29 June 2018

Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography

In this essay I'm going to try to show some of how I evaluate sources of information using a case study of the two mentions of the Heart Sutra in the standard biography of Xuánzàng written by Huìlì and Yàncóng. This involves a detailed assessment of such qualities as authenticity, veracity, accuracy, precision, and reliability. What knowledge can we obtain from a text, using which kinds of methods? What kinds of caveats apply to this process?

On the 5th day, 12th Month of Yǒnghuī 6 (永徽六年十二月五日) i.e., 6 January, 656, Xuánzàng sent a letter to the emperor celebrating the birth of a new prince the month before. He wrote in a letter: "I dare to offer a copy of the Prajñā Heart Sutra in gold letters, one scroll and a case." (輒敢進金字《般若心經》一卷并函 T 50.272b.12). This piece of information is quite a big deal because this is the earliest literary reference to the Heart Sutra with a precise date that I know of. It is five years before the earliest physical evidence (661 CE) and definitely before Xuánzàng began translating Prajñāpāramitā texts in ernest (660 CE). But this important date is seldom, if ever, discussed in the literature on the Heart Sutra

The information comes from the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a Tang Dynasty (唐) biography (傳) of Xuánzàng (aka "the Dharma Master 三藏法師傳 of the great Ci'en Temple 大慈恩寺") by 慧立 Huìlì and 彥悰Yàncóng from about 688 CE (henceforth, Biography). I say "biography", but as Xuánzàng never puts a foot wrong and is portrayed as conforming to an ideal, the text is clearly part of a trend to elevate him to the status of Buddhist saint. As such, we might better refer to it as a hagiography. Chinese Buddhist saints are quite different in character from Indian Buddhist saints, which is something that requires its own study (and I don't propose to get into it here). Unlike some hagiographies, the Biography was composed quite close to the subject's lifetime, in a literate society that kept good records in both the religious and imperial spheres, and partly by someone who knew the subject personally. So Xuánzàng is not presented as doing many miracles, but more as behaving in an exemplary manner in social, political, and religious spheres. He is, in short, the archetype of a good Buddhist living in a fundamentally Confucian society.

The Biography is included in the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka as text no. 2053. T2053 was translated by Samuel Beal in 1911 (I use a 1914 reprint), and more recently by Li Rongxi  for the BDK English Tripiṭaka (1995). Huìlì was a younger contemporary of Xuánzàng, who knew and worked with him. Yàncóng recounts the  story of how the Biography came about in a preface. Having written down the the Biography, Huìlì lost confidence and buried them "fearing that the contents of his writing might be incomplete and inadequate for the public" (Li 1995: 3). However, on his death bed he asked his students to dig up the manuscript. Within a few years it had become divided and scattered. Some parts were lost. Around 688 CE, the students managed to collect up the remaining works and commissioned 彥悰 Yàncóng to edit it into a book. What remained of Huìlì's work amounted to five scrolls, and Yàncóng added five more. The result is the now famous biography. 

However, there is a slight difference between how Li tells the story in his translator's introduction and how Yàncóng tells it. Li suggests that Huìlì's account ended with Xuánzàng's return to China in 645 CE. If Yàncóng does not supply this detail, then who does? It probably originates from a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by Beal in his introduction:
The five chapters added by [Yàncóng] are probably those which follow the account of [Xuánzàng]'s return from India, and relate to his work of translation in China. (1914: xix)
As far as I can tell, there is no basis for this "probably". Beal is guessing. What Yàncóng says in Beal's own translation is that he was engaged to "to re-arrange and correct the leaves which their master had written and hidden in a cave." (xix).  But compare Li "Then I mixed the original text with supplementary annotations, extending it into a work of ten fascicles" (1995: 9). What this suggests to me is that Huìlì provided the framework for the whole text and Yàncóng expanded on it in general.

Li is not beyond adding little details to pad out the story. Take the example of the famous story of the sick man giving Xuánzàng the Heart Sutra, which occurs earlier in the Biography:
慜將向寺施與衣服飲食之直。(T 50.224b.8-9)
Li: "With a feeling of pity, he took the man to his monastery and gave him money to purchase clothes and food." (26).
However, when I parse this sentence what I get is:
慜 benevolent 將 will 向 to 寺 temple 施 bestow 與 give 衣服 clothing 飲食 food and drink 之 going 直 straight 。
i.e.,  feeling benevolent, [Xuánzàng] took [the sick man] straight to the temple, and gave him food, drink, and clothing. [my trans]
There is no mention of "money" or "purchasing" in the text. And, given that we generally understand monks as not handling money, this added feature is incongruous, although, of course, some monks did handle money (and I haven't checked which kind Xuánzàng was). So the translation here is more precise than the source text (it supplies extra details), but it appears to be inaccurate (because the details don't arise from the source text).

I started out assuming that Li must be fairly reliable to be employed as a translator by the prestigious BDK organisation. Based on assessing these two details, I conclude Li is less reliable than my initial assessment of him. Samuel Beal's translation is, "Pitying the man he took him to his convent, and gave him clothing and food" (1914: 21). Beal, writing in a different era, uses language with an archaic feel to it. We might also wonder why he chose "convent" (usually associated with nuns in English) for 寺. On the whole, however, his translations seems more more accurate, and thus more reliable than Li at this point.

How does anyone assess when a translator is more or less reliable without reference to the source text in the source language? Very often my friends and colleagues make a kind of aesthetic judgement on the grounds of which one reads better. Often the more "poetic" a translation is the more folk like it. Which seems like nonsense to me. Is it fair to judge a translation on a handful of sentences? When we are only interested in a handful of sentences, the importance of them with respect to the text as a whole is magnified.

In this case Li's small amendment to include a reference to giving money has a major impact on my study. Had I taken Li seriously, I might have decided that I needed to spend time looking into the issue of use of money by monks in medieval China. This is a potentially fruitful avenue to go down if it relates to my task at hand, but the fact is that it doesn't. It's just a lapse on the part of a translator. Fortunately, I like to try to see how source texts look before taking translations seriously. Any reader who does not check the source text (for whatever reason) is always at risk of being misled.

譯 = Translator?

One of the interesting things about the Biography is the style of the attribution. In some past explorations of the attribution of the Heart Sutra we've seen that 譯 means "translator". Dictionaries are quite unequivocal on this point. However, in the Biography the attribution is:
沙門慧立本 譯彥悰箋.  
"Originally composed by Monk Huìlì, edited by Yàncóng, with annotations."
Here 沙門* means that Huìlì (慧立) was a Buddhist monk. The character 本 means "origin, root" and tells us that the text originates with Huìlì.  Next, 箋 means "annotation" or "commentary". We know from Yàncóng’s (彥悰) preface that his role was that of editor of Huìlì’s manuscript and notes, 譯 here must mean “editor/edited”, rather than “translator/translated”. However, this work  was composed in Chinese, so 譯 cannot mean "translator" as nothing was translated. This is an important detail because it contributes to another aspect of my work on the Heart Sutra: the relationship between Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. When I checked I found that Xuánzàng is credited with being the 譯 of his own travelogue, also composed in Chinese. 
* 沙門 is pronounced like 'shaman', deriving from Prakrit ṣāmana (Sanskrit śrāmaṇa). There is a possible link with English shaman: Sanskrit śrāmaṇa → Prakrit ṣāmane → Middle Chinese 沙門  ʃamuən → Siberian/Tungus šamān → Russian shamán → German schamane → English shaman (attested 1698).
It might be fair to assume that if many texts that are translations refer to a person as the 譯 in relation to it, then that person is the "translator" and that 譯 must mean "translated [by]". But we have two examples of the character being used in contexts where it cannot mean "translate". The dictionary  definition seems to be incomplete. There is another sense which is something like "worked on", which is distinguished from "authored".

Keeping track of such small details is integral to this kind of work, because the accumulation of details is what adds up to a case. The only problem is that some intellectuals tell us that no accumulation of details adds up to a case. 

Critical Thinking and Historiography

Advocates of critical thinking sometimes suggest that there is only one rational way to go about seeking knowledge, i.e., through refutation. This is supposedly based on Karl Popper's principle of conjecture and refutation. In this view, there is nothing to be gained by looking for confirmation or, in my case, the accumulation of details. We can never confirm a theory; all we can hope for is to refute it. This, they say, is because of the so-called black swan effect. The story goes that Aristotle, when formulating his outline of logic, took it as axiomatic that "all swans are white". This allowed him to confidently construct deductive syllogisms like
All swans are white.
Bruce is swan.
Therefore, Bruce is white. ✓
Until one discovers that Bruce is Australian and he is actually a black swan and the deduction is false. The problem here, and with all deductive reasoning, is that it all revolves around axioms, i.e., propositions that one accepts as truth before proceeding to infer some new fact by deduction. If the axiom is false, then all inferences from it are also false. The argument proceeds to say that it doesn't matter how many white swans you meet, you can never be certain that all swans are white. It only takes one black swan to disprove the axiom that all swans are white and all inferences from the axiom fall apart.

The "black swan" argument is that you can never arrive at the truth through seeking confirmation of an axiom. Indeed, proving that any axiom is true is a very difficult thing to do. It is possible in mathematics. However, in any system of mathematics it is also possible for something to be true or false, but for this to be impossible to prove. So the search for truth quickly gets bogged down. And this is why scientists tend to avoid the idea of truth, and instead seek accurate and precise descriptions of reality (i.e., the day to day focus is on the epistemic aspects of their work). The attitude is "let the philosophers argue over the nature of that reality, as long as we can predict how it's going to behave". Scientists and philosophers are often dismissive of each other, largely because scientists stray into the area of speculating about the (ultimate) nature of reality (metaphysics) and because philosophers often speculate without reference to empirical knowledge - which is far and away the most reliable form of knowledge.

This critical thinking approach, call it hyper-critical thinking, leads to an impasse. It seems as if all claims to truth are either false now or soon will be. And thus it may seem that there is no point in even seeking knowledge, because in common sense and classical philosophy we equate knowledge and truth. Meanwhile, in the real world, very general rules of thumb turn out to be surprisingly useful in day to day life. We mainly get by on heuristics, or generalised approaches to solving problems that are good enough. Truth, as an abstract or an ideal, turns out to have surprisingly little practical value. Law courts, for example, use the heuristic of establishing something beyond reasonable doubt, which may be very far from the ideal of truth.

The hyper-critical approach to knowledge is a more or less useless strategy for studying history. History is always written from a point of view. That point of view includes the axioms that the historian explicitly accepts about history and historiography (the writing of history) as well as the implicit axioms they accept uncritically (bias, prejudice, cultural conditioning, etc.). In Justin L. Barrett's terms, historians, like everyone, have  reflective and non-reflective beliefs. And by now historians all know this. Very few historians, especially trained historians, ignore these problems. But just in case they do, few serious readers of history ignore these problems. We know that history is not "truth", but that doesn't matter. No one is much interested in truth in the absolute sense. History provides us with an understanding of events, from a point of view. Historians and readers alike know that multiple points of view are available. History is not science, much less abstract philosophy.

Equally, historians are aware that new information surfaces all the time. A history written in 1900 or 1950 is likely to be out of date for this reason. We would usually like our records to have been recorded as close to the events as possible, and our histories written as close to the present as possible. But the fact that there are always going to be new takes on history should not, and does not, paralyse historians, or prevent them from publishing. The black swan effect is a given. Two years ago I blogged an essay about "the oldest dated Heart Sutra" unaware that in Chinese academic circles an older version had been common knowledge for almost sixty years. Unaware of the fact, I continued to suggest that the oldest Heart Sutra was dated 672 CE right up until the last couple of weeks.  History is not only written by the winners, but it is rewritten by the better informed amongst the winners' descendents.

Approaching the subject

Coming back to the to passage from the Biography that I started our with: "Xuánzàng presented the Emperor Gāozōng with a copy of the Xīnjīn on 6 Dec 656." There are two ways to approach a statement like this.

On one hand, we may doubt the authenticity and veracity of the statement and look for ways to refute it. We may, for example, check that the dates coincide with other records of the reign of Gāozōng and the birth of the prince. We could check if there is any record of the Emperor receiving such a gift in the imperial records. Some documents from that time still exist in some form. We might query whether the conversion to the Gregorian calendar is accurate (since I used an online black-box converter this would be a good question). In this approach we think of Huìlì and Yàncóng as unreliable, motivated witnesses and we interrogate them like prosecuting attorneys. We try to pick apart their story. Some might argue that such a procedure is the only way to deal with historical sources. The Greek historian is known both as The Father of History and The Father of Lies. Pre-modern historians were not always critical when it came to their sources.

The other approach is to assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Huìlì and Yàncóng are at least sincere in their statements, that they have not set out to deceive us. They may themselves have been deceived, but Huìlì was contemporary with the subject and Yàncóng only one generation removed. Many living people who knew Xuánzàng would have been available to Yàncóng as witnesses. Also, one or both of them seem to have had access to official records of both state and religious institutions. Apparently, one or both had access to the correspondence between Xuánzàng and Gaōzōng (in the days before carbon paper). In this approach, we may look for corroboration of dates. In doing so we may turn to the very same sources as those who set off looking to refute the statement. We may look for a state record of receiving the gift, or a letter of acknowledgement from the Emperor. Such a letter is reproduced in the biography, but does it occur anywhere else.

The trick is not to ask is it true or false. We know at the outset that what we are seeing is not the truth in any abstract sense. We understand that someone is expressing their values through the medium of a biography (or hagiography). So we know to look at a text like the Biography as an anthropologist might. What interests us as historians is how reliable are our witnesses? What level of confidence should we have in them? What biases do they have? In this sense, good history is naturally Bayesian in its approach. We look at the givens and we make an initial assessment of the veracity. The different scenarios from complete falsification to existentially accurate and precise. Then we look into the matter, gather evidence and see how that affects our perceptions of the possibilities.

