03 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. I

In this essay, the first of three instalments aimed at revising the history of the Heart Sutra, I will focus on the early medieval Chinese tradition of bibliography up to the Tang Dynasty. In particular, I will show that bibliographers saw what appears to be the Heart Sutra as one of a class of non-authentic texts known as a "digest texts". I note that the view of the Heart Sutra dramatically changed during the Tang. In Part II, I will make some salient points about the early history of the Tang. I will examine how early commentators saw the texts and how, slightly later, bibliographies contributed to the myth of the Heart Sutra. In Part III, I will assess the information presented in Parts I and II. I will sketch out three alternative scenarios and show that only one of them fits all of the facts. It will also argue that, despite the apparent fraud involved in its inception, the Heart Sutra still has value as an epitome of formless sphere (arūpa-āyatana) meditations and an epistemic approach to emptiness.

Chinese Buddhist Bibliographies

Sēngyòu (僧祐 445–518) was the senior Buddhist monk in the Southern Liang Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Wu (). In 515 CE, Sēngyòu completed his catalogue of scriptures held in the imperial library, entitled 《出三藏記集》Chūsānzàng jìjí Collection of Records about the Production of the Tripiṭaka (T2145). Unfortunately, Wu was not satisfied with it and immediately commissioned Sēngshào (僧紹) to make another one, which was completed in 518. Even this catalogue did not suffice, and another was produced by Bǎochàng (寳唱) in 521, which Emperor Wu adopted as the official catalogue of the dynasty.

This said, it is Sēngyòu's catalogue, the Chūsānzàng jìjí, that was historically influential and survived down to the present. This was because of the way that he tackled a long-running problem for Chinese Buddhism. Buddhist Texts had been arriving in China since the 2nd century, sometimes in ones and twos and sometimes in larger batches. At first, they mostly arrived in the memories of Buddhist monks, with few written texts. The texts were not part of a systematic, organised collection like the Pāli Canon. Rather, they were a selection of sūtra, vinaya, abhidharma, avadana, and dhāraṇī texts, mixed with commentaries (upadeśa, bhāṣya) and treatises (śāstra). Many had no recorded translator and no information about their provenance. 

The situation was complicated by two Chinese developments, which began very early on in the transmission of Buddhism. One was the production of fake texts (偽經). Some modern scholars prefer to hedge this term with faux neutrality: "indigenous productions", "apocryphal texts", etc. But the bibliographers thought of them as 偽 "fabricated, artificial; falsified, feigned, sham, counterfeit, forgery, deception" (Kroll 2015: 473).

Some of the fakes were openly signed by the author, so presented less of the problem in terms of identifying and classifying them. Others were intended to be passed off as Chinese translations of an Indic source text. These were sometimes difficult to spot and several remain in the modern Canon. Dozens of such fakes were in circulation in China by the 6th Century. This was alarming on two levels. Firstly, they often mixed in elements of popular Chinese culture of the day, especially Daoist mysticism, and were perceived as diluting and/or corrupting Buddhism. Secondly, having fakes in circulation undermined the project to convert China to Buddhism. Buddhism was seen as a foreign religion and as such inferior to Daoism and, especially, Confucianism. If Buddhism was just bastardised Daoism, then they had no need of it.

The second development was the 抄經 or digest text. According to Sēngyòu, “digests were produced by Chinese people who cut the existing translations into pieces and arranged them to their liking.” (Storch 2014: 64). 抄 has been translated several ways, i.e., "digest", "extract", and "condensed", but I like "digest" because of the easy allusion to the Reader's Digest Condensed Books (my grandfather was a subscriber). The 抄經 were the Reader's Digest of their day. We might also think of them as mashups. They served several purposes. For example, they often served as an overview or introduction to the main themes of a larger text, pulling out the essential points from long, abstruse texts that would have been daunting to read had they been well translated (and often the pioneering translations were problematic). Or they were a source of edifying sentiments. They might even be used for magical purposes, for warding-off ill-fortune or for securing a better rebirth.  Sometimes the attraction was simply that they were short. However, digests or mashups could easily distort the message of the text or of Buddhism, so were distinguished from genuine texts. 

