21 February 2020

Jingtai's Catalogue: Wu Zhao and Digest Texts

Carving Buddhist texts in stone was a very popular activity in China. The series, Buddhist Stone Sutras in China, is a set of large format books with images, transcriptions, and commentary on inscriptions in rock faces and on stone tablets from various places in China (Sichuan and Shandong provinces so far). The details of the inscriptions are accompanied by essays by experts in the field that help to explain the significance of them. 

One essay of considerable interest to me, in Vol 3 (Sichuan, Wofoyuan C) is by leading Prajñāpāramitā researcher Stefano Zacchetti (the cch is pronounced like k), Professor of Buddhist Studies at Oxford University. At the site known as Wofo Yuan 臥佛院, Anyue 安岳 County in Sichuan there are many Buddhist texts carved into the rock faces and cave walls. The opening sentence of the essay sets us up nicely:
At the Grove of the Reclining Buddha (Wofoyuan 臥佛院), cave 46 contains, among other texts, an incomplete carving of scrolls 1–2 of the Catalog of All Canonical Scriptures (Zhongjing mulu 眾經目錄; T#2148, 55: 180c–218a; hereafter: Jingtai’s Catalog), composed during the second half of the seventh century by the Monk Jingtai 靜泰 (fl. 660– 666).

In this image of a rubbing of the first panel of text of Jingtai's Catalogue we can see the first column on the right is the title of the preface:  大唐東京大敬愛寺一切經論目序 Preface of the Catalogue of All Scriptures of the Great Jing'ai Monastery, Eastern Capital, Great Tang and the first character of the attribution 釋靜泰撰, "composed by Bhikṣu Jìngtài"

The presence of a scriptural catalogue or bibliography amidst a collection of mainly sutra inscriptions is remarkable. Why did anyone feel the need to set this rather utilitarian document in stone? We understand that narratives of the end of the Dharma (末法 mòfǎ) drove the monks at Cloud Dwelling Temple (雲居寺) to carve sūtras in stone to preserve them for posterity. But carving a catalogue is less easy to understand. However, for the story that I would like to tell, the why of it is not very relevant.

In trying to explain the presence of the catalogue at Wofoyuan, Zacchetti touches on two distinct aspects of my Heart Sutra research: firstly, it expands on the role of Wu Zhao (aka Wu Zetian) in Buddhism during the period that the Heart Sutra was composed and passed off as a genuine sūtra, and secondly it touches on the Chinese penchant for making digest texts (抄經 chāo jīng) and the ways in which bibliographers catalogued them.

Jingtai and the Catalogue of All Canonical Scriptures

As Zacchetti explains, we know very little about Jingtai the man. He is not mentioned in the mainstream biographies of monks, but he is mentioned in a minor work on Buddhist controversies (T 2104) by Dàoxuān 道宣 (596-667 CE). Almost as an afterthought, Daoxuan includes some biographical details about Jingtai: he was originally from Luoyang; he caught the attention of Emperor Gaozong, who after being unable to persuade him to disrobe and join the government, offering him the title of Dade (大德 = Skt bhadanta) at Jing'ai monastery (敬愛寺). Other sources confirm that Jingtai held this title. Gaozong also commissioned a new catalogue of Buddhist texts from Jingtai. Daoxuan is not entirely flattering to Jingtai, describing him as witty and eloquent but with relatively superficial knowledge of the Dharma (79 n.415). Jingtai was probably involved in a project to copy the entire Buddhist canon as it existed at that time (80).

I think we have to pause and consider the actual role of Gaozong after he married Wu Zhao in 655 and made her Empress Consort. Their marriage cemented a partnership that ended a long running internal power struggle that had begun during the reign of Emperor Taizong. The adult Wu Zhao was no shrinking violet, but rather a proactive and shrewd political operative and, more to the point, a Buddhist who was quite ready to use the Buddhist church as leverage against the Confucian bureaucracy. By the time Jingtai's catalogue was published, Gaozong had suffered his first bout of debilitating illness and Wu Zhao was the de facto ruler of China. Jingtai might have had orders via the Emperor, but they almost certainly came from Wu Zhao.

