translator" as nothing was translated. This is an important detail because it contributes to another aspect of my work on the Heart Sutra: the relationship between Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. When I checked I found that Xuánzàng is credited with being the 譯 of his own travelogue, also composed in Chinese. 
* 沙門 is pronounced like 'shaman', deriving from Prakrit ṣāmana (Sanskrit śrāmaṇa). There is a possible link with English shaman: Sanskrit śrāmaṇa → Prakrit ṣāmane → Middle Chinese 沙門  ʃamuən → Siberian/Tungus šamān → Russian shamán → German schamane → English shaman (attested 1698).
It might be fair to assume that if many texts that are translations refer to a person as the 譯 in relation to it, then that person is the "translator" and that 譯 must mean "translated [by]". But we have two examples of the character being used in contexts where it cannot mean "translate". The dictionary  definition seems to be incomplete. There is another sense which is something like "worked on", which is distinguished from "authored".

Keeping track of such small details is integral to this kind of work, because the accumulation of details is what adds up to a case. The only problem is that some intellectuals tell us that no accumulation of details adds up to a case. 

Critical Thinking and Historiography

Advocates of critical thinking sometimes suggest that there is only one rational way to go about seeking knowledge, i.e., through refutation. This is supposedly based on Karl Popper's principle of conjecture and refutation. In this view, there is nothing to be gained by looking for confirmation or, in my case, the accumulation of details. We can never confirm a theory; all we can hope for is to refute it. This, they say, is because of the so-called black swan effect. The story goes that Aristotle, when formulating his outline of logic, took it as axiomatic that "all swans are white". This allowed him to confidently construct deductive syllogisms like
All swans are white.
Bruce is swan.
Therefore, Bruce is white. ✓
Until one discovers that Bruce is Australian and he is actually a black swan and the deduction is false. The problem here, and with all deductive reasoning, is that it all revolves around axioms, i.e., propositions that one accepts as truth before proceeding to infer some new fact by deduction. If the axiom is false, then all inferences from it are also false. The argument proceeds to say that it doesn't matter how many white swans you meet, you can never be certain that all swans are white. It only takes one black swan to disprove the axiom that all swans are white and all inferences from the axiom fall apart.

The "black swan" argument is that you can never arrive at the truth through seeking confirmation of an axiom. Indeed, proving that any axiom is true is a very difficult thing to do. It is possible in mathematics. However, in any system of mathematics it is also possible for something to be true or false, but for this to be impossible to prove. So the search for truth quickly gets bogged down. And this is why scientists tend to avoid the idea of truth, and instead seek accurate and precise descriptions of reality (i.e., the day to day focus is on the epistemic aspects of their work). The attitude is "let the philosophers argue over the nature of that reality, as long as we can predict how it's going to behave". Scientists and philosophers are often dismissive of each other, largely because scientists stray into the area of speculating about the (ultimate) nature of reality (metaphysics) and because philosophers often speculate without reference to empirical knowledge - which is far and away the most reliable form of knowledge.

This critical thinking approach, call it hyper-critical thinking, leads to an impasse. It seems as if all claims to truth are either false now or soon will be. And thus it may seem that there is no point in even seeking knowledge, because in common sense and classical philosophy we equate knowledge and truth. Meanwhile, in the real world, very general rules of thumb turn out to be surprisingly useful in day to day life. We mainly get by on heuristics, or generalised approaches to solving problems that are good enough. Truth, as an abstract or an ideal, turns out to have surprisingly little practical value. Law courts, for example, use the heuristic of establishing something beyond reasonable doubt, which may be very far from the ideal of truth.

The hyper-critical approach to knowledge is a more or less useless strategy for studying history. History is always written from a point of view. That point of view includes the axioms that the historian explicitly accepts about history and historiography (the writing of history) as well as the implicit axioms they accept uncritically (bias, prejudice, cultural conditioning, etc.). In Justin L. Barrett's terms, historians, like everyone, have  reflective and non-reflective beliefs. And by now historians all know this. Very few historians, especially trained historians, ignore these problems. But just in case they do, few serious readers of history ignore these problems. We know that history is not "truth", but that doesn't matter. No one is much interested in truth in the absolute sense. History provides us with an understanding of events, from a point of view. Historians and readers alike know that multiple points of view are available. History is not science, much less abstract philosophy.

Equally, historians are aware that new information surfaces all the time. A history written in 1900 or 1950 is likely to be out of date for this reason. We would usually like our records to have been recorded as close to the events as possible, and our histories written as close to the present as possible. But the fact that there are always going to be new takes on history should not, and does not, paralyse historians, or prevent them from publishing. The black swan effect is a given. Two years ago I blogged an essay about "the oldest dated Heart Sutra" unaware that in Chinese academic circles an older version had been common knowledge for almost sixty years. Unaware of the fact, I continued to suggest that the oldest Heart Sutra was dated 672 CE right up until the last couple of weeks.  History is not only written by the winners, but it is rewritten by the better informed amongst the winners' descendents.

Approaching the subject

Coming back to the to passage from the Biography that I started our with: "Xuánzàng presented the Emperor Gāozōng with a copy of the Xīnjīn on 6 Dec 656." There are two ways to approach a statement like this.

On one hand, we may doubt the authenticity and veracity of the statement and look for ways to refute it. We may, for example, check that the dates coincide with other records of the reign of Gāozōng and the birth of the prince. We could check if there is any record of the Emperor receiving such a gift in the imperial records. Some documents from that time still exist in some form. We might query whether the conversion to the Gregorian calendar is accurate (since I used an online black-box converter this would be a good question). In this approach we think of Huìlì and Yàncóng as unreliable, motivated witnesses and we interrogate them like prosecuting attorneys. We try to pick apart their story. Some might argue that such a procedure is the only way to deal with historical sources. The Greek historian is known both as The Father of History and The Father of Lies. Pre-modern historians were not always critical when it came to their sources.

