17 July 2020

The extended Heart Sutra: Nidāna

I'm beginning a close reading of the extended text of the Heart Sutra. Having spent a good deal of time on the core section that it has in common with the standard version, I will be focused on the extra passages. 

We do not yet know in which language the Heart Sutra was extended. The traditional consensus is that the Chinese and Tibetan versions are translated from Sanskrit. This is plausible enough but we also know that the same consensus holds for the standard version and that it is incorrect in that case; the standard Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese. Part of the reason for doing a close reading of this text is to see if more information can be gleaned from the terms, the grammar and syntax, or the idiom of the various versions. 

As I have said there are two broad groups of texts:
Recension One
  • Sanskrit (with many variants)
  • T 253, 254, 257. 
  • TibA, TibB, T 255 (trans from Tib)
Recension Two
  • T 252.
Recall that TibA is in the Tantra section of the Kanjur and TibB is in the Prajñāpāramitā section.

Whoever created the extended Heart Sutra did so to supply certain missing elements that a sūtra was expected to have in Tang China. Of these some occur at the beginning in what is called the nidāna "basis" (or "frame" in English) and it is these elements that I will begin with. These elements are found in the beginning of paragraph D in Jonathan Silk's (1994) divisions of the Tibetan text (which I will be following in these essays):
  • 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; 
In many Pāli texts, the Buddha is alone and the protagonists go to meet him and go through a familiar routine of greeting him, exchanging pleasantries, and then sitting off to one side and asking a question. In the Mahāyāna sūtras we usually find the Buddha already surrounded by followers. In the early Prajñāpāramitā texts it is only Arhats who are present, but gradually bodhisatvas are included. As we will see there is considerable variation amongst the different accounts in the Heart Sutras.  So our texts for this essay are:

Recension One

T 253: 如是我聞:一時佛在王舍城耆闍崛山中,與大比丘眾及菩薩眾俱。
Thus have I heard. At one time, the Buddha (佛) was in Rājagṛha on Vulture Peak Mountain, along with a great congregation of bhikṣus together with a congregation of bodhisatvas.

T 254: 如是我聞:一時薄誐梵住王舍城鷲峯山中,與大苾蒭眾及大菩薩眾俱。
Thus have I heard. At one time, the Bhagavan (薄誐梵) was in Rājagṛha on Vulture Peak Mountain, along with a great congregation of bhikṣus together with a great congregation of bodhisatvas. 
T 255: 如是我聞:一時薄伽梵住王舍城鷲峯山中,與大苾蒭眾及諸菩薩摩訶薩俱。
Thus have I heard. At one time the Bhagavan (薄伽梵) was in Rājagṛha on Vulture Peak Mountain, along with a great congregation of bhikṣus together with many bodhisatva mahāsatvas.

T 257: 如是我聞:一時,世尊在王舍城鷲峯山中,與大苾芻眾千二百五十人俱,并諸菩薩摩訶薩眾而共圍繞。
Thus have I heard. At one time, the Bhagavan (世尊) was in Rājagṛha on Vulture Peak Mountain, along with a great congregation of 1250 bhikṣus together with many bodhisatva mahāsatvas and together they circumambulated (圍繞). 

Skt: evaṃ mayā śrutam ekasmin samaye bhagavān rājagṛhe viharati sma gṛdhrakūṭe parvate mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdhaṃ mahatā ca bodhisattvasaṃghena.
Thus have I heard, at one time the buddha was staying at Rājagṛha on the Vulture Peak together with a great congregation of bhikṣus and a great congregation of bodhisatvas. 

TibA. 'di skad bdag gis thos pa dus gcig na / bcom ldan 'das rgyal po'i khab bya rgod phung po'i ri la dge slong gi dge 'dun chen po dang / byang chub sems dpa'i dge 'dun chen po dang thabs gcig tu bzhugs te /
Thus I heard at one time: the Blessed One was staying on the Vulture Peak in Rājagṛha, together with a great assembly of monks, and a great community of bodhisattvas,

TibB. 'di skad bdag gis thos pa'i dus gcig na / bcom ldan 'das rgyal po'i khab na / bya rgod phung po'i ri la / dge slong gi dge 'dun chen po dang / byang chub sems dpa'i dge 'dun chen po dang / thabs gcig tu bzhugs te /
Thus it was at one time when I heard this that the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagṛha, on the Vulture Peak, together with a great assembly of monks and a great assembly of bodhisattvas,
TibA and TibB are more or less identical except for thos pa versus thos pa'i in the first phrase and an extra locative particle (na) on the end of rgyal po'i khab (Rājagṛha) in the second. It's not clear to me why Silk's two translations are so different given this relatively inconsequential difference in the sources.

