26 July 2019

Inscription of the Prajñāpāramitā Epithets

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. On 17 July, 2019, I discovered by chance that the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Cambridge University) library had a copy of Buddhist Stone Sutras in China (Vol.1) edited by Wang Yongbo and Lothar Ledderose (2014). One of the inscriptions is a fragment of the Prajñāpāramitā epithets passage as a separate text, dated before 561. One can also see the information on the website Buddhist Stone Sutras in China.

This should interest anyone who studies the Heart Sutra because it shows that a version of the epithets was circulating separately by the mid 6th Century (about 100 years before the Heart Sutra was composed). 

The Epithets: Quick Recap

In my article ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra (2017) I expanded on a footnote in Jan Nattier's landmark article (1992). Footnote 54a was inserted at the last minute after the article had been typeset, in the days when typesetting meant adding numbers to footnotes manually. Nattier stopped the presses because her colleague Nobuyoshi Yamabe had written to her pointing out that a number of passages in Chinese Prajñāpāramitā texts closely parallel the epithets in the Heart Sutra. Nattier cites these with transliterations and translations and adds two extra passages to those identified by Yamabe.

In Epithets I took up the task of systematically identifying and studying these passages in both Sanskrit and Chinese Prajñāpātamitā texts. Since the passage occurs in the Shorter and Longer texts, and we have multiple recensions and translations this amounts to a fair few references. In finding and tabulating all of the references, I found that there were, in fact, just two: Passage One and Passage Two that recurred across the whole literature, always in the same chapter, though different recensions and versions number the chapters differently). In Kumārajīva's Large Sutra  translation the passages occur in Chapter 34 (= Chp 28 of Conze's translation, p.236 ff.). Minor differences in the two passages suggested that Passage Two was the likely source of the epithets in the Heart Sutra.

I also noticed that mantra was a mistranslation of what had originally been vidyā. The mistranslation seemed to revolve are around the use of 明呪 and/or 呪  to translate vidyā. In standard Middle Chinese, 呪 means "incantation" and in Buddhist contexts was frequently employed to translate dhāraṇī and later, mantra. Even so, in the mid 7th Century, the most obvious translation back into Sanskrit ought to have been dhāraṇī. Mantra was a very new concept at the time, with the first Tantric trained Buddhist, Atikūṭa, arriving in Chang'an only in 651. That the (Sanskrit) translator opted for Mantra is a tantalising hint about them, though not enough to draw hard conclusions from. There is no mantra in connection with any of the Sanskrit source texts. 

In any case, I showed that the passage in the Heart Sutra was originally found in Kumārajīva's translations of the Large Sutra and that the version in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a calque of the Chinese. The extant Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts phrase it very differently, as we can see when the key versions of the passage are placed alongside each other.And the Chinese texts are very similar. This is consistent with other passages copied from the Large Sutra and as predicted by Nattier's Chinese origins thesis. (You don't need to read these languages - just look at the patterns). 
Pañc:  mahavidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā | (Gilgit 146v)
KJ. T.223:  般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪。(8.286b28-c7:)
Xz T.220:  如是般若波羅蜜多是大神呪、是大明呪,是無上呪,是無等等呪,是一切呪王 (7.156.a17-22)
T.250:  故知般若波羅蜜  是大明呪,無上明呪,無等等明呪, (8.847c24-25)
T.251:  故知般若波羅蜜多,是大神咒 ,是大明咒,是無上咒,是無等等咒, (8.848c18-19)
Hṛd:  tasmāj jñātavyaṃ prajñāpramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro 'nuttaramantro 'samasamamantraḥ | (Conze 1967)
Note again that 呪 and 咒 are simple graphical variants with no difference in meaning or pronunciation. From these passages alone we can deduce that the passage in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra can only be a calque of T.251, in which Kumārajīva's basic text has been altered in  number of ways to be more like, but not identical to Xuanzang's text, including the switch from 明呪 to 呪, reading 明呪 as two characters, and addition of the epithet 神呪. Note that the CBETA punctuation is inconsistent.

The Shandong Inscription

The inscription published in the book by Wang and Ledderose is partial, but it holds enough clues to allow us to reconstruct the full inscription. The inscription was identified by Nobuyuki Takuma (2003) as being from the Small Perfection of Insight Sutra translated by Kumārajīva et. al. ca. 408 CE, i.e. the 《小品般若經》Xiǎopǐn bōrě jīng (T.227). Incidentally, Matthew Orsborn recently published an annotated translation of the first juan (about 2½ chapters) of this text.

The whole site has since been studied from an art history perspective by Ha Jungmin, whose PhD dissertation on the subject is available online courtesy of Duke University.

