10 July 2020

The Extended Heart Sutra: Sources

Very little critical or comparative work has been done on the extended Heart Sutra. I've tended to ignore it because there has been so much to do on the standard text. I've been interested in the origins of the text and the extended version is a later development. With most of my philological and historical work on the standard completed and awaiting publication, I have been making some notes about the extended text.

The majority of the extant Heart Sutra manuscripts and inscriptions are of the extended text. There are five canonical Chinese versions and two canonical Tibetan Versions. There is a Sanskrit manuscript in Japan and about a dozen manuscripts from Nepal have been described, although I think dozens more are extant. And then there are the Dunhuang texts—over 180 in Chinese and 90 in Tibetan—which reflect nine different version of the standard and extended texts and some hybrids. 

Most of the Extended texts conform to a single recension, i.e. they all seem to have common origins, though with many minor variations. I will call this Recension One (R1). There seem to be a number of variants of R1 and part of the purpose of the coming series of essays is to identify these through close comparison of the available documents. There is also a Recension Two (R2) which is represented by a single text, T 252 a canonical translation attributed to Fǎyuè 法月 (Skt. *Dharmacandra) and Lìyán 利言, and dated ca. 741 CE. If the attribution and date are reliable then this is the earliest evidence of the extended text.

In this post I'll describe the extant texts in more detail. In my last post, I raised the question of whether the Heart Sutra ever went to India. I concluded that we didn't have enough information but that it was plausible that the transmission was from China to Tibet and that Vimalamitra, as the man credited with the canonical Tibetan translation, might have had something to do with this. Although his connection to China seems tenuous, a private message from Joel Gruber (whose PhD dissertation was on Vimalamitra) suggests that he thinks it likely that Vimalamitra did visit China on his way to Tibet.

I will look at the Tibetan versions with the help of Jonathan Silk's critical edition. But I don't think we can say much about the Heart Sutra in other countries on the periphery of Tang China such as Khotan, Kucha, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, or Vietnam. This may be bias because I don't read any of the relevant languages, but my impression is that no textual innovations occurred in these countries. They adopted the standard Chinese text without modification, except perhaps chanting it in the local pronunciation - thereby ensuring that it was incomprehensible either language. I'm open to being proved wrong about this, but in any case for now I'm covering Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan focussing on the early 8th to the late 9th Centuries. The scholarly (as opposed to the religious) history of the text in these other countries has yet to be written in English.



We now know that the Sanskrit text of the standard Heart Sutra was composed in China. We don't yet know where the extended text was composed.

The main exemplar of the Sanskrit the manuscript from Hase Temple (Jap. Hasedera 長谷寺 aka Haseji) is said to have been brought from China in the early 9th Century. The manuscript also includes a Sanskrit text, a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit, and a copy of the Chinese translation by Prajñā (T 253). Müller's 1884 diplomatic edition was based on hand copies of the Hasedera manuscript. Vaidya's edition is based on it or on Müller's edition. Conze relies heavily on Müller.

It's not mentioned on the Hasedera website and it does not seem to have been digitised. It's unclear  to me where this document is now. 

Perhaps a few dozen Sanskrit manuscripts survive from Nepal, largely in European collections and largely undocumented. For example, the catalogue of the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project has many likely candidates that have not been fully described. However, these 19th and 20th Century copies are of little use in studying the text. In 2014, I described a manuscript from Nepal digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Program. Manuscript EAP676/2/5 required 142 footnotes to detail all the omissions, additions, and errors. These manuscripts are the result of many generations of copying without error checking because the scribes did not know Sanskrit. The  resulting documents are objects of magic and worship, not intended to be read. The effort required to describe each in detail is probably not worth it.

It seems that the standard and extended texts in Sanskrit may have been made from a different ancestor text (unrelated to T 252). The standard Sanskrit texts all contain extra-negations that make no sense, e.g. na prāptiḥ → na prāptir na aprātiḥ and in the nidānas: na avidyā  na vidyā na avidyā. These additions are present in the Hōryūji (法隆寺) manuscript and the Amoghavajra Chinese transliteration (T 256), out principal sources for the Sanskrit standard text.  Of the extended texts, these extra negations are found in the Hasedera ms. but not in any of the Chinese translations or the Nepalese manuscripts.

Sanskrit users were to be found in small numbers outside of India in antiquity, mainly working as translators.

Tibetan Texts

The one place that the extended text was definitely in use was Tibet because there it became the Heart Sutra. The standard text was largely overlooked although copies of the standard text transliterated in Tibetan script and translated into Tibetan language are amongst the cache of Heart Sutra texts from Dunhuang. 

Jonathan Silk (1994) has described two canonical recensions of the extended text in Tibet (TibA and TibB) in detail. TibA is in the tantra section of the Kanjur which TibB is in the Prajñāpāramitā section. There is considerable variation and hybridisation between the two texts in the fourteen extant editions of the Kanjur, most of which are xylograph printings. Ben Nourse has linked the two Tibetan canonical recensions to the two versions of the text found at Dunhuang but has not yet published this work.

What Silk's study highlights, far better than Conze's rather chaotic work on the Sanskrit, is that the history of this text is complex. Even in this short text from the mid 7th Century, there are major variants before the end of the 8th Century, and dozens of variations have come down to us. Manuscripts both diverge and converge so that the usual stemma diagram of simple binary branches (based on Darwin's evolutionary tree?) is entirely inadequate to the task. The tree metaphor has strictly limited applicability (see my essay Evolution: Trees and Braids. 27.12.2013).

In the Dunhuang cache there is a T 215 transliterated in Tibetan script, a Tibetan translation of T 251, extended texts corresponding to TibA and TibB, as well as one or two hybrid texts that combine features of standard and extended texts.

Far more than in other traditions, Mahāyana Buddhists actively changed their sacred texts over time creating a plethora of versions. 

Chinese Texts

The extended text is seldom, if ever, referred to in China where the standard text (T 251) is used exclusively. However, five versions of the extended text are preserved in the Chinese canon. Chinese and Japanese commentaries are all on the standard version. At least two modern translations of these texts can be found on the internet (e.g. T 252 and T 253) but to the best of my knowledge, none has been published. 

Representing R1 we have:
  • T 253, translated by Bānruò 般若 (*Prajñā), with Lìyán 利言 et al.788 CE.
  • T 254, translated by Zhìhuì lún 智慧輪 (*Prajñācakra), 861 CE. 
  • T 255, translated from the Tibetan by Chos grub (aka Fǎchéng 法成), 856 CE.
  • T 257, translated by Dānapāla, 1005 CE.
And representing R2 we have:
  • T 252, translated by Fǎyuè 法月 (Skt. *Dharmacandra) with Lìyán 利言 ca. 741 CE
It is interesting that Lìyán 利言 was involved in both T 252 and T 253. I cannot find much information about him. We need a qualified Sinologist to look into the attributions and the dates associated with these texts. I cannot help but wonder if Prajñā (Bānruò 般若) and Prajñācakra (Zhìhuì lún 智慧輪) are definitely two different people. On the other hand, the two texts do have quite major differences.

T 255 was found in the Dunhuang cache.

TibA and TibB are both versions of R1. 

The structure of the Extended Text

The extended text adds material at the beginning and the end of the standard text. As we know, the standard text was considered by Chinese Buddhists to lack essential features of a Buddhist Sutra, specifically the opening phrase "thus have I heard", a statement of the place and occasion for the teaching, a statement of who was in the audience, the presence of the Buddha or the Buddha's invitation to speak; it does not conclude with an endorsement of the speaker (if it was not the Buddha), or an exhortation to disseminate the text, or the audience rejoicing in the teaching and committing to practice it.

The point is also made by Shāmén Yuánzhào 沙門圓照, in 794 CE, i.e. “However, [the Heart Sūtra] only has the main text and no nidāna or exhortation to disseminate” (但有正宗並 無序分及流通分。T 2157,  55.878c08). 

The extended versions add precisely these aspects.

It was previously thought that the longer text came first. This would be very unusual for an India text and is this not consistent with the India origins thesis. Neither Indian nor Chinese Buddhists would have removed the essential features of a sūtra from the extended version. Either could have added them. I'm not sure about Tibetans as I'm not so familiar with their textual practices, but they also seem unlikely to have removed these features. By far the most likely scenario, especially given the facts that have emerged in the last five years is that the extended version was created (probably twice) on the basis of the standard text.


In both recensions the standard opening paragraph is woven into the extended version, whereas the closing section (rejoicing) is simply tacked on after the dhāraṇī.

It appears that all the surviving versions contain a mistake that must go back to a common ancestor. Where in the standard text, Avalokiteśvara examined (vyavalokayati sma) the five branches of experience (pañca skandhāḥ) and saw (paśyati sma) that they are devoid of svabhāva (svabhāva-śunyan), the extended text inadvertently has vyavalokayati sma again for paśyati sma. The combination of "look/examine" (vyava√lok) and "see" (√paś) is not present in the Chinese, but is a canny addition to the Sanskrit text by whoever forged it. The combination of "look" and "see" works the same in Sanskrit as it does in English. The two languages also share the cognitive metaphor: TO SEE IS TO KNOW.  The difference is between seeking and finding, and it is lost in all the extant Sanskrit extended version and in both recensions the Tibetan as well.