These digest texts were far more common than fake texts. Sēngyòu's catalogue lists 2,162 texts in total. Of these 20 or about 1% were counted as outright fakes. Of the anonymous texts, 450 were digest sutras. That's about 20% of all the Buddhist texts in circulation in 515 CE.

Bibliographers undertook to deal with the problem of authenticity. They proposed criteria by which  texts could be evaluated and categories reflecting different levels of confidence. Sēngyòu's catalogue was not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive and proscriptive. In her study of Sēngyòu's catalogue, Tanya Storch (2014) boils his fifteen categories down to five.
  1. Unquestionably authentic texts, with a title, a connection to India, and translated by a respected translator.
  2. Other translations, especially later translations of the same texts
  3. Anonymous translations
  4. Digest texts
  5. Suspicious or fake texts.
Sēngyòu's attitude towards the digest texts was tinged with hostility. They served a purpose, but many went too far and distorted the original (Storch 2014: 64). That said, Sēngyòu was generous by comparison with latter-day bibliographers, most of whom classed digest sutras as fakes.

The first wholesale systematic translations of Buddhist texts were only completed in the late 4th to early 5th Centuries, by the Kuchan monk, Kumārajīva, and a large team of Chinese monks. This enabled more systematic study of the texts and fostered efforts to categorise them. Kyoko Tokuno (1990) points out that while all this high-level scholarship and categorisation work was going on, a digest which summarised the content of a long abstruse text was a valuable tool. However, once the Chinese Canon began to take shape, in the 6th and 7th Centuries, such digests could be dispensed with and, on the whole, they were. In 594 another Bibliographer, Fǎjīng 法經 (i.e., Dharmasūtra), complains that Sēngyòu was too lax in his treatment of digests. Rather than listing some digests with anonymous sutras, Fǎjīng and his colleagues shunted them all into a distinct category.

The point is that digests were common by the 6th Century, widely recognised for what they were, and treated differently than authentic sutras by Chinese bibliographers. And this demarcation became increasingly strict after Sēngyòu's time.

The Heart Sutra as Digest

The Japanese scholar, Fukui Fumimasa (1987: cited in Nattier 1992: 175), was the first modern scholar to suggest that the Heart Sutra was not, in fact, a sutra. He argued that, in the titles of texts, the term 心 "heart" (Skt hṛdaya, citta) was interchangeable with terms for dhāraṇī such as 咒 and 陀羅尼; therefore, the title 心經 should be translated as Dhāraṇī Scripture. Jan Nattier found this argument "quite convincing". Although Nattier (1992) and Tanahashi (2014) both cite portions of Fukui's argument, the full version has only appeared in Japanese to date and I have not had a chance to assess his overall argument. Dhāraṇī is certainly a plausible reading. However, I think Nattier herself points to a better answer, although she doesn't adopt it.

There are two parts to this. Nattier firstly points out that the Heart Sutra had long been thought of as an "extract" [i.e., digest] in China. Kuījī 窺基 (632–682) was a Chinese student of Xuanzang and his successor, Woncheuk 圓測 (613-696), was a noted translator and scholar in his own right who was assigned to assist Xuanzang. Both wrote commentaries on the Heart Sutra. In exploring their attitudes to the Heart Sutra, Nattier says:
"In sum, the statements of both Kuījī and Woncheuk indicate that at least some Buddhists, already in the 7th Century CE, considered the Heart Sutra to be, not a separate sermon preached by the Buddha, but an extract made by certain "sages who transmitted the Dharma" from the Large Sutra of Kumārajīva" (1992: 207 n.33).
The wording used by Woncheuk is 簡 "selected, gleaned" from 諸般若 "various Prajñā(pāramitā sūtras)" (T 33.543.b.18). Kuījī talks about the Heart Sutra being "separately produced" (別出) (T 33.524.a. 8-9, 26-7). Kuījī seems to mean is that it is not part of the prajñāpāramitā collection (總). He is apparently referring to the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra T220, translated 660-663, by Xuanzang, et al. However, Alan Sponberg points out (in an unpublished translation referenced by Nattier) that he refers to the sutra being "produced" (出) rather than "preached by the Buddha." And this explains why it does not have the introduction or conclusion expected of a sutra. In other words, both Kuījī and Woncheuk did not think of the Heart Sutra as an authentic Indian sutra; they both saw it as a digest text.