Entry on the Buddhist Stone Sutras in China website.


Mt. Sili 司里山 (Sīlì Shān) is one of many sites in Shandong Province (山東省) that feature Buddhist inscriptions and carving (Coordinates 36.011185, 116.124008)  The mountain was originally called Mt. Jiliang 脊梁山 (Mt. Backbone) or Mt. Liliang 立梁山 (Mt. Upright Ridge).

Mt. Sili is located between Lake Dongping (东平湖) 4km to the east and the Yellow River, which flows north about 6.3 km to the west. The peak is about 110 above the plain. On the peak is a large outcrop of rock in two parts (referred to as "boulders" in the art history literature).

The Inscription

The sutra texts are thought to have been engraved during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE) only to be destroyed when Buddhist figures were carved over them in the 11th Century. The south face of the eastern boulder is dominated by a seated Buddha that is 11 m in height (Ha 2016). 

After Wang and Ledderose (2014: 421)

A rubbing made of the remaining part of the inscription was taken in 1998. It gives us about 20 characters (with several partial characters).

Wang and Ledderose (2014: 424)

The rubbing now resides in the Shandong Stone Carving Art Museum in Jinan. The source text was identified by Takuma (2003) as being from Chapter 3 of the Xiǎopǐn by Kumārajīva. Below is the text laid out as it must have been (following Wang and Ledderose 2014: 422) with the surviving characters (some of which are partially obscured) in black and other characters in grey. Note the order here is standard Chinese: start at top right, work down.
三 呪 十 過 佛 羅 羅 羅 白
菩 得 方 去 言 蜜 蜜 蜜 佛
十 提 阿 現 諸 如 是 是 是 言
善 憍 耨 在 佛 是 無 無 大
道 尸 多 諸 未 如 等 上 明 尊
出 迦 羅 佛 來 是 等 呪 呪 般
現 因 三 亦 諸 憍 呪 般 般 若
於 是 藐 因 佛 尸 
[Indra, Lord of the Gods,] said this to the Buddha: "world honoured, the perfection of insight is great spell (vidyā), the perfection of insight is unsurpassed spell, is unequalled spell." The Buddha replied, "excellent, excellent, Kauśika... all past Buddhas... all future Buddhas... all present Buddhas of the ten directions, because of this spell, attain supreme perfect awakening. Kauśika, because of this spell, the tens modes of good action are now in the world..." (My translation)
This corresponds to Passage Two in Attwood (2017) which reinforces the conclusion that it was this passage, rather than Passage One that was copied into the Heart Sutra. And note that it conforms to the pattern of referring to the Buddhas of the three times that I note in Attwood (2018).

The Vedic god Indra plays a major role in early Buddhist tests as well as in the Prajñāpāramitā. In Buddhist texts Indra is typically referred to as "Śakra" in the 3rd person and "Kauśika" in the 2nd person. The expression 釋提桓因 corresponds to Śakro devānām indraḥ "Śakra, lord of the devas".

The text as it appears in the CBETA version of Taishō (T.227, Vol. 8) follows with the inscription text highlighted. We can see that the restored text is an abbreviation of the canonical text, where the redactor has mainly removed unnecessary repetition. However, leaving off the speaker at the beginning was a bit of a blunder.

543c04:三藐三菩提。 「憍尸迦!因是明呪,十善道出現於
We know that this is from the Xiǎopǐn because of the way the epithets are written.
T 224: 般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪
T 227: 般若波羅蜜是大明呪,般若波羅蜜是無上呪,般若波羅蜜是無等等呪
This configuration only appears in Passage Two of T 227. Note that 明呪 is abbreviated in the 2nd and 3rd epithets in the Xiǎopǐn. Kumārajīva was inconsistent in how he treated this passage in different places (unlike Xuanzang, who standardised it). In Passage One Kumārajīva translated 般若波羅蜜是大呪術、無上呪術。(Just two epithets and vidyā = 呪術). 

The different numbers of epithets may reflect differences in the source texts; however, three appears to be the standard configuration:

大明呪 = mahāvidyā
   無上明呪 = anuttarā vidyā 
   無等等明呪 = asamasamā vidyā

    The Date

    The sutra text is thought to date from the Northern Qi (550-577 CE) along with other carvings from that period at this site. There is no actual date on the epithets inscription. However, a votive carving of  Maitreya in a niche, about 20 cm in height, covers part of a nearby text and is clearly dated 561 CE. Thus the sutra carving here predates this and it is assumed that the sutra engravings are from the same period.

