13 March 2020

On the Pronunciation of Jña

One of the pleasures of learning Sanskrit for an English speaker is that it is written almost exactly as it is pronounced. I say almost, because there are one or two irregularities. The most striking irregularity is probably the consonant cluster in jña. This comes out as gya, gnya, dya, dnya, and nya and at face value there is no rime or reason for this. However, it turns out to be a regional feature influenced by how languages deal with Sanskrit loan words.

In a Buddhist context this word is fairly common as it occurs in technical terms like vijñāna, saṃjñā, and prajñā as well as more general terms like jñāna and jñātavyam. Prajñāpāramitā texts use words deriving from the root √jñā very often, indeed. The meaning of jñā is relatively straight forward; it means: "knowledge" (noun) and "to know" (verb). But when one interacts with Sanskrits one realises that jña is pronounced in a number of more or less counter-intuitive ways, none of which reflect the written word. In this essay I will try to explain where these differences come from and try to identify how jña should be pronounced. I will argue that it should, like the rest of the language, be pronounced as written. My evidence will come from two main sources the reconstructed historical phonology of Sanskrit and the historical writing of Sanskrit.

We know that Sanskrit is part of the Indo-European family, an idea first proposed by William Jones in his famous address to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1786:
"The Sanskrit language whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists."
Note that the relationship is primarily based on similarities of grammar (the conjugations of the verbs and declensions of nouns), but one may also see it in cognate words, such as English know, Greek γνῶσις (gnōsis), Avestan: zan- (v. to know), and so on. Comparative linguistics allows us to compare existing languages and reconstruct the mother tongue of both. In the case of Sanskrit we can trace it back to a common root with Iranian languages, called Proto-Indo-Iranian (PII) , and then one step further to the common root Indo-Iranian and European languages called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The reconstructed phonology has a logic to it and is internally consistent but no recordings or documents of any kind exist. All that exists are daughter languages.



We think we have a fairly accurate idea of the phonology of attested ancient languages in the region of Iran and North Western India: Vedic, Old Persian, and Avestan. And we can match this to information about articulation - the physical motions and points of contact of the tongue, mouth, and throat that produce vocal sounds. We can also determine qualities such as whether the motion stopped the air flow completely (if briefly) or only partially. A consonantal stop or affricate requires the tongue to completely block the air flow momentarily, i.e. Sanskrit k g ṭ ḍ t d. A fricative does not completely block the air, i.e. Sanskrit j c v ś ṣ s h and creates a turbulent air flow that changes the timbre of the sound. There is also an approximant which constricts the airflow but not enough to create turbulence.

In addition, a vocal sound may be accompanied by vibrations of the vocal cords or not, which we call voiced (Skt: g j ḍ d b) and unvoiced (Skt: k c ṭ t p). Or the sound may resonate mainly in the nasal cavity which we call nasal (Skt: ṅ ñ ṇ n m).

The /j/ and /ñ/ sounds of Sanskrit are made with the blade of the tongue pressed against the hard palate and are thus called palatal (Skt: c ch j jh ñ). Further forward is the alveolar region which is where the palate merges into the gums. English speakers pronounce /t/ and /d/ by contact of the tip of the tongue on the alveolar. Sanskrit distinguishes a true dental, i.e. tongue touches the teeth (t th d dh n) and a retroflex, i.e. tongue curls back so the tip touches the edge of the hard palate (Skt: ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍha ṇ). Indians tend to hear our English alveolar consonants as retroflex. So "doctor" becomes डक्टर् ḍakṭar. When the back of the tongue contacts the soft palate we call these sound velar region (Skt: k kh g gh ṅ). 

Historical Phonology

The reconstructed articulation of PIE is largely settled, though there are some controversial aspects to it. Fortunately, we don't need to consider the controversial parts. In order to explain the palatal consonants in Vedic, Old Persian, and Avestan languages we need to postulate three palatals in PIE that in fact were pronounced somewhere between the palatal and velar: unvoiced palatovelar affricate, a voiced palatovelar affricateand an aspirated voiced palatovelar affricate: k̂, ĝ,  and ĝʰ (Burrow 1973). This notation is indicative of articulation rather than sound. As I understand it we cannot give precise pronunciations of these using the International Phonetic alphabet (I've found no sources that use IPA to notate PIE phonology).

To get to Sanskrit these sounds underwent two parallel processes of "palatalisation". In most cases these consonants drifted towards the front of the mouth slightly and became fricative. In the first palatalisation (using the notation from Burrow 1973) PIE: k̂ ĝ ĝʰ first became PII: ć ȷ́ ȷ́ʰ and then ś ź źʰ. At this point the PII language family started to break up.

In the Avestan form of Old Iranian these sounds became s z z. In the Persian form of Old Iranian ś and źʰ became θ and z, while from the earlier form ȷ́ we get (directly) d. Similarly in Vedic ś and źʰ become ś and h, while from ȷ́ we get j. We also see j deriving another way, which is evident in some sandhi differences, but exploring this would take me too far from my aim to explore jñā. The j in jñā derived this way.

Sanskrit jñā is cognate with Avestan zan- and Old Persian dān-. Note the insertion of a vowel between the initial consonant and the nasal. This is something we also see in practice in Sanskrit. The verbal form of the root jñā is jānāti, though we also see jñāta, jñātumjñātva, and ;jñāyate.

We can now start to put some more precise values on these sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA is conventionally put in square brackets). The "palatals" in Sanskrit are c ch j jh ñ, but in IPA notation are actually alveolo-palatal and in IPA are written: [tɕ] [tɕʰ] [dʑ] [dʑʱ] [ɲ]

If you want to know how these sound, cut and paste the symbol into a search on YouTube. Each one is demonstrated in a short video
Here we are focused on the voiced palatals.
[ʒ] voiced post-alveolar fricative
[dʒ] voiced post-alveolar affricate
[dʑ] voiced alveolo-palatal affricate
[dʑʱ] breathy voiced alveolo-palatal affricate
[j]   voiced palatal approximant
[ɟ]   voiced palatal affricate
[ɲ]  voiced palatal nasal
[nʲ] or [ɲ̟] voiced palatised nasal

We would expect jña to be pronounced [dʑɲɐ] or [ɟɲɐ] (most sources seem to prefer the latter). As noted above, jña is almost never pronounced this way. Ashok Aklujkar points out, in his Sanskrit textbook, that this is partly due to regional variations in India and partly due to Anglisation. Other authors point out that words like jñāna were taken into modern languages as loan words and that this is the source of regional variants.

In the yellow and orange coloured regions, and in Panjab, the pronunciation is /gya/. In the green and red regions and Sinh, it is /dnya/, although in Gujarat it is /gnya/. South India has a mixture. English speakers often opt for /nya/. We can organise these variants: 
jña→ g ña (gnya)→ gya
→ d ña (dnya)→ dya
→ ña (nya)
[ɟɲɐ]→ [g nʲɐ]→ [gʲɐ]
→ [d nʲɐ]→ [dʲɐ]
→ [nʲɐ]
The change from [ɟ] → [g] is a move back in the mouth towards the velar articulation while the change from [ɟ] → [d] is a move forward towards the alveolar. These are clearly different processes and one could not lead to the other. However, with the shift in the initial consonant, the nasal changes from the plain palatal nasal [ɲ] to the voiced palatised nasal [nʲ]. This is why we see it written as "nya". In fact, what happens is the tongue makes contact at the alveolar ridge and rolls back along the palate. In Sanskrit we'd say it was ī blending into a (or a backwards diphthong ai). Phonetically we'd write the vowel change as [ɨ] → [ɐ]. In a sense, then, [nʲɐ]  sounds like [ɲɨɐ].

We can infer that gya [gʲɐ] could be a simplified version of gnya [g nʲɐ]. Thus the Gujaratis who pronounce jñā as gnya [g nʲɐ] are probably conservative with respect to the northern and eastern Indians who have reduced this to gya. Since English speakers have difficulty with [ɟɲə] they simply reduced it to [nʲə]. Pāli generally reduced conjunct consonants to geminate consonants thus jña becomes ñña. But the ñ is pronounced by English speakers as a palatalised nasal not as patal, i.e. as [nʲə] rather than [ɲə], hence names like Nyanaponika (Ñāṇapoṇika) and Nyanamoli (Ñāṇamoḷi).

Since old Persian contains the regular change [dʒ] →  [d] we might suspect from Persian influence on the modern regional pronunciation in parts of India most influenced by the later Persians. However, this does not quite add up since Persian speaking Mughals also ruled in Delhi where /gya/ is standard.

On this to keep in mind is that in Latin -gn- was pronounced [ŋn], i.e. they did not pronounced gnōsis as /g-nosis/ but as /no-sis/ (like Skt ṅosis). However, the sandhi rules of Sanskrit tend to rule out this possibility.


All spoken languages exhibit changes in pronunciation as words and sounds run together. Some of the languages that use a phonetic writing system notate them and some don't. Sanskrit does and there are a set of rules called sandhi (joining). In classical Sanskrit the rules are compulsory and applied uniformly, but in vernacular languages they became more optional. Madhav Deshpande pointed out to me (in an email) that certain sandhi involving j make it clear that it was heard as [ɟ] even in the conjunct .

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra gives us an excellent example. Towards the end it says "therefore it should be known", in Sanskrit without sandhi: tasmāt jñātavyam; with sandhi tasmāj jñātavyam. The rule is t followed by t becomes j. Similarly in the Mahābharata (179.1) we see  tasmāj jīvo nirarthakaḥ "Therefore this life is useless", and in the Bhagavatā Purāṇa (11.19.5) we see tasmāj jñānena "therefore by this knowledge",

The rules are very specific and became part of the language long before they were codified by Pāṇini ca 4th Century BCE. This tells us that the j in jña was being heard as [ɟ] in Sanskrit when the rule was made or else an exception would be noted.