Secondly, Nattier cites a private communication from Robert Buswell (1992: 210 n.48) who proposed to Nattier that the Heart Sutra might be an example of a ch'ao-ching or "condensed sūtra". Though Nattier's article does not supply the Chinese characters for the Wade-Giles romanisation, they are in fact 抄經, which I am translating as "digest sutra". In 1990, Buswell had edited a volume called Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha in which there was an article by Kyoko Tokuno on how Chinese bibliographers dealt with fake sutras and digests. The next section reviews this evidence, but we can already say that the Heart Sutra perfectly fits the description of a digest. It is composed of various extracts from the Dajing by Kumārajīva (T223). The Dajing is a long and abstruse text (its commentary more so), and in some ways, the Xīnjīng does epitomise the content of it. The redactor has altered the text a little to incorporate Avalokiteśvara which, though it has given some modern exegetes paroxysms, was probably unremarkable at the time: Guanshiyin was simply the best known and loved bodhisatva, why would he not appear?

The Heart Sutra is a Chinese digest of the Dajing. It was one of hundreds of such texts that circulated in China, though with decreasing frequency as the mature canon emerged. Importantly, this was no secret as leading exegetes of the Tang Dynasty recognised it. And, as we shall see in the next section, this was how Chinese Bibliographers saw the text as well.

The Heart Sutra in Early Catalogues

One of the ways that writers have referenced the authenticity of the Heart Sutra is to mention that it occurs in various catalogues. However, these references inevitably treat the catalogues as homogeneous and descriptive. As we have seen, the bibliographers took an active approach: both prescriptive and proscriptive. Thus any reference to the catalogues should consider which category any given bibliographer puts the Heart Sutra. I will now do this (for the first time as far as I know).

The first thing to consider are the so-called "lost translations". These were supposedly listed in the catalogue by Dàoān, 道安 in 374. Although this catalogue is itself lost, Sēngyòu reproduces much of it in his catalogue (T2145) completed in 515 CE. He listed two texts which might be versions of the Heart Sutra (T 55.31.b.10-11), these are
  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪一卷 = Móhēbōrěbōluómì shénzhòu in one scroll.
  • 般若波羅蜜神呪一卷(異本) = Bōrěbōluómì shénzhòu in one scroll (different version).
Sēngyòu's annotation, 異本 "different version", suggests that these are versions of the same text. Unfortunately, neither survives, so we have no idea of the content of either, just the titles. The two texts are not named as 經 "sutra" but shénzhòu (神呪), literally "divine spell", but perhaps meaning "incantation". The term might be interpreted at this point in history as vidyā (See Attwood 2017a).

The two shénzhòu texts are listed under the heading: 失譯 "lost translator" (i.e., anonymous). As we have already seen, this meant that Sēngyòu was suspicious of them. Later catalogues attribute them to translators Zhīqiān (支謙) and Kumārajīva, respectively. However, as Nattier says these attributions "are clearly after the fact and can be easily discounted" (1992: 183).

Nattier further suggests that the practice of using 般若波羅蜜 to transliterate prajñāpāramitā was introduced by Kumārajīva in 404 CE and so placing them in Dàoān's catalogue seems anachronistic. However, 般若波羅蜜 is used throughout T224, the earliest translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra by *Lokakṣema, ca. 179 CE, so it would not have been out of place in 374.

