31 July 2015

Form is Emptiness. Part III: Commentary continued.

~~Continued from Part I & Part II~~

I've combined the three parts of this essay into a single pdf:
Form is (Not) Emptiness.
Previously: In Part I, we explored the language of the passage associated with the phrase "form is emptiness, emptiness is only form". We identified the authoritative versions of the passage, in Sanskrit and Chinese, in the Heart Sutra and the source of the quotation, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. In Part II, we glossed over the existing commentaries, discarding them largely because they treat the Heart Sutra as a tabula rasa on which can be asserted various sectarians versions of Buddhism. We then began to explore passages from the Aṣṭasahāsrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa) to see what they might tell us about the phrase "form is emptiness, emptiness only form" from the Heart Sutra. The method is productive of interesting commentary on the passage, but we had not found an exact parallel. In Part III we begin to dig deeper.


So far, we've been looking for a statement along the lines of "rūpaṃ śūnyatā", which would be the obvious ancestor of the line from the Heart Sutra. So far, the approach has been productive, but we haven't really hit the mother lode. But what if, in being transmitted, the text was changed in an unexpected way? What if, for example, a key word was changed? Is this plausible?

In fact, this seems to be what has happened. In Chapter One of Aṣṭa (1.22) we find a passage that is identical in syntax to the famous passage from Pañcaviṃśati, except that one of the words has been changed. This passage follows on from the one that I identified with the Kātyāyana Sūtra in an essay a few weeks ago. The context is a series of questions and answers on the subject of how a Bodhisattva trains. The passage we are looking at begins with Subhūti asking a question of the Buddha:
"If the Bhagavan were asked, 'Can the man of illusions (māyā-puruṣa) train in omniscience (sarvajñā), will he come near it, will he go forth to it?' How would the Bhagavan explain the answer to this question?"
Here sarvajñā 'complete knowledge, omniscience' is a synonym of prajñāpāramitā and originally of mahājñāna (which was hyper-Sanskritised to mahāyāna as we saw in Early Mahāyāna). In East Asia manuscripts of the Heart Sutra the maṅgala is often namas sarvajñāya. This seems to be the first mention of the māyāpuruṣa or 'man of illusions', or as Conze translates, "illusory man", so we're not quite sure of the context of the word. By way of answer the Buddha asks Subhūti a related question:
"What do you think Subhūti: is illusion (māyā) different from form? Different from sensation, apperception, or volition? Is illusion different from cognition?"
The key phrase in Sanskrit is "anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam". This is starting to seem familiar. The form of this question also suggests that Conze has erred in interpreting māyāpuruṣa. It's not an adjective 'illusory', not 'the man who is illusory', rather 'illusion' is a substantive, as in the 'man who is an illusion' or more likely '...has illusions'. The Buddha seems to be asking whether we can separate the man from his illusions about experience. Subhuti answers:
"It is not the case, Bhagavan, that illusion is different from form. Bhagavan, the illusion is form; form is only an illusion. It is not the case, Bhagavan, that illusion is different from sensation, from apperception, from volition. The illusion is only sensation, apperception and volition, and sensation, apperception and volition are only illusions. It is not, Bhagavan that illusion is different from cognition. The illusion is cognition; cognition is only an illusion."
What the Buddha is saying here is that illusions (things the unenlightened take to be real) are not found outside the five branches of experience (pañcaskandhāḥ) but, in fact, that the five branches of experience are the illusion. At least to the unenlightened, experience is an illusion that we buy into. This is a useful observation.