Another potential source of information is Chinese transliterations. Prajñā, for example, was a word that was generally transliterated rather than translated. The transliteration was established early on, by Lokakṣema ca 179 CE, as 般若; however, this was based on Gāndhārī texts. In modern Buddhist circles this is pronounced bōrě although the standard Pinyin transliteration is bānruò. The Middle Chinese reconstruction is complex. There are multiple choices and multiple encoding systems.

  • 般 has been reconstructed as /puɑn/ or /pʷɑn/ or /pan/ or /pɐn/.
  • 若 has been reconstructed as /ȵɨɐk̚/. The symbol ȵ is mainly used in Sinological circles and represents the alveolo-palatal nasal, i.e. [nʲ].

The Gāndhāri spelling of prajñā was praṃña or praña (c.f. Pāḷi paññā) And thus we can see that the standard Chinese transliteration presents a Prakrit pronunciation without the conjunct. Unfortunately, it was never updated to reflect the Sanskrit pronunciation when Sanskrit texts started to appear. And thus we cannot use the Chinese to reconstruct the received pronunciation at any later period.


Since Sanskrit is usually pronounced as written we can also look at historical writing to see what it tells us. In modern Devanāgarī the akṣaras for ja and ña combine to form a special sign for the conjunct jña, i.e. ज् + ञ > ज्ञ. Hiralal Rasikdas Kapadia (1936: 289), an expert on Jaina literature, points out that there are two types of Devanāgarī and the Jaina variant as another way of writing jña. In the Jaina variant we get more of a sense of the conjunct. This becomes clearer in old Indian scripts.

Older scripts make a clear distinction between the j and the ña when writing jñā. A good point of reference for us is the Hōryūji manuscript which probably dates from the 8th Century. This manuscript contains a syllabary. The image on the right shows the palatals: ca cha ja jha ña.

We can also isolate the akṣara jñā from this manuscript and see that it has two quite distinct ligatures and is thus written as a conjunction of j and ñā. Note that when written as a ligature the shape of ña is quite different. Also, the scribe has adapted the the basic ja shape in order to indicate the long vowel ā. I will provide some handwritten examples that make the process clearer.

In the collection of akṣaras below I try to show the evolution of ja from Brahmī which gives us two distinct forms of ja, one of which informs the Devanāgarī script and one of which is preserved in Japanese Siddham.

Left to right: Brahmī, Gupta, Siddham (Hōryūji ms.);
upper: Siddham and alternate; jñā (Hōryūji);
lower: Nāgarī, Devanāgarī.

In the formal Siddham script of medieval Japan, the ñā ligature is often written vertically, but this makes for a very tall character. The Hōryūji scribe turns the ligature through 90°. Here are some original and copied examples of jña and jñā. In modern Siddham we often see jña written for jñā.

Some of this is superfluous detail, but it makes the point that until the invention of the (non-Jaina) Devanāgarī script jñā was written as a standard conjunct made of ja and ña. Had the Sanskrit pronunciation been meant to be something else, then the scribes would have used another akṣara.
Note: 18 March 2020. The Creation and Spread of Scripts in Ancient India. Harry Falk


On the grounds of historical phonology, sandhi, and graphology we can say that jña was intended to be pronounced [ɟɲɐ]. The sandhi rule for tasmāt jñātavyam makes it clear that at some point this was the pronunciation and there was no parallel of the Latin pronunciation of [ŋn] for gn. The regional pronunciations are logical developments from an original [ɟɲɐ] and influenced by the use of Sanskrit loan words. However, we don't really know why the pronunciation changed, only that it did. 

For Indian pandits and academic Sanskritists alike, the pronunciation they learned from their teachers will likely be the way they keep pronouncing it. Furthermore, the sound combination [ɟɲɐ] is difficult for English-speakers and they will inevitably tend to drop the [ɟ] and end up with [ɲɐ] or [nʲɐ]. So probably few will follow me in adopting [ɟɲɐ]. And thus all this is for nought. But I find it fascinating and it has kept me amused for a week. It was nice to get my calligraphy pens out again after a long break. In these difficult times, that's not a bad thing, eh? 



Burrow, T. (1973). The Sanskrit Language (3rd edition). London: Faber and Faber.

Kapadia, H. R. (1936). 'A Note on Kṣa and Jña.' Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. 17(3), 1935-36: 289-296.

21 February 2020

Jingtai's Catalogue: Wu Zhao and Digest Texts

Carving Buddhist texts in stone was a very popular activity in China. The series, Buddhist Stone Sutras in China, is a set of large format books with images, transcriptions, and commentary on inscriptions in rock faces and on stone tablets from various places in China (Sichuan and Shandong provinces so far). The details of the inscriptions are accompanied by essays by experts in the field that help to explain the significance of them. 

One essay of considerable interest to me, in Vol 3 (Sichuan, Wofoyuan C) is by leading Prajñāpāramitā researcher Stefano Zacchetti (the cch is pronounced like k), Professor of Buddhist Studies at Oxford University. At the site known as Wofo Yuan 臥佛院, Anyue 安岳 County in Sichuan there are many Buddhist texts carved into the rock faces and cave walls. The opening sentence of the essay sets us up nicely:
At the Grove of the Reclining Buddha (Wofoyuan 臥佛院), cave 46 contains, among other texts, an incomplete carving of scrolls 1–2 of the Catalog of All Canonical Scriptures (Zhongjing mulu 眾經目錄; T#2148, 55: 180c–218a; hereafter: Jingtai’s Catalog), composed during the second half of the seventh century by the Monk Jingtai 靜泰 (fl. 660– 666).

In this image of a rubbing of the first panel of text of Jingtai's Catalogue we can see the first column on the right is the title of the preface:  大唐東京大敬愛寺一切經論目序 Preface of the Catalogue of All Scriptures of the Great Jing'ai Monastery, Eastern Capital, Great Tang and the first character of the attribution 釋靜泰撰, "composed by Bhikṣu Jìngtài"

The presence of a scriptural catalogue or bibliography amidst a collection of mainly sutra inscriptions is remarkable. Why did anyone feel the need to set this rather utilitarian document in stone? We understand that narratives of the end of the Dharma (末法 mòfǎ) drove the monks at Cloud Dwelling Temple (雲居寺) to carve sūtras in stone to preserve them for posterity. But carving a catalogue is less easy to understand. However, for the story that I would like to tell, the why of it is not very relevant.

In trying to explain the presence of the catalogue at Wofoyuan, Zacchetti touches on two distinct aspects of my Heart Sutra research: firstly, it expands on the role of Wu Zhao (aka Wu Zetian) in Buddhism during the period that the Heart Sutra was composed and passed off as a genuine sūtra, and secondly it touches on the Chinese penchant for making digest texts (抄經 chāo jīng) and the ways in which bibliographers catalogued them.

Jingtai and the Catalogue of All Canonical Scriptures

As Zacchetti explains, we know very little about Jingtai the man. He is not mentioned in the mainstream biographies of monks, but he is mentioned in a minor work on Buddhist controversies (T 2104) by Dàoxuān 道宣 (596-667 CE). Almost as an afterthought, Daoxuan includes some biographical details about Jingtai: he was originally from Luoyang; he caught the attention of Emperor Gaozong, who after being unable to persuade him to disrobe and join the government, offering him the title of Dade (大德 = Skt bhadanta) at Jing'ai monastery (敬愛寺). Other sources confirm that Jingtai held this title. Gaozong also commissioned a new catalogue of Buddhist texts from Jingtai. Daoxuan is not entirely flattering to Jingtai, describing him as witty and eloquent but with relatively superficial knowledge of the Dharma (79 n.415). Jingtai was probably involved in a project to copy the entire Buddhist canon as it existed at that time (80).

I think we have to pause and consider the actual role of Gaozong after he married Wu Zhao in 655 and made her Empress Consort. Their marriage cemented a partnership that ended a long running internal power struggle that had begun during the reign of Emperor Taizong. The adult Wu Zhao was no shrinking violet, but rather a proactive and shrewd political operative and, more to the point, a Buddhist who was quite ready to use the Buddhist church as leverage against the Confucian bureaucracy. By the time Jingtai's catalogue was published, Gaozong had suffered his first bout of debilitating illness and Wu Zhao was the de facto ruler of China. Jingtai might have had orders via the Emperor, but they almost certainly came from Wu Zhao.

Whoever was behind it, Jingtai's catalogue was produced and survives down to the present. Like other early medieval bibliographers, Jingtai struggled with the issues involved in creating a catalogue at that time.
"Jingtai's preface starts with an interesting discussion of the structure of catalogs and their function in distinguishing genuine parts of the canon from the overgrowth of apocrypha and excerpts, which ought to be weeded out." (Zacchetti: 79)
A translation of that preface is a desideratum. Jingtai makes a comparison with the catalogue completed two years earlier in Chang'an by Dàoxuān 道宣 at Ximing Monastery 西明寺. Daoxuan authored the 《大唐內典錄》Dàtáng nèidiǎn lù "Great Tang Catalog of Texts" aka the Neidian Catalogue (664 CE).
"According to Daoshi's 道世 (?-683) Pearl Grove in the Garden of the Law (Fayuan zhulin 法苑珠林), the Jing'ai Monastery was established in the new capital of Luoyang as a counterpart of the Xi-ming Monastery, the famous monastic institution in Chang'an, which had been founded by the Emperor in 656 for the welfare of Li Hong 李弘 (652-675), Empress Wu Zhao's 武曌 (r. 684-705) son, who had just been nominated Crown Prince." (Zacchetti: 80) (Note: on Daoshi's Grove of Pearls, see Hsu 2018)
It's important to note that Gaozong himself was not particularly religious and was probably not a Buddhist. His father had been decidedly anti-Buddhist. But Wu Zhao was a practising Buddhist (despite her purported penchant for murder) and in the 680s Buddhist monks sided with her in the divisions that ripped the court apart over Wu's wielding power through her sons and her eventual ascension to the throne. The Jing'ai Monastery played a key role in this. However, in the 650s, Wu's goals were unlikely to include direct rule. Having her son on the throne was probably the acme of her ambition. This may have changed after Gaozong began to suffer periodic bouts of illness that left Wu Zhao running the state. However, it was Wu Zhao who advocated for moving the capital from Chang'an to Luoyang, which happened ca 657 CE. Tradition has it that she was trying to escape being haunted by the ghost of one (or more) of her victims.