The other approach is to assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Huìlì and Yàncóng are at least sincere in their statements, that they have not set out to deceive us. They may themselves have been deceived, but Huìlì was contemporary with the subject and Yàncóng only one generation removed. Many living people who knew Xuánzàng would have been available to Yàncóng as witnesses. Also, one or both of them seem to have had access to official records of both state and religious institutions. Apparently, one or both had access to the correspondence between Xuánzàng and Gaōzōng (in the days before carbon paper). In this approach, we may look for corroboration of dates. In doing so we may turn to the very same sources as those who set off looking to refute the statement. We may look for a state record of receiving the gift, or a letter of acknowledgement from the Emperor. Such a letter is reproduced in the biography, but does it occur anywhere else.

The trick is not to ask is it true or false. We know at the outset that what we are seeing is not the truth in any abstract sense. We understand that someone is expressing their values through the medium of a biography (or hagiography). So we know to look at a text like the Biography as an anthropologist might. What interests us as historians is how reliable are our witnesses? What level of confidence should we have in them? What biases do they have? In this sense, good history is naturally Bayesian in its approach. We look at the givens and we make an initial assessment of the veracity. The different scenarios from complete falsification to existentially accurate and precise. Then we look into the matter, gather evidence and see how that affects our perceptions of the possibilities.

We will never establish an existential truth beyond the actual existence of the text we are studying. There is a biography and it is text no. 2053 in the Taishō. The accuracy of the authorship, the date, and provenance of it are all matters of conjecture. What we seek, rather, is a plausible account that, ideally, fits all the facts. If, for example, we know for certain that the Heart Sutra is not a translation, then we need to account for the stories that state Xuánzàng translated the text. This may involve factors such as the ambiguous use of language and the pious desire to connect Xuánzàng with the Sutra.

Precision vs Accuracy

One of the problems that we face is that the biography gives us a precise date: 永徽六年十二月五日. The precision is admirable and can, with some effort, be translated with equal precision into the more familiar Gregorian Calendar, 6 January, 656. Precision to the day might be undermined if all the other references to the event are less precise. If a dozen other texts say "sometime in 656" then the precision of Huìlì and Yàncóng might seem suspicious. In general, however, Chinese sources do keep track of events to this level of precision quite routinely. Two prominent exceptions are the commentaries on the Heart Sutra attributed to Xuánzàng's successors, Kuījī and Woncheuk. But since these almost certainly post-date the date of 656, they don't really matter in terms of establishing the provenance (except that Woncheuk appears to refer to a Sanskrit text). 

Other scenarios include the whole event being made up, i.e., high precision but completely inaccurate. It it might be that they got the day, month, or year wrong, causing inaccuracy at different orders of magnitude. A lot of history is written about at the level of precision of the year. For example, we often cite the year of birth and death for a historical figure: Xuánzàng (602-664). On the other hand, earlier in the Biography the authors suggest that the prince in question is born on the afternoon of the Month 1, day 5 and that Xuánzàng's gift was given in Month 2, day 5 giving us precision to the day. 

So, given a precise date, we have to think about how precise it is and how plausible that level of precision is; and how accurate it is. How would we know? Again, the approach is to look for either refuting or corroborating evidence: which either lowers or raises our level of confidence. What critical thinking does, is make it more likely that our confidence will fall to 0% than that it will rise to 100%. We can more easily be convinced that something is false, than that it is true. But most of the time we will be somewhere in the middle.

For example, I think it unlikely that Xuánzàng translated the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra at all, but a sutra extract. The practice of copying out extracts is distinctively Chinese. Also, Nattier has shown that extraction was done in Chinese, from Kumārajīva's translation. The story in the Biography makes it seem likely that Xuánzàng received a Chinese text, before he left for India and learned Sanskrit. And the date of 656 CE from the Biography suggests that he had the text before he started to translate the Prajñāpāramitā texts in 660 CE. There is a story that he translated the Heart Sutra in 649 CE, but this first appears some centuries later and is quite obviously apocryphal. So any story we tell about the man and the text, has to fit all these points. And we must ignore that fact that many uncritical authors have told other stories (the 649 CE date is repeated as a solid fact uncountable times). 

Doing Historiography

So, despite what critical thinking nerds might say, it absolutely makes sense to look for confirmation as long as one does it in the right spirit. As historians, we pile up evidence  and then try to weave a narrative in which all the evidence is accounted for. We tell stories in the full knowledge that next year or tomorrow, some new piece of evidence may turn up that changes the story. And we (mostly) acknowledge our biases. No one is pretending that History is a science, though sometimes it may approach being a kind of philosophy.

Histories are always constructed on partial information. The historical record is patchy, though it is often better in China than almost anywhere else because the Chinese were literate and kept records. Knowledge is always partial in any case, but as the centuries pass such records tend to degrade. So while we have what we think are reliable copies of the Biography composed by Huìlì and Yàncóng, the kinds of records against which we might look to evaluate the biography often don't exist (such as the correspondence between Xuánzàng and the Emperor). Which is not to say that evidence never existed, although sometimes this may be the case. As the saying goes "Absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence." 

Under these conditions, sitting on the fence and being a tooth-fairy agnostic is not interesting at all. To participate, one has to get off the fence and join the discussion. This is why historians write histories with conviction. As Mercier and Sperber have observed, when making a case, it is natural, reasonable, and rational to make the best case possible and then see what others say. History is not a solitary, one-time occupation, it is an ongoing, collective effort. At any given time a small number of people will be putting forward stories constructed as the strongest case they can make (harnessing confirmation bias) and a majority will be sitting back and arguing over the alternatives. Fundamentally, reason is both collective and argumentative. And so is history. 

Another problem is the motivation of the witnesses. The donor of the Fangshan stele states that his desire is for his family to attain awakening by donating the merit of making the stone sutra to that end. We can probably relate to this. However, what was the motivation of the stone carver, or the monastery who employed him? We don't know. We do know that Chinese monasteries were often extremely wealthy as donors sought to mitigate misfortune or buy their way into Heaven. These carved sutras with donor inscriptions are a bit like the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences -- make a big enough donation and your sins will be forgiven. Monasteries also engaged in usury, farming, and manufacturing to generate income. Do these motivations give us any reason to doubt the details of the artefact or the biography? Sometimes the adage, "follow the money" is apposite in historiography.

Is the association of the Heart Sutra with Xuánzàng historical or is it legendary? We might want to ask the question, who benefits from the association? 

