11 May 2018

Anupalambhayogena: An Underappreciated Mahāyāna Term

In this essay I look again at the word anupalambhayogena—"through the exercise of non-apprehension"—which Matt Orsborn (aka Huifeng) has argued should replace aprāptitvād in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. I try to flesh out the context a little more by looking at how the word is used in a chapter of the Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Pañc) or "Large Sutra". Particularly when we look at Kumārajīva's translation (T223) we can see what might have inspired the use of anupalambhayogena in the Heart Sutra.

In a previous essay about the Heart Sutra, I looked at research by Orsborn (see Huifeng 2014) on the term aprāptitvād in Conze's edition of the Heart Sutra (Further Problems With the Heart Sutra 7 Apr 2017). Orsborn noted that the Chinese versions (T250, T251) had the phrase 以無所得故 and he analysed this as consisting of two particles 以 ... 故 indicating an ablative or instrumental case, a negating particle 無, and a character 所 indicating a nominal form of a verb 得. In the previous section of the Heart Sutra, the phrase 無得 corresponds to to na prāpti in the Sanskrit text, so we expect the character 得 to represent the verb pra√āp or prāpṇoti, of which prāpti is a nominal form (an action noun). Hence the translation as aprāptitvād.

However, Orsborn pointed out that Kumārajīva regularly used the phrase 以無所得故 to translate another Sanskrit term, i.e., anupalambhayogena, "through the exercise of non-apprehension". So here 得 must represent upa√labh "to apprehend". Orsborn conjectured that this was the correct interpretation of the Chinese, meaning that the original translator from Chinese into Sanskrit made an error of judgement. He also argued that the term 以無所得故 belonged with the previous, leaving us with a comprehensible but strange text. The same character seems to have been used in two adjacent words to represent two different Sanskrit words.

Orsborn further argued that anupalambhayogena or 以無所得故 belonged to the previous sentence, in other words that it belonged with the quoted text, even though it was not part of the quote. The quoted section of the Chinese text ends with 亦無得 "and no attainment" while the conclusion begins with 以無所得故. In the received text, the two words appear to have a hiatus between them. In Orsborn's view the received Chinese text (with the punctuation from the CBETA of the Taishō)
是故,空中無色,無受、想、行、識;... 無智,亦無得。以無所得故,
Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, recognition, volition, cognition... no wisdom, and no attainment. Because of non-attainment, ...
should become (with my modifications of the punctuation)
是故,空中無色,無受、想、行、識;...無智亦無得,以無所得故。        Therefore, in emptiness there is no appearance, no feeling, recognition, volition, cognition... no wisdom, and no attainment, through the exercise of non-attainment.
 A little note here that 亦無得 ought to correspond to Sanskrit na ca prāptiḥ "and no attainment" (亦 = ca "and") whereas the Heart Sutra only has na prāptiḥ. Moreover, the Sanskrit Large Sutra also lacks "and" at this point. We would this expect a Sanskrit text like this:
śūnyatāyām na rūpṃ, na vedanā, na saṃjñā, na saṃskārā, na vijñānaḥ... anupalambhayogena.
In [the state of emptiness] there is no appearance, no feelings, no recognition, no karma producing volitions, and no discrimination, through the exercise of non-apprehension [of dharmas].
So if Orsborn is correct, and apart from one caveat that I will discuss below, I think he is, then the fact that there is no appearance, etc., while in the state of emptiness (consistent with early Buddhist descriptions of such states). then the text is saying that this comes about through the exercise of non-perception (anupalambhayogena)

Orsborn noted that this shifts the emphasis away from the usual metaphysical reading of the Heart Sutra promoted by many Buddhists (including Conze). The text is not simply stating that "there is no form". Instead, it is saying that when one is doing Buddhist practices that involve withdrawing attention from experience, then experience can cease and leave one in a state of contentless (animitta) awareness. This state is also known as emptiness or (better) absence (śūnyatā). And this is completely consistent with my own reading of the text using Sue Hamilton's observations about the skandhas being the apparatus of experience.

There is nothing very startling about this. As far as epistemology goes, it is straightforward to say that if we are not attending to a phenomenon, then it is not presented to our minds and we know nothing about it (except perhaps in memory). Problems emerge when we make this epistemic observation into its ontological equivalent; i.e., "If I can't see it, it doesn't exist." Stated baldly, this is clearly nonsense,. It is therefore remarkable that this ontology pervades Buddhist philosophy in one form or another. It is notable that early Buddhists explicitly avoided talking about this issue in terms of existence and non-existence (astitā, nāstitā), but chose to use the (vague) process-oriented terms "arisen" and "ceased" (utpānna, nirodha). 

