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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