Whoever was behind it, Jingtai's catalogue was produced and survives down to the present. Like other early medieval bibliographers, Jingtai struggled with the issues involved in creating a catalogue at that time.
"Jingtai's preface starts with an interesting discussion of the structure of catalogs and their function in distinguishing genuine parts of the canon from the overgrowth of apocrypha and excerpts, which ought to be weeded out." (Zacchetti: 79)
A translation of that preface is a desideratum. Jingtai makes a comparison with the catalogue completed two years earlier in Chang'an by Dàoxuān 道宣 at Ximing Monastery 西明寺. Daoxuan authored the 《大唐內典錄》Dàtáng nèidiǎn lù "Great Tang Catalog of Texts" aka the Neidian Catalogue (664 CE).
"According to Daoshi's 道世 (?-683) Pearl Grove in the Garden of the Law (Fayuan zhulin 法苑珠林), the Jing'ai Monastery was established in the new capital of Luoyang as a counterpart of the Xi-ming Monastery, the famous monastic institution in Chang'an, which had been founded by the Emperor in 656 for the welfare of Li Hong 李弘 (652-675), Empress Wu Zhao's 武曌 (r. 684-705) son, who had just been nominated Crown Prince." (Zacchetti: 80) (Note: on Daoshi's Grove of Pearls, see Hsu 2018)
It's important to note that Gaozong himself was not particularly religious and was probably not a Buddhist. His father had been decidedly anti-Buddhist. But Wu Zhao was a practising Buddhist (despite her purported penchant for murder) and in the 680s Buddhist monks sided with her in the divisions that ripped the court apart over Wu's wielding power through her sons and her eventual ascension to the throne. The Jing'ai Monastery played a key role in this. However, in the 650s, Wu's goals were unlikely to include direct rule. Having her son on the throne was probably the acme of her ambition. This may have changed after Gaozong began to suffer periodic bouts of illness that left Wu Zhao running the state. However, it was Wu Zhao who advocated for moving the capital from Chang'an to Luoyang, which happened ca 657 CE. Tradition has it that she was trying to escape being haunted by the ghost of one (or more) of her victims.

Jing'ai Monastery in Luoyang was founded in Jan 657-Feb 658, nominally by Li Hong for the benefit of his parents. It was built on the same plan as Ximing. When Wu Zhao took the imperial throne in 690, she renamed Jing'ai the Monastery of the Buddha's Prophecy (佛授記寺 Fo shouji Si), but after her reign it reverted to the earlier name. As part of the activities surrounding Li Hong's becoming Crown Prince, both the Ximing and Jing'ai Monasteries untook to make a complete copy of the Buddhist canon (as it existed at the time).

Jingtai was ordered to produce his catalogue on March 6 663, although a revision was ordered in February 664 possibly to incorporate newly finished translations by Xuanzang. The catalogue took three years to complete and was presented in 666 CE. It included 816 scriptures in 4,066 scrolls, but acknowledged 382 "missing texts" in 725 scrolls, that were not to be found in the libraries of Luoyang.

The two catalogues were organised along very different lines. Jingtai followed Yancong (彥琮) in having a layered taxonomic approach. Daoxuan followed Fei Changfang in organising the texts primarily chronologically by Dynasty.

Adding these details, which as far as I know are not mentioned in any history of the Heart Sutra helps to give our understanding of the time period. The view of history that Buddhists present tends to be one dimensional and there are few if any tensions in the unified Tang Empire. But as I've read more Chinese history it has become apparent that division and contention were ever present and that Buddhists took sides in these conflicts. The 6th Century bibliographer, Sengyou, wrote
"As for perverse Confucianists who abide by literature, they keep their distance [from Buddhism] because it is considered heathen. The honey-tongued heretics (i.e., Daoists) adopt [Buddhism] in their teaching and consider both to be the same teaching." (Ziegler 2015: 24)
With this we now move to the second aspect of Zacchetti's essay, how Jingtai treated digest texts.

Digest Texts and the Heart Sutra in Jingtai's Catalogue

The whole of scroll 3 and a large part of scroll 4 of the catalogue (not inscribed at Wofoyuan) are devoted to separately produced (別生) texts, that is to say "excerpts extracted from larger scriptures and circulating as independent texts (於大部內鈔出別行)" (Zacchetti 82). I have written about these before as digest texts (抄經 chāo jīng). Interestingly, Jingtai makes an effort to identify the larger sutras from which the extracts are made. Jingtai makes it clear that he does not consider such texts part of the Canon and they were not to be included in the Canon copying project (Zacchetti 83).

