10 April 2020

Revisiting Avalokiteśvara in the Heart Sutra

In my 2019 article on Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra, I argued that is was implausible for Xuanzang to have been involved in any clandestine attempt to pass the Heart Sutra off as a genuine sūtra. By contrast, Jeffrey Kotyk (2020) makes a good case for the Heart Sutra having been openly composed by Xuanzang as a condensation of the Prajñāpāramitā (i.e. a chāo jīng) and given to Gaozong and Wu Zhao as a gift on the birth of a son. On 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 2053; 50.272b.12).

We still lack an explanation for the process of the text becoming an "authentic" sutra, although I have identified many of the components of the received myth and shown that they emerge over several decades. There must have been a point when the "fact" that the Heart Sutra was a translation by Xuanzang became established. If we accept Kotyk's thesis (and I am inclined to) then this transition occurred within five years because the Fangshan Stele, which credits Xuanzang as translator, is dated 13 March 661. 

Such considerations are tied up with questions of the historicity of sources. In the same article, Kotyk argued against the uncritical use of Xuanzang's Biography published in 688 CE* as an historical source because it is a hagiography with all that this implies: the religious and political agendas of the author are far from hidden. Unfortunately, when we strip out the magical and mystical elements we do not arrive at a narrative that tallies with the other historical sources (although, of course these also have their biases). In particular, the Biography appears to distort the relationship of Xuanzang and Taizong in ways that are favourable to the Buddhist community but not entirely plausible.
* i.e. Huìlì 慧立 and Yàncóng 彥悰. Da tang da ci'en si sanzang fasha chuan 大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳 (Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master [of the] Great Ci’en Monastery [of the] Great Tang), T 2053, 50.

Partly inspired by correspondence with Kotyk, I have also been critical of the use of the hagiography as history (Attwood 2019). By sheer bad luck my article was published before Kotyk (2020) whereas he was finished first and I had read a draft and corresponded with him about it while writing my article. Preceding us both, Max Deeg has been critical of naive readings of the Xuanzang's travelogue, Notes on the Western Regions (西域記 Xīyù jì), composed ca 645 or 646 CE.

More specifically Deeg (2016: 126-8) has pointed to historical inaccuracies in how Xuanzang portrays the Indian king, Harṣavardhana (606 to 647 CE), of the Puṣpabhūti Dynasty (henceforth King Harṣa). Deeg plausibly argues that these inaccuracies appear to be deliberate narrative devices on the part of Xuanzang. He seems to have tried create a sympathetic protagonist for the Tang Emperor Taizong to identify with, so that he might take a moral lesson worked into the story. In this essay, I will extend Deeg's argument: if we accept that Xuanzang took a didactic approach in writing Notes on the Western Regions and gave Avalokiteśvara an educational role, then it is worth reconsidering the unexpected appearance of Avalokiteśvara in the Heart Sutra in this light.



The bodhisattva first appears in Chinese translations from the 2nd Century CE under a range of names (Nattier 2007). The various Chinese forms reflect two forms of the name in Sanskrit:, i.e. Avalokitasvara and Avalokiteśvara. The two names and the relative chronology were first noticed by Nikolaĭ Dmitrievitch Mironov (1927). The principal Chinese forms are:
  • 廅樓亘  (Èlóuxuān). “Sound-Observer”
  • 闚音      (Kuīyīn) “Sound-Observer”
  • 見音聲  (Jiànyīnshēng) “He Sees Sounds” 
  • 光世音  (Guāngshìyīn) “Sounds of the World of Light”
  • 觀世音  (Guānshìyīn) “He Observes Sounds of the World”
Èlóuxuān 廅樓亘 might have been an attempt at a transliteration, perhaps of an even more primitive form of the name, i.e. Avaloka-svara. A possibility Nattier did not consider was a Prakrit form of the name: avalokita-svara in Pāḷi would be spelled olokita-sara.  The Gāndhārī form of the name is Ologispara.* 
* The Gāndhāri Dictionary) lists Olo'iśpare as representing Avalokeśvara (i.c. avaloka-īśvara). However, Salomon and Schopen (2002) have cast doubt on this reading of the inscription without being able to clarify what the correct reading should be. It is probably the locale the donor lived in. 

