15 May 2020

Mantra in the Early Prajñāpāramitā Literature

One of the loose ends that needs tying up in thinking about the context of the Heart Sutra is the reference to mantra in the Sanskrit text. Of course, I have shown that the word doesn't occur in Chinese, but still, it does occur in the Sanskrit, so whoever translated the text into Sanskrit felt it was relevant. What we need to show is that it doesn't relate to the Prajñāpāramitā tradition, per se. 

The word mantra does occur in early Prajñāpāramitā texts, but not in the tantric sense and not in reference to Buddhist practices. Prajñāpāramitā makes it clear that mantra are not used by bodhisatvas because they are associated with trivial magic. 

A survey of all the uses of the word mantra in the extant Sanskrit texts is very manageable though identifying all the Chinese counterparts is more difficult due to lack of standardised translations. But the Chinese texts are important. Even the earliest Sanskrit texts come from the last century or two of Buddhism in India and although we now have a 1st Century CE Gāndhārī manuscript it only covers two chapters and has suffered a lot of damage. The Chinese translations from the Tang and before represent an earlier phase of development that is far more relevant to the creation of the Heart Sutra than, say, the late Nepalese manuscripts. If we want to know how mantra was seen in 7th Century China, we will need to take the Chinese texts of that period into account. 

As previously, this essay will survey the occurrence of the word mantra in the text now known as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa) and the text now known as the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Pañc). The Chinese names for these vary and it's not clear that there was a distinction in the early translations. My principal points of reference in Chinese will be Kumārajīva's early 5th Century translations: Xiǎopǐnbōrě jīng 《小品般若經》(T. 227) and  Móhēbōrěbōluómì jīng《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》(T. 223). I will also include references to Dàoxíngbōrě jīng《道行般若經》(T. 224) by Lokakṣema (179 CE) — a translation of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra before there were smaller and larger recensions.* I will use Xiaojing a generic term for Chinese translations of the smaller sutra and Dajing for the larger. So as usual in the Nattier method we have four texts: Aṣṭa, Pañc, Xiaojing, and Dajing. We expect that occurrences in Aṣṭa will be copied into Pañc, and that Xiaojing and Dajing will reflect this (although, spoiler, this pattern is broken with respect to the word mantra). 
* Note the title of Lokakṣema's text translates as The Way of Practising Gnosis Sutra or something like prajñācāryamarga sūtra.

There is no Mantra in the Heart Sutra

By finishing a project begun by Yamabe Nobuyoshi and published by Jan Nattier (1992: n.54a) my article on the "epithets" passage (Attwood 2017) showed that the word mantra does not occur in the Xīnjīng. We know, from comparing his translations to the surviving Sanskrit versions of the same texts, that Kumārajīva translated Sanskrit vidyā as míng zhòu 明咒. But when Xuánzàng compiled the Xīnjīng in 656 CE, he read míng zhòu 明咒 as two words: bright dhāraṇī. One way we know this is that Xuánzàng included two epithets—dà shénzhòu 大神咒  and dà míngzhòu大明咒—that in Kumārajīva's Chinese both mean mahāvidyā. Keep in mind that Xuánzàng compiled the Xīnjīng from Kumārajīva's Prajñāpāramita five years before he began his own translations. Xuanzang also included a dhāraṇī (咒) incantation from the recently translated Dhāranīsamuccaya (trans. 654 by Atikūṭa), probably because he knew that Wu Zetian liked magic.

As suggested by Abé Ryūichi (1999), Tantra is a context - something that I think is much clearer in Shingon Buddhism than in Tibetan Tantra. The presence of isolated elements, such as a mantra, outside of that context cannot be considered tantric. Specifically, Tantra requires the communication of the cosmic body, speech, and mind of the Dharmakāya Buddha in the abhiṣekha ritual via mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala. By replicating the cosmic body, speech, and mind the sādhaka transforms themself into a tathāgata. Nothing of this context is present in the Heart Sutra, or in the broader Prajñāparamitā tradition that it draws on. But Tantric Prajñāpāramitā texts were composed later on, potentially confusing matters.  

As a reflection of the translator's source text, mantra is obviously incorrect. Still, the choice of mantra in the Sanskrit translation is relevant to understanding the context. The monk who translated the Xīnjīng into Sanskrit either thought that zhòu 咒 meant mantra, or he wanted us to think that it did (i.e. he wanted to expressly link the Heart Sutra to the newly arrived Tantric Buddhism). He may have been unaware of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts (and thus that the source has vidyā), but he must have been aware of the potential ambiguity of the character zhòu 咒. Like many Buddhist technical terms it has a straightforward use in Medieval Chinese, i.e. "incantation" as well as the specific uses mantra, dhāraṇī, vidyā.