We will never establish an existential truth beyond the actual existence of the text we are studying. There is a biography and it is text no. 2053 in the Taishō. The accuracy of the authorship, the date, and provenance of it are all matters of conjecture. What we seek, rather, is a plausible account that, ideally, fits all the facts. If, for example, we know for certain that the Heart Sutra is not a translation, then we need to account for the stories that state Xuánzàng translated the text. This may involve factors such as the ambiguous use of language and the pious desire to connect Xuánzàng with the Sutra.

Precision vs Accuracy

One of the problems that we face is that the biography gives us a precise date: 永徽六年十二月五日. The precision is admirable and can, with some effort, be translated with equal precision into the more familiar Gregorian Calendar, 6 January, 656. Precision to the day might be undermined if all the other references to the event are less precise. If a dozen other texts say "sometime in 656" then the precision of Huìlì and Yàncóng might seem suspicious. In general, however, Chinese sources do keep track of events to this level of precision quite routinely. Two prominent exceptions are the commentaries on the Heart Sutra attributed to Xuánzàng's successors, Kuījī and Woncheuk. But since these almost certainly post-date the date of 656, they don't really matter in terms of establishing the provenance (except that Woncheuk appears to refer to a Sanskrit text). 

Other scenarios include the whole event being made up, i.e., high precision but completely inaccurate. It it might be that they got the day, month, or year wrong, causing inaccuracy at different orders of magnitude. A lot of history is written about at the level of precision of the year. For example, we often cite the year of birth and death for a historical figure: Xuánzàng (602-664). On the other hand, earlier in the Biography the authors suggest that the prince in question is born on the afternoon of the Month 1, day 5 and that Xuánzàng's gift was given in Month 2, day 5 giving us precision to the day. 

So, given a precise date, we have to think about how precise it is and how plausible that level of precision is; and how accurate it is. How would we know? Again, the approach is to look for either refuting or corroborating evidence: which either lowers or raises our level of confidence. What critical thinking does, is make it more likely that our confidence will fall to 0% than that it will rise to 100%. We can more easily be convinced that something is false, than that it is true. But most of the time we will be somewhere in the middle.

For example, I think it unlikely that Xuánzàng translated the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra at all, but a sutra extract. The practice of copying out extracts is distinctively Chinese. Also, Nattier has shown that extraction was done in Chinese, from Kumārajīva's translation. The story in the Biography makes it seem likely that Xuánzàng received a Chinese text, before he left for India and learned Sanskrit. And the date of 656 CE from the Biography suggests that he had the text before he started to translate the Prajñāpāramitā texts in 660 CE. There is a story that he translated the Heart Sutra in 649 CE, but this first appears some centuries later and is quite obviously apocryphal. So any story we tell about the man and the text, has to fit all these points. And we must ignore that fact that many uncritical authors have told other stories (the 649 CE date is repeated as a solid fact uncountable times). 

Doing Historiography

So, despite what critical thinking nerds might say, it absolutely makes sense to look for confirmation as long as one does it in the right spirit. As historians, we pile up evidence  and then try to weave a narrative in which all the evidence is accounted for. We tell stories in the full knowledge that next year or tomorrow, some new piece of evidence may turn up that changes the story. And we (mostly) acknowledge our biases. No one is pretending that History is a science, though sometimes it may approach being a kind of philosophy.

Histories are always constructed on partial information. The historical record is patchy, though it is often better in China than almost anywhere else because the Chinese were literate and kept records. Knowledge is always partial in any case, but as the centuries pass such records tend to degrade. So while we have what we think are reliable copies of the Biography composed by Huìlì and Yàncóng, the kinds of records against which we might look to evaluate the biography often don't exist (such as the correspondence between Xuánzàng and the Emperor). Which is not to say that evidence never existed, although sometimes this may be the case. As the saying goes "Absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence." 

Under these conditions, sitting on the fence and being a tooth-fairy agnostic is not interesting at all. To participate, one has to get off the fence and join the discussion. This is why historians write histories with conviction. As Mercier and Sperber have observed, when making a case, it is natural, reasonable, and rational to make the best case possible and then see what others say. History is not a solitary, one-time occupation, it is an ongoing, collective effort. At any given time a small number of people will be putting forward stories constructed as the strongest case they can make (harnessing confirmation bias) and a majority will be sitting back and arguing over the alternatives. Fundamentally, reason is both collective and argumentative. And so is history. 

Another problem is the motivation of the witnesses. The donor of the Fangshan stele states that his desire is for his family to attain awakening by donating the merit of making the stone sutra to that end. We can probably relate to this. However, what was the motivation of the stone carver, or the monastery who employed him? We don't know. We do know that Chinese monasteries were often extremely wealthy as donors sought to mitigate misfortune or buy their way into Heaven. These carved sutras with donor inscriptions are a bit like the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences -- make a big enough donation and your sins will be forgiven. Monasteries also engaged in usury, farming, and manufacturing to generate income. Do these motivations give us any reason to doubt the details of the artefact or the biography? Sometimes the adage, "follow the money" is apposite in historiography.

Is the association of the Heart Sutra with Xuánzàng historical or is it legendary? We might want to ask the question, who benefits from the association? 

One thing that is clear is that, in 7th Century China, insisting that Heart Sutra was a translation from an Indian text would have added an air of authenticity. The implication was that a sutra from India was ipso facto the words of the Buddha. In the story about Xuánzàng receiving the Heart Sutra from a sick man, we are not told what language the sutra is in. But if we look at inscriptions from the period, they are almost all in Chinese, not Sanskrit. A few Sanskrit inscriptions exist, but only a handful of people could read them (a situation analogous to the present). It's unlikely that Sanskrit was heard outside the monasteries in which translations projects were carried out. 

It seems very likely that there was a conscious effort to promote the Heart Sutra from sutra extract (抄經) to sutra (經). And to focus on the name 《心經》 (Hṛdayasūtra) rather than any of the alternatives such as 《大明呪經》(Mahāvidyasūtra). The assigning of a translator (譯) would have been an essential part of this process, though it may have exploited an existing ambiguity in which Xuánzàng was an editor (譯) of the text. It is so tempting to see T251 as a edited version of T250, attributed to Kumārajīva, that we might not fault Tanahashi for referring to is as the α-version. Actually, we do not know the provenance of T250, though we do know that the evidence for it is later than evidence for T250. 

Questions, questions

In writing up my notes on the Fangshan Stele I was left with a number of questions:
  • Are the precise dates I have accurate? 
  • Are the 7th Century sources reliable? 
  • And how would I know?
  • Where can I find accurate geographical information on Tang China?
  • Do my observations about 譯 add up to anything?
  • What was Xuánzàng's involvement in the Xīnjīng?
I'm puzzled that many experts have transcribed the colophon of the Fangshan Stele without commenting on the words in it, especially the place names and military titles. Or is it just so obvious to experts that they didn't think it needed commenting on? When the experts in epigraphy don't do their job, then historians struggle to know what to make of such inscriptions. I'm also puzzled as to why so little has been made, by other historians, of the clear and dated reference to the Heart Sutra discussed in the Biography. If Xuánzàng gifted a copy of the Heart Sutra to the Emperor in 656 CE, then this really does change the narrative. 

The important point is that historians cannot afford to take witnesses at face value. Questions must be asked. Whether we seek to refute or confirm, we have to evaluate sources. Careful historiography is often our best defence against religious bias. History often reveals the weaknesses of religious stories precisely because it evaluates and compares sources. As a historian of ideas, I am fascinated by how doctrines that some religieux treat as articles of faith have been quite changeable over time. And, in particular, by how historical arguments about doctrine reveal weaknesses visible even in antiquity (without the need to invoke modernity or science). I hope to inspire friends, colleagues, and fellow religieux to be more careful in their use of historical sources, to cast a wide net, and above all to critically evaluate sources. 



Chinese texts from the Online CBETA Reader.

Beal, S. (1914.) The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. By the Shamans Hwui Li and Yen-Tsung. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

22 June 2018

The Earliest Dated Heart Sutra Revisited

This material has now been published as: 'Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.' Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies (2019, 32: 1–30).

Fángshān Stele, rubbing.
He and Xu (2017)
In 2016, a story made its way around the Chinese media (e.g., the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage) that a new discovery had been made of the earliest dated Heart Sutra. A stone stele, inscribed with the Heart Sutra and carrying the date of 661 CE, had been found at Fángshān near Beijing. The story was not picked up in the West. During correspondance with Ji Yun about my review of his article on the Heart Sutra he generously informed me about this inscription and kindly supplied me with a copy of a recent journal article outlining the find (He & Xu 2017) and a book with another transcription (Beijing Library... 1987).

I uncovered some older sources which mention the Fángshān Stele. Firstly, I found that the colophon (containing the date) was transcribed and published in Dàoān and Zhāng (1977). Unfortunately, I cannot get access to this book, except through "snippets" on Google Books. However, I also discovered the text of a pamphlet on Fángshān, which also transcribes the colophon (Lin 1958). And note that Lin 1958 was published in Taipei, Taiwan, not in Communist China and was thus always available to scholars outside the region. The text of Lin (1958) was also used in a pamphlet about the temple on Fángshān, i.e., Yang (2003). Different transcriptions of the colophon disagree on some details. I'm grateful to members of the Omniglot Facebook group and the Chinese Language Stack-exchange for help with deciphering the colophon (though of course any remaining mistakes or infelicities are down to me).

The Fángshān Xīnjīng Stele is of considerable interest because it purports to be carved in 661 CE, three years before the death of Xuánzàng in 664 CE and yet it attributes the translation of the Heart Sutra to him, which as we know is problematic. I have done my best to assemble and evaluate the evidence below.

The text is inscribed on a stone tablet or stele. It's dimensions are unclear, but the ratio of its sides is approximately 2:3 and I would guess at dimensions in the realm of 60 x 90 cm (allowing ca. 3 x 3 cm for each character and some leeway). The surface of the stele seems to be badly damaged so that many characters are obscured. It was broken in half at some point and appears to have been repaired. The lower left corner is missing, obscuring up to nine characters.

The stone tablet now resides at 雲居寺 Yúnjū sì which translates something like Temple Dwelling in the Clouds. The temple is on 房山 Fángshān, which means something like Repository Mountain. Nearby is 石經山 or Stone Sutra Mountain where Buddhist sutras were carved on thousands of stone slabs in an attempt to preserve the entire Buddhist Canon (as described in the 8th Century). Fángshān is about 65km south-west of Beijing.


The title displayed on the stele comes at the end of the text, which is usual for Indic Buddhist texts. The full title of the text is:
The Middle Chinese pronunciation of this can be reconstructed as Banya-baramida-sim-keng. This translates into Sanskrit as Prajñā-pāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra. We can see that the first part—般若波羅蜜多— is an attempt to represent the sounds of the Sanskrit word using Chinese characters, while the last two characters represent whole words.

This transliteration was used by Mokṣala in his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra dated 291 CE and was also used by Kumārajīva in his translation of the text in 404 CE.

Note that the character 經 is a variant.


The stele attributes the text to Xuánzàng (see detail, right):
三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯
三藏 Tripiṭaka
法師 Dharma master (Skt dharma-bhāṇaka)
玄奘 Xuánzàng
奉 詔譯 translated with imperial authorisation
Note that there is a full character space between 奉 and 詔. We see the same space in the Beilin Stele. This is added as a mark of respect to the Emperor. The character means:
"An imperial edict. To decree. Appearing in the colophons of translated scriptures, it indicates official authorization at the highest level, indicating the high level of the translatorʼs reputation." (DDB)
Note that this attribution occurs at the beginning of all of Xuánzàng's translations in the Taishō Tripiṭaka. However, it also occurs in his travelogue 大唐西域 (T2087) which was not translated but composed by him. Note also that there are minor variations in some earlier editions suggesting that the wording was not fixed.


The date of 661 CE comes from the phrase 顯慶六年二月日造, which occurs at the bottom of the leftmost column on the stele.This is considerably less clear than the attribution.

顯慶 Xiǎnqìng refers to a period of the rule of Emperor 唐高宗 Táng Gāozōng, roughly coinciding with the years 656-661. 唐 was the name of the dynastic lineage, hence Táng Dynasty. Chinese emperors would take special "reign names" (年號) at significant points in their reign. Gāozōng used 14 different names during his time as Emperor (649-683).

The Chinese new year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually in mid January to mid February. The length of months varied, but generally they were defined from new moon to new moon which was on average 29 ​3260 days long. Thus a typical month might be 29 or 30 days, and this would always leave a few days at the end (12 x 30 = 360 and a year is 365.25 days). [I'm told that this is an over simplification]

However, reign periods did not always change at new year. The Xiǎnqìng period began on 7 February 656 and ended on 4 April 661, to be followed by the 龍朔 Lóngshuò period. Lóngshuò began on the 30th day of the second month (= 5 April), so this stele was made towards the end of Xiǎnqìng, on 13 March, 661.
顯慶 Xiǎnqìng era
六年 6th Year
二月 2nd month = March
八日 8th day = 13
造 made, constructed.
Not all the elements of the first character 顯 are clear, but the second 慶 is clear and there seems little doubt that this is the correct interpretation. This is partly because 慶 is not used in many other names of any other regnal periods and is thus a useful identifier. There is no obvious reign period for which this could be mistaken.

The Text

The rest of the text is presented in 11 columns of 26 characters (or less), most of which are clearly visible and match the text of T251. There are some minor differences, however.

One feature of the text is the substitution of the simplified character 无 for 無 throughout. At first this struck me as odd, but asking around I found that it was actually common, especially in inscriptions where the justification was that it was easier to inscribe. The Wiktionary entry says "First attested in the Warring States period; used interchangeably with 無 until the Tang dynasty." Some of the simplified characters introduced by the PRC government actually have long histories. 

