22 December 2023

How Xuanzang Saw Dhāraṇī


In his writings, D. T. Suzuki seems obsessed by the unwelcome presence of a magical spell in his beloved Heart Sutra. From a long diatribe, this sentence stood out when I read his works some years ago:

Another thing which makes this presence of a Mantram in the Hṛidaya more mystifying is that the concluding Mantram is always recited untranslated as if the very sound of the Sanskrit-Chinese were a miracle working agency. (Suzuki 1971: 229)

He also says the mantra “taken in itself has no meaning, and its vital relation to the Prajñāpāramitā is unintelligible” (1971: 236). Donald Lopez (1988: 120) was more neutral in his assessment:

The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sūtra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sādhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra.

As I noted in Attwood (2017), the spell in the Heart Sutra is not a mantra, it is a dhāraṇī, though the Chinese term zhòu 呪 (or zhòu 咒) is ambiguous. In T 227, for example, Kumārajīva translated the Prajñāpāramitā "epithets" mahāvidyā, anuttarā vidyā, and asamasamā vidyā as dàmíng zhòu 大明呪, shàng míng zhòu 上明呪, and děng děng míng zhòu 等等明呪. When Xuanzang copied these into the Heart Sutra (T 251) the three epithets became four and míng zhòu 明呪 was read as two words or simply reduced to 呪/咒, i.e. dà shén zhòu 大神咒, dà míng zhòu 大明咒, shàng míng zhòu 無上咒, děng děng zhòu 無等等咒.

Note that both shén zhòu 神咒 and míng zhòu 明呪 appear to translate vidyā and it's not clear what Xuanzang was thinking here.

Now, zhòu 呪/咒 on its own is ambiguous. It means "incantation, spell" and could correspond to vidyā as was intended here, or it could be read as dhāraṇī or mantra. Later in the Heart Sutra when it says: jí shuō zhòu yuē 即說咒曰 "the incantation that says:", zhòu 呪/咒 probably does not mean vidyā, it probably means dhāraṇī. Only knowing the original context of the passage in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā makes this clear. (We always knew about this source: it is mentioned in the four earliest Heart Sutra commentaries).

While I have written about mantra and dhāraṇī many times, including my book Visible Mantra, I was aware that there was a gap in my knowledge with respect to Xuanzang's view of dhāraṇī. Since it is my contention that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra and selected the dhāraṇī to include in it, it was with considerable interest that I read the recent publication by Richard D. McBride II:

(2020) "How Did Xuanzang Understand Dhāraṇī?: A View from his translations." Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 3(1): 318-347.

McBride has written about dhāraṇī many times before (e.g. 2005, 2011, 2018) and this new paper is welcome extension of his work in this area. What emerges from this study is a basic idea of how Xuanzang understood dhāraṇī, and thus I can finally make some comments on the function of the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra from his point of view. Partly, I'm pleased because McBride's description could hardly be more perfect for my revisionist history. In cases like this one has to be wary of confirmation bias. However, I think the view that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra is now the only possible conclusion. No other person is so closely associated with the Heart Sutra and, especially after Watanabe (1990), no one else is even in the frame as a suspect. So while we cannot yet prove it, the only viable conjecture is that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra and other evidence shows that this happened around 655 ± 1 year. Where this conjecture contradicts the historically dominant narrative, we can also show that the narrative is at best implausible and at worst simply false. I know of no reliable fact that contradicts this conjecture. I will take it as read, but leave open the possibility that new evidence may emerge implicating someone else.*

* Note that I am aware of recent attempts by Charles Willemen to implicate Zhú Dàoshēng 竺道生 (ca. 360–434), but his repeated publication of the same speculations doesn't amount to anything. He has not made any plausible link to Zhú, just noted a rather vague connection between Zhú and Kumārajīva. His method does not eliminate all the other people who vaguely knew Kumārajīva. Watanabe (1990) thoroughly disproved the idea of early translations now lost and made it clear that T 250 is based on T 251 and therefore composed later. T 250 is not mentioned in the catalogues until 730 CE.

In the work we are considering, McBride (2020) translated and studied seven of Xuanzang's translations of dhāraṇī texts. From these he identified three main purposes for dhāraṇī. However, McBride also discusses the rituals accompanying the use of dhāraṇī, noting that they are generally simple and lack the expected features of Tantric mantras.

A close reading of these seven spell sūtras translated by Xuanzang suggests that the famous translator recognized three interrelated purposes of dhāraṇī: (1) providing benefits and bliss to living beings; (2) furnishing a proficient means of dealing with demonic, illness-causing entities; and (3) producing conditions conducive to advancement on the bodhisattva path. (2020: 320).

The article then explains each of these three purposes or "themes" in more detail. While this essay is partly a review, I will also expand on how I see this fitting into the history of the Heart Sutra.

Before getting into McBride's themes, there two important issues to briefly discuss (here I will expand on McBride's discussion a little, adding my own observations). These are the idea of dhāraṇī as a mnemonic and a traditional four-fold analysis of dhāraṇī

Dhāraṇī as Mnemonic

McBride (2020: 320) notes:

In Xuanzang’s translations, dhāraṇī did not function as codes that encapsulate the doctrine of a sūtra, they were powerful and efficacious spells and incantations.

It is well known that the term dhāraṇī has been used in the sense of "mnemonic". This was related to the term dhāraṇī applied to the acrostics based on the Gāndhārī alphabet: a ra pa ca na etc. These first appeared in Gāndhārī (Melzer 2014) and were transmitted in all kinds of Mahāyāna texts. However, sense was rapidly lost as Gāndhārī was translated into Sanskrit and knowledge of the Gāndhārī alphabet was lost by around the second century. This knowledge was not recovered until Richard Salomon (1990, 1995) published his seminal articles on the topic.

Melzer (2014: 63) describes the first arapacana acrostic "The surviving fragments of the poem praise the achievements and qualities of the Buddha in simple and often repetitive vocabulary." By contrast, the arapacana acrostic in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā is intended to be a meditation practice (see Conze's 1975 lammentable translation, p. 160-2 and 589). Each akṣara (roughly syllable) stands for a word reflecting some aspect of emptiness. For example, the akṣara a expands into the word anutpanna "unarisen" and this in turn expands to the line: akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt "The syllable a is the face of all dharmas because they are originally unarisen".

As I noted in a previous blog post Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation (2017), there seem to be two aspects to prajñā: the actual insight and the preservation or retention of it:

And as a result of having been taught and putting it into practice two things happen. They gain personal insight (sākṣātkurvanti) into (the) nature (dharmatā) and carry it on (dhārayanti).

The root √dhṛ—from which we derive the present indicative form dhārayatimeans "carry, maintain, preserve, practice, undergo." With respect to the mind it can mean "remember". Here we are using the causative form, so the sense is "causing to remember (i.e., memorising)" or "maintenance".

The term dhāraṇī is, at the very least, etymologically related, though we must be wary because Buddhists often used terms in ways not indicated by the etymology. The dhāraṇī then, in some form, reflects the change that is preserved after an insight. And to some extent, this involve remembering the insight. We see a similar contrast between samādhi and dhāraṇī in Prajñāpāramitā.

This mnemonic function is the basis of a Tantric hermeneutic, prominent in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Sūtra and in Kūkai's exegesis of the Heart Sutra. The idea is to analyse mantras not as a string of words but as a string of syllables. Translation is not merely irrelevant here, but changes the syllables and renders the spell useless. Hence we see attempts to preserve the sound using Chinese characters purely for their phonetic value, as in the Heart Sutra dhāraṇī.

Another caveat here is that, while Pāli and Sanskrit contain a number of verbs used to mean "remembering" (e.g. smarati, dharayati, etc), they have no noun meaning "a memory". At least since of Freud, Europeans have understood a memory to be a quasi-independent entity with its own will. Hence the idea that a repressed memory can change our behaviour. All this is absent from Buddhist texts.

All of this is to say, that this mnemonic function of dhāraṇī is not what is going on in the Heart Sutra or the dhāraṇī texts studied by McBride. Although it is very popular, especially with Tantric exegetes, the idea that the dhāraṇī somehow "encodes the message of the text", or has a mnemonic function, is not applicable here.

When Tantric Buddhists adopted the Heart Sutra, they complete recontextualised it. In a sense, this was only possible because the Heart Sutra had no Indian roots and there was no strongly established Prajñāpāramitā interpretation. All exegetes seem to treat the Heart Sutra as a tabula rasa on which they can impose their preferred religious interpretation. In this vein, there is at least one "Christian" interpretation of the Heart Sutra. Anyone can say more or less anything about the Heart Sutra.

The Four Types of Dhāraṇī

A commonly invoked traditional explanation of dhāraṇī is the fourfold analysis found, for example, the Dharmakṣema’s (385–433) translation of the Bodhisattvabhūmi (Pusa dichi jing 菩薩地持經, T no. 1581) and Bodhiruci’s (fl. 508–527) translation of *Daśabhūmika-sūtra-śāstra (Shidijing lun 十地經論, T no. 1522). There are:

  • dharma dhāraṇī (fa tuoluoni 法陀羅尼)
  • meaning dhāraṇī (yi tuoluoni 義陀羅尼)
  • spell dhāraṇī (zhou tuoluoni 呪陀羅尼)
  • acquiescence dhāraṇī (ren tuoluoni 忍陀羅尼) (McBride 2020: 321)

While Xuanzang makes use of this classification elsewhere, and Kuiji (T 1710; 33.542.a13 ff)* references it in his commentary, the dhāraṇī texts being considered here all fall into the third category. As noted, the meaning of zhòu 呪/咒 is ambiguous. It may include vidyā, dhāraṇī, and mantra; as well as any other term for a magical spell. Though as we will see the dhāraṇī texts under consideration are not Tantric in character.

* Note that in the translation of Kuījī's commentary by Shih and Lusthaus (2001) they routinely translate zhòu 呪 as "mantra". In the discussion of the epithets (2001: 122-123), where Kuījī discusses the four kinds of dhāraṇī they temporarily change to translating zhòu 呪 as "dhāraṇī" then they switch back to translating it as "mantra".