Even more interesting is that this passage from Aṣṭa uses exactly the same syntax as used in the Heart Sutra passage from Pañcaviṃśati with one change: the word śūnyatā is replaced by māyā. A reminder that the form of the words from the Heart Sutra found in Pañcaviṃśati is:
nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā | nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ | rūpam eva śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpam
And here in Aṣṭa:
na hi anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva māyā | māyaiva rūpam |
In Aṣṭa it is part of a discussion between the Buddha and Subhūti, but in Pañcaviṃśati the protagonists are the Buddha and Śāriputra, and in the Heart Sutra they are Avalokiteśvara and Śāriputra. There are some minor spelling differences caused by sandhi, and by the use of pronouns in Aṣṭa, but neither the words nor the grammar is changed by this. Aṣṭa only has three phrases, to Pañcaviṃśati's four, leaving off an equivalent of nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā. Otherwise, the two passages are more or less the same. Too similar for this to be a coincidence. The Aṣṭa passage has to be the source of the passage in Pañcaviṃśati that became the famous line in the Heart Sutra, but with reference to illusion rather than emptiness.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate this passage in the Gāndhārī manuscript published by Falk & Karashima (2012). However, we can find a probable counterpart to this passage in the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (Rgs).
māyopamāṃ ya iha jānati pañca skandhāṃ
na ca māya anya na ca skandha karoti anyān |
nānātvasaṃjñavigato upaśāntacārī
eṣā sa prajñavarapāramitāya caryā || Rgs_1.14 ||
Here, the one who knows that the five skandhas are like an illusion,
Does not make illusion one thing and the skandhas another;
The one who practices for peace is free of multiplying perceptions,
His practice is the highest perfection of understanding.

The Relation Between rūpa and māyā.

The phrase in Aṣṭa, with "illusion", makes sense in both directions with māyā: "the illusion is form; form is only an illusion." Or "form is an illusion, which is the illusion of form." Indeed, this is fairly standard Buddhist rhetoric about the nature of experience, which seeks to undermine our fascination (or intoxication) with sense experience and encourages us to do the practices which enable us to detach (sober up) from it (especially the vimokṣa practices found in MN 121 & 122).

Initially, in Buddhist texts, the relationship between form and illusion is stated as a simile. We find it said in Aṣṭa, for example, that form is like an illusion (māyopamaṃ rūpam. Aṣṭa 9 cf. Rgs 1.14a). The same simile is given at the end of the Vajracchedikā:
tārakā timiraṃ dīpo māyāvaśyāya budbudaḥ
supinaṃ vidyud abhraṃ ca evaṃ draṣṭavya saṃskṛtam | || Vaj 22
We should see the conditioned as a star, a kind of blindness, a lamp,
An illusion, a dew drop, a bubble, a dream, a lightening flash, a cloud.
The simile is well known and comes from early Buddhism. For example, in the Pāḷi Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95) we find it stated like this:
Evameva kho, bhikkhave, yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ [ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā, oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā, hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā], yaṃ dūre santike vā taṃ bhikkhu passati nijjhāyati yoniso upaparikkhati. Tassa taṃ passato nijjhāyato yoniso upaparikkhato rittakaññeva khāyati, tucchakaññeva khāyati, asārakaññeva khāyati. Kiñhi siyā, bhikkhave, rūpe sāro?
Just so, Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees some form, past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, faraway or right here, he studies it, investigates its origins... and it appears to him unreal (rittaka), empty (tucchaka), without substance (asāraka). After all, what substance (sāra) is there in form?
The word sāra here might also be translated by 'essence', a metaphor drawn from the heartwood of a tree. In the passage below a plantain tree lacks any wood, let alone heartwood. The point being that nothing real comes into being when we have an experience that can be designated 'form'. 'Form' is a label we apply to experience, even when we think we are applying it to the world. Pheṇa concludes with a verse similar to Vaj.
Pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ, vedanā bubbuḷūpamā
Marīcikūpamā saññā, saṅkhārā kadalūpamā;
Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ, desitādiccabandhunā.
Form is like a ball of foam, sensation like a bubble.
Apperception is like a mirage, volition like a plantain
Cognition is like an illusion. So the kinsman of the Sun taught.
So there is some continuity of this idea from Mainstream Buddhism into the early Prajñāpāramitā texts (Aṣṭa, Rgs, and Vaj). Unfortunately, the replacement of māyā with śūnyatā in the comparison breaks the metaphor and the statement no longer makes sense. What makes the Aṣṭa version work is that māyā is another substantive noun (even though illusions are insubstantial). In rūpameva māyā we are comparing two substantives in a well known metaphoric relationship, based on an old simile. Anyone familiar with Buddhist literature is aware of the kinds of comparisons quoted above and can contextualise the statement to make sense of it. However, śūnyatā is an abstract noun from an adjective. In order for the apposition to really work we need something like rūpatā śūnyata 'formness is emptiness', but this still does [not?] make sense when we reverse it. So the substitution of śūnyatā for māyā leaves us with a mess of grammatical and exegetical problems. In short, it seems to have been a mistake.