Jing'ai Monastery in Luoyang was founded in Jan 657-Feb 658, nominally by Li Hong for the benefit of his parents. It was built on the same plan as Ximing. When Wu Zhao took the imperial throne in 690, she renamed Jing'ai the Monastery of the Buddha's Prophecy (佛授記寺 Fo shouji Si), but after her reign it reverted to the earlier name. As part of the activities surrounding Li Hong's becoming Crown Prince, both the Ximing and Jing'ai Monasteries untook to make a complete copy of the Buddhist canon (as it existed at the time).

Jingtai was ordered to produce his catalogue on March 6 663, although a revision was ordered in February 664 possibly to incorporate newly finished translations by Xuanzang. The catalogue took three years to complete and was presented in 666 CE. It included 816 scriptures in 4,066 scrolls, but acknowledged 382 "missing texts" in 725 scrolls, that were not to be found in the libraries of Luoyang.

The two catalogues were organised along very different lines. Jingtai followed Yancong (彥琮) in having a layered taxonomic approach. Daoxuan followed Fei Changfang in organising the texts primarily chronologically by Dynasty.

Adding these details, which as far as I know are not mentioned in any history of the Heart Sutra helps to give our understanding of the time period. The view of history that Buddhists present tends to be one dimensional and there are few if any tensions in the unified Tang Empire. But as I've read more Chinese history it has become apparent that division and contention were ever present and that Buddhists took sides in these conflicts. The 6th Century bibliographer, Sengyou, wrote
"As for perverse Confucianists who abide by literature, they keep their distance [from Buddhism] because it is considered heathen. The honey-tongued heretics (i.e., Daoists) adopt [Buddhism] in their teaching and consider both to be the same teaching." (Ziegler 2015: 24)
With this we now move to the second aspect of Zacchetti's essay, how Jingtai treated digest texts.

Digest Texts and the Heart Sutra in Jingtai's Catalogue

The whole of scroll 3 and a large part of scroll 4 of the catalogue (not inscribed at Wofoyuan) are devoted to separately produced (別生) texts, that is to say "excerpts extracted from larger scriptures and circulating as independent texts (於大部內鈔出別行)" (Zacchetti 82). I have written about these before as digest texts (抄經 chāo jīng). Interestingly, Jingtai makes an effort to identify the larger sutras from which the extracts are made. Jingtai makes it clear that he does not consider such texts part of the Canon and they were not to be included in the Canon copying project (Zacchetti 83).

Jingtai's Catalogue (T 2148; vol 55) adopts a taxonomic scheme that has similarities to previous catalogues, particular the catalogue produced by Yancong in 602 (T 2147). The other main organisational principle used in China was chronological (based on dynastic succession). Jingtai employed a total of seven categories, the first three of which make up the "canon".

1. 單本 - Single translations. One-off translations and first translations.
2. 重翻 - Retranslations (other translations of the same text).
Each of which was divided into sub-categories
大乘經 - Mahāyāna sūtra
大乘律 - Mahāyāna vinaya
大乘論 - Mahāyāna commentary
小乘經 - Hīnayāna sūtra
小乘律 - Hīnayāna vinaya
小乘論 - Hīnayāna commentary

3. 賢聖集傳 "Collection Traditions of the Saints" is a standalone category considered to be translations.

4. 別生 Separately produced, that is, what Zacchetti calls "excerpts" and what I call "digests". This category also has several subcategories.
大乘別生 - Mahāyāna separately produced
大乘別生抄 - Mahāyāna separately produced extract
小乘別出生 - Hīnayāna separately produced
小乘別生抄 - Hīnāyāna separately produced extract
別集抄 Suspected as being spurious
眾經別生 Miscellaneous separately produced scriptures

5. 眾經疑惑 Miscellaneous dubious scriptures
6. 眾經偽妄 Miscellaneous false scriptures
7. 闕本 - Missing texts. These were texts that Jingtai had reason to believe should exist, but which could not be found in his library.

Note that the catalogue refers to the size of manuscripts in 紙 zhǐ "pages". These were roughly standardised sheets of paper 21 cm in width and between 41 and 48.5 cm in length, glued together as a strip and rolled into a scroll (Zürcher 313, n 54). They give a much better idea of the size of a manuscript, although as with all manuscripts the amount of text that could fit on a sheet was highly dependent on the scribe's handwriting. 

The following Prajñāpāramitā text translations are listed by Jangtai:

Single Translations

大乘經單本 (Mahāyāna Sūtra Single Translations)
  • 大般若波羅蜜多經 (六百卷一萬二千紙) 唐世玄奘於玉華譯 (181c21-22) Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra (600 scrolls; 12,000 sheets) Xuanzang, T 220 completed in 663.
  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜經 (四十卷或三十卷六百十九紙) 後秦鳩摩羅什共僧叡等於長安逍遙園譯一名大品 (181c23-25) Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (30 or 40 scrolls; 619 sheets) Later Jin, Kumārajīva with Sēngruì et al. in Chang'an, Xiaoyao Garden [Kumārajīva's translation institute] one named Great Section 大品. (T. 223).
  • 勝天王般若波羅蜜經 (七卷一百二十一紙) 陳世月支國王子婆首那於楊州譯(182b03-4) Devarāja-pravara-prajñāpāramitā trans Upaśuṇya (T. 231).
  • 仁王般若經 二卷(二十八紙) (183b04) Karunikaraja-prajnaparamita-sutra (27 pages) Trans Kumārajīva? (T 245)
  • 文殊師利說般若波羅蜜經 一卷(二十二紙) 梁天監年曼陀羅譯 (184a19-20) *Mañjuśrī-pratibhātu-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. (1 scroll, 22 sheets)
  • 般若多心經 (一卷一紙) (185a02) Gnosis Heart Sūtra (1 scroll; 1 sheet) Digest text composed 656 CE, by Xuanzang.
大乘論單本 Mahāyāna commentary Single Translations
  • 般若燈論 (十五卷二百四十二紙) 唐貞觀年波頗蜜多等於勝光寺譯 (185b21-2) Prajñāpradīpa-mūlamadhyamaka-vṛtti (15 scrolls, 242 sheets) T 1566. Translation by Prabhākaramitra in 630-632
  • 金剛般若經論 (三卷四十七紙) 後魏世菩提留支譯 (185c17) Diamond Sūtra Commentary by Vasubandhu. Trans Bodhiruci 509.
  • 金剛般若論 (二卷僧佉菩薩造二十八紙) 隋大業年達摩 (185c25) Diamond Sūtra commentary by Asaṅga,. Trans Dharmagupta 613.


  • 放光般若波羅蜜經 (三十卷 或二十卷四百六十紙) 晉元康元年無羅叉共竺叔蘭於陳留譯 (189b02-3) Shining Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra (460 sheets, possibly T221 by Mokṣala (291 CE)
  • 光讚般若波羅蜜經 (十卷或十五卷二百一十五紙) 晉太康年竺法護譯右二經同本異譯。(189b04-6) Bright Stotra Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, (215 sheets) possibly T222 《光讚經》a partial Large Sutra translation by Dharmarakṣa (286 CE)
  • 道行般若波羅蜜經 (十卷一百六十五紙) 後漢元和年支謙譯 (189b07-8) *Dharmacārya-prajñā-sūtra, T 224 (Lokakṣema)
  • 小品般若經 (十卷或八卷一百五十四紙) 後秦弘始年羅什譯 (189b11-12) Smaller Prajñāpāramitā Sutra T227 (154 sheets) by Kumārajīva (1st Year of Hong, Later Qin, i.e. ca 400-1 CE) Usually dated 408 CE.
  • 金剛般若經 (一卷舍衛國十二紙) 後秦弘始年羅什譯 (192c19) Diamond Sūtra. (12 sheets) Trans Kumārajīva (also Later Qin, First Year of Hong) usually dates 402 CE.
  • 金剛般若波羅蜜經 (一卷婆伽婆十四紙) 後魏世菩提留支譯 (192c20-21)  Trans Bodhiruci, T236 509 CE.
  • 金剛般若經 (一卷祇樹林十四紙) 陳世真諦譯 (192c22) Trans Paramārtha, T237 (562 CE)
  • 能斷金剛般若經 (一卷十九紙) 唐世玄奘譯 右四經同本異譯。(192c23-4) trans. Xuanzang (1 scroll, 19 pages) [seemingly separate from his magnum opus] Jingtai comments that this is the best of the four (右四) alternative translations.
  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜經鈔長安品 (五卷一名須菩提品一名長安品經八十三紙) 前秦建元年沙門曇摩埤共竺佛念譯 (196a08-10) Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra - transcribed in Chang'an Section (5 scrolls, one named "Subhūti Section", one named "Chang'an Section Sutra"; 83 pages) trans Former Jin, 1st year of 建 (ca 343 CE), by 曇摩埤 *Dharmapriya with 竺佛念 Zhú Fóniàn = T 226?