Having put these ideas to one side, we can now focus on the attitudes we find in the dhāraṇī texts translated by Xuanzang. However, it becomes apparent that, McBride's three themes substantially overlap:

The Three Themes

(1) Benefits and Bliss

McBride's first theme is the benefits and bliss (lìlè 利樂) of reciting the dhāraṇī:

The most prominent recurring theme in Xuanzang’s translations of dhāraṇī is the idea that dhāraṇī are preached and their associated procedures are explained for the benefit of and to invoke or cause peace and bliss for all living beings. ( McBride 2020: 321)

There are many examples of this. However, we also find McBride (2020: 324) saying of the benefits:

Xuanzang’s translation emphasizes that the possession and preservation of the spell renders the one who chants it or carried it on his body invincible and unassailable to natural calamities, demonic infestations, weapons, poisons, curses, and unsolicited spells used against someone.

That is to say, protection from demons, which he treats as a separate theme, is included as a benefit and could be cogently discussed under this heading also. In the Sūtra on the Dhāraṇī for Bearing Banners and Seals (Sheng chuangbeiyin tuoluoni jing 勝幢臂印陀羅尼經, T no. 1363), we find this passage:

O World-Honored One, because we desire [to give] benefits and bliss to all sentient beings, we seek to realize unsurpassed, perfect bodhi, to have compassionate vows pervade our thoughts, and accomplish equal enlightenment (dengzhengjue 等正覺). (McBride 2020: 322)

Again, this appears to invoke the third theme of the dhāraṇī assisting one on the bodhisatva path. We have to think of the themes as closely related and overlapping. Another representative passage cited by McBride (325) also shows the cross over:

If good sons and good daughters preserve [this dhāraṇī] and preach it for others with an utmost mind (sincere mind), all unwholesome ghosts, gods, dragons, yakṣas, humans-yet-not-humans, and so forth, will not be able to harm [them]. All manner of beneficial and blissful matters will increase day and night.

So some of the principal "benefits" (利) of dhāraṇī practice are precisely the second and third themes, protection from demons, and making progress on the bodhisatva path.

(2) Demons and Disease

This theme reflects an ancient worldview. As McBride (326) says

In India and Central Asia, as well as China and East Asia, illness and disease were generally believed to be caused by all manner of spirits, demons, and creatures.

This use of dhāraṇī is not limited to monks. Even lay people can employ dhāraṇī texts for this purpose (McBride 2020: 328). This particular use also incorporates fire rituals, though these appear to be distinct from the Tantric homa ritual. Xuanzang describes several such rituals in his translations, for example (331):

Furthermore, if one is ill for a long time and does not seem to be getting better, or if unwholesome ghosts come into his house, he should select a hundred and eight grains of kunduruka incense, and before this image enchant each grain one time and casts them into the fire until they are all consumed. And again, one selects a white thread and makes twenty-one spell-knots, [chanting] one spell per one knot, binds it on the crown of the compassionate face just as before, and after one night loosen it. If it is bound to the neck of an afflicted person, he will be cured of his affliction and the evil spirits (unwholesome ghosts) will be dispersed.
Chinese Double Coin Knot

McBride includes several rituals involving the intriguing practice of making a spell-knot (zhòu jié 呪結). The Chinese practice of making decorative knots goes back at least to the Warring States Period (ca 403-221 BCE) when such knots were depicted on bronze vessels. There is a huge variety of such knots and each one has its own symbolism (As a starting point, see the Wikipedia entry on Chinese knotting).

Although his analysis never seems to have gained much traction, I am still drawn to Ariel Glucklich's (1997) account of such magical procedures which I wrote about in 2008 (Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness). Glucklich (1997: 12) says:

Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events.

It is, of course, a well established aspect of the tradition of the Heart Sutra that Xuanzang chanted the text as a spell to repel demons. The story is recounted in the hagiography of Xuanzang attributed to Yàncóng 彥悰 (fl. 688), i.e. Dà Táng dà Cí’ēnsì sānzàng fǎshī chuán xù «大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳序» "A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty" (T 2053). There are several translations of the Biography, but the recent one by Li Rongxi (1995) is the most reliable. It's also mentioned in the preface of T 256, though this version has many different details.

Jeffrey Kotyk (2019) and I (Attwood 2020) have both critiqued the story of Xuanzang acquiring the Heart Sutra from a sick man (or monk) before he went to India. We both think that the Heart Sutra was composed only after Xuanzang returned from India—ca 654-656 CE to be precise. The story about acquiring the Heart Sutra before this time was part of a deliberate campaign to create an India backstory for the text to make it seem authentic; a campaign that included forging a Sanskrit text.

The Biography also records a letter from Xuanzang to Gaozong (dated 26 December 656 CE) which was a response to the successful live birth of a son to Wu Zhao after a difficult pregnancy (this was Li Xian 李顯 26 November 656 – 3 July 710, later Emperor Zhongzong 中宗). During the pregnancy, Wu Zhao seems to have consulted Xuanzang who recommended various methods for assuring that prince Li Xian 李顯 survived. For example, Xuanzang recommended that the infant was ordained as a Buddhist monk.

Thus the Biography shows Xuanzang using the Heart Sutra twice: once in response to malign spirits, and once in response to Wu Zhao's difficult pregnancy.

(3) The Bodhisatva Path

Finally, McBride (2020: 335-336) notes that some of the dhāraṇī's promise help on the path to liberation for anyone who takes up the dhāraṇī, memorises it, repeats it, etc:

All the spiritual benefits of preserving (and chanting) this dhāraṇī are the conventional promises found in many mainstream Mahāyāna sūtras: always receive a male body, always be able to find spiritual mentors, not regress on the bodhisattva path, practice for the benefit of self and others, not regress in the practice of the ten perfections, and so forth.

In other words, these texts see themselves in the context of Mahāyāna rather than Vajrayāna Buddhism. As McBride notes

The ‘procedure’ or ‘method’ (fa 法) one must receive (shou 受) to draw on the power of this dhāraṇī is to make six vows that resonate with standard bodhisattva vows.

This is particularly prominent in the Sūtra on the Six Approach Dhāraṇī in Six Approaches (Liumen tuoluoni jing 六門陀羅尼經, T 1360). Which says that the dhāraṇī works with vows that are similar to the well known bodhisatva vows. The fifth vow, for example is:

Regarding pāramitās I possess [that] which I have embraced, extensive wholesome roots in all mundane and transmundane [realms], I vow that all living beings will speedily realize the fruit [fruition reward] of unsurpassed knowledge. (McBride 2020: 337)

To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced by this translation because the first part is not a well formed English sentence. However, I agree that the vocabulary resembles other versions of bodhisatva vows.

These, then, are the main themes that McBride identifies. I want to expand on one more issue addressed by McBride, which I have just mentioned: Xuanzang does not see dhāraṇī as tantric.

Ritual Context

One extremely useful contribution in this paper is that McBride (2020: 320) makes clear that Xuanzang does see or use dhāraṇī in a Tantric context.

All of Xuanzang’s translations of dhāraṇī texts function like simple ritual manuals that emphasize the efficacy of the dhāraṇī introduced in the text... His translations are primarily straight-forward and simple ritual texts that encourage the preservation and recitation of a particular dhāraṇī.

Later McBride (2020: 339) expands on this:

Xuanzang’s translations of dhāraṇī clearly demonstrate that ritual activity, or the mere existence of dhāraṇī, cannot be used to define, differentiate, or postulate the existence of ‘esoteric Buddhism’, without severe qualifications.

Here is where I would normally cite The Weaving of Mantra by Ryuichi Abe. Abe argues that to be considered tantric a magic spell has to exist in a tantric context. For example, it must be conferred in the elaborate abhiṣeka ritual and repeated only in the context of a visualization practice (sādhana). Moreover, mantra corresponds to the voice of the ādibuddha and cannot be meaningfully separated from the mudrā and maṇḍala representing the body and mind of the ādibuddha. The message of liberation always involves coordinated actions of body, speech, and mind.

Instead of Abe, McBride cites a similar argument from Gregory Schopen (1982):

‘...if by “Tantric” we mean that phase of Buddhist doctrinal development which is characterized by an emphasis on the central function of the guru as religious preceptor; by sets—usually graded—of specific initiations; by esotericism of doctrine, language and organization; and by a strong emphasis on the realization of the goal through highly structured ritual and meditative techniques. If “Tantric” is to be used to refer to something other than this, then the term must be clearly defined and its boundaries must be clearly drawn. Otherwise the term is meaningless and quite certainly misleading’.

This is to say—notwithstanding the later assimilation of it by Tantric Buddhists—the Heart Sutra is not naturally a Vajrayāna text. Ritual and magic were very much part of mainstream Buddhism. An old friend who studied Chinese Buddhism once said to me that Buddhism succeeded in China because Buddhism had better magic. While this oversimplifies to some extent, it is still aposite. And while it is interesting that Tantric Buddhists took to the Heart Sutra and even composed sādhanas around it, the Tantric commentaries of, say, Kūkai and Vimalamitra are very different indeed. And coming, as they do, at least a century after the first evidence of the text in China, they don't really shed any light on the origins of the text or Xuanzang as the author of it.


The information that McBride has gleaned from the dhāraṇī texts that Xuanzang chose to translate suggest something about his motivations for including a dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra along with excerpts from the Large Sutra. Or at least, it gives us insight into how he thought the dhāraṇī would be used. It's rare for me to read a paper that is so directly relevant and which has few, if any, methodological problems. It's an elegant, straightforward, readable paper with no obvious religious or interpretive agenda. And this is refreshing.

In this view, the ritual use of dhāraṇī promises "benefits and bliss"; the two principle benefits being (1) the ability to ward of malign supernatural entities (including those that cause disease) and (2) making progress on the bodhisatva path.