The reference point of Kumārajīva is still important because all of the extant Heart Sutras in Chinese are excerpts from his Dajing. This is beyond any doubt and thus any reference to the Heart Sutra before 404 CE, when that translation was completed, is problematic. Since Dàoān was writing in 374 CE we have a problem. Below, I will show that there are at least two different ways to resolve this problem.

In any case, what needs to be emphasised is that if the first references to the Heart Sutra are in this 515 catalogue, then they are listed in it as having no translator. Dàoān seems to only have listed texts he had to hand, so it seems very likely that the shénzhòu texts existed in 374 CE. What Sēngyòu was looking for in an authentic sutra (in 515 CE) was a definite connection to India, a famous translator, elegant expressions, and integral rather than digested content. What we have in the Heart Sutra, if it is the Heart Sutra, is an anonymous digest with no obvious connection to India.

The 《大隋眾經目錄》 or Dà Suí Catalogue (T2146) compiled in 594 by Fǎjīng also lists titles 《 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 (T 55.123.b.22-3) under the heading of Mahāyāna texts "produced separately" (別生). As Tokuno notes, this category was invented by Fǎjīng to contain the digest sutras. He considered them inauthentic in the sense that they were mere digests of genuine texts, but not actually fake in the sense of original compositions. Note the similarity to Kuījī's term "separately produced" (別出): produced, not preached. In this catalogue, 197 sutras are listed as fake, so there has been a dramatic rise in the number of them. Another point here is that Fǎjīng has added the word 經 sūtra to the titles of the shénzhòu texts. Even so, we can say that Fǎjīng follows Sēngyòu in treating these titles as separate from authentic sutras.

Note that Fǎjīng used the phrase 神呪經 36 times and there are about the same number of 呪經's as well.

The  《歷代三寳記》 Records of the Three Treasuries Throughout Successive Dynasties, compiled by Fèi Chángfáng (費長房 ) in 597 CE (T2034), is not listed with other catalogues in Taishō Vol. 55 but with histories in Vol. 49. Fèi Chángfáng's approach to digests and fakes was somewhat different to other bibliographers in that he lists texts in chronological order of when they were translated, and he treats very few texts as being inauthentic. He has come to be known for controversially attributing texts to translators without foundation (Tokuno 1990: 44-45). His approach seems to have been to "minimize the number of scriptures of questionable pedigree" in order to "enhance the credibility of the textual basis of Buddhism" (Tokuno 1990: 46). Fèi Chángfáng lists the 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 with an annotation (T 49.55.c.1). Unfortunately, the annotation has many variations in different versions of the Canon. The Taishō editors opted for 或無經字 "perhaps not a sutra". One variant is 異本 "different source" while the Song (宋) edition combines these, i.e.,  異本或無經字 "different source or perhaps not a sutra". The title is listed under 譯經後漢 "Sutras translated after the Han Dynasty". Despite this and Fèi Chángfáng's tendency to see sutras as genuine, has his doubts about this one.

When Fèi Chángfáng notes "different source" he may be thinking of his entry 《摩訶般若波羅蜜呪經》*Mahāprajñāpāramitā-vidyā-sūtra (T 49.58.b.9), listed under 譯經魏吳 "Sutras Translated During Wei (魏) and Wu (吳). Along with Shu (蜀), these two kingdoms made up the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). Fèi Chángfáng's annotation here is "See the Catalogue of Bǎochàng" which is unfortunately no longer extant, despite (as mentioned above) being selected by Emperor Wu of Liang as his official catalogue; the annotation continues "or just say 般若波羅蜜呪經". In other words, he probably has neither text to hand and is unsure whether the two titles represent two distinct texts or variant titles for one text. It's not clear on what basis he has separated them when others have always listed them together. 