One thing that is clear is that, in 7th Century China, insisting that Heart Sutra was a translation from an Indian text would have added an air of authenticity. The implication was that a sutra from India was ipso facto the words of the Buddha. In the story about Xuánzàng receiving the Heart Sutra from a sick man, we are not told what language the sutra is in. But if we look at inscriptions from the period, they are almost all in Chinese, not Sanskrit. A few Sanskrit inscriptions exist, but only a handful of people could read them (a situation analogous to the present). It's unlikely that Sanskrit was heard outside the monasteries in which translations projects were carried out. 

It seems very likely that there was a conscious effort to promote the Heart Sutra from sutra extract (抄經) to sutra (經). And to focus on the name 《心經》 (Hṛdayasūtra) rather than any of the alternatives such as 《大明呪經》(Mahāvidyasūtra). The assigning of a translator (譯) would have been an essential part of this process, though it may have exploited an existing ambiguity in which Xuánzàng was an editor (譯) of the text. It is so tempting to see T251 as a edited version of T250, attributed to Kumārajīva, that we might not fault Tanahashi for referring to is as the α-version. Actually, we do not know the provenance of T250, though we do know that the evidence for it is later than evidence for T250. 

Questions, questions

In writing up my notes on the Fangshan Stele I was left with a number of questions:
  • Are the precise dates I have accurate? 
  • Are the 7th Century sources reliable? 
  • And how would I know?
  • Where can I find accurate geographical information on Tang China?
  • Do my observations about 譯 add up to anything?
  • What was Xuánzàng's involvement in the Xīnjīng?
I'm puzzled that many experts have transcribed the colophon of the Fangshan Stele without commenting on the words in it, especially the place names and military titles. Or is it just so obvious to experts that they didn't think it needed commenting on? When the experts in epigraphy don't do their job, then historians struggle to know what to make of such inscriptions. I'm also puzzled as to why so little has been made, by other historians, of the clear and dated reference to the Heart Sutra discussed in the Biography. If Xuánzàng gifted a copy of the Heart Sutra to the Emperor in 656 CE, then this really does change the narrative. 

The important point is that historians cannot afford to take witnesses at face value. Questions must be asked. Whether we seek to refute or confirm, we have to evaluate sources. Careful historiography is often our best defence against religious bias. History often reveals the weaknesses of religious stories precisely because it evaluates and compares sources. As a historian of ideas, I am fascinated by how doctrines that some religieux treat as articles of faith have been quite changeable over time. And, in particular, by how historical arguments about doctrine reveal weaknesses visible even in antiquity (without the need to invoke modernity or science). I hope to inspire friends, colleagues, and fellow religieux to be more careful in their use of historical sources, to cast a wide net, and above all to critically evaluate sources. 



Chinese texts from the Online CBETA Reader.

Beal, S. (1914.) The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. By the Shamans Hwui Li and Yen-Tsung. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

22 June 2018

The Earliest Dated Heart Sutra Revisited

Fángshān Stele, rubbing.
He and Xu (2017)
In 2016, a story made its way around the Chinese media (e.g., the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage) that a new discovery had been made of the earliest dated Heart Sutra. A stone stele, inscribed with the Heart Sutra and carrying the date of 661 CE, had been found at Fángshān near Beijing. The story was not picked up in the West. During correspondance with Ji Yun about my review of his article on the Heart Sutra he generously informed me about this inscription and kindly supplied me with a copy of a recent journal article outlining the find (He & Xu 2017) and a book with another transcription (Beijing Library... 1987).

I uncovered some older sources which mention the Fángshān Stele. Firstly, I found that the colophon (containing the date) was transcribed and published in Dàoān and Zhāng (1977). Unfortunately, I cannot get access to this book, except through "snippets" on Google Books. However, I also discovered the text of a pamphlet on Fángshān, which also transcribes the colophon (Lin 1958). And note that Lin 1958 was published in Taipei, Taiwan, not in Communist China and was thus always available to scholars outside the region. The text of Lin (1958) was also used in a pamphlet about the temple on Fángshān, i.e., Yang (2003). Different transcriptions of the colophon disagree on some details. I'm grateful to members of the Omniglot Facebook group and the Chinese Language Stack-exchange for help with deciphering the colophon (though of course any remaining mistakes or infelicities are down to me).

The Fángshān Xīnjīng Stele is of considerable interest because it purports to be carved in 661 CE, three years before the death of Xuánzàng in 664 CE and yet it attributes the translation of the Heart Sutra to him, which as we know is problematic. I have done my best to assemble and evaluate the evidence below.

The text is inscribed on a stone tablet or stele. It's dimensions are unclear, but the ratio of its sides is approximately 2:3 and I would guess at dimensions in the realm of 60 x 90 cm (allowing ca. 3 x 3 cm for each character and some leeway). The surface of the stele seems to be badly damaged so that many characters are obscured. It was broken in half at some point and appears to have been repaired. The lower left corner is missing, obscuring up to nine characters.

The stone tablet now resides at 雲居寺 Yúnjū sì which translates something like Temple Dwelling in the Clouds. The temple is on 房山 Fángshān, which means something like Repository Mountain. Nearby is 石經山 or Stone Sutra Mountain where Buddhist sutras were carved on thousands of stone slabs in an attempt to preserve the entire Buddhist Canon (as described in the 8th Century). Fángshān is about 65km south-west of Beijing.


The title displayed on the stele comes at the end of the text, which is usual for Indic Buddhist texts. The full title of the text is:
The Middle Chinese pronunciation of this can be reconstructed as Banya-baramida-sim-keng. This translates into Sanskrit as Prajñā-pāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra. We can see that the first part—般若波羅蜜多— is an attempt to represent the sounds of the Sanskrit word using Chinese characters, while the last two characters represent whole words.

This transliteration was used by Mokṣala in his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra dated 291 CE and was also used by Kumārajīva in his translation of the text in 404 CE.

Note that the character 經 is a variant.


