27 September 2013

A New Sanskrit Heart Sutra

Knowing what we now know about the Heart Sutra we can begin to imagine how it came about. The text was almost certainly produced by a monk because it implies knowledge of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and this implies written texts that would have been accessible, both physically and linguistically, only to monks. The monk may well have been engaged in copying the text.

The monk was, amongst other things, a devotee of Avalokiteśvara. The cult of Avalokiteśvara was widespread in China; however, the various schools of Buddhism were not so distinct as in India. Within a more generalised, less sectarian, Buddhism, any given monastery might have had an area of specialisation without a commitment to a particular Buddhists ideology. There is no implied contradiction in a devotee of Avalokiteśvara studying the Perfection of Wisdom tradition in the context of early medieval Chinese Buddhism (just as this would not pose a huge conundrum in the UK today). That said, the choice of Avalokiteśvara as the representative bodhisattva has produced a long tradition of puzzled commentators. 

As he copied Kumārajīva's translation of the Large Wisdom Sutra (T 233), the monk probably noted down some extracts. His notebook might have been paper if his monastery was wealthy. Perhaps he used the back of discarded practice sheets. Or it might have been strips of bamboo bound together. These extracts must have struck the monk as containing the pith or heart of the perfection of wisdom. He learned the lines by heart and began to recite them to himself. Later, using phrases also mainly drawn from the same text, he composed the praises to prajñāpāramitā which follow the main extract, and the introduction featuring Avalokiteśvara, who, for him, was the ideal bodhisattva. The chant began to circulate. As time went on, various positive events and occurrences became associated with chanting the text. It took on the role of charm. Or perhaps it was intended as a charm from the beginning, because we know that magic was and is a major part of traditional Buddhism.

From here we have some traditional narratives about the text and how it became associated with Xuánzàng. The story goes that while travelling in Sìchuān, Xuánzàng helped a sick monk and was given the Heart Sutra out of gratitude. It went on to be a favourite text and charm. It protected Xuánzàng from demons in the Gobi Desert on his trip to India, for example. Xuánzàng, or another Chinese monk who learned Sanskrit and went to India at around the same time, translated the text into Sanskrit. And, of course, in India the text was extended to create the long text that begins with the convention evaṃ mayā śrutaṃ...

In any case, the person who created the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was almost certainly a Chinese speaker who allowed fragments of Chinese grammar to remain in his translation - producing centuries of head scratching until 1992 when Jan Nattier pointed this out. The Sanskrit text was transmitted by being chanted and copied. Finally, in 1948, Edward Conze produced a critical edition of the text in Sanskrit based on a number of manuscript and epigraphical sources. This he revised in 1967, adding new manuscript sources, and again in 1975 for his commentary. However, Conze made some mistakes, and as Nattier identified in the original composition in Chinese, made some infelicitous choices so that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra that most people know is, in fact, in need of revision.

Below is a new Sanskrit text which includes all of the improvements to Conze's editions (1948, 1967, 1975) suggested to date by myself and Nattier (1992). I divide the text into 6 paragraphs. This structure is also somewhat different from Conze's as a result of reinterpreting the epithets of the 'mantra'. I've used full stops for the end of sentences and upper-case letters for the first words in sentences, but otherwise tried to keep punctuation and hyphenation to a minimum. This makes no accommodation to the non-Sanskrit reader, but the idea is to produce a text which conforms to the conventions of Romanised Sanskrit. It can be modified for readability later.

I hope to publish this result more formally at some point (the first step will be my article on the first para which is currently being reviewed by a journal). My Sanskrit is by no means good enough to claim that what follows is definitive. I know a few Sanskritists read my blog and I'm more than happy to get feedback on my linguistic choices. Ideally, such an edition would be accompanied not only by footnotes with all of the alternative readings from the mss., but with detailed arguments about why one reading is better than another. Some of those arguments have been made in the preceding essays, but a proper critical edition will have to wait until I can undertake the project on the proper footing. In addition, using the catalogue of the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project (NGMCP) I recently discovered that the University of Hamburg has a large cache of late Nepalese mss. of the long text Heart Sutra not used by Conze in his editions. It seems only right that these be examined and considered.

The Sanskrit is followed by my own translation, which uses conventions I've established over several years on this blog. In particular, I try to make it clear that the doctrine applies specifically to experience, in contradiction of the long Buddhist tradition which sees the doctrine as describing reality. Although it is possible to extend the domain of interest beyond experience, my belief is that the insights which characterise bodhi arise from investigation of experience. Apart from my idiosyncrasies as a translator, the differences will be much less obvious in translation, since most of the changes to the Sanskrit are, in effect, paraphrases.

Sanskrit Text


namas sarvajñāya
1. Āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma pancaskandhāṃs tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyān paśyati sma. 
2. Iha śāriputra rūpaṁ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam. Rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam. Evam eva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskāro vijñānaṃ. 
3. Iha śāriputra sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā anutpannā aniruddhā amalā avimalā anūnā aparipūrṇāḥ. 
4. Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ na rūpaṃ na vedanā na saṃjñā na saṃskārāḥ na vijñānam. Na cakṣur na śrotraṃ na ghrānaṃ na jihvā na kāyo na manaḥ. Na rūpaṃ na śabdo na gando na raso na spraṣṭavya na dharmaḥ. Na cakṣūrdhātur yāvan na manovijñānadhātuḥ. Nāvidyā nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmaraṇam na jarāmaraṇakṣayo. Na duhkho na samudayo na nirodho na mārgaḥ. Na jñānam. Na prāptiḥ. 
5. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvasya prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto nirvāṇaparyavasānam. Tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya anuttarāṃ samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhāḥ. Tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāvidyā anuttaravidyā 'samasamavidyā sarvaduḥkhapraśamanaḥ samyaktvāmithyātvāt. 
6. Prajñāpāramitāyām ukto dhāraṇī tadyathā gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā 
prajñāpāramitāhṛdayam samāptam


Title: word sūtra is not included because it is not found in most of the mss. or canonical versions of the short text. The short text is arguably not a sūtra, though that title could be claimed by the long text. Instead, the genre of the text is hṛdaya, 'gist or essence', or as some of the Nepalese long text manuscripts would have it, dhāraṇī. Titles of Sanskrit texts are, in fact, usually given in the colophon. The title of the long text various considerably and the word sūtra is rarely used:
  • Nb ārya prajñāpāramitā-hṛdayaṃ
  • Ne ārya-pañcaviṃśatikā-prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya nāma dhāraṇī
  • Nh ārya-śrī-pañcavinsatikā-prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya nāma dhāraṇī
  • Nk pañcaviṃśatikā-prajñāparamitā-hṛdayaṃ
  • Ce aryrā-pañcaviśatikā prajñāpāramitā-hṛdayaṃ
  • Jb prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtraṃ
Note that the tradition itself has already clocked the relationship to Pañcaviṃśati. It seems that individual lineages of transmission, or perhaps individual scribes, had considerable influence over title and maṅgala.

Maṅgala: the maṅgala favoured by Conze, oṃ namo bhagavatyai āryaprajñāpāramitāyai, is found in the long texts and in Nepalese mss. Strictly speaking sandhi demands that bhagavatyai become bhagavatyā (ai + ā > ā + ā). Conze's maṅgala is not found in any short text or the Japanese mss. which have this shorter, more common maṅgala. There is no oṃ in the maṅgala because this was an anachronism for the time. Probably oṃ was originally a mis-reading of the symbol known in Tibetan as yimgo 'head letter' (See Beginning and End Markers in Buddhist Texts). None of the Chinese canonical versions include a maṅgala. Sarvajñā 'omniscience' is a frequent topic in the Prajñāpāramitā texts.