That the Heart Sutra might be a dhāraṇī text is not a new idea. It was proposed by Fukui Fumimasa in 1987 (cited in Nattier 1992: 175). Of course this is not the whole story. Perhaps it is best to say that the Heart Sutra resembles a dhāraṇī, in the same way that it also resembles a digest text (chāo jīng 抄經). At this point, I think we can say that the Heart Sutra is completely unique in Buddhist or Chinese history.

Xuanzang may have composed the Heart Sutra for multiple purposes. The Biography suggests that it was composed to protect Wǔ Zhào 武曌 and her infant son. Unlike some other aspects of the story, this seems entirely plausible. The Heart Sutra might also have been a kind of promotional literature for his proposal to retranslate all the Prajñāpāramitā texts. To do this he needed both Gaozong's (reluctant?) permission but also imperial funding for the enterprise. The Heart Sutra shows off how Xuanzang intends his translation to be a refinement of Kumārajīva's. Four years later (ca 599 CE), Xuanzang was granted use of a lesser palace away from the capital and a staff and he set to work on the translation for which he is most famous: the Dà bōrě jīng大般若經 *Mahāprajñāpāramitā, which spans three whole volumes of the Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka (for reference, all of the other Prajñāpāramitā translations preserved in the Taishō fit a single volume).



Attwood, J. (2017). "‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies12: 26–57

———. (2019). "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 32: 1–30.

———. (2021): "The Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra Revisited: A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese and Sanskrit Texts." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44: 13-52.

Glucklich, Ariel. The end of magic. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). “Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳”. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544.

Li, Rongxi (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Lopez, Donald. (1988) The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

McBride, Richard D. (2005) "Dharani and spells in medieval sinitic Buddhism." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28/1: 85-114.

———. (2011). "Practical Buddhist Thaumaturgy: The Great Dhāraṇī on Immaculately Pure Light in Medieval Sinitic Buddhism." Journal of Korean Religions 2(1): 33-73.

———. (2018). “Wish-fulfilling Spells and Talismans, Efficacious Resonance, and Trilingual Spell Books: The Mahāpratisarā-dhāraṇī in Chosŏn Buddhism”. Pacific World. 20:55-93. [Website]

———. (2020) "How Did Xuanzang Understand Dhāraṇī?: A View from his translations." Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 3(1): 318-347.

Melzer, Gudrun (2014), "A Paleographic Study of a Buddhist Manuscript from the Gilgit Region." In Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field, edited by Jörg Quenzer, Dmitry Bondarev, and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch, 227-274. Berlin, München, Boston: De Gruyter.

Nattier, Jan (1992). "The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15 (2) 153-223.

Salomon, Richard. (1990) "New Evidence for a Gāndhārī Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary." Journal of the American Oriental Society 110(2): 255-273.

Salomon, Richard. (1995) "On the origins of the Early Indian Scripts." Journal of the American Oriental Society 115(2): 271-279.

Schopen, Gregory. (1982). "The Text of the Dhāraṇī Stones from Abhayagiriya: A Minor Contribution to the Study of Mahāyāna Literature in Ceylon." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5(1): 100–08.

Suzuki, D. T. (1971). Essays in Zen Buddhism : third series. Red Wheel/Weiser.

Watanabe, Shōgo. (1990). “Móhē bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu jīng and Móhē bānrě bōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng, As Seen in the Sutra Catalogues.” Indogaku Bukkyōgaku Kenkyū 39-1: 54–58. [= 渡辺章悟. 1990. 「経録からみた『摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪経』と『摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪経』」印度学仏教学研究 39-1: 54–58.]. My English translation is here.

08 December 2023

Prolegomenon on the Interpretation of Buddhist Scripture: Introduction

For the last decade or so, my exploration of Buddhist ideas generally has been overtaken by intensive study of the Heart Sutra. My focus has moved from blogging to publishing articles in academic journals. My project has looked at aspects of the history, philology, and philosophy of the Heart Sutra and Prajñāpāramitā generally. Getting to the point of being able to regularly publish articles has involved more than one steep learning curve. I have no training in history, philology, or philosophy. I learned by reading everything I could get my hands on.

An ongoing frustration that I have is that there are no good textbooks on how to do any of these activities that are specific to Buddhist Studies. Indeed, in reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books I have often been struck by the lack of any clearly articulated methodology or theory. This is peculiar for a field of academic study. Most academic disciplines, most especially in the humanities, have been deeply involved in discussing methods and emphasising the need to examine the theoretical basis for the methods. This is partly a response to the clearly articulated methods of scientific enquiry and the relatively new desire to produce (more) objective approaches to topics like history.

Textbooks for Buddhist Studies mainly describe Buddhist beliefs and to some extent Buddhist practices, but they really don't spend any time at all on methods for studying Buddhism or on critical thinking about such beliefs and practices. Part of the problem is that Buddhist Studies is inherently multi-disciplinary. Any given article will likely employ ideas and practices from a range of disciplines such as history, historiography, historical linguistics, comparative linguistics, translation studies, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.

In general, Buddhist Studies scholars don't acknowledge these distinctions in our writing, but take a "pick and mix" approach, employing whatever suits our purpose. For this reason alone a lot of Buddhist Studies scholarship is tendentious, i.e. intended to promote a particular point of view. When an author does bring in specific ideas from outside of Buddhist Studies, the results are often incomprehensible to non-specialists in that field. At one point it was, for example, very popular to compare Buddhist ideas with Derrida. But for anyone not versed in the distinctive thought of Derrida, and the obscurantism of all the post-modernists, such works are a complete mystery. And I don't think this was always an accident. I think some authors take an obscurantist approach in order to seem more profound than they actually are.

There is also the widespread problem that many academics in Buddhist Studies are card-carrying Buddhists who accept certain (often sectarian) religious ideas as givens. In all of the very learned and technical discussions of Nāgārjuna, for example, I have yet to see any scholar really interrogate the unspoken assumptions of Nāgārjuna that seem glaring to me. The leading writers on Madhyamaka all seem to be convinced that Nāgārjuna speaks only truth and that he makes no assumptions whatever. This might (just) be acceptable in a Buddhist theologian writing for a religious audience, but it reflects a catastrophic failure for an academic historian or philosopher. Examining assumptions is the bread and butter of academic scholarship. So the question becomes why is this activity almost entirely absent from studies of Buddhist history and philosophy?

While I have learned a lot from reading within Buddhist Studies, in order to make progress I have inevitably had to branch out and consult textbooks from other disciplines. This is fine, as far as it goes; I've always read quite widely. However, general texts on historiography or philosophical methods seldom include examples from, or aposite to, Buddhist Studies. One can consult general books on how to write history, for example, but these don't use examples from our discipline. So one is always having to translate concepts into the domain of Buddhist Studies. It's not always easy.

As I began to branch out, I also began to see how impoverished our field really is. We seem to have relied on scholars coming from other backgrounds (where they get appropriate training). The results have been patchy, to say the least. Nowadays, we have a whole generation of scholars who have specialised early in Buddhist Studies and so they don't bring the expertise that comes from specialising in, say, history or philosophy.

I am not an expert. I dabble. I'm a generalist. Though I do think my recent work on the Heart Sutra rises to the level of expertise. Still, a lot of the time I end up writing an essay, not because that is the topic I wanted to write about, but because it was a topic I wanted to read about but could not find anything written already. So, I spend time gleaning information from a wide range of sources and pull it all together into the kind of thing I wanted to read. People who give advice about writing often say that we should imagine a representative reader. For a lot of these essays I'm my own audience; I'm the reader that I'm trying to appeal to.

This work is laborious and ideally done by experts. But most of the experts are busy doing other things. By now there are probably a dozen encyclopedias of Buddhism for example. Vast amounts of time, effort, and money go into these projects. But how many encyclopedias do we really need? Especially when there is no textbook on Buddhist historiography or any other relevant methodologies. There are several works on how Buddhists practice epistemology, but none on how students of Buddhism in 2023 should do so. Sometimes it seems that the perspective is that if we just outline what Buddhists wrote in texts the job of Buddhist Studies is done. There is no need to provide commentary or analysis beyond what is stipulated in Buddhist traditions.

Recently, I have become particularly interested in the subject of how we read and interpret Buddhist scripture. This is a very popular activity amongst rank and file Buddhists these days. Moreover, writing commentary on scripture is one of the major ways that Buddhists communicate about Buddhism. And yet this is all done on an ad hoc basis. I might not even have noticed this had I not become an expert on the Heart Sutra. I'm now in a position to evaluate in detail the things that are said about the text. And my evaluation is that writing on the Heart Sutra is almost universally poor, tendentious, and religious rather than scholarly in character. Most writing on the Heart Sutra asserts a strange worldview in which truth is communicated in the form of express contradictions and paradoxes. No one ever seems to mention that such forms of communication are completely absent from general Buddhist thought (even Nāgārjuna uses logic and avoids contradiction), expressly repudiated in early Buddhist texts, and on further investigation can be seen to be based on traditional misunderstandings of Prajñāpāramitā and tendentious modern scholarship.

The absence of any methodological critique leaves the field open to abuse by fraudsters and hoaxes. I believe, for example, that the bulk of what Edward Conze contributed is fraudulent and misleading. While, privately, many scholars say they agree with me, this has not changed the blind acceptance and excessive praise of Conze in Buddhist Studies generally. The fact that Conze was a racist, misogynist, elitist asshole with messianic delusions is incidental, but also true. However, we generally expect academics to weed out such assholery over time. In Buddhist Studies this asshole is still widely revered. And publically many scholars continue to treat Conze as a neutral contributor and argue that he was a pioneer and thus allowed considerable licence. When I think of pioneer Buddhist Studies scholars I think of people like Etienne Lamotte or Thomas Rhys Davids. I would call Max Muller a "pioneer" in that he sincerely made attempts to further knowledge of Sanskrit literature in Europe and at the same time had many of the flaws of his generation. In my view, Conze was entirely disingenuous, where he was not simply wrong.

While the interpretation of scripture is a popular activity, the standards of commentary available vary wildly and there are no agreed criteria on which to assess any particular claim. While Christian theologians have long explored the problems associated with reading and interpreting scripture, there are, to my knowledge, no such resources for Buddhists.

