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.

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