10 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. II

Wu Zetian
In Part I of this essay, I introduced the early medieval Chinese bibliographers who made catalogues of Buddhist texts that were prescriptive and proscriptive; i.e., they tried to determine what was and was not an authentic text. I also introduced the idea of the digest text (抄經) and pointed out that the Heart Sutra is a prime example of such a digest. I then showed that the bibliographers also thought of the Heart Sutra as a digest rather than as an authentic sutra and that the earliest commentators also seemed to agree. However, I raised a question about identifying the shénzhòu texts as the Heart Sutra.

Now, in Part II, I introduce some background on the turbulent politics of the time in which the Heart Sutra emerged. I then look again at Xuanzang and the reliability of texts about him as historical sources. The two early commentaries of the Heart Sutra, by Kuījī and his colleague Woncheuk, both seem to understand that the Heart Sutra is a digest text. Finally, later Tang catalogues add to the myth of the Heart Sutra by supplying a translation date that is widely and uncritically cited by scholars, and other elements of backstory. The Damingzhoujing emerges for the first time. This sets us up for Part III which discusses the evidence presented and various ways of accounting for it.

Some Notes on Tang History

When we read about the history of Xuanzang, we generally read all about him interacting with the second and third Tang Emperors, Taizong (太宗; r. 626–649) and Gaozong (高宗; r. 649–683). Even though she is a key player from about 650 onwards, most accounts tend to leave Wu Zetian (624–705) out of the picture. For example, Kazuaki Tanahashi's "Comprehensive guide" to the Heart Sutra (2014) provides many historical details but doesn't mention Wu Zetian at all. I'm grateful to Jeffrey Kotyk for alerting me to this issue in some emails we've been exchanging on this subject.

Wu Zetian is a difficult character to get a fix on because Chinese historians of her own time openly hated her. The men who wrote China's official histories were Confucian scholars who were appalled by the thought of a woman wielding power (over them). Under their pens, she becomes a kind of caricature of evil and her accomplishments are overlooked. And it only gets worse over time.

Wu Zetian (武則天) was born in 624 CE. Her mother was from the Yang (楊) clan and was thus related to the Sui Emperors.* This gave her the status to become, aged 14, a mid-ranked concubine of Emperor Taizong. When Taizong died in 650, tradition demanded that childless concubines be sent to a monastery to live out their lives. Aged 26, Wu Zetian was assigned to Ganye Temple (感業寺) in the capital, Changan. However, she appears to have cultivated a relationship with a younger son of Taizong. As fate would have it, this son ended up becoming crown prince and then Emperor Gaozong. Gaozong recalled Wu Zetian from the monastery and made her his concubine at a much higher rank. She reputedly had her rivals disposed of (horribly), but in any case, just a few years later in 655, aged 31, she became wife to Gaozong, and thus Empress Consort. She had two sons with Gaozong: Li Xián and Li Zhe.
* It is probably a coincidence that the man named in the colophon of the Fangshan stele is also a Yang.
Andrew Eisenberg (amongst others) has argued that standard accounts of Wu Zetian's rise to Empress leave out a great deal. The early Tang court was riven by factionalism that began in the latter part of Taizong's reign and was inherited by his son, Gaozong. Out of the various factions, one emerged that was led by Zhangsun Wuji (長孫無忌), a kingmaker who had been instrumental in helping to put the Li family on the throne, thus founding the Tang Dynasty, in the first place. The Zhangsun faction seriously threatened the power of Gaozong, not by undermining his position as Emperor per se, but by taking control of the executive branches of government. Leveraging the Fang Yi'ai (房遺愛) affair, Zhangsun Wuji was able to instigate a major (violent) purge of Gaozong's supporters in 653 leaving him isolated. In this revision of history, the ascension of Wu Zetian to the throne is part of a move by Gaozong and his ally, General Li Ji, to counter the growing power of the Zhangsun faction. Indeed, Eisenberg argues that Wu Zetian's accession was the culminating manoeuvre of a bloody retaliatory purge of their leaders. Zhangsun Wuji, himself, survived until Gaozong had him executed along with his family in 659. Wu Zetian may have taken part in the violent factionalism on the side of Gaozong, but manipulation, manoeuvring and murdering were the norm at the time. Gaozong and his palace allies, particularly Li Ji, were far from passive in these matters.

