31 July 2020

The Extended Heart Sutra: Enter Avalokiteśvara

We now move on to Paragraph E in Silk's study of the Tibetan Text. Please note my published corrections for this passage in Conze's edition (Attwood 2015). Also note that the same sentence appears in another variant in Paragraph I of Silk's edition.

In Recension One (R1) this passage involves a variant on the first paragraph of the standard text, in which Avalokiteśavara does the Prajñāpāramitā practice and notices the five branches of experience are absent. Note that in R1 there is no interaction between the Buddha and Avalokiteśavara. I will discuss Recension Two (R2) separately because the subject matter is so different there is no comparison. Overall there is a considerable amount of variation that is difficult to explain.

The following translations reflect my conclusions, so if they are different than you expect it might be explained in the following notes (or it might just be a mistake).

Recension One
T 253. 爾時眾中有菩薩摩訶薩,名觀自在。行深般若波羅蜜多時,照見五蘊皆空,離諸苦厄。
Moreover, at that time, in that congregation there was a bodhisatva-mahāsatva named Avalokiteśvara. When he practiced the profound Prajñāpāramitā he examined the five skandhas [and saw they were] all absent, and he was separated from all suffering and misery.

T 254. 時眾中有一菩薩摩訶薩名,觀世音自在行甚深般若波羅蜜多行時,照見五蘊自性皆空。離諸苦厄。
Moreover, at that time, in that congregation there was a bodhisatva-mahāsatva named Avalokiteśvara. When he practiced the profound Prajñāpāramitā he examined the five skandhas [and saw they were] all void of self-existence (自性), and [he] was separated from all suffering and misery.

T 255. 復於爾時,觀自在菩薩摩訶薩行深般若波羅蜜多時,觀察照見五蘊體性悉皆是空。
At that time, when Guānzìzài bodhisatva mahāsatva practiced the deep prajñāpāramitā, he examined and saw the five skandhas [and] their [self?] nature is, without exception, is absent.

T 257. 時,觀自在菩薩摩訶薩在佛會中,而此菩薩摩訶薩已能修行甚深般若波羅蜜多,觀見五蘊自性皆空。
Then, Guānzìzài bodhisatva mahāsatva dwelled amidst the assembly, and this bodhisatva mahāsatva was already capable of practising the very profound perfection of gnosis; he examined the five skandhas [and saw] the absence of essence (svabhāva).

Skt. tena ca samayena āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisatvo mahāsatvo gambhīrāyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caryāṃ caramāṇaḥ evaṃ vyavalokayati sma pañca skandhāṃs tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyaṃ vyavalokayati [sma].
At that time, Ārya Avalokiteśvara bodhisatva mahāsatva practicing the practice with respect to the deep perfection of gnosis examined the five skandhas and [saw]* them as essenceless.

*reading vyavalokayati as paśyati sma

TibA. yang de'i tshe byang chub sems dpa' sems dpa' chen po 'phags pa spyan ras gzigs dbang phyug shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo spyod pa nyid la rnam par lta zhing / phung po lnga po de dag la yang rang bzhin gyis stong par rnam par lta'o//
Now, at that time, the bodhisatva mahāsatva Ārya Avalokiteśvara, observing the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom, observed that even the five aggregates are intrinsically empty.

TibB. yang de'i tshe byang chub sems dpa' sems dpa' chen po / 'phags pa spyan ras gzigs dbang phyug shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo spyod par rnam par blta ste / phung po lnga po dag la de dag ngo bo nyid kyis stong par rnam par blta'o//
Now, at that time, the bodhisatva mahāsatva Ārya Avalokiteśvara, observed the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom, and with respect to five aggregates observed that they are intrinsically empty.



T 253 and 254 have an extra phrase: lí zhū kǔ è 離諸苦厄 "apart/removed from all suffering and misery" means much the same as dù yīqiè kǔ è 度一切苦厄 "transcended all suffering and misery" in std text. Note that 苦厄 can be taken as one word (suffering) or two (misery and suffering).

The extra phrase is present in the Fangshan Stele, crafted in 661 CE (within about five years of the composition of the text) so we take it to be part of the original text. No other versions of the extended text in any language have this phrase and nor does any Sanskrit text, standard or extended. The translations of T 253 and 254 were, therefore, influenced by the standard text where other Chinese versions were not. We might infer in these cases that the translators understood the standard text to be authoritative.