Jingtai's Catalogue (T 2148; vol 55) adopts a taxonomic scheme that has similarities to previous catalogues, particular the catalogue produced by Yancong in 602 (T 2147). The other main organisational principle used in China was chronological (based on dynastic succession). Jingtai employed a total of seven categories, the first three of which make up the "canon".

1. 單本 - Single translations. One-off translations and first translations.
2. 重翻 - Retranslations (other translations of the same text).
Each of which was divided into sub-categories
大乘經 - Mahāyāna sūtra
大乘律 - Mahāyāna vinaya
大乘論 - Mahāyāna commentary
小乘經 - Hīnayāna sūtra
小乘律 - Hīnayāna vinaya
小乘論 - Hīnayāna commentary

3. 賢聖集傳 "Collection Traditions of the Saints" is a standalone category considered to be translations.

4. 別生 Separately produced, that is, what Zacchetti calls "excerpts" and what I call "digests". This category also has several subcategories.
大乘別生 - Mahāyāna separately produced
大乘別生抄 - Mahāyāna separately produced extract
小乘別出生 - Hīnayāna separately produced
小乘別生抄 - Hīnāyāna separately produced extract
別集抄 Suspected as being spurious
眾經別生 Miscellaneous separately produced scriptures

5. 眾經疑惑 Miscellaneous dubious scriptures
6. 眾經偽妄 Miscellaneous false scriptures
7. 闕本 - Missing texts. These were texts that Jingtai had reason to believe should exist, but which could not be found in his library.

Note that the catalogue refers to the size of manuscripts in 紙 zhǐ "pages". These were roughly standardised sheets of paper 21 cm in width and between 41 and 48.5 cm in length, glued together as a strip and rolled into a scroll (Zürcher 313, n 54). They give a much better idea of the size of a manuscript, although as with all manuscripts the amount of text that could fit on a sheet was highly dependent on the scribe's handwriting. 

The following Prajñāpāramitā text translations are listed by Jangtai:

Single Translations

大乘經單本 (Mahāyāna Sūtra Single Translations)
  • 大般若波羅蜜多經 (六百卷一萬二千紙) 唐世玄奘於玉華譯 (181c21-22) Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra (600 scrolls; 12,000 sheets) Xuanzang, T 220 completed in 663.
  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜經 (四十卷或三十卷六百十九紙) 後秦鳩摩羅什共僧叡等於長安逍遙園譯一名大品 (181c23-25) Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (30 or 40 scrolls; 619 sheets) Later Jin, Kumārajīva with Sēngruì et al. in Chang'an, Xiaoyao Garden [Kumārajīva's translation institute] one named Great Section 大品. (T. 223).
  • 勝天王般若波羅蜜經 (七卷一百二十一紙) 陳世月支國王子婆首那於楊州譯(182b03-4) Devarāja-pravara-prajñāpāramitā trans Upaśuṇya (T. 231).
  • 仁王般若經 二卷(二十八紙) (183b04) Karunikaraja-prajnaparamita-sutra (27 pages) Trans Kumārajīva? (T 245)
  • 文殊師利說般若波羅蜜經 一卷(二十二紙) 梁天監年曼陀羅譯 (184a19-20) *Mañjuśrī-pratibhātu-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. (1 scroll, 22 sheets)
  • 般若多心經 (一卷一紙) (185a02) Gnosis Heart Sūtra (1 scroll; 1 sheet) Digest text composed 656 CE, by Xuanzang.
大乘論單本 Mahāyāna commentary Single Translations
  • 般若燈論 (十五卷二百四十二紙) 唐貞觀年波頗蜜多等於勝光寺譯 (185b21-2) Prajñāpradīpa-mūlamadhyamaka-vṛtti (15 scrolls, 242 sheets) T 1566. Translation by Prabhākaramitra in 630-632
  • 金剛般若經論 (三卷四十七紙) 後魏世菩提留支譯 (185c17) Diamond Sūtra Commentary by Vasubandhu. Trans Bodhiruci 509.
  • 金剛般若論 (二卷僧佉菩薩造二十八紙) 隋大業年達摩 (185c25) Diamond Sūtra commentary by Asaṅga,. Trans Dharmagupta 613.