The stele attributes the text to Xuánzàng (see detail, right):
三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯
三藏 Tripiṭaka
法師 Dharma master (Skt dharma-bhāṇaka)
玄奘 Xuánzàng
奉 詔譯 translated with imperial authorisation
Note that there is a full character space between 奉 and 詔. We see the same space in the Beilin Stele. This is added as a mark of respect to the Emperor. The character means:
"An imperial edict. To decree. Appearing in the colophons of translated scriptures, it indicates official authorization at the highest level, indicating the high level of the translatorʼs reputation." (DDB)
Note that this attribution occurs at the beginning of all of Xuánzàng's translations in the Taishō Tripiṭaka. However, it also occurs in his travelogue 大唐西域 (T2087) which was not translated but composed by him. Note also that there are minor variations in some earlier editions suggesting that the wording was not fixed.


The date of 661 CE comes from the phrase 顯慶六年二月日造, which occurs at the bottom of the leftmost column on the stele.This is considerably less clear than the attribution.

顯慶 Xiǎnqìng refers to a period of the rule of Emperor 唐高宗 Táng Gāozōng, roughly coinciding with the years 656-661. 唐 was the name of the dynastic lineage, hence Táng Dynasty. Chinese emperors would take special "reign names" (年號) at significant points in their reign. Gāozōng used 14 different names during his time as Emperor (649-683).

The Chinese new year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually in mid January to mid February. The length of months varied, but generally they were defined from new moon to new moon which was on average 29 ​3260 days long. Thus a typical month might be 29 or 30 days, and this would always leave a few days at the end (12 x 30 = 360 and a year is 365.25 days). [I'm told that this is an over simplification]

However, reign periods did not always change at new year. The Xiǎnqìng period began on 7 February 656 and ended on 4 April 661, to be followed by the 龍朔 Lóngshuò period. Lóngshuò began on the 30th day of the second month (= 5 April), so this stele was made towards the end of Xiǎnqìng, on 13 March, 661.
顯慶 Xiǎnqìng era
六年 6th Year
二月 2nd month = March
八日 8th day = 13
造 made, constructed.
Not all the elements of the first character 顯 are clear, but the second 慶 is clear and there seems little doubt that this is the correct interpretation. This is partly because 慶 is not used in many other names of any other regnal periods and is thus a useful identifier. There is no obvious reign period for which this could be mistaken.

The Text

The rest of the text is presented in 11 columns of 26 characters (or less), most of which are clearly visible and match the text of T251. There are some minor differences, however.

One feature of the text is the substitution of the simplified character 无 for 無 throughout. At first this struck me as odd, but asking around I found that it was actually common, especially in inscriptions where the justification was that it was easier to inscribe. The Wiktionary entry says "First attested in the Warring States period; used interchangeably with 無 until the Tang dynasty." Some of the simplified characters introduced by the PRC government actually have long histories. 

In the dhāraṇī, 帝 is written as 諦 "examine", with the same pronunciation /tei/. This composite character has 言 "speech" as a (vaguely) semantic element and 帝 as a phonetic element. We also saw this substitution in the Beilin Stele. If we explain 无 for 無 as a simplification, then 諦 for 帝 is the opposite, since 諦 is considerably more complex and therefore difficult to carve. However, the so-called two truths are often transliterated as 二諦 and it may that the calligrapher thought this connection too good to pass up. 

The text appears to be signed at the end of the sutra, but I cannot make out the character and none of my sources mentions it. 


The colophon is important because it not only gives us the date of the work, but some details about the donor who paid for the stele to be made. Such items were a fund-raiser for the monastery to help pay for their main project of carving the entire Tripiṭaka into stone (which remained incomplete, but covered thousands of tablets). Indeed, our text is not only the oldest dated Heart Sutra,  it is the oldest dated colophon at Fangshan and thus marks the beginning of a new phase of the project.

By comparing the image of the rubbing from He and Xu (2017) and published transcriptions (which  disagree, are partial, and/or contain errors), I have created a kind of critical edition. The colophon must have had more characters where the corner is broken off (indicated in light grey beow). 
□ = a full character-sized space in the inscription.
What can we find in this? Firstly the inscription was commissioned by 楊社生 Yáng Shèshēng. Unfortunately, he seems not to have made any other mark on history. However, 楊 is a very significant name in Chinese history because the Emperors of Sui were from the 楊 clan; although it is not clear if Yáng Shèshēng was closely related to them, because of his name and rank we can say that he is a member of the aristocracy.

Line 1. 雍州櫟陽縣遊騎將軍守左衛淥城府左果毅都尉楊社生

Yáng was from 雍州 Yōng Zhōu or Yong Province in which the Tang capital, Chang'an (長安) was located (modern day Xian). More specifically, he was from 櫟陽縣 Yueyang county.* Yueyang was a temporary capital of the Han (200-205 BCE). It is now in the Yanliang District (阎良区) about 50 km from Xian.
* note that the usual Mandarin pronunciation of 櫟 is lì, but the name of the County is definitely Yue, probably based on the pronunciation of 樂 yuè.
Yang was a military officer. With help from Charles Hucker's (1985) Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China we can determined that he held () the prestige title of General of Mobile Cavalry (游騎將軍), but served as Courageous Commander" (果毅都尉) of the left () in the guard of the left (左衛) in the garrison of 淥城 Lùchéng. The early Tang military was divided into 12 armies, each comprised of a number of garrisons (~ 650 in total). Each garrison had an overall commander and two "courageous commanders" (果毅都尉), left and right. The "courageous" part related to the way of referring to different garrisons.

The place name 淥城府 or Lùchéng Garrison seems to correspond to modern day 涿州为 [涿州為] or Zhuōzhōu Province which is about 30km south-east of Fángshān. This explains why the stele was found in Yúnjū Temple rather than somewhere closer to Chang'an.

