Heart Sutra Composed in Chinese?

I’m no Buddhist or scholar of Buddhism, but even I am familiar with the Heart Sutra, “the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition.” I had assumed that like your average sutra it was originally in Sanskrit or a Prakrit, but Jayarava Attwood, in an essay for Tricycle (primarily about a new way of seeing the text, as “describing the results of a meditation practice—the yoga of nonapprehension”), discusses a different theory:

For a long time, Buddhists believed that the Heart Sutra was composed in India, in Sanskrit. It was then transmitted to China and translated along with the rest of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. An article published in 1992 by a leading scholar of early Buddhist translations in Chinese turned this story on its head. Jan Nattier, then a professor at the University of Indiana, concluded from her research that the Heart Sutra was actually composed in Chinese. Nattier showed that the core passage of the Heart Sutra was copied from the 5th-century Chinese translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra by the scholar-monk Kumārajīva (344–413 CE). The text was then back-translated into Sanskrit. More recently, I confirmed Nattier’s conclusions by showing that other passages were copied from the same text and that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra contains a distinctive Chinese idiom. Hundreds of similar texts were composed in China, where they are known as “digest texts” (Chin, chāo jīng), but only the Heart Sutra was translated back into Sanskrit. Nattier speculated that the famous 7th-century pilgrim and translator Xuánzàng may have composed the Heart Sutra, which seems plausible in light of recent work on this problem.

Does anybody know if this idea is widely accepted?


  1. John Emerson says

    I don’t know anything about the specific question, but I do know that Sanskrit is not canonical for Buddhism the way Hebrew and Greek are for Christianity (or have been since the Reformation.) Scriptures known to have originally been written in Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and probably other languages have full canonical status.

  2. Sure, but I presume it’s usually known and accepted which language they were written in, just as every schoolboy knows the OT was written in Hebrew and the NT in Greek. This seems to me as if someone said a famous part of the OT was actually written in Greek and translated into Hebrew.

  3. Jumping a few steps, are there any surviving examples of pre-Christian translations in Europe?

  4. @languagehat: Except that some parts of were written in Aramaic. This is uncontroversial for certain passages, for which the earliest versions in existence are Aramaic—parts of Ezra, Jeremiah, and (most significantly) Daniel. However, there are other passages that some scholars believe were originally written in Aramaic and only later translated into the Hebrew texts we know. So the situation is not necessarily all that different from the situation with the Buddhist sutras.

  5. @languagehat: Except that some parts of were written in Aramaic.

    Yes, I know that, but I was just setting up the basic situation to provide a comparison. (I thought my “as every schoolboy knows” was fair warning I was simplifying.)

    So the situation is not necessarily all that different from the situation with the Buddhist sutras.

    I guess, except that there’s probably nothing as dramatic as “The Heart Sutra was written in Chinese.”

  6. jack morava says

    Charles Stross’s Laundry series got me curious as to why `Enochian’ was so hard on the throat [very guttural languages the Irish and the Enochian] so I looked up the Book of Enoch (cf Wikipedia) which has survived in Ge’ez.
    I came to the conclusion that the whole system of angels, archangels etc must have been borrowed from Persian/Zoroastrian culture. [Somebody somewhere was interested in planetary astronomy, who maintained the solar system, etc.] I’m sure there are others out there who know more about this.

  7. I think it’s increasingly common for modern scholars to reach the conclusion that certain of these things were composed in chinese first. I just read a translation of a text that’s supposed to be one of the first core Mahayana scriptures


    … and if I remember correctly, the intro and notes had a lot of remarks about how it had clear signs of being written in chinese but had been clumsily given little rhetorical flourishes to mimic the way sanskrit translations often read in Chinese. Maybe I’ll see if i can dig up an example when I have time.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I think the difference between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim stances and that of (especially) Mahayana Buddhism is not in the attitude to language but in the attitude to history.

    No Muslim would agree that it is a matter of indifference whether Muhammad really existed as a historical person; there are Christians who maintain that it is a matter of indifference whether there was a historical Jesus, but I think they would all admit that this was never a mainstream doctrine, and represents a significant break with tradition. In these traditions, it is important that the key documents of the religion be authentic, in the specific sense of being historically connected to the founders or founding communities: the linguistic matters arise from that and are in themselves secondary.

    But (logically, at least) it should make no difference at all whether Siddhartha Gautama lived or not: all that matters is the Buddha-Dharma, and the mode whereby one becomes aware of it is ultimately unimportant. I imagine that insofar as a typical (if there is such a thing) Mahayana Buddhist thinks about it at all, they would assume that a great Sutra originated in India, and was therefore originally in Sanskrit (Prakrits being for the Lesser Vehicle); but even if it didn’t, that need not at all mean that it was inauthentic.