But is it plausible to say that an ancient editor introduced a mistake into a "sacred" Buddhist text, rendering it nonsensical? Before answering this question we need to follow the lead just discovered a little longer. The invocation of māyā leads us back to the Pañcaviṃśati, which reinforces the idea that we have discovered the origin of the "form is emptiness" passage.

Back to Pañcaviṃśati

In a forthcoming article, I show that the passage known as "the epithets of the mantra" has two possible sources in Pañcaviṃśati that occur close together. One is far more likely to be the source, but the two are very similar in wording apart from the context. Nattier (1992) noted that in the epithets that the word vidyā had been translated into Chinese and then came out as mantra in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. My article will examine this case in more detail.

Alerted by the word māyā to look again at the Pañcaviṃśati I discovered that the "rūpam śunyatā" phrase also occurs twice. The other occurrence is at the beginning of Chapter Three. The form here is a dialogue between the Buddha and Śāriputra, and one of the main differences from Aṣṭa is that the answers are more long winded. Śāriputra asks how a bodhisatva ought to practice (caritavyam). In the Gilgit manuscript the Buddha begins his reply, iha śāradvatīputra (recall how uncertain the wording of this address was in Part 1). The fact that Śāriputra is the interlocutor here also brings us closer to the Heart Sutra.

Importantly, the Buddha's reply is that the bodhisatva does not samanupaśyati 'perceive, observe, regard, consider' anything about themselves or what they are doing (which sounds a lot like śūnyatāvimokṣa). And they especially don't perceive/consider the skandhas. And why not?
Because a bodhisatva is indeed empty of self-existence. It is not through being empty that form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are empty. Emptiness is not separate (anyatra) from form. Emptiness is not separate from sensation, apperception, volition and cognition. Form is only emptiness. Sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are only emptiness.
Note here that anya (other, different) is replaced by the locative anyatra (elsewhere, elsewhen).
What is the reason? Because this is a mere name; bodhi and bodhisatva are mere names which are emptiness. Form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are mere names. Because form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are like illusions (māyopama) and a mere name is not situated or located [anywhere]: non-existent, unreal, false, an illusory idea, self-existenceless, and without self-existence, non-arising, non-ceasing, not decreasing or growing, not defilement or purification.
Although we can be fairly sure that the quotation from the Heart Sutra is taken from the passage a little further on, this passage may well have been influential. What this passage does, is tie us back to the Aṣṭa more clearly through the reference to the skandhas being mere names (nāmamātra) and like illusions (māyā-upama). The use of the locative adverbial pronoun, anyatra, means we read the text as saying that emptiness is not found outside of form in time or space. Emptiness, then, is a quality of experience, rather than a quality of reality. Or we might say that phenomena are characterised by emptiness and noumena remain unknown and (as far as Buddhists are concerned) unknowable.

It becomes more clear why a bodhisatva is doing a skandha reflection at the beginning of the Heart Sutra. The context in the Pañcaviṃśati is precisely this:
kathaṃ punar bhagavan bodhisatvena mahāsatvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caritavyam
How, moreover, Bhagavan, should the bodhisatva mahāsatva practice with respect to perfection of wisdom.
The Heart Sutra begins with Avalokiteśvara, the archetype of a bodhisatva in 7th Century China, doing the practice of perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitācāryām caramāno) which consists of examining the five skandhas (vyavalokayati sma pañcaskandhān)

It then proceeds to describe how the bodhisatva should relate to the skandhas, in a passage that seems to resonate with the Pāḷi Cūlasuññatā Sutta. Thus, the opening of the Heart Sutra is probably not arbitrary, but also relates more generally to Chapter Three of Pañcaviṃśati, the main difference being that the abstract bodhisatva has been replaced by the archetypal bodhisatva Avalokiteśvara. An obvious next step is to compare this passage in Kumārajīva's T223, which I have not had the time to do yet. And this blog post is far too long already. We can also connect this with the skandha reflection practice in the Mahāsuññatā Sutta (MN 122) which shows how one pursues the experience of emptiness, while at the same time reflecting on experience.