By contrast the Chinese versions of the Extended text retain the Chinese syntax of the standard version, with just one verb, in which, Avalokiteśvara "clearly sees the five branches are absent" (zhàojiàn wǔyùn jiē kōng照見五蘊皆空). T 253 and 254 show further conflation with the standard text when they add to this "[he is]parted from all misery"  (lí zhū kǔ è 離諸苦厄。) which reflects the standard text's "transcending all miseries" (dù yī qiè kǔ è 度一切苦厄 。).

Another point of difference is the audience. Recension 1 has the Buddha on the Vulture Hill "with a great congregation of bhikṣus and a great congregation of bodhisatvas" (mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdhaṃ mahatā ca bodhisatvasaṃghena). Bodhisatvasaṃgha is an unusual term. T 257 adds the detail that 1250 monks are present (與大苾芻眾千二百五十人俱).

The reason for believing that T 252 is a second Recension is that the details, while formulaic, are substantially different from the other versions in any language, while the other texts are all similar (though certainly not identical).  T 252 also specifies the size of the assembled congregations "together with a great bhikṣu congregation of  100,000 and 77,000 bodhisatva mahāsatvas in all" (與大比丘眾滿百千人,菩薩摩訶薩七萬七千人俱) and then names Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, and Maitreya as the leaders of the bodhisatvas. 


The closing passage of R1 is several paragraphs. Avakokiteśavara concludes, the Bhagavan emerges from his samādhi and praises Avalokiteśvara, Śārputra rejoices, then the whole world rejoices and everyone commits to practising the teaching. In R2 this is all condensed to a single generic paragraph, which matches the last part of R1.


I've said many times that the Heart Sutra has been neglected by academia but is has also been the victim of mistakes and misdirections that might have made it a less attractive prospect for academic study that its immense popularity amongst Buddhists implied.

If the standard text has been neglected, then outside of Tibetan religious circles the extended text has been abandoned. There are no studies of the extended text that I am aware of, other than those produced by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan religious figures. Thus there is scope for continuing study. 

Many questions about the extended text remain open, including

  • Why are there two recensions?
  • When was the Heart Sutra extended and by whom? 
  • Where the extensions added in Chinese, Sanskrit, or perhaps Tibetan?
  • Was the text known in India? 
  • Where do the dates and attributions of the Chinese texts come from?

I hope to be able to begin to address some of these questions in the coming weeks or months.


05 June 2020

Did The Heart Sutra Ever Go To India?

For the longest time it was assumed that the Heart Sutra was composed in India, a product of the larger Prajñāpāramitā movement. The conventional wisdom was that Buddhism flowed in only one direction along the Silk Road, from India to China. Edward Conze placed the composition of the Heart Sutra in about the 4th Century, along with the Diamond Sutra, as part of a trend of abbreviation. This picture has completely fallen apart. Every detail of it has been contradicted by subsequent research.

Rather, the Heart Sutra is a Chinese text, composed, in the mid seventh century, mainly of passages copied from Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation, with a spell from the Dhāraṇīsamucaya. Importantly, it now seems certain that the Heart Sutra was composed after Xuanzang returned from his pilgrimage so, whatever his involvement, he could not have spread the text to India. So the questions of who did spread the text and when remains open. There is also the question of who added the opening and closing passages of the extended text.

I'd been wondering about what evidence there was of the Heart Sutra in India. To the best of my knowledge, the oldest "Indian" document is the Nepalese hooked-script palm-leaf manuscript (Cambridge ADD 1680) dated on paleographical grounds to the 13th Century. The evidence for the text in India prior to this turns out to be preserved only in Tibetan, in the form of a translation of the extended text attributed to Vimalamitra (pictured above) and several commentaries that are attributed to Indians who travelled to Tibet.

The Indo-Tibetan Commentaries

In 1988, Donald Lopez published The Heart Sūtra Explained, a study of seven Heart Sutra commentaries preserved in Tibetan. These were composed by authors with Indian names or whose biographies refer to them as Indian. They are:
  • Kamalaśīla. (c 740-795). Visited Tibet.
  • Vimalamitra. Travelled to Tibet late 8th C. 
  • Atīśa. (ca. 982-1054). Visited Tibet 1042 CE. 
  • Vajrapāṇi. 11th C. Lived in Nepal and later Tibet.
  • Mahājana. Little is known. Visited Tibet 11th C.
  • Praśāstrasena. Nothing is known. 
  • Jñānamitra. Nothing is known.  
Lopez's later book, Elaborations on Emptiness (1996) adds another "Indian" commentary, by Śrīsiṃha, but the author was in fact Chinese born and educated. For my purposes this is not an "Indian" commentary.

Of Praśāstrasena and Jñānamitra we know nothing at all beside being attributed as commentators on the Heart Sutra and, in Jñānamitra's case, one other commentary extant in Tibetan. Lopez (1988: 8-13) considers that neither went to Tibet, but his reason for saying so is an argument from absence, i.e. there is no extant record of their presence in Tibet. Of course this does make it less likely that they went to Tibet, but arguments from absence are weak. The men who were recorded got swept up in Tibetan politics, so perhaps the others simply kept a low profile. 

The rest—Vimalamitra, Vajrapāṇi, Kamalaśīla, Atīśa, Mahājana—are all recorded as having visited Tibet although such traditions may date from centuries after the events. Of these, Vimalamitra and Kamalaśīla are considerably earlier than the others, both men having lived in the 8th Century. The Tibetan Kanjur credits the translation of the Heart Sutra to Vimalamitra and it is to him that I now want to turn.


Joel Gruber, whose doctoral dissertation was on the biography of Vimalamitra (2016) outlines the salient facts for a website called The Treasury of Lives. However, "biography" is a term that can only be used loosely in this context. The story of Vimalamitra is a hagiography, a religious legend rather than a reliable historical account. Such stories were never intended as history. Rather, they celebrate religious values, or they reinforce the perceived exceptionalism of particular forms of Buddhism (in this case, Dzogchen), or they serve a political purpose such as linking a figure to a lineage as part of a legitimation strategy. Gruber likens biographies of Buddhist saints to modern day superhero movies, except that secular leaders do not claim to have superman in their lineage.

These "Lives" play the role of what Joseph Bulbulia has called “charismatic signalling.” The primary purpose of charismatic signalling is to provide a way to “align prosocial motivations” in large religious movements: “Charismatic culture supports cooperative outcomes by aligning powerful emotions, motivations, and intentions among potentially anonymous partners, toward collective goals” (Attwood 2019). The goals of communities vary and, in Tibet, local cultural norms were every bit as influential as introduced Buddhist (specifically Tantric, and Dzogchen) norms.

Because each community reworked the story to suit their needs, there is a great deal of variety in the details of the hagiographies. And some of the stories were only codified centuries after the putative events of the putative characters' lives. So we have to use these stories judiciously. As Gruber notes of Vimalamitra, who is thought to have been active in the 8th Century:
"Vimalamitra’s biography began to take shape in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, during the formative years of a distinctly emerging Nyingma tradition." The Treasury of Lives
Despite his apparently important role in early Tibetan Buddhism, Vimalamitra is not written about for 400 years. Two commentarial texts are widely accepted as attributable to Vimalamitra:
"Despite these concerns, the legitimacy of two of Vimalamitra’s works found in the early imperial catalogues of texts, The Extensive Commentary to the Heart Sūtra (shes rab snying po’i rgya cher 'grel pa) and The Commentary to the Seven Hundred Stanza Prajñāpāramitā (shes rab kyi pha rol du phyin pa bdun brgya pa'i 'grel pa), remains near certain."
That is to say, his role as Indian saint and magical progenitor of Dzogchen is primary for those who wrote his biography but Gruber infers a kernel of historical fact. On the other hand:
"We know that texts were attributed to Vimalamitra to establish the Indic pedigree of Nyingma texts that were labeled either too Tibetan or Chinese" (Gruber 2016: 98)
As flawed as Reggie Ray's Buddhist Saints in India is, the basic of idea of the life of a saint following a template is correct. It's just that each religious community seemed to work from a slightly different version of the template. Unfortunately, this means that the undisputed facts are slim. And I say, unfortunately, only because the point of his essay is historical and the ahistorical hagiographical stories are the only sources we have.


According to the medieval Tibetan sources, Vimalamitra was an Indian Buddhist born in Western India who studied Tantric Buddhism in Bodhagāyā (which is in Eastern India). Gruber notes that Chinese sources on Vimalamitra contradict this and refer to Vimalamitra as Tibetan, but the Chinese stories were every bit as ahistorical.