  9. In 2018, the Korean Buddhism scholar Lee Tae Seung published an article titled “A Study on whether or not the Prajñāpāramitā is a Spell through the Comparison of the Large Heart sutra version and Small Heart Sutra version” where he claims in the abstract (which I have left uncorrected for grammar):

    Considering the Prajñāpāramitā as an spell in the Chinese Translation of Heart Sutra in both Large version and Small version it is thought that the correct meaning of Heart Sutra is not conveyed. And I think that there is a possibility that the Chinese translators of this Heart Sutra is misunderstood and translated, or that many translators have accepted the translations of Hsüan-tsang and Kumarajīva as it is.

    So Lee assumes the traditional view that the Heart Sutra was first composed in Sanskrit and then translated into Chinese by Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang). I don’t know if he was aware of Nattier’s proposal or if he merely took the default view without considering the possibility that the Chinese version might have been the original.

  10. the core passage of the Heart Sutra was copied from the 5th-century Chinese translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra by the scholar-monk Kumārajīva

    This shows misunderstanding of how translators work.

    It is very rare for a translator just to start translating from scratch, serious translator will first consult reference books – dictionaries or previous translations of similar texts.

    It’s not a question of laziness, use of previous translations (passages, expressions, terms) which already became classic is a must for favorable reception of new translation.

    So if the Heart Sutra contains long passages from the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and the latter text is already translated into Chinese, then it was perfectly normal for a Chinese translator to use existing translation instead of trying to translate himself.

  11. In a similar way, the first OCS gospel translations were of the gospel passages in lectionaries (as the gospel lectionaries were needed for mass and were translated first). Only later full gospel texts were translated, using existing translations of the passages contained in lectionaries and completing missing passages with a new translation.

  12. Maybe some Buddhists care if Buddha existed (as much as any person or raft existed), exemplifying that a human can attain enlightenment. Otherwise why note past and future incarnations?
    On OT in Hebrew and Greek, a published but bogus view claimed the five books of the Torah were composed in the third century in a couple of years in Hebrew then Greek nearly simultaneously, in the Library of Alexandria. Again, not my view.

  13. To answer my own question, a few pre-Christian translations between Roman and Greek survive, including bits of Livius Andronicus’s 3rd century BC translation of the Odyssey.

  14. jack,
    You know it does not really exist, right? And as much as I like the Laundry Files, the description of Enochian as guttural is nothing but a long-standing stupid convention in English literature.

    It is very rare for a translator just to start translating from scratch, serious translator will first consult reference books – dictionaries or previous translations of similar texts.
    Emphasis mine. It would seem to me that you are the one who misunderstands the nature of translation, especially in the ancient world. First, very few translators are serious translators. I can give you hundreds of examples of even the most basic failures of seriousness, like translating Psalm 23 (recited at a funeral in a movie or a tv show) instead of, you know, looking up what the official translation says or failing to look up what he official EU equivalent for ‘directive’ is in any EU language. Second, if someone was tasked with a translation of a text in ancient China, chances – well above 90% – are that they did not have access to any previous translations of said work, let alone any dictionaries.

  15. Just fyi: in the first two volumes of The Laundry Files, Enochian referred to “metagrammar” or “deep grammar”. The third book introduced dialects of Enochian (including Middle Enochian) which can apparently be spoken as well. The fourth book refers to High Enochian and Old Enochian, the former is described as “harsh on the vocal chords.” The fifth book once again refers to “metagrammar” as follows:

    This Enochian metagrammar thing they’ve been working with demands to be contextualized with the variant proto-Aramaic dialects from which it strikes disturbing echoes.

    Book 7 describes Enochian as “an ancient formal language”, but it also has people speaking it and:

    … Old Enochian running on neural wetware is not the fastest procedural language ever invented, and it’s semantics make AppleScript look like a thing of elegance and beauty…

    And finally, book 9 describes Old Enochian as “not designed for human vocal chords.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    its semantics make AppleScript look like a thing of elegance and beauty…


    (I’m all better now, thanks. Some years ago I excised Apple products from my life completely. Take that, Sunk Costs Fallacy!)

    I’ve read somewhere that the inharmoniousness of Aramaic was a trope for the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Ur-“guttural” language. So to speak.

  17. You paint a picture which is very far from reality of Buddhist translation in medieval China.

    It was a huge effort organized in extremely large, state-sponsored translation projects, often involving hundreds of people and taking decades of work.

    They had access to everything. Organization of collective translation work was also extremely detailed.