Line 2: 父楊 母段息懷慶玄嗣玄器玄貞女大娘二娘隸利巫山

Line two is all summed by Yang (2003) as 其全家 "his family". It begins with his Mother 母 Duan段. Duan would be her family name. Next is his wife 妻 Hu 扈; his sons (息): 懷慶, 玄嗣, 玄黎*, and 玄貞; his daughters (女) 大娘 and 二娘 (i.e., first daughter, second daughter); and finally someone named 利巫山 who is a servant or dependent (隸). Perhaps a "ward" given that he is included with the family. The person missing from all this is his father. Since the tablet has columns of 26 characters, there are potentially three characters missing from the end of each colophon column. We can conjecture that the end of line one included the word father (父) and his name, which was presumably also 楊.
* 玄器 is an alternative reading of 玄黎.
† in this context we might expect 太 rather than 大.
The traditional Chinese system of names is relatively complex. They have a family (originally a clan) name, in this case 楊. Then they have a given name (名) which may be given by the head of the family rather than the parents and only used in the family. Women only used their family and given names. Boys might have an infant name (乳名) used up to adulthood. At adulthood men get a 字 or "courtesy name" which is the name they use in everyday life, though intimates may also call them by a nickname (號). At ordination monks take a Dharma name (法號). It's possible that the younger sons became monks and that their names with the common element 玄 (which they share with Xuanzang) reflect this. Other names, such as a nom de plume, or posthumous names were also common. Emperors often took a new name when they took the throne.

Three characters are missing at the end of this line.

Line 3: 家眷屬緣此功德齊成正覺顯慶六年二月八日造經

The third line asks that family (家) members (眷屬) be caused (緣) by this merit (此功德) to attain awakening (成正覺) together (齊).

The date 顯慶六年二月日 the sutra was made 造經 we have already discussed.


For the first time we have physical evidence linking the Heart Sutra to Xuánzàng during his lifetime and naming him as translator (譯). However, we need to be cautious. What this tells us is precisely that those involved in the production of the inscription believed that Xuánzàng had translated the sutra. Xuánzàng is mentioned in this inscription, but he wasn't involved in it.

I asked Dr Jeffrey Kotyk if he could shed any light on the chronology from the traditional histories. In the 《釋氏通鑑》, a Buddhist history of China up to ca 960 CE, we find a single mention of Xuánzàng for year 5 of Xianqing 顯慶 (kindly translated for me by JK, but with some slight modifications of my own):
「三月。西明寺靜之禪師遷逝。甞鼻患肉塞。百方無驗。有僧令誦般若心經萬遍。恰至五千。肉鈴便落(本傳)○奘法師。於玉華譯般(若經)○」(CBETA, X76, no. 1516, p. 88b2-4)
"3rd lunar month. Chanshi Jingzhi of Ximing-si passed away. He once suffered from blocked nasal passages. Hundreds of remedies were ineffective. There was a monk who had him recite the Prajñā-Heart Sutra ten-thousand times. At exactly five-thousand [recitations], his [nasal] flesh tinkled [like a bell]. (original biography). Master Xuánzàng at Yuhua translated the Pra(jñā Sūtra)."
Words in square brackets are added to help make sense of the translation. The words in parentheses are notes from the CBETA edition.
From the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a biography of Xuánzàng composed by慧立 Huìlì, edited and published by 彥悰 Yàncóng in about 688 CE (T 2053), we know that Xuánzàng moved to Yuhua late in the 4th year of Xianqing (659), and started translating the Mahāprajñāpāramitā (i.e., T220) at the beginning of the 5th year (660). See below for more on dates. What this passage suggests is that the Heart Sutra predates the translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā.

The phrase 三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯 appears at the beginning of T220, Xuánzàng's translation of the collected Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. By contrast, Huìlì and Yàncóng state that the work was translated due to a request from the "people"
東國重於《般若》,前代雖翻,不能周備,眾人更請委翻 (T 2053.275c.17-19)
In the Eastern Country the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra was highly esteemed. Although it had been translated into Chinese during a previous dynasty, the translation was incomplete, so the people [眾人] requested that the Master kindly translate it anew. (Li 1995: 327)
From what I can make out, such translations were presented to the Emperor after completion and then received the imperial seal of approval.

The 玉華宮 Yuhua Gong, or Palace of Jade Flowers, is the place where Xuánzàng's translation team worked on T220. It is about 100 km north of Changan, well away from the distractions of life in the capital (and quite far from where Yang lived, also). According to Huìlì and Yàncóng, Xuánzàng moved out to Yuhua in 顯慶四年十月 or November 659 (T2053.275c). Yaowang Mountain, about halfway between Chang'an and Yuhua also has a collection of stone sutras.

The date of 顯慶六年二月日 for the Fángshān stele is interesting because it's in the middle of the period during which Xuánzàng and his team of translators were translating the collection of sixteen Prajñāpāramitā sūtras known as the 大般若波羅蜜多經 or Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T220). This took about four years and occurred between: 顯慶五年正月一日 and 龍朔三年十月二十日. The table below shows the key events and the dates in the traditional Chinese and Gregorian calendars.

EventChinese dateGregorian
顯慶 begins (i.7)656 Feb 7
Move to Yuhua顯慶四年十月 659 Nov
T220 Trans begins顯慶五年正月一日660 Feb 16
Fángshān stele顯慶六年二月八日661 March 13

龍朔 begins (ii.30)661 Apr 4
T220 Trans ends 龍朔三年十月二十日663 Nov 15

麟德 begins (i.1)664 Feb 2
Xuánzàng dies麟德一年二月五日664 March 7

As we can see, the stele purports to be from a time a little over a year into the translation of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra collection. And at a time when Xuánzàng had retreated from public life in the capital to a mountain retreat 100 km away. If we take this at face value, then Xuánzàng must have "translated" the Heart Sutra attributed to him (T251) before he started this magnum opus. I use scare quotes on "translated" because it is clear from other evidence that he did not translate it. Note that Xuánzàng died within a few months of completing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra translation.