After carefully evaluating this argument I found it quite compelling and altered my text to fit this new understanding. Although Orsborn offers a revised reading of the Chinese text and an English translation which reflects this, he does not provide a revised Sanskrit translation. And our correspondence on this issue was inconclusive. My next article on the Heart Sutra is aimed at placing the Chinese origins of the Heart Sutra beyond any doubt. The one after than will revisit this issue.

However, it still leaves us with a question. Why would anyone tack anupalambhayogena onto the end of this kind of statement? Through serendipity, I found the answer to this question before I even realised that it was a question. The discovery also suggested an alternative interpretation of 以無所得故 (though without altering the meaning) which I will now outline.

Anupalambhayogena in Pañc

My discovery concerns a chapter of the Large Sutra called Dhāraṇī Saṃbhāraḥ; i.e., "The Dhāraṇī Collection" . This corresponds to Chp 16 in Conze's translation (p. 153ff) and to Chp 19 廣乘 = Vaipulya-Yāna in T223. In Kimura's edition of Pañc (2010) chapters are not numbered, but the relevant passages occur on p. 75-87.

With respect to the term dhāraṇī in this context, in my essay Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation (01 December 2017) I argued that there was a previously uncommented on use of the verb dhārayanti "they carry on" in conjunction with the verb sākṣātkurvanti "they gain personal insight". This is reminiscent of other ways of talking about awakening, which contrast the experience of awakening with the consequences of having had that experience.

My sense is that dhāraṇī here is being used this way, to indicate something of the ongoing experience of awakening. At the end of this chapter comes the famous meditation practice in which each letter of the Gāndhārī alphabet is a reminder of a keyword: a = anutpanna, ra = rajas, pa = paramārtha, ca = cyavana, na = nāma, and so on. The keywords represent aspects of the experience of emptiness and are expanded in a formulaic way into. After some variability the phrases settle into stating things like (Kimura 2010, I-II 86):
sakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ saṃgānupalabdhitvāt
The syllable ka stands for all dharmas because of the state of non-apprehending (anupalabdhi) conflict (saṃga)
gakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ gaganānupalabdhitaḥ
The syllable ga stands for all dharmas [because] because the sky is not apprehended (anupalabdhita).
The whole text, including the keywords, has been translated into Sanskrit, but the Gāndhārī alphabet has been retained (which confused everyone till Richard Salomon (1990) pointed it out. The words anupalabdhi and anupalabdhita are respectively an action noun and the past participle from upa√labh and thus closely related to anupalambhayogena.

In this chapter there is a long section that explains the Mahāyāna in terms of the bodhisatva practising a list of practices based on the thirty-seven bodhipakṣadharmas. It goes through the catvāri smṛtyupasthānāni (four bases of mindfulness) in some detail, then the catvāri samyakprahāṇāni (four kinds of right effort), the catvāra ṛddhipādāḥ (four bases of supernatural powers) and so on up to āryāṣṭāṅgamārgaḥ (eight-limbed road), completing the 37, but carries on at some length listing lists mainstream practices . Here, however, each is marked with a refrain:
tac cānupalambhayogena. idaṃ subhūte bodhisatvasya mahāsatvasya mahāyānam.
And that through the exercise of non-apprehension [of dharmas]. This, Subhūti, is the mahāyāna of the bodhisatva mahāsatva.
In another previous essay I gave a précis of an article by Seishi Karashima (2015) which argued, on the basis of word play in the Saddharmapuṇḍrikā Sūtra (Sad), that mahāyāna was a wrong Sanskritisation of Prakrit mahājana "great knowledge" (Skt. mahājñāna). Karashima conjectured that Sad was the source of this change and that from there it spread to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramit-sūtra (Aṣṭa). Subsequently, also I have shown in a published article that Prajñāpāramitā is referred to as mahāvidyā "great experiential-knowledge" (Attwood 2017). The question here is, are the lists of practices vehicles or kinds of knowledge? I can see arguments on both sides.

In any case, our focus here is on the first phrase, tac cānupalambhayogena, "And that through the exercise of non-apprehension [of dharmas]". This is because, here, it is tacked on to the end of statements about kinds of practices in just the way that it is tacked onto the end of Section V in the Heart Sutra. In fact the practices in question come in a list of lists that is based on the bodhipakṣadharmas "the wings of awakening".

The bodhipakṣadharmas are familiar from early Buddhism. For a Mahāyāna presentation of them see  the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra. These practices are orthodox Buddhist practices. The text is making the point that what separates the Mahāyāna from what came before it is not the practices themselves, since they are the same. The distinction is an approach to practice that involves the exercise of non-apprehension. This suggests that anupalambhayogena is a more important term for understanding Prajñāpāramitā than previously realised.