With this in mind, and beginning with the Sanskrit, we can now look for mantra in the Prajñāpāramitā.

In the Prajñāpāramitā

I can identify three passages in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā that use the word mantra. However, not all of them have parallels in the Xiaopin. Curiously, only one of the three occurrences has a parallel in Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā although it also has another use but this is clearly much later. Where possible, I have tried to identify where the word occurs in Lokakṣema's translation of the Xiaopin (T 224).

Passage 1
teṣu ca susthitāḥ samāhitāśca bhaviṣyanti asyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyām | māreṇāpi te na śakyā bhedayitum, kutaḥ punar anyaiḥ sattvaiḥ, yad uta cchandato vā mantrato vā | tat kasya hetoḥ? yathāpi nāma tad dṛḍha-sthāmatvād anuttarāyāṃ samyaksaṃbodhau | te ca kulaputrāḥ kuladuhitaraś ca śrutvā enāṃ prajñāpāramitām udāraṃ prītiprāmodyaprasādaṃ pratilapsyante |(Vaidya 1960: 113)
They will be stable and concentrated in this perfect insight. They cannot be separated from it because of a verse or mantra, even by Māra, much less by other beings. Why is that? Precisely because of their resolute steadfastness with respect to ultimate complete awakening. And that disciple having heard this of this perfect insight will partake in excellent rapture, joy, and tranquility. 
Conze treats cchandato as "willpower" (1973. p. 160) i.e. reading chandataḥ "at will, according to desire". Paired with mantra the more obvious reading is chandas "sacred hymn; metre, metred verse". I think we have to see both words as being ablatives of cause, in -taḥ. Bhedayitum is an infinitive of the causative √bhid "break, injure, separate". Monier-Williams makes a distinction here by relating chandas to the Atharvaveda and mantra to the Ṛgveda, Samaveda, and Yajurveda. The Pāli texts separate the three Vedas and the Atharvaveda, treating the latter as something apart and characterise it negatively (See Who Were the Atharvans?).

The counterpart passage in Xiaopin begins at T 8.555.b06 but there is no mention of mantra. 

Passage 2
punar aparaṃ subhūte avinivartanīyasya bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya vajrapāṇir mahāyakṣo nityānubaddho bhavati |... sa yānīmāni strīṇāṃ vaśīkaraṇāni mantra-jāpyauṣadhi-vidyā-bhaiṣajyādīni, tāni sarvāṇi sarveṇa sarvaṃ na prayojayati | (Vaidya 1960: 166)
Furthermore Subhūti, there is an eternal connection of the irreversible bodhisatva mahāsatva to the great yakṣa Vajrapāṇi...  He does not employ any of the mantras, recitations, herbs, spells, potions, etc for the subjugating of women.
阿惟越致菩薩,執金剛神常隨侍衛,不令非人近之。... 不以呪術藥草引接女人。(T 227, 8.565a24)
The irreversible bodhisatva, Vajrapāṇi (執金剛神), is always bound (常隨) to serve and protect, he does not command nonhumans to draw near him, ... doesn't use incantations [and] herbs to attract women.
Conze got this translation wrong, making strīṇāṃ vaśīkaraṇāni mean "the work of women" (399), but vaśī√kṛ means to "subdue", "subjugate". Women are not the agents of this, the agent of the sentence is, i.e. the bodhisatva.

The Sanskrit phrase mantra-jāpyauṣadhi-vidyā-bhaiṣajyādīni could be treated differently i.e. as mantrajāpya-oṣadhividyā-bhaiṣajya-ādīni "mantra-recitation, herb-lore, potions, and so on". Either way, these are practices associated with vulgar magic and sex (which for a community of monks is off limits). 

Kumārajīva's Chinese is quite different. Here zhòushù 呪術 means incantation and has been used in the past to translate vidyā, dhāraṇī, mantra, mantra-vidhi, and jāpya. "Non-humans" (fēi rén 非人) = Skt. amanuṣya and refers to devas, nāgas, yakṣas, it's not clear to me why not allowing (bù lìng 不令) them near him (jìn zhī 近之) is a good thing.