The Tibetan and Himalayan Library expects 'di skad bdag gis thos pa dus gcig na /  "thus I have heard at one time" and thos pa'i seems to be an error, as pa'i is identified as a genitive case marker. All comments on Tibetan are provisional and have not been checked by a Tibetologist. 

Recension Two 
T 252. 如是我聞:一時佛在王舍大城靈鷲山中,與大比丘眾滿百千人,菩薩摩訶薩七萬七千人俱,其名曰觀世音菩薩文殊師利菩薩彌勒菩薩等,以為上首。皆得三昧總持,住不思議解脫。
Thus I have heard: At one time, the Buddha was in Rājagṛha on the mountain of Gṛdhrakūṭa, together with a great bhikṣusaṃgha of 100,000 and 77,000 bodhisatva mahāsatvas in all, those named Avalokiteśvara Bodhisatva, Mañjuśrī Bodhisatva, Maitreya Bodhisatva, were the leaders.* All had attained the samādhi of always remembering, and abided in inconceivable liberation.
Possibly Maitreya was "at the head" (yǐ wéi shàng shǒu 以為上首), cf. Conze's translation of  Pañcaviṃśati: "and Maitreya the Bodhisattva, the great being, at the head of many hundred thousands of niyutas of kotis of Bodhisatvas." (1975: 38).

Given that niyuta and koti are straightforwardly "a million" and "100 million" (Hindi crore), I'm not sure why Conze didn't translate them. Admittedly we don't have a word corresponding to crore but "billion" would suffice given the context. Conze almost always opts for obfuscation to highlight the perception of mysticism. But worse, I fear he has simply translated the passage incorrectly because the word he translates as "head" pramukhair is in the instrumental plural. It cannot be referring to Maitreya. In refers rather to the bodhisatvas in their masses. Pramukha means "facing; foremost, principal etc.". In Sanskrit the passage is maitreyeṇa ca bodhisatvena mahāsatvena, evaṃ pramukhair anekair bodhisattva-koṭī-niyuta-śata-sahasraiḥ sārdham. "and together with Maitreya Bodhisatva Mahāsatva. Thus [the] foremost many hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of bodhisatvas".

Note also that the last sentence is not found in any other Heart Sutra text.


The term bodhisatva-saṃgha strikes me as unusual. This is at least in part because the Buddhist saṃgha has four parts: bhikṣu, bhikṣunī, upāsaka, upāsikā or in the vernacular, monks, nun, laymen, and laywomen. The mahāyāna bodhisatva was a new invention that did not fit into the traditional social distinctions and, at least in theory, could be drawn from any one of the four traditional groups. T 255 omits saṃgha for the bodhisatvas even though both Tibetan recensions have the equivalent, i.e. byang chub sems dpa'i  dge 'dun. However, the impression appears to be incorrect. In Chinese the phrase púsà zhòng 菩薩眾 occurs in a number of translations including Karuṇā-puṇḍarīka-sūtra and throughout Xuanzang's Prajñāpāramitā translations (T 220).  If anything the phrase púsà mó hē sà zhòng 菩薩摩訶薩眾 is even more common especially in T 220. And it is used repeatedly in the Sanskrit text also. 

While most of the texts do not mention numbers, which many sūtras do, some of them add numbers. It's a distinctive feature of Buddhist sacred texts that if a scribe feels like it they can just alter details like this. Mostly the texts just say "with a large" saṃgha, i.e. 大比丘眾, mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdhaṃ,  dge slong gi dge 'dun chen po dang. T 257 adds the detail that the bhikṣusaṃgha was 千二百五十人俱 "one thousand, two hundred, fifty men in all". T 252 (R2) which is supposed to be the earliest Chinese translation completed in 741 CE, has the most elaborate with 100,000 百千 bhikṣus and 七萬七千 77,000.