Buddhist histories tend to portray China as a rather pacific state at this time. They may recall the chaos that brought down the Sui (581–618), but they tend to buy into the myth of Tang as a golden age. In fact, the early Tang may have been glorious in its own way, but it began in rebellion and was marked by rebellions (Wu Zetian and Ang Lushan), and was effectively ended by the Huang Chao Rebellion (even if it took a while to die). The battle for control of the world's largest and richest Empire has slow periods but has been more or less constant for 3000 years.

However she got there, Wu Zetian seems to have been ready to take advantage of her position. She became the de facto ruler of China from 660 onwards due to Gaozong's incapacitation by a series of strokes. Typically, some historians believe that he was poisoned by Wu Zetian. Gaozong recovered for a time, during which they shared power, but he suffered repeated bouts of illness, leaving Wu Zetian in effective control of the Empire.

After Gaozong died in 683, Li Xián was proclaimed Emperor Zhōngzōng (中宗). However, Wu Zetian deposed him after just six weeks and installed his younger brother, Li Zhe, as Emperor Ruizong (睿宗 r. 684–689), though Wu Zetian continued to rule as Empress Dowager and Regent. This resulted in a major rebellion that was put down at great cost. Then, in 690, Wu Zetian declared herself Emperor de jure. Since she was not of the Li family, she could not technically carry on their Dynasty; she called her new dynasty Zhou, after the historic Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–249 BC), in the time of Confucius and Laozi. She was eventually forced to yield the throne back to Li Xián in 705 and died shortly afterwards. A generous view of her might be that, although her rise to power was manipulative and violent, Wu Zetian was a good ruler. She ran the palace as a meritocracy and made reforms that benefited peasants and women. Printing was discovered and developed during her rule (a development that had a profound effect on Buddhism in China as texts became standardised, much cheaper, and widely distributed).

It is significant that, unlike Gaozong or Taizong, Wu Zetian was a Buddhist. She promoted Buddhism as the state religion ahead of Confucianism or Daoism. When she did take the throne, Buddhism provided the rationale for her mandate for being the first (and only) female Emperor. As Tansen Sen (2003) notes, Wu Zetian secured crucial support from Buddhist Clergy from 685–695. In 689, a leading Buddhist monk, Xue Huaiyi (said by her enemies to be her lover) organised the production of a commentary on a Buddhist text (T2879) to link Wu Zetian with prophecies about the return of Maitreya. Later, in 693, the translator Bodhiruci produced a version of the Ratnamegha Sūtra (T660) into which were interpolated passages prophesying a female Emperor in China.

This is the political background against which the Heart Sutra emerged and Wu Zetian may well have been the most important political figure of the time. Buddhist histories tend to portray Taizong and Gaozong as having an interest in Buddhism, but really they were not interested. At this stage, Buddhism was still seen as a foreign religion. It was Wu Zetian who changed that. Which makes her one of the most significant women in the history of Buddhism. But the Buddhists establishment, from apparent self-interest, also got behind her, to the point of forging prophecies of her ascension.


Xuanzang (600?–664), the famous monk, pilgrim, and translator, is entangled in any discussion of the history of the Heart Sutra. Apart from his birth, the dates of Xuanzang are a matter of long-settled opinion. He must have been born at or around the turn of the 7th Century. He became a Buddhist monk and, following the collapse of the Sui Dynasty in 618, he and his brother spent time in Sichuan (四川) Province. He then left China to visit India in 629 and returned in 645 (16 years). Shortly after his return, Taizong died and Gaozong took the imperial throne, though, as we have seen, his rule was soon dominated by Wu Zetian.

As with the references to the catalogues, we need to look again at what we think we know about Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. A key source is his travelogue, 《大唐西域記》 Great Tang Records on the Western Region (T2087), composed in 646, supposedly at the request of the Emperor Taizong. In this memoir of his travels, Xuanzang does not mention the Heart Sutra, though this is not surprising. Taizong was a rationalist emperor who wanted intelligence on his neighbours and their neighbours to help him understand his strategic position in the world.