    The right top corner of Figure 5. Votive
    image and its inscription dated 561 CE
    The Northern Qi were one of several Chinese kingdoms at the time. The Qi were very open to Buddhism, but in 577 were conquered by the Northern Zhou who were hostile to Buddhism and persecuted Buddhists. A few years later the Zhou conquered South China and this led to the founding of a new pan-Chinese Sui Dynasty in 581. The Sui lasted only until 618, when the Tang Dynasty was founded by the Li family. The Tang continued till 907. The Heart Sutra was composed during the early Tang, between 656 and 661.


    Inscriptions of this kind are very common in China and, although there are some studies in Chinese, precious little of it has been available in English since Sinologists tend to be fluent in Chinese. Additionally, as with studies of the Fangchang inscriptions, the work is being done within the field of art history and not many Buddhists routinely keep up with this field. The silo mentality creates barriers to progress. Still the documentation in this series of books by Harrassowitz is welcome (other titles). The outsized format allows for large photographs. I'd be even more stoked if Buddhism Studies had not died out in Cambridge and there was some hope of seeing the other books in the series.

    The key thing about this inscription for scholars of the Heart Sutra, is that it shows that the epithets passage was circulating as an independent text by the middle of the 6th Century. Which helps to make sense of the incorporation of the passage in the Heart Sutra. That the inscription is taken from T.227 rather than T.223 (or T1509) does weaken the connection a little, but the differences are minor. The areas seems to have been associated with Prajñāpāramitā studies. 

    Despite the recent thesis by Ha Jungmin, we still don't really know much about the context of this site, since her focus is on other sites nearby. We do know that texts were carved and then later carved over with images. This suggests a change of emphasis, perhaps.

    Citing Robert F. Campany (1991: 28-72),  Ha (2016) explains,
    "the Perfection of Wisdom carvings at the Mt. Hongding and Mt. Sili sites were most likely regarded as talismans with magical powers that would ensure the enlightenment of Buddhahood to its creators."

    Vajrasamādhi Sūtra

    The other note that is contained in the commentary of Wang and Ledderose is that this same passage occurs in the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra 《金剛三昧經》(T 273), a text that was composed in Chinese language, in Korea in about 685 CE. The history of it is outlined by Robert Buswell (1989).

    The epithets in the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra go
    當知是法即是摩訶般若波羅蜜,是大神呪、是大明呪、是無上呪、是無等等呪。(T 9.371b12-14)
    "It should be known that this Dharma is only the great perfection of great insight, which is a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, an unequalled spell." 

    This is the version from the Heart Sutra (T.251) with the extra epithet, 大神呪. We know that the Heart Sutra was in existence by 661 CE. Although this does not tell us about the formation of the Heart Sutra, it does tell us that re-using sections of Buddhists texts was an ongoing process.

    We should never discount the role that serendipity plays in research nor that of physically browsing through libraries. I have unparalleled access to information from my desktop but there is no substitute for just walking around and picking up interesting books.



    Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). "‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155/180

    Attwood, Jayarava. (2018). "The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 15: 9-27.

    Buswell, Robert E. (1989), The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea: The 'Vajrasamadhi-Sutra', a Buddhist Apocryphon. Princeton University Press.

    Campany, Robert F. (1991) "Notes on the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sutra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14/1: 28–72.

    Ha, Jungmin (2016) Shaping Religious and Cultural Aspiration: Engraved Sutras in Southwestern Shandong Province from the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE), China. PhD. Dissertation. Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University. https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/12216/Ha_duke_0066D_13425.pdf

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

    Takuma, Nobuyuki 田熊信之 (2003). “Hokuchō Magai Kokukyō to Andōichi” 北朝摩崖刻經と安道壹, Gakuen 學苑 749: 131-158.

    Wang, Yongbo and Ledderose, Lothar. (2014) Buddhist Stone Sutras in China. (Vol.1) Shandong Sheng  = Shandong Province. edited by Wang Yongbo and Lothar Ledderose.Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz; Hangzhou : China Academy of Art Press, 2014.

    Notes: 17 Aug 2019

    "The epithets are also found in the (Fó shuō) Guānfó sānmèi hǎi jīng 佛說觀佛三昧海經 (T 643). . According to my own research, the Guanfo sanmei hai jing (GSHJ) is very likely a Chinese apocryphal text. The GSHJ must have existed in the Chinese cultural area by the first half of the 5th century (see p. 425 of the attached paper)." (Yamabe email 17 Aug 2019)
    Yamabe, N. (2006). "Could Turfan be the Birthplace of Visualization Sūtras?" In Tulufanxueyanjiu yanjiu, Dierjie Tulufanxue Guoji Xueshu Yantaohui lunwenji, ed. Xinjiang Tulufan Diqu Wenwuju, (419-430), Shangai: Shangai Cishu Chubanshe. 