  • 放光般若波羅蜜經 (三十卷 或二十卷四百六十紙) 晉元康元年無羅叉共竺叔蘭於陳留譯 (189b02-3) Shining Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra (460 sheets, possibly T221 by Mokṣala (291 CE)
  • 光讚般若波羅蜜經 (十卷或十五卷二百一十五紙) 晉太康年竺法護譯右二經同本異譯。(189b04-6) Bright Stotra Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, (215 sheets) possibly T222 《光讚經》a partial Large Sutra translation by Dharmarakṣa (286 CE)
  • 道行般若波羅蜜經 (十卷一百六十五紙) 後漢元和年支謙譯 (189b07-8) *Dharmacārya-prajñā-sūtra, T 224 (Lokakṣema)
  • 小品般若經 (十卷或八卷一百五十四紙) 後秦弘始年羅什譯 (189b11-12) Smaller Prajñāpāramitā Sutra T227 (154 sheets) by Kumārajīva (1st Year of Hong, Later Qin, i.e. ca 400-1 CE) Usually dated 408 CE.
  • 金剛般若經 (一卷舍衛國十二紙) 後秦弘始年羅什譯 (192c19) Diamond Sūtra. (12 sheets) Trans Kumārajīva (also Later Qin, First Year of Hong) usually dates 402 CE.
  • 金剛般若波羅蜜經 (一卷婆伽婆十四紙) 後魏世菩提留支譯 (192c20-21)  Trans Bodhiruci, T236 509 CE.
  • 金剛般若經 (一卷祇樹林十四紙) 陳世真諦譯 (192c22) Trans Paramārtha, T237 (562 CE)
  • 能斷金剛般若經 (一卷十九紙) 唐世玄奘譯 右四經同本異譯。(192c23-4) trans. Xuanzang (1 scroll, 19 pages) [seemingly separate from his magnum opus] Jingtai comments that this is the best of the four (右四) alternative translations.
  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜經鈔長安品 (五卷一名須菩提品一名長安品經八十三紙) 前秦建元年沙門曇摩埤共竺佛念譯 (196a08-10) Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra - transcribed in Chang'an Section (5 scrolls, one named "Subhūti Section", one named "Chang'an Section Sutra"; 83 pages) trans Former Jin, 1st year of 建 (ca 343 CE), by 曇摩埤 *Dharmapriya with 竺佛念 Zhú Fóniàn = T 226?


  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經 (一卷) (197a02)
  • 般若波羅蜜神呪經 (一卷) (197a03)
These are the shen zhou texts mistakenly believed to be early, now lost, translations of the Heart Sutra. The titles trace back to three decades before Kumārajīva translated the Large Sutra (T 223), and the Heart Sutra as we know it copies passages from that text, so these can not be the same. Also, the Heart Sutra is already listed above distinct from these two texts.

Suspected of being fake

遺曰說般若經 (一卷) 後漢世支讖譯 (213b.03)
道行般若經 (二卷) 晉世衛士度譯 (217c.21)
These could be translations by Lokakṣema (支婁迦讖; fl. ca. 168-186). The first is possibly a version of 《佛說遺日摩尼寶經》 (T 350) while 《道行般若經》is the title of T224 translated in 179 CE and now widely considered to be an authentic translation by Lokakṣema.
Note that there is a separate translation of the Diamond Sutra by Xuanzang, which is traditionally said to have been made in 648-9 (according to the Biography by Yancong, a document that several of us have cast doubt on recently). Jingtai comments that this is the "best of the four alternative translations from different sources" (右四經同本異譯; T 2148; 55.192c23-4) although then and now Kumārajīva's translation was the most popular. Perhaps he means it is the best other than Kumārajīva's translation which is listed as a "single translation".

I've been puzzling over Yàncóng 彥悰. In the first place a Yancong produced a catalogue of Buddhist scriptures in 602 CE. In the second place Yancong was a younger contemporary of Xuanzang who produced a biography of him in 688 CE. This means there must have been (at least) two separate people with this name. This is probably obvious to everyone but me. 

The Heart Sutra is unequivocally treated as an authentic Mahāyāna Sūtra by Jingtai (T 2148; 55.185a02) and yet digest texts are excluded from the Canon. Note that Jingtai does not list any missing translations of the Heart Sutra, nor does he list any alternative translations. The text is singular and not attributed to a translator. Other texts by Xuanzang are clearly marked as such, including the extra translation of the Diamond Sutra not included in T 220. The 神呪 or shen zhou texts are not confused with the Heart Sutra and are listed as digest texts (they are sometimes said to be early, now lost, translations of the Heart Sutra but this is not possible because the titles predate Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation from which the Heart Sutra copies passages).

