09 February 2024

Guanyin Does Not Speak in the Heart Sutra

In this short essay, I will challenge a universal presupposition about the Heart Sutra, i.e. that the lines that appear to be spoken to Śāriputra in the core section are spoken by Guanyin. I will show that, by all the conventions of Buddhist literature, this is not true. Guanyin does not speak. This observation further undermines the already weakened historically dominant narrative about the Heart Sutra.

For some years, I have made a practice of reading every scholarly publication on this text (in English), as well as selected popular works. To the best of my knowledge, no modern scholars have previously noticed the absences I mark below. I think Chinese Buddhist commentators in the late seventh–early eighth centuries were aware of this. And there were subsequently efforts made to obscure this fact.

A Buddhist sutra is, above all else, a record of speech. In Buddhist texts, speech is almost always indirect speech and the forms of indicating who is speaking to whom are essential to understanding the text. Forms of present speech in Buddhist texts are highly formalized and standardized; to the point of being universal across genres and over time. And they are not complex. We can easily describe the main forms and note the Chinese reflexes of these forms. I will focus on how they appear in the early Prajñāpāramitā literature, if only because this is the appropriate context for thinking about the Heart Sutra.

To begin with, we expect to see the speaker “addressing” (āmantrayate) the audience. At the beginning of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Aṣṭa), for example:

Then the Blessed One addressed the senior Elder Subhūti...”
(tatra khalu bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtiṃ sthaviram āmantrayate sma… Vaidya 1960 2).

Here āmantrayate sma is the "pleonastic past". Here adding sma to a present tense verb makes it a past tense, but is also used for the "present in the past" tense so commonly used in storytelling. In Kumārajīva’s translation—the Xiǎopǐn bānrě jīng «小品般若經» (T 227)—this becomes…

Then he Buddha addressed Subhūti
Ěr shí Fó gào Xūpútí 爾時佛告須菩提 (T 227: 8.537a29)
Here the verb is gào 告 "to address". Note that Kumārajīva omits the honorific ayuṣman "Elder" and Subhūti's monastic title sthavira "Senior [monk]". In Chinese we also sometimes see:
“Subhūti addressed the Buddha, saying…” 
Xūpútí bái Fó yán 爾時須菩提白佛言 (T 227, 8.537b06)
The character bái 白 is polysemic but here means “to make plain, to state clearly”, while yán 言 means “speak, talk”.

The extracts found in the Heart Sutra are from a version of the Pañcaviṃśātisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Pañc). An example of the same form from the Gilgit manuscript of Pañc:
The Bhagavan addressed Elder Śāradvatīputra...”
(bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāradvatīputram āmantrayata... Zacchetti 2005: 375).

The use of āmantrayate (in various conjugations) usually marks the beginning of a passage of discourse, but within a given conversation, the speaker of individual passages is also marked. It is usual to spell this out laboriously, including the name and title of each participant. In the following passage from Chapter One of Aṣṭa, we find all of the most common forms of ongoing verbal address:

Then Elder Śāriputra said this to Elder Subhūti, “Elder Subhūti, does this mind that is a mind without mind actually exist?”
When that was said, Elder Subhūti said this to Elder Śāriputra, “Elder Śāriputra, concerning that which is without mind, is the existence of mindlessness known or apprehended?”
Śāriputra said, “Indeed not, Elder Subhūti”.
Atha khalv āyuṣmān śāriputra āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtim etad avocat - kiṃ punar āyuṣman subhūte asti tac cittaṃ yaccittamacittam?
Evam ukte āyuṣmān subhūtir āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat kiṃ punar āyuṣman śāriputra yā acittatā, tatra acittatāyām astitā vā nāstitā vā vidyate vā upalabhyate vā?
Śāriputra āha - na hy etad āyuṣman subhūte /
(Vaidya 1960: 3).

The forms I wish to highlight are “said this” (etad avocat), “when this was said” (evam ukte), and “said” (āha). Both avocat and ukte derive from √vac “speak”, while the āha is from the defective verb √ah “say”. The same forms are used in the same way throughout the Pāli Suttapiṭaka also. An electronic search of the Chaṭṭa Saṅgāyana Tipiṭaka (4.1) suggests that in the four main Nikāyas: āmantesi occurs about 590 times, etadavoca occurs over 2200 times; evaṃ vutte occurs some 530 times; while āha occurs about 100 times. A few other such forms are used, but these are by far the most common. 

When a person is addressed in Sanskrit or Pāli, their name occurs in the vocative case, e.g. “O Subhūti” (subhūte). In the CBETA version of the Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka, the “vocative case” is represented by "!" following the speaker’s name. 

Note the repetitive use of the title “Elder” (āyuṣman) most of the time. Given that both characters use the title, they appear to be social equals. I speculate that āyuṣman is omitted precisely when Śāriputra acknowledges Subhūti’s superior insight.