A relatively late detail makes him a student of the foremost Tantric exegete of the day, Buddhaguhya (also roughly 8th Century), but this seems to have been interpolated to boost his credentials. Vimalamitra excelled in his studies along with his Dharma brother Jñānasūtra. The two play foundational roles in the mythology of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. One night both had a dream in which Vajrasatva directed them to travel to China to study with Śrīsiṃha (more on him below). Vimalamitra and Jñānasūtra both journey to China, but they are separated.
"While returning to India following his stay in China, [Vimalamitra] encountered his dharma brother, Jñānasūtra, to whom he revealed some of his experiences and realizations under the tutelage of Śrī Siṃha, thus persuading Jñānasūtra also to pack his bowl and seek this most profound doctrine in China." The Treasury of Lives
Gruber comments that "The series of events that follow mark a peculiar development that seems intended to elevate Jñānasūtra to a position of lineal authority over Vimalamitra." In other words the story is not simply a hagiography, but it also has a normative, even political agenda.

Meanwhile, Vimalamitra's hagiography now intersects with the hagiography of the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Tri Songdetsen (khri srong lde btsan, c.742-c.796). The king sets out to attract Indian paṇḍitas to his kingdom and Vimalamitra is one of those who answer the call. In keeping with Tibetan myth, there is local opposition, which Vimalamitra overcomes through manifesting his magical powers (he reduces a statue to ash and then reconstitutes it).

Little is known about Srīsiṃha (Lopez 1996: 12). He is said by Tibetans to have been born in China and to have studied at Mt Wutai before travelling to Bodhgāyā in India. Srīsiṃha was a teacher to Vairocana, who was one of the first Tibetan students of Śāntarakṣita in Tibet. Kamalaśīla was an Indian student of Śāntarakṣita. He is said to have been murdered after defeating a Chinese Chan master in debate in Tibet. So these figures are all closely tied to the early dissemination of Buddhism to Tibet. Srīsiṃha seems not to have gone to Tibet himself. Vimalamitra is credited with the translation of the version of the Heart Sutra in the Kanjur. But we have no idea how legitimate this attribution is.

I now want to back track and consider the idea that Vimalamitra went to China, since if he did visit China he could have picked up the Heart Sutra there. 

The China Connection

This detail of Vimalamitra travelling to China to study tantra should strike us as odd. Joel Gruber comments in his PhD dissertation, "As far as I am aware, there is not another instance in which an Indian Buddhist departs the birthplace of the Dharma in order to study more efficacious Buddhist meditative techniques in China" (2016: 61). So how credible is this odd detail? Dylan Esler says:
"Although Chinese sources consider Vimalamitra (Ch. P'i mo la) to be a Tibetan, his Indian origin is more likely, since most of his works are written in a distinctly Indian scholastic style, and his association with the tantric movement is sufficient to explain his attraction to the simultaneous approach without making him a proponent of Ch'an." (37)
It's not entirely clear which Chinese sources Esler is referring to. We do know that Xuanzang refers to a man whose name is transliterated as Pímòluó-mìduōluó 毘末羅蜜多羅 and means "Stainless-friend (Wúgòu yǒu 無垢友) which is what vimala-mitra means (Records of the Western Region. T 2087, 51: 892b4). However,
"Xuanzang’s Vimalamitra was the circa seventh-century Kaśmīri scholar accused of being a proponent of the Hīnayāna and an enemy of the Mahāyāna. The Vimalamitra who wrote the Commentary to the Seven Hundred Stanzas and Commentary to the Heart Sūtra was clearly an advocate of the Mahāyāna. (Gruber 2016: 102-3)
Clearly more than one person was called Vimalamitra. There seem to have been two distinct individuals:
  1. Vimalamitra (I) was a Kashmiri Ābhidharmika whom Xuanzang might have met in India. 
  2. Vimalamitra (II) an early Dzogchen practitioner later associated with Nyingma and Śrīsiṃha.
Gruber notes that Giuseppe Tucci and Paul Demiéville tried to link the two but they lived a century apart and this is not credible. We know from my previous research that the Heart Sutra was composed after Xuanzang's return to China and after 654 when Atikūṭa translated the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya. Vimalamitra's commentary is largely concerned with the bodhisatva-yāna but he does cite the Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi aka the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, the earliest systematic tantra that Stephen Hodge dates to ca 640 or a little earlier (2003: 11). Vimalamitra's visit to Tibet seems to be in the 790s.

The connection of Vimalamitra (II) to China turns out to be a late, and highly improbable, attempt to connect him with Śrīsiṃha for the purposes of strengthening the particular Dzogchen lineage he had become associated with. And this seems to be the main purpose of the Vimalamitra (II) character. Gruber continues:
"A majority of Vimalamitra’s earliest biographies, dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries... make no mention of the trip to China featured within the Great History. In response to [the Nyingtik tantras] low profile in India, the Great History informs the reader that the only copies of the Dzokchen tantras,which originated in India, were in China with Śrī Siṃha." (Gruber 2016: 99). 
I recently discovered the late John McRae's (2003) Rules of Zen Studies, the third of which is Precision implies inaccuracy. In this view, numbers, dates, and details are literary tropes. Details supplied are a function of temporal distance from the events. This rule clearly applies also to this Dzogchen lineage and to the Heart Sutra in general. Over time Buddhists add details, clarify vagueness, specify relationships, and smooth over contradictions. Later stories are full of the kinds of details that lull historians into a false sense of security, while the earlier stories, though more accurate, are so imprecise as to be useless for the purposes of historiography. This detail of this trip to China is not credible. This is unfortunate because, at least in China, Vimalamitra stood a chance of finding a copy of the Heart Sutra.

The Extended Heart Sutra

To the best of my knowledge no comparative study have been made of the extended version of the Heart Sutra. Thus we don't as yet know if the extra parts of the text were composed in Sanskrit or in Chinese. We don't know if the origins of it are discernable. This is yet another basic research task that the Buddhist Studies community has neglected. The overall research program is completely haphazard. 

Perhaps the strangest part of the Heart Sutra story is not that a Chinese non-sūtra was accepted as an Indian sūtra by 661 CE through the production of a forged Sanskrit text and the attribution of the "translation" to Xuanzang. The strangest part is that anyone would take this version of the Heart Sutra that is accepted as a sūtra and make the effort to turn it into a sūtra by adding the missing parts that Chinese Buddhists were willing to overlook. Thus it is often assumed that the nidāna etc must have been added for the Indian market if not by an actual Indian.

We just keep assuming that the text has a connection with India. Chinese Buddhists accepted that the Heart Sutra was Indian despite the fact that the text fails the basic test of sutrahood - does not start evaṃ maya srotraṃ, doesn't specify the occasion, does not feature the Buddha speaking or endorsing the speech of another, and does not feature the audience venerating the teaching. Of course this did strike 19th Century Western scholars as odd but Asian Buddhists seemed very certain about it. We can now see that the Chinese Buddhist community were duped into believing the Heart Sutra to be Indian by the forgery of the Sanskrit text (I presume a physical document was produced) and the attribution of the "translation" to Xuanzang who had been to India.

Because the standard text does lack the basic features of a sūtra no one is surprised to find a version of the text in which these missing features have been supplied. It is assumed, again that these details were supplied in India. One argument would be that it is not surprising that the Chinese would not add these details because they accepted the standard text as authentic. But one could equally argue that the discomfort with the lack lingered. We have noted that Chinese Buddhists continued to add details to the Heart Sutra myth, including a forged "earlier" translation by Kumārajīva that is first mentioned in 730 CE. The tension caused by this pseudo-sūtra seems to have taken some time to wear off.

No one seems to have considered that another place where the tension of the missing details would have been strongly felt was Tibet. And, unlike India, Tibet shares a border with China. After the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) Tibetans occupied Dunhuang and remained in power there until 848. Note that this period covers the presumed time-frame of Vimalamitra (And Kamalaśīla). As a consequence, many Tibetan texts were found in the library cave at Dunhuang. We've known for at least 35 years that copies of the standard Heart Sutra text in Tibetan exist amongst the Dunhuang cache of texts (Zwalf 1985. See also the transcription of British Library Or.8212/77 by Joy Vriens). Tibetan versions of the standard text were not included in the Tibetan Canon. Also found at Dunhuang are a variety of versions of the extended text as well as texts that are hybrids of two.

Perhaps a Tibetan added the missing details? And when the Indians went to Tibet they encountered the new text there.

Is there any evidence linking the Heart Sutra to India?

Indian Evidence

We have all taken the Tibetan versions of the "Indian" commentaries as evidence for the Heart Sutra in India in the 8th Century. Where we know anything at all about the men involved, we know that they went to Tibet and little more. What does this tell us about India? We are assuming that they all encountered the text in India but there is no documentary evidence of the text in India at any date. The oldest Nepalese manuscript of the extended Heart Sutra is Cambridge ADD 1680 dated to the 13th Century on paleographical grounds.