Up to about the 6th Century, Chinese translators were evidently encountering avalokita-svara since the translations all refer to having "observed" (avalokita) a "sound" (svara). This has a flavour of synaesthesia about it and I'm not aware of any convincing explanation of the name that deals with the fact that one does not usually observe sounds, one hears sounds and observes visual phenomena. The "spelling" Guāngshìyīn 光世音 is probably the result of having misheard the name as ābhā-loka-svara "light world sound".

It's sometimes suggested that the name Guānshìyīn 觀世音 was shortened during the Tang to Guānyīn 觀音 after the death of Emperor Taizong (r.  626 to 649), to avoid the wordshì 世 from his personal name 李世民 Lǐ Shìmín. Such taboos were common in China after Emperors died. However, the practice of shortening the name began long before the birth of Lǐ Shìmín. For example, Kumārajīva frequently uses the two character name in his Lotus Sutra translation (T. 262) dated 403 CE. In any case, the taboo usually required a substitution rather than a simple excision. For example, in some expressions 世 shì was substituted with 代 dài (Kroll 2015: 73).

From the 6th Century translations of Bodhiruci onwards, a new form of the name started appearing in which the word svara was replaced with īśvara "Lord, Master". These include Guānshìzìzài 觀世自在 (“Sovereign of the Observed World”), and Xuanzang's translation Guānzìzài 觀自在 (“Sovereign of the Observed”). Since Avalokitasvara absorbed some of the iconography of Śiva around this time it is assumed that he also absorbed one of Śiva's principle epithets, Maheśvara "Great Lord" to become Avalokita-īśvara (a-ī > e). Alexander Studholme includes a detailed discussion of the relationship between Avalokiteśvara in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra and Śiva Mahēśvara as we meet him in the Purāṇa texts (2002: 37 ff) 

In translating Xuanzang's Travelogue, Samuel Beal explained Xuanzang's choice of characters for the name. Beal correctly back translated 自在 as īśvara, but understood it to mean “self-existent” and interpreted its meaning as “god.” This apparently influenced many later interpretations of the name. In fact Sanskrit īsvara more straightforwardly means "Lord" or "Master" from √īṣ, which is related to the PIE root *aik- "be master of, possess." Cognate words are English "own" (as in possess) and "owe" and German "eigen". In the Chinese Āgama texts, 自在 simply means "master". Reading Chinese Buddhist texts without reference to the Indic sources can lead us astray, even when they are composed in Chinese.

Sanskrit texts and fragments noted by Mironov (1927) confirm that the name starts off as Avalokitasvara and transforms into Avalokiteśvara at some point. This change is more recently documented by Jan Nattier (2007) and Seishi Karashima (2016). It has also been noted by all and sundry that the latter name never caught on in China where the, now female, figure is still principally known as Guānyīn 觀音. The gender-change came much later than the period that interests me. 

What is not much discussed is the kind of compound that the words avalokita-svara and avalokita-īśvara might be. It is important to note that avalokita is a part participle, i.e. "seen, viewed, observed", not "seeing, viewing, or observing"; it comes from a root √lok meaning "look", i.e. it is rooted in the visual sense. The Chinese translation, guān 觀, also means "observe, consider"; the character combines the semantic radical xiàn 見 meaning "see" with a phonetic radical guàn 雚. As far as I can tell, few of the common  English translations correspond to possible grammatical analyses of the compound. The form avalokita-īśvara seems obviously to be a tatpuruṣa, "Lord of the seen [world]" or "Lord with [a compassionate] gaze."

However, avalokita-svara could be any of: "viewed sound" (karmadhāraya), "sound of the seen" (tatpuruṣa), or "whose sound is observed" (bahuvrīhi). None of these particularly makes sense to me, but then none of the traditional explanations follow the rules for interpreting Sanskrit compounds. There are certainly folk etymologies that sound plausible, but if you approach the compound from a purely grammatical point of view, then this name is strange.