The hermeneutics or interpretation of the Bible have been the subject of intense study over the centuries and have produced innumerable works of both general and sectarian scholarship. While theologians take many aspects of Christian doctrine for granted, they have still produced scholarly works such as John Meier's four volume, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (see Meier's Historicity Criteria). Such works have considerable merit since they are pluralistic and encourage critical thinking (albeit within religious limits). The methods they discuss were developed for theologians. Nowadays, partly through the influence of Protestantism, lay Christians are also encouraged to read and interpret scripture.

The situation for Buddhists is quite different. There are no general or scholarly works on how different ways to read and interpret Buddhist scripture. Some Buddhist theologians have published works which offer a particular interpretation of scripture (i.e. apologetics), though these are all designed to lead readers to specific sectarian conclusions rather than offering them tools that might enable them to come to their own conclusions. And this despite noticeable influence of Protestantism on Buddhism.

Of course, there are some studies of how Buddhists themselves have interpreted scripture in the past. But these are descriptions of pre-modern reading practices and they seldom involve any critical appraisal of the approaches, and are usually so arcane as to offer very little guidance to the modern reader. In most cases, such approaches to reading scripture have little value in the modern context since we don't accept some of the givens the ancients took for granted. The point of this project would be to produce a guide to reading and interpreting Buddhist scripture for twenty-first century readers, scholars, and theologians.

One of the problems that we have in Buddhism is that many academics are apologists for a sectarian approach to Buddhism. For example, almost all of the works that interpret Nāgārjuna are written by people who openly and explicitly accept a Nāgārjunian worldview. Indeed, the leading interpreters of Nāgārjuna's writing are card carrying Mādhyamikas (which is what people who accept Madhyamaka metaphysics call themselves). Where there is any difference of opinion amongst them, and there are a number of points of disagreement amongst them, it is based firmly within a Nāgārjunian worldview. To my knowledge, no scholar has investigated and evaluated the axioms that underpin Madhyamaka. So all readings of Nāgārjuna that we commonly encounter are naive readings.

For Buddhists, there is no body of work that outlines general principles of scriptural interpretation. There are no parallels to magisterial works such as Meier's A Marginal Jew. This means that there is no rational counterweight to the proliferation of conflicting religious apologetics. It increasingly seems to me that the capable scholars of Buddhism are few in number and for the most part they are absorbed in their own sub-field. Many of the Buddhist Studies scholars I've met recently have echoed my own complaint that I publish, but no one ever seems to critically engage with my work. There are simply not enough capable scholars in the field and at the same time far too many who are following (consciously or not) a religious agenda. On the other hand, if there were enough capable scholars, I'd never have had the opportunity to publish my articles on the Heart Sutra.

The aim of this project, then, will be to produce an introduction to the issues, sources, and methods of reading and interpreting buddhist scriptures and to highlight resources that contribute to understanding the topic. The idea is to ground the reading of Buddhist texts in some generally applicable principles that disparate readers can use as the basis of cross-sectarian discussions. These principles may be used by both academic and religious students to make their interpretation of scripture more nuanced (and perhaps even more persuasive).

I do have preferred interpretations of the texts I read. However, the aim here would not be to defend or promote my particular view. Rather, I wish to create a resource for those who read and think about Buddhist scripture. I'm trying to pitch this a the level of educated Buddhist readers and university undergraduates studying Buddhism or comparative religion. I hope it will be generally useful to anyone who wants to go beyond passively consuming Buddhist ideology when they read Buddhist scripture.

In the first place, this project involves identifying the intellectual tools that I have picked up piecemeal in my scholarship. I will supplement this with reference to the literature on Christian hermeneutics, with Meier as a reference point. I will try to use real world examples to illustrate points.

At present we see many of these principles being applied in an ad hoc fashion and without any reference to the broader literature on scriptural interpretation. As such, Buddhist Studies has not benefited from the depth and breadth of research on hermeneutics in Christian Studies. The only relevant exposition I'm aware of in the field of Buddhist Studies is the brief and unreferenced passage in Nattier (2003: 63-70). As a preliminary, I'm planning an academic paper which compares three approaches to the biography of Xuanzang. I will show that authors on this topic employ hermeneutic principles in an ad hoc and seemingly unconscious fashion. Most authors seem to comprehend, for example, that a corroborated fact is more reliable than an uncorroborated fact. But this has never been stated as a general principle that can be invoked by way of explanation.

At present I am conceptually dividing the project into four broad topics, which in addition to this introduction will become four blog essays: (1) Issues, (2) Sources, (3) Methods, and (4) Resources. My usual approach is to sketch out the broad outlines and then fill in the details. These blog posts will be my coarse-grained notes on what I think is important from the outset. I can already see that this is a huge topic and one that might take several years to reach fruition. Ideally, I'd like to publish a textbook on interpreting Buddhist scripture.


Meier, John P. (1991). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 4 Vol. New York: Doubleday.

Nattier, J. (2003) A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

17 November 2023

Why Did Buddhists Abandon Buddhavana?

I doubt there is a Buddhist alive today who does not revere the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana), at least in some form. The extent to which Buddhist doctrines are considered authentic is the extent to which they are considered to have been enunciated by the Buddha, whether we think this means an historical person or some form of deity.

While academic historians argue against the historicity the Buddha (e.g. Drewes 2017), Buddhist theologians produce apologetics for the authenticity of the Pali suttas as buddhavacana (e.g. Sujato and Bramali 2014). Indeed, the idea that the Pāli suttas are the word of the Buddha is still current in many Buddhist sects. There is a kind of consensus that if early Buddhist texts don't contain all the words of the Buddha, they at least preserve some of them. This is accompanied by varied speculations about which words those are. Accompanying this are various arguments about what the Buddha's "original teachings" were, including some that seek to exclude well-known Buddhist doctrines about karma, rebirth, and ātman.

Despite the different opinions about how it is constituted, everyone seems agreed that the highest value can be assigned to buddhavacana and that the fact of being spoken by the Buddha is still the most important measure of authenticity. I don't think there is anything controversial about this statement, but it does raise some interesting questions.

That said, readers may be puzzled by my title today. Did Buddhists really abandon buddhvacana?

Evolution of Doctrine

Despite the forgoing argument, it is a notable fact of Buddhism that Buddhist doctrines evolved both gradually and, at times, suddenly. By the beginning of the Common Era we see multiple competing versions of the major genres of Buddhist text: Sutra, Vinaya, Abhidharma, and śāstra. While there is some inter-sect commonality in the Sutra genre, the seven extant Vinaya texts show considerable differences, while the extant Abhidharma texts have very little in common except for the general idea of cataloguing dharmas.

At the level of sect we see the emergence of competing heterodox interpretations of doctrine such as sarvāstivāda and pudgalavāda. Both of these are now routinely represented as being Buddhist heresies but, in their own time, were entirely mainstream and respectable. And this is only with respect to texts produced by India. Outside of India far more radical changes occurred as Buddhism was syncretised with local worldviews and beliefs.

As far as I can see, all Buddhist sects gradually moved away from buddhavacana and adopted novel doctrines over time. Even the venerable Theravāda tradition—whose own mythology includes the claim to have preserved the entire oeuvre of the Buddha in the very language that he spoke—moved substantially away from those texts. Modern Theravāda is actually based on the writings of Buddhaghosa, a fifth century commentator, and on medieval sub-commentaries on Abhidhamma, such as the Abhidhammattha Saṅgaha. The practice of meditation died out in Theravāda sects and had to be reinvented in the eighteenth century. Indeed, some Theravādins have argued that liberation from rebirth is impossible in the absence of a living Buddha.

We also see radical departures from early doctrines, such as the Madhyamaka metaphysics of Nāgārjuna. Basic Buddhist ideas such as the distinction between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa (roughly the distinction between continuing to be reborn and not being reborn) are replaced by slogans like "saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are the same thing". To be very clear, this makes no sense in general Buddhist terms. The whole idea of Buddhist soteriology turns on the difference between being reborn and not being reborn. If we repudiate this, then we repudiate Buddhism. And those who study Nāgārjuna's gnomic utterances seem to revel in this repudiation and take this to be a higher form of truth which they grandiloquently name paramārtha-satya "the truth of ultimate meaning".

Note that although Prajñāpāramitā is routinely presented as a radical break in the Buddhist tradition along with Madhyamaka, recently several scholars (esp Huifeng and I) have begun to see considerably more continuity than the historically dominant explanations allow. The idea of withdrawing attention from sensory experience so that it ceases, leaving the practitioner in a state of contentless alertness, is central to Aṣṭa. And we can find ample parallels to this in Pāli. Many of us have now commented on the parallels with the Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121), for example. It now seems wrong to me to think of Prajñāpāramitā as culminating in Madhyamaka. Note that, as far as anyone can tell, Nāgārjuna does not cite any Prajñāpāramitā texts. Nor do they appear to have the same message.

Thus, while Buddhists certainly do valorise buddhavacana, at least some of them strenuously repudiate it and claim we should replace it with Nāgārjuna-vacana; at the same time trying to convince us, despite the obvious contradiction, that buddhavacana and Nāgārjuna-vacana are one and the same thing despite apparently making contradictory claims. Either saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are the same or they are not, and Buddhist soteriology (that is to say the possibility of escaping from saṃsāra by not being reborn) is dependent on them not being the same.

Whither Buddhavacana?

It is a brute fact of Buddhist history that, for all the high-toned talk about buddhavacana, no Buddhist sect in history was ever satisfied with it. Whether they drifted away or were propelled at speed, all Buddhist sects gradually replaced buddhavacana with their own doctrines.

We partly know this because the sects all moved in different directions and some of the vehement polemics that they composed denouncing each other have survived. The Pāḷi Kathavatthu, for example, records Theravāda complaints against other Buddhists and was probably composed at a time when they themselves were decisively moving away from buddhavacana and developing their unique and distinctive Abhidhamma tradition.