In the dhāraṇī, 帝 is written as 諦 "examine", with the same pronunciation /tei/. This composite character has 言 "speech" as a (vaguely) semantic element and 帝 as a phonetic element. We also saw this substitution in the Beilin Stele. If we explain 无 for 無 as a simplification, then 諦 for 帝 is the opposite, since 諦 is considerably more complex and therefore difficult to carve. However, the so-called two truths are often transliterated as 二諦 and it may that the calligrapher thought this connection too good to pass up. 

The text appears to be signed at the end of the sutra, but I cannot make out the character and none of my sources mentions it. 


The colophon is important because it not only gives us the date of the work, but some details about the donor who paid for the stele to be made. Such items were a fund-raiser for the monastery to help pay for their main project of carving the entire Tripiṭaka into stone (which remained incomplete, but covered thousands of tablets). Indeed, our text is not only the oldest dated Heart Sutra,  it is the oldest dated colophon at Fangshan and thus marks the beginning of a new phase of the project.

By comparing the image of the rubbing from He and Xu (2017) and published transcriptions (which  disagree, are partial, and/or contain errors), I have created a kind of critical edition. The colophon must have had more characters where the corner is broken off (indicated in light grey beow). 
□ = a full character-sized space in the inscription.
What can we find in this? Firstly the inscription was commissioned by 楊社生 Yáng Shèshēng. Unfortunately, he seems not to have made any other mark on history. However, 楊 is a very significant name in Chinese history because the Emperors of Sui were from the 楊 clan; although it is not clear if Yáng Shèshēng was closely related to them, because of his name and rank we can say that he is a member of the aristocracy.

Line 1. 雍州櫟陽縣遊騎將軍守左衛淥城府左果毅都尉楊社生

Yáng was from 雍州 Yōng Zhōu or Yong Province in which the Tang capital, Chang'an (長安) was located (modern day Xian). More specifically, he was from 櫟陽縣 Yueyang county.* Yueyang was a temporary capital of the Han (200-205 BCE). It is now in the Yanliang District (阎良区) about 50 km from Xian.
* note that the usual Mandarin pronunciation of 櫟 is lì, but the name of the County is definitely Yue, probably based on the pronunciation of 樂 yuè.
Yang was a military officer. With help from Charles Hucker's (1985) Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China we can determined that he held () the prestige title of General of Mobile Cavalry (游騎將軍), but served as Courageous Commander" (果毅都尉) of the left () in the guard of the left (左衛) in the garrison of 淥城 Lùchéng. The early Tang military was divided into 12 armies, each comprised of a number of garrisons (~ 650 in total). Each garrison had an overall commander and two "courageous commanders" (果毅都尉), left and right. The "courageous" part related to the way of referring to different garrisons.

The place name 淥城府 or Lùchéng Garrison seems to correspond to modern day 涿州为 [涿州為] or Zhuōzhōu Province which is about 30km south-east of Fángshān. This explains why the stele was found in Yúnjū Temple rather than somewhere closer to Chang'an.

Line 2: 父楊 母段息懷慶玄嗣玄器玄貞女大娘二娘隸利巫山

Line two is all summed by Yang (2003) as 其全家 "his family". It begins with his Mother 母 Duan段. Duan would be her family name. Next is his wife 妻 Hu 扈; his sons (息): 懷慶, 玄嗣, 玄黎*, and 玄貞; his daughters (女) 大娘 and 二娘 (i.e., first daughter, second daughter); and finally someone named 利巫山 who is a servant or dependent (隸). Perhaps a "ward" given that he is included with the family. The person missing from all this is his father. Since the tablet has columns of 26 characters, there are potentially three characters missing from the end of each colophon column. We can conjecture that the end of line one included the word father (父) and his name, which was presumably also 楊.
* 玄器 is an alternative reading of 玄黎.
† in this context we might expect 太 rather than 大.
The traditional Chinese system of names is relatively complex. They have a family (originally a clan) name, in this case 楊. Then they have a given name (名) which may be given by the head of the family rather than the parents and only used in the family. Women only used their family and given names. Boys might have an infant name (乳名) used up to adulthood. At adulthood men get a 字 or "courtesy name" which is the name they use in everyday life, though intimates may also call them by a nickname (號). At ordination monks take a Dharma name (法號). It's possible that the younger sons became monks and that their names with the common element 玄 (which they share with Xuanzang) reflect this. Other names, such as a nom de plume, or posthumous names were also common. Emperors often took a new name when they took the throne.

Three characters are missing at the end of this line.

Line 3: 家眷屬緣此功德齊成正覺顯慶六年二月八日造經

The third line asks that family (家) members (眷屬) be caused (緣) by this merit (此功德) to attain awakening (成正覺) together (齊).

The date 顯慶六年二月日 the sutra was made 造經 we have already discussed.


For the first time we have physical evidence linking the Heart Sutra to Xuánzàng during his lifetime and naming him as translator (譯). However, we need to be cautious. What this tells us is precisely that those involved in the production of the inscription believed that Xuánzàng had translated the sutra. Xuánzàng is mentioned in this inscription, but he wasn't involved in it.

I asked Dr Jeffrey Kotyk if he could shed any light on the chronology from the traditional histories. In the 《釋氏通鑑》, a Buddhist history of China up to ca 960 CE, we find a single mention of Xuánzàng for year 5 of Xianqing 顯慶 (kindly translated for me by JK, but with some slight modifications of my own):
「三月。西明寺靜之禪師遷逝。甞鼻患肉塞。百方無驗。有僧令誦般若心經萬遍。恰至五千。肉鈴便落(本傳)○奘法師。於玉華譯般(若經)○」(CBETA, X76, no. 1516, p. 88b2-4)
"3rd lunar month. Chanshi Jingzhi of Ximing-si passed away. He once suffered from blocked nasal passages. Hundreds of remedies were ineffective. There was a monk who had him recite the Prajñā-Heart Sutra ten-thousand times. At exactly five-thousand [recitations], his [nasal] flesh tinkled [like a bell]. (original biography). Master Xuánzàng at Yuhua translated the Pra(jñā Sūtra)."
Words in square brackets are added to help make sense of the translation. The words in parentheses are notes from the CBETA edition.
From the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a biography of Xuánzàng composed by慧立 Huìlì, edited and published by 彥悰 Yàncóng in about 688 CE (T 2053), we know that Xuánzàng moved to Yuhua late in the 4th year of Xianqing (659), and started translating the Mahāprajñāpāramitā (i.e., T220) at the beginning of the 5th year (660). See below for more on dates. What this passage suggests is that the Heart Sutra predates the translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā.

The phrase 三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯 appears at the beginning of T220, Xuánzàng's translation of the collected Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. By contrast, Huìlì and Yàncóng state that the work was translated due to a request from the "people"
東國重於《般若》,前代雖翻,不能周備,眾人更請委翻 (T 2053.275c.17-19)
In the Eastern Country the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra was highly esteemed. Although it had been translated into Chinese during a previous dynasty, the translation was incomplete, so the people [眾人] requested that the Master kindly translate it anew. (Li 1995: 327)
From what I can make out, such translations were presented to the Emperor after completion and then received the imperial seal of approval.

The 玉華宮 Yuhua Gong, or Palace of Jade Flowers, is the place where Xuánzàng's translation team worked on T220. It is about 100 km north of Changan, well away from the distractions of life in the capital (and quite far from where Yang lived, also). According to Huìlì and Yàncóng, Xuánzàng moved out to Yuhua in 顯慶四年十月 or November 659 (T2053.275c). Yaowang Mountain, about halfway between Chang'an and Yuhua also has a collection of stone sutras.

The date of 顯慶六年二月日 for the Fángshān stele is interesting because it's in the middle of the period during which Xuánzàng and his team of translators were translating the collection of sixteen Prajñāpāramitā sūtras known as the 大般若波羅蜜多經 or Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T220). This took about four years and occurred between: 顯慶五年正月一日 and 龍朔三年十月二十日. The table below shows the key events and the dates in the traditional Chinese and Gregorian calendars.

EventChinese dateGregorian
顯慶 begins (i.7)656 Feb 7
Move to Yuhua顯慶四年十月 659 Nov
T220 Trans begins顯慶五年正月一日660 Feb 16
Fángshān stele顯慶六年二月八日661 March 13

龍朔 begins (ii.30)661 Apr 4
T220 Trans ends 龍朔三年十月二十日663 Nov 15

麟德 begins (i.1)664 Feb 2
Xuánzàng dies麟德一年二月五日664 March 7

As we can see, the stele purports to be from a time a little over a year into the translation of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra collection. And at a time when Xuánzàng had retreated from public life in the capital to a mountain retreat 100 km away. If we take this at face value, then Xuánzàng must have "translated" the Heart Sutra attributed to him (T251) before he started this magnum opus. I use scare quotes on "translated" because it is clear from other evidence that he did not translate it. Note that Xuánzàng died within a few months of completing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra translation.

All of the circumstantial evidence points away from Xuánzàng's being involved in translating it (see Nattier 1992: 189ff for a survey of the evidence).
  1. The Heart Sutra is a 抄經 (chāo jīng) or "sutra extract" rather than a translation.
  2. The extraction was from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the Large Sutra (T223), with other parts inspired by the same text, and a dhāraṇī from elsewhere. It now clearly predates the completion of T220.
  3. Like a lot of English (so-called) "translations" the text attributed to Xuánzàng (T251) is an edited version of an existing text (T250). Two lines were removed and the characters for two names and one technical term (skandha) were changed.
  4. All the terms changed were introduced by Xuánzàng, but were seldom taken up by later translators.
  5. No text translated by Xuánzàng ever replaced one translated by Kumārajīva in popular Chinese Buddhism - Kumārajīva's texts are still in use today.
  6. Xuánzàng's biography mentions him being given the text, not translating it.
  7. Xuánzàng's own travelogue doesn't mention the Heart Sutra at all.
  8. The Heart Sutra does not appear in T220, Xuánzàng's collection of Prajñāpāramitā sutras translated from Sanskrit (though we have reason to believe he already possessed a version). No other Prajñāpāramitā text translated by Xuánzàng occurs outside of T220.
So, Xuánzàng was, at best, an editor of the text. And such edits as occurred were relatively minor. In a forthcoming essay I will show that the character 譯 does not always mean "translate" but can mean precisely "edit". In any case, the resulting text, or one very like it, was attributed to Xuánzàng three years before he died (early in 664 CE) by someone who lived several hundred kilometers away.

Even if the story about the blocked nasal passages is not exactly historically accurate, it probably does reflect the use to which the Heart Sutra was put in the 10th Century, when the commentary was composed. And this is confirmed by other sources. While a handful of scholars studied and interpreted the text as a document of Buddhist ideas, the majority of Buddhists, then and now, see it in magical terms, in which understanding the text is secondary, if it has any importance at all.

The Fángshān Stele can now claim to be the oldest dated Heart Sutra. It forces us to review the relationship between Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra, though I do not think that we can take the attribution to him at face value. Since the Heart Sutra Xuánzàng had was almost certainly already in Chinese, we cannot say that he translated it. It is possible, even likely, that he edited it for publication. If he did so, it was most likely before he embarked upon his translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. And he probably did not include the Heart Sutra in this collection, because it was already in Chinese. If the biography of Huìlì and Yàncóng can be believed, then Xuánzàng treated the text as a locally produced (magically efficacious) dhāraṇī, not as an authentic Indian sutra. However, the commentaries of Kuījī and Woncheuk (which I have written about before) clearly do treat the text as having an Indian origin and as being a text about ideas rather than simply apophatic magic.


Chinese Canonical texts from the CBETA Reader, except where stated.

北京圖書館金石組, 中國佛教圖書文物館石經組編 (1987) ‘房山石經題記匯編’. 书目文献出版社 : 新華書店北京發行所發行, 1987. = The Beijing Library Metal and Stone Group and The Chinese Buddhist books and Cultural Relics Museum Stone Sutra Group. (1987). Classified Compilation of Headings and Records of the Stone Scriptures on Mt. Fang, Beijing: Bibliographic Literature Publishing House and Xinhua Bookstore.

道安 and 張曼濤. (1977)「大藏經硏究彙編」(2 Vols.) 台北: 大乘文化出版社. = Dàoān and Zhāng Màntāo. (1977) Collection of Tripiṭaka Research. (2 Vols.). Taipei: Mahāyana Culture Press.

賀銘, 續小玉, “早期《心經》的版本”,房山石經博物館/房山石經與雲居寺文化研究中心,編輯,《石經研究》,第一輯,頁12-28. 北京:北京燕山出版社,2017年。= He Ming, Xu Xiaoyu. (2017) “the Early recessions of Heart Sutra”, in Fángshān Stone Sutras Museum & Research Center of Fángshān Stone Sutras and Yunju Temple, ed., Stone Sutras Studies, Vol,1, pp.12-28. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe.

Hucker, Charles O. (1985). Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Stanford University Press.

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang. Numata Centre for Buddhist Translation and Research.

林元白。(1958)「唐代房山石经刻造概况」現代佛學 , 3。 一九五八年。= Lin Yuanbai. 'A General Survey of Fángshān Stone Sutras from the Tang Dynasty. Modern Buddhist Studies, 3, 1958. www.baohuasi.org/qikan/xdfx/5803-011A.htm. Cached copy.

杨亦武. (2003) 云居寺. 华文出版社. = Yáng Yìwǔ (2003). Yún jū Temple. Huawen Publishing House.

Additional Links

Chinese news story: http://www.sach.gov.cn/art/2016/9/27/art_723_133778.html

Video on Fángshān showing caves and stone steles with carved sutras. http://www.ikgf.uni-erlangen.de/videos/china-academic-visit-2013/the-video-on-Fángshān.shtml

08 June 2018

Asoka's Dates and Historicity

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cribb at the Ancient India and Iran Trust (25 May 2018). Joe was keeper of coins at the British Museum and is an expert on early coins in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, his main interest is in what coins and other physical objects can tell us about chronology. The gist of his lecture for the AIIT was a revised chronology of the Kushan period of Gandhāra, ca. 1-500 CE. The lecture covered much the same ground as a recent paper: Numismatic evidence and the date of Kaniṣka I. This is an important result for anyone interested in, for example, early Buddhist art in Gandhāra. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear on Kushan coins. 