On final comment on this is that in Conze's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati he uses the subject divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra which would have us believe that passage quoted in the Heart Sutra (1975: 61) is related somehow to the Four Noble Truths. The Heart Sutra passage covers the end of the second and beginning of the third truth. This seems to me to be a very unlikely reading of the text.

Having established the connections we need to say a few words about the introduction of deleterious changes to Buddhist texts.

How Buddhist Texts Change for the Worse

From the available evidence it appears that Buddhists constantly tinkered with their texts in large and small ways, sometimes expanding them massively as with the extrapolation of the 8,000 line text to 100,000 lines; sometimes changing a single word. We often find that successive Chinese translations of texts get longer and longer. There are many reasons why texts get amended and adapted. These are not always to do with increasing wisdom over time. Sometimes the changes are ideological. Sometimes our texts have been amended in ways that are dubious at best and catastrophic at worst. For example, in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, sandwiched between a discussion of the four pilgrimage places and how to deal with the Tathāgata's remains, is a passage about how male monks should have nothing to do with women (DN ii.140-1). It is so out of place that it jars the mind when reading the text. But for an example of poor editorial choices we can use the Heart Sutra itself to demonstrate. Take the line:
Nāvidyā nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmaraṇam na jarāmaraṇa-kṣayo.
No ignorance or end of ignorance... up to... no ageing and death, no end of ageing and death.
This is the standard list of twelve nidānas, in both the forward and reverse directions at once, with just the first and last items on the list, and using the abbreviation yāvat 'as far as' to stand for the middle ten items. One could hardly get a more orthodox pan-Buddhist idea than this list. In an ideal world we'd have given the directions separately, tadyathā:
Nāvidyā yāvan na jarāmaraṇam | na jarāmaraṇa-kṣayo yāvan nāvidyākṣayo
No ignorance [as a condition for the arising of volitions]... up to no ageing and death [arising on the basis of birth as a condition]. No cutting off ageing and death [through the cessation of birth] down to no cutting off ignorance [and thus putting an end to this whole mass of suffering].
Even so, the intent of the text is clear, it's about the twelve nidānas and negating them as a set, for the purpose of undermining the idea that the words are more than mere words (nāmamatra). However, some editors or scribes have failed to see the twelve nidānas here and just noticed nāvidyā (or na avidyā) 'no ignorance' and interpolated na vidyā 'no knowledge' as though the point were simply to negate pairs of opposites. One of the manuscripts that does this is the Horiuzi Palm-leaf Manuscript held in Hōryūji monastery, the oldest extant Sanskrit manuscript of the Heart Sūtra. In the Horiuzi ms. this passage reads (interpolations in bold):
na vidyā nāvidyā na vidyākṣayo nāvidyāksāyo yāvan na jarāmaraṇaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo
In fact, here the editor has gone one step further and also interpolated na vidyākṣayo as well. It's a bizarre intervention. It's difficult to explain. This particular manuscript has been very influential, especially in Japan. For example, this mistake is replicated at least twice in John Steven's book Sacred Calligraphy of the East (1995: 119, 120-1), and also in the modern Japanese Siddham script calligraphy manual, 梵字必携 (A Manual of Sanskrit Writing).

Depending on when the changes happen and how often manuscripts get copied, such interventions can become the standard. In the first part of the long text Heart Sutra, the sentence in which Avalokiteśvara examines the skandhas and sees that they are empty of svabhāva ought to have two verbs: one meaning "examined" (vyavalokayati sma) and one meaning "saw" (paśyati sma). However, in the extant versions the verb paśyati sma has been replaced by a second vyavalokayati sma. This is clearly a simple error, but it must have occurred early on, because it infected all of the extant long texts, including those in Tibetan, and no copyist since has been honest or brave enough to correct it.

