24 November 2017

Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis

As I prepare material for my book on the Heart Sutra, I have been collating published responses to Jan Nattier's thesis that the text was composed in Chinese and (back)translated into Sanskrit (Nattier 1992). I suggested in a previous essay that the reception of Nattier's thesis in Japan has been and remains decidedly anti. New evidence of this has emerged in the form of an article by Ishii Kōsei (2015), translated by his English-speaking former student Dr Jeffrey Kotyk

Unfortunately, much of the research done in Japan is only ever published in Japanese and is thus inaccessible to the majority of Buddhist Studies researchers in the West. The linguistic burden is high in our field. I have varying levels of skill in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Medieval-Chinese, but adding modern Japanese just to get access to secondary literature is not feasible. A review article of the Japanese reception of Nattier's article by some qualified scholar is a desideratum, but since Prajñāpāramitā is a tiny niche in Buddhist Studies, it is unlikely ever to happen. 

Ishii is apparently writing in a milieu in which there have already been well-received attacks on Nattier's thesis of a kind that we have not seen in English. He cites publications by Fukui Fuminasa and Harada Wasō, but these apparently focus on the conjecture that Xuanzang might have been responsible for making the Sanskrit translation from Chinese. The conflation of the Chinese origins thesis with the Xuanzang as translator thesis is unhelpful. Nattier leaves open the possibility, but in the end does not commit to Xuanzang being the translator. On the other hand the evidence for Chinese origins is very strong. Ishii seems to think that it is because we Westerner scholars of Buddhist Studies are "not specialists in this respect" that we have fallen for Nattier's thesis, rather than the strength of her arguments.

Ishii thus see his article as contributing some details to an existing (Japanese)  consensus in the face of a general credulity and ignorance in the West. Without access to that consensus, we are forced to take his article on face value, which I'm sure does not do it justice. Be that as it may, I will briefly outline the main points of Ishii's article and then review his methods and conclusions. I may say that my own published research has touched on many of the issues that Ishii has raised and I am thus in a relatively unique position to comment. I am very much a specialist in this respect (see my list of publications).

A Precis of Ishii (2015)

Ishii begins by referencing Nattier's 1992 article with a focus on the idea that Xuanzang might have been involved in editing and translating it from Chinese to Sanskrit. The bulk of the article deals with the opening sentence of the Heart Sutra and with Nattier's translation of it, which Ishii suggests follows the Chinese text, largely on the basis that Nattier omits a word-for-word translation of svabhāva  (1992: 155). 

While Nattier is explicitly translating from a modified version of Conze's critical edition, Ishii refers only to the diplomatic edition based on several hand-copies of the Hōryūji manuscript, produced by Müller in 1884 (though he refers to this as a "critical edition", it is clearly not). In order to attempt to refute Nattier, Ishii launches into a lengthy exposition showing that the word svabhāva is present in the Sanskrit text, but absent in the Chinese, and that the passage overall has given translators some difficulty. He tries to establish a case for the word svabhāva being dropped by a Chinese translator (as it is dropped by Nattier). 

Ishii spends a good deal of time speculating on how to translate the Sanskrit text into Chinese, twisting it this way and that according to rules which may be obvious to his Japanese readers, but which are not at all clear to me. His point seems to be that one may, through a series of arbitrary changes, rearrange a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit, to fit the pattern of Chinese one finds in T251 (the standard Heart Sutra in East Asia). However, on face value the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are simply different. I am told that this may reflect the Japanese practice of rearranging Classical Chinese texts into the Japanese word order and only then interpreting them. A procedure known as  kaki-kudashi 書き下し.

A particular problem is that Sanskrit has three phrases, marked by the present participle caramāṇo "practising") and two verbs with meaning look (vyava√lok) and see (√paś) - both using the pleonastic particle sma indicating the past or the present-in-the-past tense. One of the problems in Chinese is that there are only two verbs in this sentence, i.e. "practising" (行) and "clearly-seeing" (照見). Ishii seems to be saying that the latter is in fact two verbs in two distinct phrases, but rearranged in a series of aesthetic changes so that the two verb characters are together at the beginning of the two phrases, in the order verb1 verb2 phrase1 phrase2

Ishii then discusses the 照見 combination in Chinese literature (two examples) and the vyavalokayati sma/paśyati sma combination in Sanskrit. However, he seems to show that  照見 is used as a binomial verb - the two characters have to be taken together, rather than as two separate verbs, which undermines his case. He argues that thought the phrase 照見五蘊皆空 ([he] saw the five skandhas were all empty") occurs nowhere else in Chinese, that translating it as two phrases does not make sense. 