In the Records, Xuanzang does use the words 神呪 and 呪, a number of times. Both meaning "a chant or incantation" in a general way. They are not used with respect to a specific text. Chanting incantations was simply something Buddhists and Hindus did and they had this in common with Daoists.

The most important source of information about Xuanzang is a hagiography by Huìlì (慧立 ) and Yàncóng (彥悰) known as 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》 Biography of the Dharma Master of the Great Ci'en Temple in the Tang Dynasty (hereafter "the Biography") which dates from about 688 CE. The preface of the text, composed by Yàncóng, suggests that Huìlì produced a text of about 5 fascicles but lost confidence and hid it. After Huìlì's death, Yàncóng reworked the text, producing a final work of 10 fascicles. They can properly be said to be co-authors, though they seem to have worked on it the Biography different times.

The first literary link between Xuanzang and the Xīnjīng occurs in the Biography. Chapter One briefly tells the story of Xuanzang receiving the Xīnjīng from a grateful man he had helped. The story is not told in context, i.e., not as part of the story about his move to Sichuan (or 蜀 Shǔ as it was then called), but comes as an aside when Xuanzang gets lost in the desert and is assailed by demons. He supposedly recited the Heart Sutra to stay safe. The main part of the story goes like this.
初,法師在蜀,見一病人,身瘡臭穢,衣服破污,慜將向寺施與衣服飲食之直。病者慚愧,乃授法師此《經》,因常誦習。(T 50.224b.8-10)
Once when the master in Sichuan saw a sick man, with foul-smelling body sores, dressed in dirty rags. Feeling benevolent he took that man directly to the temple and give him clothing, food, and drink. The sick man, being ashamed, taught the Master this sutra [i.e., the Wisdom-Heart-Sutra] and for this reason, he often recited and practised it. (T 50.224b.9-10).
Note that the sick man (病人) is described as 身瘡臭穢 literally "body sores stinking foul". This could well be a layperson's description of final-stage leprosy. The disease was well known and described in China at this time, though social attitudes to leprosy were ambivalent (Skinsnes & Chang 1985).

In the preceding paragraph of the Biography, "the text" 《經》 is called 《般若心經》 or Wisdom-Heart-Sutra which, as we have seen, does not come into use in Buddhist catalogues until 664, the year of Xuanzang's death, though his early life and travels occur in the pause between catalogues.

In a later chapter, the biography purports to preserve letters sent by Xuanzang to Emperor Gaozong, in one of which (dated 656) he offers the emperor a gold-lettered Prajñāpāramitā text in one fascicle (which seems to be the Xīnjīng) to congratulate him and the Empress on the birth of a son (Li Xián).

Many scholars uncritically take these references to be solid historical facts, though the biography seems to be unreliable as a historical document. For example, the biography describes Xuanzang crossing vast trackless deserts on his own with just a horse. Horses are not adapted to desert life the way camels are. Between them, a man and a horse travelling in the heat would require well in excess of 100 litres ( = 100 kg) of water per day. It is overwhelmingly likely that both would have died within a day or two of venturing unguided into the Gobi or Taklamakan deserts. The name of the Taklamakan is said to mean "place of no return" or "place of ruin". Stories about divine interventions don't hold water. Neither Xuanzang himself nor the Biography mentions Xuanzang as the translator of a Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra. It is true that texts, especially the Heart Sutra, were occasionally engraved in Sanskrit, but only a handful of people in China could read Sanskrit at any given time. As far as popular Buddhism in China goes, it was all in Chinese translation.

If we think critically about the text we might ask, if the Heart Sutra is magic and can save Xuanzang from certain death, why was the leper not cured by magic as well? One answer is that helping a sick man is "virtue signalling"; i.e., a pious, but personally costly, display of virtue to help other Buddhists recognise Xuanzang as one of them (Bulbulia & Schjoedt 2010: 35-6). And by "costly" here we mean not just the financial cost of the clothing and food, but the discomfort of spending time with someone who has stinking, suppurating, sores and the risk of being infected. Xuanzang needs to establish his saintly credentials, not in the relative safety of Sichuan, but now, in the desert where his life is in danger, where he could only have succeeded by a miracle.

