05 June 2020

Did The Heart Sutra Ever Go To India?

For the longest time it was assumed that the Heart Sutra was composed in India, a product of the larger Prajñāpāramitā movement. The conventional wisdom was that Buddhism flowed in only one direction along the Silk Road, from India to China. Edward Conze placed the composition of the Heart Sutra in about the 4th Century, along with the Diamond Sutra, as part of a trend of abbreviation. This picture has completely fallen apart. Every detail of it has been contradicted by subsequent research.

Rather, the Heart Sutra is a Chinese text, composed, in the mid seventh century, mainly of passages copied from Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation, with a spell from the Dhāraṇīsamucaya. Importantly, it now seems certain that the Heart Sutra was composed after Xuanzang returned from his pilgrimage so, whatever his involvement, he could not have spread the text to India. So the questions of who did spread the text and when remains open. There is also the question of who added the opening and closing passages of the extended text.

I'd been wondering about what evidence there was of the Heart Sutra in India. To the best of my knowledge, the oldest "Indian" document is the Nepalese hooked-script palm-leaf manuscript (Cambridge ADD 1680) dated on paleographical grounds to the 13th Century. The evidence for the text in India prior to this turns out to be preserved only in Tibetan, in the form of a translation of the extended text attributed to Vimalamitra (pictured above) and several commentaries that are attributed to Indians who travelled to Tibet.

The Indo-Tibetan Commentaries

In 1988, Donald Lopez published The Heart Sūtra Explained, a study of seven Heart Sutra commentaries preserved in Tibetan. These were composed by authors with Indian names or whose biographies refer to them as Indian. They are:
  • Kamalaśīla. (c 740-795). Visited Tibet.
  • Vimalamitra. Travelled to Tibet late 8th C. 
  • Atīśa. (ca. 982-1054). Visited Tibet 1042 CE. 
  • Vajrapāṇi. 11th C. Lived in Nepal and later Tibet.
  • Mahājana. Little is known. Visited Tibet 11th C.
  • Praśāstrasena. Nothing is known. 
  • Jñānamitra. Nothing is known.  
Lopez's later book, Elaborations on Emptiness (1996) adds another "Indian" commentary, by Śrīsiṃha, but the author was in fact Chinese born and educated. For my purposes this is not an "Indian" commentary.

Of Praśāstrasena and Jñānamitra we know nothing at all besides being attributed as commentators on the Heart Sutra and, in Jñānamitra's case, one other commentary extant in Tibetan. Lopez (1988: 8-13) considers that neither went to Tibet, but his reason for saying so is an argument from absence, i.e. there is no extant record of their presence in Tibet. Of course this does make it less likely that they went to Tibet, but arguments from absence are weak. The men who were recorded got swept up in Tibetan politics, so perhaps the others simply kept a low profile. 

The rest—Vimalamitra, Vajrapāṇi, Kamalaśīla, Atīśa, Mahājana—are all recorded as having visited Tibet although such traditions may date from centuries after the events. Of these, Vimalamitra and Kamalaśīla are considerably earlier than the others, both men having lived in the 8th Century. The Tibetan Kanjur credits the translation of the Heart Sutra to Vimalamitra and it is to him that I now want to turn.


Joel Gruber, whose doctoral dissertation was on the biography of Vimalamitra (2016) outlines the salient facts for a website called The Treasury of Lives. However, "biography" is a term that can only be used loosely in this context. The story of Vimalamitra is a hagiography, a religious legend rather than a reliable historical account. Such stories were never intended as history. Rather, they celebrate religious values, or they reinforce the perceived exceptionalism of particular forms of Buddhism (in this case, Dzogchen), or they serve a political purpose such as linking a figure to a lineage as part of a legitimation strategy. Gruber likens biographies of Buddhist saints to modern day superhero movies, except that secular leaders do not claim to have superman in their lineage.

These "Lives" play the role of what Joseph Bulbulia has called “charismatic signalling.” The primary purpose of charismatic signalling is to provide a way to “align prosocial motivations” in large religious movements: “Charismatic culture supports cooperative outcomes by aligning powerful emotions, motivations, and intentions among potentially anonymous partners, toward collective goals” (Attwood 2019). The goals of communities vary and, in Tibet, local cultural norms were every bit as influential as introduced Buddhist (specifically Tantric, and Dzogchen) norms.