One possibility is that the name was not composed in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit. So svara could be a wrong Sanskritisation of a Prakrit word. We know several examples of this (e.g. bodhisatva, sūtra, mahāyāna). We might note for example that Skt svara is Pāli sara "sound, voice". But Pāli sara is also Sanskrit:
  • śara "reed, arrow" 
  • śara "going" (√sṛ
  • saras "lake"
  • sara "remembering" (√smṛ)

Another root, √śṛ "crush", might also have given rise to sara (but this is not listed in the PTS Dictionary). So Pāli sara could stand for Sanskrit words śara, saras, sara, or svara. And only context can disambiguate them. With a name, the context could easily remain ambiguous. For example avalokitaśara "the one whose going is observed" is not entirely stupid as a name. The same root also gives us P. saraṇa "refuge" as in saraṇagamana "going for refuge", which could give the name a Buddhist flavour. I'm not saying this is the answer, but I am saying that answers we do have don't make much sense and this might be a way to seek a better explanation.


Nattier (2007) further summarises the roles that Guanyin tends to play in these early Mahāyāna texts:
  1. passive audience member. The name Guanyin crops up in lists of those present when doctrines are preached. 
  2. As Èlóuxuān, the bodhisatva becomes an object of devotion. This is unusual because usually texts admonish us to become bodhisatvas, not the worship them. Paul Harrison has suggested that this role may be a Chinese invention. 
  3. Receives a prophecy to Buddhahood.
  4. Successor to Amitābha.
His first significant appearance is the Larger Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra. He was popularised in the translations of Dharmarakṣa, especially the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. In none of these texts does Guanyin play the active role of teacher. In other words, what should surprise us about the appearance of Guanyin in the Heart Sutra is not that its a so-called wisdom text, since that compassion/wisdom distinction is anachronistic in relation to bodhisatvas at that time.  Of course, Guanyin is associated with compassion in the sūtras but not exclusively. For example, Kuījī describes him as "possesses wisdom and compassion, universally practices kindness, perpetuates pure lands, and rescues the defiled worlds" (Heng-Ching and Lusthaus 2001: 15. Translating 有具悲智遍行慈愍。紹隆淨剎府救穢方。T. 1710; 33.524c.10).

Before moving on I should say that Kuījī expresses no surprise at finding Guanyin in this text.  He tackles the name in his commentary as though it is just another set of characters. Woncheuk does spend some time establishing that Guanyin is fully enlightened, so we might infer that he uncomfortable about the absence of the Buddha. He notes "There is no introduction or conclusion in this [sūtra]. Since [this text] selects the essential outlines from all the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras, it has only the main chapter, without introduction and conclusion, just as the Kuan-yin ching (Avalokiteśvara-sūtra) is not composed of three sections." (Choo 2006: 138)

The idea that Guanyin's presence is unexpected may be partly due to expectations that grew up later, perhaps as a result the tantric practice of dividing deities up into demarcated "families". What ought to stand out is the fact that Avalokiteśvara is giving instruction, using words that—in the Large Sutra—were put into the mouth of the Buddha. However, there is a text in which Avalokiteśvara does have such a role and that is Xuanzang's Notes on the Western Regions (西域記 Xīyù jì). Before we turn to this text, we need to consider some generalities about the politics of early medieval China.

The Politics of Buddhism in China

Politics is an important aspect of the historiography of Buddhism in China, especially in Tang China. In order to flourish, in the ancient world, any religion has to negotiate a relationship with state power. There is no right of free of religion, though the Chinese were often tolerant of heterodoxy at this time. This relationship with the state has political, economic, and social dimensions. We may say that, in the ancient world, Buddhism flourishes because of these relations with governments and rulers, if only because monks are economically unproductive and supporting large numbers of them requires surplus wealth. A small community may produce surplus food to feed an extra person or two. But the building of, for example, large monasteries for hundreds of monks to live in one place requires the kind of wealth and resources that usually only states have access to. Rulers expect return on investment, even if that return is an intangible like the promise of a good afterlife. But religion can be a double edged sword, because it comes with obligations, both personal and political. A ruler has to be seen to be pious and to support the institutions of religion. In Tang China, even Taizong gave imperial support to Buddhism though it is clear that he did not like it. 

The dynamic with respect to Buddhism is particularly interesting because of the social structure of Buddhism: the distinction between full-time monks and the devout laity is not absolute. People could move between these two worlds and the monastic sangha was (at least in theory open to anyone). Increasingly, women were excluded from the monastic side Buddhism so that by the Tang women play a marginal role in Buddhist history (with one very notable exception).