  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經 (一卷) (197a02)
  • 般若波羅蜜神呪經 (一卷) (197a03)
These are the shen zhou texts mistakenly believed to be early, now lost, translations of the Heart Sutra. The titles trace back to three decades before Kumārajīva translated the Large Sutra (T 223), and the Heart Sutra as we know it copies passages from that text, so these can not be the same. Also, the Heart Sutra is already listed above distinct from these two texts.

Suspected of being fake

遺曰說般若經 (一卷) 後漢世支讖譯 (213b.03)
道行般若經 (二卷) 晉世衛士度譯 (217c.21)
These could be translations by Lokakṣema (支婁迦讖; fl. ca. 168-186). The first is possibly a version of 《佛說遺日摩尼寶經》 (T 350) while 《道行般若經》is the title of T224 translated in 179 CE and now widely considered to be an authentic translation by Lokakṣema.
Note that there is a separate translation of the Diamond Sutra by Xuanzang, which is traditionally said to have been made in 648-9 (according to the Biography by Yancong, a document that several of us have cast doubt on recently). Jingtai comments that this is the "best of the four alternative translations from different sources" (右四經同本異譯; T 2148; 55.192c23-4) although then and now Kumārajīva's translation was the most popular. Perhaps he means it is the best other than Kumārajīva's translation which is listed as a "single translation".

I've been puzzling over Yàncóng 彥悰. In the first place a Yancong produced a catalogue of Buddhist scriptures in 602 CE. In the second place Yancong was a younger contemporary of Xuanzang who produced a biography of him in 688 CE. This means there must have been (at least) two separate people with this name. This is probably obvious to everyone but me. 

The Heart Sutra is unequivocally treated as an authentic Mahāyāna Sūtra by Jingtai (T 2148; 55.185a02) and yet digest texts are excluded from the Canon. Note that Jingtai does not list any missing translations of the Heart Sutra, nor does he list any alternative translations. The text is singular and not attributed to a translator. Other texts by Xuanzang are clearly marked as such, including the extra translation of the Diamond Sutra not included in T 220. The 神呪 or shen zhou texts are not confused with the Heart Sutra and are listed as digest texts (they are sometimes said to be early, now lost, translations of the Heart Sutra but this is not possible because the titles predate Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation from which the Heart Sutra copies passages).

Given the gist of Zacchetti's article, it would be interesting to look at Daoxuan's catalogue of the Ximing library and compare them with Yancong's catalogue which they were influenced by. However, Daoxuan's catalogue is organised on a very different basis and contains multiple entries for each text which makes a direct comparison with his catalogue more difficult.


I'm becoming quite fascinated by Wu Zhao (aka Wu Zetian) and her possible role in the history of the Heart Sutra. As much as anything because modern histories of the text simply don't mention her at all, despite the fact that she is the most important political figure of the mid-late 7th Century when Xuanzang was actively translating and writing. I'm not a feminist, but I am keenly aware that women get written out of history for bad reasons. A revised history with disruptive women, skullduggery, and deception seems infinitely more interesting to me than a traditional history only populated with one dimensional, saintly male characters.

Also, a close reading of the essay has caused me to look again at the notes in Jan Nattier's article where they cross over with the bibliographical tradition. Nattier notes, with comments from Alan Sponberg (who I know as Dharmacārin Saramati), that Kuījī sees the Heart Sutra as "separately produced". It is now possible to see that Kuījī has adapted a jargon term from the bibliographic tradition. This makes it clear that he knew that the Heart Sutra was a digest text and thus not a sūtra and importantly not a translation. Since Nattier does not join the final dots on this, I'm now in the process of writing it up for publication. 

Revising the history is vitally important for understanding the Heart Sutra, since history provides the context in which it existed. And modern English-speaking Buddhists have been short-changed when it comes to the history of Buddhism and the history of Chinese Buddhism in particular. We've been fed a bowdlerised version of history designed to suite a modernist palette: no magic, no deception, no superstition (except where it makes foreigners look stupid). A thorough revision of traditional accounts is overdue. 

It seems to me increasingly that insights lie at the intersections of fields. The intersections of history, bibliography, philology, and hermeneutics are where I am making new discoveries on a regular basis. There is so much work to still be done on the Heart Sutra. Most of it requires a much better knowledge of Middle Chinese than I possess or ever will possess. I can only hope that my work inspires some bright young thing to dive into this material and come up with gold. My 7th peer reviewed article is due out in May 2020 and I feel sure that I have only just scratched the surface. 



Hsu, Alexander Ong. (2018). Practices of Scriptural Economy: Compiling and Copying a Seventh-century Chinese Buddhist Anthology. [Dissertation]. The University of Chicago, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. 

Zacchetti, Stefano. (2016). 'The Catalog of All Canonical Scriptures', in Claudia Wenzel and Sun Hua (eds.), Buddhist Stone Sutras in China – Sichuan Province, volume 3 Wofoyuan Section C: 65-96. Wiesbade: Harrassowitz Verlag – Hangzhou: China Academy of Arts Press.

Ziegler, Harumi Hirano. (2015). The Collection for the Propagation and Clarification of Buddhism, Vol. I. [Trans of Hongming ji (弘明集), T 2102]. BDK America.

Zürcher, Erik. (2013). Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher. Brill.

07 February 2020

Texts and Historiography: The Case of Xuanzang

Following hot on the heels of my recent article about the historiography of Xuanzang, comes a new article by my longtime online friend, Dr Jeffrey Kotyk. His main subject these days is astrology in ancient China, but his latest article is on Chinese historiography - the writing of history.
Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2020). ‘Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳’. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. https://brill.com/view/journals/tpao/105/5-6/article-p513_1.xml
My intention here is to discuss his article rather than reviewing it. Kotyk is a knowledgeable Sinologist who has frequently assisted me with insights into Chinese Buddhism and language. Over the last couple of years we have often corresponded about the Heart Sutra and more recently on Xuanzang's association with it; although we come at from different angles, we are largely in agreement about the main points. I will outline the main points and draw out the threads that most clearly relate to my work, interspersing some of my own observations.


In particular, as his title suggests, Kotyk studied the contrasting pictures of Xuanzang (602-664 CE) painted by different sources. The principle sources for Xuanzang's life are the biography by Yancong published in 688 and Xuanzang's own account of his travels to the West (629-645 CE) published soon after his return. Another important source is Daoxuan's biography, initially composed between 646 and 649 and surviving in two recensions, one of which was revised by Daoxuan and another by an unknown hand after Xuanzang's death. In addition there are a number of state histories, compiled by state historians who were educated in the Confucian classics.  These were official histories focussed on the activities of the Emperor and were not without their own biases, but their biases were very different from the biases of Buddhists. Comparing the various versions of history allows Kotyk to pick out the most plausible elements of each.

The stories that most people are familiar with come largely from the Yancong biography. Kotyk critiques the attribution of this work, concluding that Yancong is the principle author and that although Huili is named as having initiated the project some aspects of this account are doubtful. The popular stories of Xuanzang's life can be described as based on a true story but in many ways they reflect religious sympathies in the decades after Xuanzang died, when Wu Zetian was the de facto ruler of China. After the death of her husband, Gaozong, she went on to become emperor in her own right. Yancong's biography was published in 688, just two years before Wu Zetian took the throne and became the first and only female Emperor. Buddhists were taking part in court factionalism on the side of Wu Zetian. 

Kotyk and I both reference work by Max Deeg that suggests that the Travelogue is similarly affected by politics and in particular by Xuanzang's (probably futile) efforts to win Emperor Taizong over to Buddhism. The close personal relationship between Emperor Taizong and Xuanzang is a feature of the religious biographies precisely because it raises the perceived status of both Xuanzang and of Buddhism more generally. Buddhism "the foreign religion" was popular, but continued to vie with Confucianism and Daoism for imperial sponsorship and suffered periodic purges (especially when the wealth of Buddhists became a drag on the economy of China).

Jeffrey is critical of the idea that if we just strip all the obviously fictional material out of hagiographies we will arrive at something like history. This is a theme in John Kieschnick's book The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Kotyk quotes Kieschnick as observing that “scholars have concentrated on winnowing out such fabulous elements in an attempt to uncover a factual core.” He further notes that this process “is crucial if we are to understand what a given monk really said and did at a particular place and time.” However, in his conclusion, Kotyk also notes that Kieschnick warns that “attempts to strip stories of legendary materials meet with only limited success.” 

Kotyk shows that in the case of Xuanzang stripped back stories do not lead to an accurate picture of Xuanzang's life. This is an important observation in the broader context of Buddhist historiography, because the method is very popular, especially with respect to the early Buddhist texts. Many historians have attempted to strip out the more fabulous and fantastical elements of the Buddha's biography, for example, and declared that what they leave behind is something like objective history. Where we do have external confirmation we know this method to be unreliable. 

In the well documented case of Xuanzang, we happen to have multiple sources from multiple (competing) view points. Xuanzang's actual story has been adapted, within a few decades of his death, for religious and/or political purposes. And this in a literate culture with a penchant for carving words in stone. What this case shows is that, even if we take out the myths, what remains can still be fictional, or merely based on a true story. Without the benefit of records from other communities with other values, we cannot rely on a single body of literature produced by a religious community as historical documents.

