26 July 2019

Inscription of the Prajñāpāramitā Epithets

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. On 17 July, 2019, I discovered by chance that the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Cambridge University) library had a copy of Buddhist Stone Sutras in China (Vol.1) edited by Wang Yongbo and Lothar Ledderose (2014). One of the inscriptions is a fragment of the Prajñāpāramitā epithets passage as a separate text, dated before 561. One can also see the information on the website Buddhist Stone Sutras in China.

This should interest anyone who studies the Heart Sutra because it shows that a version of the epithets was circulating separately by the mid 6th Century (about 100 years before the Heart Sutra was composed). 

The Epithets: Quick Recap

In my article ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra (2017) I expanded on a footnote in Jan Nattier's landmark article (1992). Footnote 54a was inserted at the last minute after the article had been typeset, in the days when typesetting meant adding numbers to footnotes manually. Nattier stopped the presses because her colleague Nobuyoshi Yamabe had written to her pointing out that a number of passages in Chinese Prajñāpāramitā texts closely parallel the epithets in the Heart Sutra. Nattier cites these with transliterations and translations and adds two extra passages to those identified by Yamabe.

In Epithets I took up the task of systematically identifying and studying these passages in both Sanskrit and Chinese Prajñāpātamitā texts. Since the passage occurs in the Shorter and Longer texts, and we have multiple recensions and translations this amounts to a fair few references. In finding and tabulating all of the references, I found that there were, in fact, just two: Passage One and Passage Two that recurred across the whole literature, always in the same chapter, though different recensions and versions number the chapters differently). In Kumārajīva's Large Sutra  translation the passages occur in Chapter 34 (= Chp 28 of Conze's translation, p.236 ff.). Minor differences in the two passages suggested that Passage Two was the likely source of the epithets in the Heart Sutra.

I also noticed that mantra was a mistranslation of what had originally been vidyā. The mistranslation seemed to revolve are around the use of 明呪 and/or 呪  to translate vidyā. In standard Middle Chinese, 呪 means "incantation" and in Buddhist contexts was frequently employed to translate dhāraṇī and later, mantra. Even so, in the mid 7th Century, the most obvious translation back into Sanskrit ought to have been dhāraṇī. Mantra was a very new concept at the time, with the first Tantric trained Buddhist, Atikūṭa, arriving in Chang'an only in 651. That the (Sanskrit) translator opted for Mantra is a tantalising hint about them, though not enough to draw hard conclusions from. There is no mantra in connection with any of the Sanskrit source texts. 

In any case, I showed that the passage in the Heart Sutra was originally found in Kumārajīva's translations of the Large Sutra and that the version in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a calque of the Chinese. The extant Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts phrase it very differently, as we can see when the key versions of the passage are placed alongside each other.And the Chinese texts are very similar. This is consistent with other passages copied from the Large Sutra and as predicted by Nattier's Chinese origins thesis. (You don't need to read these languages - just look at the patterns). 
Pañc:  mahavidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā | (Gilgit 146v)
KJ. T.223:  般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪。(8.286b28-c7:)
Xz T.220:  如是般若波羅蜜多是大神呪、是大明呪,是無上呪,是無等等呪,是一切呪王 (7.156.a17-22)
T.250:  故知般若波羅蜜  是大明呪,無上明呪,無等等明呪, (8.847c24-25)
T.251:  故知般若波羅蜜多,是大神咒 ,是大明咒,是無上咒,是無等等咒, (8.848c18-19)
Hṛd:  tasmāj jñātavyaṃ prajñāpramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro 'nuttaramantro 'samasamamantraḥ | (Conze 1967)
Note again that 呪 and 咒 are simple graphical variants with no difference in meaning or pronunciation. From these passages alone we can deduce that the passage in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra can only be a calque of T.251, in which Kumārajīva's basic text has been altered in  number of ways to be more like, but not identical to Xuanzang's text, including the switch from 明呪 to 呪, reading 明呪 as two characters, and addition of the epithet 神呪. Note that the CBETA punctuation is inconsistent.

The Shandong Inscription

The inscription published in the book by Wang and Ledderose is partial, but it holds enough clues to allow us to reconstruct the full inscription. The inscription was identified by Nobuyuki Takuma (2003) as being from the Small Perfection of Insight Sutra translated by Kumārajīva et. al. ca. 408 CE, i.e. the 《小品般若經》Xiǎopǐn bōrě jīng (T.227). Incidentally, Matthew Orsborn recently published an annotated translation of the first juan (about 2½ chapters) of this text.

The whole site has since been studied from an art history perspective by Ha Jungmin, whose PhD dissertation on the subject is available online courtesy of Duke University.