1. Corrected according to my observation of an error in Conze's text. Specifically, vyavalokyati sma is a transitive verb and has pañcasakandhān (accusative plural) as its object. In other words, Avalokiteśvara was examining the five branches of experience when he saw no svabhāva in any of them. This is consistent with Chinese versions. The correction obviates the need for any punctuation in the Sanskrit because phrase boundaries are clearly marked in other ways such as the placement of caramaṇo and ca. On the translation "five branches of experience" see Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics. My formal write up of this material, including a detailed comparison of Sanskrit mss. and Chinese and Tibetan canonical versions has been submitted to a journal for review. 

2. This passage remains intact, though it is significantly different from the Pañcaviṃśati as pointed out by Nattier (1992). The phrases yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatā yā śūnyatā tad rūpam are missing from most mss. and have no counterpart in the Chinese canonical versions, thus are not included. Nattier makes the same amendment in her translation (155; 201, n.5; and 204, n.19).  In the Pañcaviṃśati, Śāriputra is, in fact, being addressed by the Buddha, though in the Gilgit ms. he is called Śāradvatīputra; this section begins evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāradvatīputram etad avocat 'That said, the Bhagavan said to Elder Śāradvatīputra.' The list of skandhas following evam eva is usually a long compound, and the mss. are divided over whether it is itaretara, and thus deserves a plural ending, -vijñānāni (Ja, Cce, Neh), or is a samāhara (an established set) and should take the neuter singular, -vijñānaṃ (Cg). Other alternative readings are -vijñāni śūnyāni (Nelkm); -vijñānāni śūnyatā (Nde); -vijñānaṃ ca śūnyatā (Jb). It seems the majority opt for itaretara and plural, but Conze opted for samāhara. As often as not, Pañcavimśati has vedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskārā vijñānaṃ, but when combining all together has examples of both, viz: rūpavedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskāravijñānāny (Dutt 1.252) and -esu (Dutt 1.148) vs vedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskārāvijñānam (Dutt 1.132). Un-compounding the terms is another possibility. 

3. Though sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā is not included in Pañcaviṃśati, it is in all versions of the Heart Sutra, including the Chinese. The jury is out on how to split this compound: śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā, 'marked with emptiness' or śūnyatā-alakṣaṇā, 'emptiness and unmarked'. My preference is for the former because it is consistent with the Chinese 空相 kōng xiāng 'marked with emptiness' (T 251) and more consistent with Prajñāpāramitā, generally. However, the Tibetan versions seem to have the latter interpretation (Silk 1994: 122-3, 176-7) The lack of this phrase means that in the Pañcavīṃśati the string of qualities beginning with anutpannā apply to emptiness (yā śūnyatā) rather than to all experiences (sarvadharmāḥ) which in some ways makes more sense: Gilgit: yā śūnyatā na sā utpadyate...; Dutt/Kimura śūnyatā notpayate... 

4. Amended by including na before all negated list items as per mss.: Ne, Nh, Nk, Jb, Ce, Cg. This is more idiomatic Sanskrit. Thus also in the Pañcaviṃśati (Gilgit ms. Folio 21v).

5. Niṣṭhānirvāṇa is replaced with nirvāṇaparyavasānam on the basis of studying Kumārajīva's translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra via the glossary produced by Seishi Karashima in comparison with the Sanskrit edition by Vaidya. The new version incorporates praises to prajñāpāramitā as vidyā, replacing word mantra with vidyā as per Sanskrit Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśati, thereby correcting a paraphrase that was confusing. Satyam amithyatvāt replaced by samyaktvāmithyātvāt as discussed in previous essay.

6. The word "mantra" replaced with dhāraṇī to reflect the nature of the item. Now a standalone chant with a bare introduction as the epithets clearly apply to the previous paragraph, not this one. On the dhāraṇī and my use of 'amen' to translate svāhā see The Heart Sutra Mantra.

Colophon. Traditionally, this is where a Sanskrit manuscript names the text. None of the short text mss. have 'iti' the end quotation marker, and thus it is left out here. In the long text this is at the end of the last paragraph and separated from the colophon by elaborate punctuation, e.g.
...bhagavato bhāṣitam abhyanandan iti || ༓ || ... 
[In the Triratna Order we erroneously incorporate iti into the colophon].


The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom

Homage to the Omniscient
1. Noble Avalokiteśvara bodhisattva, practising the deep practice of the perfection of wisdom, examined the five branches of experience and saw they lacked intrinsic existence.
2. Śāriputra, form is not one thing and emptiness another. Emptiness is not one thing and form another. Form is just emptiness. Emptiness is just form. So also for sensations, names, intentions, and discriminations.
3. Here Śāriputra, all experiences are marked with emptiness, they do not arise, do not cease, are not soiled, are not purified, do not decrease, and do not increase.
4. Therefore, Śāriputra, with respect to emptiness there is no form, no sensations, no names, no intentions, and no discrimination. No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touchable, no mental objects. No eye element, and so on, to no mind-discrimination element. No ignorance, no cutting off of ignorance, up to, no old-age & death and no cutting off of old-age & death. There is no disappointment, no cause, no cessation, and no path. No knowledge. No attaining.  
5. Therefore, Śāriputra, because of their state of non-attaining, the bodhisattva, relying on perfection of wisdom, dwells with an unobstructed mind. And because they have an unobstructed mind, they are unafraid and overcome perverse views, culminating in nirvāṇa. Having relied on the perfection of wisdom, all the Buddhas of the three times are fully and perfectly awakened. Therefore, the perfection of wisdom should be known as a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, a peerless spell that allays all suffering because it is true and not false.  
6. A Perfection of Wisdom chant goes: gone gone gone over gone over to the other side awake amen.
The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom concludes.



The yimgo character in the maṅgala (and discussion) requires the Tibetan Machine Uni font (PC, download here) or the Xenotype TB Tibetan New (Mac, download here). Unfortunately it's not part of the main Tibetan Unicode block and is not implemented in some of the standard Tibetan fonts, notably Microsoft's default Himalaya. These are useful fonts to have in any case, but there is an image of the basic yimgo in my essay about text markers if readers don't wish to install them. Other Tibetan fonts may include this symbol. 

  • Conze, Edward (1948) ‘Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.
  • Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays. Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167.
  • Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin.
  • Dutt, N. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: edited with critical notes and introduction. London, Luzac & Co, 1934.
  • Silk, Jonathan A. (1994) The Heart Sūtra in Tibetan: a Critical Edition of the Two Recensions Contained in the Kanjur. Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien.

20 September 2013

Fixing Problems in the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra

There's an old IT saying: "the good thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from." Standardisation does help to facilitate interactivity. These words are encoded in the English language, written in a script deriving from Roman writing. On my computer, they become encoded at one level as HTML rendered on your screen according to agreed protocols; at a lower level in terms of TCP/IP packets sent to your computer from a server; and at a lower level still as short bursts of voltage changes on a wire. If the parameters of these voltages, packets or markup languages were not agreed upon then the internet would cease to work.

