11 October 2019

Heart Sutra: Work, Text, Document

Some time ago I uploaded a draft of an eclectic edition of the Chinese Heart Sutra (Xīnjīng) for comment on academia.edu. Richard K. Payne responded with a terse, but ultimately very interesting question: "what do you see as the value of critical editions in general?"  I had to confess that I was not sure. Some years later and  I'm struggling with the plethora of versions and variations on the text. People keep asking me for my translation of "the Heart Sutra" but there isn't just one Heart Sutra to translate. There are many. The history of the text is complicated.

The problem is non-existent for most people since there is a canonical version. But the thing is that almost no one uses the canonical version unchanged. The version in the popular Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka has a mistake in the dhāraṇī and the popularly chanted version is better. This is just one character out of about 250, but still it means that one cannot simply take the canonical version on trust.

Worse, Huifeng (now Matthew Orsborn) has convinced me that there were two other errors in the existing versions of the Xīnjīng. One goes back to Kumārajīva's 5th Century translation of the Large Sutra, and the other probably dates from the mid 7th Century when the Xīnjīng was composed. The former is moderately serious since it confuses the meaning of the text at that point, but it also contributes to obscuring the latter mistake which is much more serious and completely changes how we even approach the text. We definitely want to repair this damage but it dates from the 7th Century and has (more or less) always been this way. What would be the warrant for changing something that has been accepted as authentic for 1300 years?

Subsequently, I looked into the old inscriptions of the Xīnjīng. I located a full image of and transcribed the Beilin Stele, believing Kazuaki Tanahashi's claim that this was the earliest dated Xīnjīng (678 CE) and noted several places where the scribe used different characters with more or less the same meaning. Then I discovered the Fangshan Stele is considerably older (661 CE). I noted that it too had different characters to the canonical version (my article on this is due out any day now).

So which version should I translate? The canonical? The popular? The oldest? Or should I fix the errors, creating a new variant that had never existed before and translate that. I had a hunch that no Buddhists in the world would accept a change to the ancient text. Probably no academics would either. So was I stuck trying to translate a defective text, knowing it to be defective and gritting my teeth while transmitting a falsehood that was accepted because it had become canonical?

In parallel to this I was still working on the Sanskrit text, following up work done by Jan Nattier. She had concluded, quite rightly, from her investigation, that the Hṛdaya was a translation of the Xīnjīng. My own work repeated Nattier's method on another copied passage (the "epithets") and drew the same conclusions. Then, I believe put the conclusion beyond any doubt by finding a Chinese idiom encoded in Sanskrit in a portion of the text that was not copied, but composed. This showed that the language of composition was Chinese.

As part of this I had identified and corrected two errors by Conze and shown that the phrases rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ  rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpaṃ had history linking them back to very old Buddhist similes exemplified by rūpaṃ māyopamaṃ "appearance is like an illusion". I had also begun to assemble the Sanskrit parallels to the copies passages in the Xīnjīng as they appeared in the Giligit manuscript of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Pañc). And it showed that the person who created the Hṛdaya was unaware of the idioms of Pañc. A Hṛdaya reconstructed in idiomatic Buddhist Sanskrit looked very different, indeed. I could put all this together into a text, but such a text had never existed before.

I had been somewhat resistant to committing to making a translation while the source text remained unclear. This seemed to frustrate some of my colleagues because they all assumed that the source text was a settled matter. My last paper on the source text is out being reviewed right now. I never know what reviewers and editors will find. There are usually many problems to overcome to get to the point of publication. Until the last article is published, I regard the matter as unsettled. Nonetheless, I am confident about the conclusions of that forthcoming paper, partly because it rests on the excellent work by Jan Nattier and Matthew Orsborn. And partly because my old Sanskrit teacher seemed very impressed by the argument. So I began to think about translating from three texts:
  1. A repaired version of the received Sanskrit text (which is expected but, in fact, a bit pointless given what we now know about the history of the text). 
  2. A repaired version of the received Chinese text.
  3. An idiomatic Sanskrit translation of No. 2.
And then I thought about Richard Payne's question again and I re-read an article by Jonathan Silk (2015). Payne also pointed out that Lewis Lancaster has written on this subject (and I still need to read those articles). This raised some serious questions about my project. This essay is part of my attempt to see beyond a conceptual impasse.


