31 May 2024

Oldest Heart Sutra Inscriptions

I'm just finishing up a translation of an article from modern Chinese using ChatGPT: "Early Versions of the Heart Sutra" by Hè Míng and Xù Xiǎoyù was published in a collection of essays about the Fangshan collection of inscriptions. In this post I want to briefly go over the evidence presented by He & Xu and make a few remarks. The original citation is:

贺铭 续小玉 (2017) “早期《心经》的版本”. 石经研究. 第一辑. 房山石经博物馆, 房山石经与云居寺文化研究中心, 12-28. 北京 : 北京燕山出版社.
Hè Míng and Xù Xiǎoyù. (2017). "Early Versions of the Heart Sutra." In Stone Scripture Research Vol 1, edited by the Fangshan Stone Scriptures Museum, and the Fangshan Stone Scriptures and Yunju Temple Cultural Research Center, 12-28. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Publishing House.

The authors went to quite a lot of trouble to identify early versions of the Heart Sutra in China. For each text identified they supply an image. I'll include some images, but mainly just want summarise the text. Most of the images are of "rubbings": the process is in fact similar to lithographic printing. One smears ink on the stone surface and pressed paper against it, to obtain a negative image (hence the white text on a black background in most of the images).

Inscriptions from Fangshan

The authors noted 26 instances of the Heart Sutra amongst the Fangshan Stone Sutras 房山石经, of which only four could be securely dated. Hè & Xù only give specific details for the first two.

Yáng Shèshēng 楊社生 stele, 661 CE.
  1. sixth year of Xianqing (661 CE) (Cave Eight, number 770).
  2. second year of Zongzhang (669 CE) (Cave Three, number 238).
  3. second year of Tiānshòu 天授 (691 CE)
  4. first year of Yánzài延载 (694 CE)

The first two are found in:

中国佛敎协会, 中国佛敎图书文物馆编. (2000). «房山石经,隋唐刻经2» 华夏出版社.
Chinese Buddhist Association and Chinese Buddhist Library and Museum. (2000). Fangshan Stone Sutras, Sui and Tang Engraved Scriptures. Vol. 2, Huaxia Publishing House.

[There are no copies of this publication in the UK.]

The first inscription was commissioned by Yáng Shèshēng 楊社生 (date unknown) on 13 March 661 CE. My understanding was that this stele was one of 10,000 votive texts buried in a courtyard in Yunjusi ca. 1100 CE. However, He & Xu's information puts the stele in one of the storage caves. A minor point, but significant since it was stored rather than disposed of by burial. Though this doesn't explain how badly damaged the stone is or where the missing piece is (and I always thought that burial did explain these things). Unfortunately we now have conflicting sources and I have no way to resolve this.

The Yáng Shèshēng 楊社生 stele is the oldest known text of the Heart Sutra, and more or less conforms to the standard canonical text (T 251) with some minor character substitutions (which have the same phonetic value). As far as I know, my investigation of this artefact (Attwood 2019) is still the only English-language study of it.

The Beilin Stele

Beilin Stele

Originally from the ancient capital, Chang'an, this famous stele is now on display in the Stele Museum 碑林 in Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi 陕西. The artifact is known as

Táng jí wángxīzhī shèng jiào xù bēi. «唐集王羲之圣教序碑»
“The Preface to the Holy Teaching by Wang Xizhi in the Tang Collection”

In his comprehensive study of this object, Pietro De Laurentis (2021: 1, n. 1) notes that although all scholars cite the date as 672 CE and the compilation of characters began some years earlier: “the actual date of the stele’s erection falls on the first day of 673”.

On the other hand the project was many years in the making. This object is remarkable because each character was first individually copied from extant works of the celebrated calligrapher Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (307-365 CE). The style of script varies considerably from character to character, giving this text a very unusual look and feel. The stele is 226 x 94 cm. There are 30 columns of text, each of which contains up to 84 characters. Each character is about 3.5 cm in width and 4 cm in height. The Heart Sutra occurs in three columns on the left of this artefact (followed by the names of donors at the far left).

The Beiline stele image is from the Harvard University Library collection of Chinese rubbings (numbering over 5000 items, with 9 Heart Sutra texts).

Gaoyang County

This artefact is only mentioned in passing, the whole entry can be translated as:

"The National Library 国家图书馆 holds rubbings from the stele Fú shuō Mílè púsà dōu lǜ tiānxià shēngchéng fójīng bēi «佛说弥勒菩萨兜率天下生成佛经碑» “The Sutra of the Buddha Pronouncing the Advent of Maitreya Bodhisattva and His Attainment of Buddhahood”, from the third year of Tang Yifeng (678 CE) in Gaoyang County 高阳县, Hebei Province 河北 . On these rubbings, the translation of the Heart Sutra by Master Xuanzang can also be observed."

The stele is ca 206 x 95 x 24 cm, with writing covering front, back, and the sides. The Heart Sutra is on one side. He & Xu don't supply an image of this inscription, but images are online in any number of places. This image from an auction house is the only one I could find which included the side panels. I can just make out part of the Heart Sutra on the left side panel.

Inscriptions from Longmen

The authors identified three datable Heart Sutra texts in the Longmen Grottoes 龙门石窟, in Henan 河南 Provence. This is the site of the other ancient capital of Tang China, Luòyáng 洛阳.

Two copies of the Heart Sutra were found in the Liánhuā dòng 莲花洞 “Lianhua Cave”, both dated by He & Xu to ca 700 CE. One was inscribed by Huángfǔ Yuánhēng 皇甫元亨. This is all the detail that the author's give. However, from a forthcoming article by Claudia Wenzel we learn:

The Heart Sutra inscription below niche 37 is followed by a date corresponding to July 11, 700 (久視元年八月廿一日).