Much of my pleasure at meeting Joe was that, just the day before, I had downloaded and read his 2017 article on the dates of Asoka. He was spurred to reconsider the dates of Asoka by our mutual friend Richard Gombrich, former Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, though it took him some time to get around to publishing his findings.

Dating the Buddha

In 1992, Gombrich had argued for a revised reading of the ordination lineages found in the Dīpavaṃsa, a history composed in Sri Lanka. Gombrich's most relevant conclusion is that:
...the Buddha died 136 years before Asoka’s inauguration, which means in 404 B.C. So, taking the margin of error into account, he died between 411 and 399 B.C., probably towards the middle of that period. (1992: 20)
This revised date for the parinibbāṇa has become widely accepted amongst scholars, though it is approximately a century later than the traditional dates (of which there are more than one). However, note that Gombrich's date relies on the only fixed point in early South Asian ancient history, the dates of Asoka.

Dating Asoka

The tale of the rediscovery of Asoka by Military and Civil officers of the British East India Company acting as amateur archaeologists is engagingly retold by Charles Allen in his book Ashoka (2012). I won't go over this ground, but I want to make the comparison with the Buddha as a legendary figure and Asoka as an historical figure.

We know about the Buddha from living Buddhist traditions and from the extant texts of both living and dead Buddhist traditions. The story of the Buddha as the founder of our religion has been told and retold for centuries. How many centuries we are not sure, but at least 20 and as many as 25. The old literary strata of our texts had to have been composed after the so-called "second urbanisation" which occured in the Ganges Valley after about 700-600 CE. The first urbanisation was the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended ca. 1700 BCE due to climate change. However, survivors of that prolonged drought moved north and blended with the populations there, so the people themselves lived on. The second urbanisation was a rather extended process, and some sources place the emergence of the key city of Sravasti as late as ca 400 CE. I need to look more closely at this as  Sravasti (Pāli Sāvatthī) is a key location for the Buddhist stories and its dates can help us to narrow down when the production of such stories began. 

Since the Nikāya and Āgama texts don't mention Asoka or his Grandfather, we may infer that they were composed before his time. I think Cribb makes this argument all the more plausible. This means that the earliest texts were composed between ca. 700 and 300 BCE.

The modern discussion about Asoka's dates is quite vague, partly because the basic facts became established in the 19th Century. For a few decades references were made to the original observations, but after a while everyone just takes it all for granted and says that Asoka reigned in the mid 3rd Century BCE and leaves it at that. His dates are sometimes given more precisely. The Wikipedia entry on Asoka, for example, citing the first edition of Romila Thapar's excellent History of India, says that he "ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE," the latter date also being the date of his death. These dates are widely accepted as being accurate, if not very precise.

Cribb notes that the dating of Asoka is based on a number of different sources of evidence:
Our knowledge of Mauryan chronology comes from five main sources: Buddhist texts like the Dīpavaṃsa, Jain and Purāṇic texts, references to the Mauryan kings in Classical Greek and Latin texts and the inscriptions of the reign of the third Mauryan king Ashoka. (2017: 5)
All of these sources, except for the inscriptions, were composed long after the life of Asoka. The inscriptions themselves are the single most important historical source, not only for Buddhists, but for all of ancient history in India. Rock Edict no. 13 mentions five Greco-Bactrian kings:
"Of the five Greek kings three are of chronological significance: Antikini must represent Antigonus Gonatus (276-239 BC); Maka must be Magas king of Cyrene (c 283- 250 BC); Alikasundra is most likely Alexander II of Epirus (272-255). The other two cannot be used to create any direct chronological evidence: they are Antiyoki, i.e., Antiochus, and Turamaya, i.e., Ptolemy." (2017: 8)
This edict is not dated, but by combining inferences drawn from other edicts, we may conjecture that it was created in the 13th or 14th year of Asoka's reign. Knowledge of these kings reflects the period 272-255 BCE and, allowing a year for the news of them to travel, suggests that the edict was made in 271-254, making his coronation dates 285/4-268/7 BCE. Sri Lankan sources suggest a delay of four years between accession and coronation.

Greek and Latin sources do not mention Asoka, but they do seem to mention his grandfather, Chandragupta:
"The Classical historians Diodorus (16.93-4) and Curtius (IX.2.1–7) referred to the Indian king ruling at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of north-western India, 326-5 BCE, in terms which correspond to the descriptions in Indian texts of one of the Nanda predecessor of the Mauryan kings (low born, śūdra origin and the descendant of a barber, Singh 2012, 272–3), who the same sources state immediately preceded Chandragupta. Diodorus called him Xandrames; Curtius called him Agrammes. These texts can be seen as evidence that Chandragupta was not yet king in 325 BCE." (2017: 6)
Chandragupta is also apparently referred to by Pompeius Trogus, Strabo, Appian, Hegesandrus. All of these European classical authors were writing long after the time, and their observations have to be treated with caution. Cribbs notes that all previous treatments of them have taken these sources at face value, but they have also misinterpreted these texts to fit a preconceived idea about Indian chronology.

The Greek and Roman sources put the beginning of Chandragupta's reign "at about 321 BCE, with the range proposed being c. 324–320 BCE." (2017: 9). Cribb discusses the various accounts of the length of the reigns of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka, including summaries of the Purāṇīc and Jain texts. He concludes that "the Greek and Roman sources are pointing to the accession of Chandragupta during the period c. 311 (unlikely to be earlier than 316) to 303 BCE." (2017: 11).

As it turns out, in order to make the highest number of the various dates match up, it is necessary to adopt Richard Gombrich's revised reading of the Dīpavaṃsa. This gives the date of Asoka year 1 based on his accession (with coronation four years later) as no earlier than 285/4 BCE and no later than 270/1 BCE.

Based on the Dipavaṃsa sources, anchored by the revised dates for Asoka, this places the Buddha's parinibbāṇa no earlier than 423 BCE and no later than 389 BCE, i.e., less precise than Gombrich's dates (411-399 BCE), but centred on roughly the period, i.e., beginning of the 4th Century BCE. As I noted above, Sravasti might have emerged as a city around this time or only a little earlier. Sravasti is the established capital of Kosala in Buddhist and Jain texts, as well as in Pāṇini's grammar.

Cribb sounds a final note of caution that we do not actually know that the edicts of Asoka were composed and/or inscribed by him or during his lifetime. We need to constantly question the accepted wisdom of our time, because it is often simply based on assumptions that have become hidden over time.

A Historical Figure?

Some time ago I linked to David Drewes (2017) article, in which he starts out by saying:
We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. (Drewes 2017: 1)
This, unsurprisingly, proved to be a provocative statement for many Buddhists and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. For many of us the historicity of the Buddha is not only beyond doubt but to doubt it seems a little perverse. I bring it up again because Cribb's article draws together all the research which makes Asoka seem to very definitely be a historical figure and this highlighted for me what a historical figure is.

Over and above the inscriptions in stone which purport to have have been erected by Asoka, the stories of Asoka were preserved by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus in India, and by Greeks and Romans outside of India. Of course, we must keep in mind that the Greek Herodotus was not only called the Father of History, but also the Father of Lies. Like other writers of his age, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story (there is nothing new about "fake news"). All of these sources, particularly those composed centuries after the facts they recount, taken individually must be treated with caution, even the inscriptions themselves. However, taken together they make a compelling case. Asoka may well be a figure of legends and myths, but he also has a good claim to be the first genuinely historical figure in Indian history (Pāṇīni is another claimant to the title, but his dates are based on Asoka's).

In contrast, the Buddha is a figure only of Buddhist stories. No account of him is found in Jain or Hindu texts, let alone in Latin or Greek. It might be argued that they could not be expected to record someone outside of their own communities, except that the Buddhist texts record many encounters between the Buddha and non-Buddhists. Of course, there are no written records until some centuries later, but if we preserved stories from that time, why would others not? Would the Brahmins not have been keen to denounce Buddhists as heretics for denying both ātman and Brahman?

Recall that, by the time of Roman and Greek contact with the Mauryans, the Buddha was nearly a century dead and his followers could be found throughout the Empire. Did other groups really not meet any or hear news of them?

One of the arguments for the historicity of the Buddha (i.e., for his being a historical figure) is that we all tell the same story, more or less, about him. I'm not the first to point out that actually the received story is contradicted in many details in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta account of his life. In an unpublished article (Attwood 2013), I've argued that we know his name was not Siddhārtha and there is reason to doubt that his name was even Gotama. With respect to this, if Buddhism began with a small group of people and expanded out, at the end of the process all Buddhists would have a version of the original story of founding that the small group told. In a published article (2012) I argued that, based on the preserved stories, the small group in question, the Śākya tribe, might have arrived in Central Ganges Valley having ultimately come from Iran. That idea was first put forward informally by Michael Witzel and I simply formalised it. The same year Witzel (2012) published a masterly account of the origins of world mythology in the small group who left Africa ca. 100,000 years ago (incidentally allowing us to set aside Jung's fantasy about a "collective unconscious").

The historicity of Asoka is not in doubt because there is a range of evidence for his having lived. Some of the details of his life may be vague or in doubt, but he himself is beyond any reasonable doubt. Asoka was a man who lived in India in the 3rd Century BCE. He inherited an Empire, which collapsed not long after his death. Accepting the historicity of Asoka is a simple matter of rationality. It would be irrational to argue that the evidence amounts to nothing.

Whether or not any reader accepts the historicity of the Buddha depends entirely on how much credence they give to the Buddhist stories about the Buddha. One of the arguments is that it is the simplest way to account for the stories - all those stories must be based on a man. I think this is doubtful for two reasons. The texts themselves are full of stories that are unequivocally myths (stories about gods and fairies) and legends (stories about past Buddhas). We know that the authors of these stories had good imaginations, they used a wealth of similes, metaphors, imagery, and humour to convey their message. They clearly did make up stories (e.g., the Jātakas) in order to communicate their values. And such stories are also common to all of Buddhism. So why not the founder figure also?

The other objection to this is that the preference for simple answers is a known cognitive bias and it turns out that things are almost never simple. We tend to think of evolution in terms of the tree metaphor - things getting more complex over time, and therefore simpler as we look back in time. History, in this view, is simpler, the further back we go. This bias makes a single founder figure, uninfluenced by his family or culture, seem much more likely than it otherwise would. It's common, for example, for naive historians to say that WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignoring the vast number of factors which had to have accumulated beforehand for this spark to give rise to a global war.

This may also be an artefact of what is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. In this view, a handful of men (not women), are responsible for history. Therefore, when we study history, we give precedence to studying the lives of great men and trying to understand their psychology. The ways in which this is wrong are so numerous as to require a book to refute them all. Most of how we think about individual psychology is bunk, based on fantasies composed by Freud and his bastards. Social factors are much more likely to influence behaviour than individual psychology, including in the case of powerful men. Women are as much a part of history. And those men who are powerful are often involved in the mass manipulation of societies that have to bend to their will instead of rebelling in order for the man to wield power (i.e., societies make individuals great, not the other way around). 

It is more accurate to say that everything influences everything else and that any one person seen in isolation is very unlikely to be significant. Founders do occur. But if we take the example of Christianity, it has long been acknowledged by scholars that the shape of Christianity as a religion had a lot more to do with people down the ages than it does to do with Jesus. Buddhism is much the same. Whenever the founder became inconvenient, followers simply changed the story or made up a new bit, just as they made up his forgotten name.

The Buddha's final death was seen as extremely inconvenient by all Buddhists by the beginning of the Common Era. For most Buddhists, the knowledge that the Buddha was gone and never coming back was a catastrophe. They started to invent new stories: this included Buddhas from parallel universes (and we mock the Scientologists for their beliefs). Best of all, we invented a class of beings (with both mythic and human representatives) who were able to get enlightened without disappearing from the world - i.e., awakening without the ending of rebirth, when to that point the whole raison d'être of Buddhism was to end rebirth. These beings would stay to help out, the way that the Buddha had not. There was even a suggestion (played up by some modern Buddhists) that Gotama had been selfish to get enlightened and end rebirth for himself, leaving the rest of us on the carousel.

In any case, I hope the contrast between the Buddha and Asoka is clear with respect to the kind of evidence that makes a person a "historical person". For Asoka, there is a wealth of evidence both textual and physical. For the Buddha, only stories told by Buddhists.

The last time I bought this up within the Triratna Buddhist Order, some people argued that it didn't matter to them whether or not the Buddha was historical. I think this attitude is probably quite widespread. But as some people in our community still struggle with this issue or reject any suggestion that the founder myth is not true, or at least based on a true story, it is problematic for all of us. We agree, to some extent, on the role of faith in our Order, but are not in harmony on the issue of articles of faith. For example, on the issues of karma and rebirth, even those of us who believe in the Buddhist versions of the twin myths of the just world and the afterlife, disagree on the details of how they work. 

Some years ago Dharmacārin Subhūti expressed his fear that we might drift into doctrinal incoherence and therefore needed to impose limits on the Order. I would argue that we long ago passed that point, if, indeed, we ever had such coherence. Discussions about articles of faith such as the founder, the just world, and afterlife are apt to be emotionally charged and divisive. Not believing (and there are many of us who don't) is seen as deeply problematic: more so, for example, than the gap between those who favour incompatible Buddhists views on such issues as those who draw fairly exclusively on Theravāda, Madhyamaka, or Yogācāra ideology, for example. These are three incompatible views.

Non-sectarian scholarship inevitably steps on people's sacred cows. Which is why most of us ignore it in favour of sectarian scholarship, I suppose.