All of the circumstantial evidence points away from Xuánzàng's being involved in translating it (see Nattier 1992: 189ff for a survey of the evidence).
  1. The Heart Sutra is a 抄經 (chāo jīng) or "sutra extract" rather than a translation.
  2. The extraction was from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the Large Sutra (T223), with other parts inspired by the same text, and a dhāraṇī from elsewhere. It now clearly predates the completion of T220.
  3. Like a lot of English (so-called) "translations" the text attributed to Xuánzàng (T251) is an edited version of an existing text (T250). Two lines were removed and the characters for two names and one technical term (skandha) were changed.
  4. All the terms changed were introduced by Xuánzàng, but were seldom taken up by later translators.
  5. No text translated by Xuánzàng ever replaced one translated by Kumārajīva in popular Chinese Buddhism - Kumārajīva's texts are still in use today.
  6. Xuánzàng's biography mentions him being given the text, not translating it.
  7. Xuánzàng's own travelogue doesn't mention the Heart Sutra at all.
  8. The Heart Sutra does not appear in T220, Xuánzàng's collection of Prajñāpāramitā sutras translated from Sanskrit (though we have reason to believe he already possessed a version). No other Prajñāpāramitā text translated by Xuánzàng occurs outside of T220.
So, Xuánzàng was, at best, an editor of the text. And such edits as occurred were relatively minor. In a forthcoming essay I will show that the character 譯 does not always mean "translate" but can mean precisely "edit". In any case, the resulting text, or one very like it, was attributed to Xuánzàng three years before he died (early in 664 CE) by someone who lived several hundred kilometers away.

Even if the story about the blocked nasal passages is not exactly historically accurate, it probably does reflect the use to which the Heart Sutra was put in the 10th Century, when the commentary was composed. And this is confirmed by other sources. While a handful of scholars studied and interpreted the text as a document of Buddhist ideas, the majority of Buddhists, then and now, see it in magical terms, in which understanding the text is secondary, if it has any importance at all.

The Fángshān Stele can now claim to be the oldest dated Heart Sutra. It forces us to review the relationship between Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra, though I do not think that we can take the attribution to him at face value. Since the Heart Sutra Xuánzàng had was almost certainly already in Chinese, we cannot say that he translated it. It is possible, even likely, that he edited it for publication. If he did so, it was most likely before he embarked upon his translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. And he probably did not include the Heart Sutra in this collection, because it was already in Chinese. If the biography of Huìlì and Yàncóng can be believed, then Xuánzàng treated the text as a locally produced (magically efficacious) dhāraṇī, not as an authentic Indian sutra. However, the commentaries of Kuījī and Woncheuk (which I have written about before) clearly do treat the text as having an Indian origin and as being a text about ideas rather than simply apophatic magic.


Chinese Canonical texts from the CBETA Reader, except where stated.

北京圖書館金石組, 中國佛教圖書文物館石經組編 (1987) ‘房山石經題記匯編’. 书目文献出版社 : 新華書店北京發行所發行, 1987. = The Beijing Library Metal and Stone Group and The Chinese Buddhist books and Cultural Relics Museum Stone Sutra Group. (1987). Classified Compilation of Headings and Records of the Stone Scriptures on Mt. Fang, Beijing: Bibliographic Literature Publishing House and Xinhua Bookstore.

道安 and 張曼濤. (1977)「大藏經硏究彙編」(2 Vols.) 台北: 大乘文化出版社. = Dàoān and Zhāng Màntāo. (1977) Collection of Tripiṭaka Research. (2 Vols.). Taipei: Mahāyana Culture Press.

賀銘, 續小玉, “早期《心經》的版本”,房山石經博物館/房山石經與雲居寺文化研究中心,編輯,《石經研究》,第一輯,頁12-28. 北京:北京燕山出版社,2017年。= He Ming, Xu Xiaoyu. (2017) “the Early recessions of Heart Sutra”, in Fángshān Stone Sutras Museum & Research Center of Fángshān Stone Sutras and Yunju Temple, ed., Stone Sutras Studies, Vol,1, pp.12-28. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe.

Hucker, Charles O. (1985). Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Stanford University Press.

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang. Numata Centre for Buddhist Translation and Research.

林元白。(1958)「唐代房山石经刻造概况」現代佛學 , 3。 一九五八年。= Lin Yuanbai. 'A General Survey of Fángshān Stone Sutras from the Tang Dynasty. Modern Buddhist Studies, 3, 1958. www.baohuasi.org/qikan/xdfx/5803-011A.htm. Cached copy.

杨亦武. (2003) 云居寺. 华文出版社. = Yáng Yìwǔ (2003). Yún jū Temple. Huawen Publishing House.

Additional Links

Chinese news story: http://www.sach.gov.cn/art/2016/9/27/art_723_133778.html

Video on Fángshān showing caves and stone steles with carved sutras. http://www.ikgf.uni-erlangen.de/videos/china-academic-visit-2013/the-video-on-Fángshān.shtml

08 June 2018

Asoka's Dates and Historicity

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cribb at the Ancient India and Iran Trust (25 May 2018). Joe was keeper of coins at the British Museum and is an expert on early coins in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, his main interest is in what coins and other physical objects can tell us about chronology. The gist of his lecture for the AIIT was a revised chronology of the Kushan period of Gandhāra, ca. 1-500 CE. The lecture covered much the same ground as a recent paper: Numismatic evidence and the date of Kaniṣka I. This is an important result for anyone interested in, for example, early Buddhist art in Gandhāra. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear on Kushan coins. 

Much of my pleasure at meeting Joe was that, just the day before, I had downloaded and read his 2017 article on the dates of Asoka. He was spurred to reconsider the dates of Asoka by our mutual friend Richard Gombrich, former Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, though it took him some time to get around to publishing his findings.

Dating the Buddha

In 1992, Gombrich had argued for a revised reading of the ordination lineages found in the Dīpavaṃsa, a history composed in Sri Lanka. Gombrich's most relevant conclusion is that:
...the Buddha died 136 years before Asoka’s inauguration, which means in 404 B.C. So, taking the margin of error into account, he died between 411 and 399 B.C., probably towards the middle of that period. (1992: 20)
This revised date for the parinibbāṇa has become widely accepted amongst scholars, though it is approximately a century later than the traditional dates (of which there are more than one). However, note that Gombrich's date relies on the only fixed point in early South Asian ancient history, the dates of Asoka.

Dating Asoka

The tale of the rediscovery of Asoka by Military and Civil officers of the British East India Company acting as amateur archaeologists is engagingly retold by Charles Allen in his book Ashoka (2012). I won't go over this ground, but I want to make the comparison with the Buddha as a legendary figure and Asoka as an historical figure.