The earliest dated Chinese translation of the extended version is credited to an Indian monk whose name has been reconstructed as Dharmacandra (T252). The Zhēnyuán Catalogue published ca 800 CE records that Dharmacandra (法月, 653–743) was from Magadha and travelled to China via Kucha arriving in Chang'an in 732 (T. 2157; 878b12–879a5). He is said to have translated the extended Heart Sutra ca 741 CE, the same year he left China for Khotan/Kashgar (where he died in 743). Khotan is on the northern border of Tibet. Although he is said to have arrived in China with texts, he was only able to translate them with the help of his local disciple Lìyán (利言). Who is to say that he did not encounter the text in Central Asia or China? 

In fact, the nidāna of T 252 is very different from the other Chinese translations, the extant Sanskrit, and the Tibetan recensions. They all mention a bodhisatvasaṃgha (an unusual term) but T 252 also uniquely gives the numbers of bhikṣus (100,000) and bodhisatvas (77,000) present. Dharmacandra's final passage is also much shorter and different in structure to all the other versions. So at least two recensions of the extended Heart Sutra exist, not counting the hybrid texts from Dunhuang. It is possible that the missing details were supplied more than once, but that one version became the standard.

Donald Lopez says:
"Among the esoteric teachings given by Śrīsiṃha to Vairocana, which he in turn gave to [King Tri Songdetsen], is [his] tantric commentary on the Heart Sutra, further testifying to its wide appeal in Pāla India, even among tantric yogins" (1996: 13).
If I am right then this story is the only reference to the Heart Sutra in India, since of the other commentators only Śrīsiṃha did not go to Tibet. On the other hand, Ṣrīsiṃha was in fact Chinese and studied Buddhism in China, and we now know the Heart Sutra was Chinese. And this is a precise detail that implies temporal distance and inaccuracy! Contra Lopez, we know that the text was popular in Pāla-era Tibet but we have no historical evidence whatever of the text in Pāla India whether amongst yogins or anyone. 

There's a special form of bias called the street light effect. In the old story, a man is looking for his keys under the street light. It turns out that he probably dropped his keys elsewhere but he is looking under the street light because that is where the light is. Dunhuang is where the light is. Not only was it an important centre of Buddhism and textual copying during the Tang and Song, but the dry desert environment ensured the survival of artefacts. A large collection of extant documents draws our attention, especially when there is a distinct lacks of texts from India because of the disappearance of Buddhism from India coinciding with the decline and fall of the Pāla Dynasty and the rise of Muslim rulers in Northern India in the 12th Century. 

Still, it is important to consider that, during the very period that Buddhism was being spread to Tibet, Tibetans occupied Dunhuang and much of Gansu, keeping the Chinese out of Central Asia for around 80 years. During the occupation, Tibetans were not only interested the Heart Sutra, as we can see from the many copies they made, but they also tinkered with the text, producing new versions of it. The so-called Indian commentaries are attributed to people who are either unknown to us for any other reason and about whom we literally know nothing, or they are figures whose biographies have been elaborated long after the time when they were supposed to have lived. There is, in fact, no direct evidence of the Heart Sutra from India itself.


Long habit has us associate the Heart Sutra with India. After many years studying the text I'm confident that most of this story is fallacious. The Heart Sutra was composed in China and the Sanskrit text is a forgery. The details of the myth of the Heart Sutra were added later. McRae's third rule of studying Zen—Precision implies inaccuracy—applies.

The "Indian" evidence turns out to be Tibetan evidence. The largely mythical character of Vimalamitra is said to have translated the Heart Sutra and composed a commentary on it. But we know nothing about Vimalamitra with any certainty. His historicity is based on the attribution of these texts to him, so we cannot turn this around and rely on his historicity to authenticate the texts. The attributions are facts but they may not be factual. The texts do exist, but the case of the Heart Sutra is instructive. The Xīnjīng is traditionally thought to be a translation of a Sanskrit text by Xuanzang, but it is not. Xuanzang was probably involved in composing the text, but it was no translation. 

Cambridge manuscript ADD 1680 is dated to the 13th Century, but this is some 500 years after the events which we are seeking to clarify. It doesn't tell us anything. The Dunhuang collections are interesting but under-studied, so it is difficult to draw conclusions. Even so, Dunhuang is nowhere near India and no Sanskrit manuscripts were included in the cache. At the time Vimalamitra was active, Dunhuang was occupied by Tibetans, providing a direct route for the Heart Sutra from China to Tibet.

The historicity of the "Indian" text is rather doubtful. It is certainly not based on any direct evidence. The whole idea of the Heart Sutra in India is really just a series of assumptions. This is not an ontological argument that those assumptions are wrong. Rather it is an epistemological argument about how we claim to know what we know. Conclusions in the absence of evidence are fatuous. Such evidence as we have has to be interpreted just right in order to support the idea that the text was known in India. And this is not the parsimonious approach. Buddhist Studies is far too reliant on these kinds of assumptions. 

Religious histories and biographies are not objective or neutral. We really need to take a step back and think carefully about the kind of evidence we have available to us on anything related to Buddhism in antiquity. Physical artefacts are few and far between before ca 200-300 CE.  



Bulbulia, J. “Charismatic Signalling.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 3, no.4 (2009): 518-551.

Campany, Robert F. 1991. “Notes in the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sūtra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14(1): 28-72.

Esler, Dylan. 2005. "The Origins and Early History of rDzogs chen." The Tibet Journal 30(3): 33-62.

Gruber, Joel. 2016a. Vimalamitra: The Legend of an Indian Saint and His Tibetan Emanations. PhD Dissertation, UC Santa Barbara.

Gruber, Joel. 2016b. "Becoming Vimalamitra: Manufacturing the Supernatural in Tibetan Buddhism." In Religion: Super Religion, ed. Jeffrey J. Kripal. New York: Macmillan education handbook series.

Gruber, Joel, 2020 "Vimalamitra," Treasury of Lives, accessed May 16, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Vimalamitra/9985.

Hodge, Stephen. The Māhvairocana-Ambhisaṃbodhi Tantra: With Buddhaguhya's Commentary. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Lopez, Donald S. 1988. The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.

Lopez, Donald S. 1996. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University press.

McRae, John R. 2003. Seeing Through Zen. University of California Press.

Sacco, Antonio Maria. 1988. "Biographic Notes on Vimalamitra." The Tibet Journal 13(4): 13-20

Zwalf, W. 1985. Buddhism, Art and Faith. London: British Museum.

15 May 2020

Mantra in the Early Prajñāpāramitā Literature

One of the loose ends that needs tying up in thinking about the context of the Heart Sutra is the reference to mantra in the Sanskrit text. Of course, I have shown that the word doesn't occur in Chinese, but still, it does occur in the Sanskrit, so whoever translated the text into Sanskrit felt it was relevant. What we need to show is that it doesn't relate to the Prajñāpāramitā tradition, per se. 

The word mantra does occur in early Prajñāpāramitā texts, but not in the tantric sense and not in reference to Buddhist practices. Prajñāpāramitā makes it clear that mantra are not used by bodhisatvas because they are associated with trivial magic. 

A survey of all the uses of the word mantra in the extant Sanskrit texts is very manageable though identifying all the Chinese counterparts is more difficult due to lack of standardised translations. But the Chinese texts are important. Even the earliest Sanskrit texts come from the last century or two of Buddhism in India and although we now have a 1st Century CE Gāndhārī manuscript it only covers two chapters and has suffered a lot of damage. The Chinese translations from the Tang and before represent an earlier phase of development that is far more relevant to the creation of the Heart Sutra than, say, the late Nepalese manuscripts. If we want to know how mantra was seen in 7th Century China, we will need to take the Chinese texts of that period into account. 

As previously, this essay will survey the occurrence of the word mantra in the text now known as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa) and the text now known as the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Pañc). The Chinese names for these vary and it's not clear that there was a distinction in the early translations. My principal points of reference in Chinese will be Kumārajīva's early 5th Century translations: Xiǎopǐnbōrě jīng 《小品般若經》(T. 227) and  Móhēbōrěbōluómì jīng《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》(T. 223). I will also include references to Dàoxíngbōrě jīng《道行般若經》(T. 224) by Lokakṣema (179 CE) — a translation of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra before there were smaller and larger recensions.* I will use Xiaojing a generic term for Chinese translations of the smaller sutra and Dajing for the larger. So as usual in the Nattier method we have four texts: Aṣṭa, Pañc, Xiaojing, and Dajing. We expect that occurrences in Aṣṭa will be copied into Pañc, and that Xiaojing and Dajing will reflect this (although, spoiler, this pattern is broken with respect to the word mantra). 
* Note the title of Lokakṣema's text translates as The Way of Practising Gnosis Sutra or something like prajñācāryamarga sūtra.