There is a Chinese counterpart in Lokakṣema's translation at T 224 (8.455.b26, but with Seishi Karashima's corrections 2010). I'm quite sure this is the right passage but to be honest I'm struggling to make sense of it - it is very different from Kumārajīva.
是菩薩,和夷羅洹化諸鬼神,隨後,亦不敢近附。... 終不誘他人婦女。若有治道符祝,行藥,身不自為,亦不教他人為,見他人為者心不喜也。終不說男子若女人為。 (T. 224; 8.455b.28-c.3). 
Here 和夷羅洹 Vajrapāṇī is actually a transliteration of a Middle Indic form of the name: *Vajiravāṇi. One of many indications that Lokakṣema was translating from Gāndhārī rather than Sanskrit. The phrase is zhōng bù yòu tā rén fùnǚ. 終不誘他人婦女。It means something like: "In the end he does not seduce these women". I don't think this should be followed by "。" since what follows are the means associated with the seduction in all the other texts, i.e. zhì dào 治道 "uses witchcraft", fú zhòu 符祝 "incantations", xíng yào 行藥 "practising medicine".

There is a counterpart of this passage in the Large Sutra that doesn't mention Vajrapāṇi.
punar aparaṃ subhūte bodhisattvo mahāsattvo bodhimanasikāraiḥ samanvāgato yāni tāni strīṇām āveśanāni vaśīkaraṇāni mantravidyauṣadhibhaiṣajyāni tāni sarvāṇi sarveṇa sarvaṃ sarvathā sarvan na prayukte na ca prayojayati na ca strīṇām āveśanam anyatarānyataraṃ karoti, na striyāḥ puruṣasya vā ādeśanāprātihāryaṃ karoti, putro vā te bhaviṣyati dhītā vā te bhaviṣyati, kulodgato vā bhaviṣyati, dīrghāyuṣko vā bhaviṣyati. (Kimura 4:157)
Furthermore, Subhūti, the bodhisatva mahāsatva endowed with attention to awakening does not employ, in any way, shape, or form the mantras, spells, herbs, potions (mantra-vidyā-oṣadhi-bhaiṣajyāni) etc. used to magically subdue women; and he does not engage in doing other magic on women: he will not declare mind-reading of a woman or a man, he will not predict the sex of children, or lineage, or lifespan.
(Chapter 50 of Conze's translation). 
I think the latter part of the passage in Lokakṣema is quite similar to the latter part of this.

Passage 3
punaraparaṃ subhūte avinivartanīyā bodhisattvā mahāsattvāḥ kāmāvacarebhyo devebhyaścyutā rūpāvacarebhya ārūpyāvacarebhyo vā devebhyaścyutāḥ santaḥ ihaiva madhyadeśe jambūdvīpe pratyājāyante / yatra sattvāḥ kalāsu kovidāḥ, kāvyeṣu kovidāḥ, mantreṣu kovidāḥ, vidyāsu kovidāḥ, śāstreṣu kovidāḥ, nimitteṣu kovidāḥ, dharmārthakovidāḥ / Vaidya 167)
Furthermore, Subhūti, irreversible bodhisatvas, being fallen from the sphere of desire, or from the gods of the form sphere, or the gods of the formless sphere, are reborn right here in the middle country (madhyadeśe) where beings are learned (kovida) in the arts, verse, incantations, spells, exegesis, etymology, and understanding duty. 
須菩提!阿惟越致菩薩,多於欲界、色界命終來生中國,善於伎藝,明解經書, 呪術占相,悉能了知。(T. 227; 8.565b.11-15)
Subhūti. The irreversible bodhisatva, exceeding the kāmadhātu (欲界) and the rūpadhātu (色界) after death he is born in the middle country (中國), [where people are] good at the arts (善於伎藝), experienced (明解) in exegesis (經書), divination (占相), all kinds of learning (悉能了知)
The region of madhyadeśa is roughly speaking the Ganges Valley border to the north by the Himalaya mountains, to the south by the Vindhya Hills. In other words this is the Buddhist heartland. People there are learned in kalā, kāvya, vidyā, śāstra, nimitta, dharmārtha.  
  • kalā is ambiguous, literally "a sixteenth" (of unknown etymology) but "the arts" seems to fit, later kalā formalised as the 64 kinds of performing arts; 
  • kāvya is the art of metered verse especially as found in the Vedas and Epics, 
  • mantra is ambiguous since it can refer to magical spells generally or it is a way of referring to verse from the Vedas used within rituals (this was the original sense), as we have seen Tantra is definitely not intended; 
  • vidyā in this context is the practical arts, but also the soteriological arts;
  • śāstra is the art of explaining the content of religious and/or grammatical texts; 
  • nimitta is ambiguous and could be related to divination ("signs") or grammar where it refers to etymology roughly a synonym of nirukta;
  • dharmārtha is also ambiguous and could refer either to "the meaning of the Dharma", or to the contrast between the letter (dharma) and the spirit (artha) of, for example, a religious teaching, or to religion (Dharma) and to wealth (artha), i.e. to what Christians call the spiritual and temporal realms.  
This is the long way of saying that the people of Madhyadeśa were educated. Probably not everyone, but everyone you'd expect to be educated was - in this case male landowners and their sons. (Note this is just a description of the times). Either Kumārajīva's text was shorter or he felt that a few examples followed by "all kinds of learning" (xī néng le zhī 悉能了知) got the point across. 