This is not an entirely new observation. The unreliability of, for example, the Pāli texts has been repeatedly commented on. But this does not stop certain scholars from using this method and proclaiming what they discover as a result to be evidence of the historical Buddha. Kotyk notes that the same happens with respect to Xuanzang; i.e., the religious accounts are given much more credence than they deserve in academia. It is almost as though scholars of Buddhism become blind to the rhetorical uses to which texts can be put. Somehow it is assumed that Buddhists are far removed from such mundane affairs as politics. 

Let me assure the reader that Buddhists are no better than ordinary people. If any indication of this were needed, just start counting up all the "enlightened masters" who have had to step down in disgrace over their sex, alcohol, or bullying. The list is long and just as long in traditional settings, though there such disgraces are more likely to be covered up. Buddhists are human beings. Our communities are political. We vie amongst ourselves for influence and power. Where we rely on external patronage we participate in external politics, sometimes exerting undue influence. In states where Buddhism has flourished, the ruling classes have often found this influence unwelcome or oppressive and taken steps to neutralise it. 

The story of Xuanzang was clearly adapted to serve the purposes of his successors. This happened in a literate culture with a feeling for history, with official state historians who deliberately recorded events for posterity, within living memory of a genuinely historical character, and with more than one record being kept. Just imagine what could happen in an intensely religious oral culture, with no feeling for history, no historians, no historical figure, and no parallel community making observations and records.

I have observed in the past that Buddhists are apt to misrepresent other Buddhists' beliefs in order to create strawman arguments that can easily be knocked down. The polemical literature is full of this kind of thing. Buddhists in antiquity were not concerned with history or objectivity. Buddhist accounts are too often biased and politically motivated, so exploring the full range of sources helps to balance this out to some extent. I've already mentioned that much is popularly made of Xuanzang's close relationship with Emperor Taizong. Non-Buddhist sources paint a very different picture of the emperor as someone who had an intense dislike of Buddhism that grew over time. He was nevertheless obliged, as Emperor, to support Buddhist activities and projects as a political expedient. It's possible that he warmed to Xuanzang personally, or was just interested in his knowledge of China's aggressively expanding western borders. But it's very unlikely that he was sympathetic to Xuanzang's mission, or that he made a deathbed conversion. Also, notably, the last years of Taizong's reign were rife with factionalism that his son Emperor Gaozong inherited. Wu Zetian played a decisive role in suppressing this factionalism.

In the last part of the article, Kotyk formally proposes the idea that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra (I've been talking about this for a while, but the idea came from our email correspondence). This is based on the earliest dated literary mention of the Heart Sutra, tying it to an event in 656 CE when Wu Zetian's oldest son became crown prince. In my own article about Xuanzang, finished before Kotyk proposed this new idea, I pointed out that this is two years after Atikūṭa translated the Dhāranīsamucaya, the likely source of the dhāraṇī added to the end of the Heart Sutra, and thus close to the date before which the Heart Sutra as we know it could not exist. Sometimes the best we can do is point out that a narrative does not conflict with the established facts.

Alongside work by Max Deeg (whom we both cite), this article and my own recent article raise some serious questions about academic historiography of Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. Far too much reliance has been placed on unreliable sources. This is not a problem for religious hagiographies and inspirational stories. These need not be based on historical facts any more than a novel must. Sherlock Holmes is no less an inspiration for detectives everywhere because he is fictional. Religious stories serve religious purposes: inspiriting the faithful, reinforcing orthodoxy, maintaining a sense of group identity, and so on. Imperial histories also have their biases. Imperiums are always seeking to justify the imposition of their rule over local rulers. Official histories become a vehicle for this self-justification by showing, for example, how the emperor brought stability and prosperity to the realm. That said, the imperial histories also record the failures of emperors - around that time several disastrous campaigns against Goguryeo led to Chinese troops being repeatedly repelled and, on occasion, to their being massacred. Tang Emperor's support for religious activities have to be seen in this light. Such support was typically a political expedient, but is used by Buddhists to imply that their activities were not merely state sanctioned, but that the Emperors were themselves Buddhists. Taizong was not a Buddhist and neither was his son Gaozong. But Wu Zetian was. Ironically, Buddhist historical accounts, especially as they relate to the Heart Sutra, tend to completely overlook Wu Zetian and her role in China at the time. And yet it now seems very likely that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra as a gift for Wu Zetian. 

At least in some quarters, academic historians aspire to more objective accounts that connect the known facts in a plausible narrative that adds as little as possible to connect the dots. But Kotyk also notes that historiography has become infected with the relativism of postmodernism. This says that there is no such thing as objectivity, no such thing as historiography. It's all just "narrative", and any narrative is as good as any other. Neither Kotyk nor I believe that relativism is warranted or justified. One can acknowledge the subjectivity inherent in historiography and the different possible readings of events without opening the door to relativism. To adopt relativism is to abandon reason.

A religious history full or magic and miracles cannot be true in the same way as a history that merely describes mundane events in a plausible way. However, this straightforward fact does not mean that we cannot hold sophisticated views of history or that we cannot acknowledge that different values systems exist (and especially existed in the time period we study). It is vitally important, in my view, that we understand the mores and social practices of mid-7th Century China when attempting to understand the Heart Sutra. Despite striving for objectivity we need not argue that hagiography is invalid and serves no purpose. Hagiography does serve a purpose and is valuable in its own context. The difference is the breadth of the context. Hagiography is aimed at, and really only appeals to, believers, whereas history aims to communicate to a broader audience. Objectivity includes being objective about the purpose of stories in the lives of human beings. The popularity of fictional characters is also an epistemically objective fact.* They serve a purpose. And they definitely have value. In acknowledging this we need not throw the baby out with the bath water and deny the value of objective historiography (even "objective" is an aspiration rather than something fully achieved). Relativism seems like a naive, even puerile, approach to complexity.
* I make use of John Searle's distinction of four kinds of fact in his account of social reality: ontologically objective, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective, and epistemically subjective. See my 2016 series of essays on Social Reality and more recently: The Heart Sutra and Social Reality.
It can be difficult to hold two different values systems. As scholars, Kotyk and I aspire to write objective historical accounts of the life of Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. We are part of a community of people who are constantly refining our understanding of both the process and the outcome (and with this article, Kotyk makes an important contribution to both). This requires that we pursue our ideas vigorously, but be prepared to change direction at any time as new facts or new interpretations of the facts emerge that are more plausible. We aim for truth and acknowledge that at best we achieve increasing plausibility amidst competing systems of values. To paraphrase something Richard Feynman said about intelligent people: we know that in the long run we are probably wrong, but we hope to be wrong in an interesting way. There is no need to abandon reason and give up on the ideal of objective truth. Historiography is complex and fraught with difficulties. While relativism does simplify things greatly and lightens the load on intellectuals, absolving them from the task of evaluating their sources, it does so at an unacceptably high cost.

The religieux has an entirely different relationship to these stories. These stories are constantly retold and elaborated in such a way as to highlight the virtues prized by storyteller and audience. The protagonist becomes someone who exemplifies the values of the community. Repeating the story rehearses and reinforces community values and a sense of belonging. And the story typically evolves along with the values of the community, although the story itself may help to regulate such changes. The hero of religious stories usually exemplifies conservative positions within the community.

Kotyk's discussion of the source texts really requires a good knowledge of Chinese history and language. But his broader points are easily comprehensible to a serious reader. The revised histories that we propose for Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra may not appeal to religieux. They may feel that we go too far in eliminating the mythic and symbolic accounts. We might counter that such elements largely only make sense in light of the politics of the early Tang Dynasty and the internecine struggles that led to the first and only female emperor. Ironically, Xuanzang is remembered as a translator despite the fact that his translations were never popular. In the popular imagination Xuanzang is a famous pilgrim - the monk named Tripiṭaka from the TV show Monkey

Different communities tell different stories about this historical figure, Xuanzang. His role varies depending on what counts as a virtue in a particular milieu. Those of us involved in trying to create an objective historical account may feel that what we do transcends all values systems. This would be naive. One of the things that history teaches us is that communities tell stories that reflect their values and concerns. Powerful forces in politics and religion (and religious politics) try to bend stories to fit their preferred narrative. We need not capitulate to a lobotomising relativism in which all views are equally valid, but we do need to be aware of the different values that drive people to tell stories. How much we pander to other people's belief systems is open to question. I think people like Richard Dawkins did huge damage in this area, by being rude and angry about people not sharing his (reductive neoliberal) worldview. I don't share it either, because I think it is more objective to acknowledge the existence and reality of structures and systems. 

Those of us with an interest in objective history have a job to do in communicating our values or in other words in communicating the value of our work to those who do not yet see it. An article like Kotyk's or mine is an internal document. By scholars for scholars. We presume that scholars who read the journals we publish in broadly share our values. This assumption itself is probably naive in Buddhism Studies since a huge proportion of our peers are either Buddhists or enthusiasts (the emic/etic distinction frequently breaks down in religious studies because there are very few neutral observers). Not to mention the problem of relativism amongst scholars (or other ideological commitments which I haven't touched on). Communicating about a complex issue to a complex audience, half of whom remain unconvinced about the validity of the project, is difficult. Sometimes the rejections are hostile and brutal and come from unexpected quarters. 

Still, I think Kotyk has amply made the case for using the full range of historical sources for writing history available to us. By privileging the normative religious sources, and not putting them into a broader historical perspective, historians have been remiss and have produced partial accounts. The standard accounts of Xuanzang should at the very least note the discrepancy between sources like Yancong's and Daoxuan's biographies, and the state histories. We can no longer ignore the central role of Wu Zetian in this period. We should not portray Buddhists as above or beyond the political fray. Unfortunately, things have gotten away from us and the partial (and partially false) accounts of history are now widespread and repeated. The popular history has a lot of momentum and it will be difficult to turn things around.