In India, from about the beginning of the common-era, Sanskrit became a kind of standard for religious discourse. Even Buddhists began producing texts in Sanskrit, or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, from around this time, despite the apparent prohibition on using Sanskrit contained in the early texts (Vin v.33.1). Some of the first Sanskrit texts were the early Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, especially the Aṣṭasāhasikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā. However, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is distinct from Classical Sanskrit because it includes many Prakrit forms (to the point where some dialects are more like Prakrit than Sanskrit). In some out-of-the-way places other languages were important: Pāli became the "church language" in Sri Lanka; Gāndhārī was used in the Northwest Frontier and many Gāndhārī texts were translated into Chinese (especially the Āgamas or counterparts to the Pāli Nikāyas). Several Central Asian languages of the Iranian family (e.g., Tocharian and Khotanese) were also important scriptural languages. But most Mahāyāna texts were preserved in a variety of Sanskrit.

Another form of standardisation is the construction of critical editions from manuscript sources. The assumption is that a text that now exists in a variety of versions originated from a single written version, which is obviously not always true in a place like India that favours oral composition. An editor will gather all the existing editions of a text and try to determine a text, an ur-text, that is a plausible ancestor to them all. To do this they note scribal errors, any lines or phrases out of place, broken metre, etc., and try to fix them. Then, when obvious errors are fixed, they look for other ways in which texts evolve: for example, interpolations or other changes by previous editors. The resulting text may be different from any of the surviving manuscripts, as is the case for the Heart Sutra.

In the case of the Heart Sutra, we have known for some time that the core of the text derives from the Pañcaviṃśati Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and Jan Nattier has shown that it specifically comes from the Chinese version by Kumārajīva (T 223). Further investigation tells us that the stemma codicum most closely resembles the Chinese version ascribed to Xuánzàng (T 251), though it is not a perfect match. T 251 is largely in the idiom of Kumārajīva with a few of Xuánzàng's terms over-laid. Though a version is attributed to Kumārajīva (T 250) who lived two centuries earlier, both attribution and date are plausibly disputed. Nattier argues that T 250 draws on T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra), a commentary on Pañcaviṃśati attributed to Nāgārjuna and also translated by Kumārajīva, rather than directly from T 223, suggesting it has been edited by someone familiar with the work of Kumārajīva. T 250 also contains two passages, one of 37 characters, which do not occur in T 251. 

In the previous three essays we rehearsed Nattier's arguments that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a translation from the Chinese, focussing in the process on a number of infelicitous passages, the conclusion being that the Sanskrit text is, indeed, a translation from Chinese, produced by someone with Chinese as a mother tongue. If we were concerned to produce a better reading on our way to proposing a stemma codicum, some of these infelicities were easily fixed. In the case of the phrase, na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi, we simply add the negative particle and a case ending to each word to arrive at idiomatic Sanskrit: na cakṣuḥ na śrotraṃ na ghrānaṃ jihvā na kāyo na manaḥ. Thus, the Gilgit ms. of Pañcaviṃśati and, as it happens, also quite a few of Conze's sources, e.g., Ne, Nh, Nk, Jb, Ce, and Cg (once again, Conze misses the opportunity). But some of the other problems run deeper. They would require us to first better understand the Chinese idiom and then make an informed decision about how to render that idea into Sanskrit.

This essay will look, in particular, at two phrases identified by Nattier as working well in Chinese, but becoming clumsy in Sanskrit and in English translations from Sanskrit.

Satyam amithyatvāt

The Chinese characters are 真實不虛 zhēn shí bù xū. Now, the characters 真 and 實 are used in the translation of yathābhūta-jñānadarśana (knowing and seeing things as they are), viz, 見如實、知如真, literally ‘seeing as real, knowing as true’. Where 真, zhēn, means 'real' and 實, shí, means 'true'. Hence, the sense is 'really true' which can be rendered as 'genuine' or 'authentic'. However, according the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism: 真實 has been used to translate a bewildering variety of Sanskrit terms:
akṛtrima, avitatha, avitathatā, aviparīta, ātmaka, ārjava, kalyāṇa, tattvârtha, tatva, tathātra, dravya, dharma-tattva, naya, niyata, nūnam, parama, paramârthatā, paramârtha-sat, paramârthena, pariniṣpatti, pariniṣpanna, pāramārthika, bhūtatā, thūti, maula, yathābhūta, yathāvat, *vāstavikatā, śuddhā, śubha, saṃsevana, sat, satya-kāra, satyatā, sad-bhāva, samyaktva, sāra, sāratā, sva-tantra, sva-naya, svanaya-pratyavasthāna
Choosing which of these was intended is difficult without more context. However, the second part of the phrase is more straight-forward and gives us a point of reference (note the contrast with the difficulty of this part, amithyatvād, in Sanskrit). 虛, xū, 'false', is also used for a variety of terms including śūnya; ākāśa; mṛṣā, mithyā abhūta, but these are all part of one broad semantic field concerned with lack of substance, either literally (śūnya 'empty') or metaphorically (mṛṣā 'false').

Though we find the Sanskrit satyam amithyatvāt unsatisfactory, there are a number of other possibilities that take in the contrast between truth and falsity. One of the main problems with  satyam amithyatvāt is that satyam is not usually contrasted with mithyā. Satyam is contrasted with asatya or, sometimes, with anṛta or mṛṣā. The Vajracchedikā Nāma Triśatikā Prajñāpāramitā or Diamond Sutra (section 14) contrasts satya/mṛṣāna tatra satyaṁ na mṛṣā 'there is no truth and no lie'. However, this pair is not found in the Pañcaviṃśati and mṛṣā is only used once there, in the compound mṛṣāvādaḥ, 'false speech' (cf. Pāli musāvāda). Mithyā, on the other hand, is usually contrasted with samyañc. Of the various possibilities, samyañc/mithyā seems the more likely pair.

Let us begin with 虛, xū, and take it to convey the Sanskrit word mithyā, 'false'. Thus, 不虛 bù xū ought to be: na mithyā or amithyā, literally, 'not false, non-false', or 'true'. These negative forms are common and important in Buddhist Sanskrit vocabulary (and perhaps also in wider Indian literature). There is a special emphasis in saying that something is "not false" as compared to saying that it is "true". Right down to the present, Buddhists have an anxiety about taking the wrong path, or being given false teachings that do not lead to nirvāṇa. In this phrase, the non-falsity of prajñāpāramitā is almost as relevant as its truth.

The opposite of mithyā is usually samyañc (which becomes samyak/samyag in use, since ñc is not a permitted final). For example, we usually contrast samyagdṛṣti, 'right view', 正見, or 'perfect view' with mithyādṛṣṭi, 'false view', 邪見, xiéjiàn. And so on for all of the Eightfold Path. Though note that the character used here is 邪, xié, rather than 虛, xū.

In Pāli, we sometimes find other juxtapositions of samyañc and mithyā. At SN v.17-8 and DN iii.254 the abstract nouns micchatta/sammatta (Sanskrit mithyātva/samyaktva) are contrasted in terms of the items of the Eightfold Path. At DN i.8 we find that Gotama refrains from arguments of the type 'you are proceeding falsely and I am proceeding correctly' (micchā paṭipanno tvamasi, ahamasmi sammā paṭipanno). And at DN iii.128 a contrast is made between understanding the meaning and the words of any given doctrine, either of which can be micchā or sammā: e.g., ‘ayaṃ kho āyasmā atthañhi kho micchā gaṇhāti byañjanāni sammā ropetīti. (grasping a wrong meaning while having a right sense of the words).

From amongst the many possible translations of 真實 given by the DDB we see an abstract noun formed from samyañc, i.e., samyaktva 'completeness, wholeness; truthful', though this word is seldom used in Buddhist Sanskrit (searching across the whole of the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist canon). It's entirely possible for the same Chinese character to be used to translate both samyañc and samyaktva.