The relationship between Buddhist monks and the Chinese state is fascinating because monks are economically unproductive, eschew social norms (especially the Confucian ethos of filial piety), refuse to acknowledge the superiority of the emperor (monks refuse to bow to him), and yet rely on patronage for their existence. Confucians saw Buddhists as deeply immoral for these reasons. While Buddhism did evangelise and attract largesse from the merchant class, it was their appeal to rulers that ensured that Buddhism flourished. This is all the more apparent in the light of periodically anti-Buddhist sentiment and purges such as occurred in China during the Tang. In addition, religious institutions were exempt from paying taxes and so tended to accumulate wealth. Although there are technical restrictions on individual monks from handling money or owning property, in practice Buddhist monasteries in the Tang Capital of Chang'an had incalculable wealth, were involved in usury and commerce, and as a result caused economic imbalances in the Chinese economy. We could see the purges in 845 CE in which the wealth of Buddhist monasteries was appropriated by the state and the scale of Buddhist institutions was drastically reduced (although only briefly) as a rebalancing of the economy. The expansion of Buddhist monasticism is often an economic disaster for the countries in which it happens (more especially where they also capture the reins of governance). 

Those who invest want a good return. In the case of Buddhism, the beneficiaries promise that generosity goes towards good fortune in the present life and a good rebirth for the donor. In a pre-modern world where life and death appear to be entirely a matter of fate, the promise of good fortune and a good rebirth attracted considerable largesse. Buddhists also provided pageantry in the form of large-scale ritual performances. The key to survival in early Medieval China was to have the ruling family on side, and while the Sui Dynasty Emperors had been great supporters of Buddhism, the early Tang Emperors, Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong were all indifferent or, in the case of Taizong, hostile, to Buddhism. 

For Xuanzang to be a favourite of the Buddhism-hating emperor, Taizong, then, is a not inconsequential historical fact. In the Biography, Xuanzang is first portrayed as defying the emperor to seek the Dharma in the West, although Kotyk (2019) shows that this defiance may have been invented since the imperial ban on travel was lifted before Xuanzang set out. On his return from the West, Xuanzang is welcomed and feted by the same Emperor (i.e. his defiance has no negative consequences). This is the Buddhist struggle with temporal power in a nutshell. 

We also have to look at the audience for the Biography. Xuanzang's influence as a translator is facet that is often exaggerated. In fact very few works attributed to him were influential except for some of his translations of Yogācāra works for which there were no previous translations. When it came to sūtras, none of Xuanzang's translations displaced those of Kumārajīva from 250 years earlier. The Fǎxiàng 法相 School of Yogācāra Buddhism that he founded lasted only about a century and was never very influential (although Yogācāra per se was very influential). By 688, some 24 years after his death, Xuanzang's lack of influence must have started to be obvious. Yancong's Biography seems to be tuned to giving Xuanzang's remaining followers a boost and perhaps generating some positive PR amongst other Buddhists. It is, however, unlikely that the Biography was widely read outside of Buddhist circles. This circle may or may not have included the Empress Dowager Wu Zhao (her husband Gaozong died in 683 CE) although in 688, Wu Zhao had her hands full suppressing a rebellion by members of the ruling Li family, paving the way to becoming Emperor herself. Wu Zhao was not beyond inducing Buddhist monks to engage in conspiracies to promote the idea of a female emperor. 

Teachable Moments

With this overview, we can now consider the political dimension of Xuanzang's Notes on the Western Regions (西域記 Xīyù jì) and in particular the role played by Guanyin in the story of King Harṣa. Max Deeg (2009, 2012, 2016) has made a considerable contribution to our understanding of the Notes. He highlights and critiques the naive, positivist use of the text, in which everything is taken at face value. He also points out that little or no attempt has been made to position the Notes as one of a genre of Buddhist travelogues (2009: 35-41). In addition, while Xuanzang likely wrote notes for the book, the fincal composition was actually compiled and redacted by Biànjī 辯機. 

Deeg has shown that Xuanzang manipulated his narrative to make it more palatable to Taizong. 

"In the light of Taizong's sensitivity to his own standing, reputation and the impression he would make on future generations, it becomes clear that Xuanzang had to manoeuvre and act quite adroitly to convey the politically and morally critical message directed to his emperor" (Deeg 2016: 98).