Though anupalambhayogena does not occur in Aṣṭa, we do get phrases like this one:
sarvadharmaviviktavihāreṇa sarvadharmānupalambhavihāreṇa hi kauśika subhūtiḥ sthaviro viharati (Vaidya 1960: 225)
Because, Kauṣika, Elder Subhūti, dwells by dwelling isolated from all mental phenomena, by dwelling without apprehending (anupalambha) any mental phenomena.
This seems to be another description the cessation of experience (nirodha, śūnyatā, nirvāṇa, etc.) in meditation. Which reinforces my general thesis that Prajñāpāramitā is focussed on experience rather than reality.

Kumārajīva and anupalambhayogena

Given what Orsborn has said about anupalambhayogena in relation to the Heart Sutra, it is interesting to look more closely at how Kumārajīva has translated this chapter. Below is the refrain tac cānupalambhayogena in Kumārajīva's translation accompanied by the Heart Sutra phrase for comparison.
T223, Chp 19Heart Sutra
We can see that three of the five characters are the same. The two particles to indicate ablative or instrumental case endings, 以 ... 故 and the character 得 which we think means upa√labh "apprehend". However, there is another similarity: 不 and 無 are both negating particles and serve the same purpose here. So that leaves just one difference to explain.  

The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism tells is that 可得 is commonly used to represent upa√labh. So it makes sense to translate an-upalambha-yogena as 以不可得故 (I haven't mentioned the yoga bit, but I'll come back to it). For example, the Kumārajīva translation of the Vajracchedikā (T235) also uses 不可得 to represent anupalabhyate
Subhūti, past mental events (心= Skt. citta), cannot be apprehended, future mental events cannot be apprehended, present mental events cannot be apprehended.
This is important because it tells us that upa√labh is translated (at least some of the time) as two characters. This made me consult the DDB for the term 所得 only to find that it is also commonly used to represent upa√labh. So in fact 可得 and 所得 are two different ways of translating the same Sanskrit words and 以不可得故 and 以無所得故 are synonymous. While Orsborn was not wrong about 所 sometimes being used to represent a nominal form, it seems that he has overlooked this alternative. And to be fair I only discovered this by serendipity. Chinese translations are both vast in scope and irrationally variable in approach, so even a systematic search beginning with the Heart Sutra phrase 以無所得故 might fail to locate this alternative.

Anupalambhayogena in the Large Sutra

It is not simply that 以無所得故 translates anupalambhayogena. In Chp 19 of T223 the phrase is tacked onto the end of passages. The entry for the five faculties (pañcendriyāṇi) offers us short passage so we can easily compare the Chinese and Sanskrit:
「復次,須菩提!菩薩摩訶薩摩訶衍,所謂五根。何等五?信根、精進根、念根、定根、慧根,是名菩薩摩訶薩摩訶衍,以不可得故。(Taishō 8.254.b28-c02)
Moreover, Subhūti, [there is] the great vehicle (摩訶衍) of the bodhisatvas mahāsatva that is the five faculties (五根). Which five? The faculty of faith, the faculty of effort, the faculty of mindfulness, the faculty of concentration, faculty of wisdom, this is the mahāyāna (摩訶衍) of the bodhisatva (菩薩) mahāsatva (摩訶薩) by exercising non-apprehension.
Kumārajīva has translated indriya as 根 "root, basis"; though in English it is typical to translate it as "faculty". The word literally means something like "a quality of Indra", and is used as a euphemism for power or force, and sometimes for semen (viewed as the "vital force" of a man). More to the point, the word is also used figuratively for the sense faculties and for the five religious faculties. Note also that mahāyāna is phonetically transcribed as 摩訶衍 (MC. mahayeon). Compare with the Sanskrit text of the late Nepalese manuscripts:
punar aparaṃ subhūte bodhisatvasya mahāsatvasya mahāyānaṃ yad uta pañcendriyāṇi. katamāni pañca? śraddhendriyaṃ vīryendriyaṃ smṛtīndriyaṃ samādhīndriyaṃ prajñendriyaṃ tac cānupalambhayogena. idam api subhūte bodhisatvasya mahāsatvasya mahāyānam. (Kimura 2010: I-II.81)
Moreover, Subhūti, [there is] the great vehicle of the bodhisatva mahāsatva that is the five faculties. Which five? The faculty of faith, the faculty of effort, the faculty of mindfulness, the faculty of concentration, faculty of wisdom and this by exercising non-apprehension. This also, Subhūti, is the great vehicle of the bodhisatva mahāsatva.
Conze has mistranslated tac cānupalambhayogena in Chapter 15 as "but always without basing himself on anything"; while in Chp 16 he correctly has "and that through non-apprehension".