Next Ishii brings up the commentaries of Kuījī (Ji in the article) and Woncheuk. Ishii notes that Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text and that he used a minor variant of T251, which has an extra character  等 (Sanskrit ādi = English "etc") in two places. Woncheuk was also aware of this variant, and finds ādi in his Sanskrit text, though, of course, his commentary is on the text of T251. It is very likely that these two commentaries established T251 as the authoritative text of the Heart Sutra down to the present. Neither man mentions the differences between the versions in the introductory section. As Ishii hints, had a Sanskrit text been available, it would have been incumbent on the commentator to comment on differences, if only because Sanskrit texts were considered authoritative (this was the entire rationale behind Xuanzang's journey to India after all).

Ishii reveals that his primary goal is still to criticise Nattier's omission of a word for word translation of svabhāva. He has spent 6 of the 8 pages of the article showing this. Though we may say that this is an obvious point and one that has little bearing on the larger issue of where and when the Heart Sutra was composed.

Having laboured this point, Ishii briefly discusses the phrase 真實不虛 "true and not false". The Tang dynasty commentators all take this as a standalone phrase, however Ishii claims that the Sanskrit manuscripts read "satyam amithyātvāt, prajñāpāramitā ukto mantra" which is the way Nattier translates it. Ishii uses the same method to translate the Sanskrit into Chinese, producing something different than the present Chinese text. Ishii seems unaware that Nattier is following Conze's edition, and that Conze's edition gives this passage as:
Tasmāj jñātavyam: prajñāpāramitā mahā-mantro mahā-vidyā-mantro ‘nuttara-mantro’ samasama-mantraḥ, sarva-duḥkha-praśamanaḥ, satyam amithyatvāt. Prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ. 
On this basis, then, Ishii declares that Nattier's thesis is a mistake and untenable. Had I been reviewing this article prior to publication I would have argued that it need major modifications before being published. As it stands the argument is difficult to follow and the evidence does not support the conclusion. 

Critique of Ishii (2015)

Core of the Thesis

Nattier's thesis mainly revolves around the core section of the Heart Sutra, which is a quote from Kumārajīva's text of the Large Sutra (T223). The Chinese Heart Sutra, especially T250 is identical with T223. T251 is identical, but missing a line at the beginning and one in the middle; and a few technical terms are "spelled" according to innovations introduced by Xuanzang. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra by contrast is a strangely unidiomatic paraphrase of the Sanskrit Large Sutra (compared to either the Gilgit recension or the later Nepalese recension).

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra contains a number of words or phrases that are hapax legomena (one of a kind) whereas the Sanskrit Large Sutra has a string of stock phrases. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is unidiomatic in almost every place where it is possible to use a nonstandard synonym, that is, outside the settled technical vocabulary of Buddhist jargon.

There is no doubt in my mind, despite some minor slips on Nattier's part, that the thesis is accurate. I think I have the smoking gun for this, but have not yet had time to check all of the details and write it up. So far as I can tell the term sarvabuddhāḥ tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ "all the Buddhas existing in the three times" is a translation of a phrase that only ever occurs in Chinese. i.e. 三世諸佛. This is literally, "three time all buddha", but we would translate it as "all the buddhas of the three times". Sanskrit texts always use the wording atītānāgatapratyutpannāḥ buddhāḥ instead, i,e, "past, future, and present buddhas". There is no way that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could be anything but a translation from Chinese, produced by someone unfamiliar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom. I need to do a very thorough check on the various texts, but I think this conjecture will stand up to scrutiny and provide definitive proof of the Chinese origins thesis.

Whatever minor flaws we may find in Nattier's analysis, the main conclusion that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is already beyond reasonable doubt. While I would be interested to get more insights into the problems that Japanese scholars see, I cannot imagine how they think they have disproved the thesis. Ishii has certainly not done so in this article, though strangely he provides quite a good summary of the evidence presented by Nattier. However, Ishii does not even touch on this central problem or any of the evidence for it, but concentrates instead on peripheral and seemingly trivial issues that have no impact at all on the issues at hand.

