06 September 2019

Notes on the History of the Dàmíngzhòujīng

My article on the Fangshan Stele as the oldest dated Heart Sutra text is about to appear in the Journal of Chinese Buddhism. And it got me thinking about one of the other Heart Sutra texts. I've already written about the Sanskrit text transcribed in Chinese characters and accompanied by a modified version of the standard text (T 256). It's now attributed to Amoghavajra, but as with the others we don't really know who composed it. I have yet to write much about the Dàmíngzhòujīng, i.e. the 摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經 Móhēbōrěbōluómì-dàmíngzhòu-jīng (T 250). This is the text that is traditionally attributed as a translation by Kumārajīva. So what do we know about this text?

Dàmíngzhòujīng: Provenance

Like the Xīnjīng, the Dàmíngzhòujīng reuses several passages from Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation but, unlike the Xīnjīng, it has not been modified with terms drawn from Xuánzàng's lexicon. Also in the Xīnjīng version of the so-called "core passage", the copied passage starts a line later and a line has been removed from the middle. Dàmíngzhòujīng restores the line in the middle and starts one line earlier. The resulting text is much closer to Large Sutra translation completed by Kumārajīva in 404 CE than the Xīnjīng is. This led to the idea that the Dàmíngzhòujīng came first and the Xīnjīng is a modified version of it (something that is still part of the popular mythology of the Heart Sutra).

It is now widely believed by scholars that the Dàmíngzhòujīng was created relatively late. Watanabe Shōgo (1991) first drew the conclusion and later said in an (undated) interview:
"The theory that Kumarajiva's Heart Sutra is a spurious scripture [偽経] was suggested and it has become an established theory in the academic world at present." (translation by Jeffrey Kotyk)
The phrase 偽経 (gikyō) is the same one that is used by medieval Chinese bibliographers (i.e. 偽經 wěi jīng) for texts that they did not consider to be authentically Buddhist. I would probably adopt a more brusque tone and translate it as "fake text". Other modern authors have tended to adopt the more euphemistic term "apocryphal" (in various conjugations).

I can't read Japanese, but the arguments that the Dàmíngzhòujīng was not produced by Kumārajīva are not too difficult to tease out. It's not recorded amongst the works Kumārajīva is known to have translated. That said, a number of texts were falsely attributed to him for a time and have since been deprecated. Kumārajīva's translation process was very public. He would translate and comment on the texts during lectures, with the audience numbering in the hundreds. A lost Kumārajīva translation is very unlikely, whereas a spurious attribution is very likely. In addition, he is not known to have produced any digest texts (抄經), i.e. collections of reused passages that are supposed to convey the meaning of a larger text. And the Heart Sutra is certainly in that genre. Nor is the Dàmíngzhòujīng recorded in any of the dozen or so surviving bibliographies of Buddhist texts until the Kaiyuan Catalogue of 730 CE, i.e. the Dà táng kāiyuán shìjiào lù 《大唐開元釋教錄》 (Catalogue of Śākyamuṇi’s Teachings of the Kaiyuan Era of the Great Tang), compiled by Zhìshēng智昇  (T 2154). In order to fit these facts into the traditional myth of the Heart Sutra, some scholars conjectured that the Dàmíngzhòujīng was produced by one of Kumārajīva's students after his death. Perhaps his student Sēngzhào 僧肇 who was one of his principal collaborators (Liebenthal 1968). Sēngzhào's role was to listen to Kumārajīva's explanation of the text and write it down in elegant Chinese. He is one of the people responsible for the enduring appeal of Kumārajīva's translations. 

Everyone who ever wrote about the Xīnjīng (the standard Chinese Heart Sutra) in English tells us at the outset that this is probably the most beloved text in Mahāyāna Buddhism and that it is chanted daily in temples around the world. This popularity has never extended to the Dàmíngzhòujīng or, if it comes to it, to the Sanskrit fake produced in Tang Dynasty China.

I have conjectured that Dàmíngzhòujīng was only created to shore up support for the emerging myth of the Heart Sutra as a classic of Indian Prajñāpāramitā literature. It helps to fill out the back story. But the focus was always on the Xīnjīng (T 251)

I know the English language literature on the Heart Sutra quite well and the only serious discussion of the history of the Dàmíngzhòujīng that I know of occurs in Jan Nattier's 1992 article. And even that is quite sketchy. We know that the Dàmíngzhòujīng first appears in literary record in the Kaiyuan Catalogue in 730 but where are the physical examples of the Dàmíngzhòujīng and what is the oldest one? Why are there no images of the Dàmíngzhòujīng on the internet for example? (Search for "Dàmíngzhòujīng" or "Dàmíngzhòu jīng" and it's mainly my own work, such as it is). After attempting to search for information specific to this text and not finding anything, I began to try randomly asking the question online and sending emails to likely informants. And this led to some insights that I might never have got to on my own.