For reference the five faculties are:
faculty of faith 信根 śraddhā-indriya
faculty of effort 精進根vīrya-indriya
faculty of mindfulness念根smṛti-indriya
faculty of concentration定根samādhi-indriyaṃ
faculty of wisdom
慧根 prajñā-indriya

In T223, Kumārajīva used 以不可得故 31 times (in fascicles 3, 5, 19, 23) and 以無所得故 36 times (in fascicles 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14). And note that the two synonyms are used in different parts of the text. In fascicle 5 where both are used, the former is used 28 times in Chapter 19 (廣乘) and the latter 6 times in Chapter 18 (問乘) (= Puṇyasambhāra Chp 15 in Conze's translation). There is no chapter in which both are used.

Why would one translator use different translations for the same term (with the same contextual meaning) in different chapters? I think the answer to this is that Kumārajīva was a person who is often credited with having an excellent grasp of Chinese. In fact, the translations attributed to him are the result of a committee process. Moreover, comments by his associates suggest that his grasp of Chinese at the time was poor and that he was reliant on native Chinese speakers to turn his explanations into elegant prose (which they did very well). It seems likely to me that different associates had their own way of translating. How we explain Conze's variations, I do not know.


What I have observed here is a tiny but important part of a much bigger puzzle. Matthew Orsborn suggested that aprāptitvād was an incorrect translation of 以無所得故 and should have instead been anupalmabhayogena. Moreover, the word should be read with the end of Section V, not as the first word of Section VI (note that lack of any parallel to tasmācchāriputra at the start of section VI in the Chinese texts). This has always seemed highly plausible. 

Here, I have shown that this reading of both the word and the syntax was most likely correct, but that Orsborn's analysis overlooked an obscure alternative reading that emerges from Kumārajīva's team-based translation of the Large Sutra. The verb is not 得 with 所 indicating a nominal form, but the binomial 所得 upa√labh, which is synonymous with 可得. If this reading is correct, it helps to explain why we need a different translation of 得 in two adjacent words, i.e., 不得 and 以無所得故. The former 得 is pra√āp while the latter 所得 is upa√labh. 

以不可得故 and 以無所得故 are both simply ways of translating the Sanskrit term anupalambhayogena. Both variants occur in translations attributed to Kumārajīva. Neither attempts to convey the yoga part, though we might argue that an-upa√labh is a Buddhist practice so it is implied.

Additionally, I have shown that in Chapter 19 of T223 precisely this phrase—a condensation of the Sanskrit phrase tac cānupalambhayogena—is added as a sentence-final qualifier. It serves to emphasise that although they do many practices in common with mainstream Buddhism, the bodhisatvas approach everything via the exercise of non-apprehension (anupalambhayogena). This explains why 以無所得故 might be a sentence-final qualifier in the Heart Sutra. The author was aware of this usage in Chapter 19 of T223.

In the Heart Sutra, anupalambhayogena serves to emphasise that when we negate "form, etc.", in the Heart Sutra, it is through the exercise of non-apprehension (anupalambhayogena) and in the state of emptiness (śunyatāyām). Therefore, when the Heart Sutra says, "no form", it is emphatically not a metaphysical statement. It tells us that there is a contentless state of awareness in which there is no arising and ceasing; no churning associated with the functioning of the skandhas; and under these conditions of exercising non-apprehension of mental phenomena, a mental phenomenon like "form" (or appearance) is not apprehended.

That one can deliberately withdraw attention from the swirl of sensory experience and further from the "inner world" of the mind, and arrive in a state in which there is no experience is apparent. This ideal and practices aimed at it are central to Buddhism. I believe, but cannot yet prove, it is also central to Sāṃkhyā philosophy and to the mystical aspects of Vedic religion (where it is epitomised by the phrase saccidānanda), especially Advaita Vedanta.



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 [Subscription required until May 2018]

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

Karashima, Seishi. (2015b) Vehicle (yāna) and Wisdom (jñāna) in the Lotus Sutra: the Origin of the Notion of Yāna in Mahāyāna Buddhism. ARIRIAB XVIII: 163-196. https://www.academia.edu/12854029/Vehicle_yāna_and_Wisdom_jñāna_in_the_Lotus_Sutra_the_Origin_of_the_Notion_of_yāna_in_Mahāyāna_Buddhism

Salomon, Richard. (1990). New Evidence for a Gandhari Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Apr - Jun, 1990), pp. 255-273

Vaidya, P.L. (1960). Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 4) Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute.
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