Given the gist of Zacchetti's article, it would be interesting to look at Daoxuan's catalogue of the Ximing library and compare them with Yancong's catalogue which they were influenced by. However, Daoxuan's catalogue is organised on a very different basis and contains multiple entries for each text which makes a direct comparison with his catalogue more difficult.


I'm becoming quite fascinated by Wu Zhao (aka Wu Zetian) and her possible role in the history of the Heart Sutra. As much as anything because modern histories of the text simply don't mention her at all, despite the fact that she is the most important political figure of the mid-late 7th Century when Xuanzang was actively translating and writing. I'm not a feminist, but I am keenly aware that women get written out of history for bad reasons. A revised history with disruptive women, skullduggery, and deception seems infinitely more interesting to me than a traditional history only populated with one dimensional, saintly male characters.

Also, a close reading of the essay has caused me to look again at the notes in Jan Nattier's article where they cross over with the bibliographical tradition. Nattier notes, with comments from Alan Sponberg (who I know as Dharmacārin Saramati), that Kuījī sees the Heart Sutra as "separately produced". It is now possible to see that Kuījī has adapted a jargon term from the bibliographic tradition. This makes it clear that he knew that the Heart Sutra was a digest text and thus not a sūtra and importantly not a translation. Since Nattier does not join the final dots on this, I'm now in the process of writing it up for publication. 

Revising the history is vitally important for understanding the Heart Sutra, since history provides the context in which it existed. And modern English-speaking Buddhists have been short-changed when it comes to the history of Buddhism and the history of Chinese Buddhism in particular. We've been fed a bowdlerised version of history designed to suite a modernist palette: no magic, no deception, no superstition (except where it makes foreigners look stupid). A thorough revision of traditional accounts is overdue. 

It seems to me increasingly that insights lie at the intersections of fields. The intersections of history, bibliography, philology, and hermeneutics are where I am making new discoveries on a regular basis. There is so much work to still be done on the Heart Sutra. Most of it requires a much better knowledge of Middle Chinese than I possess or ever will possess. I can only hope that my work inspires some bright young thing to dive into this material and come up with gold. My 7th peer reviewed article is due out in May 2020 and I feel sure that I have only just scratched the surface. 



Hsu, Alexander Ong. (2018). Practices of Scriptural Economy: Compiling and Copying a Seventh-century Chinese Buddhist Anthology. [Dissertation]. The University of Chicago, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. 

Zacchetti, Stefano. (2016). 'The Catalog of All Canonical Scriptures', in Claudia Wenzel and Sun Hua (eds.), Buddhist Stone Sutras in China – Sichuan Province, volume 3 Wofoyuan Section C: 65-96. Wiesbade: Harrassowitz Verlag – Hangzhou: China Academy of Arts Press.

Ziegler, Harumi Hirano. (2015). The Collection for the Propagation and Clarification of Buddhism, Vol. I. [Trans of Hongming ji (弘明集), T 2102]. BDK America.

Zürcher, Erik. (2013). Buddhism in China: Collected Papers of Erik Zürcher. Brill.

07 February 2020

Texts and Historiography: The Case of Xuanzang

Following hot on the heels of my recent article about the historiography of Xuanzang, comes a new article by my longtime online friend, Dr Jeffrey Kotyk. His main subject these days is astrology in ancient China, but his latest article is on Chinese historiography - the writing of history.
Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2020). ‘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. https://brill.com/view/journals/tpao/105/5-6/article-p513_1.xml
My intention here is to discuss his article rather than reviewing it. Kotyk is a knowledgeable Sinologist who has frequently assisted me with insights into Chinese Buddhism and language. Over the last couple of years we have often corresponded about the Heart Sutra and more recently on Xuanzang's association with it; although we come at from different angles, we are largely in agreement about the main points. I will outline the main points and draw out the threads that most clearly relate to my work, interspersing some of my own observations.