Chinese numbers are mercifully simple after the duodecimal numbering system of Indo-European numbers. By this I mean that we have individual names for the first 12 numbers and only then revert to a standardisation of larger numbers in decimals... eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Sanskrit has quite a few oddities, twenty is not a combination of 2 dva and 10 daśa but viṃśati. This inconsistency is seen across Indo-European and is conjectured to have existed in Proto-Indo-European as wīḱṃt- where 2 is *d(u)wo- and ten is *deḱṃ(t). The decade numbers all have ḱṃt for our English -ty (Latin ginti). In Sanskrit wīḱṃt-  the standard transitions—ḱ → ś and ṃ → a—gives us *wīśṃt(i) and metathesis → wīṃśat(i). In Sanskrit w and v are homophones. 

There is more confusion however, because 19 can be nava-daśa but it can also be ūnaviṃśati or twenty minus one, where ūna means "diminished" (in the Heart Sutra all dharmas are said to be an-ūna "undiminished"). Past 100, one can write eka-śataṃ "one and a hundred" or one can write ekādhikaṃ śataṃ "one hundred exceeded by one". Worse still the names of numbers change form so 2, 20, 102, 200 are dva, viṃśatidvādaśa, dviśataṃ, and dve śate. 3, 30, 103, 300 and tri, trayodaśa, triśataṃ, trīṇiśatāni. 6 is ṣaṣ but 16 is ṣoḍaśa. Sometimes numbers are only distinguished by accents in Vedic and these are lost in Classical Sanskrit, so we have dvíśatam 102 and dviśatám 200. And of course, being adjectives, numbers take the gender of the noun they describe.

The higher numbers are 1000 sāhasram, 100,000 lakṣa (Hindi lakh), 1,000,000 niyutaṃ, and 10,000,000 koṭi (Hindi crore).

In Buddhists texts the way the count of people is usually phrased is a certain number of hundreds of them. There is a special way of writing 1250 which is "13 minus a half times a hundred", i.e. "twelve and a half hundreds". So the Aṣṭasāhasrikā opens with the Buddha
mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdham ardhatrayodaśabhir bhikṣuśataiḥ
together with a large bhikṣu-congregation consisting of thirteen minus a half hundreds of bhikṣus.
I'm not sure what the significance of this number 1250 is but it crops up quite a few times in this context.
  1  一  yī 
  2  二  èr
  3  三  sān
  4  四  sì
  5  五  wǔ
  6  六  liù
  7  七  qī
  8  八  bā
  9  九  jiǔ
10  十  shí

Chinese numbers are fully standardised - the digits are given on the right. To make larger numbers they are just combined logically. Twenty is èr shí 二十. 99 is jiǔshíjiǔ 九十九. They have signs for 100 bǎi 百 and 1000 qiān 千. The largest number word is wàn 萬 meaning "ten thousand" but also "myriad, innumerable".

It's as if in English we counted one, two, three... ten, ten-one, ten-two, ten-three... two-ten, two-ten-one, two-ten-two, two-ten-three... and so on up to nine-ten-nine, hundred. It's sometimes said that the relative simplicity of Chinese numbers gives children who speak one of the Chinese languages an advantage in maths, but this could be urban legend. Still, I find this standardised system very attractive, just as I admire the way Sanskrit is written as it is pronounced.

There are a number of ways of writing bhagavān in Chinese, i.e. it can be transcribed as 薄誐梵 MC bwɑk̚ ŋɑ bɨɐmH or  薄伽梵 bwɑk̚ ɡɨɑ bɨɐmH, or translated as (Pinyin) shìzūn 世尊. (Note the superscript H indicates the "departing" tone). These differences are inconsequential, although they do show that even has late as the 8th and 9th Centuries translations were not standardised and individual translators still felt free to choose their own way of doing things. In the past I've argued against this as it puts the reader at a disadvantage if they have to remember multiple ways of referring to the same concept. And in Buddhism where every technical term seems to have at least two different meanings, things are already confused enough.

There are also two different ways of writing bhikṣu, i.e. bǐqiū 比丘 (MC piɪX kʰɨu) and bìchú 苾蒭 (MC biɪt̚  t͡ʃʰɨo). Note the superscript X indicates rising tone. The spelling bǐqiū 比丘 is more common but looks like it might reflect a Middle Indic form like Pāli bhikkhu (the /kʰ/ sound is what we expect for /kh/ in Pāli). Gāndhāri shows a lot of variation including both bhikhu and bhikṣu.


In the standard Heart Sutra odd idioms and calques from Chinese gave the game away and allowed us to conclude that the Sanskrit text was a translation of the Chinese. In this first part of the extended text nothing stands out. There is some variation that is consistent with how Mahāyāna texts evolved over time.

The next part of the text is the Buddha entering Samādhi.

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