Further Reading

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). 'Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.' Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32: 1–30.

Kieschnick, John. (1997). The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. University of Hawaii Press.

10 January 2020

Diamonds, Thunderbolts, and the Impossibility of Translation

Some time back, on my Facebook Heart Sutra group, I argued along the lines that vajra doesn't mean "diamond" and that Sanskrit compounds in the form X-ccheda always mean "that which cuts X". And diamonds are, in any case, easy to cut. And this all meant that Diamond Sutra  was the wrong translation for Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. A chap called Leo emailed me to say that since vajira does mean "diamond" in Pāli (at least in the PTS Dictionary), Vajracchedikā should still be translated as "Cutter of Diamonds".

I had to admit that the PTS Dictionary does give 'diamond' as a definition (s.v. vajira2, p.593). However, I'm a little doubtful about arguing from a Pāli dictionary to the name of a Sanskrit text and I don't think we should always just take the dictionary's word for it. So I checked a couple of the examples the PTSD gives for this definition and this led to some interesting reflections. The first passage is:
"Just as there is nothing that a vajira cannot split, whether jewel or stone" (seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, vajirassa natthi kiñci abhejjaṃ maṇi vā pāsāṇo vā; AN 1.124).
Now this one is important because here a vajira is contrasted with vijju (Skt vidyut) which definitely means "lightning". This suggests that vajira does not mean lightning-bolt here, and it raises the question of the the relationship between vajra and vidyut. And this requires a digression to consider Indra and his vajra.


The word vajra derives from the root √vaj "strong, powerful" with the -ra suffix to make a substantive noun: it denotes an embodiment of power and potency. Compare this with the word ugra "powerful, violent, mighty, etc", which is very likely the same word, but with a prior change of vaj > uj (by the process known in Sanskrit as samprasaraṇa).

In Vedic texts, the vajra is most strongly, but not exclusively, associated with the God Indra. According to Mayrhofer, his name probably comes from √in "to use force" and means "strong, powerful". Thus the words indra and vajra are synonyms. Indra is used in the sense of "lord" or "master" and in the word for the senses, indriya, as "capacity" or "faculty". In this sense, Indra is the archetypal kṣatriya or warrior-king. 

In Buddhist texts Indra is usually referred to by another synonym, Śakra "Mighty" or "Able", and as the Devānām Indra "Lord of the Shining Ones". He is directly addressed as Kauśika, which is a reference to myths elaborated in the Brahmaṇa texts and Epics in which the Devas are no longer masters of the universe, but are entangled in worldly affairs in the manner of the Greek Gods. The Vedic-speaking incomers have now dominated Punjab and dealt with their civil war and seem more settled. Brahmin priests are beginning to assert their social dominance over the warrior kings. Śakra is a minor character in early Buddhist texts, but one of the main characters in the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras (where my working theory is that he represents the views of those who practice dhyāna meditation, because he is the Lord of the Devas and the devaloka which is equated with dhyāna). In Buddhist texts Indra seems to have lost his belligerence and his vajra, but not in Buddhist art where he is routinely depicted with both, although these attributes are more often associated with the yakṣa Vajrapāni (the one who wields the mace).
iron mace from India

Vinayak Mahadev Apte (1956) tells us that vajra does not mean "thunderbolt" in the Ṛgveda.  He also points out that there is only one rain god in the Ṛgveda and that is Parjanya; and if anything vidyut "lightning" is associated with him and not with Indra. In fact, Indra is not a storm god at all. The vajra of Indra is a weapon, one that was forged by Tvaṣṭṛ, an artificer god (= Hephaestus?). The vajra is a two-handed, metallic (āyasa) mace with 1000 spikes (sahásrabhṛṣṭi). It is thus described also in Pāḷi when wielded by Vajirapāṇi (vajirapāṇi yakkho āyasaṃ vajiraṃ ādāya MN I.231). In the Ṛgveda, the vajra is described as stable (sthavira) and durable (dharṇasi); it is habitually in the possession of Indra, along with his horse and chariot. Meaning it is unlike highly unstable and impermanent lightning.

Indra was not a storm god, but a warrior god who embodies manly virtues in a warrior society. "While Indra is many things, his exploits are overwhelmingly defined by acts of physical strength, violent contestation, or outright battle: these are his raison d'être" (Whitaker 2016: 58). Indra's weapon represents an embodiment of and symbolises these same qualities. According to Apte, other non-storm gods also wield a vajra weapon at times, especially Vedic Bṛhaspati.

The connection with lightning is puzzling. When Jarrod Whitaker argues that "in a few instances is Indra' s weapon equated poetically with lightning" (2016: 58) I am unconvinced. He cites one example (Rgveda 1.33.10cd):
1.033.10c: yújaṃ vájraṃ vṛṣabháś cakra índro
1.033.10d: nír jyótiṣā támaso gā́ adukṣat
"The bull Indra made his mace his yokemate. He milked the cows out of
the darkness with light." (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 138)
I think Whitaker may be confusing light (jyoti) with lightning (not mentioned). Apte noted that Indra is associated with "waters" in the Ṛgveda, but they have been misinterpreted as rain. In fact, they are the cosmic waters associated with light and day. The enemy of Indra, Vṛtra, who helps to define him, is not a demon of drought, as is often asserted, but of darkness (tamas). The battle between Indra and Vṛtra is the classic battle between light and dark. Milking and cows here are metaphors for the creative power (māyā) of the God. Indra is sometimes referred to as vṛtrahan (P.  vatrabhū) "the smiter or enemy of the Vṛtra". This name also appears in Iranian myth as Vṛθragna (Old Iranian), and Vərəθraγna (Avestan). (NB Skt han derives from an earlier Indo-Iranian √ghan)

Buddha accompanied by
"mace-wielder", Vajrapāṇi
as Greek God. 
There is an interesting parallel here with ancient Greece. Chief God, Zeus also wields a weapon that is popularly supposed to be a "lightning bolt". In fact, his weapon is called κεραυνός (keraunos) "smasher, crusher", not βροντή (brontí,) “thunder” or ἀστραπή (astrapḗ) "lightning". The noun keraunos seems to come from Proto-Indo-European *ker "injure, spoil" and is thus also unrelated to meteorological phenomena. As a name, "smasher" is suggestive of a club or mace.

In Rob Linrothe's Ruthless Compassion, we can see that wrathful deities, particularly Vajrapāṇi ("Holding the Weapon"), are depicted carrying a club or mace. And in Gandhāran art, the yakṣa, Vajrapāṇi is sometimes depicted accompanying the Buddha as Heracles or perhaps Zeus, often armed with a mace.

With all this clarity about what the vajra is and is not, we are left wondering how and when vajra was confused with the thunderbolt or lightning, let alone with a diamond. The mistaken reading of the celestial waters may have contributed, but it seems like a stretch to think that was all that was required to completely change the meaning of a word.

Coming back to the the diamond question, the second Pāli example is from the Dhammapada:
"For the evil done by oneself, born or produced by oneself;
Cleaves the foolish, as a vajira a stone or jewel." 
Attanā hi kataṃ pāpaṃ, attajaṃ attasambhavaṃ;
Abhimantheti dummedhaṃ, vajiraṃ ahmamayaṃ maṇiṃ.
(Dhp 161). 
So there is clearly an idea that vajira (whatever it is) can split (abhejja) or cleave/crush (abhimantheti) stone or other gems. So now we need to consider what we know about diamonds.


Our word "diamond" comes from the Greek ἀδάμας  (adamas), the mythical hardest substance; in antiquity, usually some form of metal. Marvel comic fans will be familiar with the idea of adamantium. Interestingly, the concept of the hardest substance is common to Greece and Greater India, but it is applied to very different substances. The etymology is uncertain: The OED says that it comes from dama "tame" and thus means "indomitable" (Cf Sanskrit dama) but other sources suggest it may be a loan word (from Persian perhaps?). The word was first applied to the gemstone in English in the 14th Century.

Diamond is a crystalline allotrope of elemental carbon. Natural diamonds form octahedral crystals. Such crystals have a high refractive index, a high melting point (ca. 4000 °C), and the highest thermal conductivity of any natural material. Natural diamonds were typically formed between 1 billion and 3.5 billion years ago, deep in the earth's mantle and were brought to the surface by volcanic activity. They are usually found embedded in igneous rocks. Incorporation of other atoms can give diamonds a variety of hues.

Until the 18th Century, India was the primary producer of diamonds in the world, though they were traded far and wide, even in antiquity.

Diamond is the hardest natural substance. A diamond can scratch any other mineral. We use diamonds to scratch glass, for example, before breaking it. By about 700 AD in India, shards of diamond were being used to drill holes in quartz beads (Gorelick & Gwinnett 1988). In modern industry, diamond-tipped drill bits using synthetic diamonds are used for high performance situations and for drilling very hard substances.

However, diamonds also score low on the "toughness" scale which measures the ability to absorb energy and deform. Diamonds are brittle. Hit a diamond with a hammer and it will most likely shatter. Granite, for example, is about 100 times as resistant to breaking as diamond is. Hit a stone made of granite with a diamond and the diamond will shatter. So the idea that diamonds can split stone is obviously false.

uncut diamond
In antiquity, diamonds were simply left in their natural state. They were not even used as jewelry to begin with. Around the 14th Century in India, steel tools began to be used to split diamonds so as to give them facets. This process is called "cutting". It highlights the brilliance of the gem, i.e. the way it refracts and reflects light. In the modern approach to "cutting", the faces of the crystal are polished using an abrasive wheel,  It is, in fact, extremely easy to cut a diamond, though it takes skill to do so with the necessary precision to shape the gem into one of the classic "cuts". 