In particular, as his title suggests, Kotyk studied the contrasting pictures of Xuanzang (602-664 CE) painted by different sources. The principle sources for Xuanzang's life are the biography by Yancong published in 688 and Xuanzang's own account of his travels to the West (629-645 CE) published soon after his return. Another important source is Daoxuan's biography, initially composed between 646 and 649 and surviving in two recensions, one of which was revised by Daoxuan and another by an unknown hand after Xuanzang's death. In addition there are a number of state histories, compiled by state historians who were educated in the Confucian classics.  These were official histories focussed on the activities of the Emperor and were not without their own biases, but their biases were very different from the biases of Buddhists. Comparing the various versions of history allows Kotyk to pick out the most plausible elements of each.

The stories that most people are familiar with come largely from the Yancong biography. Kotyk critiques the attribution of this work, concluding that Yancong is the principle author and that although Huili is named as having initiated the project some aspects of this account are doubtful. The popular stories of Xuanzang's life can be described as based on a true story but in many ways they reflect religious sympathies in the decades after Xuanzang died, when Wu Zetian was the de facto ruler of China. After the death of her husband, Gaozong, she went on to become emperor in her own right. Yancong's biography was published in 688, just two years before Wu Zetian took the throne and became the first and only female Emperor. Buddhists were taking part in court factionalism on the side of Wu Zetian. 

Kotyk and I both reference work by Max Deeg that suggests that the Travelogue is similarly affected by politics and in particular by Xuanzang's (probably futile) efforts to win Emperor Taizong over to Buddhism. The close personal relationship between Emperor Taizong and Xuanzang is a feature of the religious biographies precisely because it raises the perceived status of both Xuanzang and of Buddhism more generally. Buddhism "the foreign religion" was popular, but continued to vie with Confucianism and Daoism for imperial sponsorship and suffered periodic purges (especially when the wealth of Buddhists became a drag on the economy of China).

Jeffrey is critical of the idea that if we just strip all the obviously fictional material out of hagiographies we will arrive at something like history. This is a theme in John Kieschnick's book The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Kotyk quotes Kieschnick as observing that “scholars have concentrated on winnowing out such fabulous elements in an attempt to uncover a factual core.” He further notes that this process “is crucial if we are to understand what a given monk really said and did at a particular place and time.” However, in his conclusion, Kotyk also notes that Kieschnick warns that “attempts to strip stories of legendary materials meet with only limited success.” 

Kotyk shows that in the case of Xuanzang stripped back stories do not lead to an accurate picture of Xuanzang's life. This is an important observation in the broader context of Buddhist historiography, because the method is very popular, especially with respect to the early Buddhist texts. Many historians have attempted to strip out the more fabulous and fantastical elements of the Buddha's biography, for example, and declared that what they leave behind is something like objective history. Where we do have external confirmation we know this method to be unreliable. 

In the well documented case of Xuanzang, we happen to have multiple sources from multiple (competing) view points. Xuanzang's actual story has been adapted, within a few decades of his death, for religious and/or political purposes. And this in a literate culture with a penchant for carving words in stone. What this case shows is that, even if we take out the myths, what remains can still be fictional, or merely based on a true story. Without the benefit of records from other communities with other values, we cannot rely on a single body of literature produced by a religious community as historical documents.

This is not an entirely new observation. The unreliability of, for example, the Pāli texts has been repeatedly commented on. But this does not stop certain scholars from using this method and proclaiming what they discover as a result to be evidence of the historical Buddha. Kotyk notes that the same happens with respect to Xuanzang; i.e., the religious accounts are given much more credence than they deserve in academia. It is almost as though scholars of Buddhism become blind to the rhetorical uses to which texts can be put. Somehow it is assumed that Buddhists are far removed from such mundane affairs as politics. 

Let me assure the reader that Buddhists are no better than ordinary people. If any indication of this were needed, just start counting up all the "enlightened masters" who have had to step down in disgrace over their sex, alcohol, or bullying. The list is long and just as long in traditional settings, though there such disgraces are more likely to be covered up. Buddhists are human beings. Our communities are political. We vie amongst ourselves for influence and power. Where we rely on external patronage we participate in external politics, sometimes exerting undue influence. In states where Buddhism has flourished, the ruling classes have often found this influence unwelcome or oppressive and taken steps to neutralise it. 

The story of Xuanzang was clearly adapted to serve the purposes of his successors. This happened in a literate culture with a feeling for history, with official state historians who deliberately recorded events for posterity, within living memory of a genuinely historical character, and with more than one record being kept. Just imagine what could happen in an intensely religious oral culture, with no feeling for history, no historians, no historical figure, and no parallel community making observations and records.