Similarly, I've showed that the 100 Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra routinely transmitted by Tibetan lamas is garbled (Jayarava 2010). The garbled version occurs in every Tibetan source that I have consulted over many years, except the Kanjur (See Canonical Sources for the Vajrasatva Mantra). So we can say that bizarre interpolations in texts seem to be de rigueur, and mostly because some Buddhists didn't learn Sanskrit (at all or well enough), but a simple correction by someone who does know Sanskrit is almost always unwelcome because the text is "sacred" or because it would undermine the authority of the guru. Once a text has become nonsense, it seems to be resistant to being repaired, even when the repair is simple and obvious.

So the idea of someone who did not fully understand the text changing the wording in an ad hoc way that did not take the context into account and resulted in non-sense, and this bizarre intervention being accepted as authentic and transmitted faithfully, is not at all far fetched. In fact, it happens all to often! We can point the finger at ancient Buddhists, but, in fact, the process continues. Conze's translations, for example, are full of bizarre interventions and his Sanskrit editions of grammatical errors. My first published article on the Heart Sutra (Attwood 2015) looks at a simple grammatical mistake that appears to have been overlooked by Conze, apparently because of his religious beliefs. I'm not quite sure why anyone else overlooked it, but in fact everyone did for over 60 years. A less technical (and non-paywalled) summary of this article is also available: Heart Murmurs.

When someone we admire and believe to be wise says something incomprehensible, we are predisposed to assume that the statement is profound, too profound for us to understand. Dan Sperber (2010) has called this "The Guru Effect". Sperber was largely focussed on secular contexts, living as he does in the France of post-modern philosophy which turned nonsense into an art form, to wide acclaim. Conze and many other commentators take this approach with Prajñāpāramitā. Their attitude is that the nonsense is a feature not a bug. "Of course it is illogical," they say, "if it was logical anyone could understand it and it wouldn't be profound." This kind of aberrant thinking has prevented progress being made on understanding these texts for generations.


This exercise has proven the value of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as a commentary on the Heart Sutra. The strategy has provided us with an important new insight into the meaning of the text. Though we still don't have the passage in the original Prakrit, locating it in the early Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts gives us a better sense of the history of the ideas. Now the history the passage looks like this:

  • Rgs
māyopamāṃ ya iha jānati pañca skandhāṃ
na ca māya anya na ca skandha karoti anyān |
  • Aṣṭa
na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva bhagavan māyā | māyaiva rūpam ||
  • Pañcaviṃśati
nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā | nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ | rūpam eva śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpam ||
  • T223/T250
非色異空 非空異色 。色即是空 空即是色。
  • Hṛdaya
rūpaṃ śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpaṃ | rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā | śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam ||
A fairly standard Buddhist simile—experience is like an illusion—becomes a metaphor—experience is illusion—and then is given a seemingly deliberate, perhaps ideologically motivated, twist that makes it abstruse—experience is emptiness. The change left dozens of generations of Buddhists puzzling over what it could mean, caught in the "Guru Effect" trap of assuming that the text as presented was the most profound wisdom imaginable. Under these conditions, the apparent lack of logic and sense is used to undermine the reader (Conze does this quite openly). This is partly because the putative author of the Heart Sutra was the perfect Buddha, who by this time can do no wrong (I explored aspects of this change in the how Buddhists understood the nature of a Buddha in Attwood 2014). The Guru Effect means that we take what are simple mistakes, and construe them as inevitably failed attempts to communicate some higher Truth. The possibility of error is axiomatically ruled out. All that is left is the failure of the reader. And some readers can turn this to their advantage by claiming to understand the incomprehensible, often through their meditative experience. Unfortunately, meditation gives few insights into Sanskrit literary or grammatical traditions.

There seems to have been a simultaneous valorisation and decontextualisation of the term śūnyatā in Mahāyāna circles. If we see Aṣṭa in the light of the Pāḷi Suññatā Suttas which focus on the vimokṣa meditations, especially the signless liberation (animitta-vimokṣa) and the emptiness liberation (śūnyatā-vimokṣa), we see a strong continuity of ideas. But in Pañcaviṃśati the continuity was broken or, at least, a good deal weaker. Śūnyatā was no longer an experience to be cultivated in meditation, but a kind of ontological absolute. The change from māyā to śūnyatā may have fitted with a developing Prajñāpāramitā ideology but, linguistically and philosophically, it was a disaster because the passage could no longer be parsed linguistically or logically.