Examining the Five Skandhas

The extended text has the same difference in sentence structure between the Chinese and Sanskrit texts that we see in the standard texts. In Sanskrit we have three verbal forms: caramāṇa, vyavalokayati sma, and vyavalokayati sma (Std and Para I: paśyati sma) but in Chinese we only have two: xíng 行 = caramāṇa and zhàojiàn 照見 = vyavalokayati sma.

Zhàojiàn 照見 doesn't really make sense as two standalone characters: zhào 照 means "shining, radiant; illuminate, make visible; reflection" and jiàn 見 is the usual verb "to see". This has led to some very odd translations such as "illuminatingly sees", where zhào 照 functions as an adverb. This is far from satisfactory and there is no consensus on how to translate it. If the two characters are a binomial reflecting the Sanskrit vyava√lok then we still have a problem with this as one phrase because the conclusion doesn't fit the premise.

I would like to propose a solution (suggested by the Sanskrit translation), which is that zhàojiàn wǔyùn jiē kōng 照見五蘊皆空 is, in fact, two phrases zhàojiàn wǔyùn 照見五蘊 "[he] examined the fives skandhas" and jiē kōng 皆空 "all void". The latter is minimal and requires us to interpolate much that we would naturally write in English or Sanskrit. Firstly it is implied that the skandhas were void or absent. Secondly the verb "to see" is implied by the context of the initial zhàojiàn 照見. If one looks, one sees something. All this can be left out in written medieval Chinese. Knowing that Sanskrit did not have this kind of flexibility, the Translator specified the verb paśyati sma. i.e. tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyan paśyati sma "And he saw them as lacking essence". I read the object here as tām "them" and svabhāvaśūnyan is a predicate of the object: so the basic sentence is tām paśyati "he saw them"

T 255 complicates matters somewhat: guānchá zhàojiàn wǔyùn tǐ xìng xījiē shì kōng 觀察照見五蘊體性悉皆是空. Guānchá 觀察 would seem to be a synonym of zhàojiàn 照見 and jiē kōng 皆空 is expanded out to tǐ xìng xījiē shì kōng 體性悉皆是空 "self-nature, without exception, is absence". Here tǐ xìng 體性 conveys svabhāva. In the standard Chinese text what Avalokiteśvara sees is jiē kōng 皆空 "all empty" or "all absent".

T 254 and T 257 also pick up the Sanskrit idea that the five skandhas are void of essence (i.e. svabhā-vaśunyan; zì xìng自性). It's possible T 255 intended this but a character got dropped because the text only has characteristic (xìng 性) but there are no text critical notes in the Taishō so this is speculative. T 253 has the same text as the standard version, i.e. jiē kōng 皆空.


The Sanskrit has gambhīrāyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caryāṃ caramāṇaḥ but from the standard text we expect gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇaḥ. Is this a mistake? And if so, what kind of mistake is it?
  1. is gambhīra an adjective of prajñāpāramitā or caryā?
  2. should prajñāpāramitā or caryā be compounded?
In Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā I can find many occasions on which gambhīra is obviously an adjective of prajñāpāramitā but none in which is it an adjective of caryā.

The present participle caramāṇa is not used in either Aṣṭasāhasrikā or Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, probably because it is the ātmanepada* (middle voice) form of the present participle and √car is usually parasmaipada (indicative), so that the expected present participle is carant (nominative singular caran) and this is the form we find throughout the two main Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Although note that caramāṇa is found in the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā (not translated into Chinese till the 11th Century), the Mahāvastu, and in many Pāli suttas (although the of the ātmanepada conjugations generally in Pāli is minimal).
*ātmanepada verbs are used to refer to actions directed towards the speaker (ātmane) and parasmaipada verbs used to refer to actions directed towards another (parasmai). Although the semantic distinction is virtually lost in Classical Sanskrit, the conjugations remain and have to be learned.

With verbs of practice or training prajñāpāramitā regularly takes the locative, because it is the locus of that activity, i.e. prajñāpāramitāyāṃ śikṣitavyam, "he should train in perfect gnosis" and prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caran, "practicing in perfect gnosis". Etc.

In this context caryā means the program of practice of a bodhisatva (i.e. bodhisatvacaryā) which has several formulaic descriptions. The prajñāpāramitā-caryā is the program of practice associated with prajñāpāramitā which, thanks to Matt Orsborn, we now associate with the yoga of nonapprehension (anupalambhayoga).