In ancient India, diamonds were so rare, and thus expensive, that only kings owned them. As far as I can tell, up to the point of being called after Indra's macediamonds were known generically as maṇi or jewels. They were not worn as jewelry and thus most people probably never saw them but only heard about them second hand. The common people were apt to be maṅgalikā (or superstitious) so, perhaps inevitably, diamonds became associated with magical powers in the popular imagination. And the chief magical power is that the diamond can cut any other substance. It can split rocks and stones, but is itself uncuttable, unbreakable, uncrushable, and so on. 


In summary then indra, vajra, and śakra are all synonyms for "power". The original vajra was a two-handed, metal mace with sharpened spikes, wielded by Indra/Śakra against his foe, Vṛta. The word denotes an embodiment or instantiation of physical power. Semantically, vajra does not mean either "lightning" (which is vidyut) or "diamond". Similarly, the weapon of Zeus, also a mace, has no semantic connection with meteorological phenomena.

However, the mace of Indra became associated with lightning at some point and the name vajra was later applied to diamonds as myths of indestructibility grew up around them. The process of how this happened and the timeline are still unclear to me.

But given the usage we can make a pragmatic argument that vajra does indeed mean "diamond" in that the word is applied to diamonds and is understood to mean "diamond" in particular contexts (such as we saw in the Pāli passages above). However, the argument is weakened because the "diamonds" in question have magical properties and it is precisely these magical properties seem to be what motivated ancient Indians to redeploy the name of Indra's weapon.

So yes, we could translate vajraccheda as "cuts diamond" and vajracchedikā as "a cutter of diamond", but we have to footnote this with a reminder that the diamond in question is an imaginary magical diamond, not an ordinary carbon diamond. In other words, we can translate vajra as "diamond" it but it doesn't get us any closer to what is meant by the title since the quality being described doesn't exist in reality. 

The situation is a little worse, however, since the idea that vajraccheda attempts to convey is "cutting the uncuttable" and a diamond is eminently cuttable. Go to a jeweler and all their diamonds are cut. I gather that uncut diamonds are somewhat fashionable at present, but most people have probably only ever seen cut diamonds. Cutting diamonds is completely routine. And diamonds, while still expensive, are commonplace. So the title doesn't have much meaning when translated in a simplistic fashion. The idea of the title Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā is obviously that prajñāpāramitā cuts the uncuttable. What this means is a mystery, however, because the text never explains it. If we stipulate the meaning, the next problem is how to meaningfully convey this in English? 

Funnily enough, actually we do have an English word that means "uncuttable" which is, atomic, from the Greek temnein "to cut". And, of course, it was a big deal when the irreducible atom was split by my countryman, Ernest Rutherford, at Manchester University in 1917. Though I quite like the sound of the Atom Splitting Sutra, in fact splitting atoms is almost as routine as cutting diamonds these days and there is a veritable zoo of subatomic particles. Also "atomic" is inescapably entangled in connotations of radiation and bombs.

My own habit has been to refer to the text as the Vajracchedikā and just leave it at that. It has the advantage of being unique. I note that although we can infer what the title means, it is never explained in the text itself. When Subhūti asks what he should call the discourse, the answer is "The name of this way of talking about the Dharma, Subhūti, is Gnosis Perfected" (prajñāpāramitā nāmāyaṃ subhūte dharmaparyāyaḥ 13b). On the other hand, the colophon of 7th Century Gilgit manuscript ends with vajracchedikā prajñāpāramitā samāptāḥ. "Here endeth the Gnosis Perfected that Cuts the Uncuttable". Note that the text does not refer to itself as a sūtra.  

I'll finish with a few words about the Chinese translation. Since Kumārajīva first translated it into Middle Chinese ca 402 CE, the Vajracchedikā has been known as the 金剛般若波羅蜜經 (Jīngāng bānrěbōluómì jīng). The part that interests us us 金剛 which is a binomial and means "diamond". It's a made-up term that translates vajra. 金 primarily means "metal" and sometimes more specifically "gold". It can also convey the typical properties of metals (of which gold is an exception), i.e. hardness, durability, etc. My Middle Chinese dictionary (Kroll) has a sub-entry for 金剛 "hardness of gold, i.e. diamond". But, of course, gold is known for being a soft metal in its pure state. It is, for example, the last thing you'd make a weapon out of. As we might suspect from the previous, 剛 means "rigish, unyielding, inflexible" and in a nice twist Kroll includes "adamantine" in his definitions; on its own the character is also used for "steel".

If we translate 金剛般若波羅蜜經 fairly literally it is the Diamond Gnosis-Perfected Sutra in Kumārajīva's rendering. And this is probably why the name Diamond Sutra was popularised. We may never know if the absence of a reference to "cutting" is a deliberate omission, or if the reference that we take for granted is a later affectation that was absent from Kumārajīva's source text. In my research for this essay, I didn't find any information on how the Chinese viewed diamonds.

In the end most people are just going to keep calling it the Diamond Sutra no matter what. Still, it is interesting just to reflect on how words function and change over time. The dictionary is not the last word on what any given term means in a text because many terms are defined pragmatically. As fascinating as etymology can be, it doesn't always capture how a word is used at any given time and how that use changes.



Apte, V. M. (1956). 'Vajra in the Ṛgveda'. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 37(1/4): 292-295. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44082929

Dahlquist, Allan. (1996) Megasthenes and Indian Religion: A Study in Motives and Types. Motilal Banarsidass.

Gorelick, L and Gwinnett, A. J. (1988) 'Diamonds from India to Rome and beyond'. American Journal of Archaeology, 92(4):547-552. https://www.jstor.org/stable/505249

Jamison, S.w. and Brereton, J.P. (2014) The Rig Veda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. Oxford University Press.

Kroll, Paul. W. (2015). A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. Brill.

Linrothe, Rob. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Serindia Publications.

Mayrhofer, Manfred. (1956) Kurzgefaßtesetzmologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen. Carl Winter Universitätsverlag.

Whitaker, Jarrod. (2016) 'I Boldly Took the Mace (Vájra) for Might: Ritually Weaponizing a Warrior's Body in Ancient India.' International Journal of Hindu Studies, 20(1): 51-94. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44983842

03 January 2020

Removing All Suffering

The Heart Sutra is less than 300 words (in any language) and I have been studying it in detail for eight years now, though I first met it 25 years ago. And yet I still find new things in it. Yesterday, I noticed a new oddity concerning the phrase after the epithets, i.e. after the part where prajñāpāramitā is described as a superlative kind of vidyā (if you're not familiar with this see my article on the epithets). I'll cite it with the opening phrase and give a word for word translation
故知般若波羅蜜多... 能除一切苦
Therefore 故 know 知, gnosis 般若-perfected 波羅蜜多 ... can 能 remove 除 all 一切 suffering 苦.
This is a well formed Chinese sentence: "remove" is a verb, qualified by 能 "can, able to"; 般若波羅蜜多 is the agent of the verb (or subject) and 苦 is the patient of the verb (or object). There is nothing remarkable about this.

Electronic searching allows us to quickly show that this phrase does not occur in Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation (T.223) but that it does occur in some other pre-7th Century Chinese translations. Unfortunately, there are no Sanskrit source texts to consult.
  • T.397 大方等大集經 Mahāvaipulya-mahāsannipāta-sūtra. (414~426 CE.)
  • T.410 大方廣十輪經 Daśacakra-kṣitigarbha-sūtra. (397~439 CE)
  • T.1421 彌沙塞部和醯五分律 The Five Section Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka School. (423~424 CE)
The third passage is a poem about fully understanding the conditioned links of the nidāna chain (T 1421; 22.103.a2-7; if you use Facebook, I posted a translation of the poem on my Facebook Heart Sutra group). It uses the exact phrase: 能除一切苦.

The first two occurrences seem a little more apposite.
此陀羅尼有大勢力猶如電光,速能破壞一切欲事,能大利益能盡一切欲貪,乃至能除一切苦擔,(T 397; 13.241.c19-24).
This dhāraṇī has great power like like a bolt of lightning; it can quickly destroy all sexual passion, it has the great benefit and advantage that it can end all coveting resulting from passion, up to... it can relieve all the burdens of suffering...
此呪利益能除一切苦惱繫縛。(T 410; 13.685.b19)
"This dhāraṇī has the benefit and advantage that it can remove all suffering, distress, and attachments."
It's not clear if the phrase was borrowed from any of these sources, but it was clearly in circulation from the early 5th Century onwards, probably a little after Kumārajīva died. And in two texts it's associated with a dhāraṇī. Although it is in Chinese, this kind of syntax where "something is able to do something", immediately brings to mind a particular Sanskrit grammatical construction: the infinitive combined with the verb śaknoti "able, capable". The actual Sanskrit translation of the Heart Sutra does not use this idiom, however, and opts for:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā... sarvaduḥkha-praśamanaḥ...
Therefore (tasmāt) it should be known (jñātavya) [as] gnosis-perfected (prajñāpāramitā)... pacifying-of-all-suffering (sarvaduḥkha-praśamanaḥ).
The word praśamaṇa is an adjective meaning "tranquillizing, pacifying, curing, healing". Adjectives take the case, number, and gender of a noun or pronoun that they describe. Here it is declined in the masculine nominative singular, but there is no nearby noun or pronoun in the masculine nominative singular.

One of the quirks of Sanskrit is that it frequently uses adjectives, especially compound adjectives, as nouns. One example is calling Śiva, and later Avalokiteśvara, nīlakaṇṭha "blue throated". More literally, "the one whose throat is blue".