The change might have remained very obscure, except that the Pañcaviṃśati was almost as popular as the Aṣṭa and this line came to form part of the Heart Sutra, which gained popularity far outweighing its humble origins (which were also soon forgotten). Again, it might have remained an obscure Chinese magical text had someone, likely Xuánzàng, [not?] translated it into Sanskrit, called it a sūtra, and re-imported it to China as an authentic Sanskrit Buddhist text. Again, the context was forgotten and the Sanskrit version taken to be the ur-text. From there it took off. Generations of Buddhists, from quite early on, assumed that the obscure Chinese amulet was actually the Sanskrit essence of the superlative insights into "reality", the sarvajñā, prajñāpāramitā or mahājñāna. The fact that it was nonsense only made it seem more profound (via the Guru Effect). This left the text resistant to analysis, and each new generation of confused Buddhists went along with it for fear of being thought shallow and foolish. The willingness to submerge one's identity to the extent that one will agree to endorse something that is nonsense is a key aspect of belonging to a religious group. In modern times, the more Romantic one is, the easier this embracing of the illogical. To date, the world of academia has done little to dispel the pall of foolish piety that hangs over the Heart Sutra.

Another surprising conclusion of this study is that "form is emptiness" is not, in fact, the be all and end all of the Heart Sutra, not the essence of the Prajñāpāramitā. The Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā makes clear that when one practices with concepts like "form is empty" in mind this is still an error. The śūnyatā-vimokṣa samādhi is free of such concepts. If we are looking for a key line in the Heart Sutra, I suggest that it is, in fact, sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣanāḥ 'all mental events are characterised by lack of self-existence'. This is the underlying reason that 'form' is like an illusion. It is this that opens up the discussion of what the text means and points to the profound insight that the Buddha had about the nature of experience.

We really ought to talk more about śūnyatā as one of the trivimokṣa or 'three liberations', a state in which all verbal cognition shuts down and the experience is empty of all concepts (something of this is hinted at in my discussion of SN 45.11 and 45.12 from 2008: Communicating the Dharma). Śūnyatā-vimokṣa is a condition that can be attained temporarily in meditation and as a permanent condition is synonymous with bodhi. The Cūlasuññata Sutta (MN 121) explains to some extent how one approaches this in meditation. But this is another subject that I'll have to return to.

The alternate passage in Pañcaviṃśati also sheds light on the construction of the opening passage of the Heart Sutra; at least in outline we now understand more why Avalokiteśvara makes an appearance and what he is doing. And perhaps helps to explain why Śāriputra is the interlocutor.

Finally, I have tried to show that "error" has to be a possible state in any textual hermeneutic. When we read a text we have to be capable of seeing error as error. Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism are all to often blind to this possibility. The tendency, especially with respect to the Prajñāpāramitā, has been to take error as "paradox" or as being a consequence of the ineffability of Reality. Notable exceptions to this criticism are Paul Harrison and Richard H Jones whose work has helped me to see errors for what they are. The refusal to see clearly means that there has been little investigation of errors in Buddhist texts. Ironically, errors seem to have two main sources: unfamiliarity with our canonical languages, and deliberate alteration motivated by ideology. Sometimes both at once.

Those of us who take study seriously eventually learn that the texts are not a true refuge. Having now written 21 essays on the text (this one is 12,000 words long) and with one published article and one in development, and having discovered a new Heart Sutra manuscript, I fancy I know a thing or two about the Heart Sutra. In the last five years I have certainly discovered things about the Heart Sutra that were previously unknown, but the main thing I've learned is that knowing it, even understanding it, is no substitute for a systematic approach to transformation. Śūnyatā is primarily an experience. On the other hand, while nonsense is a possible reading for any passage in my hermeneutic, we get nowhere by assuming that the message of our texts is intentionally illogical and thus impervious to analysis. There has to be a balance.

For me, at least, the Heart Sutra will never be the same.