As noted above, Deeg (2016) concentrates on King Harṣa. This is partly because Harṣa is quite well documented. We have inscriptions, three plays that are attributed to him, and a biography, Harṣacarita, composed in Sanskrit by Bāṇabhaṭṭa (Bāṇa). So we can directly compare Xuanzang's narrative with the Indian evidence. Deeg argues "that the Indian king is portrayed not as a historical person, but as an idealized Buddhist ruler and—as I have argued elsewhere [Deeg 2009: 51]—as a speculum, or a 'mirror,' held before Taizong." (2016: 100). Xuanzang has two political purposes in the Notes. Firstly to flatter Taizong and secondly to quietly admonish him by presenting kingdoms in Indian in ideal Buddhist terms. And to this end Xuanzang presents Harṣa as relatable, but also as a Buddhist (an ideal Buddhist) king. 

A clearly Buddhist embellishment in Xuanzang’s story is the episode of Avalokiteśvara’s advice to Harṣa to take up the royal or imperial duties without assuming the “lion throne” (shizi zhi zuo 師子之座, Skt. siṃhāsana) and the title “great king” (dawang大王, Skt. mahārāja, or mahārājādhirāja) which does not have any direct correspondence in any of the other sources on Harṣa. (Deeg 2016: 126-7).

In the story of Harṣa, as Xuanzang tells it, the reigning king is killed by a neighbouring kingdom. His son is dead, but his younger brother (Harṣa) is proposed as king instead. This idea is greeted with popular acclaim and the job is offered to Harṣa. However, Harṣa hesitates, protesting that he is hardly qualified and lacks virtue. Something Deeg does not comment on, I think, is that this level of modesty is a Chinese virtue that is not so prominent in India (Compare my discussion of Ajātasattu's meeting with the Buddha. Attwood 2010).
"The public opinion considers (me) suitable (for the throne, but how could forget (my own) shortcomings? Now, at the banks of the river Gaṅgā there is a statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, Since it has (already shown) a lot of wonderful signs I wish to go there and ask for advice." (Deeg 2009: 52)
Translating: 物議為宜,敢忘虛薄?今者殑伽河岸,有觀自在菩薩像,既多靈鑒,願往請辭。(T 2087; 51.894.b8-10 ff.)
The Bodhisatva counsels Harṣa to take the job, predicting that because of his previous merit he will be a great king. This is where he advises Harṣa not to assume the “lion throne” (Shīzǐ zhī zuò 師子之座, Skt. siṃhāsana) and the title “great king” (dàwáng 大王, Skt. mahārāja, or mahārājādhirāja). Harṣa takes the throne and eschews the titles, but his first act is to vow vengeance on the neighbours who killed his elder brother. He goes on to conquer them and the rest of India in a sweeping military conquest. 

In his presentation of this material, Xuanzang is at pains to make Harṣa recognizable to Taizong, to make Harṣa a "mirror" for Taizong to see himself.
"The intention in the context of the [Notes] is clear: both rulers are lauded because of their pacification of the realm, the construction of stūpas and monasteries (vihāra), and the convocation of donation parties. This was certainly meant as a propagandistic and 'pedagogical' hint directed to the address of the emperor Taizong..." (Deeg 2009: 57)
Deeg (2016) returns to the Notes and draws out further reasons to think that this is so. For example, he draws parallels between Xuanzang's Harṣa narrative and the facts of how Taizong gained the throne, i.e. by murdering his brothers and the heir apparent, and forcing his father to Abdicate (2016: 125). Deeg notes that there was an ongoing power struggle between Taizong and his chief ministers over who would succeed him. In the end it was Li Zhi , his 9th son, who became Emperor Gaozong in 649 CE. Court factionalism raged on until 655 CE, when Wu Zhao became Empress Consort and decisively brought the still powerful Yang family in on the side of Gaozong (see for example the account in Eisenberg 2012).