Entry on the Buddhist Stone Sutras in China website.


Mt. Sili 司里山 (Sīlì Shān) is one of many sites in Shandong Province (山東省) that feature Buddhist inscriptions and carving (Coordinates 36.011185, 116.124008)  The mountain was originally called Mt. Jiliang 脊梁山 (Mt. Backbone) or Mt. Liliang 立梁山 (Mt. Upright Ridge).

Mt. Sili is located between Lake Dongping (东平湖) 4km to the east and the Yellow River, which flows north about 6.3 km to the west. The peak is about 110 above the plain. On the peak is a large outcrop of rock in two parts (referred to as "boulders" in the art history literature).

The Inscription

The sutra texts are thought to have been engraved during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE) only to be destroyed when Buddhist figures were carved over them in the 11th Century. The south face of the eastern boulder is dominated by a seated Buddha that is 11 m in height (Ha 2016). 

After Wang and Ledderose (2014: 421)

A rubbing made of the remaining part of the inscription was taken in 1998. It gives us about 20 characters (with several partial characters).

Wang and Ledderose (2014: 424)

The rubbing now resides in the Shandong Stone Carving Art Museum in Jinan. The source text was identified by Takuma (2003) as being from Chapter 3 of the Xiǎopǐn by Kumārajīva. Below is the text laid out as it must have been (following Wang and Ledderose 2014: 422) with the surviving characters (some of which are partially obscured) in black and other characters in grey. Note the order here is standard Chinese: start at top right, work down.
三 呪 十 過 佛 羅 羅 羅 白
菩 得 方 去 言 蜜 蜜 蜜 佛
十 提 阿 現 諸 如 是 是 是 言
善 憍 耨 在 佛 是 無 無 大
道 尸 多 諸 未 如 等 上 明 尊
出 迦 羅 佛 來 是 等 呪 呪 般
現 因 三 亦 諸 憍 呪 般 般 若
於 是 藐 因 佛 尸 
[Indra, Lord of the Gods,] said this to the Buddha: "world honoured, the perfection of insight is great spell (vidyā), the perfection of insight is unsurpassed spell, is unequalled spell." The Buddha replied, "excellent, excellent, Kauśika... all past Buddhas... all future Buddhas... all present Buddhas of the ten directions, because of this spell, attain supreme perfect awakening. Kauśika, because of this spell, the tens modes of good action are now in the world..." (My translation)
This corresponds to Passage Two in Attwood (2017) which reinforces the conclusion that it was this passage, rather than Passage One that was copied into the Heart Sutra. And note that it conforms to the pattern of referring to the Buddhas of the three times that I note in Attwood (2018).

The Vedic god Indra plays a major role in early Buddhist tests as well as in the Prajñāpāramitā. In Buddhist texts Indra is typically referred to as "Śakra" in the 3rd person and "Kauśika" in the 2nd person. The expression 釋提桓因 corresponds to Śakro devānām indraḥ "Śakra, lord of the devas".

The text as it appears in the CBETA version of Taishō (T.227, Vol. 8) follows with the inscription text highlighted. We can see that the restored text is an abbreviation of the canonical text, where the redactor has mainly removed unnecessary repetition. However, leaving off the speaker at the beginning was a bit of a blunder.

543c04:三藐三菩提。 「憍尸迦!因是明呪,十善道出現於
We know that this is from the Xiǎopǐn because of the way the epithets are written.
T 224: 般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪
T 227: 般若波羅蜜是大明呪,般若波羅蜜是無上呪,般若波羅蜜是無等等呪
This configuration only appears in Passage Two of T 227. Note that 明呪 is abbreviated in the 2nd and 3rd epithets in the Xiǎopǐn. Kumārajīva was inconsistent in how he treated this passage in different places (unlike Xuanzang, who standardised it). In Passage One Kumārajīva translated 般若波羅蜜是大呪術、無上呪術。(Just two epithets and vidyā = 呪術). 

The different numbers of epithets may reflect differences in the source texts; however, three appears to be the standard configuration:

大明呪 = mahāvidyā
   無上明呪 = anuttarā vidyā 
   無等等明呪 = asamasamā vidyā

    The Date

    The sutra text is thought to date from the Northern Qi (550-577 CE) along with other carvings from that period at this site. There is no actual date on the epithets inscription. However, a votive carving of  Maitreya in a niche, about 20 cm in height, covers part of a nearby text and is clearly dated 561 CE. Thus the sutra carving here predates this and it is assumed that the sutra engravings are from the same period.

