21 February 2020

Jingtai's Catalogue: Wu Zhao and Digest Texts

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

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

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

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

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

Jingtai and the Catalogue of All Canonical Scriptures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digest Texts and the Heart Sutra in Jingtai's Catalogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following Prajñāpāramitā text translations are listed by Jangtai:

Single Translations

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


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


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

Suspected of being fake

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Zürcher, Erik. (2013). Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher. Brill.
Related Posts with Thumbnails