So we might have expected the contrast in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra to be along the lines: samyag na mithyā; or samyak ca amithyā ca; or samyagamithyā. Or, if the abstract was preferred, samyaktva na mithyātva etc. In the critical edition of the Aṣṭa by Vaidya we find this contrast between samyak and mithyā used as adjectives:
Saced evaṃ pariṇāmayati, samyak pariṇāmayati, na mithyā pariṇāmayati. Evaṃ ca bodhisattvena mahāsattvena pariṇāmayitavyam. (72) 
If he transforms this way, he transforms truthfully, he does not transform. And thus the bodhisattva mahāsattva should transform.
In a fragment of the Aṣṭa found in central Asia we find reference to a particular samādhi named 'devouring all truthhood and falsehood': samyaktva-mithyātva-sarva-saṃgrasanaḥ nāma samādhiḥ (AṣṭaK line 13). In another fragment (AṣṭaB) we find this explained as:
tatra katama samyaktvamithyātva-sarvasaṃgrasanaḥ nāma samādhir yatra samādhau sthitvā sarvasamādhīnāṃ saṃyuktvamithyātvaṃ na samanupaśyaty ayam ucyate samyaktvamithyātva-sarvasaṃgrasanaḥ samādhiḥ
There is the best of integrated states called "devouring all truthhood and falsehood", remaining in that state he does not perceive the truthhood and falsehood of all integrated states - this is called the integrated state of devouring all truthhood and falsehood.
The same idea occurs in the Pañcaviṃśati (Dutt 1.203)
tatra katamaḥ sarvasamyaktvamithyātvasaṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ yatra samādhau sthitvā samādhīnāṃ samyaktvamithyātvāni na samanupaśyati tenocyate sarvasamyaktvamithyātvasaṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ
Here the wording is almost identical, except that, in the name of the samādhi or integrated state, samyaktva-mithyātva-sarva-saṃgrasanaḥ 'all devouring' has been substituted with sarva-samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho 'compendium of all truthhood and falsehood'. Kimura (1-1.184) has 'there is an integrated state called compendium of truthhood and falsehood' (asti samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ) and then later (1-2. 65) sarva-samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho as per Dutt, with the same explanation (1-2: 74). Dutt also has (1.143) 'there is an integrated state named compendium of truthhood and non-falsehood' (asti samyak-amithyātva-saṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ).

Elsewhere in the Pañcaviṃśati samyaktva tends to only be used in a compound with -niyato 'connected with, established in, or disciplined by'
bhagavān āha: na mayā subhūte 'nuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbudhya kathaṃcid api sattva upalabdhaḥ, samyaktvaniyato vā mithyātvaniyato vāniyato vā (Kimura 5:120)
The Bhagavan said, Subhuti, I don't perceive a being anywhere having attained supreme perfect awakening, connected with truthhood, or connected with falsehood, or unconnected. 
Thus we have a precedent in the Perfection of Wisdom literature for the contrast samyak na mithya and for samyaktva-mithyātva. The Heart Sutra is trying to convey that the efficacy of prajñāpāramitā is down to the features of both truthfulness and non-falseness. The ablative case ending indicates from what a verb proceeds, either spatially or more abstractly for what reason the action happens. Prajñāpāramitā is a great spell, etc., is the allayer of all disappointment because 真實不虛, i.e., because it is true/truthhood and because it is not-false/not-falsehood (it is difficult to find matching abstract nouns in English). We might combine the two factors into a dvandvā compound: samyaktvāmithyātvāt

Having done all this comparative/deductive work, if we now look again at Conze's critical edition we note that there were a few variant readings of this expression:
Cae: samyaktvaṃ na mithyatvaṃ
Ne: samyaktva amithyātvā
Nb: samyaktvamithyatvat (not noted in Conze's edition)
Thus, the very readings (with some minor scribal errors) which would make sense in the context were, in fact, available to Conze in his mss., but he rejected them in favour of something which was not good Sanskrit and did not really make sense. Also, the lacuna in Conze's list of the alternate readings here is not the first I have found after examining the manuscripts.

Unfortunately, this undermines Nattiers argument that this passage is a back-translation. Other passages withstand scrutiny better, but here the simpler explanation is that we are mislead by Conze's critical edition. There was and is a better translation of this phrase.


This term is more consistent in the mss. and our job here is not identifying a better reading from the extant mss. because there isn't one. The job here is to look more broadly at how Kumārajīva, in particular, might have used this phrase to translate Sanskrit. Since the passage this term appears in has not yet been identified with a counterpart in other Buddhist texts, we must cast a broader net. However, I think we can assume that the general style of Kumārajīva is likely to be a reference point, because where we have found exact correspondences to date they are to Kumārajīva's translations. We are fortunate to have Seishi KARASHIMA's detailed glossary of Kumārajīva's translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sutra (T. 9.262), which shows us where and how each phrase was used and links it to a Sanskrit edition.

The Chinese is 究竟涅槃, jiùjìng nièpán. The last two characters render nirvāṇa while the first two mean 'finally attain' or 'ultimately'. The phrase is usually supplemented in both Sanskrit and Tibetan with the verb pra√āp, 'attains', as a past participle, prāpta. This choice is ironic because the text earlier says na prāptiḥ. Conze tolerates this:
"[Niṣṭhānirvāṇaprāthaḥ) obviously contradicts [na prāpti]. It is just because he seeks no attainment, it is just because attainment is quite impossible, that the Bodhisattva attains or wins Nirvana." (1975: 97-98), 
Conze seems to relish the contradictions sometimes found in Perfection of Wisdom texts, but I've already identified at least two example of how this predilection for nonsense has led Conze astray in editing the Sanskrit text. Generally speaking, when our text is nonsense, we have to ask if we have made a mistake. So we have to ask, is the contradiction part and parcel of the text or simply a mistake? What we want here is something that means 'culminating in nirvāṇa'. The bodhisattva, in a state of non-attaining, relies on perfect wisdom and has no mental obstructions (cittāvaraṇa), and thus they overcome wrong views and attain/reach nirvāṇa. So we can see the temptation to supply a verb like prāpnoti 'to attain' even though the text rules it out. We saw the verb ā√rādh 'to succeed' used in Pāli in the last essay.

Now the characters 究竟 are used to translate niṣṭhā, 'state, condition; conclusion, termination'; but they are also used to translate atyanta, 'ultimate, culmination; arrive, reach', and sometimes atyantaniṣṭhā (pointed out by Dan Luthaus on Buddha-L). It would seem that atyanta is a better choice, here. The terms atyantaśūnyatā, 'ultimate emptiness', and atyantaviśuddhitām, 'ultimate purity', are found quite frequently in Pañcaviṃśati. The compound atyantaniṣṭhā, however, still begs the addition of a verb or verbal form, so in this sense it does not solve our problem. 