After many years of consuming Buddhist studies literature, including hundreds of articles and dozens of books, I cannot recall a single account of Buddhist history that did more than note the evolution of the doctrine in various directions. The well-documented, centuries-long, intra-Buddhist conflicts over doctrine are played down, if they are discussed at all. And no explanation for the changes ever seem to be offered. Scholars seem to say "things changed" and then have nothing to say about why things changed.

I would be very surprised indeed if changes in Buddhist doctrine could not be related to causes. This is what historians do, after all. Just listing a series of changes is not very interesting if we cannot say anything about what led to the change and how the change was reflected in other aspects of the attendant culture.

Why are modern Theravādin bhikkhus like Sujato and Brahmali so anxious about the issue of authenticity that they go to the trouble of publishing a lengthy quasi-scholarly defence of the authenticity of the Pāli suttas? Is there some real possibility of inauthentic Buddhist teachings? Well, yes there is from a Theravāda point of view; almost every other sect of Buddhism could be seen as inauthentic if they believe (as the bhikkhus seem to) that the Pāli represents buddhavacana and other Buddhist texts do not.

The issue is addressed head on in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Aṣṭa). The first thing that happens is that the Buddha asks Elder Subhūti to deliver a sermon on Perfect Insight to the bodhisatvas (which here seems to mean the monks assembled in the audience since no other people are present). Elder Śāriputra wonders whether Subhūṭi will speak from his own insight, or whether he will rely on the anubhāva of the Buddha. Elder Subhūti replies that everything a disciple of the Buddha says is a product of the Buddha's anubhābva

The word anubhāva is difficult to translate since the etymology is unhelpful (it means something like "after-being". However, the word is clearly used in a sense that suggests that the Buddha has a kind of puissance or power by which words spoken by his disciples are, in effect, buddhavacana. Every word that Elder Subhūti speaks, in this view, is something the Buddha might have said.

So the open question is this: If early Buddhists genuinely believed themselves to be in possession of authentic buddhavacana, and they thought this included (by implication) a complete and nuanced description of the Buddhist path, why do we now have a massive plurality of versions of the the Buddha path?

Or, more simply, why did Buddhists come to feel unsatisfied with buddhavacana and replace it with the ideas of lesser figures who came later. How did some Buddhists come to substantially repudiate buddhavacana. Why did Buddhists abandon buddhavacana?

I don't know the answer and I'm not aware of any salient discussions.

A Suggestion

Some time ago, I tried to publish an article which gave a unified explanation for why doctrines that sought to explain karma proliferated. This was knocked back by a stout Theravādin defence from the editor and reviewers and I felt so disheartened that I let it drop. I don't think I was wrong, I think that causal explanations are not seen as valid in Buddhist Studies, so it seemed pointless to continue trying to offer one.

I think Buddhists noticed certain problems in early Buddhist doctrine and responded. In particular I noted that there was a problem I called "action at a temporal distance". Let's say that I make a great donation to a Buddhist monastery and earn a vast amount of merit (puṇya, aka "good karma") in the process. Some Buddhist texts say "I am the heir of my actions", i.e. the person who experiences the consequences is the same as the one who acts. And this can stretch across lifetimes. This is the main theme of the Jātaka and Avadāna literature and one of the main ways that Buddhists talk about morality.

At the same time, however, most readings of the doctrine of dependent arising say that I am not the same person from moment to moment, let alone from lifetime to lifetime. So the one who experiences the consequences is not the same as the one who acts, but only arises in dependence on their actions.

If the action of giving is a discrete event which lasts for a few seconds (maybe) and then ceases, how can that be the condition for some effect in the future given dependent arising? The standard formula is

This being, that becomes. When this arises, that arises.
This not being, that does not become. When that ceases, this ceases.

I argued that this means that the condition has to be present for the effect to arise, and if it is absent the effect ceases or never arises in the first place. The Theravādins in academia disagreed with this extremely enough to reject my article outright, but it is undoubtedly how proponents of sarvāstivāda understood it.

Thus Buddhist morality tales and Buddhist metaphysical texts tell a very different story about continuity over time. Standard modern interpretations of karma don't acknowledge this dichotomy and thus do not explain it. When I looked at historical accounts of karma I did not find a good explanation, but I did perceive a pattern.

In my rejected article I tried to show how various historical Buddhist sects responded to this problem. For example, the Sarvāstivādins took a fundamentalist view of dependent arising.

In this view, if something is able to act as a cause, it must be present. That is to say, if my past actions are causing me to experience something (or anything) now, then they must still be present in some form (the nature of this presence is not discussed). Interpreted metaphysically, which is not obligatory, this means that a past condition must still exist (asti) if it is functioning as a condition. And if something I do now is to have future consequences, then it must continue to be present. Again, this is just a literal reading of the dependent arising formula, albeit it in an optional metaphysical framework. Hence the doctrine (vāda) of always existent (sarva-asti) phenomena (dharma).

Nowadays, I would separate out "presence" and "existence" because I think the discussion was probably intended to refer to the presence or absence of sensory experience, which is only loosely connected to the existence of objects.

In the article, I made similar arguments for pudgalavāda, kṣanavāda (doctrine of moments), and śūnyavāda (doctrine of absence). And I argued that they were all solutions to the same problem: how karma can operate at a temporal distance (how can consequences manifest if the condition has ceased).

It is precisely this kind of explanation that is absent from Buddhism and from academic Buddhist Studies. And the response I got from academia suggested that my attempt to give such a causal explanation of doctrinal evolution was unwelcome. I dropped the article and didn't even bother to put it on academia.edu along with my other failures, though several blog posts leading up to the article are still here.

Assuming that there is any merit in this suggestion (and I remained convinced that there is), we can say, in some cases and to some extent, why early Buddhists abandoned buddhavacana (as they all did). In this case it was because there was a conflict between Buddhist morality and Buddhist metaphysics.

If I am right about this conflict (which no one else seems to have noticed), then the idea of a big bang origin to Buddhism from the insights and utterances of one man is undermined. There is an expectation of great religious figures that they present a coherent set of ideas, attitudes, and practices. Whether this is expectation is reasonable is debatable, but here we see problematic incoherency in what passes for  buddhavacana.

It is simply a mistake to think of ideas like karma and rebirth as emerging from the mouth of the Buddha fully formed without any interactions with other religions. We know that Buddhists absorbed and adapted ideas from Jainism and Brahmanism, for example. It seems to me more likely that Buddhists operated in a milieu in which karma and rebirth were givens, and proposed new explanations of these phenomena that were not initially coherent. After a centuries long process of winnowing (assisted presumably by the decline and disappearance of heterodox sects), Buddhists settled on the best explanation available and retrospectively called that buddhavacana.

As a result I would say that we have to acknowledge that buddhavacana os a contested term, in the sense that Buddhists fought over what counted as buddhavacana. There is no general agreement, whether historically or presently, on what constitutes buddhavacana. The concept is also contested in the sense that Buddhists found the buddhavacana they inherited unconvincing or otherwise unsatisfactory and replaced it with other words that they labelled buddhavacana, a practice that is arguably still current. 

And if there is this level of ambiguity and conflict about buddhavacana, where does that leave arguments about the historicity of the Buddha which is so closely tied to it? I submit that, for historians at least, David Drewes' contention that we should stop talking about "the historical Buddha" because the idea is incoherent, is on the right track. And I add that the concept of buddhavacana is also incoherent in practice.


P.S. It occurred to me after I wrote this yesterday to spell out that any example of so-called buddhavacana could well have attained that label post hoc (after the fact): the text was composed, by whoever, and then attributed to the Buddha. 

This also led me to consider the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, i.e. since Y follows X in sequence, X is the cause of Y (also stated amongst scientists as "correlation is not causation"). It made me think about the proposition: a text is called buddhavacana by Buddhists, therefore it must be "words spoken by the Buddha" (the caveat being... except when we have reason to think it isn't). In other words, we know it's not true that every text labelled buddhavacana by Buddhists could possibly be buddhavacana. We know, for example, that Buddhists continued to apply the label long after the time we guess that the Buddha might have lived. And to find justifications for doing so, including inventing new Buddhas, making the Buddha an eternal deity, and so on. We have no idea when the label was first used. 

P.P.S. Thanks for reading. I'm not blogging much these days because I'm mainly focussed on publishing peer-reviewed articles on the Heart Sutra at present. I do post more often on my Facebook Heart Sutra group. Any day now, I'm expecting galley proofs for two companion articles, one of which presents revised editions and translations; the other compares the Sanskrit and Chinese texts in unprecedented detail and tries to explain why they are different. Next up is a major article on the dates of the Heart Sutra (hopefully in 2024) and then I think I'm done. I'd like to put it all in a book, but not sure about who the audience would be anymore since I no longer have any sense of who would be interested in an accurate history, reliable editions, and a coherent interpretation of this weird little text that has come to dominate my life. 


Drewes, David. (2017). "The Idea of the Historical Buddha". JIABS 40: 1-25.DOI: 10.2143/JIABS.40.0.3269003

Sujato and Brahmali (2014). The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Self-published via Lulu.com

01 September 2023

Myth vs History

I recently came across the text of a talk by Elizabeth Wilson, an academic historian. Her academic website says: "I work on the religions of South Asia; my main specialization is in Buddhist Gupta-era narrative literatures". So we might expect Wilson to have a fairly sophisticated approach to narratives and the historicity of religious narratives. And yet, I find her saying:

The historical Buddha lost his mother when he was just a baby. Legends describe the awakened Buddha ascending to the heaven where his mother had taken birth as a goddess due to her good karma. He gave her the greatest gift that he could offer: the gift of how to transcend death, the path that he discovered sitting under the foot of a tree on the day that he awakened to the truths of Buddhism.

What draws my attention here are two phrases: "historical Buddha" and "Legends describe". Are we talking about history or are we talking about legend? Wilson seems to conflate the two. For example, the source for the fact that "the historical Buddha lost his mother as a baby", is exactly the same source as the legend that describes Māyā Gotamī ascending to the Tuṣita devaloka. It is not that we turn to Buddhist history texts for one kind of information and to Buddhist legendary texts for the other. The same sources are cited for both kinds of fact. How does that even work?