    05 July 2019

    Svāhā in The Heart Sutra Dhāraṇī

    Jan Nattier showed that the Xīnjīng (T.251) is the original Heart Sutra. All my work on the text confirms this essential observation. It was composed as a digest text (抄經 chāo-jīng) in the period 645-661 CE. Given this, we expect the Chinese version of the text to be consistent with few variations. This is largely true except that the witnesses to the Xīnjīng contain a few character substitutions and other minor variants. Weirdly, the authoritative version of the Chinese Canon, the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō, has the least likely reading (and not the one that millions of people chant everyday). In this essay I will focus on a particular transliterated Sanskrit word in the dhāraṇī, i.e. svāhā. I will say a little about the Sanskrit word, but the main focus of this essay will be the plethora of Chinese forms of this word in the earliest witnesses to the text.


    The earliest commentaries are ambivalent about the dhāraṇī. In fact, Kūijī (T.1710) declines to comment on it. Woncheuk (T.1711) takes an oblique approach. He notes that the words of the dhāraṇī cannot be translated without losing their magical powers (鬼神). Then he notes that the dhāraṇī contains Buddhist Sanskrit words that can, in fact, be translated and translates them. For example: 揭諦言度度 "gate means: go beyond, go beyond" (33.551c21). The character 度 is used by Kumārajīva (and in the Heart Sutra) to translate samatikramati "go beyond, transcend" and related verbs. Another example is 後莎婆呵此云速疾。"Lastly, svāhā: it means quickly (速疾)" (551c24). This definition is echoed by 法藏 Fǎzàng in his commentary (T.1712).

    This turns out to be the standard approach for the dhāraṇī. The words that can be discerned and translated become the basis of various poetic riffs on one's beliefs about Buddhism. Each word becomes a cipher from which one can unpack Buddhist doctrines. The metaphor of crossing a river for transcendence is one of the most popular approaches to unpacking the word gate.

    Note that svāhā does not mean "quickly". It is usually analysed as related to the past perfect form of a defective verb √ah, the only surviving form of which is the 3rd person past perfect āha "was said". The first literary occurence of svāhā is in the Yajurveda where it is used to "activate" offerings. An offering to, say, Agni would be made while chanting, angaye svāhā "For Agni. It was well said". The expression has the same illocutionary force as amen in Christian prayers or hitting the <enter> key for computer programming. Svāhā is two syllables and just two akṣara (or characters) in Indian scripts, e.g. स्वा हा. Here  स्व (sva) uses the combining form of (sa) with (va), but the result is one akṣara. Note that the vowel a is inherent in the written akṣara, though for final consonants it can be deleted using the virāma, so that final -s is स्.  The long vowels are indicated by the extra vertical stroke.

    Also note that dhāraṇī were probably created in Prakrit or at best Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. The -e ending in a context that strongly implies the nominative case points us to this conclusion.

    Such poetic attempts at exegesis of the dhāraṇī have an ad hoc feel to them and seldom match up with other attempts. More so than with other aspects of the Heart Sutra, the dhāraṇī presents challenges to the would be exegete. We've some some way since D T Suzuki wrote:
    Dhāraṇī is a study by itself. In India where all kinds of what may be termed abnormalities in religious symbology are profusely thriving, Dhāraṇī has also attained a high degree of development..." - D T Suzuki. The lankavatara Sutra. p.223, n.1.
    However, I'm not sure we have yet found a positive way to understand the role of magic in Buddhism. Indeed, we seem to be in denial about the place of magic in pre-modern Buddhism, partly, no doubt, because of the outrageous suggestion that Buddhism is a "rational religion". In 2013, I blogged about dhāraṇī in general and about Ariel Glucklich's approach to magic (Why is there a Dhāraṇī in the Heart Sūtra?18 October 2013), which I think is quite a useful way of thinking about it. However, Glucklich remains quite unknown in Buddhism Studies, as far as I can tell, and no one seems to study Buddhist magic, though Jeffrey Kotyk and Bill Mak do study Buddhist astrology.

    I've previously blogged about why I call the Heart Sutra spell a dhāraṇī rather than a mantra (Heart Sutra Mantra. 30 August 2013) and published a refined version of the argument in 2017 (‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra), and about the -e ending. Because my thesis on this has not caught on, I want to quickly rehearse the argument that the "mantra" is a dhāraṇī before getting into transliterations of svāhā.

    vidyā → dhāraṇī → mantra

    The Chinese character 呪 (and the variant咒) means "incantation, spell, curse" and was adapted for a Buddhist context, where it meant dhāraṇī for a time, and then, when mantras were introduced to China in the mid-late 7th Century, it was used again for mantra. And this led to some confusion; crucially, the Heart Sutra spell was called a mantra when, in fact, it is a dhāraṇī.