We know about the Buddha from living Buddhist traditions and from the extant texts of both living and dead Buddhist traditions. The story of the Buddha as the founder of our religion has been told and retold for centuries. How many centuries we are not sure, but at least 20 and as many as 25. The old literary strata of our texts had to have been composed after the so-called "second urbanisation" which occured in the Ganges Valley after about 700-600 CE. The first urbanisation was the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended ca. 1700 BCE due to climate change. However, survivors of that prolonged drought moved north and blended with the populations there, so the people themselves lived on. The second urbanisation was a rather extended process, and some sources place the emergence of the key city of Sravasti as late as ca 400 CE. I need to look more closely at this as  Sravasti (Pāli Sāvatthī) is a key location for the Buddhist stories and its dates can help us to narrow down when the production of such stories began. 

Since the Nikāya and Āgama texts don't mention Asoka or his Grandfather, we may infer that they were composed before his time. I think Cribb makes this argument all the more plausible. This means that the earliest texts were composed between ca. 700 and 300 BCE.

The modern discussion about Asoka's dates is quite vague, partly because the basic facts became established in the 19th Century. For a few decades references were made to the original observations, but after a while everyone just takes it all for granted and says that Asoka reigned in the mid 3rd Century BCE and leaves it at that. His dates are sometimes given more precisely. The Wikipedia entry on Asoka, for example, citing the first edition of Romila Thapar's excellent History of India, says that he "ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE," the latter date also being the date of his death. These dates are widely accepted as being accurate, if not very precise.

Cribb notes that the dating of Asoka is based on a number of different sources of evidence:
Our knowledge of Mauryan chronology comes from five main sources: Buddhist texts like the Dīpavaṃsa, Jain and Purāṇic texts, references to the Mauryan kings in Classical Greek and Latin texts and the inscriptions of the reign of the third Mauryan king Ashoka. (2017: 5)
All of these sources, except for the inscriptions, were composed long after the life of Asoka. The inscriptions themselves are the single most important historical source, not only for Buddhists, but for all of ancient history in India. Rock Edict no. 13 mentions five Greco-Bactrian kings:
"Of the five Greek kings three are of chronological significance: Antikini must represent Antigonus Gonatus (276-239 BC); Maka must be Magas king of Cyrene (c 283- 250 BC); Alikasundra is most likely Alexander II of Epirus (272-255). The other two cannot be used to create any direct chronological evidence: they are Antiyoki, i.e., Antiochus, and Turamaya, i.e., Ptolemy." (2017: 8)
This edict is not dated, but by combining inferences drawn from other edicts, we may conjecture that it was created in the 13th or 14th year of Asoka's reign. Knowledge of these kings reflects the period 272-255 BCE and, allowing a year for the news of them to travel, suggests that the edict was made in 271-254, making his coronation dates 285/4-268/7 BCE. Sri Lankan sources suggest a delay of four years between accession and coronation.

Greek and Latin sources do not mention Asoka, but they do seem to mention his grandfather, Chandragupta:
"The Classical historians Diodorus (16.93-4) and Curtius (IX.2.1–7) referred to the Indian king ruling at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of north-western India, 326-5 BCE, in terms which correspond to the descriptions in Indian texts of one of the Nanda predecessor of the Mauryan kings (low born, śūdra origin and the descendant of a barber, Singh 2012, 272–3), who the same sources state immediately preceded Chandragupta. Diodorus called him Xandrames; Curtius called him Agrammes. These texts can be seen as evidence that Chandragupta was not yet king in 325 BCE." (2017: 6)
Chandragupta is also apparently referred to by Pompeius Trogus, Strabo, Appian, Hegesandrus. All of these European classical authors were writing long after the time, and their observations have to be treated with caution. Cribbs notes that all previous treatments of them have taken these sources at face value, but they have also misinterpreted these texts to fit a preconceived idea about Indian chronology.

The Greek and Roman sources put the beginning of Chandragupta's reign "at about 321 BCE, with the range proposed being c. 324–320 BCE." (2017: 9). Cribb discusses the various accounts of the length of the reigns of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka, including summaries of the Purāṇīc and Jain texts. He concludes that "the Greek and Roman sources are pointing to the accession of Chandragupta during the period c. 311 (unlikely to be earlier than 316) to 303 BCE." (2017: 11).

As it turns out, in order to make the highest number of the various dates match up, it is necessary to adopt Richard Gombrich's revised reading of the Dīpavaṃsa. This gives the date of Asoka year 1 based on his accession (with coronation four years later) as no earlier than 285/4 BCE and no later than 270/1 BCE.

Based on the Dipavaṃsa sources, anchored by the revised dates for Asoka, this places the Buddha's parinibbāṇa no earlier than 423 BCE and no later than 389 BCE, i.e., less precise than Gombrich's dates (411-399 BCE), but centred on roughly the period, i.e., beginning of the 4th Century BCE. As I noted above, Sravasti might have emerged as a city around this time or only a little earlier. Sravasti is the established capital of Kosala in Buddhist and Jain texts, as well as in Pāṇini's grammar.

Cribb sounds a final note of caution that we do not actually know that the edicts of Asoka were composed and/or inscribed by him or during his lifetime. We need to constantly question the accepted wisdom of our time, because it is often simply based on assumptions that have become hidden over time.

A Historical Figure?

Some time ago I linked to David Drewes (2017) article, in which he starts out by saying:
We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. (Drewes 2017: 1)
This, unsurprisingly, proved to be a provocative statement for many Buddhists and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. For many of us the historicity of the Buddha is not only beyond doubt but to doubt it seems a little perverse. I bring it up again because Cribb's article draws together all the research which makes Asoka seem to very definitely be a historical figure and this highlighted for me what a historical figure is.

Over and above the inscriptions in stone which purport to have have been erected by Asoka, the stories of Asoka were preserved by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus in India, and by Greeks and Romans outside of India. Of course, we must keep in mind that the Greek Herodotus was not only called the Father of History, but also the Father of Lies. Like other writers of his age, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story (there is nothing new about "fake news"). All of these sources, particularly those composed centuries after the facts they recount, taken individually must be treated with caution, even the inscriptions themselves. However, taken together they make a compelling case. Asoka may well be a figure of legends and myths, but he also has a good claim to be the first genuinely historical figure in Indian history (Pāṇīni is another claimant to the title, but his dates are based on Asoka's).