Now Wilson's talk is quite light in tone, which suggests that I should not take it too seriously. On the other hand, it was uploaded to academia.edu, which suggests that she wanted her academic colleagues to know about it and take it seriously. In what follows, I take Wilson somewhat seriously and (fair or not) as a representative of a particular approach to academic Buddhist history.

Before going further, I need to say a few words about how I understand myth.


Generally speaking, myths are a collection of stories told by a pre-modern people, culture, or society. The myths of a people express their views about the universe and their place in it. Characters and events in myths are often interpreted as having symbolic rather than realistic value. For example, the characters in myths are often considered to be personifications of certain valuable qualities. Another way of saying this is that values are conveyed in the form of stories about a person whose behaviour exemplifies those values. Myth covers the origins of the world (cosmogony) and the content of it (cosmology). It may include accounts of where people came from and more specifically the origin story of the audience. As such, myths express the identity and values of the culture. Most myths contain substantial references to the supernatural, often in the form of "minimally counterintuitive" elements, such as animals or other non-human beings that have human characteristics such as speech.

The stories in myths contribute to a larger scale narrative. Each story contributes to a "story arc" that describes the history of the universe. In fact, Michael Witzel (2012) has proposed that myths, which vary considerably from culture to culture, follow one of two story arcs. One is prevalent amongst aboriginals in Australia, New Guinea, the Andaman Islands, and sub-Saharan Africa. This is by far the older tradition, since the people who share it cannot have been in contact more recently than about 50,000-70,000 years before the present. The other story arc is prevalent in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and pretty much everywhere else, but still goes back at least before the peopling of the Americas (so around 20,000-30,000 years). In this essay, I'll focus on the latter story.

An outline of this story arc that I previously cited in 2013, goes like this:

In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man.
The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time.
Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink.
The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors.
There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the bringing of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. Having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world, everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.

I grew up with both Polynesian and European myth, and have subsequently become familiar with myths from India and Iran. Witzel's story rings true to me. Despite considerable diversity, the collections of myths across Asia, Europe, and the Americas generally follow this same story arc, but the characters and events may vary. The conserved feature is the plot: creation, first-generation gods, second-generation gods, heroes (demigods), ordinary humans.

Of course, Witzel is not the first to notice broad thematic consistency in world mythology. Carl G. Jung also noticed this and conjectured that all of our minds are supernaturally connected via a "collective unconscious". Jung's bullshit was eclectic and was probably influenced by his reading of the Vedanta and/or Neoplatonism. In any case, Witzel's conjecture is more parsimonious and I think Occam's razor applies: if we can explain something like global commonalities in myth without invoking the supernatural or inventing entities such as the "collective unconscious", then that explanation should be preferred.

We can distinguish myth, which is ahistorical, from legend, which is thought (even if only apocryphally) to have some basis in history. An example of an edge case might be the stories of King Arthur. Arthur is clearly an heroic human being who has considerable supernatural assistance from Merlin. Many believe that Arthur was based on some historical figure, although they don't necessarily agree on which. The foundations of this belief are far from solid. Much the same can be said about the Buddha. Many people believe that the stories in Buddhist suttas are based on the real adventures of a man in the early Iron Age in India, that is, around the middle of the first millennium BCE.

For reference, I now live in an area that was dotted with Iron Age settlements, which are clear in the archaeological record. That said, not one single character or event has come down to the present from that period in Britain. We know a little about how such people lived from archaeology, but nothing at all about individuals. We certainly do not have any religious teachings from that period.

Buddhist myth is strange in that the story arcs don't apply. The Buddhist cosmogonic story, for example, is not particularly Buddhist. Rather it appears to mainly be fragments of Brahmanical myth and some elements of what I take to be chthonic or aboriginal myth (the stories of the original inhabitants of the central Ganges valley prior to the arrival of Indo-European speakers). Scholars such as Richard Gombrich have pointed out that in some cases, such as the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13), Buddhist myth is presented as a parody of Brahmanical belief. In any case, the standard Buddhist cosmogony and cosmology is not Buddhist per se. It has been assimilated, with minor changes, from a Brahmanical community.

Gods and other supernatural figures are an important part of Buddhist myth. Many stories feature devas, asuras, or Brahmās which come from Vedic myth. They also feature animistic gods such as yakkha, nāga, and kiṃnāra that seem to be chthonic. But as far as I can see, there is no story arc of the universe in the Buddhist mythos. The myths of Buddhism tend to focus on the career of the Buddha within a Brahmanical cosmos. This suggests that, despite appearing to come from one ethnic group (i.e. Sakya or Sakka "the Strong"), Buddhists did not adopt the mythology of that group.

With this in mind let us consider some elements of Buddhist myth that Elizabeth Wilson invokes.

The Myth of the Buddha's Mother

The main sources for Wilson's stories are early Mahāyāna texts like the Lalitavistara or the Mahāvastu. Here the stories of the Buddha are considerably more elaborate and contain more supernatural elements compared to the same stories in earlier literature.

The early death of Māyā Gautamī is part of this story. It includes such supernatural events as the Buddha emerging from his mother's side, taking seven steps, and then delivering a Buddhist sermon immediately after his birth. No part of this story is "historical". All of this material is of the same type, on the same level, and has the same level of historicity. Which is to say, it is ahistorical, (i.e. not historical)

On the other hand, elements of this myth are noticeably absent in an earlier version of the Buddha's biography, found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26). There, the Buddha's mother is still alive when he leaves home as an unmarried youth. The Buddha myth developed over time and in a particular direction. I think there is some teleology here as the myth of the Buddha seems to have developed to appeal more to Brahmins, by assimilating more and more of their mythos. This was so broadly accepted that no one now questions the name Gautama, an ostentatiously Brahmin name associated with raising cattle, applied to a man from an agrarian society.

A lot of the myth of the Buddha's birth for example seems to involve avoidance of what anthropologists call "pollution". Ritual pollution can be incurred by contact with whatever causes pollution. The opposite, ritual purity, is maintained by avoiding contact with pollutants. Having been polluted, one can be restored to purity by public ritual acts.The particular kinds of ritual pollution in the Buddha myth again suggest Brahmin sensibilities.

For example, the Buddhist myth references Brahmanical taboos around bodily fluids, especially when it comes to women's bodies. In these patriarchal myths, women's bodies are an inherent a source of ritual pollution. Arguably, for example, the Buddha is born "through his mother's side" in order to avoid mentioning the word vagina, but more importantly it enables the magical Buddha to avoid the pollution inherent in contact with the associated bodily fluids. That kind of thinking is not evident in, say, early Buddhist suttas. It gradually crept into Buddhism, and it clearly invokes the mores of Brahmins. The apotheosis of this negative emotion towards bodies can be found in Śāntideva's quasi-Buddhist Bodhicāryāvatāra, in which he rages against "the body" in extremely crude terms; what we might call the "body-is-a-sack-of-shit" doctrine. It's quite important for the buddha myth that the Buddha bring no baggage with him into this life, because otherwise he could not attain liberation.

As I noted, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, the Buddha's mother is alive and well when he leaves home. We can see this fact in two ways. It's quite typical to see this portrayed as earlier on the grounds that it is less sophisticated. I've made this case myself. However, I now think it equally plausible that it represents a contemporaneous minority opinion. Either way, despite the later universality of the story, some Buddhists, at some time, did not share the myth of Māyā dying following the birth of the buddha-to-be.

This part of the Buddha myth has parallels in Christianity. The mother of Jesus was a "virgin". Scholars have long noted that the word translated as "virgin" really just meant "a young woman". Still, the idea that Mary was a virgin is so entrenched that it is now an indispensable part of Christian mythology. If Mary was a virgin then no polluting sex, or sexual fluids, were involved in the conception of Jesus. Rather his conception was "immaculate" or ritually pure. The purity of the mother guarantees the purity of the son.

The myth of Māyā was shaped to fit the myth of the Buddha, and it was apparently modified as time went on and the ideas about the Buddha changed. Let's now look at some aspects of the Buddha myth.


I want to draw attention to a part of Witzel's outline of the mythic arc.

There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the bringing of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman.

I want to consider the Buddha qua benefactor of humanity as a "hero" and as a "shaman".

Buddha as Hero

In the mythic story arc, following creation we see two generations of gods, with the second generation creating humanity and at times interbreeding with them to create demigods (e.g. Herakles). This first generation of humans directly interact with the gods and are envious of them. Heroic figures arise to take something from the gods to benefit humanity.

The paradigmatic human hero of Greek myth is Prometheus. In Māori myth it is Māui. Both Prometheus and Māui stole fire from the gods. In Indian myth it is Yama, who found the way to rebirth amongst one's ancestors. Heroes benefit all humanity, although often at great personal cost: Prometheus is chained to a rock for eternity, where an eagle tears out his liver everyday. Maui is crushed in the vagina of Hinenui-te-po (the great lady of the night), the Māori psychopomp, while trying to steal the secret of immortality from her.

Stealing fire from the gods is a common theme. Fire-using amongst genus homo starts millions of years before the emergence of modern humans, so there is no question of this being a legend. Neither Prometheus nor Māui are based on some guy who "invented fire". And note the gender bias here, the hero is always a man, which suggests to me that these stories were invented and transmitted amongst men. Did women have their own stories about their own heroes?

Yama is interesting in this context because he did not steal fire. Yama was a human being who discovered the way to being reborn amongst one's male ancestors (the pitāraḥ "fathers") after death. That is to say, Yama discovered rebirth. Again, this is not to suggest that some guy called Yama, was literally the first man to undergo rebirth. Rather, this probably reflects the assimilation of rebirth from the remnants of the Indus valley civilisation by the Vedics as they settled into their new home. I've rather speculatively referred to this as a meeting of the water tribe (Indus) and the fire nation (Vedic).

Buddhists made Yama into the King of Hell. As the man who discovered and inaugurated rebirth, Yama is responsible for untold suffering. The principal goal of Buddhism is to end rebirth, so the man who started it deserves special attention. Even though his role in rebirth is never mentioned by Buddhists, their treatment of him is consistent with such knowledge being possessed in the past.