    The section of the epithets was originally something like this 6th Century Sanskrit text:
    mahāvidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā (Gilgit Ms 146v: 12-13)
    Kumārajīva translated:
    世尊!般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪。(T223, 8.286b28)
    Bhagavan, perfection of insight is a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, an unequalled spell.
    Note that vidyā is translated as 明呪. However, 200 years later, Xuanzang translates vidyā as 呪 and treats 明呪 as two separate words:
    如是般若波羅蜜多是大神呪、是大明呪,是無上呪,是無等等呪,是一切呪王 (T220-ii, 7.156.a17-22: fasc. 429)
    Comparing the original and the two translations...
    anuttarā vidyā無上明呪無上呪
    asamasamā vidyā無等等明呪無等等呪

    Xuanzang is famous for the accuracy of his translations, but here he has done us a disservice. Curiously, he adds two epithets of prajñāpāramitā that have no Sanskrit counterpart. Firstly, 神呪 is probably a synonym of 明呪 (vidyā). And secondly, 一切呪王, would probably correspond to sarvavidyārājñī "queen of all the spells", but this term is not found in Sanskrit in this context.

    In any case, the trend of treating 明呪 as two words, combined with the influence of Tantra, led to 呪 being translated into English as mantra. In 1863, twenty years before the appearance of a Sanskrit Heart Sutra in England, Rev. Samuel Beal was the first to translate the Heart Sutra into English. He translated 呪 as dhāraṇī, suggesting that his local informants and the Tang Dynasty commentary he was using both supported this reading.

    When translating a word like 呪 we have to pay careful attention to the context and especially the era in which the character was used, but also the context in which the source was composed. In this context it means dhāraṇī. In the major Prajñāpāramitā sūtras dhāraṇī is not a magic spell, but the ongoing effects of the insight (see Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation. 1 December 2017). Later, in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, it also refers to the Arapacana acrostic. And later still (by some centuries), it came to be associated with apotropaic magic spells consisting of standalone words, repeated and reiterated with different prefixes, and finished with svāhā. These are related in intention to the Pāli paritta texts.

    A mantra is ideally situated in the context of a Tantric ritual (with abhiṣekha, mudrā, and maṇḍala) and performs a function within that ritual (On the importance of context for tantra see Abe 1999). The function may be invoking a deity, or a quality (such as peace śānti), or one the magic rites of pacification (śāntikakarman), subjection (vaśyakarman), prospering (puṣṭikarman), or destruction (raudrakarman). A mantra usually begins and ends with magical symbols called bījākṣara or "seed syllables" such as hūṃ, hrīḥ, or dhīḥ; beginning always with the bījākṣara oṃ (not auṃ which is exclusively used in Hindu contexts).

    There are, of course, hybrid forms, such as the Tārā mantra oṃ tāre tuttāre ture svāhā which has features of both dhāraṇī and mantra, but it comes from a distinctive Tantric context and performs the function of recollecting the name of the deity (nāmānusmṛti) or recollection of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti) within the context of a sādhana or ritual including mantra, mudrā, and maṇḍala (speech, body, and mind).

    The Heart Sutra is clearly not a Tantric text, though it was adopted as such and included into various sādhana during the Pala Era in India (8th – 12th Centuries). Oṃ was often added to the dhāraṇī in such contexts. In the case of the Xīnjīng we are not yet in the Tantric realm, though as we will see the dhāraṇī comes from a source translated by one of the first Tantrikas to arrive in China.

    The Xīnjīng Dhāraṇī

    The text of the section that includes the dhāraṇī as it appears in the printed Taishō Edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka is:
    Gù shuō bōrěbōluómìduō” zhòu Jí shuō zhòu yuē
    Therefore recite the Prajñāpāramitā dhāraṇī, that is to say the dhāraṇī that says:
    揭帝 揭帝 般羅揭帝 般羅僧揭帝 菩提 僧莎訶
    jiēdì jiēdì bānluójiēdì bānluósēngjiēdì pútí sēng shāhē
    gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

