29 November 2019

Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra

I'm pleased to announce that my sixth article on the Heart Sutra has just been published and is now available online as an open access pdf.
'Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.' Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies (2019, 32: 1–30)
I first present a transcription, translation, and discussion of the Fangshan Heart Sutra inscription on a stone stele with particular focus on the colophon, dated 13 March 661 CE. Making it the earliest dated physical evidence of the Heart Sutra.  This is about three years before the death of Xuanzang so has the potential to resolve outstanding questions about his involvement in the production or transmission of the text. Given that the Fangshan Stele is well known in Chinese language publications for almost a century, and has been noted in a number of art history articles, it is odd that it has never before been discussed in an English language Buddhism Studies context. In 2015 I spent a lot of time researching the claim by Kazuaki Tanahashi that the Beilin Stele (672 CE) was the oldest dated Heart Sutra. Although I turned up a number of mistakes and anomalies in Tanahashi's book, the Fangshan Stele did not show up on my research. Hopefully this paper will go some way to redressing the lacuna. 

An important aspect of the traditional history of the Heart Sutra is the association of it with Xuanzang. This is not simply an incidental fact associated with the text, but is centrally important to our understanding of it.

Chinese Buddhists developed criteria for judging the authenticity of a sūtra and the Heart Sutra ought to fail since it has none of the expected internal features. It does not begin "Thus have I heard", it does not relate the occasion and place of the teaching, it does not feature the Buddha speaking or endorsing the words of the protagonists, and it doesn't feature the interlocutor praising the teaching.

The reason we treat the Heart Sutra as an Indian sūtra is solely because it refers to itself as a translation by Xuanzang and this in turn rests on his reputation as a pilgrim. However, on closer examination there are many reasons not to believe this narrative. Most especially, internal evidence from the text and comparative study in the context of Chinese and Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā proves that the Chinese Heart Sutra (Xinjing) is not a translation at all. Rather it is a digest text (chāo jīng 抄經) made of passages copied from the Large Perfection of Insight Sutra translation by Kumārajīva (T 223) and one or two other texts. The copied passages were linked together with specially composed Chinese passages. And finally an incantation was added from a recently arrived collection of such spells from India.

Traditional scholarship puts together information that emerged in the decades following Xuanzang's death to create the story. The Biography of Xuanzang (by Huili and Yancong) from 688 CE and the Kaiyuan Catalogue (of Buddhist texts) from 730 CE are two principle sources. They include a backstory for Xuanzang's association and details like the translation date and circumstances.

However, modern research contradicts the tradition at every turn. In this article I consider how the Fangshan Stele fits into both ways of looking at the Heart Sutra and conclude, unsurprisingly given the gist of my five previous articles, that the traditional narrative is no real help in understanding the stele, whereas the modern historical narrative, of which I am one of the principle authors, does make more sense of the stele and the relationship to Xuanzang. 

In short the tradition is a fabrication. Now, since I submitted this article Jeffrey Kotyk has proposed that, contrary to my conclusions, Xuanzang was not only involved in the composition of the Heart Sutra was in fact the author of it. This is based on a passage in the Biography which is authenticated in a collection of Xuanzang's letters. The passage says that Xuanzang presents a golden lettered Heart Sutra to the Emperor. 
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)
Now this does not say that Xuanzang is the Author of the Heart Sutra. But as I write in the article he was very knowledgeable about Indian texts and probably already familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā. The minor edits on the text copied from Kumārajīva's Large Sutra (T 223) may reflect early examples of Xuanzang's attempt to reform the "spelling" of Buddhist terms in Chinese (which did not succeed). Here I am arguing against my own conclusion, welcome to the wonderful world of historical textual scholarship.

To be clear, in denying the validity of the traditional historical account of the Heart Sutra I do not intend any slight on the Heart Sutra itself. I think it authentically represents some aspects of Prajñāpāramitā and the Buddhism of the mid-7th Century in China. Nor do I think Xuanzang practised to deceive. The making of a digest text was a straightforward, above board activity in China. Hundreds of them were produced. If Kotyk is right, Xuanzang made this one for a special occasion: the appointment of the eldest son of Wu Zhao (aka Emperor Wu Zetian) to be Crown Prince.

Although Emperor Gaozong is prominent in the Buddhist accounts and Wu Zhao something of an afterthought, it was in fact Wu Zhao who was a Buddhist and who was the more generous patron. Like his father Taizong, Gaozong was at best indifferent to Buddhism, but perhaps had a personal friendship with Xuanzang because of his travels and his ability to tell stories about his travels. Cultivating Wu Zhao paid off for the Buddhist establishment as later she ascended to the imperial throne in her own right. But it must have been obvious for Buddhists that Wu Zhao becoming Empress Consort in 655 was a huge opportunity for them to expand their influence in the court. So although the expensive gift of gold lettered sutra in a special case was made to the Emperor Gaozong, it almost certainly aimed to please his wife, Wu Zhao. And this would have been obvious to everyone involved.

In any case, the digest text was elevated beyond its natural status by people, and for reasons, unknown. Others piled on to make this locally produced gem into a star of India residing in China. And one of the ways they did this was to manufacture a Sanskrit "original". Only they did a poor job of this. Whoever made the translation was competent at Sanskrit, but completely misjudged the idiom of Prajñāpāramitā and even managed to use an expression only employed by Chinese Buddhists. Having worked on correcting the mistakes that Conze introduced into his critical edition, and having been oriented towards the Sanskrit tradition, I was surprised to find myself concluding that the Sanskrit text was a bad forgery and that the "original" was the standard Chinese text represented by the canonical sūtra T.251 (though both Fangshan and Beilin Stele's have minor character variations that suggest the canonical version was edited at a later date).

In any case, I commend this article to the world of avid Heart Sutra fans. I would like to once again thank Ji Yun for drawing my attention to the Fangshan Stele in an email in 2018 and Jeffrey Kotyk for our stimulating email exchanges on the subject of Chinese historiography (history writing). Scholarship is not about the contributions of individuals, it is a collective exercise of conjecture and refutation. More than most of my articles, this one contains a lot of plausible conjecture. There may be other stories that can be told from the available evidence, although I do think that the traditional narratives have been thoroughly debunked. But new evidence could emerge that changes the story. Indeed the Fangshan Stele was just waiting to be incorporated into our spiel. It was not lost, or hidden, or unknown, it was simply overlooked by historians of Buddhism (at least those of us who write in English). Who knows what else we are overlooking, let alone what archaeologists may turn up in the ongoing search for history?


Heart Sutra articles

(2015). ‘Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 8: 2848. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104 

(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

(2017). ‘Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 13: 52–80. http://www.jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/164.

(2018). ‘A Note on Niṣṭhānirvāṇa in the Heart Sutra.’  Journal of the Oxford Centre For Buddhist Studies 14: 10–17. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/173

(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. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/184

(2019). ‘Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.’ Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 32: 1–30. http://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/previous_issues/jcbs3201_Attwood(1-30).pdf
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