There is no Mantra in the Heart Sutra

By finishing a project begun by Yamabe Nobuyoshi and published by Jan Nattier (1992: n.54a) my article on the "epithets" passage (Attwood 2017) showed that the word mantra does not occur in the Xīnjīng. We know, from comparing his translations to the surviving Sanskrit versions of the same texts, that Kumārajīva translated Sanskrit vidyā as míng zhòu 明咒. But when Xuánzàng compiled the Xīnjīng in 656 CE, he read míng zhòu 明咒 as two words: bright dhāraṇī. One way we know this is that Xuánzàng included two epithets—dà shénzhòu 大神咒  and dà míngzhòu大明咒—that in Kumārajīva's Chinese both mean mahāvidyā. Keep in mind that Xuánzàng compiled the Xīnjīng from Kumārajīva's Prajñāpāramita five years before he began his own translations. Xuanzang also included a dhāraṇī (咒) incantation from the recently translated Dhāranīsamuccaya (trans. 654 by Atikūṭa), probably because he knew that Wu Zetian liked magic.

As suggested by Abé Ryūichi (1999), Tantra is a context - something that I think is much clearer in Shingon Buddhism than in Tibetan Tantra. The presence of isolated elements, such as a mantra, outside of that context cannot be considered tantric. Specifically, Tantra requires the communication of the cosmic body, speech, and mind of the Dharmakāya Buddha in the abhiṣekha ritual via mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala. By replicating the cosmic body, speech, and mind the sādhaka transforms themself into a tathāgata. Nothing of this context is present in the Heart Sutra, or in the broader Prajñāparamitā tradition that it draws on. But Tantric Prajñāpāramitā texts were composed later on, potentially confusing matters.  

As a reflection of the translator's source text, mantra is obviously incorrect. Still, the choice of mantra in the Sanskrit translation is relevant to understanding the context. The monk who translated the Xīnjīng into Sanskrit either thought that zhòu 咒 meant mantra, or he wanted us to think that it did (i.e. he wanted to expressly link the Heart Sutra to the newly arrived Tantric Buddhism). He may have been unaware of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts (and thus that the source has vidyā), but he must have been aware of the potential ambiguity of the character zhòu 咒. Like many Buddhist technical terms it has a straightforward use in Medieval Chinese, i.e. "incantation" as well as the specific uses mantra, dhāraṇī, vidyā.

With this in mind, and beginning with the Sanskrit, we can now look for mantra in the Prajñāpāramitā.

In the Prajñāpāramitā

I can identify three passages in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā that use the word mantra. However, not all of them have parallels in the Xiaopin. Curiously, only one of the three occurrences has a parallel in Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā although it also has another use but this is clearly much later. Where possible, I have tried to identify where the word occurs in Lokakṣema's translation of the Xiaopin (T 224).

Passage 1
teṣu ca susthitāḥ samāhitāśca bhaviṣyanti asyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyām | māreṇāpi te na śakyā bhedayitum, kutaḥ punar anyaiḥ sattvaiḥ, yad uta cchandato vā mantrato vā | tat kasya hetoḥ? yathāpi nāma tad dṛḍha-sthāmatvād anuttarāyāṃ samyaksaṃbodhau | te ca kulaputrāḥ kuladuhitaraś ca śrutvā enāṃ prajñāpāramitām udāraṃ prītiprāmodyaprasādaṃ pratilapsyante |(Vaidya 1960: 113)
They will be stable and concentrated in this perfect insight. They cannot be separated from it because of a verse or mantra, even by Māra, much less by other beings. Why is that? Precisely because of their resolute steadfastness with respect to ultimate complete awakening. And that disciple having heard this of this perfect insight will partake in excellent rapture, joy, and tranquility. 
Conze treats cchandato as "willpower" (1973. p. 160) i.e. reading chandataḥ "at will, according to desire". Paired with mantra the more obvious reading is chandas "sacred hymn; metre, metred verse". I think we have to see both words as being ablatives of cause, in -taḥ. Bhedayitum is an infinitive of the causative √bhid "break, injure, separate". Monier-Williams makes a distinction here by relating chandas to the Atharvaveda and mantra to the Ṛgveda, Samaveda, and Yajurveda. The Pāli texts separate the three Vedas and the Atharvaveda, treating the latter as something apart and characterise it negatively (See Who Were the Atharvans?).

The counterpart passage in Xiaopin begins at T 8.555.b06 but there is no mention of mantra. 

Passage 2
punar aparaṃ subhūte avinivartanīyasya bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya vajrapāṇir mahāyakṣo nityānubaddho bhavati |... sa yānīmāni strīṇāṃ vaśīkaraṇāni mantra-jāpyauṣadhi-vidyā-bhaiṣajyādīni, tāni sarvāṇi sarveṇa sarvaṃ na prayojayati | (Vaidya 1960: 166)
Furthermore Subhūti, there is an eternal connection of the irreversible bodhisatva mahāsatva to the great yakṣa Vajrapāṇi...  He does not employ any of the mantras, recitations, herbs, spells, potions, etc for the subjugating of women.
阿惟越致菩薩,執金剛神常隨侍衛,不令非人近之。... 不以呪術藥草引接女人。(T 227, 8.565a24)
The irreversible bodhisatva, Vajrapāṇi (執金剛神), is always bound (常隨) to serve and protect, he does not command nonhumans to draw near him, ... doesn't use incantations [and] herbs to attract women.
Conze got this translation wrong, making strīṇāṃ vaśīkaraṇāni mean "the work of women" (399), but vaśī√kṛ means to "subdue", "subjugate". Women are not the agents of this, the agent of the sentence is, i.e. the bodhisatva.

The Sanskrit phrase mantra-jāpyauṣadhi-vidyā-bhaiṣajyādīni could be treated differently i.e. as mantrajāpya-oṣadhividyā-bhaiṣajya-ādīni "mantra-recitation, herb-lore, potions, and so on". Either way, these are practices associated with vulgar magic and sex (which for a community of monks is off limits). 

Kumārajīva's Chinese is quite different. Here zhòushù 呪術 means incantation and has been used in the past to translate vidyā, dhāraṇī, mantra, mantra-vidhi, and jāpya. "Non-humans" (fēi rén 非人) = Skt. amanuṣya and refers to devas, nāgas, yakṣas, it's not clear to me why not allowing (bù lìng 不令) them near him (jìn zhī 近之) is a good thing.

There is a Chinese counterpart in Lokakṣema's translation at T 224 (8.455.b26, but with Seishi Karashima's corrections 2010). I'm quite sure this is the right passage but to be honest I'm struggling to make sense of it - it is very different from Kumārajīva.
是菩薩,和夷羅洹化諸鬼神,隨後,亦不敢近附。... 終不誘他人婦女。若有治道符祝,行藥,身不自為,亦不教他人為,見他人為者心不喜也。終不說男子若女人為。 (T. 224; 8.455b.28-c.3). 
Here 和夷羅洹 Vajrapāṇī is actually a transliteration of a Middle Indic form of the name: *Vajiravāṇi. One of many indications that Lokakṣema was translating from Gāndhārī rather than Sanskrit. The phrase is zhōng bù yòu tā rén fùnǚ. 終不誘他人婦女。It means something like: "In the end he does not seduce these women". I don't think this should be followed by "。" since what follows are the means associated with the seduction in all the other texts, i.e. zhì dào 治道 "uses witchcraft", fú zhòu 符祝 "incantations", xíng yào 行藥 "practising medicine".

There is a counterpart of this passage in the Large Sutra that doesn't mention Vajrapāṇi.
punar aparaṃ subhūte bodhisattvo mahāsattvo bodhimanasikāraiḥ samanvāgato yāni tāni strīṇām āveśanāni vaśīkaraṇāni mantravidyauṣadhibhaiṣajyāni tāni sarvāṇi sarveṇa sarvaṃ sarvathā sarvan na prayukte na ca prayojayati na ca strīṇām āveśanam anyatarānyataraṃ karoti, na striyāḥ puruṣasya vā ādeśanāprātihāryaṃ karoti, putro vā te bhaviṣyati dhītā vā te bhaviṣyati, kulodgato vā bhaviṣyati, dīrghāyuṣko vā bhaviṣyati. (Kimura 4:157)
Furthermore, Subhūti, the bodhisatva mahāsatva endowed with attention to awakening does not employ, in any way, shape, or form the mantras, spells, herbs, potions (mantra-vidyā-oṣadhi-bhaiṣajyāni) etc. used to magically subdue women; and he does not engage in doing other magic on women: he will not declare mind-reading of a woman or a man, he will not predict the sex of children, or lineage, or lifespan.
(Chapter 50 of Conze's translation). 
I think the latter part of the passage in Lokakṣema is quite similar to the latter part of this.