Sources Cited

Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Abacus

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online

Attwood, J. (2013) Siddhārtha Gautama: What‘s in a Name?. Unpublished. https://www.academia.edu/4866512/Siddhārtha_Gautama_Whats_in_a_Name

Cribb, J. (2017). 'The Greek Contacts of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka and their Relevance to Mauryan and Buddhist Chronology' in Kamal Sheel, Charles Willemen and Kenneth Zysk (eds.) From Local to Global, Prof. A.K. Narain Commemoration Volume, Papers in Asian History and Culture (3 vol.). Delhi: Buddhist World Press. Vol. I: 3–27. Online.

Drewes, D. (2017). The Idea of the Historical Buddha. JIABS. 40: 1–25. Online.

Gombrich, R. (1992). 'Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed' in Heinz Bechert (ed.), The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischen Buddha, Part 2 (Symposien zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 2). Göttigen: venderhoeck & Ruprect, pp.237-59. Online.

Witzel, E. J. M. (2012). The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

01 June 2018

Review of Ji Yun's 'Is the Heart Sutra an Apocryphal Text? A Re-examination'

This essay is a critical review of the article Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination by Professor Ji "Michael" Yun of the Buddhist College of Singapore, first published in Chinese in 2012 and translated into English in 2017 by Chin Shih-Foong (who uploaded the article to academia.org).

Ji's article is long, covering 68 pages, and very mixed in content and method (sometimes there is no apparent method). Unfortunately, this means that my review is also long (11,000 words). It's unreasonable to expect people to read something like this online. And most people won't, but there was a lot to say

Ji is sceptical about and critical of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed/compiled in China, though he is curiously naïve and credulous about other scholars, especially Conze and Fukui. I will argue that his methods are unsound and his conclusions largely invalid. For example, many of Ji's assertions rely on literal and entirely uncritical readings of traditional texts. As such, Ji's article on the Heart Sutra is consistent with those by Ishii Kōsei and Kazuaki Tanahashi. All three authors seem willing to believe almost anything rather than accept the inescapable conclusion. Ji's article is also characterised by his patronising attitude toward Nattier and the use of rather clumsy strawman arguments.

Ji's original article was published prior to publications by Matt Orsborn (Huifeng 2014) and myself (Attwood 2015, 2017, 2018) and does not anticipate our discoveries or our arguments. Nor does he anticipate forthcoming articles of mine.

There are minor errors of spelling and grammar on every page of the translation and it would have benefited by being proofread someone more skilled in English. Though, on the whole, the article is readable, I cannot speak to how accurate the translation is. I proceed on the assumption that it is a good representation of the original and if it is not then perhaps someone will draw this to my attention.

Ji uses simplified Chinese characters in his article (the norm in Singapore where he teaches). In my discussion, I have used traditional characters and where I have quoted Ji directly, I have supplied the traditional characters.

Ji's Article: Section by Section

Ji begins with an anecdotal forward (Section 1), but soon settles into a long recapitulation (Section 2) of Nattier's main argument based on a comparison of four texts: Sanskrit and Chinese versions of both the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Pañc) and the Heart Sutra (Ji 2012: 3-17). His summary is mostly accurate and his comments do not detract too much. One sees the strength of the argument for composition in Chinese based on an extract from Kumārajīva's translation of Pañc, i.e., T223.

Section 3
Ji spends pages 18-34 reviewing the career of Edward Conze and his, often faulty, opinions on Prajñāpāramitā. Ji does not critique Conze; instead, his praise of Conze is effusive. This is curious from a contemporary scholar, since it is common knowledge that Conze made many mistakes in his Sanskrit editions and that his translations are inaccurate a good deal of the time.

Ji includes some digressions such as comparing the Svalpākṣarā and the Sanskrit Heart Sutra which is intended to show that a short text like the Heart Sutra is not unique. Many short prajñāpāramitā texts were produced, though these were typically much later. For example, the Svalpākṣarā was translated into Chinese during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) and the earliest Sanskrit manuscript is dated ca. 1000 CE. The Svalpākṣarā is an overtly Tantric text, while the Heart Sutra harks back to a much earlier pre-Tantric period.  Therefore, the Svalpākṣarā most likely post-dates the Heart Sutra by quite a bit. This is one of several times that Ji seems inattentive to the importance of chronology, a fault that I also noted in my critique of Ishii Kōsei's article on the Heart Sutra.

It is not entirely clear what is achieved by this long section of the essay, covering three more pages than the summary of the thesis Ji sets out to criticise. Conze's work is surely well known by the intended audience for this article and it has little or no bearing on the matter at hand, i.e., the question of whether the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal text or not.

Moreover, Conze's work is now severely dated and almost all of his editorial work needs to be redone due to careless mistakes. Ji does not notice the mistakes in Conze's edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra (See Attwood 2015, 2018). These mistakes are now a useful yardstick against which to measure the work of scholars of the Heart Sutra. If they do not notice simple grammatical mistakes in the Sanskrit text, then they are not in a position to comment.

Section 4
Section 4 gives a cursory review of the volume of Prajñāpāramitā essays edited by Lewis Lancaster in honour of Conze. Leon Hurvitz (rightly) gets most of the attention, as he translated the introductions to T256 (See my essay Taishō 256: The Other Chinese Heart Sutra). Nothing here is relevant to the Chinese origins thesis.

Section 5
Ji continues his review of historical research with a brief discussion of the first of Donald Lopez's two books on the Indian commentaries of the Heart Sutra (1988). The second, and better, book with complete translations (1996) is not mentioned. Ji proposes that Nattier benefitted from Lopez's observation that according to Conze 's chronology there is a 500-year gap between composition and the first Indian commentaries (Chinese commentaries appear a century earlier). By not referring to Nattier's use of Lopez (1988), while suggesting that it has been a major influence on her work, Ji seems to imply that Lopez is an unacknowledged influence. This is certainly not the case. For example, Lopez (1988) is prominently cited on the first page of Nattier's article (153) as well as elsewhere. This is the first of many examples of this type of argument. 

This apparent gap between composition and the emergence of commentarial texts is discussed by Nattier (1992: 173-4) at which time she again cites Lopez (1988) as a source (Nattier 208: n.39). Nattier further points out that all Chinese commentaries (ancient and modern) are on T251, while all of the Indian commentaries discussed by Lopez are on the extended Sanskrit Heart Sutra. Not only did the surviving Indian commentaries emerge a century later, they all used a text that has been altered to conform to Indian norms for sutras. See also Nattier's discussion of what constitutes authenticity in China, India, and Tibet (1992: 195-8). However, neither the apparent gap nor the question of what constitutes textual authenticity is central to the Chinese origins thesis. These are side issues. That said they make more sense if the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese in the 7th Century.

Section 6
This section gives us a deeper glimpse of the work of the late Fukui Fumimasa on the Heart Sutra (he died in May 2017). It seems that Ji is working from Chinese translations of Fukui's Japanese publications. Although Fukui has been very influential on Japanese academia (and on Zen Buddhist commentators) in rejecting Nattier's thesis, to date the relevant work has not been translated into English. As we will see, Nattier does cite his earlier work on several occasions (she taught at Soka University, Tokyo, 2006-10 and can read Japanese). Indeed, as with Lopez, Fukui is cited on the first page of Nattier's article (153).

Ji gives us considerably more detail than has previously been available of Fukui's argument that the title, 心經, should be read, not as Heart Sutra, but as Dhāraṇī Scripture.

According to Fukui, the title 《心經》 only becomes standardised as recently as the 14th Century. Before this it was routine to use the title 《多心經》 in catalogues and other literary references to the Heart Sutra (Ji 37-8). Fukui examined the Chinese Heart Sutra texts found at Dunhuang and recorded nine variations, each with 多 somewhere in the title, although the relationship varies (Ji 37). The relationship is not always obvious. For example, one variant was《多心經般若》where 般若 stands for prajñā(pāramitā), suggesting that 多 does not.

It is not clear what 多 signifies and Ji does not discuss this. He does point out that in Kumārajīva's day prajñāpāramitā was transliterated as 般若波羅蜜 (Middle Chinese banya baramiet), noting that 蜜 had a final dental sound ( /miet/ ) and could thus dispense with an extra character to present . By Xuánzàng's time, the final consonant of 蜜 must have been dropped, as in Mandarin, necessitating the addition of a final dental sound for which 多 (Pinyin duō) was the standard choice. From this Ji concludes that any reference to 多心經 must be to T251. However, this assumes that the 多 was related to 般若波羅蜜多 for which no evidence is forthcoming and, as Fukui's collection of titles show, it may not have been the case. Ji is not thinking critically at this point, but giving way to confirmation bias.

Ji does not consider, for example, that 多 has an independent meaning in Chinese. 多 has the basic meaning "many" (Digital Dictionary of Buddhism). For example, Xuánzàng uses it in the expression 多人 to mean "many people" (T 2087.867c.2). According to Kroll's (2015) definition 2, it can mean: "exceed, surpass; be greater than, superior to. a. make much of; deem important, significant, or valuable; highly esteem or praise." In other words, 多 can be a general superlative in Middle Chinese. And we know that Buddhists frequently used such superlative prefixes (e.g., mahā-, ārya-, brahma-) to mark names and words as important. One of the Sanskrit terms that 多 can stand for in Middle Chinese is mahat, or as a prefix, mahā-. Even though 大 is far more common for mahā-, the point is that there is at least one other plausible interpretation of 多 in this context. Ji does not consider alternatives, except where it will undermine Nattier's thesis. Ji is completely passive in accepting the arguments of Fukui. I see no evidence for taking 多 to represent 般若波羅蜜多 and some to the contrary.

Ji points out that there are one or two exceptions to this trend of referring to the text as 《多心經》, the most interesting being the reference to the Heart Sutra in the biography of Xuánzàng 《慈恩傳》by Huìlì 慧立 in 688 CE (24 years after Xuánzàng died). This biography twice refers to the 《般若心經》where 般若 is an abbreviation of 般若波羅蜜多 or prajñāpāramitā, and 心經 means Heart Sutra. Note that by 《慈恩傳》Ji seems to mean T2053, i.e., 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》Biography of Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery (c.f. Li 1995). Xuánzàng's own travelogue seemingly never mentions the Heart Sutra.

Without having come to any resolution on the meaning of 多, Ji segues into a discussion of 心.
"Fukui found that 心 ("heart") was interchangeable with 咒 (vidyā), 陀罗尼 or 真言 (dhāraṇī), and he concluded that 心 had in fact the meaning of mantra (pp. 22-25). Fukui also found that in scriptural catalogues, dhāraṇī sūtra 陀罗尼经 and heart sūtra 心经 were interchangeable terms." (Ji 37)
Note: 经 = 經 "sūtra"; 陀罗尼 = 陀羅尼 is a transliteration of dhāraṇī; 真言  "true word" is the standard translation of mantra in Chinese and Japanese Tantric Buddhism.
Fukui, like Ji, here seems inattentive to the importance of chronology. I have shown how the character 咒 changes its meaning over time (Attwood 2017). Vidyā is translated in the 5th Century by Kumārajīva as a binomial word 明咒. The early meaning of vidyā is "experiential knowledge", particularly the knowledge gained through meditation. In my essay Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation, I argued (on the basis of a single passage) that perhaps dhāraṇī also had the sense of the "ongoing transformation" that results from peak meditation experiences. Thus, dhāraṇī and vidyā may both have the sense of encapsulating the insights gained in meditation. This may also explain why the two words became interchangeable despite having different denotations.

However, by the 7th Century, 明咒 is seen as two words, "bright dhāraṇī" (cf. Beal's 1863 translation with no influence from Sanskrit texts). In T251 明咒 is reduced to just 咒 in all but one case and is understood as dhāraṇī. As far as I can tell, 咒 has never been used to represent vidyā in this context. Contrarily, I have noted at least one occasion when 明 represents vidyā, i.e., in the translation of the Ratnaguṇa-samcayagāthā (Attwood 2017). The use of dhāraṇī as 'magic spell' predates the emergence of Tantric Buddhism in the second half of the 7th Century in India.

As Ryūichi Abe points out (1999: 151 ff), Tantra is a context within which other elements can be interpreted. Dhāraṇīs and even mantras appearing out of context are not Tantric. In other words, Tantra becomes established after the Heart Sutra takes its standard form. 咒 does not take on the meaning of mantra until Tantric Buddhism becomes established in China in the 8th Century. Although there is some evidence for Tantric Buddhism earlier in China (See Jeffery Kotyk's blog After Xuanzang: Monk Wuxing and Early Tantra in India), it does not become firmly established until the arrival of Śubhakarasiṃha (637-735) and Vajrabodhi (671–741) in Changan in 716, and  in 720 CE, respectively. As we will see, Ji makes a meal out of  one of the earlier translations, but he goes far beyond the evidence when doing so. Notably, the two late 7th Century commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk, mentioned later by Ji, show no knowledge of Tantric Buddhism and see the Heart Sutra solely in terms of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.

If Fukui has been fairly represented by Ji, then he is also guilty of collapsing centuries of linguistic change when he conflates vidyā, dhāraṇī, and mantra. It is difficult to show exactly when vidyā and dhāraṇī became conflated, but it had not yet happened when the Large Sutra was composed. Note also that T250 is not called 心經 at all, but 大明呪經, i.e., Mahāvidyā Sūtra, where vidyā is used in the sense of "knowledge" rather than as "incantation". Prajñāpāramitā frequently represents the aim of Buddhism as a superlative kind of knowledge: prajñā-pāramitā, sarvajñā, mahāvidyā, etc.