The defect of the Dà Suí Catalogue was that did not differentiate between extant and non-extant texts, but preserved entries in previous catalogues even where no copy of the sutra could be found. Therefore, a new catalogue was commissioned by Sui Emperor Wen. A group of experts, led by the Yàncóng (彥琮), completed the highly influential 《內典文全集》 Complete collection of Buddhist scriptures (T2147) in 602 CE. Yàncóng was a skilled and systematic translator and an expert on Prajñāpāramitā. Yàncóng's catalogue again lists 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 (T 55.162.a.24-5) suggesting that they were extant texts in 602. They are placed under the heading 大乘別生 or Mahāyāna Produced Separately, i.e. digests of Mahāyāna sutras. And, again, they are kept separate from the authentic sutras. Although there are eight titles with the phrase 心經, none of them appears to be the Heart Sutra.

If we accept that the shénzhòu texts are the Heart Sutra, then we must also note that pre-Tang Dynasty bibliographers were almost unanimous in treating the texts digests as anonymous and produced separately (i.e., digests). In other words, they did not understand these texts to be authentic sutras. The only exception is Fèi Chángfáng, and even he is doubtful. So, if we take this road, then we already have proof that the text was not an authentic sutra produced in India. We need not make special arguments about the Sanskrit text, except to say that there is no such tradition of making digests in India. The digest sutra is a distinctive feature of China.

However, this still leaves the problem that all the extant Heart Sutras quote from the Dajing translation of 404 CE. I will not finally tackle this problem until Part III. At this point, I wish to complete my survey of the early catalogues. We have arrived at the Tang Dynasty and we see the sudden appearance of the title: 《摩訶般若波羅蜜心經》 Mahāprajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra, aka the 《心經》 or Xīnjīng.

The Heart Sutra in Tang Catalogues

Whereas the Suí Emperors were enthusiastic about Buddhism, the early Tang Emperors, with the exception of Wu Zetian, were not. I'll say more about Wu Zetian in part II. The lack of enthusiasm for Buddhism is reflected in the fact that fewer catalogues of Buddhist scriptures were produced during three centuries of Tang than during the four decades of the Sui. However, the catalogues that were produced were highly influential in the formation and structuring of the Chinese Buddhist Canon and are important in the story of the Heart Sutra. The Tang Dynasty begins in 618 CE, but the first catalogue of Buddhist texts was not produced until ca. 627-650 and it was soon lost, so that nothing much is known about it.

It is not until 664 that the, now famous, 《大唐內典錄》or Catalogue of the Inner canon of the Great Tang, aka Nèidiǎn Catalogue, is compiled by Dàoxuān (道宣). 664 is also the year that Xuanzang died and it is well into the period during which Wu Zetian was de facto Emperor. Another catalogue was hastily prepared after Xuanzang's death in 664 to incorporate his new translations (presumably his Prajñāpāramitā translations), but this was largely the same as Yàncóng's catalogue and is otherwise unremarkable.

For the history of the Heart Sutra, the Nèidiǎn Catalogue is important because it is the first catalogue to use the now familiar title 《摩訶般若波羅蜜心經》*Mahāprajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sutra (Xīnjīng), and it is the first to attribute the text to Xuanzang. One of the first things we notice is that the titles 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 have disappeared from view. They were mentioned as digest sutras in the Yàncóng catalogue of 602, which excluded non-extant texts, so we presume they existed then. Now, they are not mentioned at all. Instead, we find the well known Xīnjīng. It is a subtle point, but note also that it is not the Heart of Prajñāpāramitā (i.e., not a general summary of Prajñāpāramitā) but the Heart of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā(-sutra). As we have seen, Kuījī took this to be a reference to Xuanzang's massive anthology of Prajñāpāramitā texts, but this was also the title of Kumārajīva's Dajing translation (from which the Heart Sutra was extracted). 

The Nèidiǎn Catalogue is organised around ten divisions. We expect a digest sutra to be in Section 7: 歷代諸經支流陳化錄 "A record of scriptures throughout successive dynasties that appeared as a result of rearrangement through the process of independent circulation." (cf. Storch 2014: 133). But the text does not appear here. Instead, it occurs with the bone fide sutras in sections 1-4. Notably, section 3 is a list of texts to be included in a Buddhist Canon (having eliminated fakes, and so on) and section 4 lists "the most important scriptures". So this Heart Sutra is not only authentic, but has a high status amidst authentic sutras. Can this really be the same text?