Ji Yun

Responding to my email, Ji Yun pointed out that the Dàmíngzhòujīng does not occur amongst the 100,000 or so Dunhuang manuscripts. This in itself is quite telling. Most of the texts there are from the 8th Century onwards. There were many Heart Sutra manuscripts at Dunhuang covering a variety of versions of the text in Chinese and Tibetan but the Dàmíngzhòujīng was not one of them. It did not travel beyond China.

Ji also consulted Huìlín’s (慧琳, 736-820)  一切經音義 Yīqièjīng yīnyì "Pronunciation and Meaning of All the Sūtras". This early dictionary of Chinese was begun in 649 by Xuanying 玄應 but completed by Huìlín in 807. Xuanying completed 25 chapters but the final version has 100. Xuanying was a contemporary of Xuanzang and worked with him.

The Yīqièjīng yīnyì lists two versions of the Heart Sutra one of which is attributed to Kumārajīva. However, Huìlín appears to be confused. The two texts he mentions are labelled:
  1. 《大明呪經》(前譯般若心經 慧琳音). Dàmíngzhòujīng (A previous translation of the Prajñāhṛdaya Sūtra. Entry by Huìlín)
  2. 《般若波羅多心經》(羅什譯 慧琳音). Bōrěbōluó[mi]duō xīnjīng (sic). (Translated by Kumārajīva. Entry by Huìlín). 
The tripiṭaka attributes Dàmíngzhòujīng to Kumārajīva and convention treats it as a "previous translation"; whereas the Xīnjīng is attributed to Xuanzang. Clearly, Huìlín is somewhat confused in his attributions. Along with each title are some associated words with guides to pronunciation and definitions. Just three terms are discussed and they don't add much to the picture. Thanks to my old friend Maitiu O'Ceileachair for advice on how to understand the dictionary entries.

Jason Protass

Jason Protass (Brown University), responding via Twitter, was also most helpful. He responded by looking through the older editions of the Chinese Tripiṭaka:
"an extant printed Damingzhoujing appears in the N. Song canon, and the sponsors colophon is dated 1085."
"The Damingzhoujing is in the catalog for the Kaibao canon 開寶藏, the first printed canon completed in 983, but is not among the surviving fascicles." (tweet)
Ji Yun also consulted a Chinese reference work that shows the Damingzhoujing occurs in all of the editions of the Tripiṭaka following the Kaibo Canon.

From the collection of Kunaichō shoryōbu, the Japanese Imperial Household Agency, we get some images from the Chongning Canon 崇寧藏, sometimes also referred to by the place of production, i.e. the Dongchan Temple (東禪寺) edition. Jason says it is dated between 1080 and 1112 CE (tweet). However, the date on this specific text is 元豐八年, i.e. the 8th year of the Yuanfeng era in the Song Dynasty or 1085 CE. The Dàmíngzhòujīng covers two pages, but in the accompanying image I have stitched them together using Photoshop.

Dàmíngzhòujīng as it occurs in the Chongning Canon 崇寧藏 (p. 17-18)
There is also a Stele from Fangshan (another one) from the Liao Dynasty (916–1125) which contains a copy of the Dàmíngzhòujīng along with the Xīnjīng. Several related pieces in the catalog are dated 1081 so it's probably from a similar period. I haven't yet had an opportunity to study the inscription, but it looks like this:

Buddhist Association of China (2000 VII: 399)


These may well be the earliest examples of the Dàmíngzhòujīng in existence. Both from about 300 years after the first literary reference and 400 years after the first physical evidence of the Xīnjīng. Please email me if you know of any earlier evidence (full credit will be given in any future publications on this subject).

Even given how periferal the Dàmíngzhòujīng was and is in Chinese Buddhism, the resources for this text are quite thin on the ground. No one has studied this text. I think maybe there is more information available in Chinese or Japanese sources, but my medieval Buddhist Chinese is not much help in reading modern Chinese and I don't know any Japanese. And here lies one of the problems in this field: information gets trapped in silos and those who could span the divide seem not to have much interest in doing so.

It would be very interesting to try to dig out all the Heart Sutras from all the extant canons and look at the variations!


As a footnote to my essay on svāhā, note that the Yīqièjīng yīnyì (807 CE) lists the spelling in T 250 as 僧婆訶 whereas Taishō has 僧莎呵 with no notes. However Chongning Canon 崇寧藏  (1085 CE) gives svāhā as 莎訶.


Buddhist Association of China and Chinese Buddhist Library. 中国佛教协会 / 中国佛教图书文物馆 (2000). Fangshan shi jing 房山石經 (30 Vols). Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe 華夏出版社.

Liebenthal, Walter (1968). Chao lun; the treatises of Sengzhao. A translation with introduction, notes, and appendices (2nd Rev. Ed). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Watanabe, Shōgo. (1991) 「般若心経成立論序説」 『仏教学』 “An introduction to the Theory on the Formation of the Prajñā-hridaya-sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Studies 31, (July): 41-86. [Japanese].

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