Both of the passages that Ishii comments on are outside the core part of the text, i.e. not part of the quoted section, but part of the original composition that accompanies it. One in the introduction and one in the concluding passage.

Flaw in the Introduction

Before addressing Ishii's comments the introduction I need to point out that I have showed that Conze (and for that matter Müller) made a mistake in his edition. In the first (three phrase) sentence, pañcaskandhās is nominative plural and vyavalokayati sma is intransitive, both of which are nonsensical and make the sentence impossible to parse as Sanskrit. In fact, as some manuscripts allow, the noun should be in the accusative plural, pañcaskandhāṃs (simply add anusvāra to dhā). If we do this, pañcaskandhāṃs becomes the object of vyavalokayati sma. The result is a sentence that can be parsed and that does not require any punctuation (Attwood 2015).

Without solving this problem the Sanskrit sentence cannot be parsed or translated without fudging things. Both Nattier and Ishii fail to notice anything amiss here. But then so do all other scholars apparently.  In this respect the Heart Sutra is a curiously neglected text given its popularity. My next published article will identify and solve another simple error in Conze's edition (in Section VI) that has also gone unnoticed (the flaw is already outlined in my essay Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar" 13 October 2017, but the article will give the conjecture rigour).

The main problem that Ishii highlights, other than Nattier's failure to provide a word-for-word translation of svabhāva, is that the Chinese has two phrases and Sanskrit three phrases. If we assume that the Sanskrit is original, then we expect three phrases in the Chinese as well. In order to make three phrases, Ishii proceeds to rearrange the characters 照見 to make one verb into two verbs, each applying to two different parts of the sentence. 照 can in fact mean "inspect, regard" which is what vyavalokayati means, so in that sense this procedure makes a certain amount of sense.

However, Ishii's method seems to require us to believe that Chinese has no syntax rules. We know that Buddhist Chinese does follow syntax rules, albeit that it sometimes follows medieval Chinese and sometimes Indic rules. Ishii's method is a classic case of making the data fit the hypothesis. It is a post hoc rationalisation. His method is not sound, and not consistent with established principles of philology.

In all of this procedure it is never explained why a Chinese translator would omit the word svabhāva from their translation if it occurs in the Sanskrit text. Nor why they would condense three phrases down to two. Nothing is explained. 

Assuming that we ignore the overwhelming case of a Chinese origin for the core section, there is no way to establish precedence by comparing the number of phrases in a given passage outside the core. In my work on the epithets of the mantra (Attwood 2015) I showed that the number of epithets varied from 2 to 8 in unpredictable ways. Note also that Conze's English translation of his Sanskrit, has an fourth phrase as he struggled to turn his garbled Sanskrit into comprehensible English.

True and Not False

It is ironic that Ishii should bring up 真實不虛, because the Sanskrit is clearly a mistranslation of the Chinese. Although the combination of 真實 and 不虛 is common in Chinese, the combination of satya and amithyā never occurs in Sanskrit outside the Heart Sutra, where is is one of several hapax legomena. Although Ishii provides several examples of the use of 真實不虛 in Chinese, he never gives the Sanskrit equivalent. Since we know that it is not satyam amithyātvāt, it would be most interesting to see what the equivalent is. 

However the problem here is deeper: satyam amithyātvāt is nonsensical as it stands. Amithyā does not mean "false", i.e. it is not an antonym for satya, which would be mṛṣa or even asatya. Mithyā on the other hand is the antonym of samyañj, and it means "wrong" (as in, going about something the wrong way, against the grain, in the wrong direction). Worse, in fact 虛 isn't an antonym of 真實 "true" either, but instead means "hollow, empty; vain, pointless". The passage does not mean "true and not false" it means "true and not in vain". And amithyā cannot be construed as a good translation of this. And the word in Sanskrit that might correspond to this is tucchaka. A better English translation would thus be "true and effective". A better Sanskrit translation would be satyaṃ atucchakaṃ. Again I hope to publish something on this, but it is another case of something that ought to have been obvious to anyone who reads Buddhist Sanskrit texts. 