As I understand it, the methods of modern philology were born out of European imperialism. As Europeans conquered and occupied the so-called Middle East (including eastern North Africa, the Levant, and Arabia) they began to discover old manuscript copies of the Bible in Greek and other languages like Syriac. These were different to the versions of the Bible in Europe. And this might not sound so surprising in our modern world, but back then the Bible was the literal word of God and if there were different versions of the it, then this was a disaster. So they developed methods for reconstructing what they called the "ur-text", i.e. the original text as composed by God and obscured by man. This turned into classical textual criticism, which consists of four stages:
  1. Heuristics
  2. Recensio
  3. Emmendatio
  4. Higher Criticism
 The goal here was to recreate the Word of God, to rediscover the intention of God. There are some serious questions about whether this approach applies to a literature that is not considered a divine revelation. For example, there is a real question about my wish to revise a text that is unquestionably accepted as the Heart Sutra amongst Buddhists in China and Japan. Such people have every right to go on using the familiar text and my attitude might well be seen as imperialist and colonialist. Just another stupid fucking white man who thinks he knows better. I don't think this is my attitude but, nevertheless, I'm taking the time to think about what my project is and who it is for. 

In his recent article Silk (2015:205-6) draws out a threefold distinction first made by Chaim Milikowsky. First we have the Work, which is the author's or editor's product. This may only exist conceptually and never have been committed to words. Or the author may have attempted to put it in words and be more or less satisfied that the result, but still consider this as inferior to their conception of the Work. A presentation of the Work in words is a Text. A single Work may generate multiple Texts; for example, one story that is told many times, but with minor differences each time. No single Text is the "original" in this case, because the Text is not the Work. Lastly a Document is some physical instantiation of a Text. Typically, in studying Buddhist manuscript cultures, we are faced with multiple Documents representing multiple Texts. This is certainly in the case of the Heart Sutra.

One can see this hierarchy in my outline of the problems with the Heart Sutra. The Work was conceived, probably by Xuanzang and a Text was created. Early evidence is that the Text was quite fluid at first. Characters were freely substituted by different scribes (who thus become secondary authors). Various Documents were created on the basis of the different Texts - the oldest we still have is carved in stone and dated to 13 March 661. The oldest plausible literary reference is from 688 but refers to an event in 656 CE. The dhāraṇī was probably copies from another Text (Dhāraṇīsamuccaya) translated into Chinese in 654 (T 901).

After this various elements of a standard myth appeared over the next few decades, especially in the Biography by Huili and Yancong (688 CE), and in the Kaiyuan Catalogue (730 CE). There appears to be a concerted effort to promote the idea that the Work is Indian, that the Chinese Text is the result of the translation by Xuanzang. Later, other stories about translations are added.

In the midst of this a Sanskrit Text was created by a Chinese monk who translated the Xinjing into Sanskrit without much of a grasp of Buddhist Sanskrit idiom. In all likelihood a Document was produced to make the story plausible. This Text purports to represent the Work; or to at least be the ur-Text from which the Chinese texts derive. This attempt at deception succeeds to the point that the Xinjing (of which it is a translation) is traditionally misinterpreted due to a mistranslation by the Translator.

Also around 730 CE the Damingzhoujing is constructed which remains more faithful to the Kumārajīva Large Sutra, and thus purports to predate the standard Text and better represent the Indian Work. Is the Damingzhoujing a new Work, or merely a new Text? The earliest surviving Document of the Damingzhoujing is from the 11th Century. Consider this, the Damingzhoujing stays faithful to the Large Sutra translation by Kumārajīva (T 223); it copies from it word for word. And this means that whoever created it must have known that the Xīnjīng was not a translation, but rather a selection of copied passages from the Large Sutra. The author of the Damingzhoujing restored a missing line (character for character) from the middle of the longest copied passage (often called the "core section") which could only have come from the Large Sutra. We have been deliberately deceived about the provenance of the Hṛdaya and also of the Damingzhoujing

The story is still incomplete, because another editor saw fit to provide the text with the requisites that it lacked: a nidāna starting "thus have I heard", announcing the location and occasion for the teaching; the addition of the the Buddha who endorses the teaching of Guanyin; and a colophon including praise from the audience. This extended version of the text never took off in China. No commentaries seem to have been composed on it, though it was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese four times, suggesting perhaps that the additions were made in Sanskrit (we could check the idiom of the extension to see if they better fit the Indian Buddhist context). The extended became the standard in India (eight commentaries survive in Tibetan translation), Nepal, and Tibetan (where it seems to have been translated twice).

For a text of about 250 words (about 1/3 of an A4 page in Times 12 point) this seems an absurdly complex and convoluted history. The Work is reflected in various Texts, and the Texts each in various Documents. In addition, there is a trail of seemingly deliberate misinformation about the provenance of the various Texts and how they relate to each other.  

I'll pause here, but there are several more layers of the onion to peel yet. The next step will be to the look at the composite nature of Buddhist texts. 



Jonathan A. Silk (2015) 'Establishing­/­Interpreting­/­Translating: ­Is­ It­ Just­ That­ Easy?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 36/37: 205-225.

Watanabe, Shōgo. (1991) 「般若心経成立論序説」 『仏教学』 “An introduction to the Theory on the Formation of the Prajñā-hridaya-sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Studies 31, (July): 41-86. [Japanese]
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