    Note that Taishō does not punctuate the dhāraṇī but there are spaces between the words. Anyone familiar with this text will be struck by the last three characters. This is not what people who chant the Heart Sutra chant. What they chant is 薩婆訶 sà pó hē. A note in the Taishō tells us that in the Song, Yuan and Ming versions of the Tripiṭaka the dhāraṇī does end 薩婆訶 sà pó hē. We can now also say that the Fangshan Stele ends with 莎婆訶:
    揭諦 揭諦 般羅揭諦 般羅僧揭諦 菩提 莎婆訶 (my transcription)
    jiēdì jiēdì bānluójiēdì bānluósēngjiēdì pútí shāpóhē
    I hope to publish an English language study of the Fangshan Stele very soon (2019). There is one other character variation in the Fangshan inscription dhāraṇī, i.e. 諦 for 帝, but the sound and tone are the same. This romanization sà pó hē  for svāhā makes good sense because the two sounds sà pó are intended to represent the consonant cluster svā. This is a standard technique when transliterating Sanskrit using Chinese characters.And the sounds would have been closer in medieval Chinese or Middle Chinese (MC).

    A whole Sanskrit Heart Sutra  is preserved in the Tripiṭaka as a Chinese transliteration (T.256. See The Other Heart Sutra). This text is now attributed to Amoghavajra and dated to the early 8th Century. We also have a manuscript of the same text, from the 8th Century, which has some minor variations. It was preserved at Dunhuang and is now held in the British library (manuscript no. Or.8210/S.5648). Note that this text is accompanied by a Chinese text, but the dhāraṇī is not translated. The dhāraṇī in T 256 is quite different from the standard Xīnjīng (T 251):
    誐諦 誐諦  播囉誐諦 播囉僧誐諦 冒地 娑嚩賀 
    édì édì bōluō'édì bōluōsēng'édì màode suōpóhè
    In T.256, svāhā is represented by 娑嚩賀 suō pó hè. Along with the first two characters is the annotation 二合引 "two characters together, long vowel) and with the last is 引 "long vowel". The Pinyin romanization looks off and we need to know that the Middle Chinese was something like sa-ba ha, where saba together represent svā. And this was a very common way of rendering svāhā in Tantric texts (see Jeffrey Kotyk's blog Reconstructing Sanskrit Mantras from Chinese).

    Of the two commentaries composed by Xuanzang's associates, Woncheuk's text has 莎婆呵 shā pó hē for svāhā (T. 1711. 33.551c10), while Kuījī's has 莎訶 shā hē (T. 1710. 33.542c8). Another early Tang dynasty commentary by 法藏 Fǎzàng (702 CE) has 薩婆訶 sà pó hē (T.1712. 33.555a6) which is the Fangshan/popular version.

    In which case what do we make of 僧莎訶 sēng shā hē as found in the Taishō version of T 251? It seems to me that the character 僧 occurs earlier in the dhāraṇī and could easily have been copied here by mistake (an "eye-skip" or haplography). Correcting this mistake would leave us with 莎訶 shā hē which might pass for a rendering of svāhā, which is what we find in Kuījī's text. More importantly, we also find this transcription in another text that we will meet shortly.

    To summarise, then, in the various early Witnesses of the Xīnjīng, svāhā in the dhāraṇī takes many forms (with Pinyin romanization).

    T.251僧莎訶sēng shā hē
    Popular薩婆訶sà pó hē
    Fangshan莎婆訶shā pó hē
    T.256娑嚩賀suō pó hè
    Woncheuk莎婆呵shā pó hē
    Kuījī莎訶shā hē

    Note 2.9.2019: Huilin’s 一切經音義 Yīqièjīng yīnyì "Pronunciation and Meaning of All the Sūtras", published 807 CE, lists the spelling in T 250 as 僧婆訶 whereas Taishō has 僧莎呵 with no notes.

    I now want to introduce a text that was proposed by the late John McRae as a possible source of the dhāraṇī (1988: 107 n.10). [McRae was Jan Nattier's husband]  See Nattier 1992: 211 n 53 for other possible sources.


    The Indian bhikṣu, Atikūṭa, whose name we infer from the Chinese 瞿多 (Qú duō) or 阿地瞿多 (Ādìqúduō) was a contemporary of Xuánzàng. He arrived in Chang’an in 651 and was installed in 慈恩寺 Ci’en Monastery by the Emperor. This monastery is also closely associated with Xuánzàng, so it's quite possible that they knew each other. However, Xuanzang seems to have had little interest in the tantric side of Buddhism and was focussed on establishing his Fǎxiāng School (法相宗) of Yogācāra Buddhism.