Because each community reworked the story to suit their needs, there is a great deal of variety in the details of the hagiographies. And some of the stories were only codified centuries after the putative events of the putative characters' lives. So we have to use these stories judiciously. As Gruber notes of Vimalamitra, who is thought to have been active in the 8th Century:
"Vimalamitra’s biography began to take shape in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, during the formative years of a distinctly emerging Nyingma tradition." The Treasury of Lives
Despite his apparently important role in early Tibetan Buddhism, Vimalamitra is not written about for 400 years. Two commentarial texts are widely accepted as attributable to Vimalamitra:
"Despite these concerns, the legitimacy of two of Vimalamitra’s works found in the early imperial catalogues of texts, The Extensive Commentary to the Heart Sūtra (shes rab snying po’i rgya cher 'grel pa) and The Commentary to the Seven Hundred Stanza Prajñāpāramitā (shes rab kyi pha rol du phyin pa bdun brgya pa'i 'grel pa), remains near certain."
That is to say, his role as Indian saint and magical progenitor of Dzogchen is primary for those who wrote his biography, but Gruber infers a kernel of historical fact. On the other hand:
"We know that texts were attributed to Vimalamitra to establish the Indic pedigree of Nyingma texts that were labeled either too Tibetan or Chinese" (Gruber 2016: 98)
As flawed as Reggie Ray's Buddhist Saints in India is, the basic of idea of the life of a saint following a template is correct. It's just that each religious community seemed to work from a slightly different version of the template. Unfortunately, this means that the undisputed facts are slim. And I say, unfortunately, only because the point of his essay is historical and the ahistorical hagiographical stories are the only sources we have.


According to the medieval Tibetan sources, Vimalamitra was an Indian Buddhist born in Western India who studied Tantric Buddhism in Bodhagāyā (which is in Eastern India). Gruber notes that Chinese sources on Vimalamitra contradict this and refer to Vimalamitra as Tibetan, but the Chinese stories were every bit as ahistorical.

A relatively late detail makes him a student of the foremost Tantric exegete of the day, Buddhaguhya (also roughly 8th Century), but this seems to have been interpolated to boost his credentials. Vimalamitra excelled in his studies along with his Dharma brother Jñānasūtra. The two play foundational roles in the mythology of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. One night both had a dream in which Vajrasatva directed them to travel to China to study with Śrīsiṃha (more on him below). Vimalamitra and Jñānasūtra both journey to China, but they are separated.
"While returning to India following his stay in China, [Vimalamitra] encountered his dharma brother, Jñānasūtra, to whom he revealed some of his experiences and realizations under the tutelage of Śrī Siṃha, thus persuading Jñānasūtra also to pack his bowl and seek this most profound doctrine in China." The Treasury of Lives
Gruber comments that "The series of events that follow mark a peculiar development that seems intended to elevate Jñānasūtra to a position of lineal authority over Vimalamitra." In other words the story is not simply a hagiography, but it also has a normative, even political agenda.

Meanwhile, Vimalamitra's hagiography now intersects with the hagiography of the first Buddhist king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan, c.742-c.796). The king sets out to attract Indian paṇḍitas to his kingdom and Vimalamitra is one of those who answer the call. In keeping with Tibetan myth, there is local opposition, which Vimalamitra overcomes through manifesting his magical powers (he reduces a statue to ash and then reconstitutes it).

Little is known about Srīsiṃha (Lopez 1996: 12). He is said by Tibetans to have been born in China and to have studied at Mt Wutai before travelling to Bodhgāyā in India. Srīsiṃha was a teacher to Vairocana, who was one of the first Tibetan students of Śāntarakṣita in Tibet. Kamalaśīla was an Indian student of Śāntarakṣita. He is said to have been murdered after defeating a Chinese Chan master in debate in Tibet. So these figures are all closely tied to the early dissemination of Buddhism to Tibet. Srīsiṃha seems not to have gone to Tibet himself. Vimalamitra is credited with the translation of the version of the Heart Sutra in the Kanjur. But we have no idea how legitimate this attribution is.

I now want to back-track and consider the idea that Vimalamitra went to China, since if he did visit China he could have picked up the Heart Sutra there. 