The broadly uncritical approach taken by readers of Xuanzang's biography suggests that this may also involve what Bulbulia & Schjoedt call "charismatic signalling". In effect, it is our shared awe of Xuanzang that brings Buddhists together on a large scale. Displays of costly virtue (such as being a celibate monk) may not be enough when large-scale anonymous cooperation is required; therefore, religious groups direct attention to charismatic (i.e., highly persuasive) individuals, the purpose of historical saints to create a sense of continuity with the present charismatic individuals, often with saints being seen as conduits of the divine. Tang Dynasty Buddhists could not know, when they promoted him as a saint, that Xuanzang would chiefly be remembered as a caricature in a tawdry Ming Dynasty fantasy novel.

A hagiography may well contain stories that are valued by religieux for their inspirational qualities. But when we are looking at them as historians, we have to be a lot more sceptical. Taking a hagiography on its own terms is very poor method. And yet many historians do take this information as historically accurate.

Kuījī and Woncheuk

Two other men important in Xuanzang's story have already been mentioned; i.e., Kuījī 窺基 (632–682), his Chinese student and his successor in the 唯識宗 or Mind-Only [Idealist] School of Yogācāra; and Woncheuk 圓測 (613-696) a Korean editor and translator who was assigned by Gaozong to assist Xuanzang. Both men could read Sanskrit, at least to some degree (there are debates on who knew how much, but this is another topic).

Woncheuk is very important to this story because, as Dan Lusthaus (2003) points out, Woncheuk seems to refer to "a Sanskrit text" when composing his commentary on the Xīnjīng (T1711).
或有本曰 「照見五蘊等皆空」 雖有兩本。後本為正。撿勘梵本有等言故後所說等準此應知。[punctuation added for clarity]
There is another version of the text [或有本] which says "illuminatingly, he saw the five skandhas, and so on [等], are all empty." Although there are two versions of the text [有兩本], the latter text [後本] is correct. An examination of the Sanskrit text [梵本] shows that it has the word "and so on" [等]. Hence the "and so on" stated by the latter (text) should be understood to be the standard." (Adapted from Lusthaus 2003:83)
Lusthaus takes this putative Sanskrit text or Sanskrit version (梵本) to be the “original” but this assumes facts not-in-evidence and is contradicted by evidence from the catalogues. The trouble is that we know that the Sanskrit is a translation and source was Chinese. So even if Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text, we know it to be a translation from the Chinese. That Woncheuk appears not to know this is significant because it means he almost certainly wasn't the translator.

A problem that Lusthaus does not discuss is that we know that there a number of divergences between extant Sanskrit and Chinese texts, and yet Woncheuk’s commentary only references this one minor difference (等, presumably Skt. ādi) and none of the major differences, such as the different number of verbs in the first sentence (see Attwood 2015). Furthermore, this minor difference is not found in any extant Heart Sutra text, but the line with 等 is found in both commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk; it is cited by another Tang Dynasty monk, Zhìzhōu 智周 (668-723) in his 《大乘入道次第》 Introduction to the Mahāyāna Path (T 45.459b.4); and it occurs in an otherwise unknown text found at Dunhuang (T2746). All we know from Woncheuk's commentary is that the Sanskrit text had some equivalent of the Chinese character 等 "etc" and that was the only difference Woncheuk deemed worthy of comment. This would be counted very peculiar, indeed, were the text really a Sanskrit "original".

On the other hand, we have already noted in Part I that Woncheuk saw the text as 簡 "selected, gleaned" from 諸般若 "various Prajñā(pāramitā sūtras)" (T 33.543.b.18). However, even this is less straightforward than it seems because Woncheuk gives the initial title of the sutra as 《佛說般若波羅蜜多心經》, with two additional characters—佛說—that mean "The Buddha Expounded". This title is not found elsewhere and on its own we would take to suggest that Woncheuk understands the text to be an authentic sutra. Since he appears to know that the text is a digest, we would seem to have to take this to mean that he understood the text to be quoting ideas expounded by the Buddha. In other words, that he saw Mahāyāna texts as Buddhavācana, which is not problematic, in the sense that it was a common view amongst Mahāyāna Buddhists.