These forms are largely preserved in Chinese translations. Turning to Huifeng’s (2017: 205) translation of this same passage in the Xiǎopǐn:

Thereupon, Śāriputra said to Subhūti: “Does this mind which is mindless exist?”
Subhti said to Śāriputra: “That mind which is mindless, is it apprehendable as either existing or not existing?”
Śāriputra said: “Indeed not!”

Here, two different words are translated as “said”: 語 (here translating avocat) and yán 言 (translating āha).

None of these conventions for indicating that someone is speaking or for who is addressing whom occurs in the Heart Sutra. The only indication we get that some parts of the text are indirect speech is the use of the vocative śāriputre “O Śāriputra” (Shèlìzi 舍利子!). This is how we know that Śāriputra is being addressed. The Heart Sutra does not say who is speaking and everyone assumes that it is Guanyin. 

The passage in which Śāriputra is addressed has been traced to the Large Sutra (see: T 223, 8.223.a13-a20 and Zacchetti 2005: 393). When we read the passage in this context, the lines are spoken to Śāriputra not by Guanyin, who has no speaking part in any Prajñāpramitā text, but by the Buddha. Interestingly, Woncheuk’s (613-696 CE) commentary (T 1711) appears to take the Buddha to be speaking as well.

Question: [Since] this [teaching of] prajñāpāramitā is the dharma for the bodhisattva, why does the World Honored One preach not to the bodhisattva but to Śāriputra? (Hyun Choo 2006: 149)


Therefore, in the [Heart Sūtra], the Buddha preached to Śāriputra and intended to lead the Hīnayāna to the Mahāyāna as well. (Hyun Choo 2006: 149)

It seems to me that Woncheuk could only have deduced this by looking at the source of the passage, i.e. Pañc.


In this brief essay, I have tried to show that the universal view that Guanyin is speaking in the Heart Sutra is based on presupposition and unexamined assumptions. I did this by outlining Buddhist conventions for expressing who is speaking to whom. I argued that such conventional expressions are universal in Buddhist texts (in Pāli and Sanskrit) and that such conventions are absent from the Heart Sutra. All indications of who is speaking have been omitted. Taking the Heart Sutra at face value, no one is speaking.

We can explain this by pointing out that the Heart Sutra is not, in fact, a sutra. It is not a record of speech, rather it's a compilation of ideas and extracts from existing speeches. This much was obvious to the earliest commentators, though subsequently forgotten. The lines in their original context were spoken by the Buddha, as accurately reflected in the commentary by Woncheuk. 

The (now disproved) "fact" that Guanyin was speaking has always been a problem for scholars since Guanyin plays no active role in any non-Tantric Prajñāpāramitā text (and the Tantric Prajñāpāramitā texts are more Tantra than Prajñāpāramitā). Various unsatisfactory explanations have been advanced (I've made several previous attempts to explain), but they have always been ad hoc or post hoc rationalisations, rather than real explanations (they all amount to hand-waving).

The most striking attempts to make sense of this situation are the two recensions of the extended Heart Sutra text (1. T 252; 2. T 253 and all rest), probably composed in the early eighth century, possibly in the oasis town Dūnhuáng 敦煌, on the edge of the Gobi Desert (from where it was transmitted to Tibet). 

In the extended texts, the two redactors have attempted to better integrate Guanyin into the narrative, by expanding the first paragraph. However, both recensions retained the rest of the standard Heart Sutra unaltered and in this part of the text, the verbs of speech are still absent. This means that despite more clearly articulating the reason for the presence of Guanyin, neither of the extended texts addresses the problem. Guanyin's presence seems more natural, but he/she still does not speak the lines directed to Śāriputra in the "core section".

The fact is that, in the Heart Sutra, Guanyin does not speak. Guanyin is invoked and then plays no further role in the text. In their original context, the lines are spoken by the Buddha. At this point, we can say that more or less all of the historical dominant narrative about the Heart Sutra is a post hoc invention. 



Huifeng. (2017). “An Annotated English Translation of Kumārajīva’s Xiǎopǐn Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.” Asian Literature and Translation 4(1): 187-236.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006) “An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch’uk’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra).” International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 6: 121-205.

Vaidya, P.L.(1960) Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Via the Gretil Archive, 2014. Including Karashima, S. (2013) On the "Missing" Portion in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. ARIRIAB, 16: 189-192. Accessed 6 Feb 2024)

Zacchetti, Stefano. (2005). In Praise of the Light: A Critical Synoptic Edition with an Annotated Translation of Chapters 1-3 of Dharmarakṣa’s Guang zan jing, Being the Earliest Chinese Translation of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā. (Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica, 8). Tokyo: The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

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