    Atikūṭa translated a number of texts into Chinese, including some of the first Tantric texts (which had already started to arrive in China without the context of Tantric doctrines and practices (e.g. abhiṣekha, sādhana, mantra, mudrā, and maṇḍala). He may have conducted the first abhiṣekha ritual in China. In particular, we are interested in him because, in 654, he translated a text called the 《陀羅尼集經》 Dhāraṇīsamuccaya "Collection of Spells" (T 901). The text was translated at Huirisi 慧日寺 a monastery associated with the 三階教 "Teaching of Three Levels" movement that was proscribed in 600 CE, but favoured by Sui Wendi and later by Wu Zetian. In this text we find the very dhāraṇī that occurs in the Xīnjīng.

    Here is the relevant section, laid out horizontally, but preserving the lines in Taishō, Vol 18, p.807, register b, then arranged more naturally, followed by my very literal translation.
    [19] 般若大心陀羅尼第十六呪曰。
    [20] 跢姪他(一)揭帝揭帝(二)波羅揭帝(三)波囉僧揭
    [21] 帝(四)菩提(五)莎訶(六)
    [22] 是大心呪。用大心印。作諸壇處一切通用。
    [23] 般若小心陀羅尼呪曰。
    [24] 跢姪他(一)揭帝揭帝(二)波囉民(彌忍反)揭帝(三)波
    [25] 囉若(若冶反)他(四)莎訶(五)
    We can usefully arrange this into connected passages. I'm not sure that the numbers add anything, but let's leave them in for now.
    呪曰。跢姪他 (一) 揭帝揭帝 (二) 波羅揭帝 (三) 波囉僧揭帝 (四) 菩提 (五) 莎訶 (六)
    跢姪他 (一) 揭帝揭帝 (二) 波囉民 (彌忍反) 揭帝 (三) 波 囉若 (若冶反) 他 (四) 莎訶(五)
    Spell of the great mind of insight. (prajñā-mahāhṛdaya-dhāraṇī). (16th)
    The dhārāṇī says: tadyathā (1) gate gate (2) pāragate (3) pārasaṃgate (4) bodhi (5) svāhā (6)
    This is the spell of great heart. Employ the gesture of great heart. Make many magic circles empowering all on the same basis.
    Spell of the great mind of insight. (prajñā-cūla-hṛdaya-dhāraṇī).The dhāraṇī says: tadyathā (1) gate gate (2) pāramī (彌忍反) gate (3) paraya (若冶反) tā (4) svāhā (5)
    Use the mudra of the lesser mind on the same basis.

    Our focus has been on the Chinese rendering of svāhā. I noted that the canonical Heart Sutra has the problematic phrase: 僧莎訶 sēng shā hē. Now, in the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya we see that Atikūṭa transcribes svāhā as 莎訶, just as Kuījī's text does.

    Note also that if the dhārāṇī comes from the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya then it may have lent its name to the Xīnjīng. It is called 般若大心陀羅尼  Bōrě-dàxīn-tuóluóní = Prajñā-mahā-hṛdaya-dhāraṇī.


    The obvious question is, did Atikūṭa copy this dhāraṇī from the Heart Sutra or did the "author" of the Heart Sutra borrow from the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya? The Dhāraṇīsamuccaya does associate the dhāraṇī with a minimal context, in that it is associated with a mudrā and empowerment (adhiṣṭhāna).
    Employ the mahāhṛdaya-mudrā. Make many maṇḍalas empowering (adhiṣṭhāna) all on the same basis.
    The language used here suggests a tantric context, though, at best, it is partial. Looking at the Heart Sūtra we usually presume that the epithets section is what contextualises the dhārāṇī. As discussed above, I have shown that this is not the case and the epithets are not a reference to the dhāraṇī, which stands alone (decontextualised) in the Heart Sutra. This leads me towards seeing the Dhāraṇī-samuccaya as the immediate source of the dhāraṇī (though as a samuccaya or "anthology", it cannot be the original source).

    One thing to note is that the early Tang appears, from looking at the character changes here, to be a time of phonetic change. For example, Kumārajīva has 般若波羅蜜 (MC banya baramit) allowing the final consonant of 蜜 to carry the sound of , whereas Xuanzang opts for 般若波羅蜜多 (banya bara mitda) suggesting that the final consonant is on its way out already. It is completely absent in Mandarin: 蜜 mì.

    If we accept the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya as the source then we can make fairly straight-forward stemma diagram by looking for single character additions or substitutions. Note that this diagram indicates sequence rather than chronology. I will discuss chronology below.