The Tibetan rnam par lta would appear to be a counterpart of the Sanskrit vyavalokayati sma. And both TibA and TibB have this verb repeated when TibA has rnam par lta and TibB has rnam par blta, neither of which seems to be right. All Jonathan Silk (1994: 34) says about this is:
"Although grammars (for example Inaba 1986: 137) state that lta is a present and blta a future, if there is any correspondence with the Sanskrit we might expect blta (rather than the stipulated bltas) to be a past."
Inaba Shōju's study of classical Tibetan grammar is written in Japanese. So I cannot check to confirm this citation. But other sources confirm this observation. For example South Coblin (1976: 48) gives the paradigm as:
present: lta; perfect: bltas; future: blta; imperative: ltos.
Miller (1970) confirms but notes that some variations occur. The final-s is typical of the perfect, but not universal. Silk didn't offer any further explanation of the forms lta or blta in the Tibetan text when we expect bltas in both. He didn't resolve the problem but in his translations he translated what he expected to see (i.e. the past tense). This is odd because Silk is usually so particular and accurate, and his job as editor was to explain and resolve exactly this kind of problem. We're left with two recensions in Tibetan both seemingly with a different wrong tense (unless we read blta as a past perfect).

Note also that both TibA and TibB incorrectly separate out "closely examined" rnam par bltas from "the five skandhas" phung po lnga po with a punctuation marker or chad (/)
EDIT 6-8-20 A reader familiar with Tibetan suggests that the difference here is not so significant. blta and lta are pronounced the same. He suggests that since the time frame is established using the present form is understood as referring to the same period. 

Also in TibA, what on earth is zhing in the phrase rnam par lta zhing phung po lnga po?
EDIT 6-8-20 : according to a reader zhing here is "and". Which makes sense.

The mistake of having vyavalokayati sma twice when we expect paśyati sma the second time is also repeated here, though not in Paragraph I.

Recension Two

At this point R2 (T 252) is so different from R1 that we have to discuss it separately.
At that time, Avalokiteśvara bodhisatva mahāsatva was abiding seated with the others; rising up from his seat amidst the congregation, he went to visit the Bhagavan, on one side he joined his palms, bowed respectfully, gazing respectfully at the honoured face, he said this to the Buddha:
“Bhagavan, I want to preach to the bodhisattvas in this congregation the universal knowledge store, the heart of prajñāpāramitā. My only wish, Bhagavan, is that they will listen to me as I proclaim this exceptional (祕 ) summary of Dharma (法要).
At that time, the Bhagavan, using the wondrous Brahma voice, addressed Avalokiteśvara bodhisatva mahāsatva: “Sādhu. Sādhu, Mahākaruṇika. May they listen to your preaching and their congregations grow and be greatly illuminated.”
When this [was said], Avalokiteśvara bodhisatva mahāsatva, having received the permission of the Buddha, through the Buddha’s mindfulness, entered the wisdom light samādhi.
After he entered [samādhi] and settled, through the power of the samādhi practising the deep Prajñāpāramitā, he examined the five skandhas, each absent self-existence (自性).
Clearly this is not simply a variation on the same text. There is considerable variation in R1 but the versions are all apparently related, if only by similarity to the Std text. However, this story is very different. The Buddha is not in samādhi when Avalokiteśvara approaches him and they have a brief conversation which is entirely absent in R1 (consistent with the Buddha being in samādhi). Avalokakiteśvara seeks the Buddha's permission to teach and having been granted permission, it is he (Avalokiteśvara) that enters samādhi and has the insight that informs the rest of the text.

At this point the narrative (such as it is) begins to converge with R1, in that Avalokiteśvara converses with Śāriputra who asks a question and the reply constitutes the standard Heart Sutra.

My preliminary conclusion is that this is a separate attempt to extend the Heart Sutra. As we will see this thesis is supported by observations of the extended conclusion as well.


We see a lot more significant variation in this part of text and this entails developing more sophisticated explanations to account for them. I have sketched out some ideas of how we adapt the existing exegesis of this part of the extended text and the corresponding part of the standard text. In the case of the standard Heart Sutra, I think this helps to explain the differences between the Sanskrit translation and the Chinese source at this point in the text.

Chinese leaves out the verb meaning "see" because it is implied by the previous zhàojiàn 照見 "he examined". The Sanskrit and Tibetan texts definitely have the wrong verb (vyavalokayati for paśyati) but the canonical texts also seem to give this verb in the wrong tense, i.e. lta/blta, when we expect bltas. Although there is some suggestion that the final -s is sometimes left off the perfect making it look like a future.