Consulting Karashima's glossary we find some extra possibilities. Karashima has identified a number of uses for this Chinese phrase in translating the Sanskrit Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or Lotus Sūtra. But one in particular stands out.
為求聲聞者說應四諦法,度生老病死,究竟涅槃 (3c17)
Wèi qiú shēng wén zhě shuō yīng sìdì fǎ, dù shēnglǎobìngsǐ, jiùjìng nièpán
The parallel in Vaidya's Sanskrit Ed. is
yad uta śrāvakāṇāṃ caturāryasatya-saṃprayuktaṃ pratītyasamutpāda-pravṛttaṃ dharmaṃ deśayati sma jāti-jarāvyādhimaraṇaśoka-paridevaduḥkha-daurmanasyopāyāsānāṃ samatikramāya nirvāṇaparyavasānam | (12)
Here 究竟涅槃 corresponds to samatikramāya nirvāṇaparyavasānam, 'going beyond [suffering] to the conclusion of nirvāṇa'. Samatikrama (sam+ati+ √kram) means ‘going entirely over or beyond’; while paryavasāna (pari+ava+√so) means ‘end, conclusion’ or 'ending, concluding'. Kumārajīva also translates nirvāṇaparyavasāna (without samatikramāya) with 究竟涅槃 at 19c4, 50c4, 50c7. Additionally, he used these characters to translate: parinirvāṇa (7c2) and samavasaraṇa (12b5) which overlap semantically. 

Given the context in the Heart Sutra we're looking for a word or phrase that indicates that the bodhisattva's path culminates in nirvāṇa (which is not an attainment, but rather the extinction of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion). Contra Conze (1975), I see no reason to construct this as a paradox. That the goal is a liberation from something, rather than an attaining to something, is not so difficult to grasp. As a compound, nirvāṇaparyavasānam can mean exactly 'culminating in nirvāṇa', because paryavasāna is a verbal noun. As such, it is probably the best candidate for what was written as 究竟涅槃 from amongst the choices identified. The paraphrasing effect of going from Sanskrit to Chinese to Sanskrit might have produced the sequence:

nirvāṇa-paryavasānam → 究竟涅槃 → niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa

I suggest, then, that nirvāṇaparyavasānam is a better reading for 究竟涅槃 in the Heart Sutra than niṣṭhānirvāṇa, and were I editing the text would propose this substitution to create a readable text.

The assumption here is that the Chinese text was inspired by Sanskrit texts throughout. This is an assumption that requires further investigation, though I see preliminary evidence that even the parts not clearly associated with the Large Perfection of Wisdom Text drew on Chinese idioms of Kumārajīva's translations of Buddhist texts. In other words, the text has been composed to conform to Buddhist idioms, probably by somebody familiar with Kumārajīva's translations.


In this essay and the previous one, I have proposed two additional changes to the wording of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, to go with the revision of the first paragraph proposed last year, and the stylistic observations made by Jan Nattier also discussed in my last essay. The two latest suggestions are:
  1. satyaṃ amithyatvāt  → samyaktvāmithyātvāt.
  2. niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa(-praptaḥ) → nirvāṇaparyavasānam
The first is supported by extant mss. readings, though the second is not. In the second case some mss. attempt to solve the problem of the unreadability of niṣṭhānirvāṇa by adding the past participle prāpta, though this creates readable nonsense. The case for the second change, then, is based on readability and an attempt to establish alternatives by tracing how 究竟涅槃 was used to translate Sanskrit terms by Kumārajīva.

Jan Nattier argued that in both cases we have evidence for a back translation from Chinese. I have shown that in the first case this is incorrect, as it seems to be a problem with Conze's critical edition. However, the second does seem likely to an artefact of a phrase moving from Sanskrit to Chinese and back to Sanskrit.

On investigation, we find an accumulation of errors and infelicities in the critical edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, along with a series of suggestions for how to improve the text. A new critical edition, and one which pays much close attention to alternate readings, is now more than desirable, it is urgent. In my next essay I'll propose a new edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra which incorporates the changes suggested so far.



  • Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. 

13 September 2013

Who Translated the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit?

This is the third in a series of essays exploring Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China in about the 7th century. The last two essays have looked at some of the sources for what ended up in the text. The other main issue addressed by Nattier is the question of who translated the text into Sanskrit. I think it's fair to say that this is still a mystery, but the text itself has some clues. 

Let's begin by looking more closely at some of the Sanskrit phrases. Many scholars by now have noted that the Sanskrit used in the Heart Sutra is rather unidiomatic at times. I can assure you that translating the Sanskrit text as it stands is not always easy! It was perhaps this awkwardness that hid a basic grammatical error in the first paragraph which I discovered at the end of last year. In this essay I outline some Chinese idioms identified by Nattier in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, and show how this supports her Chinese origins thesis and puts some limits on who could have translated it into Sanskrit. Coming out of this examination are concomitant proposals to improve the Sanskrit text, which will be in next week's essay. 

In making the case that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, Nattier points to a number of idioms that seem more at home in China than India. For example the phrase niṣṭhā-nirvaṇa is rather awkward in Sanskrit. The Chinese 究竟涅槃 jiùjìng-nièpán is more natural. The last two characters render nirvāṇa while the first two mean 'finally attain' (Nattier has "literally 'ulimate[ly] nirvāṇa"). Nattier comments "[this phrase] is attested in a number of other Buddhist texts, and might well be described as standard (even idiomatic) Buddhist Chinese." (178).

The difficulty of this term can perhaps be exemplified by Edward Conze's equivocation with respect to it. The first two versions of his critical edition (1948) and (1967) have niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa, but (1975) has niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. Conze has added the past participle prāptaḥ 'attained' (from pra√āp 'attains') to nirvāṇa extending the compound. This choice is ironic because the text earlier says na prāptiḥ 'no attaining' (this is a verbal noun from the same root)So why choose prāpta? The obvious answer is that it appears in some of the mss. Looking at the footnotes of Conze's 1967 critical edition (confirmed from my own observations in most cases) we find these variant readings:
Nabcdikm: nistanirvāṇaprāptaḥ
Ne: nirvvaṇaprāptās
Jab, Ccg: niṣṭhanirvaṇaḥ
Cae: tani nirvāṇam prāpnoti
Cg: niṣṭhanirvāṇā
Thus those mss. which supplement niṣṭhanirvāṇa, supplement it with a verbal form from pra√āp. But prāptaḥ doesn't make sense because the text itself rules it out. This, plus the fact that many mss. leave it out and Conze himself left it out in his first two versions of the critical edition, suggest that it was inserted later to help make sense of the text precisely because niṣṭhanirvāṇa alone is so awkward. It's extremely unlikely that the text was composed with the phrase niṣṭhanirvāṇa in Sanskrit.

In Pāli we find a strikingly similar idiom, though only in a single text, Gaṇakamoggallāna Sutta (MN 107):
Appekacce kho, brāhmaṇa, mama sāvakā mayā evaṃ ovadīyamānā evaṃ anusāsīyamānā accantaṃ niṭṭhaṃ nibbānaṃ ārādhenti, ekacce nārādhentī’’ti. (M iii.4)
When, O Brahmin, my disciples are advised and instructed by me, some do indeed succeed to the ultimate goal nibbāna, and some do not succeed. 
Note that the verb here is a causative from ā√rādh 'to suceed, attain, accomplish' rather than pra√āp. The Chinese counterpart, Madhyāgama 144, was translated ca. 397 or 398 CE probably from Gāndhārī. In Chinese the verb is 得 de 'get, obtain, etc'. Thus where there is a verb in a similar Indic phrase it was supplied by some Chinese translators. 

Nattier argues that no one would use niṣṭhānirvāṇa (with no verb) when composing a text in Sanskrit, but that the same idiom is right at home in Chinese, thus the Sanskrit reflects a Chinese original. Recall that, in the case of those sections known to be from the Pañcaviṃśati, the Sanskrit wording has almost invariably changed after going through Chinese. In the next essay we will see that Kumārajīva used the phrase 究竟涅槃 to translate several different Sanskrit phrases, and show that there are several that are better candidates than niṣṭhānirvāṇa. This in turn provides us with possible improvements to the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. 