The China Connection

This detail of Vimalamitra travelling to China to study tantra should strike us as odd. Joel Gruber comments in his PhD dissertation, "As far as I am aware, there is not another instance in which an Indian Buddhist departs the birthplace of the Dharma in order to study more efficacious Buddhist meditative techniques in China" (2016: 61). So how credible is this odd detail? Dylan Esler says:
"Although Chinese sources consider Vimalamitra (Ch. P'i mo la) to be a Tibetan, his Indian origin is more likely, since most of his works are written in a distinctly Indian scholastic style, and his association with the tantric movement is sufficient to explain his attraction to the simultaneous approach without making him a proponent of Ch'an." (37)
It's not entirely clear which Chinese sources Esler is referring to. We do know that Xuanzang refers to a man whose name is transliterated as Pímòluó-mìduōluó 毘末羅蜜多羅 and means "Stainless-friend (Wúgòu yǒu 無垢友) which is what vimala-mitra means (Records of the Western Region. T 2087, 51: 892b4). However,
"Xuanzang’s Vimalamitra was the circa seventh-century Kaśmīri scholar accused of being a proponent of the Hīnayāna and an enemy of the Mahāyāna. The Vimalamitra who wrote the Commentary to the Seven Hundred Stanzas and Commentary to the Heart Sūtra was clearly an advocate of the Mahāyāna. (Gruber 2016: 102-3)
Clearly more than one person was called Vimalamitra. There seem to have been two distinct individuals:
  1. Vimalamitra (I) was a Kashmiri Ābhidharmika whom Xuanzang might have met in India. 
  2. Vimalamitra (II) an early Dzogchen practitioner later associated with Nyingma and Śrīsiṃha.
Gruber notes that Giuseppe Tucci and Paul Demiéville tried to link the two but they lived a century apart and this is not credible. We know from my previous research that the Heart Sutra was composed after Xuanzang's return to China and after 654 when Atikūṭa translated the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya. Vimalamitra's commentary is largely concerned with the bodhisatva-yāna but he does cite the Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi aka the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, the earliest systematic tantra that Stephen Hodge dates to ca 640 or a little earlier (2003: 11). Vimalamitra's visit to Tibet seems to be in the 790s.

The connection of Vimalamitra (II) to China turns out to be a late, and highly improbable, attempt to connect him with Śrīsiṃha for the purposes of strengthening the particular Dzogchen lineage he had become associated with. And this seems to be the main purpose of the Vimalamitra (II) character. Gruber continues:
"A majority of Vimalamitra’s earliest biographies, dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries... make no mention of the trip to China featured within the Great History. In response to [the Nyingtik tantras] low profile in India, the Great History informs the reader that the only copies of the Dzokchen tantras,which originated in India, were in China with Śrī Siṃha." (Gruber 2016: 99). 
I recently discovered the late John McRae's (2003) Rules of Zen Studies, the third of which is Precision implies inaccuracy. In this view, numbers, dates, and details are literary tropes. Details supplied are a function of temporal distance from the events. This rule clearly applies also to this Dzogchen lineage and to the Heart Sutra in general. Over time, Buddhists add details, clarify vagueness, specify relationships, and smooth over contradictions. Later stories are full of the kinds of details that lull historians into a false sense of security, while the earlier stories, though more accurate, are so imprecise as to be useless for the purposes of historiography. This detail of this trip to China is not credible. This is unfortunate because, at least in China, Vimalamitra stood a chance of finding a copy of the Heart Sutra.

The Extended Heart Sutra

To the best of my knowledge no comparative study have been made of the extended version of the Heart Sutra. Thus we don't as yet know if the extra parts of the text were composed in Sanskrit or in Chinese. We don't know if the origins of it are discernable. This is yet another basic research task that the Buddhist Studies community has neglected. The overall research program is completely haphazard. 

Perhaps the strangest part of the Heart Sutra story is not that a Chinese non-sūtra was accepted as an Indian sūtra by 661 CE through the production of a forged Sanskrit text and the attribution of the "translation" to Xuanzang. The strangest part is that anyone would take this version of the Heart Sutra that is accepted as a sūtra and make the effort to turn it into a sūtra by adding the missing parts that Chinese Buddhists were willing to overlook. Thus it is often assumed that the nidāna, etc, must have been added for the Indian market if not by an actual Indian.