It seems that the other inscription (below niche 43) is in fact undated, and that He & Xu simply assumed it was from the same period. I don't have enough information to know if this was valid, but Wenzel had access to He & Xu (2017).

A third copy found in the Leigutai Zhong Cave 擂鼓台中洞, dates from the reign of Wǔ Zétiān 武則天 (690-704 CE) [aka Wǔ Zhào 武曌; 624–705 CE].

Rubbing of a Heart Sutra from Liánhuā dòng 莲花洞

The source that He & Xu cite for these inscriptions is

王振国 (2006) «龙门石窟与洛阳佛教文化» 中州古籍出版社

Wáng, Zhènguó (2006) The Longmen Grottoes and Buddhist Culture in Luoyang. Zhongzhou Ancient Books Publishing House.

Earliest Dated Manuscript

Pelliot Chinois 2884

In addition to noting the oldest inscriptions, the authors also attempted to identify the oldest Heart Sutra manuscript in China. This is a manuscript, dated 771 CE, from the Dunhuang cache. It was acquired by Paul Pelliot and is now held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: catalogued as Pelliot Chinois No. 2884. The paper is ripped and pieces are missing.

The last line of the colophon reads:


This may be translated as:

"On the 8th day of the 4th month of the 2nd year of Jingyun, Kǒng Dàoshēng's 孔道生 wife, née Zhāng 張, respectfully had this copy made for her son Sīzhōng 思忠 ." [Based on the BnF translation].

The date in question, 景雲二年四月八日 "Jǐngyún 2.4.8", corresponds to 30 April 711 CE (De Laurentis 2021: 111).

Note: I used a colour image from the BnF site rather than the monochrome image from the article.

Spurious Claims to Antiquity

The authors note some minor variations in the various inscriptions. More significantly they also track down some rumours of older texts that are, to my knowledge completely unknown in the English language Heart Sutra literature.

The first is a claim that a copy of the Heart Sutra was made by Ouyang Xun 欧阳询 in 625 CE (a date that would confound my own theories). The image of this calligraphy has been published numerous times (and can be found in many places online),

The authors dismiss the date as spurious:

However, this is impossible because it was not until the twenty-third year of the Zhenguan 贞观 era (649) on May 24th that Master Xuanzang translated this sutra in Cuìwēi gong 翠微宫 ”Cuiwei Palace” on Zhōng nánshān 终南山 “Mount Zhongnan”.

While this fact is widely cited, it is certainly not accurate. 

The 649 CE date only occurs in the hagiography of Xuanzang composed by Yàncóng 彥悰, brought out in 688 CE (24 years after Xuanzang's death). The fact is not corroborated by any contemporary document or official records (Kotyk 2019; Attwood 2020). Furthermore, it occurs in the context of a standard Chinese miracle tale. The same story asserts that Emperor Taizong made a deathbed conversion to Buddhism, which mainstream historians have universally expressed doubts over (he was famously anti-Buddhist). All of which cast doubt on the 649 CE date.

My work on the history of the Heart Sutra suggests that the text was not composed until after 654 CE, when the text containing the Heart Sutra dhāraṇī—Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901)—was translated by Atikūṭa. Thus I come to the same conclusion as He & Xu, for slightly different reasons.

The upshot is that the date on the Ouyang calligraphy is (still) not creditable. The authors note several other claims that copies or inscriptions were made much earlier than 654 CE and dismiss these for the same reason. My rationale for rejecting these claims is the same.

Another spurious claim is that a Heart Sutra text was inscribed in stone by Zhāng Ài 张爱 "at Shàolín sì 少林寺 'Shaolin Temple' in August of the twenty-third year of the Zhenguan era (649)." While this "fact" is also widely cited, the authors could find no evidence that it ever existed: there is no extant inscription and no rubbing of it. They concluded that Zhēnguān 贞观 may have been a mistake for Kāiyuán 开元 (some centuries later).

I note that the Shaolin Temple is now a Chinese government-run tourist attraction focused on martial arts and the link between martial arts and Buddhism has always seemed tenuous for the simple reason that Buddhists universally espouse non-violence.

And finally the authors investigated the claim that on “August 27, 657", Zhuāng Níng inscribed a blessing for Husband Zīfú” (显庆二年八月一日庄宁为夫资福书) and included the Xīn jīng «心经»). And they concluded that the texts were actually fabricated by Gù Nányǎ 顾南雅 (1765-1832).

Thus none of the stories of early copies Heart Sutras in China stand up to scrutiny. Which is something of a relief for me. My thesis on the date of composition survives a major test.


My thanks to Ji Yun 纪赟, who first alerted me to this article in 2018. And thanks to Michael Radich for allowing me a preview of Claudia Wenzel's forthcoming article.


On Chinese epigraphy generally see the Stone Sutras project which will eventually reproduce the fine, large-format printed volumes from Harrassowitz Verlag and the China Academy of Arts Press.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32, 1–30. https://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/article/xuanzangs-relationship-to-the-heart-sutra-in-light-of-the-fangshan-stele/

———.2020. "The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest." Pacific World, Series 4, no.1, 155-182. https://pwj.shin-ibs.edu/2020/6934

De Laurentis, Pietro. (2021). Protecting the dharma through calligraphy in Tang China : a study of the Ji wang shengjiao xu 集王聖教序 , the preface to the Buddhist scriptures engraved on stone in Wang Xizhi's collated characters. Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica.

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. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Wenzel, Claudia. (forthcoming). Buddhist Stone Sutras: Shaanxi 3. Wiesbade: Harrassowitz Verlag – Hangzhou: China Academy of Arts Press.

Related Posts with Thumbnails