Passage 3
punaraparaṃ subhūte avinivartanīyā bodhisattvā mahāsattvāḥ kāmāvacarebhyo devebhyaścyutā rūpāvacarebhya ārūpyāvacarebhyo vā devebhyaścyutāḥ santaḥ ihaiva madhyadeśe jambūdvīpe pratyājāyante / yatra sattvāḥ kalāsu kovidāḥ, kāvyeṣu kovidāḥ, mantreṣu kovidāḥ, vidyāsu kovidāḥ, śāstreṣu kovidāḥ, nimitteṣu kovidāḥ, dharmārthakovidāḥ / Vaidya 167)
Furthermore, Subhūti, irreversible bodhisatvas, being fallen from the sphere of desire, or from the gods of the form sphere, or the gods of the formless sphere, are reborn right here in the middle country (madhyadeśe) where beings are learned (kovida) in the arts, verse, incantations, spells, exegesis, etymology, and understanding duty. 
須菩提!阿惟越致菩薩,多於欲界、色界命終來生中國,善於伎藝,明解經書, 呪術占相,悉能了知。(T. 227; 8.565b.11-15)
Subhūti. The irreversible bodhisatva, exceeding the kāmadhātu (欲界) and the rūpadhātu (色界) after death he is born in the middle country (中國), [where people are] good at the arts (善於伎藝), experienced (明解) in exegesis (經書), divination (占相), all kinds of learning (悉能了知)
The region of madhyadeśa is roughly speaking the Ganges Valley border to the north by the Himalaya mountains, to the south by the Vindhya Hills. In other words this is the Buddhist heartland. People there are learned in kalā, kāvya, vidyā, śāstra, nimitta, dharmārtha.  
  • kalā is ambiguous, literally "a sixteenth" (of unknown etymology) but "the arts" seems to fit, later kalā formalised as the 64 kinds of performing arts; 
  • kāvya is the art of metered verse especially as found in the Vedas and Epics, 
  • mantra is ambiguous since it can refer to magical spells generally or it is a way of referring to verse from the Vedas used within rituals (this was the original sense), as we have seen Tantra is definitely not intended; 
  • vidyā in this context is the practical arts, but also the soteriological arts;
  • śāstra is the art of explaining the content of religious and/or grammatical texts; 
  • nimitta is ambiguous and could be related to divination ("signs") or grammar where it refers to etymology roughly a synonym of nirukta;
  • dharmārtha is also ambiguous and could refer either to "the meaning of the Dharma", or to the contrast between the letter (dharma) and the spirit (artha) of, for example, a religious teaching, or to religion (Dharma) and to wealth (artha), i.e. to what Christians call the spiritual and temporal realms.  
This is the long way of saying that the people of Madhyadeśa were educated. Probably not everyone, but everyone you'd expect to be educated was - in this case male landowners and their sons. (Note this is just a description of the times). Either Kumārajīva's text was shorter or he felt that a few examples followed by "all kinds of learning" (xī néng le zhī 悉能了知) got the point across. 

The phrase "being fallen" (cyutāḥ santaḥ) is a euphemism for dying.

The passage is found in Lokakṣema's translation at T 224; 8.455c.17-18. (從欲處、色處、空處,從彼間來生中國,常於善人黠慧中生,在工談語曉經書家生。)

Passage 4

There is one further passage that occurs in Pañc, but it evidently late and a reference to tantric Buddhism since it mentions that the superior man (satpuruṣa) "protects the secret mantras" (guhyamantrarakṣaṇāc). Note that Conze's translation does not include it where we expect it from Kimura's Sanskrit text (i.e. at p.584) but he does include the parallel translation in Appendix II  (p.660), which deals with the reasons why a Buddha has the thirty marks of the superior man.

Given that this passage is an interpolation we need not dwell on it and can now move to concluding remarks.


We have some simple and obvious conclusions from this material:
  1. Mantra was not considered part of the bodhisatva path.
  2. Mantra was considered vulgar magic (used for attracting women, etc), 
  3. There is no sign of a Tantric context in our source texts.
  4. The fact that mantra occurs less often in Pañc than in Aṣṭa suggests that perhaps such references were added to Aṣṭa after the creation of Pañc (evidence of something similar happened to the epithets passage - see Attwood 2017)
It is simply not possible that if the gate gate incantation were a mantra, that an Indian Buddhist writing in the first half of the first millennium of the Common Era would have included a mantra in a Prajñāpāramiā text. Ergo, the Heart Sutra was not composed in India when Conze suggests it was. 

Furthermore, we know that the so-called mantra is, in fact, a dhāraṇī and dhāraṇī were added to texts in India. However, there is still no evidence of the Heart Sutra outside of China before the 8th Century. What we can say is that Indians who went to Tibet wrote commentaries on it (Lopez 1988, 1996). However, while Lopez assumes that the commentaries were composed in India, the evidence does not support this. We can really only say that this is evidence for the text in 8th-12th Century Tibet. It is not evidence for the presence of the Heart Sutra in India. Rather, the earliest evidence for the text anywhere near India is a 13th Century Nepalese ms., Cambridge ADD 1680 (see my transcription of this ms).

We know that there are many copies of the Heart Sutra at Dunhuang, including many in Tibetan. Both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists were capable of composing the extended version, taking it to Tibet. We can only hope that someone studies these texts at some point (I have a conference paper on this issue by Ben Nourse that is not for publication, but Nourse has not returned to the topic of the Heart Sutra at Dunhuang). I think this would be a great PhD topic for someone well versed in Tibetan and Chinese. 

If I write this up for publication at some point, I'll need to look at Mokṣala's translation of the Large Sutra as well. 

This is all confirmation of the revisionist history of the Heart Sutra proposed by Nattier and which has been my main focus for eight years. The Heart Sutra was not composed in Sanskrit. It was composed, probably by Xuanzang, in Chinese, using excerpts from Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation. Xuanzang added a dhāraṇī onto the end of the text. No one at the time confused this for a mantra until the monk who translated the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit made the mistake of translating zhòu 咒 as mantra. Once that happened and the fraud was successful, everyone started thinking of the gate gate dhāraṇī as the gate gate mantra



Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

Abé, Ryūichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press.

Karashima Seishi. 2010. A Glossary of Lokakṣema's Translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: IRIAB, Soka University.

Karashima Seishi. 2011. Critical edition of Lokakṣema's translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: IRIAB, Soka University.

Kimura, Takayasu. 2009. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin.

Vaidya, P.L. 1960. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Gretil Archive, 2014. Including Karashima, S. (2013) On the "Missing" Portion in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. ARIRIAB, 16: 189-192).

Note: I had made some statements about mantra in the Prajñāpāramitā in the past when Alexander O'Neill wrote to me in February 2018. He challenged my conclusions, which admittedly were based on a rather cursory reading and my Pāli bias. I have had in the back of my mind to do a close reading of the relevant passages since then but have only just gotten around to it. My thanks to Alexander for prompting me to go the extra mile and look closely at the details (wherein the Devil lurks). 

24 April 2020

Dhammaniyāmata and idappaccayatā

I was going over my notes on niyāma and comparing some Pāli and Chinese texts a couple of years ago and started writing this essay. I discussed it on the Sutta Central forums in 2018. I noticed it sitting in the draft folder and thought it would be worth finishing and putting on the blog. 

My interest in the concept of niyāma is long-standing and ongoing because Sangharakshita employed the word in his teaching. However, he based his use of niyāma mainly on the ideas of Carolyn Rhys Davids who seems to have concocted a narrative that didn't relate to what we find in Pāli. Rhys Davids was aided by Ledi Sayadaw although they disagreed on some details. Ever since I discovered the way Buddhaghosa actually used niyāma I've been interested to flesh it out. One of the avenues for doing so is to refer to the several uses of the word niyāma in the compound dhamma-niyāmatā and one of the places we find this word used is the Paccaya Sutta (SN 12:20). When we compare the Pāli with its counterpart in the Samyuktāgama, i.e. SĀ 296, we notice something quite interesting with respect to another word idappaccayatā.

Samyuktāgama manuscript was translated into Chinese by Guṇabhadra (求那跋陀羅) in the Liu Song 劉宋 period (435–443 CE). However, there is also a Sanskrit text from a cache found at Turfan. It was copied much later, probably around the 13th Century. We begin with the Pāli.

Paccaya Sutta (SN 12:20)

The Pāli passage with my translation:
uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā. (SN II.25) 
“Whether anyone is awakened or not, the principle remains: the fact of mental events being conditioned, the fixed course of mental phenomena, and specific conditionality [of mental phenomena].”
Tathāgata is how the Buddha referred to himself. It means someone who has realised nirvāṇa or attained awakening (etc). More literally the phrase is "arising of a tathāgata or non-arising of a tathāgata". 

Here thitāva is ṭhitā evaṬhita (Skt sthita) is the past participle of the verb tiṭṭhati (Skt tiṣṭhati from the root √sthā "to stand, remain"). A ṭhita is something lasting or enduring. The long final ā tells us that ṭhita is being used as an adjective of dhātu, a feminine noun. Dhātu can have a range of meanings including "element; natural condition, property; factor, item, principle." If we take ṭhitā dhātu as a unit, then we expect meanings such as "abiding principle", "established property", or "enduring natural condition". In other words, it is a state of affairs that remains in play. The particle eva emphasises the endurance of the principle.