We just keep assuming that the text has a connection with India. Chinese Buddhists accepted that the Heart Sutra was Indian despite the fact that the text fails the basic test of sutrahood - does not start evaṃ maya srotraṃ, doesn't specify the occasion, does not feature the Buddha speaking or endorsing the speech of another, and does not feature the audience venerating the teaching. Of course this did strike 19th Century Western scholars as odd but Asian Buddhists seemed very certain about it. We can now see that the Chinese Buddhist community were duped into believing the Heart Sutra to be Indian by the forgery of the Sanskrit text (I presume a physical document was produced) and the attribution of the "translation" to Xuanzang who had been to India.

Because the standard text does lack the basic features of a sūtra no one is surprised to find a version of the text in which these missing features have been supplied. It is assumed, again that these details were supplied in India. One argument would be that it is not surprising that the Chinese would not add these details because they accepted the standard text as authentic. But one could equally argue that the discomfort with the lack lingered. We have noted that Chinese Buddhists continued to add details to the Heart Sutra myth, including a forged "earlier" translation by Kumārajīva that is first mentioned in 730 CE. The tension caused by this pseudo-sūtra seems to have taken some time to wear off.

No one seems to have considered that another place where the tension of the missing details would have been strongly felt was Tibet. And, unlike India, Tibet shares a border with China. After the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) Tibetans occupied Dunhuang and remained in power there until 848. Note that this period covers the presumed time-frame of Vimalamitra (And Kamalaśīla). As a consequence, many Tibetan texts were found in the library cave at Dunhuang. We've known for at least 35 years that copies of the standard Heart Sutra text in Tibetan exist amongst the Dunhuang cache of texts (Zwalf 1985. See also the transcription of British Library Or.8212/77 by Joy Vriens). Tibetan versions of the standard text were not included in the Tibetan Canon. Also found at Dunhuang are a variety of versions of the extended text as well as texts that are hybrids of two.

Perhaps a Tibetan added the missing details? And when the Indians went to Tibet they encountered the new text there.

Is there any evidence linking the Heart Sutra to India?

Indian Evidence

We have all taken the Tibetan versions of the "Indian" commentaries as evidence for the Heart Sutra in India in the 8th Century. Where we know anything at all about the men involved, we know that they went to Tibet and little more. What does this tell us about India? We are assuming that they all encountered the text in India but there is no documentary evidence of the text in India at any date. The oldest Nepalese manuscript of the extended Heart Sutra is Cambridge ADD 1680 dated to the 13th Century on paleographical grounds.

The earliest dated Chinese translation of the extended version is credited to an Indian monk whose name has been reconstructed as Dharmacandra (T252). The Zhēnyuán Catalogue published ca 800 CE records that Dharmacandra (法月, 653–743) was from Magadha and travelled to China via Kucha arriving in Chang'an in 732 (T. 2157; 878b12–879a5). He is said to have translated the extended Heart Sutra ca 741 CE, the same year he left China for Khotan/Kashgar (where he died in 743). Khotan is on the northern border of Tibet. Although he is said to have arrived in China with texts, he was only able to translate them with the help of his local disciple Lìyán (利言). Who is to say that he did not encounter the text in Central Asia or China? 

In fact, the nidāna of T 252 is very different from the other Chinese translations, the extant Sanskrit, and the Tibetan recensions. They all mention a bodhisatvasaṃgha (an unusual term) but T 252 also uniquely gives the numbers of bhikṣus (100,000) and bodhisatvas (77,000) present. Dharmacandra's final passage is also much shorter and different in structure to all the other versions. So at least two recensions of the extended Heart Sutra exist, not counting the hybrid texts from Dunhuang. It is possible that the missing details were supplied more than once, but that one version became the standard.

Donald Lopez says:
"Among the esoteric teachings given by Śrīsiṃha to Vairocana, which he in turn gave to [King Trisong Detsen], is [his] tantric commentary on the Heart Sutra, further testifying to its wide appeal in Pāla India, even among tantric yogins" (1996: 13).
If I am right, then this story is the only reference to the Heart Sutra in India, since of the other commentators only Śrīsiṃha did not go to Tibet. On the other hand, Ṣrīsiṃha was in fact Chinese and studied Buddhism in China, and we now know the Heart Sutra was Chinese. And this is a precise detail that implies temporal distance and inaccuracy! Contra Lopez, we know that the text was popular in Pāla-era Tibet but we have no historical evidence whatever of the text in Pāla India whether amongst yogins or anyone. 