We can now usefully return to the question of the identification of the shénzhòu texts as the Heart Sutra. Clearly the title (摩訶)般若波羅蜜神呪經 is not Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra at all, but *(Mahā-)Prajñāpāramitā-vidyā-sūtra or, perhaps, *(Mahā-)Prajñāpāramitā-dhāraṇī-sūtra. Certainly there is some similarity, especially to the alternative Chinese Heart Sutra, the 《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 or Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidyā-sūtra, where 大明呪 = mahāvidyā. Elsewhere, I have argued that 神呪 and 明呪 are synonyms (Attwood 2017a). It is certainly possible that the name suddenly changed. Such things happened, especially in the Prajñāpāramitā; for example, the 小經  or Xiǎojīng had several different names, sometimes including mahā (大 or 摩訶):
  • 《道行般若經》179 CE
  • 《大明度經》225 CE
  • 《摩訶般若鈔經》382 CE
  • 《小品般若經》404 CE
The difference here is that all these texts are extant and can study and compare them. I've done this, tracing passages like "the epithets" or "form is emptiness" from the Heart Sutra to each one, via the Dàjīng. The Xiǎojīng was always considered to be authentic and was plausibly attributed to known translators, even though it was thought by Chinese translators to be a redaction of the Dàjīng (they did not yet see the process of expansion that is obvious to us in retrospect). 

Somehow, in the years since 602, the digest has become a sutra, changed its name, and entered the Chinese Canon of authentic texts with a bullet. At least this is what most scholars of the Heart Sutra would have us believe. The trouble is that we can plainly see that the Heart Sutra is a digest. And we know that the Tang Dynasty commentators knew this and wrote about it. 

We also know that, whatever did happen, it had to have happened by 661 CE, because we have the Fangshan stele, which records 三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯 "Translated by Traipiṭaka Dharma-master Xuanzang, by imperial decree." (see The Earliest Dated Heart Sutra Revisited, 22 June 2018), and this after he went into seclusion to finally translate the Prajñāpāramitā texts he'd brought with him, that had sat unlooked at for 15 years while he focussed on his priorities.

One alternative story would be that sometime after 602, but before 661, a brand new digest was redacted from Kumārajīva's Dajing, but including some minor modifications reflecting translation conventions introduced by Xuanzang (the most celebrated translator of the day). This new text was passed off as a translation by Xuanzang. While this story is still quite implausible at face value, it has the advantage of not being at odds with all the known facts and the opinions of ancient scholars who, on the whole, seemed to know their business quite well.

So the question now is, what happened in those 59 years? I will begin to try to answer this question in the next installment by looking at the historical context.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2017a). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017b). ‘Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13, 52–80.

Eisenberg, Andrew. (2012) Emperor Gaozong, the Rise of Wu Zetian, and factional politics in the Early Tang. Tang Studies 30, 45-69.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006) An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch’uk’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra). International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. 6: 121-205.

Jorgensen, John. (2002). 'Representing Wŏnch'ŭk: Meditations on Medieval East Asian Biographies' in Religion and Biography in China and Tibet, edited by Benjamin Penny. Routledge.

Tokuno, Kyoko. 1990. 'The Evaluation of Indigenous Scriptures in Chinese Buddhist Bibliographical Catalogues' in Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, edited by Robert E Buswell. University of Hawaii Press, 31-74.

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223.

Satyadhana. (2014) 'The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary.' Western Buddhist Review, 6, 78-104 .

Sen, Tansen. (2003) Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade. The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations 600-1400. Association for Asian Studies; University of Hawai'i Press.

Storch, T. (2014). The History of Chinese Buddhist Bibliography. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

Tanahashi, Kazuki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala

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