It's possible that by Sanskrit version (梵本) Woncheuk was not referring to a Heart Sutra, but to the Dajing from which it quotes. There is nothing in the commentary that excludes this possibility and it fits with the knowledge that he is commenting on a digest text. Woncheuk would probably not have had access to the manuscript used by Kumārajīva, but he certainly would have had access to the manuscripts used by Xuanzang.

Woncheuk uses the phrase "Sanskrit word" (梵音) 8 times, explaining the meaning of 佛 (buddha), 般若 (prajñā), 奢利富 (Śāriputra), 涅槃 (nirvāṇa), 佛 again, in reference to transliterated anuttarā-samyak-sambodhi, 菩提 (bodhi), and with reference to the dhāraṇī being in Sanskrit. Woncheuk refers to Xuanzang as 大唐三藏 Great Tang Traipiṭaka or simply 三藏 Traipiṭaka. On four occasions he refers to Xuanzang's understanding of technical terms, but not in ways that suggest that Xuanzang was commenting on the Heart Sutra, per se. Note that Woncheuk's commentary has since been independently translated into English (Hyun Choo 2006).

It is not that Woncheuk was afraid to disagree with Xuánzàng. As John Jorgensen (2002: 74-5) has shown, the two fell out over the interpretation of Dharmapāla’s interpretation of Yogācāra. Xuánzàng endorsed Dharmapāla but Woncheuk, with his greater knowledge of the history of Yogācāra, argued that Dharmapāla was in error. Later Chinese biographies looked down on Woncheuk as a result (and because he was foreign).

Kuījī's commentary (T1710) must have been composed after late 663. This is because when it refers to the Dàjīng (大經) it uses a phrase "菩薩摩訶薩行般若波羅蜜多時" that can only have come from the compendium of Prajñāpāramitā translations by Xuanzang (T220), completed toward the end of 663. He makes a number of references to the Dàjīng. However, he does not mention the character 譯 "translated", or the name 玄奘 Xuanzang, or the title 三藏法師. Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text.

Keeping in mind that Kuījī and Woncheuk lived in the same milieu, it seems very unlikely that if a Sanskrit Heart Sutra existed when he was writing, Kuījī would not have known about it and had access to it. As Xuanzang's most talented and student, he was in the limelight, especially after Xuanzang died in early 664. The absence of evidence is not usually evidence of absence, but Kuījī's not mentioning a Sanskrit text suggests that it did not exist at that point.

We can provisionally conclude that when Kuījī composed his commentary, between 664 and 683, no Sanskrit text was available to him. However, the text was already attributed to Xuanzang in 661 on the Fangshan stele, which is difficult to reconcile with the other facts. Then, when Woncheuk composed his commentary before 696, there was a Sanskrit text, but he seems to have been ambivalent about it. His commentary is very much on the Chinese text.

The Heart Sutra in Later Chinese Bibliographies

The myth-making surrounding the Heart Sutra did not end with the Nèidiǎn Catalogue or the Biography. Many sources uncritically cite the year 649 CE as the date that Xuanzang translated the Xīnjīng, even though we know that it was a digest text and even though we know that the Sanskrit text is actually a translation from Chinese.

The first mention of the 649 Date is in the 《大唐開元釋教錄》 (T2154) Catalogue of Śākyamuṇi’s Teachings of the Kaiyuan Era of the Great Tang Era or simply the Kāiyuán Catalogue; compiled Zhìshēng in the year 730 (Nattier 1992: 174).
般若波羅蜜多心經一卷(見內典錄第二出與摩訶般若大明呪經等同本貞觀二十三年五月二十四日於終南山翠微宮譯沙門知仁筆受 (T55.555.c.3-4)
The Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra in one fascicle (See: the Nèidiǎn Catalogue, scroll 2 and the Mahāprajñā(pāramitā)-mahāvidyā-sūtra, etc. from the same source; Zhēnguàn Era 23, 5th Month, 24th Day [8 July 649]; translated at Cuìwēi Gōng, on Mount Zhōngnán, with monk Zhīrén as scribe). (Thanks to Jeffrey Kotyk for help with elements of this translation).
Note that Taizong was gravely ill in 649 and his deathbed was at his summer residence, Cuìwēi Palace (翠微宮). He died on 10 July 649; the news was delayed by a few days and Gaozong took the throne on 15 Jul 649. Taizong was notoriously rational and contemptuous of superstition and unlikely to have been interested in the Heart Sutra. The Biography portrays him as undergoing a deathbed conversion to Buddhism, but this seems highly unlikely. The Biography makes no mention of the "translation" of the Heart Sutra. It does, however, suggest that the Beilin Stele (erected 672 CE) was made around this time, so it is clearly mixing up the dates.