There's a special form of bias called the street light effect. In the old story, a man is looking for his keys under the street light. It turns out that he probably dropped his keys elsewhere but he is looking under the street light because that is where the light is. Dunhuang is where the light is. Not only was it an important centre of Buddhism and textual copying during the Tang and Song, but the dry desert environment ensured the survival of artefacts. A large collection of extant documents draws our attention, especially when there is a distinct lacks of texts from India because of the disappearance of Buddhism from India coinciding with the decline and fall of the Pāla Dynasty and the rise of Muslim rulers in Northern India in the 12th Century. 

Still, it is important to consider that, during the very period that Buddhism was being spread to Tibet, Tibetans occupied Dunhuang and much of Gansu, keeping the Chinese out of Central Asia for around 80 years. During the occupation, Tibetans were not only interested the Heart Sutra, as we can see from the many copies they made, but they also tinkered with the text, producing new versions of it. The so-called Indian commentaries are attributed to people who are either unknown to us for any other reason and about whom we literally know nothing, or they are figures whose biographies have been elaborated long after the time when they were supposed to have lived. There is, in fact, no direct evidence of the Heart Sutra from India itself.


Long habit has us associate the Heart Sutra with India. After many years studying the text I'm confident that most of this story is fallacious. The Heart Sutra was composed in China and the Sanskrit text is a forgery. The details of the myth of the Heart Sutra were added later. McRae's third rule of studying Zen—Precision implies inaccuracy—applies.

The "Indian" evidence turns out to be Tibetan evidence. The largely mythical character of Vimalamitra is said to have translated the Heart Sutra and composed a commentary on it. But we know nothing about Vimalamitra with any certainty. His historicity is based on the attribution of these texts to him, so we cannot turn this around and rely on his historicity to authenticate the texts. The attributions are facts but they may not be factual. The texts do exist, but the case of the Heart Sutra is instructive. The Xīnjīng is traditionally thought to be a translation of a Sanskrit text by Xuanzang, but it is not. Xuanzang was probably involved in composing the text, but it was no translation. 

Cambridge manuscript ADD 1680 is dated to the 13th Century, but this is some 500 years after the events which we are seeking to clarify. It doesn't tell us anything. The Dunhuang collections are interesting but under-studied, so it is difficult to draw conclusions. Even so, Dunhuang is nowhere near India and no Sanskrit manuscripts were included in the cache. At the time Vimalamitra was active, Dunhuang was occupied by Tibetans, providing a direct route for the Heart Sutra from China to Tibet.

The historicity of the "Indian" text is rather doubtful. It is certainly not based on any direct evidence. The whole idea of the Heart Sutra in India is really just a series of assumptions. This is not an ontological argument that those assumptions are wrong. Rather, it is an epistemological argument about how we claim to know what we know. Conclusions in the absence of evidence are fatuous. Such evidence as we have has to be interpreted just right in order to support the idea that the text was known in India. And this is not the parsimonious approach. Buddhist Studies is far too reliant on these kinds of assumptions. 

Religious histories and biographies are not objective or neutral. We really need to take a step back and think carefully about the kind of evidence we have available to us on anything related to Buddhism in antiquity. Physical artefacts are few and far between before ca 200-300 CE.  



Bulbulia, J. “Charismatic Signalling.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 3, no.4 (2009): 518-551.

Campany, Robert F. 1991. “Notes in the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sūtra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14(1): 28-72.

Esler, Dylan. 2005. "The Origins and Early History of rDzogs chen." The Tibet Journal 30(3): 33-62.

Gruber, Joel. 2016a. Vimalamitra: The Legend of an Indian Saint and His Tibetan Emanations. PhD Dissertation, UC Santa Barbara.

Gruber, Joel. 2016b. "Becoming Vimalamitra: Manufacturing the Supernatural in Tibetan Buddhism." In Religion: Super Religion, ed. Jeffrey J. Kripal. New York: Macmillan education handbook series.

Gruber, Joel, 2020 "Vimalamitra," Treasury of Lives, accessed May 16, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Vimalamitra/9985.

Hodge, Stephen. The Māhvairocana-Ambhisaṃbodhi Tantra: With Buddhaguhya's Commentary. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Lopez, Donald S. 1988. The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.

Lopez, Donald S. 1996. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University press.

McRae, John R. 2003. Seeing Through Zen. University of California Press.

Sacco, Antonio Maria. 1988. "Biographic Notes on Vimalamitra." The Tibet Journal 13(4): 13-20

Zwalf, W. 1985. Buddhism, Art and Faith. London: British Museum.
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