Syntactically, in Chinese both qualities are predicates of prajñāpāramitā (there is no suggestion that one is the cause of the other). It makes no sense at all, in Sanskrit, to take satyam amithyātvād with the following passage. Amithyātvād is weird: the wrong word in the wrong form in the wrong case. It is not the weirdest thing about the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, but I find it hard to believe that it has not caused other scholars to scratch their heads.

Miscellaneous Criticisms.

It is strange that Ishii would use Müller's diplomatic edition than the critical editions by Conze. Despite being flawed in places, it is still the result of comparing many different manuscripts. At one point Ishii refers to "most of the extant Sanskrit manuscripts", but he does not cite any one of them. We have to wonder what sources he consulted, or whether he referred to Conze's notes in his edition? In which case why not use that edition as his Sanskrit source?

At one point Ishii makes a big deal of the Chinese translations of the extended version of the Heart Sutra T253, T254, T255, and T257. He must surely be aware that there is no dispute that these are translations from Sanskrit. The dates are clearly recorded in Chinese and that they come from a much later period. They have no bearing on the matter which language the text was composed in. Citing them doesn't help his case at all.

Thinking about Woncheuk's reference to a version with 等 (ādi) in it. Lusthaus (2003) also tries to make something of this. But so what? The version is no longer extant and was not canonised - no one saw it as important enough to preserve. And as before, it doesn't affect the main arguments. Ishii and Lusthaus both fail to see that although Woncheuk appears to have had a Sanskrit text, he does not treat it as authoritative. Rather, he comments on T251 as the authoritative version of the text. So does Kuījī. Under what circumstances does a Sanskrit "original" (as Lusthaus calls it) not trump a Chinese translation in early medieval China? In fact both Kuījī and Woncheuk were aware that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, and Kuījī at least knew it contained a quote from T223  (see Nattier 1992: 206-7, n.33). So this is not news. It is quite likely that it is precisely these two commentaries that establish T251 as the authoritative text in China and its cultural sphere. This is entirely inconsistent with the pair having a Sanskrit "original".


The text of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is so far from the idiom of Prajñāpāramitā Sanskrit literature, Buddhist Sanskrit literature, or any other kind of Sanskrit literature, that the fact itself is (or ought to be) remarkable. The Heart Sutra stands alone in the entire body of Sanskrit literature and is only related to the other Prajñāpāramitā texts by its use of jargon. This is not consistent with being composed in India. It is consistent with having been composed in China by someone proficient in Sanskrit, but without any great knowledge of idiom. This could not have been Xuanzang - who was more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom than anyone in China at the time. I think the mistakes highlighted by Huifeng (2014) also helped to cement the Chinese origins thesis. The translator has misread the Chinese text at times and has struggled to find the Sanskrit vocabulary to express the Chinese concepts at others. Again this is inconsistent with a monk in an Indian Sanskrit-using context. The translator was relatively isolated.

I admit, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging from Ishii and I found the article quite disappointing. He concentrates on peripheral issues and provides no refutation of the very strong evidence put forward already (and added to by Huifeng and myself in the last couple of years). The methods are not sound and the conclusions are weak and do not derive from the evidence presented. It looks like a tendentious throwing together of evidence to support a preconceived conclusion. "It is inconceivable that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, therefore it wasn't. QED." But this is hardly the standard of argumentation and reasoning we expect from a senior academic.

Like other scholars before him, Ishii has simply overlooked the grammatical errors in the Sanskrit text, which I am less and less inclined to forgive in professionals. After all, professionals are, on the whole (with a few notable exceptions), very hard on me when I dare to encroach on their territory and do not meet their high standards. So yes, let's have high standards, but that includes not being duped into accepting simple grammatical errors in our texts. 

We should, of course, not judge Japanese scholarship more generally on the basis of this single example, even though Ishii is a senior member of the Japanese Buddhist Studies establishment. We can hope that the article does not reflect the state of the art in Japan. However, it is not a good sign that such a weak and confused article could be published in a peer-reviewed journal at all. 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. ​​Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017).  ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

Huifeng. (2014). ‘Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75

Ishii, Kosei. (2015) 『般若心経』をめぐる諸問題 ―ジャン・ナティエ氏の玄奘創作説を疑う = ‘Issues Surrounding the Heart Sutra: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier's Theory of a Composition by Xuánzàng.’ Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu), 2015, 64(1), 499-492. (Translated by Jeffrey Kotyk).

Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) 'The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi.' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103.
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