Even though the Kāiyuán Catalogue refers to the Damingzhoujing as being in the Nèidiǎn Catalogue we don't find it there. This is the first mention of the title, in full, the 《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 or the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidyā-sūtra (T250). In the Damingzhoujing there are no Xuanzang-isms; the main excerpt has some missing lines restored, and it is attributed to Kumārajīva. This has been taken by many (including me) to mean that the Damingzhoujung predates the Xīnjing. It is certainly closer to the Dajing in some respects. However, in the light of previous catalogues, we have to wonder whether the Damingzhoujing was deliberately created after the fact in order to fill out the backstory of the Xīnjīng. It is extremely unlikely that such a text would exist but evade every single bibliographer over two centuries. Of course, 神呪 shénzhòu and 明呪 míngzhòu can both represent Sanskrit vidyā, so it is possible that the Damingzhoujing has some relation with the 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪》 Móhēbōrěbōluómì shénzhòu of Sēngyòu's catalogue in 515. But without knowing the content of the texts we can only speculate.

We must also note that Zhìshēng is generally quite dismissive of digest sutras (抄經). Of the hundreds that were noted in previous catalogues, he only lists 54. And they are lumped together with the fake sutras (偽經) (Tokuno 1990: 58). He is also critical of texts falsely attributed to famous translators, and Kyoko Tokuno particularly draws attention to his criticism of the 《要行捨身經》 "Book of the Essential Practice of Self-Mortification", which he thinks is wrongly attributed to Xuanzang (1990: 56). This text is listed in the Taishō Canon as No. 2895, under the heading Apocrypha found at Dunhuang.

Summary So far

In Parts I & II of this essay I have laid out an array of information, much of which, at more than a millennium removed, must be treated with some caution. We have seen that the Chinese bibliographers and their catalogues of Buddhist texts are pivotal in the construction of the history of the Heart Sutra. In particular, I have, for the first time, noted the prescriptive and proscriptive nature of the catalogues and tried to determine how the Heart Sutra fit into the schemes that the bibliographers worked out. The Heart Sutra turns out to be one of hundreds of digest texts (抄經 Chāojīng).

We've seen that the politics of the day was far more complex than is typically represented in Buddhist texts. Xuanzang's close relationships with male emperors is exaggerated and his relationship with Wu Zetian is effaced. The Biography is an unreliable source that is all too often treated as reliable.

A great deal rests on the identification of the Heart Sutra with the shénzhòu (神呪) texts found in the pre-Tang catalogues. Having looked at this issue I find the identification doubtful at best, precisely because the shénzhòu texts predate the Dàjīng text that the Xīnjīng quotes. As far as I can tell we have no information about the content of the shénzhòu texts other than their title and classification in a number of catalogues as being digests without a translator. We've also seen that the commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk add a whole layer of complexity to the story.

The next step is to try to tie it all together, to try to see if I can make sense of it all. I think I can make sense of it, but traditionalists are not going to like how I do this. We may say that the Xīnjīng is an understandably pious effort to epitomise the Prajñāpāramitā tradition and perhaps to leverage this tradition in the form of a magic spell. I've previously commented on truth magic in relation to the Prajñāpāramitā tradition, where I tied them to Ariel Glucklich's account of magic as concerned with the sense of interconnection. As I said:
The [Truth Act] saccakiriyā allows one individual who is samyañc (in tune) with respect to the nature of experience, to restore samyañc for another who is mithyā (at odds) with respect to the nature of experience.
The Xīnjīng is understandable in Buddhist terms but the Sanskrit text is something else. In the context of early medieval China, it had to have been created to deceive people about the true history of the Heart Sutra; i.e., to hide when and where it was produced, as well as by whom, and for what reason it was produced. So part of the task in Part III is to see how much of the true history can be recovered.



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