Section 7
In this section, Ji outlines some findings published in Chinese by Shen Jiu Cheng (i.e., 沈九成, Chén jiǔchéng - in this case, I will follow Ji in referring to 沈九成 as "Shen"). Shen seems to be, like me, an independent scholar working outside academia. I can find no other mention of him, he has no internet presence that I can detect. Ji describes him thus:
"Shen has displayed some obvious errors in his writing, or some lack of rigour to say the least, due perhaps to his lack of academic trainings [sic]. This article also shows the author's lack of necessary knowledge in foreign languages, and his imfamiliarity [sic] with studies done overseas." (39)
At this point, I think it is fair to note that while Ji works for an institution, its main executive and teaching staff are Buddhist monastics (Ji is not) and the student body are also either monastics or in training to be monastics. When "academics" are signed up members of the Buddhist establishment with all the commitments and built-in biases that this implies (see Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power) we have to be especially cautious about their views. The capture of Buddhism Studies by monks tends to shift the focus from critical thinking towards religious apologetics. And Ji's article can be seen as an apologetic for the authenticity of the Heart Sutra rather than as genuine critical scholarship.

Shen apparently pointed out that the Chinese Heart Sutra texts T250 and T251 are vidyā 咒 rather than sūtra 經 (note as above that 咒 does not mean vidyā). However, Ji gives us only the conclusion, not the reasoning behind it. Given Ji's comments about Shen's lack of training and skill, this conclusion seems more like luck than perspicuity. Where is Ji's scepticism in this case?

Ji makes a great deal of the fact that Shen found a mantra at the end of Xuánzàng's collection of Prajñāpāramitā texts that is very similar to the one in the Heart Sutra. The mantra as it appears in Taishō (7.1110a) is on the right. My transliteration of the Siddham is
tadyathā oṃ gate gate paragate parasagate bodhi svāhā
There is an error in the scanned image of Taishō 7.1110a accompanying the CBETA reader (clear in the extract, right). Ji either has a revised edition or he has silently amended parasagate to the expected parasaṃgate (Ji 40). It is a simple, even common mistake to leave off an anusvāra (Attwood 2015), so amending it is fair enough, but a scholar is bound to say when they make amendments to cited texts, especially canonical texts. 

Ji writes about this as "an important discovery" (Ji 40), going to a lot of trouble to reproduce (and correct) the Siddham text from the Taishō page in his article. At the same time, he argues against Shen and for a different source of the Heart Sutra "mantra" (one already mentioned by Nattier and credited to John McRae: 211 n.52 and 53). Now, if Ji is right about the source of the dhāraṇī, then this "discovery" by Shen is incidental rather than important. Ji's argument is that Shen is not only a poor scholar in general, but that he is wrong about the source of the mantra. 

In Attwood (2017), I showed that the incantation in the Heart Sutra was not a mantra, but a dhāraṇī. Mantras begin with oṃ. They reference deities or ritual actions. And, as already mentioned, they occur within the context of the abhiṣekha ritual (and sādhana based on it). Dhāraṇī do not start with oṃ (until they are wrongly conflated with mantra) and they are often just repeated sounds with variations. Dhāraṇī don't mention deities, though they do often contain Sanskrit words with changing prefixes, i.e., gate, paragate, parasaṃsgate. Dhāraṇī also have a strong preference for the Prakrit nominative singular ending -e (cf here and here). Dhāraṇī always end in the Vedic word svāhā, while mantras sometimes end in svāhā, but more often end with seed syllables or words (particularly hūṃ and phaṭ). Mantras of some Tantric deities, e.g., Tārā are hybrids of the two approaches, oṃ tāre tuttare ture svāhā.

Moreover, I showed in an essay in 2009 that the inclusion of tadyathā is a mistake along the lines of an actor saying the stage directions on their script out loud. It means "in this manner". The inclusion seems to occur because the reciter cannot understand Sanskrit. Sanskrit studies were alive and well during Xuánzàng's lifetime, if only within an elite of the monastic community. So this mantra must post-date the composition of the Heart Sutra by decades if not centuries. It has nothing to do with Xuánzàng and appears to be the product of a culture in which Sanskrit is no longer understood.

Shen also does some rather ad hoc reasoning (Ji 40-1) about which texts had Sanskrit sources. He concludes that "it is not inconceivable that there is first the translation from Chinese into Sanskrit, and later (back-translation) from Sanskrit into Chinese." (Ji 41). However, Shen does not examine any Sanskrit sources, so he is at best guessing about the relationship between T250 and T251 (which he credits to their traditional authors, confusing the chronology).

As Ji portrays Shen, he lacks credibility and his observation was not based on solid "cross-lingual" evidence but was an opinion based on interpreting Chinese texts alone, Crucially, he was wrong about the source of the mantra. This section seems to be included solely because Ji claims that Shen anticipated one of Nattier's observations, though there is no sign that this was based on sound reasoning and indications that it was not.

Section 8
This section is lengthy and broken up into many unrelated sub-sections. I will continue in the same fashion taking each subsection as a unit.

Section 8.1
After a seemingly pointless digression, Ji gets back on track with a discussion of the Chinese practice of copying sutras (41-5). In some historical references, the Heart Sutra is included in the category of 抄經 (chāo jīng) "copied sutra" or "sutra extract". According to Ji, the practice of making sutra extracts was first noticed by the Buddhist bibliographer 僧祐 Senyou (445–518 CE) in his catalogue of translations (though the term does predate Senyou according to CBETA). Senyou disapproved of the practice but he was ignored: 
"... for generations, the act of copying parts of a lengthy work, either for ease of circulation or for worshipping needs, was an important religious practice." (Ji 43)
This observation allows us to place the Heart Sutra in the context of a widespread practice of copying parts of translations in just the way that we can see has happened with the Heart Sutra itself. Far from being unusual, the Heart Sutra is just one example of a broad cultural trend happening in China. This jibes well with Paul Copp's (2014) observations about the use of dhāraṇī in early medieval China. Of course, we also know that the opposite happened, and previously independent texts were absorbed into larger texts. What Ji does not say is that there was no such parallel trend in India.

The Heart Sutra is not a unique Indian attempt to condense the voluminous Prajñāpāramitā literature into a single page of text. Instead, it is part of a commonplace Chinese tradition of extract copying and dhāraṇī writing. Nattier's assertion that "the Heart Sutra is—in every sense of the word—a Chinese text" is bolstered by this observation. Curiously, Ji does not discuss the significance of this insight for the Chinese origins thesis at all. His eye seems to be on another goal that becomes apparent in Section 8.3 (Ji 49), i.e., the applicability of the word apocryphal.

Ji then moves on to discussing the opinions of Xuánzàng's two chief students Kuījī and Woncheuk (I have used my preferred Romanisation of these names throughout). Ji fails to acknowledge previous work in this area by Dan Lusthaus (2003). The two commentaries in question are both now available in English translation (Shih and Lusthaus 2006; Hyun-Choo 2006). However, note that Nattier has already made this point in her article:
... we must assume that the core of the [Heart Sutra]—as East Asian Buddhist scholars have long been aware—is an excerpt from the [Large Sutra]. (1992: 169. Emphasis added)
This leads to a note which discusses precisely the contributions of Kuījī and Woncheuk.
"In sum, the statement of both Kuījī and Woncheuk indicate that at least some Buddhists, already in the 7th Century CE, considered the Heart Sutra to be not a separate sermon preached by the Buddha, but an extract made by certain "sages who transmitted the Dharma" from the Large Sutra of Kumārajīva" (1992: 207 n.33. Emphasis added).
Ji does not acknowledge that Nattier pre-empted his discussion of this facet of the Heart Sutra, even though he cites exactly the same passage from Kuījī's commentary (compare Nattier 206 n. 33 with Ji 44). What Ji does cite is another note (210 n.48) in which Robert Buswell privately proposed to Nattier that the Heart Sutra might be an example of a ch'ao-ching or "condensed sūtra". Though Nattier's article does not supply the Chinese characters for the Wade-Giles romanisation, they are 抄經, i.e., "copied sutra" or "sutra extract". Buswell has (erroneously, I think) translated 抄 as "condensed" rather than "copied" or "excerpted" (cf Kroll 43) giving the impression that he is talking about something else when he is making the same point. Again, we find Ji simply not paying attention to the article he is criticizing.

The omission here is egregious because note 48 takes us back to Nattier's discussion of Fukui in the body of her text. Following on from the passage cited above:
"Since the text was intended for ritual use (that is, as a dhāraṇī to be chanted) rather than to impersonate a genuine Indian sūtra, it is no surprise that the author(s) of the text have not tried to cloak their product in foreign garb" (Nattier 1992: 176).
Ji does not acknowledge his own debt to Nattier (or to Fukui even) but presents this section as original research. This is all the more surprising given how eager he was to show Nattier's debt to her predecessors. But note what Fukui is saying here, via Nattier: the Heart Sutra was never a sutra. And note that Ji explicitly agrees with this conclusion.

Nattier emphasises that it is only the core section that is extracted from the Large Sutra, something that Ji overlooks. Conze suggested that as much as nine-tenths could be traced to the Large Sutra, though some of his tracings are to only vaguely similar Sanskrit passages rather than to Chinese passages (1967: 166). However, I have shown that at least some other parts of the Heart Sutra were composed very much on the model of Kumārajīva's Large Sutra (e.g., Attwood 2017). There is an argument for borrowing beyond the core section, but this also happened in Chinese.

I agree with the conclusion of section 8.1, that we should classify the Heart Sutra as a "sutra extract" (not as a "summary", a "condensation", or any other form of essentialization) and we should, as Nattier has done, credit Fukui for this characterisation. I disagree that this "has long been known"  because, as the next section shows, the knowledge was lost or deliberately obscured before the end of the 7th Century. Ji deserves credit for summarising the research of others, but that is all. 

Subsection 8.2
This section reviews how various catalogues treat the Heart Sutra. This is a useful contribution because we see that the Heart Sutra as Chinese 抄經 "sutra extract" is rapidly obscured and the text is treated as an authentic sutra translated from Sanskrit. 

The Neidian Catalog (T2149) is the first bibliographical work to attribute the Heart Sutra to Xuánzàng. Compiled in the year of Xuánzàng's death, 664 CE, the 《大唐內典錄》Dàtáng nèidiǎn lù or Great Tang Catalog of Texts, by Daoxuan 道宣 (596-667 CE), lists the Heart Sutra several times under different categories, including texts translated by Xuánzàng and another category titled, 失譯經 or "sutras with unknown translators". This appears to be the first time there is any suggestion that Heart Sutra is a translation (from Sanskrit). However, the catalogue also lists the Heart Sutra as an anonymous text.

In another moment of credulity, Ji argues that "we should have no reasons to doubt the accuracy of Daoxuan's records in his catalogue" (46). He has just finished proving that the Heart Sutra is not a translation at all. Ji appears to favour the view that the attribution to Xuánzàng  is accurate and is therefore left explaining the anonymous Heart Sutra as an anomaly. Ji never gets to grips with the fact that the same text is attributed to different translators by Daoxuan. Even if he doesn't accept his own conclusion that the Heart Sutra is a 抄經 "sutra extract" rather than a translation, Ji must also be aware of the scholarly consensus that Xuánzàng cannot have translated T251.

So the real question here goes begging. Why two attributions? Why attribute the text to Xuánzàng at all? Rather than weighing the evidence, Ji accepts the answers that best fit his existing belief.

The next catalogue, chronologically, is the《東京大敬愛寺一切經目錄》"The Eastern Capital, Greatly Beloved Temple, Catalogue of All Sutras" compiled by 釋靜泰 Shì Jìngtài in 666 CE. Note that 東京  "the Eastern Capital" is a name for the city of Kaifeng 開封 during the Later Han period (947–951). This catalogue unequivocally attributes the Heart Sutra translation to Xuánzàng. That is to say that within two years of his death, Xuánzàng is credited with translating a text that Ji has convincingly argued was not a translation at all. This contradiction in his presentation never seems to occur to Ji who goes on piling up "evidence" that the Heart Sutra was translated by Xuánzàng (though, in the end, he comes back to this conclusion that it was not a translation).

The next development in what we must begin calling "the myth of the Heart Sutra" comes in the Kaiyuan Catalogue《開元錄》compiled by Zhisheng 智升 in 730 CE. Previous catalogues had only listed one title,《多心經》(though under different categories). In the Kaiyuan, T250 appears under its conventional title, i.e.,《大明呪經》, and is wrongly attributed to Kumārajīva for the first time (an observation by Fukui cited by Nattier 214, n.71), and T251 is again wrongly attributed to Xuánzàng. The Kaiyuan also lists T250 as "the first translation" (Ji 47). For the first time, a non-existent version is attributed to Bodhiruci (fl. early 6th Century).

In summarising the catalogue evidence (Ji 48), Ji makes two curious statements. The first is, "Therefore, we can be completely certain that the Kumārajīva version is a late addition." A late addition to the cataloguing tradition? This much seems obvious. Does Ji mean something more? Is he, for example, claiming that T250 post dates T251? Has something been lost in translation here?

The second statement is, "This fact has enabled the Kumārajīva version to achieve wide circulation." However, "the so-called Kumārajīva version" (i.e. T250) has never had wide circulation and still doesn't. T251 was and is the only version of Heart Sutra in Chinese to have had any circulation, let alone wide circulation. All known commentaries in Chinese, from Kuījī and Woncheuk onwards, have been on T251. Other versions still exist because they were collected in the anthologies that became the Chinese Canon. 

After this, Ji notes that 慧琳 Huìlín (737-820 CE) in his 810 CE work《音義》"Meaning of Sounds" mentions a different set of three translations and mixes up the authorship of the texts. Ji spends a page discussing this confusion but it doesn't add anything to the main discussion.

Although I think Ji has overlooked or ignored important conclusions from the material he has presented in Subsections 8.1 and 8.2, it is nonetheless interesting and valuable evidence in the history of the Heart Sutra. Evidence from the catalogues shows us that the traditional narratives of the Heart Sutra as an Indian sutra were already being formed even while Xuánzàng's living students, Kuījī and Woncheuk, were acknowledging the fact of the (so-called) Heart Sutra being a sutra extract unrelated to Xuánzàng (see also comments from Ji 53, para 3). Unfortunately, Ji fails to join the dots here, but I think this is because he is assembling evidence for a peculiar argument that surfaces in Subsection 8.3, which we can now tackle. 