Ṭhitatā is an abstract noun from the same past participle (ṭhita). PED suggests it means "the fact of standing or being founded on". In other words, the connotation is somewhat different here. The word is mainly used in precisely this context as a quality of dhammas. As we know, conditioned (saṅkhata) dhammas arise (samuppāda) in dependence on a condition (paccaya). Dependence (literally "hanging down from") is an inversion of the cognitive metaphor involved in the Pāli word paṭicca (Skt pratītya), which is from the root prati√i and means "going back to, returning".  This also gives us the title of the sutta, paccaya (Skt. pratyaya). A dhamma (literally "support") springs-up (samuppāda) when the condition (paccaya) that supports it (from below) is in place. I take dhamma-ṭṭhitatā to be a reference to the principle of conditionality. And that we can take it to mean that the principle of conditionality is an abiding principle. 

Next, niyāma means "a fixed course; constrained; inevitably". In the context of dhamma-niyāmatā "the fact of the fixed course of dhammas", this means that dhammas don't get a choice. When the conditions are in place, dhammas must arise; when the conditions are absent dhammas must either not arise or having arisen they must cease. Buddhaghosa relates this to the inevitability and inescapability of the ripening karma (cf Attwood 2014). So again this is a reference to the principle of conditionality. 

Finally, the abiding principle is also idappaccayatā (Skt idampratyayatā). The etymology is fairly obvious (more so in Sanskrit) but difficult to articulate in English. The whole thing is an abstract noun, so refers to an abstraction from the idea of idaṃ pratyāya "this condition" or "whose condition is this". However we get there, the word refers to the specificity of the conditions: specific conditions give rise to specific results. In other words, there is an order to how dependent arising functions: it has to function and it has to function in a particular way that relates consequence to action: A kusala cetanā gives rise to a kusala phala; if there is a kusala phala we can infer a kusala cetanā as condition. We can see, therefore, that idappaccayatā is the same quality as Buddha-ghosa's bījaniyāma (like for like), perhaps combined with utuniyāma (timeliness). 

We might call this a law of nature. A law of nature is always applicable, always gives the same result given the same causes. It is a ṭhitā dhātu or a niyāma. Initially out of idle curiosity, I wanted to see what the Chinese equivalents of these words were so I used Sutta Central to identify the Chinese counterpart in the Samyuktāgama. And things started to get interesting because it rapidly became apparent that the Chinese text was corrupt in an interesting way.

The Chinese. SĀ 296

The Samyuktāgama parallel with Choong Mun-keat's translation is
若佛出世,若未出世,此法常住,法住法界 (T2.84.b17-18)
“Whether a Buddha arises in the world, or not, this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma, the element of dharma.” (Choong 2010: 45)
Note that in the Sutta Central metadata this translation is credited as "originally published in" Choong (1999) but it is not translated in that book as far as I can tell. Rather, it is translated in Choong (2010).
Choong (1999: 19) leads us to believe that certain Pāli and Middle Chinese terms are equivalents, i.e.
  • dhammaṭṭhitatā =  fǎ zhù 法住 
  • dhammaniyāmatā = fǎ dìng 法定
  • idappaccayatā fǎ jiè 法界 
But this cannot be right and furthermore what we actually have in the Chinese Pratyāya Sūtra is: fǎ cháng zhù 法常住, fǎ zhù 法住, fǎ jiè 法界. Under 法常住 the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism suggests "the Dharma that is eternally abiding". But I think the pronoun 此 in the text implies dharmāḥ in the plural, meaning mental phenomena rather than the Dharma (singular) - this is also my reading of the Pāli compounds. So a translation like "dharmas abide eternally" is more likely, though obviously this is quite problematic from a Theravāda point of view (I'll return to this point at the end of this section).

Note that the text has taken a shortcut. There is no equivalent to ṭhitāva sā dhātu "the principle remains". Although we do actually have the characters we need for it, i.e. zhù jiè 住界 "abiding principle".

T2 p.84
The problem here is that  fǎ cháng zhù  法常住 "dharmas eternally remain" is followed by more or less the same word, i.e.  fǎ zhù 法住 "dharmas remain". We are expecting to find 法定 the equivalent of dhammaniyāmatā. In other words, this appears to be a scribal error with repetition/substitution of 住 for 定. Such errors are very common in copied manuscripts and called an "eye-skip"). From the imaged page accompanying the CBETA reader the error occurs in the printed version of the Taishō Tripiṭaka as well (see also image right).

Choong glosses over (and thus hides) the repetition by choosing different translations for the two phrases, viz. "the unchangeable nature of dharma" and "the status of dharma". Here "nature" and "status" both translate zhù 住. The character 住—meaning "stay behind, remain; pause, halt"—is a commonly used to translate words deriving from Sanskrit √sthā "abide, stand, remain" since the semantic fields substantially overlap. It is also used to translate the verb viharati "dwelling, abiding".

Moreover, the characters fǎ zhù 法界 do not translate idappaccayatā but rather usually translate dharmadhātu, i.e "the realm of dharmas qua experience " or the "experiential realm" rather than the later idea of a realm of the Dharma). A modern translation of idappaccayatā is 此縁性 but this is no help to us here precisely because it is modern and not found in the Āgama texts. And the reason for this took some time to appreciate. 

It turns out that in the whole Saṃyutta Nikāya the word idappaccayatā only occurs here in the Paccaya Sutta, so there is no easy way to find out if Guṇabhadra used it in other contexts. In fact, this word is very uncommon. Across all the Nikāyas it only occurs one other time, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26), and there only once. The Chinese version of MN 26, i.e. MĀ 204 omits the passage that includes the word idappaccayatā. The story of Brahmā’s request to teach (Section 20 of MN 26) is recounted in (1st) Ekottarikāgama (19.1) but does not use this word. Ekottarikāgama 24.5 recounts part of the story but also misses out the passage of interest. So there appears to be no Chinese Āgama text that uses this expression. At this point, I do not even have any Chinese characters that I could search for in the Chinese Canon. 

We do find the expression in Dàzhìdù lùn《大智度論》 (T. 1509) a voluminous commentary on the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, where our passage of interest is cited. 

有佛無佛,是因緣法相續常在世間 (T1509.253c.1-2)
“Whether there is a Buddha or there is no Buddha, this causality (idaṃpratyayatā), this nature of things (dharmatā), is always present in the world.” (Ani Migme’s translation of Lamotte's French translation)
However, here 因緣 seems to correspond, not to idaṃpratyāya, but to another common compound, hetu-pratyāya “causes and conditions”. The character yīn 因 means "cause" and routinely translates hetu in contrast to yuán 緣 which routinely translates pratyāya "condition". The combination fǎ xiāng 法相 does, at least, correspond to dharmatā, but I think Lamotte has fudged the translation of yīn yuán 因緣 because he knew what it ought to say. With hindsight the expression idaṃpratyayatā is not used here.


I noted above a little anomaly in the Chinese translation with respect to fǎ cháng zhù 法常住 "dharmas abide eternally". The Saṃyuktāgama manuscript translated into Chinese is thought to have belonged to a Sarvāstivāda sect. This phrase—fǎ cháng zhù 法常住—may betray a Sarvāstivāda point of view.

The late David Bastow (1995) outlined why the Sarvāstivādins came to the conclusion that dharmas must be eternal (always existent, i.e. sarva-asti). They began by taking the formula of dependent arising seriously (cited here in the less familiar Sanskrit form that Sarvastivādins used)
yaduta asmin satīdaṃ bhavaty asyotpadād idam utpadyate |
yaduta asmin asatīdaṃ na bhavaty asya nirodhād idaṃ nirudhyate ||
When this is present, that exists,
with the arising of this, that arises.
When this is absent, that does not exist,
When this ceases, then than ceases. 
Let us suppose that a citta or dharma characterised by greed (lobha) arises and then ceases. If we are to make progress as Buddhists, we have to know that we just had a lobha-dharma. In order to know this, the citta itself must be a condition for the knowledge. But according to the formula "that" (result) arises only when "this" (condition) is present. Therefore, the lobha-dharma must still be present. If this relation holds true, then the logical outcome is that dharmas must always be present, they must always exist: sarva-asti. This is where the logic of the formula takes us and is by no means illogical or stupid. It was the dominant Buddhist view in the northwest of Greater India for some centuries. 

Of course, this is eternality is problematic, but the Sarvastivādins got around it by positing that dharmas are always present but only active in the present. This was their metaphysical manoeuvre. All Buddhists ended up having metaphysical manoeuvres to try to link consequences to actions over time (this is one of the main topics of my book on karma and rebirth). The sarva-asti manoeuvre is actually quite metaphysically conservative compared to what made it through into the present. Buddhists tended to proliferate supernatural entities and processes to make karma work, e.g. bhavaṅgacitta or ālayavijñāna.

With this digression complete. we can now turn to the Sanskrit manuscript of the Pratyāya Sūtra, which is the latest of all our sources but may be of some use.

Pratyāya Sūtra

Part of a Sanskrit Nidānasaṃyukta was found at Turfan and edited by Chandrabhāl Tripāṭhī. It was probably copied in the 13th or 14th Century and we know very little about the provenance of it. This gives us a third version of the passage
ity utpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharmasthitaye dhātuḥ (Sutra 14, line 5)
Thus, whether or not a tathāgatā arises, this principle remains: naturalness and the stability of dharmas. 
Cf P. uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā. (SN II.25) 
It appears to me that the Sanskrit text has become garbled. The word order has changed, partially obscuring the relation between sthitā and dhātuḥ. And we are lacking any equivalent of idappaccayatā.