I want to come back to the issue of the substitution of svabhāvaśūnyan for śūnyatā. In fact, the phrase svabhāvaśūnyan is absent from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā. What we do find is the list of eighteen or twenty kinds of śūnyatā (we are concerned with 16, 17, and 18)
  1. Absence of internal dharmas (adhyātma-śūnyatā)
  2. Absence of external dharmas (bahirdhā-śūnyatā).
  3. Absence of internal-external dharmas (adhyātmabahirdhā-śūnyatā).
  4. Absence of absences (śūnyatā-śūnyatā).
  5. Great absence (mahā-śūnyatā).
  6. Absence of the absolute (paramārtha-śūnyatā).
  7. Emptimes of conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛta-śūnyatā).
  8. Absence of the unconditioned dharma (asaṃskṛta-śūnyatā).
  9. Limitless absence (atyanta-śūnyatā).
  10. Absence of dharmas without end or beginning (anavarāgra-śūnyatā).
  11. Absence of non-dispersed dharmas (anavakāra-śūnyatā). Sometimes avakāra-śūnyatā, avakārānavakāra-śūnyatā.
  12. Absence of natures (prakṛti-śūnyatā).
  13. Absence of all dharmas (sarvadharma-śūnyatā).
  14. Absence of specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa-śūnyatā).
  15. Absence of non-apprehension (anupalambha-śūnyatā).
  16. Absence of non-being (abhāva-śūnyatā).
  17. Absence of being (svabhāva-śūnyatā).
  18. Absence of non-being and of being (abhāvasvabhāva-śūnyatā).
Here svabhāva is not being used in the Madhyamaka sense but as a contrast to abhāva "non-being". That is to say that svabhāva appears to be used in the sense of sabhāva "with bhāva" and abhāva means "without bhāva". In the list of four kinds of śūnyatā, svabhāva "self-being" is contrasted with parabhāva, literally "other-being"

But Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā is constantly telling us not to take these as metaphysics, for example:
abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatāyāṃ na saṃvidyate nopalabhyate, abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatāpi yāvad adhyātmaśūnyatāyāṃ na saṃvidyate nopalabhyate. (PvsP1-2: 146)
"... the absence of being and non-being does not perceive or apprehende the absence of being and non-being nor are the other kinds of absence perceived or apprehended."
In other words whether or not something exists is not distinguished when all sense experience has stopped. Similarly with respect to the list of four kinds of absence, the Upadeśa says (using Lamotte's reconstruction of the Sanskrit):
  1. bhāvo bhāvena śūnyaḥ " being is absent from being"
  2. abhāvo ‘bhāvena śūnyaḥ " non-being is absent from non-being"
  3. svahāvaḥ svabhāvena śūnyaḥ "one's own being is absent from one's own being"
  4. parabhāvaḥ parabhāvena śūnyaḥ "the being of others is absent from the being of others"
We have to keep in mind that in all these discussions the point of view is that of the meditator who has undergone cessation (nirodha) and is dwelling the absence of sense experience (śūnyatā). This is an attempt at a phenomenological description presented in terms of an Iron Age religious worldview.

Given that the extended text is a third generation born from the Chinese Heart Sutra, we might expect a little less variation on the one hand and less slavish copying of mistakes on the other. We have to keep in mind that the number of people who knew any Sanskrit in China at any one time was always small and most of them would not have progressed much beyond beginners level.

The leap from having Chinese as a mother tongue to learning Sanskrit as a second language in adulthood is formidable. The two languages are about as different as human languages can be from each other. We see this in the differences between the Chinese phrase jiē kōng 皆空and the Sanskrit translation: tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyan paśyati sma. Although we now understand that we expected tāṃś ca śūnyatā paśyati sma. It is not the case that Sanskrit has rules and Chinese does not. Chinese simply has very different rules from Sanskrit. Something else to keep in mind is that the texts we encounter are literary and are unlikely to reflect how anyone spoke in any language at the time.



South Coblin, W. 'Notes on Tibetan Verbal Morphology.' T'oung Pao (Second Series). 62(1/3): 45-70.

Miller, Roy Andrew. (1970) 'A Grammatical Sketch of Classical Tibetan.' Journal of the American Oriental Society, 90(1): 74-96.

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