The phrase "being fallen" (cyutāḥ santaḥ) is a euphemism for dying.

The passage is found in Lokakṣema's translation at T 224; 8.455c.17-18. (從欲處、色處、空處,從彼間來生中國,常於善人黠慧中生,在工談語曉經書家生。)

Passage 4

There is one further passage that occurs in Pañc, but it evidently late and a reference to tantric Buddhism since it mentions that the superior man (satpuruṣa) "protects the secret mantras" (guhyamantrarakṣaṇāc). Note that Conze's translation does not include it where we expect it from Kimura's Sanskrit text (i.e. at p.584) but he does include the parallel translation in Appendix II  (p.660), which deals with the reasons why a Buddha has the thirty marks of the superior man.

Given that this passage is an interpolation we need not dwell on it and can now move to concluding remarks.


We have some simple and obvious conclusions from this material:
  1. Mantra was not considered part of the bodhisatva path.
  2. Mantra was considered vulgar magic (used for attracting women, etc), 
  3. There is no sign of a Tantric context in our source texts.
  4. The fact that mantra occurs less often in Pañc than in Aṣṭa suggests that perhaps such references were added to Aṣṭa after the creation of Pañc (evidence of something similar happened to the epithets passage - see Attwood 2017)
It is simply not possible that if the gate gate incantation were a mantra, that an Indian Buddhist writing in the first half of the first millennium of the Common Era would have included a mantra in a Prajñāpāramiā text. Ergo, the Heart Sutra was not composed in India when Conze suggests it was. 

Furthermore, we know that the so-called mantra is, in fact, a dhāraṇī and dhāraṇī were added to texts in India. However, there is still no evidence of the Heart Sutra outside of China before the 8th Century. What we can say is that Indians who went to Tibet wrote commentaries on it (Lopez 1988, 1996). However, while Lopez assumes that the commentaries were composed in India, the evidence does not support this. We can really only say that this is evidence for the text in 8th-12th Century Tibet. It is not evidence for the presence of the Heart Sutra in India. Rather, the earliest evidence for the text anywhere near India is a 13th Century Nepalese ms., Cambridge ADD 1680 (see my transcription of this ms).

We know that there are many copies of the Heart Sutra at Dunhuang, including many in Tibetan. Both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists were capable of composing the extended version, taking it to Tibet. We can only hope that someone studies these texts at some point (I have a conference paper on this issue by Ben Nourse that is not for publication, but Nourse has not returned to the topic of the Heart Sutra at Dunhuang). I think this would be a great PhD topic for someone well versed in Tibetan and Chinese. 

If I write this up for publication at some point, I'll need to look at Mokṣala's translation of the Large Sutra as well. 

This is all confirmation of the revisionist history of the Heart Sutra proposed by Nattier and which has been my main focus for eight years. The Heart Sutra was not composed in Sanskrit. It was composed, probably by Xuanzang, in Chinese, using excerpts from Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation. Xuanzang added a dhāraṇī onto the end of the text. No one at the time confused this for a mantra until the monk who translated the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit made the mistake of translating zhòu 咒 as mantra. Once that happened and the fraud was successful, everyone started thinking of the gate gate dhāraṇī as the gate gate mantra



Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

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

Karashima Seishi. 2010. A Glossary of Lokakṣema's Translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: IRIAB, Soka University.

Karashima Seishi. 2011. Critical edition of Lokakṣema's translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: IRIAB, Soka University.

Kimura, Takayasu. 2009. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin.

Vaidya, P.L. 1960. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Gretil Archive, 2014. Including Karashima, S. (2013) On the "Missing" Portion in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. ARIRIAB, 16: 189-192).

Note: I had made some statements about mantra in the Prajñāpāramitā in the past when Alexander O'Neill wrote to me in February 2018. He challenged my conclusions, which admittedly were based on a rather cursory reading and my Pāli bias. I have had in the back of my mind to do a close reading of the relevant passages since then but have only just gotten around to it. My thanks to Alexander for prompting me to go the extra mile and look closely at the details (wherein the Devil lurks). 
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