In Xuanzang's narrative, Harṣa's older brother is killed and his taking the throne is encouraged by Avalokiteśvara. Taizong had murdered his own brother to take the throne. Deeg seems to argue that Xuanzang is offering Taizong a justification for his fratricide in the form of adopting Buddhist ideals of rulership. But this is achieved indirectly and Taizong is left to draw his own conclusions. Deeg speculates that Taizong might have felt reluctance to assume the throne given his means of ascension. I find this aspect of his account less plausible. A man who murders his brother and forces is father to retire does not seem the type to then have doubts. Taizong is, above all, decisive. However, as Deeg points out (2016: 128) the Harṣacarita does portray Harṣa as reluctant to assume the throne, so perhaps the comparison was intended to flatter Taizong (the man with no doubts). The other parallel between the two rulers is that Harṣa goes on to conquer all of India unifying it under his rule. This was ever the ideal for a Chinese emperor and something that Taizong was quite successful at.
"I think that the narrative of Harṣa's royal lineage and ascension to the throne is directed towards the ruling emperor Taizong—and maybe also towards the ambitious crown prince, and later emperor, Gaozong—as a reminder of the pious and correct behavior of an ideal ruler" (Deeg: 2016: 125).
Although Gaozong is mentioned in passing, and is not prominent in Deeg's articles, it is worth considering that Gaozong was part of the intended audience of the Notes.


Indian records show that Harṣa was not a Buddhist, he was a devotee of the benevolent forms of Śiva, particularly Maheśvara or Paramameśvara. Deeg suggests that if there were an historical event behind the story, that Maheśvara could mutatis mutandis become Avalokiteśvara for Xuanzang's purposes. Especially in Xuanzang's Chinese where the names are Dàzìzài 大自在 and Guānzìzài 觀自在 respectively (128). It is not that Buddhism was entirely foreign to Harṣa, Buddhists were a major presence in India at the time. The Harṣacarita, authored by "stern Śaiva" Bāṇabhaṭṭa, used Buddhist elements in his description of the king. 

For my purposes, what is significant is not simply that Xuanzang has altered the story to serve a political purpose, so much as that he has Avalokiteśvara step outside his role of saviour and protector to become a political advisor. One whose advice led to the annihilation of Harṣa's enemies (who had killed his brother) but which also led to a massive subcontinent spanning war of conquest. The model here, of course is Asoka. The key difference is that Asoka became a Buddhist only after being repulsed by his bloody wars of conquest. Asoka renounced violence to become the ideal Buddhist king, whereas Harṣa embraces violence on the advice of Avalokiteśvara. Taizong was also involved in pacifying remaining pockets of rebellion in the newly reforged Chinese Empire, but was also actively extending the boundaries. 

Summary and Conclusion

Max Deeg has argued that we need to be aware of the political and didactic elements in Xuanzang's Notes on the Western Regions (Xīyù jì 西域記). Focussing on the events that Xuanzang links to the historical figure of King Harṣa, we can see from Indian sources that this story has been changed (by Xuanzang) in ways that can be interpreted as manipulation for political ends. The story has been recast so as to reflect Chinese values. It makes flattering comparisons between Harṣa and Taizong, but reflects Xuanzang's views on ideal governance and regal deportment. Xuanzang is a Buddhist while Taizong is rather unsympathetic to Buddhism. Xuanzang therefore uses the medium of an historical morality take, based on a real story, to get his message across. In this cause, Śaivite Harṣa becomes a Buddhist who consults and receives political advice from Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisatva of compassion. This advice is apparently calculated to resonate with Taizong and to justify his wars of conquest. Xuanzang cannot come right out and chastise Taizong for usurping the throne, but he can show Taizong a way to atone for his usurpation by being a "good" emperor on Xuanzang's terms. This is a rather bold project on Xuanzang's part, but since no one in China at that time had the ability to fact-check his account, it was taken at face value.  It is only now that we can compare the Indian accounts and see the discrepancies.

The Biography by Huìlì 慧立 and Yàncóng 彥悰 portrays Taizong undergoing a deathbed conversion to Buddhism under the skilful guidance of Xuanzang. This is a kind of apotheosis for Taizong, since in embracing Buddhism he becomes in his last few days exactly the ideal ruler that Xuanzang had wanted. It is also the ultimate vindication of Buddhism to bring around the notoriously hostile emperor. However, again, the non-Buddhist Chinese historical sources make it very unlikely that Taizong did convert to Buddhism and few historians accept this account as factual. There is no supporting evidence from non-Buddhist (non-hagiographical) sources and it seems rather too convenient.

Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisatva par excellence in 7th Century China. Maitreya and Manjuśrī are also important but Avalokiteśvara's role in the Lotus Sutra and the Guanyin Sutra make him the most prominent "bodhisatva" in that context. And this alone could explain Xuanzang's use of Avalokiteśvara in the Heart Sutra. However, he had to have known that the words he copied from the Large Sutra were mostly from the mouth of the Buddha and that the principal protagonists of the Prajñāpāramitā were the Buddha, Subhūti, Śāriputra, and Śakra, Lord of the Gods; not bodhisatvas. The instruction in the Large Sutra begins with the Buddha speaking to Śāriputra, although in the Small Sutra the Buddha asks Subhūti to instruct the bodhisatvas in Prajñāpāramitā. 

If Deeg's conjectures about Xuanzang's relations with Taizong and his attempts to create teachable moments in the Notes are right, then the unexpected appearance of Avalokiteśvara might be explained by his role in Xuanzang's narrative of Harṣa. While the Heart Sutra is more or less what it appears to be—i.e. a short summary of Prajñāpāramitā doctrine—and lacks the obvious political overtones of the Notes, the mere reference to Avalokiteśvara could be enough to invoke that earlier narrative for Gaozong and Wu Zhao. Gaozong took the throne more conventionally than his father, although in a parallel to Harṣa, only after his two older brothers had been eliminated (although in this case they but Wu Zhao (if any story about her can be believed) may well have emulated Taizong in murdering rivals for her position and purging the opposition once she gained power.

It's worth emphasising this last point since it is seldom even mentioned: Wu Zhao was not some kind of psychopathic anomaly. She has to be seen in the context of Taizong's murder of his brothers and competitors, his ruthless suppression of opposition, and relentless wars of conquest. Both unexpectedly rose to high office. Both murdered those who stood in their way. Both were astute leaders and politicians.

Kotyk has proposed that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra ca February 656 CE as a gift for the birth of Wu Zhao's son, Lǐ Xián 李賢 (29 January 655 – 13 March 684) who would later go on to be Crown Prince. Around the same time, Lǐ Hóng 李弘 (652 – 25 May 675) was made Crown Prince, an event that also gave rise to the founding of Ximing and Jing'ai monasteries (in Chang'an and Luoyang respectively) and to projects to copy the entire Tripiṭaka and to catalogue all Buddhist texts in each city (which bore fruit in 664 and 666 CE respectively).

Xuanzang had to be very careful in expressing his criticism of Taizong. Wu Zhao was already a Buddhist and perhaps more likely target of the gift of a new condensed sutra which emphasised the ephemeral nature of experience than Gaozong. Perhaps Xuanzang felt less comfortable expressing criticism, but still managed to create a pointer back to the Notes by unexpectedly placing Guanyin where he was least expected. The gift of the sutra happened at a time when Wu Zhao had eliminated the most vehement opposition and cemented her grip on power. This did not end the factionalism that had begun during the reign of Taizong, but it was a decisive moment in bringing it to an end. Perhaps in retrospect the naming of Li Hong as Crown Prince is more significant than the birth of Li Xian.

I'm aware that the conclusion here is tenuous. As I revise the received tradition of the Heart Sutra I have to gently remove the layers of accreted myth and legend. What remains is fragmented and partial. It is not yet possible to clearly the shape of it. What is needed is for a qualified, preferably young, Sinologist to take up the enquiry and see what else may be discerned in the Chinese sources by someone with an open mind. As an enthusiastic amateur, who started this adventure far too late in life, I can only go so far with this. There are many questions about the Heart Sutra still to be answered, but we tend not to answer a question before it is asked. If I can contribute anything it is to show that there are open questions.



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Karashima, Seishi. (2016) “On Avalokitasvara and Avalokiteśvara”, in Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University (ARIRIAB), vol. 20 (2017): 139-165.

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Nattier, Jan. (2007) ‘Avalokiteśvara in Early Chinese Buddhist Translations: A Preliminary Survey.’ In Magee, W and Huang, Y.H. (Eds). Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) and Modern Society. Proceedings of the Fifth Chung-Hwa International Conference on Buddhism, 2006: 191-212. Taiwan: Dharma Drum Publishing.

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