Another phrase that stands out is satyam-amithyatvāt. Conze (1975) takes poetic flight in translating this phrase: "...in truth, for what could go wrong", but this is not grounded in the text. Satyam is easy enough, it means 'truth' and being a neuter word is in either the nominative or accusative singular. The preceding phrases are the epithets of prajñāpāramitā, discussed last week, and we might therefore suppose that here satyam is predicated of prajñāpāramitā. That is to say that we would naturally read this as saying that prajñāpāramitā is true. The fact of being true is of considerable importance to Buddhists. 

The other word amithyatvāt is much more troublesome however. The word mithyā is a contracted form of mithūyā and means 'inverted', or 'contrary' and thus 'false'. The root is √mith which Whitney's Roots glosses as 'alternate and altercate'. The term is often paired with samyañc (from saṃ + √añc 'to bend') which becomes samyak or samyag in actual use. Samyañc roughly means 'to go with' and mithyā 'to go against'. The form amithyatvāt has a prefix and a suffix, and a case ending. We add -tva to create an abstract noun, mithyatva meaning 'a state of being false' or 'falseness'. This is negated by the prefix a- so that amithyatva means 'a state of being true, truthful', however it's typical to retain the Sanskrit morphology and render a word like this as 'non-falseness' or 'a state of not being false'. Finally the whole word is in the ablative case, indicated by the ending -āt, which tells us the reason for the action of a verb (the verb here being a tacit 'to be').

Putting it all together we may say that satyam amithyatvāt literally means 'it is true because of non-falseness' or even 'it is true because of [its] truth'. This is as awkward in Sanskrit as it sounds in English. Nattier assures us that the Chinese version 真實不虛 zhēn shí bù xū is "entirely natural in Chinese" (177). Nattier suggests it means "genuine, not vain". 虛  can mean 'false, worthless; empty, hollow, vain'.

The suggestion is that satyam amithyatvāt is like the common idiom "long time no see". This phrase is thought to have derived from a Chinese greeting and to retain the Chinese grammar. It may be compared to Mandarin phrase 好久不見 (hǎojiǔ bù jiàn), which can be translated literally as "long-time, no see". 

However, as I will show next week, this is not in fact an artefact of back translation from Chinese, but the result of a poor decision by Conze in creating his critical edition. There were other options available to Conze from his manuscripts that would have made more sense, despite being minority readings.

Finally compare this line:
na rūpaṃ na vedanā na saṃjñā na saṃskārāḥ na vijñānaṃ
With these:
na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi.
na rūpaśabdagandharasaspraṣṭavayadharmāh.
The former is just what we would expect from a Buddhist text. Buddhists are not afraid of repetition, especially not where the longer Perfection of Wisdom texts were concerned, and so use na in each case. The latter two lines look unusual (and the 'infelicity' was spotted for Nattier by highly experienced Sanskritist Richard Salomon. See 214: note 57). Nattier quotes from the Gilgit ms. of the Pañcaviṃśati: "na cakṣur na śrotram na ghrāṇam na jihvā na kāye na manaḥ". Compare the Pañcaviṃśati version from Kimura's edition (2007):
na cakṣurāyatanaṃ na rūpāyatanaṃ (no eye base, no form base).
na śrotrāyatanaṃna [na] śabdāyatanaṃ
na ghrāṇāyatanaṃ na gandhāyatanaṃ
na jihvāyatanaṃ [na] rasāyatanaṃ
na kāyāyatanaṃ [na] spraṣṭavyāyatanaṃ
na manaāyatanaṃ [na] dharmāyatanam,
The Chinese Heart Sutra has:
Wú yǎn, ěr, bí, shé, shēn, yì;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind;
And this in turn precisely follows the Large Perfection of Wisdom Text of Kumārajīva except in the matter of punctuation, all of which was added by later editors: 
無眼耳鼻舌身意 (T 8. 223 p.0223a18.6). 
It seems reasonably clear that na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi reflects Chinese syntax with a single negating particle for all of the items being negated. Sanskrit syntax would give each item it's own negative particle as we see from the Sanskrit Pañcavīṃśati.

For Nattier the weight of evidence suggests that the Heart Sutra is a back translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. However this is only the most obvious conclusion of her investigation. There is a further conclusion from these facts that Nattier does not explicitly draw, but which is implicit given the facts.

The composer of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was probably a Chinese speaker

For Nattier the main suspect in the mystery of who composed the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is Xuánzàng. He lived at about the right time, travelled to India and learned Sanskrit at about the right time. Thus he had the opportunity and the means. He was also known from his memoir of travelling to India to have been a devotee of the text. 

Nattier invites us to imagine that Xuánzàng had arrived in India only to find that the Indian monks had not heard of this text. Upon learning the language would he not be tempted to compose a version in Sanskrit? Early in my own attempts to learn Sanskrit, the Heart Sutra was one of the first texts I looked at precisely because it is familiar and concise. As I mentioned in my last essay, an Indian provenance was crucial to the authenticity of a Buddhist text in China. The whole point of Xuánzàng's journey to India was to return with authentic Indian texts. To discover that one's favourite text was not extant in Sanskrit might tempt the most scrupulous monk to compose a new Sanskrit "original".

Xuánzàng was unlikely to have composed the Chinese Heart Sutra however. It is recorded that he was given the text. A man who he had cared for during an illness taught him the Heart Sutra out of gratitude (179). It subsequently became a favourite to chant in troubled times, such as crossing the Gobi desert.

Xuánzàng included all his translations of the Prajñāpāramitā texts into one huge volume, treating the various texts as chapters. The only translation of his not included is the Heart Sutra. Also the vocabulary of the Heart Sutra (T 8.251) closely matches Kumārajīva's translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom text in most cases. Given that Xuánzàng led the effort to translate all of the extant Prajñāpāramitā texts, and developed a whole new approach to translating Sanskrit, why would he not use his own terminology?

A couple of terms used in the Heart Sutra are distinctive to Xuánzàng. Kumārajīva transliterates the name Śāriputra as 舍利弗 Shèlìfú. Here 弗 fú transliterates the first syllable of putra. Chinese transliterations frequently leave off the final syllable. Xuánzàng, on the other hand prefers 舍利子Shèlìzi, replacing 弗 with the Chinese word for 'son' 子. 

Kumārajīva translates Avalokiteśvara as 觀世音 Guānshìyīn (whence Guānyīn also spelt Kwan yin), whereas Xuánzàng prefers 觀自在 Guānzìzài. As I have noted before, this change in transliteration reflects a change in the Sanskrit name from Avalokita-svara to Avalokita-īśvara (with sandhi resolving a-ī to e and giving Avalokiteśvara). This change is discussed by Alexander Studholme and involves Avalokitasvara absorbing some of the characteristics of Śiva who is converted to Buddhism in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra and in the process absorbing the epithet īśvara 'lord', which replaces svara 'sound'. Nattier notes that Xuánzàng's own students tended to retain the more popular form of the name, Guānshìyīn, even when they adopted his new readings of other terms including the name Shèlìzi (216, n.84).

These usages are innovations introduced into Chinese Buddhist texts by Xuánzàng. And thus we know that at the very least Xuánzàng, or someone familiar with this work, must have edited T 8.251, and have done so after Xuánzàng learned Sanskrit in India and devised these new transliterations of Indic names and terms. 