The word dharmatā appears to be out of place. We are expecting to see dharmaniyāmatā. Meanwhile, dharmasthitaye has a case ending which is unexpected, since we expect to see a nominative singular. Given that the word is a feminine noun in -ā we don't expect to see -aye at all. According to Egerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar (1953: 63) it does occur as a case ending for -ā in the Mahāvastu, but it is used obliquely, i.e. for all the cases from instrumental to locative. Which in any case is not the nominative case that we expect (1953: 61). It is likely that -āye was intended, since this is more common, but again, this is the oblique case ending and it cannot be correct. 

If I take the Pāḷi and render it into directly into Classical Sanskrit and Middle Chinese, it looks like this (followed by the actual texts for comparison):
P. ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā
S. sthitaiva tāḥ dhātu dharmasthitatā dharmaniyāmatā idaṃpratyayatā
C. 住界法住法定 XXX* 
Turfan:  sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharmasthitaye dhātuḥ 
SĀ 296: ... 此法常住,法住法界.
* Re XXX: by the end of the section on the Chinese text we still had not identified the Chinese equivalent of the word idappaccayatā
There was nothing very difficult or complicated about either of these translations except the lack of a Chinese translation for idappaccayatā. The words in the Turfan ms. seem to have gotten jumbled up and fragmented so they no longer make sense. Something similar has happened to the Chinese text.

Second Phrase

If we read a little further on in the Chinese text we find a similar phrase which uses some of the same terminology (and the Pāli version once again uses the word idappaccayatā). Starting with the Chinese text and Choong's translation:
此等諸法,法住、法空、法如、法爾,法不離如,法不異如,審諦真實、不顛倒 (T 2.82.b22-4)
All these dharmas are the status of dharma, the standing of dharma, the suchness of dharma; the dharma neither departs from things-as-they-are, nor differs from things-as-they-are; it is truth, reality, without distortion. (Choong 2010: 45-6)
Choong's note (2010: 45) reads:
法定 The unchangeable nature of dharma. Original Taishō texts has 法空, but according to CSA*, it should be 法定 (vol.2, p.36).(2010: 45)
*CSA = Yin (1983).
In other words, the problem here is that 法空 (dharma-śūnyatā) should be 法定 (dharma-niyāmatā). This is consistent with the Sanskrit text. Note that the opening block of text 此等諸法 is literally "these 此 [plural] 等 many 諸 dharmas 法", hence Choong "all these dharmas".

The Turfan Sanskrit text counterpart reads
iti yātra dharmatā dharmasthititā dharmaniyāmatā dharmayathātathā avitathatā ananyathā bhūtaṃ satyatā tattvatā yāthātathā aviparītatā aviparyastatā (14.6)
Here, yātra is not to be confused with the locative adverbial pronoun yatra "where". It must either be a mistake for yatra, or the result of sandhi from yā atra "which here", where is the Prakrit relative pronoun in the feminine nominative singular. The Classical Sanskrit is yāḥ which would be followed by a vowel, but would not undergo further sandhi, i.e. yāḥ atra > yā atra. The Pāli text has yā tatra, which appears to confirm the yā atra reading. However, overall, the Pāli has a very different vocabulary at this point.
Pāli: Iti kho, bhikkhave, yā tatra tathatā avitathatā anaññathatā idappaccayatā—ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, paṭic­ca­samup­pādo.
Thus, monks, that which is actual, not unactual, not otherwisethis is called dependent arising. 
 As Bodhi (2000: 742 n.54) elsewhere notes (i.e. in relation to SN 56:20 = 56:27), the Four Noble Truths are said to be tatha, avitatha, and anaññatha or in his translation "actual, unerring, and not otherwise". Note these are adjectives rather than nouns. Buddhaghosa's commentary on SN 12:20 in the Sāratthappakāsinī  (or Saṃuyttanikāya Aṭṭhakathā) gives these terms a very specific meaning: tathatā refers to phenomena arising when conditions are present; avitathatā refers to this being a non-repeating process - one set of conditions gives rise to one phenomena; and anaññathatā means that  each set of conditions gives rise to a phenomenon that is specific to those conditions, i.e. anaññatha is synonymous with idappaccayatā (which makes me suspect that the latter was added after the fact). Although Bodhi links this commentarial gloss with SN 56:20, the commentary he is translating is not the one that comes up when I look at the commentary on this text. Unfortunately, Bodhi does not say what he is translating.

Note that once again neither the Chinese nor the Sanskrit has an equivalent of idappaccayatā. It's not clear why they have a completely different pericope at this point. Clearly, this goes beyond a simple translation issue. The text appears to have been constructed with a different pericope at this point. 


I started off exploring the meaning of dhamma-niyāmatā in a sutta with a view to better understanding Buddhaghosa's later use of the term niyāma "fixed course, constraint".  This quality of dhamma-niyāmatā is said to be an abiding principle (ṭhitā dhātu). It seems that it refers to the conditionality of dhammas qua phenomena (a word that originally means "appearances"). And thus is it not related to the way that Buddhaghosa uses the term dhammaniyāma to describe the miracles that accompany the milestones in the career of a buddha. This is quite important for the concept of niyāma in Buddhism.

We have to be careful when thinking about phenomena in early Buddhism lest we inadvertently transpose a modern understanding of the concept or the terms we use. It is true that early Buddhists seem to make a distinction between mental and physical phenomena. It seems quite likely to me that they considered physical objects to be independent of their minds, but understood that phenomena associated with such objects (i.e. how such objects appear to the mind) as like mental phenomena. But the insight is connected in their case to meditative experience in which sensory and cognitive experience cease without the loss of consciousness, what is sometimes referred to as contentless awareness. Buddhists were not Idealists in the classical sense, but they might have had some sympathies with Kant's Transcendental Idealism had they come across it.

As I understand early Buddhists, they were making an epistemic argument about the conditions under which we experience phenomena. And they were not making a metaphysical argument about the nature of objects that we experience through phenomena. Indeed, the cessation of experience in meditation eclipsed any and all metaphysical speculation in importance. Which is not the same as saying that early Buddhists did not have metaphysics or that their epistemic conclusions did not have metaphysical implications. Rather, they simply never systematically developed metaphysics as a branch of philosophy. Phenomena and the nature of experience were the focus.

I argued that dhammaṭṭhitatā is a reference to fact of conditionality, what the early Buddhists considered to be an enduring law of nature, that phenomena arise when the condition is present. And that the term dhammaniyāmatā is a synonym with only a slightly different connotation. That a dhamma (qua mental event) has a fixed course (niyāmatā) is a reference to the inevitability of a phenomenon arising when the condition for it is present, and the ceasing or non-arising when the condition is absent. This suggests that dhamma-niyāmatā is more like Buddhaghosa's kamma-niyāma.

The original phrase in the sutta was probably: ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā "this fact remains: the fact of mental events being conditioned, the constraints on mental events". And since the text refers to only one fact (sā dhātu), we have to read dhamma-ṭṭhitatā and dhamma-niyāmatā as being synonyms, not two different terms. Contrarily, we have to read dhamma here as dhammā (plural) and as being related to phenomena qua how things appear to us, not the existence of things or the nature of their existence.

It seems that idappaccayatā only occurs in Theravāda texts and may be a late insertion. I could find no early Buddhist texts in other languages that contain this word, even when there are translations that seem to be direct parallels. There seems to be no entry in the Gāndhārī dictionary that corresponds to this word. This seems to me to be quite a significant preliminary result that should be followed up on, but it probably won't be me that does it as I have my hands full with other things for the foreseeable future.

We also see how errors build up to render a text confusing or even meaningless and how Chinese texts read in isolation are often misleading.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). "Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma." Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21,503-535. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma

Bastow, David. (1995). The First Argument for Sarvāstivāda. Asian Philosophy 5(2), 109-125. Online: http://buddhism.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-ADM/bastow.htm

Choong Mun-keat (1999). The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism. [2nd. Ed.] Motilal Banarsidass.

Choong Mun-keat (2010). Annotated Translation of Sutras from the Chinese Samyuktāgama relevant to the Early Buddhist Teachings on Emptiness and the Middle Way. [2nd Rev. Ed.] Thailand: International Buddhist College.

Edgerton, F. (1953). Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. Vol I. Reprinted: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2004.

Tripāṭhī, C. (1962). Fünfundzwanzig Sūtras des Nidānasaṃyukta. (Sanskrittexte aus den Turfanfunden, VIII). Berlin : Akademie-Verlag. Online at GRETIL.

Yin Shun. (1983) Combined Edition of Sūtra and Śāstra of the Saṃyuktāgama. Shanghai: Zhonghua Book Company. [印順. (1983) 雜阿含經論會編. 中華書局.]

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