Subsection 8.3
Subsections 8.1 and 8.2 are a lead up to a rather pedantic discussion on the applicability of the term "apocryphal". It is based on the assumption that the Heart Sutra is, in fact, not a translation of an Indian Sutra, but one of many sutra extracts composed in Chinese and was recognised as such by the earliest Chinese commentaries. 

Ji has given us ample evidence that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, but an example of a 抄經 "sutra extract", and that this knowledge was lost (or deliberately obscured) before the end of the 7th Century. Ji doesn't notice that his argument is poorly founded on his own account.

It may well be ultimately true that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra at all, but everyone in the world (including Ji himself) refers to it as the Heart Sutra (or whatever the local equivalent is). The OED definition of "apocryphal":
1. (of a story or statement) of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true.
If everyone believes a text to be a sutra, but it is not a sutra and therefore of doubtful authenticity, then the word "apocryphal" is precisely the right term. I have noted before that there seems to be a horror of this word apocryphal in the world of Buddhist Studies (i.e., religious scholarship conducted by Buddhists as distinct from Buddhism Studies, which is the academic study of Buddhism).

Subsection 8.4
This section is a discussion of the Chinese term 心 "heart" and its Sanskrit analogues citta and hṛdaya. Another argument against considering our text to be a sutra is that the surviving Sanskrit texts don't call it a sutra. But titles are so variable that no two manuscripts (or Chinese versions) share the same title. And as Ji has already pointed out, the title did not settle in Chinese until after the 14th Century. Titles are an unreliable source of evidence for this type of argument. This seems to be another section which has information unrelated to the task at hand, i.e., a review of the Chinese origins thesis.

Subsection 8.5
Ji begins this subsection with a list of references to Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra, presented without scepticism or critique. The fact is that references to Heart Sutra in texts by or about Xuánzàng are rare. Since we know that Xuánzàng did not translate the text and that his contemporary Daoxuan was wrong about this in the Neidian Catalogue, we might begin to wonder about the provenance of all of these references. The Heart Sutra doesn't seem to be mentioned in Xuánzàng's own travelogue 大唐西域記 (T2087), at least not under the title《心經》, nor is any similar text incorporated into his huge collection of Prajñāpāramitā translations. So all the references connecting Xuánzàng to the Heart Sutra are second-hand and seem to be part of a hagiographic project. I believe that Jeffrey Kotyk is looking into this issue by comparing religious and secular historical sources on Xuánzàng and we can expect an article in due course.*
* now published: Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). "Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳." T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Ji introduces a pet theory, namely that the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra came from a text translated by Xuánzàng's contemporary, 阿地瞿多 Skt. Atikūṭa (or perhaps Atigupta). This is his counter-argument to the one in Section 7 where he presented the idea that Shen had discovered the source of the "mantra" at the end of T220. Atikūṭa translated the《陀羅尼集經》Skt. Dhāraṇīsamuccaya-sutra (or perhaps Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha) into Chinese (T901) in 654 CE (Shinohara 2014: 29).

A Chinese preface asserts that the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya is only a small section of a much greater work, though Shinohara (2014: 30) notes that this larger work may never have existed. Indeed, the evidence is that the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya was created in China from extracts of multiple existing texts. However, there is also a lot of material that "does not exist elsewhere in independent translations" (31). Ronald Davidson (2012) has asserted that the text contains "Indian elements" though the extent of these is unclear.

Ji notes that "Atikūṭa‘s Dhāraṇīsamuccaya includes a dhāraṇī with the rather dubious [sic] title: Bore boluomita daxin jing《般若波羅蜜多大心經》(T18.804c-805a)," [NB. This "sic" is the translator's, not mine. J]. There is no explanation for why the title is "dubious" but it may be because it doesn't look like the Heart Sutra 心經 he knows. Ji has already endorsed Fukui's theory that 心 often substitutes for dhāraṇī, so it's not clear why such a usage would surprise him. That said, this dhāraṇī is an interesting short Prajñāpāramitā text which, without my having studied it in any detail, looks similar to many other such texts, for example, those translated in Conze's collection of short Prajñāpāramitā texts (1973).

However, it is another dhāraṇī (T 18.807b.20) that is the target of Ji's interest (Ji 54). It is identical to the dhāraṇī at the end of the Heart Sutra, although it includes tadyathā. This is certainly interesting, but as the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya is roughly contemporary with the so-called Heart Sutra, and it appears to have been assembled in Chinese from pre-existing texts (even if some of them were ultimately Indian), we are, therefore, looking for some evidence of the direction of borrowing. But Ji has none as he admits:
"Therefore, although we have no extant historical records to show that Atikuṭa did have a direct influence on Xuánzàng, we can still infer that the two were somehow connected because both were translating in Changan at the same time; both were probably having an influence on each other's religious interest, and Xuánzàng's Heart Sutra had sourced its mantra from Atikūṭa's work." (Ji 54. My Emphasis).
Ji has already proved that T251 was not translated by Xuánzàng and he acknowledges this in the very next line by referring to it as "the so-called Xuánzàng Heart Sūtra" [My emphasis]. Also, there is the modern consensus that Xuánzàng had nothing to do with T251. This ongoing contradiction in Ji's presentation is very problematic. This means that, even if we could infer a connection between Xuánzàng and Atikūṭa, it would still have no bearing on the origins of the Heart Sutra since Ji tells us that Xuánzàng wasn't involved in composing it

From a complete absence of evidence, we can infer precisely nothing. Ji's inference here is simply him flattering his own theory. By contrast, as Paul Copp (2014) has subsequently shown, dhāraṇī was very important and prominent in Xuánzàng's milieu. Indeed, Ji's own comments about dhāraṇī and copied sutra extracts support the same point. The chanting and inscribing of dhāraṇī were central Buddhist practices of the pre-Tantric, early medieval period: the sight of inscribed, and sound of chanted, dhāraṇī in 7th Century Changan were surely ever-present. To argue that Xuánzàng was influenced to translate them by one man rather a whole culture requires specific evidence. We would be looking for Xuánzàng or Atikūṭa to mention each other in surviving texts and letters, for example. No such evidence is forthcoming from Ji (and I can find none). We don't even seem to have a second-hand account of their meeting. So the evidence for this idea is very much weaker than most of Ji's rather underwhelming argument. Ji seems to join in the myth-making that surrounds Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra rather than standing back and considering what his sources tell him.

It is equally plausible that the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra came from elsewhere or was simply made up along the lines of similar dhāraṇī, and was then copied into the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya. We lack sufficient evidence to decide this issue, but this does not keep Ji from coming to his conclusions.

Subsection 8.6
This Subsection is further subdivided into three.

Subsection 8.6, part 1, opens with an outright error regarding Nattier's understanding of the presence and role of Avalokiteśvara in the Heart Sutra:
"Nattier offered no explanation for this role reversal, nor any suggestions on what it reflects in terms of the time or background when the text was composed." (Ji 54-5). 
However, compare this from the middle of Nattier's discussion of the frame section:
The presence of Avalokiteśvara is not at all unexpected, for this figure was by far the most popular bodhisattva in China at this time as attested by both textual and artistic evidence... Thus the choice of Avalokiteśvara as the central figure in a newly created Buddhist recitation text would be perfectly plausible in a Chinese milieu. (1992: 176)
Ji is reduced to making strawman arguments against Nattier. Ji goes from bad to worse, as in reflecting on the origins of the Heart Sutra he abandons any pretence of accepting the Chinese origins thesis and discusses the history of Prajñāpāramitā in India (Ji 55). He prefaces a rambling digression into Nāgārjuna and Conze's deprecated chronology with the phrase "I shall now return to the main discussion". The article seems to be falling apart at this point.

Without coming to an obvious conclusion, Ji segues into Subsection 8.6, part 2, which argues for a close relationship between "the personified Prajñāpāramitā and Avalokiteśvara" (57). However, again Ji seems to lose track of the chronology by relying on Tantric sources that must post-date the composition of the Heart Sutra. Through a rather tortuous argument based on the figures who appear in the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya he comes to the rather startling and obviously false conclusion that "in Tang Dynasty, or since then, Avalokiteśvara held a very unique place in Prajñāpāramitā sutras." This is startling because, as is completely obvious, Avalokiteśvara has no place at all in the Prajñāpāramitā sutras until after the composition of the Heart Sutra. After the late 7th Century, then yes, Avalokiteśvara does show up again. But the more obvious explanation is that this is an influence from the Heart Sutra, not on it. This is so obvious I cannot believe I'm having to spell it out. 

Ji then lurches sideways into a consideration of the etymology of the name Avalokiteśvara and the gender of the bodhisatva. Of course, the feminisation of Avalokiteśavara in China is a subject of some interest to historians of ideas, but it has no bearing on the subject at hand. Nor does Ji shed any light on Avalokiteśvara in China.

Subsection 8.6, part 3 considers the role of Śāriputra in the Prajñāpāramitā texts, bizarrely characterising him as "the villain". Śāriputra, who plays a major part in both Aṣṭa and Pañc is certainly a foil for Subhūti, asking patsy questions and admiring the answers he gets, but he's hardly a "villain". Again, one wonders if something has been lost in translation. But yet again we see Ji attributing ignorance and "surprise" to Nattier:
"Therefore, we need not share Nattier's surprise in wondering what role Śariputra has in the Heart Sutra and why he is involved at all." (Ji 59)
This is a strawman argument, also with no reference to Nattier's article. What Nattier does express surprise over is that the Buddha is absent from the Heart Sutra (157). Equally, it is odd that Subhūti is absent since in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, Subhūti is the main expounder of the Prajñāpāramitā point of view and the Buddha simply backs him up (cf. Nattier 1992: 157). The presence of Śāriputra is not commented on "with surprise". Śāriputra's rather passive role in the Heart Sutra is entirely in keeping with his role in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, generally. And thus elicits little or no comment from Nattier. No one familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā literature would find anything unusual about Śāriputra in the Heart Sutra

The odd absences from the Heart Sutra listed by Nattier at p.157 are repeated in the discussion of the frame sections (174 ff), but again the focus is on the absence of the Buddha and the presence of Avalokiteśvara. Śāriputra is not mentioned. Nattier never expresses the "surprise" attributed to her by Ji.

Section 9
The article concludes with Ji's summary of his arguments combined with some other ideas thrown in at random that seem to have no relation to the information presented (Ji 59-63).

1. Ji emphasises that the text is a copied extract and/or a dhāraṇī (Ji 59-60). And that therefore the term apocryphal does not apply. However, when one continually refers to a text as a "sutra", which Ji does even in this concluding paragraph, then the fact that a text is not a sutra makes it the very definition of apocryphal. Ji cannot have his cake and eat it. He either needs to accept his own conclusion and refer to the text by some other name or accept that, qua sutra, the Heart Sutra is apocryphal. I also pointed out that though some early commentators seem to be aware of the true nature of the text, on the evidence that Ji presents, this knowledge is lost before the end of the 7th Century. Knowledge lost for 13 Centuries can hardly be seen as integral to the received tradition.

2. Ji concludes that T250 "was not translated by Kumārajīva" (Ji 60). However, we knew this because Nattier had already explained the reasons for this conclusion. Ji repeats his speculative conjecture about the text borrowing its dhāraṇī from Atikūṭa's Dhāraṇīsamucaya, only now it has become an unqualified fact. He also implies that the dhāraṇī was borrowed independently by T251 (i.e., independently from T250 which just happened to borrow the same dhāraṇī). This may be a problem with the translation, but scholars need to be careful to avoid unintended implications.

3. T251 is "not a translated text, Even if it is, it could not have been done by Xuánzàng himself." (Ji 60) This is certainly the modern consensus, but it does not flow from Ji's argument and at times he has seemed to contradict this, as when he uncritically accepted Daoxuan's attribution of the text as a translation by Xuánzàng. Ji repeats the traditional myth of Xuánzàng's association with the Heart Sutra as unqualified fact. He wrongly refers to it as a "tantricized text" and attributes the popularity of the text to this imagined process. There is nothing tantric about the Heart Sutra.

4. Ji concluded that "later" versions (i.e., all but T250 and T251) are translations (Ji 60). No evidence whatever is presented for this conclusion in his article, but it is certainly the modern consensus and has been for many decades.

5. Ji acknowledges that "the Sanskrit Heart Sutra has indeed been influenced by Chinese grammar and aesthetic taste which shows that is very 'likely' to have been a back-translation from Chinese." (60) However, Ji also believes that he has somehow cast doubt on this conclusion in his article. I cannot imagine how he imagines this to be the case and he does not cite any specific examples.

Next, Ji casts doubt on Xuánzàng as the perpetrator of back-translation. This issue seems to exercise the Japanese commentators as well. To be clear, Nattier discusses the possibility and leaves it open. What he says next is barely credible:
"But even if we can prove that the extant short-form Sanskrit Heart Sutra is in fact a Chinese back-translation, we still cannot logically rule out compteltely [sic] the probable existence of a Sanskrit original. (Ji 61. Emphasis added)
This is tooth-fairy agnosticism gone mad. Note that, despite having no evidence whatever and, in fact, having more or less proved that it cannot be the case, Ji still considers it probable that a Sanskrit "original" existed. Ji likens the situation to the Vimalakīrtinideśa in which, he claims (but does not reference) a Sanskrit back-translation from Tibetan was known long before a Sanskrit manuscript was found. Even if this were the case, the situation is not analogous because the Heart Sutra is not a sutra. It is a sutra extract, specifically an extract from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the Large Sutra. Ji has failed to come to terms with this despite arguing for this conclusion. It is exactly the copied portion of the text that proves that the Heart Sutra had its origins in Chinese. If the extract had a Sanskrit "original" then the extracted portion would be similar to the extant documents of the Large Sutra, or at the very least use the idioms of Sanskrit texts. But it isn't.