The contrast between Buddha and Yama is interesting since no one has ever, to my knowledge, argued that Yama was a real person. Of course, the stories about Yama are relatively crude in Buddhism, and he never attained the level of interest and focus that Buddha did for Buddhists.

The Buddha as hero, discovers the way to end rebirth, the opposite of immortality. So the Buddhist myth is kind of strange in wanting to end the kind of immortality associated with rebirth.

Buddha as Shaman

It's some time since I explored the literature of shamanism, but what stands out in my memory is that the shaman is always a liminal figure. They stand between this world and the supernatural world. Unlike ordinary people, they can move from one world to the other. This means that they are not entirely part of the tribe, but nor are they an outsider.

The Buddha notably has numerous supernatural powers: clairvoyance, clairaudience, the ability to travel to the devaloka and brahmaloka, the ability to fly, and many more. And as time goes on, Buddhist descriptions of the Buddha become more and more magical.

It's quite common for the Buddha's followers to ask where someone was reborn after death and the Buddha was said to have the supernatural ability to see this. And of course, he can also see when someone is not reborn anywhere, when they have attained liberation from rebirth. As such the Buddha has at least some of the functions of a shaman. For many Buddhists, the point of Buddhism is to provide access to the supernatural or at least to supernatural knowledge of "reality".

Early Buddhists portray the Buddha as dying and not being reborn, which was the main goal of Buddhism at first. After some generations, it is apparent that new generations of Buddhists were not reconciled with the disappearance of the Buddha from our world. One can almost hear the cries of "O Buddha, why have you abandoned us?" In any case, Buddhists began to invent many new ways of meeting a Buddha. One could meet a Buddha in a meditation-induced vision for example. Buddhists also invented other universes with living Buddhas that could communicate with us. Other Buddhists conjectured that the living Buddha was just an avatara of a supernatural being beyond time and space, the Dharmakāya Buddha. Some allowed for past Buddhas to manifest in the present. Some invented a new class of supernatural being, the bodhisatva, who could be enlightened but also choose to be reborn so as to be available to help all sentient beings escape from rebirth (some wags have noted that this is logically equivalent to the elimination of sentient life on earth).


In a 2017 article for JIABS, David Drewes argued that academic historians should not talk about "the historical Buddha" because the term "historical" is meaningless when we cannot link the character in Buddhist stories to any historical events, so he is not "historical" in the usual sense of that word. Even the widely-cited dates for the Buddha are guesses based on vague information in normative religious texts. In fact, no character from the early Buddhist texts can be considered "historical" since none of them can be linked to any facts or events. The first truly historical person in Indian history is the Emperor Asoka, and even his dates have an element of uncertainty.

The naive use of normative texts as historical sources is rife and ongoing in Buddhist Studies. When scholars use texts like the Lalitavistara as sources of historical "facts", they have left the academic reservation and ventured into the realm of religious apologetics. The Lalitavistara is an explicitly religious text, full of magic and miracles. It has little or no historical value. To use this as a source of information about the "historical Buddha" is nonsensical. It can tell us something about the religious values and aspirations of the authors, but then we don't really know where or when or by whom it was composed. The idea that we can pick and choose, separating our historical facts and leaving the myth behind is naive. In the end such distinctions are subjective.

If the source says that the Buddha was born through his mother's side, took seven steps, and then delivered a Buddhist sermon, we can't validly conclude "the Buddha was born" and then some mythic elements were added, and therefore the Buddha is historical. If the source says that, then we are clearly in the realm of myth, of the symbolic representation and personification of values. Other details about the Buddha's life—e.g. his wife and child—are from the same source and exist on the same level. It's all myth. There is nothing wrong with myth, but it's not history.

Moreover, Buddhist normative sources are not univocal on these issues. As noted, the idea that the Buddha had a wife and child is not included in the biography in the Ariyaperiyesanā Sutta. Moreover, his mother is very much alive in that version. This means we have to consider the relations between conflicting religious narratives, something that is rarely if ever done. The Ariyapariyesanā biography is simpler, and this is interpreted as meaning that it is more primitive and thus earlier, and thus more authentic (more historical). The assumption here is that stories always get more complex over time and that a simpler version of a story must predate the more elaborate version. But we don't know this because there is no way to corroborate such a conjecture.

The Buddha, like Yama, is a mythic figure. He is a god in all but name. The earliest texts do portray him as a man, but for every human encounter with the Buddha we also see encounters in which he is clearly supernatural or in command of supernatural powers. Stories about the supernatural can be seen in the context of the history of supernatural storytelling, but they are not historical per se. If the Buddha is portrayed as flying around, historians cannot conclude that once upon a time a human being could fly. In reality some animals or objects do fly, but we can explain this in terms of power to weight ratios and the generation of lift. We don't need a supernatural explanation to explain the flight of a bumble bee or a 747. A human being flying without any physical aids is not possible.

The argument here is that we have to take these texts in the round, rather than assuming we are competent to extract the historical from the mythic. The texts are not composed in such a way as to make this a viable procedure. Buddhist texts are full of magic, miracles, and other supernatural phenomena, mostly associated with the character of the Buddha. You wouldn't know it from reading popular accounts of Buddhism in English, but magic is inherent in the Buddhist worldview as we meet it in Iron Age texts. Magic is built into the stories; built into the character of the Buddha as hero and as shaman. Magic can't easily be extracted to leave only the non-magical elements, especially when they occur in the same passages.

To be an historical character, the Buddha would have to stand apart from religious, magical stories, but he can't. All the sources that supposedly describe his life are explicitly magical, explicitly supernatural, i.e. explicitly ahistorical.


28 July 2023

The Lost Translations of the Heart Sutra

If there is anything eternal, it may well be Buddhist anxieties about the authenticity, legitimacy, and authority. These anxieties seem to be present in the earliest strata of Buddhist writing and continue down to the present. One of the principle methods of making a text seem more authentic (etc) is to claim that it is old. There is a Buddhist heuristic that the older a text is, the more authentic it is. This is one reason that, for some people, the Pāli texts are seen as more authentic and thus more legitimate and more authoritative than other texts.

In the arena of Heart Sutra studies there is an old argument for the antiquity of the text, which is to cite the so-called "lost translations", and one in particular. This essay draws heavily on Watanabe (1990) an article, published in Japanese, but of which I have recently made an English translation, using ChatGPT and some other online translation apps. Watanabe was the first to make this argument and it was made in 1990, two years before Nattier stumbled on the fact that the Sanskrit text is a backtranslation. 

We can see this trope of lost translations invoked, for example, in recent Zen Buddhist commentaries on the Heart Sutra by Red Pine (2004) and Tanahashi Kazuaki (2014). Both men cite a lost translation attributed to Zhi Qian 支謙 (fl. 222–254 AD) that enables them to date the Heart Sutra very early (first or second century CE). Tanahashi Kazuaki (2014: 62) says:

Among the vanished texts, the most noteworthy is the rendition by Zhiqian [sic] of the third century. Traditionally regarded as the oldest Chinese translation of the Heart Sutra, this text was reportedly included in [Sengyou’s Catalogue].

"Sengyou's Catalogue" refers to the Chūsānzàng jìjí «出三蔵記集» (T 2145), compiled by Sēngyòu 僧祐 (445-518 CE). Amongst the resources employed by Sengyou were older catalogues, notably one by Dao-an 道安 (312–385) compiled in 374 CE (itself now lost). In the Dao-an section of Sengyou’s catalogue we find two texts listed:

A. Móhē bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu yī juàn 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪一卷 “Dhāraṇī of the Great Prajñāpāramitā”; one scroll. (T 2145; 55.31b9)

B. Bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu yī juàn (yìběn) 般若波羅蜜神呪一卷(異本) “Dhāraṇī of the Prajñāpāramitā”; one scroll (different version). (T 2145; 55.31b10).

The astute reader will note that neither text is called a Heart Sutra; or a sutra, for that matter. It is less obvious, perhaps, that neither text is attributed to Zhi Qian. The term shénzhòu 神呪 probably translates dhāraṇī or vidyā, but we don't know. Not only are there no Indic sources for these titles, the texts themselves were lost by the Tang dynasty. So these catalogue entries are almost everything we know about these two shénzhòu texts.

One may compare these with the two entries in the Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901), translated by Atikūṭa 654 CE. I translate and comment on these entries in a blog post: Svāhā in The Heart Sutra Dhāraṇī (5 July 2019)

I say almost everything we know, but there is a little more because the texts crop up in some later catalogues with the notation: "produced from the Large Sutra" (Chū dà pǐn jīng 出大品經), which is used to indicate the text is an extract from the larger work. Furthermore, in the Zhòngjīng mùlù (衆經目録) (also known as Yàncóng Lù 録), compiled and written under the guidance of Yàncóng 彦琮 (602 CE), both the A and B shénzhòu texts are classified as “separately produced” (biéshēng 別生). This is a term used for locally produced Chinese Buddhist texts, and has also been applied to chāo jīng 抄經 or digest texts. 

And all this evidence from the catalogues is consistent with the comments of Kuījī (T 1710) and Woncheuk (T 1711) who both composed commentaries on the Heart Sutra in the late-seventh century. They clearly state that they don’t believe the Heart Sutra to be an authentic Buddhist sutra; rather, they both see it as a compilation of passages from other Prajñāpāramitā texts. Moreover, physical and literary evidence stops entirely in the mid-seventh century: earliest artefact is from 661CE, earliest literary mention is from 656 CE.

So there are two processes to try to understand. How did the two shénzhòu come to be associated with Zhi Qian? And how did the shénzhòu texts come to be considered versions of the Heart Sutra?