Whoever did translate the text into Sanskrit, they were soon vindicated by the adoption of the Heart Sutra into the pantheon of Prajñāpāramitā texts.  In China commentaries were produced from the 7th century onwards. In India a number of commentaries (now only preserved in Tibetan) were written from the 8th to the 11th centuries (see Donald Lopez 1988, 1996). All of the Chinese commentaries are based on the Chinese version attributed to Xuánzàng (i.e. T 8.251), and all the Indian commentaries are of the long text. The split in the dates of the commentaries of East and South Asia, as well as the text they chose to comment on are supporting evidence for Nattier's Chinese Origins thesis.



Conze, Edward (1948) ‘Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167.

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin.

Kimura Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. Online: http://fiindolo.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/psp_1u.htm [Input by Klaus Wille, Göttingen, April 2010].

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.

Nattier, Jan. (1992) The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

Studholme, Alexander. (2002) The origins of oṃ manipadme hūṃ : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany: State university of New York Press.

06 September 2013

Heart Sutra Mantra Epithets

The material in this essay has been rewritten, peer-reviewed, and published as
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

Karaṇḍamudrā dhāraṇī
My last essay mined the footnotes of Jan Nattier's excellent article 1992 on the provenance of the Heart Sutra. Her article is a remarkable piece of scholarship and repays close study. The footnotes are no less interesting and in this essay I want to expand on a single long footnote: 54a (211-213). The 'a' is added because this information was included just as the article was going to press and the note, amounting to two full pages, had to be squeezed in, sans any Chinese characters (which in any case were hand written on a separate page at the end of the article).

The subject of this note is the epithets of the mantra. The section we're interested in reads:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro ‘nuttaramantro ‘samasama-mantraḥ
Therefore, it should be known that the perfection of wisdom is a great mantra, a mantra of great insight, an unexcelled mantra, an unequalled mantra
For Conze these are epithets of the Buddha applied to a mantra as a way of conveying the magical power of the mantra: "The prañāpāramitā... is here envisaged as a spell" (1973: 101-104). The epithets in question are those from the familiar itipi so gathā that Triratna Buddhist Community members will know as the Buddha Vandana. In Pāli:
iti pi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācarana sampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā ti
As we can see by simple comparison Conze is stretching things somewhat with this comparison. Of the Heart Sutra terms only anuttara 'unexcelled' has an actual parallel and it is a rather common superlative applied to any and all Buddhist ideals.

Nattier cites two letters sent to her by Nobuyoshi Yamabe. Yamabe San completed a PhD at Yale in 1999 and is the author of several books on Buddhism. Yamabe identified a number passages in Chinese which closely parallel the Heart Sutra epithets. Nattier adds two extra passages to those identified by Yamabe. We'll begin with the passage found in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa). This text is the basis for the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Pañcaviṃśati) and is therefore of some interest. Also the existence of a clear Sanskrit text allows us some insight into another matter.

The Chinese Heart Sutra (T 8.251) reads:
故知般若波羅蜜多,是大神咒 ,是大明咒,是無上咒,是無等等咒, 
Gùzhī bōrěbōluómìduō, shì dàshén zhòu, shì dàmíng zhòu, shì wúshàng zhòu, shì wúděngděng zhòu, 
Therefore know the perfection of wisdom, the great magical mantra, it is the great knowledge mantra, unsurpassed mantra, an unequalled mantra,
般若波羅蜜多 bōrěbōluómìduō is a transliteration of prajñāpāramitā. A short digression here. The Middle Chinese pronunciation of 般若波羅蜜多, reconstructed from rhymes, but lacking information on tones, would have been ban ya ba ra mil da. As we will see shortly the Aṣṭa is written in Classical Sanskrit. However the transliteration banya suggests a spelling more like Pāli paññā than Sanskrit prajñā. Baum and Glass's interim Gāndhārī Dictionary record several spellings of prajñā from the Gāndhārī Dhammapada: praña, prañaï, prañaya. The transliteration of prajñā is quite standard across genres. I can find only one variant: 鉢若 bōruò, Middle Chinese balya. It seems the initial syllable was not heard or seen as a conjunct /pra/ by early Chinese translators even when we can be reasonably sure the text used it.

shén is a term from Daoism that is sometimes used to translate Sanskrit ṛddhi 'supernatural power' or even deva. Generally is means 'supernatural, divine' or 'magical'. It's missing from all of the Sanskrit versions of the text, which opens the possibility that it was added to the Chinese after the Sanskrit text was created.

Yamabe identified a counterpart from the Chinese Aṣṭa, early 5th century CE, translation by Kumārajīva (T 8.227 843b25-27) reads:

Bōrěbōluómì shì dà míngzhòu,
bōrěbōluómì shì wúshàng zhòu,
bōrěbōluómì shì wúděngděng zhòu.

Prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā (明呪),
Prajñāpāramitā is an unsurpassed vidyā (呪),
Prajñāpāramitā is an unequalled vidyā (呪).
As in the last essay, one doesn't need to know Chinese to see that these are the identical characters, except that the anomalous 是大神咒 shì dà shén zhòu is absent. If one knows that Chinese languages, like English, are subject-verb-object languages, one can even guess that 是 means 'is'. Also note that in the Aṣṭa the last syllable of prajñāpāramitā is left off, which is typical. The reason for translating 明呪 míngzhòu and 呪 zhòu as vidyā becomes apparent when we look at the Sanskrit text below. Note also the substitution of 呪 zhòu for zhòu, on which I will say more below.

The Sanskrit version of this text has been edited by Vaidya (p.36, line 30-p.37 line 7 = Conze 's translation p.108-109). This is one of the best attested texts of Buddhist Sanskrit literature. I have seen and handled the beautiful Cambridge manuscript (Add 1643) dated to 1015 CE, which forms the basis of the critical edition. It's written in Classical Sanskrit with just a few Prakritisms. The edition by Vaidya has been digitised, from which I take the following (placing each sentence on a new line to facilitate reading):
mahāvidyeyaṁ kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
apramāṇeyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
aparimāṇeyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
anuttareyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
asameyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
asamasameyaṁ kauśika [vidyā] yad uta prajñāpāramitā|

O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a great spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an immeasurable spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a measureless spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an unsurpassed spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an unequalled spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a peerless spell.
Kauśika is one of the epithets of the Vedic God Indra, usually called Śakra (Pāli Sakka) in Buddhist texts, who plays an important role in early Buddhism and is one of the main interlocutors of the Aṣṭa. The context here is the Perfection of Wisdom per se. Both apramāṇa and aparimāṇa mean 'not-measured or measureless'. Similarly both asama and asamasama mean 'without equal'. I translate vidyā here as 'spell', as the context shows that the idea is something to be spoken or chanted that has magical powers. There is an irreducible element of magical thinking in these texts that is inherent in their pre-scientific world view. It's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Note that the word in Sanskrit is vidyā throughout, and not mantra or dhāraṇī. Here we see 明呪 míngzhòu translating vidyā. Note that in the Heart Sutra epithets we get the sequence 大明咒,無上咒,無等等咒. In the context of the Heart Sutra the tendency is to see 明 as an extra character: the great  knowledge  mantra 咒. We know from the Aṣṭa passages that 明呪 means vidyā, so we ought to read 大明咒 as 'great vidyā'. And this means that  is a shorthand reference to vidyā. The character 明 is being dropped from the other epithets, not added to only one of them. 