So we might read this as saying prajñāpāramitā... sarvaduḥkha-praśamanaḥ asti "gnosis perfected is easing all misery". But this doesn't seem satisfactory either. It looks like praśamana is the wrong derivative to use here or the grammar is wrong. But something is wrong.

Conze's (not 100% reliable) critical apparatus only lists one variant reading, i.e. sarvaduḥkha-praśamano mantraḥ; however, we know from my study of the epithets passage that this is a mistake. No prajñāpāramitā text uses sarvaduḥkha-praśamana as an epithet. Worse, no prajñāpāramitā text even uses the word praśamana.


If you don't know Sanskrit, it will be difficult to get a sense of how odd this phrase is. What I'm thinking at this point is, "how was this overlooked for decades?" Here is how I would translate the last part of the Chinese. Let me restate it for comparison and then offer a Sanskrit translation
Ch : [it] can 能 remove 除 all 一切 suffering 苦.
S : tad sarvaduḥkaṃ nāśayitum śaknoti.
E : It is able to remove all suffering.
This is a common Sanskrit idiom. In Chinese "can" is a qualifier for the verb "to remove". In Sanskrit we put the main action in the infinitive (with the -tum ending) and employ the finite verb śaknoti to indicate capability, so that nāśayitum śaknoti means "is able to remove". The implication here is not hypothetical; rather, when it is put into practice prajñāpāramitā does remove all suffering, i.e. there's no doubt about the outcome.

However, when we look at the Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra this idiom seems to be used only to indicate negative capacity. Looking at Kimura's edition, we find the Buddha explaining that Māra is "not able to make an obstacle" (na śaknoty antarāyaṃ kartum PPS 4.26). Or: "Just as, Subhuti, a wingless bird is not able to move through the sky..." (tadyathā subhūte 'pakṣaḥ pakṣī na śaknoty ākāśe kramitum PPS 6-8.137). Again, note that these are not hypotheticals.

What about other possibilities? Are there other ways that Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā talks about "all suffering"? There are one or two. For example: "The burdens of all beings should be removed by me" (mayā sarvasattvānāṃ bhāra āhartavyas P 5:26). Conze translates "I, who ought to remove the suffering from all beings" confusing the issue by translating bhāra "burden, load, weight" as "suffering" the usual translation of duḥkha.

Another example: "for, having awakened to the unsurpassed perfect awakening, I should cause them to be liberated from all suffering" (tathā hi te mayānuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbudhya sarvaduḥkhebhyaḥ parimocayitavyāḥ. P 5:27).

In these examples āhartavyas and parimocayitavyā are future passive participles. And the FPP is more hypothetical; hence "ought to remove " and "should be liberated". This construct lacks the definite quality that I read in the Chinese.

If the infinitive + śaknoti idiom is too obscure, my next choice would be to state the outcome directly using a finite verb, i.e. tad sarvaduḥkaṃ nāśayati "it removes all suffering". I don't see this in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā and this raises the question of what verbs the text does use in relation to duḥkha.

Duḥkha in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā

I did not do the kind of comprehensive survey (noting all the variants) that I'd do for a publication, but I did skim through every occurrence of sarvaduḥkha; but this turns out to be a rare word in Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā. I can find only one passage which uses the expression:
2-3:44 tathā hi kauśika prajñāpāramitā sarvadharmāṇam upaśamayitrī na vivardhikā, katameṣāṃ dharmāṇām?.. sarvaduḥkhaskandhasya... upaśamayitrī na vivardhikā.
"For here, Kauśika, gnosis-perfected is a extinguisher of all mental phenomena, not an enhancer... is an extinguisher of the whole mass of suffering, not a enhancer."
Although upaśamayitrin in a nominal form is used, the verbal root is upa√śam "to cease, become extinct". Used verbally we might expect to use the causative, i.e. prajñāpārmaitā sarvaduḥkaṃ upaśāmayati "gnosis-perfected causes all misery to cease". But the fact is that Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā doesn't use the expression sarvaduḥkha more than once and it uses the word duḥkha hundreds of times. Note that praśamana is from the same verbal root but with a different prefix, i.e. pra√śam.

So we can broaden the search out to see what verbs have duḥkha as a patient (duḥkham). This makes the number of items to check more manageable. Again, I skimmed through every occurence of the word. The vast majority of mentions of duḥkha are related to denying the applicability of the twin terms sukha and duḥkha to Absence.

As far as I can tell the single passage quoted above is the only one in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā that even comes close to suggesting that prajñāpāramitā can help get rid of suffering.

In fact, one does find the idiom with nāśayitum śaknoti here and there in Sanskrit literature, but it tends not to be Buddhist. So creating a more idiomatic translation of 能除一切苦 is quite problematic because it does not seem to be a Prajñāpāramitā idiom. And we don't have Sanskrit sources for the few texts that we do find the words in.

Dukkha in Pāli

So if we cannot find the phrase in Sanskrit, perhaps if we start from Pāḷi and then look for Chinese parallels? I found something promising in the Aṅguttara Nikāya:
‘Anattani anattāti, asubhaṃ asubhataddasuṃ;
Sammādiṭṭhisamādānā, sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ upaccagun ti
(AN 4.49; II.52)
They have seen the selfless as selfless
And the ugly as ugly;
Through acquiring rightview,
They have overcome all suffering.
Now we can use the wonderful Sutta Central site to look for Chinese parallels to this text. And, after some work we strike gold, because the Ekottarikāgama (EA2 5; T150A) does not have this verse, but it does have the phrase: 便見是法除一切苦 "directly seeing this teaching eliminated all suffering". Here 除chú corresponds to upaccaguṃ which is a 3rd person plural past tense of the verb upātigacchati "to surpass, overcome"). This is helpful.

We also find in the Suttanipāta (and here I rely heavily on Roy Norman's translation and commentary):
Ye ca dukkhaṃ pajānanti, atho dukkhassa sambhavaṃ;
Yattha ca sabbaso dukkhaṃ, asesaṃ uparujjhati;
Tañca maggaṃ pajānanti, dukkhūpasamagāminaṃ.
(Sn 726)
Cetovimuttisampannā, atho paññāvimuttiyā;
Bhabbā te antakiriyāya, na te jātijarūpagā’’ti.
(Sn 727)
Those who know misery and the origin of misery;
And where misery is completely stopped, without omission;
And who know the path leading to the easing of misery.
Endowed with freedom of mind, i.e. release through gnosis;
They are capable of making an ene. They do experience birth and old age.
"Leading to the path of easing of misery" (dukkhūpasamagāminaṃ) leads us to an idiom that is repeated a few times in Pāli.
Yato ca ariyasaccāni, sammappaññāya passati;Dukkhaṃ dukkhasamuppādaṃ, dukkhassa ca atikkamaṃ;Ariyaṃ caṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ, dukkhūpasamagāminaṃ. (SN 15:10; II.185)
"Yet when one sees with perfect gnosis these four truths of the nobles
Misery, the origin of misery, the transcendence of misery
The noble eightfold path leading to the easing of misery..."
And a similar phrase at SN 22.78, 56.22; AN 4.33, 4.49; Dhp 191. So it seems that in Pāli the standard phrase for "easing of suffering" dukkhūpasama. Where upasama (Skt upaśama) is an action noun. Leading to is gāmin. And we've seen that EA2 除一切苦 corresponds to sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ upaccagun (upa-atigam).

If we now plug 除 into the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, we see that it has been used for a ridiculously wide range of Indic words, but does include some target words that look good for us: upaśama, upaśānta, vyupaśama, śama, śamana, saṃśamana. Notably praśama, praśamaṇa are absent.


The opening proposition in this essay was that tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā... sarvaduḥkha-praśamanaḥ... was a poor translation of the Chinese 故知般若波羅蜜多... 能除一切苦,

What we want is some way of indicating that easing suffering is an activity of prajñāpāramitā, and not simply a hypothetical activity but one with some certainty behind it. In Pāli, in relation to the four noble truths, we saw easing suffering associated with magga; we saw this expressed as maggaṃ dukkhūpasamagāminaṃ "the path that leads to the calming of misery".

It seems that the standard word was not praśamana (adjective) but upaśama (action noun). Missing this kind of detail is quite typical of the monk that translated the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit. I think we have to assume that they were not Indian. And probably did not learn Sanskrit from an Indian because they seem to make very odd choices of vocabulary and inflection.

We have one Sanskrit example in the Large Sutra: prajñāpāramitā sarvadharmāṇam upaśamayitrī where the action is expressed using an agent noun, i.e. "gnosis-perfected is an extinguisher of all dharmas". So we could adapt this to say: prajñāpāramitā sarvaduḥkhāṇam upaśamayitrī "gnosis-perfected is an extinguisher of all miseries."

Or if we adapt the phrase related to the four noble truths: prajñāpāramitā sarvaduḥkhopaśamana-gāminaṃ "gnosis perfected leads to the easing of all misery".

Or there is my original suggestion: prajñāpāramitā sarvaduḥkaṃ nāśayitum śaknoti."gnosis-perfected can eliminate all misery".

Any of these would do. No doubt there are many other ways also.

My observations are nowadays framed as if the Chinese origins thesis is true. I plan to publish a long article showing the very many reasons for believing this (this essay has added a 23rd point of comparison). There is a pervasive pattern of similarities and differences that all point towards a single conclusion: the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was produced by a Chinese monk struggling with limited Sanskrit. Trying to explain the oddities that we find in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra if it was composed by an Indian monk, who probably spoke a related Middle Indic language, takes us well beyond what is credible. There are too many Chinese idioms and too many odd word choices for Indian origins to be plausible.

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