Zhi Qian and Fèi Chángfáng

Following Sengyou, a series of three catalogues named Zhòngjīng mùlù «衆經目錄», by Fǎjīng 法經 (594 CE), Yancong 彥悰 (602 CE), and Jìngtài 靜泰 (663-665 CE), all list the two shénzhòu texts as "translator lost" (shī yì 失譯). However, in the midst of these we also have the Lìdài sānbǎo jì «歷代三寶紀» (T 2034) compiled by Fèi Chángfáng 費長房 (597 CE). The Lìdài sānbǎo jì is infamous amongst scholars for adding attributions to texts that were previously listed as "translator lost". Many of these attributions are false and the text is widely considered unreliable in matters of attribution. Fei's entry for the A text reads:

摩詞般若波羅蜜呪經 見宝唱録或直云般若波羅蜜呪經〔支謙訳〕
Móhē bānrě bōluómì zhòu jīng. See the Bǎochànglù; in some cases it is just called Bānrě bōluómì zhòu jīng. Translated by Zhi Qian.

Note the subtle change in the title. The character shén 神 "divine" has been dropped and the character jīng 經 "text, sutra" has been added. Still, everyone involved thinks this is the same text as found in Sengyou's Catalogue. Note that the Bǎochànglù is a reference to another catalogue that no longer exists: the Liángshì zhòng jīng mùlù «梁世衆經目錄» compiled by Bǎochàng 寶唱 ca. 520-521. It's possible that Bǎochàng was responsible for this attribution, but Fèi Chángfáng made up so many attributions that the finger points squarely at him. Also note that, contra the Zhòngjīng mùlù catalogues, Fèi Chángfáng considers the version without móhē 摩詞 in the title to be a variant of the A text rather than a distinct B text.

As far as we can tell, then, Chángfáng simply made up this attribution. And there is no reason to suppose that Zhi Qian translated the Móhē bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu or the Móhē bānrě bōluómì zhòu jīng. Rather, such texts were likely just extracts from the Large Prajñāpāramitā text that circulated independently. Note that it is quite definite that the Xīn jīng (T 251) copied multiple passages from the Móhē bānrě bōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» (T 223), translated by Kumārajīva in 404 CE, as does the Dàmíngzhòu jīng (see below). Assuming that all the catalogue entries relating to the shénzhòu texts are references to the same text, the appearance in Dao-an's catalogue dated 374 definitely rules out it being a Heart Sutra. The passages copied did not even exist until thirty years after this date.

That said, the attribution to Zhi Qian is cited in influential catalogues such as the Neidian Catalogue (Dà Táng nèidiǎn lù «大唐内典録» T 2149), compiled by Dàoxuān 道宣 (664) and the Kaiyuan Catalogue (Dà Táng kāiyuán shìjiào lù «大唐開元釋教錄» T 2154), compiled by Zhìshēng 智昇 (730). The latter was especially influential as it was used to reconstruct the Buddhist canon after the purges of 849 and eventually provided the organisational scheme followed by the Tasihō canon.

At this point, then, the móhē shénzhòu text has been identified as a translation by Zhi Qian, while the B shénzhòu (sans móhē) is either noted as "translator lost" or is said to be the same text with a different title, despite Sengyou's clear note that they were different. What we do not have anywhere in the picture is a Heart Sutra text. We turn to this mystery next.

Zhi Qian and the Heart Sutra

The key moment here is the appearance, already mentioned above, of the Kaiyuan Catalogue by Zhìshēng, in 730 CE. Something new happens in this catalogue, which is the first mention of a text that we know to be a Heart Sutra:

A 摩詞般若波羅蜜呪經 或無摩詞学 見宝唱録〔支謙訳〕 Móhē bānrě bōluómì zhòu jīng. Some texts lack the Móhē characters; see the Bǎochànglù; (translator Zhi Qian).

B 欠 Missing.

C 摩詞般若波羅蜜大明呪經 亦云摩訶大明呪經 初出与唐 訳般若心経等 同本見経題上〔羅什訳〕 C. Móhē bānrě bōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng. Also called Móhē dàmíng zhòu jīng, first produced in the Tang. A translation of the Heart Sutra, See the same Sutra title above. (Translated by Kumārajīva).

Like Fèi Chángfáng and unlike the earlier catalogues, Zhìshēng considers the texts without Móhē to be a variant title rather than a separate text. 

Text C, the Dàmíngzhòu jīng, is extant and included in the Taishō as T 250. This entry in the Kaiyuan Catalogue is the first mention of the text in history. The Dàmíngzhòu jīng is not included amongst the translations of Kumārajīva in any older catalogue. And this means that it was almost certainly not by Kumārajīva. Indeed, this has long been the consensus. Back in 1932, when listing all the Prajñāpāramitā texts, Matsumoto Tokumyo (1932: 9) noted Er hat aber dieses Sūtra nicht übersetzt “But he has not translated this sutra”. Conze adds the detail that it was translated by one of Kumārajīva's "disciples" a theme recently taken up by Charles Willemen in a series of rather silly articles. Willemen asserts, on the flimsiest evidence imaginable, that Dàmíngzhòu jīng was translated by Zhu Daosheng. But he presents no plausible evidence for this assertion. Indeed, we know that the Heart Sutra per se is not a translation. It was composed in Chinese, in the middle seventh century (actually between 654 and 656 CE).

There is no doubt that this entry in the Kaiyuan Catalogue, dated 730 CE, is also the source of the conflation of the shénzhòutexts with the Dàmíngzhòu jīng, and combined with the idea that Zhi Qian translated the Móhē shénzhòu text, it explains why some people believe in a lost translation of the Heart Sutra by Zhi Qian. To be clear, no such thing ever existed and the evidence for it was always weak.

From the absence of the Dàmíngzhòu jīng in earlier catalogues we can also infer it was composed after the composition of the Xīn jīng. And Watanabe adds that it was not translated from Sanskrit, but composed in Chinese. Thus not only is the Dàmíngzhòu jīng not a translation, it is not (and could not be) a translation by Kumārajīva.


Watanabe (1990) concludes from this that the idea of a lost translation of the Heart Sutra by Zhi Qian was simply made up. The text in question was not a Heart Sutra and was not associated with Zhi Qian. Moveover the Dàmíngzhòu jīng attributed to Kumārajīva was not associated with him, was not even a translation, and was produced after the Xīn jīng

There is no reliable evidence of the Heart Sutra prior to the 650s CE. Moreover, Jan Nattier (1992) showed that the Sanskrit text was a back-translation from Chinese. The first mention of a Sanskrit text is in Woncheuk's commentary, but it is vague and could be a reference to the Sanskrit Large Sutra, since Woncheuk knew that to be the source of most of the copied passages.

All attempts at pushing back the existence to dates earlier the seventh century fail for lack of evidence. The oldest physical evidence of the Heart Sutra from anywhere in the world, is the inscription from Fangshan (see Attwood 2019) dated 13 March 661. The oldest literary mention occurs in letter dated 26 Dec 656, reproduced in Yancong's hagiography of Xuanzang (T 2053), but also preserved independently (See Kotyk 2020). This gives us the terminus ante quem. The earliest commentaries are Chinese texts from the late seventh century by Kuījī (T 1710), Woncheuk (T 1711), and Jìngmài 靖邁 (X 522). Note that the latter has received almost no scholarly attention.

We find evidence of the Heart Sutra in Tibet from roughly the eighth century, though this date is dependent on the attribution of Tibetan commentaries to Indian authors, some of whom are otherwise completely unknown, and some of whom are the most famous Buddhists who ever lived. And from India? There is no evidence of the Heart Sutra from India. No manuscripts, no inscriptions, no mentions in other texts. This is consistent with what we expect given that the Sanskrit text is a back-translation made in China.
All the evidence points to the same conclusion: The Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese ca 654–656 CE, using copied passages from Móhē bānrě bōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» (T 223) and a dhāraṇī from the Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀罗尼集經» (T 901) translated in 654 CE (giving us the terminus post quem).

It's interesting that translators like Red Pine and Tanahashi have drawn on Japanese scholarship where it suits their purposes, but have entirely ignored this very important work by Watanabe. The false idea of the lost translation by Zhi Qian plays into their anxieties about the authenticity of this sutra that is not a sutra. And they employ the idea uncritically despite a long standing consensus around Watanabe's solid debunking of it. It turns out that, despite being very popular, both Red Pine and Tanahashi belong with D. T. Suzuki and Edward Conze as unreliable guides to this text. 

I have produced a draft English translation of Watanabe (1990) and uploaded it for comment on academia.edu. I will soon submit an article to an academic journal that discusses this material.



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

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). “Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳”. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513.

Watanabe, Shōgo. 1990. “Móhē bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu jīng and Móhē bānrě bōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng, As Seen in the Sutra Catalogues.” Indogaku Bukkyōgaku Kenkyū 39-1: 54–58.

Extant Chinese Bibliographies

  1. Chūsānzàng jìjí «出三蔵記集» (T 2145), compiled by Sēngyòu 僧祐 (445–518 CE)
  2. Zhòngjīng mùlù «衆經目錄». (T 2146), compiled by Fǎjīng 法經 (594 CE)
  3. Lìdài sānbǎo jì «歷代三寶紀» (T 2034), compiled by Fèi Chángfáng 費長房 (597 CE).
  4. Zhòngjīng mùlù «衆經目錄» (T 2147), compiled by Yancong 彥悰 (602 CE)
  5. Zhòngjīng mùlù «衆經目錄» (T 2148), compiled by Jìngtài 靜泰 (663-665 CE)
  6. Dà Táng nèidiǎn lù «大唐内典録» (T 2149), compiled by Dàoxuān 道宣 (664).
  7. Gǔ jīn yìjīng tújì «古今譯經圖紀» (T 2151), compiled by Jingmai 靖邁 (7th century).
  8. Dàzhōu kāndìng zhòngjīng mùlù «大周刊定衆經目錄» (T 2153), compiled by Míngquán 明佺 et al. (695).
  9. Dà Táng kāiyuán shìjiào lù «大唐開元釋教錄» (T 2154), compiled by Zhìshēng 智昇 (730)
  10. Zhēnyuán xīn dìng shìjiào mùlù «貞元新定釋教目錄» (T 2157) compiled by Upāsaka Yuán Zhàozhuàn 照撰, (800)

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