This passage from the Aṣṭa is a slightly more elaborate version of what we find in the Heart Sutra. Now compare the parallel passage in Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T 8.223).
Shì bōrěbōluómì shì dàmíngzhòu, shì wúshàng míngzhòu.
The prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā, an unsurpassed vidyā.
Though Nattier notes that the relevant chapter is missing from earlier editions of the Sanskrit, it is found twice in the more recent Sanskrit edition produced by Takayasu Kimura (vols 2&3). Kimura has edited the earlier Sanskrit text of Dutt and referenced both the Chinese and Tibetan translations to produce a new Sanskrit edition based on the same late Sanskrit manuscripts used by Dutt. So we cannot be entirely sure that Kimura has not, once again, back translated an existing Chinese passage into Sanskrit to fill a perceived void. In any case the two passages are:
mahāvidyaiṣā kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā, anuttaraiṣā kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā. (Vol. 2-3:55)
evam ukte bhagavān śakraṃ devānām indram etad avocat: evam etat kauśikaivam etat, mahāvidyeyaṃ kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā, anuttareyaṃ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā, asamasameyaṃ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā.
(Vol. 2-3:70)
The second of these more closely matches what we find in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra with three epithets: mahāvidyā, anuttara vidyā, and asamasama vidyā. It also alerts us to a further occurrence in Kumārajīva's Pañcaviṃśati (T. 223) at p. 286b28 (unnoticed by Yamabe or Nattier)
Bōrěbōluómì shì dàmíngzhòu, wúshàng míngzhòu, wúděngděng míngzhòu.
The prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā, an unsurpassed vidyā, an unequalled vidyā.
Again we see from comparing Chinese with Sanskrit, that 明呪 translates vidyā and here it is not abbreviated to 呪 but spelt out each time. If the core part of the Heart Sutra comes from the earlier passage of the Pañcaviṃśati then this passage suggests that the epithets were also borrowed, probably from this passage. Except that it is clear from the context that these epithets are not describing the mantra, but the perfection of wisdom itself. We associate the epithets with the mantra because the word mantra appears in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. The word is used just twice in the Aṣṭa and not at all in the Pañcaviṃśati (suggesting perhaps that the Aṣṭa occurrences are interpolations).

Vidyā has a number of connotations. Clearly both Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśati are applying the word to the prajñāpāramitā per se, not to the mantra (as we typically read the Heart Sutra). Vidyā derives from the verbal root √vid 'to know, to discover' (cognate with 'wise, wisdom' etc). Sometimes you'll see vidyā translated as 'science' but the whole context is pre-scientific so this is anachronistic. No body of knowledge before ca. 1700 fits today's definition of science, which is not to say that there was no valid knowledge, only that it could not be considered scientific until the scientific method ha been invented during the European Enlightenment. Vidyā means knowledge in a particular field: knowledge of the Vedas, knowledge of political governance etc. Knowledge cultivated through learning and experience, rather than divinely inspired knowledge or insight. It also have a magical connotation. Knowledge in the sense of vidyā bestows control over the subject studied, when one thoroughly knows a subject one is said to have "mastered" it. Ironically we are stuck using 'wisdom' for prajñā, which means (and is cognate with) knowledge; and 'knowledge' for vidyā, which is cognate with wisdom.

Although vidyā later becomes, at times, almost synonymous with mantra, at the time the Aṣṭa was composed, and probably even the Pañcaviṃśati, Indian Buddhists still probably thought of mantras as the spells mumbled by Brahmins (for money) at ceremonies. The Pāli texts contain a few passages making it clear that the chanting of mantras is un-Buddhist (DN 1 [i.9]; SN 7.8, SN 28.10, Sn 480). By contrast the chanting of parittās, or protective texts, was already established as a popular Buddhist practice in the Milindapañha, which predates the Aṣṭa.

The parittā practice may well be connected to the idea of the saccakiriyā (Skt satyakriyā) or 'truth act'. This practice, attested in for example the Pāli Aṅgulimālā Sutta, insists that plainly and clearly stating a truth can alter reality. Aṅgulimālā, for example, uses a saccakiriya to ease the pain of a women and baby experiencing a difficult childbirth. Many other examples are found in Pāli. Some scholars have attempted to link the practice to similar ideas in Vedic culture. There is even a suggestion that some aspects of the power of truth are Indo-European. Holding a red-hot axe-head is a test of truth in both Vedic and Celtic literature for example. It may be that by chanting a sacred text aloud, sacred texts being true by definition, that one might avoid calamity or avert disaster. As mentioned last week, this was how Xuánzàng used the Heart Sutra.

Nattier cites the example of the word for mantra as an example of a back translation. Her thesis is that the order of textual production was like this:
  1. Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati
  2. Chinese translation Pañcaviṃśati
  3. Chinese Heart Sutra - short text
  4. Sanskrit Heart Sutra - short text
  5. Sanskrit Heart Sutra - long text
  6. Chinese Heart Sutra - long text
We can see that Nattier's theory explains the changes that occur in the word vidyā. In this case the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati (itself based on Aṣṭa) uses the word vidyā. Kumārajīva translated this as 明呪 míngzhòu, the usual translation of vidyā. The Heart Sutra first uses 明咒 míngzhòu then abbreviates to zhòu; where zhòu is a homonym for zhòu meaning dhāraṇī (or mantra). This is then back translated as Sanskrit mantra. The change from 呪 zhòu to 咒 zhòu might have occurred for any number of reasons, not excluding simple error based on similarities of sound and graphic form.

It is interesting to note here that T 250 (attributed to Kumārajīva) has 明呪 míngzhòu in each of the epithets, which conforms to the general pattern of Kumārajīva's translations noted above. Nattier's conclusion regarding T 250 is "[it] was based not directly on his version of the Large Sūtra, but on citations from the sūtra contained in the Ta chih-tu lun*" (187).
* i.e. T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra) Attributed to Nāgārjuna and translated by Kumārajīva.
Dàzhìdù lùn itself shows signs of partly Chinese authorship: "Some of the most notable evidence provided by Chou is that the Dazhidu lun’s commentary on the Mahaprajñaparamita Sutra follows Chinese word order rather than Indian..." (McBride 332-333)

At the time the Heart was composed in China we might expect the key term to be dhāraṇī, since the mid seventh century date proposed by Nattier slightly predates the arrival of Tantra in China, while dhāraṇī texts, such as the Karaṇḍamudra Dhāraṇī depicted above, were and to some extent still are, a central aspect of Chinese Buddhism. The first Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra was produced in India, probably in the late seventh or early eighth century at a time when Tantra was in full swing. These dates coincide for example with Stephen Hodges' proposed dates for the composition of the Sarvatathagata-tattvasaṃgraha. In such an environment mantra might have be the natural translation of 咒. Hence find a mantra where we expect not to and, according to my own definitions, where we might expect to find a dhāraṇī.

This is further evidence that the Heart Sutra is synthetic, which is to say it was constructed in China from a variety of sources, probably by a devotee of Avalokiteśvara in the 7th century. Now on the basis of a comparison with the Sanskrit sources, there is an argument for revising this portion of the Sanskrit text:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro ‘nuttaramantro ‘samasama-mantraḥ,
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāvidyā anuttaravidyā asamasamavidyā.
It should be understood that the perfection of wisdom is great knowledge, supreme knowledge, peerless knowledge.



  • Conze, Edward (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
  • McBride, Richard D, II. (2004) 'Is there really "Esoteric" Buddhism?'  Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 27(2): 329-356.
    • Vaidya, P. L. (1960) Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning. Online: http://www.dsbcproject.org/node/8242
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