    The right top corner of Figure 5. Votive
    image and its inscription dated 561 CE
    The Northern Qi were one of several Chinese kingdoms at the time. The Qi were very open to Buddhism, but in 577 were conquered by the Northern Zhou who were hostile to Buddhism and persecuted Buddhists. A few years later the Zhou conquered South China and this led to the founding of a new pan-Chinese Sui Dynasty in 581. The Sui lasted only until 618, when the Tang Dynasty was founded by the Li family. The Tang continued till 907. The Heart Sutra was composed during the early Tang, between 656 and 661.


    Inscriptions of this kind are very common in China and, although there are some studies in Chinese, precious little of it has been available in English since Sinologists tend to be fluent in Chinese. Additionally, as with studies of the Fangchang inscriptions, the work is being done within the field of art history and not many Buddhists routinely keep up with this field. The silo mentality creates barriers to progress. Still the documentation in this series of books by Harrassowitz is welcome (other titles). The outsized format allows for large photographs. I'd be even more stoked if Buddhism Studies had not died out in Cambridge and there was some hope of seeing the other books in the series.

    The key thing about this inscription for scholars of the Heart Sutra, is that it shows that the epithets passage was circulating as an independent text by the middle of the 6th Century. Which helps to make sense of the incorporation of the passage in the Heart Sutra. That the inscription is taken from T.227 rather than T.223 (or T1509) does weaken the connection a little, but the differences are minor. The areas seems to have been associated with Prajñāpāramitā studies. 

    Despite the recent thesis by Ha Jungmin, we still don't really know much about the context of this site, since her focus is on other sites nearby. We do know that texts were carved and then later carved over with images. This suggests a change of emphasis, perhaps.

    Citing Robert F. Campany (1991: 28-72),  Ha (2016) explains,
    "the Perfection of Wisdom carvings at the Mt. Hongding and Mt. Sili sites were most likely regarded as talismans with magical powers that would ensure the enlightenment of Buddhahood to its creators."

    Vajrasamādhi Sūtra

    The other note that is contained in the commentary of Wang and Ledderose is that this same passage occurs in the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra 《金剛三昧經》(T 273), a text that was composed in Chinese language, in Korea in about 685 CE. The history of it is outlined by Robert Buswell (1989).

    The epithets in the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra go
    當知是法即是摩訶般若波羅蜜,是大神呪、是大明呪、是無上呪、是無等等呪。(T 9.371b12-14)
    "It should be known that this Dharma is only the great perfection of great insight, which is a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, an unequalled spell." 

    This is the version from the Heart Sutra (T.251) with the extra epithet, 大神呪. We know that the Heart Sutra was in existence by 661 CE. Although this does not tell us about the formation of the Heart Sutra, it does tell us that re-using sections of Buddhists texts was an ongoing process.

    We should never discount the role that serendipity plays in research nor that of physically browsing through libraries. I have unparalleled access to information from my desktop but there is no substitute for just walking around and picking up interesting books.



    Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). "‘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/155/180

    Attwood, Jayarava. (2018). "The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 15: 9-27.

    Buswell, Robert E. (1989), The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea: The 'Vajrasamadhi-Sutra', a Buddhist Apocryphon. Princeton University Press.

    Campany, Robert F. (1991) "Notes on the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sutra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14/1: 28–72.

    Ha, Jungmin (2016) Shaping Religious and Cultural Aspiration: Engraved Sutras in Southwestern Shandong Province from the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE), China. PhD. Dissertation. Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University. https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/12216/Ha_duke_0066D_13425.pdf

    Nattier, Jan (1992). "The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

    Takuma, Nobuyuki 田熊信之 (2003). “Hokuchō Magai Kokukyō to Andōichi” 北朝摩崖刻經と安道壹, Gakuen 學苑 749: 131-158.

    Wang, Yongbo and Ledderose, Lothar. (2014) Buddhist Stone Sutras in China. (Vol.1) Shandong Sheng  = Shandong Province. edited by Wang Yongbo and Lothar Ledderose.Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz; Hangzhou : China Academy of Art Press, 2014.

    Notes: 17 Aug 2019

    "The epithets are also found in the (Fó shuō) Guānfó sānmèi hǎi jīng 佛說觀佛三昧海經 (T 643). . According to my own research, the Guanfo sanmei hai jing (GSHJ) is very likely a Chinese apocryphal text. The GSHJ must have existed in the Chinese cultural area by the first half of the 5th century (see p. 425 of the attached paper)." (Yamabe email 17 Aug 2019)
    Yamabe, N. (2006). "Could Turfan be the Birthplace of Visualization Sūtras?" In Tulufanxueyanjiu yanjiu, Dierjie Tulufanxue Guoji Xueshu Yantaohui lunwenji, ed. Xinjiang Tulufan Diqu Wenwuju, (419-430), Shangai: Shangai Cishu Chubanshe. 
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