    ↙                 ↘
    Woncheuk         popular 
    莎婆呵             薩婆訶
    Huilin (T 250)                   
    (807 CE)                     

    This gives us a neat explanation of the variant readings. The Dhāraṇīsamuccaya transcription 莎訶 shāhē (MC saha) is transmitted directly to the text used in Kuījī's commentary. At some point a scribe makes a (haplographic) mistake, adding an extraneous character from earlier in the dhāraṇī giving us 僧莎訶 sēngshāhē (MC seung saha). This version must circulate and is adopted as the preferred reading in the Taishō, but the editors note other editions consulted have the popular transcription. It's not the weirdest thing in the Taishō, but given how popular the text is and which version is chanted, one wonders why they adopted the defective reading for their main text.

    The Fangshan Stele, the oldest dated Heart Sutra (661 CE), has a three character transcription of svāhā, i.e. 莎婆訶 shāpóhē (MC sabaha). This was created by inserting 婆 (ba) between 莎 and 訶, to better represent svā. As noted, using two characters to represent Sanskrit conjuncts is common. 

    Woncheuk's text alters the final character: 訶 → 呵.  i.e. 莎婆呵 shāpóhē (MC sabaga or sabaxa). Again, this change may have been inspired by changes in Middle Chinese pronunciation.  The pronunciation of 呵 was probably already moving towards the modern pronunciation of . On the other hand, the initial 莎, which I conjectured was changed for the same reasons, remains in this version. We know that different regions experience different sound changes and different rates of change, so perhaps some of that is reflected here.

    The popular version of the Heart Sutra is created from the Fangshan version by substituting the initial character 莎 → 薩. This may be because the pronunciation of 莎 was moving from sa towards the modern shā and was starting to sound wrong. 

    Amoghavajra also wanted a three character transcription to better capture the consonant cluster svā and opts for 娑嚩賀 suō pó hè, which is an entirely new transcription.

    It would be interesting to see where the other character variations showed the same pattern (I may do some more on this).


    If we accept this explanation of the variants then we can narrow the window during which the Heart Sutra was composed to 654 – 661 CE. The terminus post quem is now defined by the translation of the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya in 654 and terminus ante quem is still the date on the Fangshan Stele, 13 March 661.

    These dates are at least not inconsistent with the earliest literary reference to the Xīnjīng. As I wrote a year ago:
    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). (Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography)
    The Taishō edition has added punctuation here, and it's quite likely before they got hold of it, the text read 金字般若心經, i.e. "gold-lettered Prajñā-hṛdaya-sūtra". The Biography by Huili and Yancong records Xuanzang translating a text called 金剛般若經 (i.e. Vajracchedikā Sūtra) for Taizong around the time he died (T 2053. 50.259a13-a28). And I note the graphical similarity to the name of the text we have just been discussing, i.e. 金字般若心經. Indeed, in the previous essay on my blog, I noted that in Chinese, vajra is translated as 金剛 (jīngāng), i.e. "gold hard" (not that gold is particularly hard).

    This might not be such an issue, except that we know that the Xīnjīng was a synthetic construction and that the Sanskrit text is a Chinese forgery. Thus, what appears to be a "gold-lettered Heart Sutra" could conceivably have originally been a reference to the Vajracchedikā.

    This sequence is, of course, conjectural. Occam's razor gets us to the most likely answer, not the truth. And we have to be careful about drawing further inferences. For example, we may think it likely that the Xīnjīng evolved in this way because each step only requires a single character change.

    僧莎訶 ← 莎訶 → 莎婆訶 → 莎婆呵 &  薩婆訶

    In addition, we associate the texts with various people or objects, e.g. Kuījī, Woncheuk, and the Fangshan Stele. We would be mistaken, however, to infer that Kuījī was commenting before the Fangshan Stele. The only inference we can draw is that the text he was commenting on predated the Fangshan Stele. Similarly, the fact that Woncheuk was commenting on a later iteration is not an indication of even the relative chronology of the commentaries.


    A forensic comparison of the Heart Sutra continues to unexpectedly throw up interesting and previously unknown data points which contribute to our understanding of the history of the text. Imagine what is lurking in our texts waiting to be discovered! 

    I think we can tentatively say that the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya is the likely source of the dhāraṇī. The fact that assuming this helps to explain the variant transcriptions of svāhā by linking them through single character changes is significant. A lot more painstaking work will be required to see if other variant readings. But if it's true, then we can say that the Heart Sutra was composed 654 – 661 CE.

    At this point we have a sequence of development, but not an absolute chronology. 



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

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

    Glucklich, Ariel. (1997). The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press.

    McRae, John R. (1988). "Ch'an Commentaries on the Heart Sûtra: Preliminary Inferences on the Permutation of Chinese Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 2: 87-115. Online: http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=19327107


    17.8.2019. 僧莎訶 is only found in T251 and a later text T 849 (a tantric text related to the Mahāvairocana cycle of texts). 
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