I have observed in the past that Buddhists are apt to misrepresent other Buddhists' beliefs in order to create strawman arguments that can easily be knocked down. The polemical literature is full of this kind of thing. Buddhists in antiquity were not concerned with history or objectivity. Buddhist accounts are too often biased and politically motivated, so exploring the full range of sources helps to balance this out to some extent. I've already mentioned that much is popularly made of Xuanzang's close relationship with Emperor Taizong. Non-Buddhist sources paint a very different picture of the emperor as someone who had an intense dislike of Buddhism that grew over time. He was nevertheless obliged, as Emperor, to support Buddhist activities and projects as a political expedient. It's possible that he warmed to Xuanzang personally, or was just interested in his knowledge of China's aggressively expanding western borders. But it's very unlikely that he was sympathetic to Xuanzang's mission, or that he made a deathbed conversion. Also, notably, the last years of Taizong's reign were rife with factionalism that his son Emperor Gaozong inherited. Wu Zetian played a decisive role in suppressing this factionalism.

In the last part of the article, Kotyk formally proposes the idea that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra (I've been talking about this for a while, but the idea came from our email correspondence). This is based on the earliest dated literary mention of the Heart Sutra, tying it to an event in 656 CE when Wu Zetian's oldest son became crown prince. In my own article about Xuanzang, finished before Kotyk proposed this new idea, I pointed out that this is two years after Atikūṭa translated the Dhāranīsamucaya, the likely source of the dhāraṇī added to the end of the Heart Sutra, and thus close to the date before which the Heart Sutra as we know it could not exist. Sometimes the best we can do is point out that a narrative does not conflict with the established facts.

Alongside work by Max Deeg (whom we both cite), this article and my own recent article raise some serious questions about academic historiography of Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. Far too much reliance has been placed on unreliable sources. This is not a problem for religious hagiographies and inspirational stories. These need not be based on historical facts any more than a novel must. Sherlock Holmes is no less an inspiration for detectives everywhere because he is fictional. Religious stories serve religious purposes: inspiriting the faithful, reinforcing orthodoxy, maintaining a sense of group identity, and so on. Imperial histories also have their biases. Imperiums are always seeking to justify the imposition of their rule over local rulers. Official histories become a vehicle for this self-justification by showing, for example, how the emperor brought stability and prosperity to the realm. That said, the imperial histories also record the failures of emperors - around that time several disastrous campaigns against Goguryeo led to Chinese troops being repeatedly repelled and, on occasion, to their being massacred. Tang Emperor's support for religious activities have to be seen in this light. Such support was typically a political expedient, but is used by Buddhists to imply that their activities were not merely state sanctioned, but that the Emperors were themselves Buddhists. Taizong was not a Buddhist and neither was his son Gaozong. But Wu Zetian was. Ironically, Buddhist historical accounts, especially as they relate to the Heart Sutra, tend to completely overlook Wu Zetian and her role in China at the time. And yet it now seems very likely that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra as a gift for Wu Zetian. 

At least in some quarters, academic historians aspire to more objective accounts that connect the known facts in a plausible narrative that adds as little as possible to connect the dots. But Kotyk also notes that historiography has become infected with the relativism of postmodernism. This says that there is no such thing as objectivity, no such thing as historiography. It's all just "narrative", and any narrative is as good as any other. Neither Kotyk nor I believe that relativism is warranted or justified. One can acknowledge the subjectivity inherent in historiography and the different possible readings of events without opening the door to relativism. To adopt relativism is to abandon reason.