Chinese Texts from the CBETA version of the Taishō. http://www.cbeta.org
Sanskrit texts from Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages (Gretil) http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/
  • Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā from Harrison & Watanabe, as simplified on Bibliotecha Polyglota.
  • Prajñāpāramitā-ratnaguṇasaṃcaya-gāthā from Yuyama, Akira. (1976)

Attwood, Jayarava (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 21: 503-535.
Attwood, Jayarava (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 8: 28-48.
Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. [revised version of Conze (1948).]
Conze Edward. (1975) The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: with the Divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. University of California Press.
Eckel, Malcolm David. (1987) Indian Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra: The Politics of Interpretation. The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 10(2): 69-79.
Falk, Harry & Karashima, Seishi. (2012) A first‐century Prajñāpāramitā manuscript from Gandhāra - parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1). ARIRIAB XV, 19-61. Online: https://www.academia.edu/3561115/prajnaparamita-5.
Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.
Hyun Choo, B. (2006) 'An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch'uk's Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra)' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. February 2006, Vol.6, pp.121-205.
Jayarava (2010) The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra. Western Buddhist Review. 5.
Jones, Richard H. (2012) The Heart of Wisdom. Jackson Square Books.
KIMURA Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. 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.
Huifeng [aka Orsborn, M. B.] (2008) A Survey Of Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra Translations In Chinese. Online: http://prajnacara.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/survey-of-prajnaparamita-sutra.html.
Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707.
Shih, Heng-Ching & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.
Sperber, Dan. (2010) The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy and Psychology. 1:583–592 DOI 10.1007/s13164-010-0025-0
Tanahashi, Kazuki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.
Wayman, Alex. (1984) Buddhist Insight: Essays. Motilal Banarsidass.
Yuyama, Akira. (1976) Prajñā-pāramitā-ratna-guṇa-saṃcaya-gāthā (Sanskrit Recension A). Cambridge University Press.
Zacchetti, Stefano. (2005) In Praise of the Light: A Critical Synoptic Edition with an Annotated Translation of Chapters 1-3 of Dharmarakṣa's Guang zan jing, Being the Earliest Chinese Translation of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā, Tokyo. (Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica, 8). IRIAB. Sanskrit text also available from Gretil.


Although I don't cite it directly, the material on śūnyatā-vimokṣa is inspired by an essay privately circulated by my colleague Satyadhāna, which I read when most of this essay was already sketched out. That essay was a follow up to his article (which I have only skimmed so far):
Satyadhāna. (2014) The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary. Western Buddhist Review. 6: 78–104
Satyadhāna's work seems to me to provide further keys for understanding the early Perfection of Wisdom. But in any case I'm now working on the Pāḷi material myself. A good introduction to śūnyatā in Pāḷi texts can be found in:
Anālayo. 2010. Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses. Pariyatti Press: 272-281

Sanskrit Aṣṭasāhasrikā Passages
Numbers in square brackets are pages in Vaidya's Edition.
1.12 [6] evamukte āyuṣmān subhūtir āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – etam etad āyuṣman śāriputra evam etat | rūpam evāyuṣman śāriputra virahitaṃ rūpasvabhāvena | evaṃ vedanaiva saṃjñaiva saṃskārā eva | vijñānam evāyuṣman śāriputra virahitaṃ vijñānasvabhāvena | prajñāpāramitaiva āyuṣman śāriputra virahitā prajñāpāramitāsvabhāvena | sarvajñataiva āyuṣman śāriputra virahitā sarvajñatāsvabhāvena | prajñāpāramitālakṣaṇenāpi prajñāpāramitā virahitā | lakṣaṇa-svabhāvenāpi lakṣaṇaṃ virahitam | lakṣya-svabhāvenāpi lakṣyaṃ virahitam | svabhāva-lakṣaṇenāpi svabhāvo virahitaḥ ||