In contrast, the Buddha is a figure only of Buddhist stories. No account of him is found in Jain or Hindu texts, let alone in Latin or Greek. It might be argued that they could not be expected to record someone outside of their own communities, except that the Buddhist texts record many encounters between the Buddha and non-Buddhists. Of course, there are no written records until some centuries later, but if we preserved stories from that time, why would others not? Would the Brahmins not have been keen to denounce Buddhists as heretics for denying both ātman and Brahman?

Recall that, by the time of Roman and Greek contact with the Mauryans, the Buddha was nearly a century dead and his followers could be found throughout the Empire. Did other groups really not meet any or hear news of them?

One of the arguments for the historicity of the Buddha (i.e., for his being a historical figure) is that we all tell the same story, more or less, about him. I'm not the first to point out that actually the received story is contradicted in many details in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta account of his life. In an unpublished article (Attwood 2013), I've argued that we know his name was not Siddhārtha and there is reason to doubt that his name was even Gotama. With respect to this, if Buddhism began with a small group of people and expanded out, at the end of the process all Buddhists would have a version of the original story of founding that the small group told. In a published article (2012) I argued that, based on the preserved stories, the small group in question, the Śākya tribe, might have arrived in Central Ganges Valley having ultimately come from Iran. That idea was first put forward informally by Michael Witzel and I simply formalised it. The same year Witzel (2012) published a masterly account of the origins of world mythology in the small group who left Africa ca. 100,000 years ago (incidentally allowing us to set aside Jung's fantasy about a "collective unconscious").

The historicity of Asoka is not in doubt because there is a range of evidence for his having lived. Some of the details of his life may be vague or in doubt, but he himself is beyond any reasonable doubt. Asoka was a man who lived in India in the 3rd Century BCE. He inherited an Empire, which collapsed not long after his death. Accepting the historicity of Asoka is a simple matter of rationality. It would be irrational to argue that the evidence amounts to nothing.

Whether or not any reader accepts the historicity of the Buddha depends entirely on how much credence they give to the Buddhist stories about the Buddha. One of the arguments is that it is the simplest way to account for the stories - all those stories must be based on a man. I think this is doubtful for two reasons. The texts themselves are full of stories that are unequivocally myths (stories about gods and fairies) and legends (stories about past Buddhas). We know that the authors of these stories had good imaginations, they used a wealth of similes, metaphors, imagery, and humour to convey their message. They clearly did make up stories (e.g., the Jātakas) in order to communicate their values. And such stories are also common to all of Buddhism. So why not the founder figure also?

The other objection to this is that the preference for simple answers is a known cognitive bias and it turns out that things are almost never simple. We tend to think of evolution in terms of the tree metaphor - things getting more complex over time, and therefore simpler as we look back in time. History, in this view, is simpler, the further back we go. This bias makes a single founder figure, uninfluenced by his family or culture, seem much more likely than it otherwise would. It's common, for example, for naive historians to say that WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignoring the vast number of factors which had to have accumulated beforehand for this spark to give rise to a global war.

This may also be an artefact of what is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. In this view, a handful of men (not women), are responsible for history. Therefore, when we study history, we give precedence to studying the lives of great men and trying to understand their psychology. The ways in which this is wrong are so numerous as to require a book to refute them all. Most of how we think about individual psychology is bunk, based on fantasies composed by Freud and his bastards. Social factors are much more likely to influence behaviour than individual psychology, including in the case of powerful men. Women are as much a part of history. And those men who are powerful are often involved in the mass manipulation of societies that have to bend to their will instead of rebelling in order for the man to wield power (i.e., societies make individuals great, not the other way around). 

It is more accurate to say that everything influences everything else and that any one person seen in isolation is very unlikely to be significant. Founders do occur. But if we take the example of Christianity, it has long been acknowledged by scholars that the shape of Christianity as a religion had a lot more to do with people down the ages than it does to do with Jesus. Buddhism is much the same. Whenever the founder became inconvenient, followers simply changed the story or made up a new bit, just as they made up his forgotten name.

The Buddha's final death was seen as extremely inconvenient by all Buddhists by the beginning of the Common Era. For most Buddhists, the knowledge that the Buddha was gone and never coming back was a catastrophe. They started to invent new stories: this included Buddhas from parallel universes (and we mock the Scientologists for their beliefs). Best of all, we invented a class of beings (with both mythic and human representatives) who were able to get enlightened without disappearing from the world - i.e., awakening without the ending of rebirth, when to that point the whole raison d'être of Buddhism was to end rebirth. These beings would stay to help out, the way that the Buddha had not. There was even a suggestion (played up by some modern Buddhists) that Gotama had been selfish to get enlightened and end rebirth for himself, leaving the rest of us on the carousel.

In any case, I hope the contrast between the Buddha and Asoka is clear with respect to the kind of evidence that makes a person a "historical person". For Asoka, there is a wealth of evidence both textual and physical. For the Buddha, only stories told by Buddhists.

The last time I bought this up within the Triratna Buddhist Order, some people argued that it didn't matter to them whether or not the Buddha was historical. I think this attitude is probably quite widespread. But as some people in our community still struggle with this issue or reject any suggestion that the founder myth is not true, or at least based on a true story, it is problematic for all of us. We agree, to some extent, on the role of faith in our Order, but are not in harmony on the issue of articles of faith. For example, on the issues of karma and rebirth, even those of us who believe in the Buddhist versions of the twin myths of the just world and the afterlife, disagree on the details of how they work. 

Some years ago Dharmacārin Subhūti expressed his fear that we might drift into doctrinal incoherence and therefore needed to impose limits on the Order. I would argue that we long ago passed that point, if, indeed, we ever had such coherence. Discussions about articles of faith such as the founder, the just world, and afterlife are apt to be emotionally charged and divisive. Not believing (and there are many of us who don't) is seen as deeply problematic: more so, for example, than the gap between those who favour incompatible Buddhists views on such issues as those who draw fairly exclusively on Theravāda, Madhyamaka, or Yogācāra ideology, for example. These are three incompatible views.

Non-sectarian scholarship inevitably steps on people's sacred cows. Which is why most of us ignore it in favour of sectarian scholarship, I suppose.


Sources Cited

Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Abacus

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online

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