A religious history full or magic and miracles cannot be true in the same way as a history that merely describes mundane events in a plausible way. However, this straightforward fact does not mean that we cannot hold sophisticated views of history or that we cannot acknowledge that different values systems exist (and especially existed in the time period we study). It is vitally important, in my view, that we understand the mores and social practices of mid-7th Century China when attempting to understand the Heart Sutra. Despite striving for objectivity we need not argue that hagiography is invalid and serves no purpose. Hagiography does serve a purpose and is valuable in its own context. The difference is the breadth of the context. Hagiography is aimed at, and really only appeals to, believers, whereas history aims to communicate to a broader audience. Objectivity includes being objective about the purpose of stories in the lives of human beings. The popularity of fictional characters is also an epistemically objective fact.* They serve a purpose. And they definitely have value. In acknowledging this we need not throw the baby out with the bath water and deny the value of objective historiography (even "objective" is an aspiration rather than something fully achieved). Relativism seems like a naive, even puerile, approach to complexity.
* I make use of John Searle's distinction of four kinds of fact in his account of social reality: ontologically objective, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective, and epistemically subjective. See my 2016 series of essays on Social Reality and more recently: The Heart Sutra and Social Reality.
It can be difficult to hold two different values systems. As scholars, Kotyk and I aspire to write objective historical accounts of the life of Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. We are part of a community of people who are constantly refining our understanding of both the process and the outcome (and with this article, Kotyk makes an important contribution to both). This requires that we pursue our ideas vigorously, but be prepared to change direction at any time as new facts or new interpretations of the facts emerge that are more plausible. We aim for truth and acknowledge that at best we achieve increasing plausibility amidst competing systems of values. To paraphrase something Richard Feynman said about intelligent people: we know that in the long run we are probably wrong, but we hope to be wrong in an interesting way. There is no need to abandon reason and give up on the ideal of objective truth. Historiography is complex and fraught with difficulties. While relativism does simplify things greatly and lightens the load on intellectuals, absolving them from the task of evaluating their sources, it does so at an unacceptably high cost.

The religieux has an entirely different relationship to these stories. These stories are constantly retold and elaborated in such a way as to highlight the virtues prized by storyteller and audience. The protagonist becomes someone who exemplifies the values of the community. Repeating the story rehearses and reinforces community values and a sense of belonging. And the story typically evolves along with the values of the community, although the story itself may help to regulate such changes. The hero of religious stories usually exemplifies conservative positions within the community.

Kotyk's discussion of the source texts really requires a good knowledge of Chinese history and language. But his broader points are easily comprehensible to a serious reader. The revised histories that we propose for Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra may not appeal to religieux. They may feel that we go too far in eliminating the mythic and symbolic accounts. We might counter that such elements largely only make sense in light of the politics of the early Tang Dynasty and the internecine struggles that led to the first and only female emperor. Ironically, Xuanzang is remembered as a translator despite the fact that his translations were never popular. In the popular imagination Xuanzang is a famous pilgrim - the monk named Tripiṭaka from the TV show Monkey

Different communities tell different stories about this historical figure, Xuanzang. His role varies depending on what counts as a virtue in a particular milieu. Those of us involved in trying to create an objective historical account may feel that what we do transcends all values systems. This would be naive. One of the things that history teaches us is that communities tell stories that reflect their values and concerns. Powerful forces in politics and religion (and religious politics) try to bend stories to fit their preferred narrative. We need not capitulate to a lobotomising relativism in which all views are equally valid, but we do need to be aware of the different values that drive people to tell stories. How much we pander to other people's belief systems is open to question. I think people like Richard Dawkins did huge damage in this area, by being rude and angry about people not sharing his (reductive neoliberal) worldview. I don't share it either, because I think it is more objective to acknowledge the existence and reality of structures and systems. 

Those of us with an interest in objective history have a job to do in communicating our values or in other words in communicating the value of our work to those who do not yet see it. An article like Kotyk's or mine is an internal document. By scholars for scholars. We presume that scholars who read the journals we publish in broadly share our values. This assumption itself is probably naive in Buddhism Studies since a huge proportion of our peers are either Buddhists or enthusiasts (the emic/etic distinction frequently breaks down in religious studies because there are very few neutral observers). Not to mention the problem of relativism amongst scholars (or other ideological commitments which I haven't touched on). Communicating about a complex issue to a complex audience, half of whom remain unconvinced about the validity of the project, is difficult. Sometimes the rejections are hostile and brutal and come from unexpected quarters. 

Still, I think Kotyk has amply made the case for using the full range of historical sources for writing history available to us. By privileging the normative religious sources, and not putting them into a broader historical perspective, historians have been remiss and have produced partial accounts. The standard accounts of Xuanzang should at the very least note the discrepancy between sources like Yancong's and Daoxuan's biographies, and the state histories. We can no longer ignore the central role of Wu Zetian in this period. We should not portray Buddhists as above or beyond the political fray. Unfortunately, things have gotten away from us and the partial (and partially false) accounts of history are now widespread and repeated. The popular history has a lot of momentum and it will be difficult to turn things around.


Further Reading

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). 'Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.' Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32: 1–30.

Kieschnick, John. (1997). The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. University of Hawaii Press.
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