What Ji is suggesting here is that, as well as a Chinese Heart Sutra that used an extract from the Chinese Large Sutra (T223), there must be a lost Sanskrit Heart Sutra which used an extract from a Sanskrit Large Sutra. Why would (a) Chinese author(s) decide to reproduce a Sanskrit original via the laborious procedure of copying exactly the same extract, but using T223 instead of a Sanskrit Large Sutra? Why would they not simply translate the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese as so many other Chinese Buddhists did (and with so very many texts)? Finally, there simply is no parallel tradition of sutra extract copying in India: a Chinese sutra extract is plausible, but a Sanskrit sutra extract is not. Ji has just not thought this through.

Ji justifies this poor reasoning by saying that "I just feel prudence is never a bad thing in academic research". This claim to scholarly prudence appears to be a Trojan Horse for a religious attitude of horror towards the idea that Heart Sutra is an apocryphal sutra (i.e., not a sutra at all). This is a bizarre argument because Ji's whole point, following Fukui and Nattier, is that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra. To spell it out, if the text is not a sutra, then the existence of an Indian text to authenticate it is neither here nor there. Only sutras have to be authenticated in this way. 

This part of the conclusion then drifts back to considering Xuánzàng as a potential back-translator. To be clear, I think this is a red herring, both in Nattier's article and in all the subsequent ink spilled over it. Xuánzàng's reputation was that he had mastered Sanskrit, while the so-called Heart Sutra was produced by someone clearly unfamiliar with the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā. Ergo, it was not Xuánzàng.

6. Ji expresses an opinion on the extended Heart Sutra which he calls "long-form" (Ji 62). But note that the subject did not come up in his article. His opinion here is simply an ad hoc statement, no case is made for it. It is a matter of broad consensus that the added parts were added in Sanskrit. It is something that Nattier, as noted above, did comment on.

A note here on the relationship between language and geography. Nattier's argument is that the Heart Sutra was composed in a Chinese language. Not that it was composed in China. Ji argues that the extended Heart was composed in India. In fact, we do not know anything about where it was composed, only that in all likelihood it was composed in Buddhist Sanskrit.

7. Ji argues that the Heart Sutra appeared when Tantra was "widespread" (Ji 62) and treats the Heart Sutra is a tantric text. I think this is an error. Atikūṭa was an early adopter and Tantra did not become widespread until the 8th Century. In 672, when the first physical evidence of the Heart Sutra appeared (in the form of the Beilin Stele)*, Tantra was in its infancy in India. It did not become established, let alone "widespread", until the arrival of Śubhakarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi in Changan in the early 8th Century. Recall that Ji could not find evidence of communication between Atikūṭa and Xuánzàng, no evidence of their having met. His idea that one influenced the other was just a supposition that seemed attractive because it supported his pet theory.
* Note 1 Apr 2023. It is now clear that the Fangshan Stele predates the Beilin Stele by 11 years (i.e. it is dated 661 CE). See "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32, 1–30.

On the other hand, I have argued (Attwood 2017) that the Sanskrit text must have been translated from Chinese in a milieu of Tantra because the character 咒 meaning dhāraṇī could only have been mistaken for mantra under such circumstances. Thus, the Chinese composition and the Sanskrit translation happened at different times and/or in different milieus.

Ji is confused about what constitutes Tantric Buddhism. The use of dhāranī in non-Tantric settings is established as early as the 2nd Century CE. We can compare this with the Theravāda practice of partita, the chanting of Pāḷi suttas as magical protection from misfortune and bad luck. This practice is first mentioned in the Milindapañha dated before the Current Era. Simply chanting magic spells is not Tantra. Tantra is centred on a specific ritual (abhiṣeka) based on the anointing of kings. It involves combinations of mantra, mudra, and maṇḍala representing the body, speech, and mind of Mahāvairocana as he communicated buddhahood to Vajrasattva. None of this is visible in the Heart Sutra. Instead, the Heart Sutra looks back in time to the Large Sutra and its milieu, with a focus on the exercise of withdrawing attention from experience (anupalambhayogena) aimed at entering a contentless (animitta) awareness called "emptiness" (śūnyatā). In other words, Ji has fundamentally misunderstood the message and the practice outlined in the Heart Sutra.

8. Although Ji himself has not examined the Sanskrit text, he praises comparative studies in the philological approach to Buddhism Studies. He may have summarised Nattier's discussion of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra but has himself only examined and commented on Chinese texts. He praises Seishi Karashima as the leading light in this field of cross-lingual studies. Fair enough, Karashima is certainly one of the leading scholars of Buddhist texts in our time and his work is invaluable. However, he is, of course, not the only scholar working to compare Chinese texts with Indic texts in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Gāndhārī. And he has not published anything that directly relates to the Heart Sutra (his facsimile edition of the Gilgit manuscript of the Large Sutra appeared in 2016, four years after Ji was writing).


Unfortunately, most of Ji's article is either obvious and uninteresting (e.g., a completely uncritical review of Conze's oeuvre) or irrelevant to the question of the origin of the Heart Sutra. Even when the evidence is interesting, the arguments about it do not seem cogent or coherent. Ji is reliant throughout on Chinese texts, ignoring the Sanskrit texts except when summarising Nattier's article.

The title of Ji's article translates as Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination. I took this as a statement of intent on Ji's part and read his article accordingly. However, his article was not a re-examination of the evidence per se; it was an attempted refutation of Nattier disguised as an objective appraisal. For example, Ji is only critical when considering Nattier's work. In other cases, especially when dealing with the work of Fukui and with traditional sources which support his presuppositions, he appears overly credulous and even naive. Because he does not evaluate his sources, but simply accepts them at face value, he does not draw the right conclusions from the evidence he presents. 

Worse, for example, when conjecturing about a relationship between Xuánzàng and Atikūṭa, in which Atikūṭa supplies the dhāraṇī for the Heart Sutra, Ji apparently accepts his own suppositions as historical facts.  Accounts of Tang Dynasty Changan describe a city of approximately one million people within the walls and another one million without, a city with 93 Buddhist temples and numerous other religious institutions and tens of thousands of monks. Could two monks live there and never meet? Certainly, they could. So where is the evidence that they did meet? Where is the evidence that Atikūṭa was a lender rather than a borrower of the dhāraṇī at the end of the Heart Sutra?

At other times, Ji is aware of the need to stand back from conclusions and acknowledge doubts. But he misuses this requirement for objectivity to argue for the probable existence of an "original" Sanskrit Heart Sutra without presenting any evidence whatever for this conclusion. A "Sanskrit original" is important, as Nattier points out (1992: 196) because in China this was (and is) the single most important criterion for the authenticity of a Buddhist sutra. It is apparent that some modern Mahāyāna Buddhists rather desperately want the Heart Sutra to be authentic by traditional standards. If the Heart Sutra is not "of Indian origin", then a foundation stone of many of the surviving Buddhist sects in Asia is unable to bear the load placed on it. As Fukui has been quoted as saying, “it would be a matter of grave concern if [the Heart Sutra] were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China” (Tanahashi 2014: 77). 

At times, Ji appears to be patronising Nattier. Her article is also long, but her scholarly apparatus (notes and citations) are impeccable. Any such article is heavily reliant on other scholars but if Nattier is relying on someone else's work she says so. Indeed, Nattier is notably generous in her acknowledgement of other scholars. But Ji ignores the actual attribution of ideas and peppers his commentary on the research with phrases like:
  • "It was Conze's editorial work... that provided Nattier with the very important basis of her research. (33)
  • "This part of the particle [sic] has been rather fully utilized by Nattier..." (35)
  • "a comment, I think must have been very inspirational for Nattier..." (35)
  • "Nattier has also benefited from... Lopez 1988" (35).
  • "...this observation has been [sic] very inspirational for Nattier." (36)
  • "Another academic source that has exerted a relatively major influence on Nattier's work comes from Fukui Fumimasa..." (36)
Ji does at times acknowledge that Nattier went further than any of these men; however, he seems to attribute the success to "cross-lingual study" to them rather than to Nattier. Normally if a scholar relies on a contribution from someone else we credit them with it. While it is a truism of scholarship that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, a scholar does not usually spend so much time speculating about who has influenced another scholar over and above their stated sources unless there is clear evidence of borrowing without attribution, i.e., plagiarism or fraud. Nattier fully acknowledges her intellectual debts in the usual way and there is no call to speculate about who "inspired" her.

The whole of Section 7 on the Chinese outsider, Shen Jiu Cheng, seems to be pointless. Ji thinks he was wrong on one hand and on the other that he sort of preempted Nattier on the idea of a "back translation" almost by accident while considering only Chinese texts. If Shen was correct about the Sanskrit text being a back translation, then Nattier was correct, and Ji should simply admit this.

Moreover, at least two of the final conclusions have no supporting evidence or argumentation in the article. They are simply added in an ad hoc fashion. Ji simply appears to repeat widely held scholarly opinions without ever considering the evidence. 

Towards the end of Section 8, Ji slips into presenting strawman arguments that sink far below the usual standard of academic discourse.

Ji is right to attempt to find flaws in Nattier's argument. I have noted one or two small points of dispute with Nattier, as have Lusthaus and Orsborn. We all make errors. New information comes to light and can make existing conclusions untenable. This is progress. But Ji seems completely uncritical with regard to any other scholar (including himself). There is no real weighing of the evidence. Where there is confusion he simply sides with the traditional narrative.

There are at least two glaring examples of faulty logic. For example, despite a scholarly consensus that Xuánzàng was not involved in the production of T251 (a point which is completely obvious to anyone who has compared the relevant section of his translation of the Large Sutra in T220 with T251), Ji proceeds to take references to Xuánzàng as translator of the Heart Sutra on face value. However, he then concludes that Xuánzàng was not the translator. The second example is that he argues for a probable Sanskrit original when the evidence he has presented proves that the extant Sanskrit text is a back-translation from Chinese (per both Shen and Nattier). Nothing presented here suggests that the source was anything other than the Large Sutra in Kumārajīva's translation (T223) and the imagination of an early medieval Chinese Buddhist monk familiar with Kumārajīva's text. This is discussed at great length in my own work, both published and blogged.

Anything which supports the Chinese origins thesis is assessed critically, anything which undermines it is not assessed at all but presented uncritically. As Mercier and Sperber (2017) have shown, confirmation bias is usually present when one is trying to make a case but is not present when one is critically assessing someone else's case. Ji shows exactly this pattern; therefore, he is arguing for a case, not assessing someone else's case.

This article falls well below the standards expected of academic authors: it is tendentious, biased, poorly argued, and draws ad hoc conclusions. It is not just Ji that is at fault. Named prepublication readers, journal editors, and peer reviewers have a role in ensuring that conclusions flow from the evidence presented, that obvious biases are addressed, that the tone of the article is suitable for academic discourse, and that assertions are referenced. The article should never have been published in this form. 

Ji manages a moment of magnanimity at the end: "Nattier's studies has also [sic] shown that a cross-lingual approach is able to exhaustively expose existing blind spots of issues [sic] that would otherwise be glossed over by an intra-lingual approach" (63). However, Nattier seems not to have exposed Ji's blind spots. Indeed, we can say that Nattier is directly in Ji's blind spot.


NOTE: 5.6.18. I received a cordial email from Ji Yun acknowledging my criticisms, but slightly horrified that I took him to be patronising Jan Nattier. He says "I’m not sure it’s out of the translation or your reading ,there’s a huge misunderstanding , actually ,I’m a huge fan of Jan ." I accept that I might have misunderstood his intentions and I hope that there are no hard feelings. More crucially, Ji conveyed to me something that I had overlooked which is that a stone inscription of the Heart Sutra was recently found which is dated to 661 CE, three years before the death of Xuanzang. And this may be evidence that Xuanzang was indeed involved in its production somehow. I will need to look into this. See for example http://www.china.org.cn/arts/2016-09/26/content_39374656.htm  
Further to this note: My article on the Fangshan Stele and its relation to Xuanzang was published in 2019: 

Attwood, J. (2019). "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32, 1–30. https://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/article/xuanzangs-relationship-to-the-heart-sutra-in-light-of-the-fangshan-stele/


Abe, R. (1999) The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York : Columbia University Press.

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online: http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/26

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

Attwood, J. (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

Attwood, J. (2018). 'A Note on Niṣṭhānirvāṇa in the Heart Sutra.' Journal of the Oxford Centre For Buddhist Studies, 14: 10-17.

Conze, E. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. Modified version of Conze (1948).

Conze, E. (1973). Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. Totnes, UK: Buddhist Publishing Group.

Copp, P. (2014) The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Columbia University Press.

Davidson, Ronald M. (2012) 'Some Observations on an Uṣṇīṣa Abhiṣeka Rite in Atikūṭa's Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha.' in Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond (Ed. by Keul, István): 77-98.

Hodge, S. (trans). 2003. The mahā-vairocana-abhisambodhi tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. London : Routledge Curzon.

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. 6: 121-205.

Ji Y. (2012) 纪赟 —《心经》疑伪问题再研究. Fuyan Buddhist Studies, 7: 115-182. [Trans. Chin Shih-Foong (2017). 'Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination.' Singapore Journal of Buddhist Studies, 4: 9-113. pdf 2018 https://www.academia.edu/36116007/Is_the_Heart_Sūtra_an_Apocryphal_Text_A_Re-examination]

Karashima, Seishi, et al. (2016) Mahāyāna Texts: Prajñāpāramitā Texts (1). Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives of India Facsimile Edition Volume II.1. The National Archives of India and The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, Tokyo.

Kimura, Takayasu. (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. 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].

Kroll, P. W. (2015). A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. Brill.

Li R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translations and Research.

Lopez, D. S. (1988) The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.

Lopez, D. S. (1996) Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University press.

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

Mercier, H. and Sperber, D. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

Nattier, J. (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, H. C. & Lusthaus, D. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

Shinohara, K. (2014) Spells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals. Columbia University Press.

Tanahashi, K. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.
Related Posts with Thumbnails