1.14. punaraparamāyuṣmān subhūtir bodhisattvaṃ mahāsattvam ārabhyaivam āha – saced rūpe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpanimitte carati, nimitte carati | saced ‘rūpaṃ nimittam’ iti carati, nimitte carati | sa ced rūpasyotpāde carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpasya nirodhe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpasya vināśe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ carāmīti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti hy upalambha eva sa carati | evaṃ saced vidanāyāṃ saṃjñāyāṃ saṃskāreṣu | saced vijñāne carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānanimitte carati, nimitte carati sacedvijñānaṃ nimittamiti carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasyotpāde carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasya nirodhe carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasya vināśe carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ carāmīti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti hy upalambha eva sa carati| sacet punarasyaivaṃ bhavati - ya evaṃ carati, sa prajñāpāramitāyāṃ carati, sa prajñāpāramitāṃ bhāvayatīti, nimitta eva sa carati | ayaṃ bodhisattvo 'nupāyakuśalo veditavyaḥ ||

1.22 atha khalvāyuṣmān subhūtir bhagavantam etada vocat - yo bhagavan evaṃ paripṛcchet - kimayaṃ māyāpuruṣāḥ sarvajñatāyāṃ śikṣiṣyate, sarvajñatāyā āsannībhaviṣyati, sarvajñatāyāṃ niryāsyatīti? tasya bhagavan evaṃ paripṛcchataḥ kathaṃ nirdeṣṭavyaṃ syāt? evamukte bhagavānāyuṣmantaṃ subhūtimetadavocat - tena hi subhūte tvāmevātra pratiprakṣyāmi / yathā te kṣamate, tathā vyākuryāḥ / sādhu bhagavannityāyuṣmān subhūtirbhagavataḥ pratyaśrauṣīt / bhagavānetadavocat - tatkiṃ manyase subhūte anyā sā māyā, anyattadrūpam, anyā sā māyā, anyā sā vedanā / anyā sā saṃjñā, anye te saṃskārāḥ / anyā sā māyā, anyattadvijñānam? subhūtirāha - na hyetadbhagavan / na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyattadrūpam / rūpameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva rūpam / na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyā sā vedanā, anyā sā saṃjñā anye te saṃskārāḥ / vedanā saṃjñā [9] saṃskārā eva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskārāḥ / na bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyattadvijñānam / vijñānameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vijñānam //

15.2 iha subhūte bodhisattvā mahāsattvā anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhimabhisaṃbuddhāḥ santo lokasya ākāśagatikaṃ rupamiti dharmaṃ deśayanti / evaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ / evameva subhūte sarvadharmā ākāśagatikā anāgatikā agatikā ākāśasamāḥ / yathā ākāśam anāgatam agatam akṛtam avikṛtam anabhisaṃskṛtam, asthitam asaṃsthitam avyavasthitam , anutpannam aniruddham, evameva subhūte sarvadharmā anāgatā āgatā ākṛtā avikṛtā anabhisaṃskṛtā asthitā asaṃsthitā avyavasthitā anutpannā aniruddhā ākāśakalpatvādavikalpāḥ / tatkasya hetoḥ? yā subhūte rūpasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / evaṃ vedanāyāḥ saṃjñāyāḥ saṃskārāṇām / yā subhūte vijñānasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / evameva subhūte yā sarvadharmāṇāṃ śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / tatkasya hetoḥ? śūnyatāgatikā hi subhūte sarvadharmāḥ / te tāṃ gatiṃ na vyativartante /[148]

Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Passage

Gligit ms. folio 17 recto - 17 verso.

tathā hi sa bodhisatvo nāma svabhāvena śunyaḥ na śunyatayā rūpaṃ śunyaṃ na vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā na śunyatayā vijñānaṃ śunyam nānyatra rūpāc chunyatā nānyatra vedanāyāḥ saṃjñāyāḥ saṃskārebhyo nānyatra vijñānāc chunyatā | śunyataiva rūpaṃ śunyataiva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ śunyataiva vijñānaṃ (Gilgit 17v) tat kasya hetoḥ | tathā hi nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta bodhiḥ nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta bodhisatvaḥ nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta cchunyatā | nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta rūpaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā vijñānaṃ | tathā hi māyopamaṃ rūpam vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā māyopamaṃ vijñānaṃ māyā ca nāmamātraṃ na deśasthā na pradeśasthā: asad abhūtaṃ vitathasamaṃ māyādarśanaṃ svabhāvarahitaṃ asvabhāvaś cānutpādaḥ anirodaḥ na hānir na vṛddhiḥ na saṃkleśo na vyavadānam

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