    For example, one surviving description of Tang era translation projects lists following types of positions:

    1. yizhu, the chief translator and the coordinator of the translation project. If this person is monolingual or insufficiently bilingual, his task will be restricted to oral presentation of the scriptural content in a foreign language, which will be orally translated into Chinese by duyu
    2. duyu, the bilingual or polyglot interpreter serving as the assistant of a chief translator who is monolingual or insufficiently bilingual
    3. bishou, who is expected to take dictation from the chief translator or the interpreter and enhance readability of the target text
    4. zheng fanben, the text inspector responsible for discovering discrepancies between the source text and the chief translators’ oral presentation
    5. zheng fanyi, the discussant responsible for clarification of the original meaning of the source text
    6. zheng chanyi, the text inspector responsible for discovering misrepresentations of Buddhist theories
    7. runwen, the stylist who is expected to embellish the target text. In Tang Dynasty, the majority of stylists were high-ranking central government officials
    8. zhengyi, the text inspector responsible for the correctness of the target text
    9. fanbai, monks responsible for Buddhist chanting before translating
    10. jiaokan, the editor and proofreader
    11. jianhu dashi, a supervisory position served by monks or a nominal position with merely symbolic powers filled by court officials
    12. zhengzi, the philologist responsible for providing explanations and phonetic transcriptions for difficult words. This is a situation-dependent position

  18. What Enochian are you guys talking about? The only language of that name that I’m familiar with is the one invented by Edward Kelly to mystify John Dee, later expanded somewhat by Aleister Crowley et al. And it’s not guttural, or gutteral, or gutterish, at all. OHIO! OHIO! OHIO!

  19. John Emerson says

    I think SFReader has it right.

    For Buddhists scriptural texts were expedients bent to a religious purpose, and there wasn’t the reverence for a the precious essence of a particular textual manifestation that Confucians had, and the Heart Sutra was recognized as the minimal summary version of a scripture that had longer, much longer, and much much longer versions.

    If there was a back translation into Sanskrit, it wasn’t necessarily an attempt to fool anyone. There’s a Sanskrit version of Hui Neng’s Platform Scripture, which everyone agrees was written in Chinese.

    The Daodejing is still another story, It’s textual history is an utter mess, and the more we learn the messier it gets. During its formative period scribes editors and transmitters seem to have felt little or no reverence for the text they inherited.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    And it’s not guttural, or gutteral, or gutterish, at all. OHIO! OHIO! OHIO!

    This fine story


    (that rozele pointed us to last September) contains a suitably vowel-heavy Ancient Eldritch Tongue of Power.

    There’s no reason why Ancient Eldritch Tongues of Power should all be typologically similar, of course. Or even related to one another. While there is only one form of sanity, insanity is endlessly multiform. Not to say rugose. Or squamous. Sometimes batrachian.

    I have said too much.

  21. January First-of-May says

    the description of Enochian as guttural

    I probably would have expected Enochian to sound kind of like Akkadian or Egyptian or Hittite or Elamite or maybe Ugaritic – guttural languages all of them. (Though admittedly not Sumerian, and apparently not Hattic, from what little we know of Hattic. I’m not sure about Hurrian.)

    Maybe there’s a cultural memory somewhere about the lost *h1 and *h2 and *h3 that we used to have and no longer do and are afraid of when they turn up in other languages. Except apparently the Dutch, who instead embrace them wholeheartedly. Maybe Goropius was on to something after all.

    (Meanwhile, Laundry Files!Enochian, whatever it was, sounds like a programming language that had been reworked to be at least theoretically pronounceable. Something like Ithkuil, maybe, or probably rather more like one of those proposals seen occasionally in science fiction where the vocabulary is simplified to something like one or two hundred words and each of them is squeezed into a sound in a correspondingly expanded phonetic system so that each sentence becomes a word.)

  22. David Marjanović says

    And it’s not guttural, or gutteral, or gutterish, at all. OHIO! OHIO! OHIO!

    Always has been.

  23. jack morava says

    Dear Bulbul, & Rodger C, thanks:

    I know Enochian is Stross’s invention but it did get me interested in the Book of Enoch, which is real (and in Ge’ez); the Wikipedia article is quite extensive. Another motivation was Philip Pullman’s reworking of Milton, which led me to wonder where the whole machinery of Christian angels comes from. [It doesn’t seem very Abrahamic.] There’s a lot of calendrical and astronomical stuff in Enoch, and I wonder quite seriously if might have Zoroastrian roots — cf eg Wikipedia on `yazata’.

  24. jack morava says

    PS to January First-of-May whose post arrived while I was composing mine:

    A High-Five from afar re Saussurean laryngeals!

    re: one of those proposals seen occasionally in science fiction

    cf Katherine MacLean’s `Incommunicado’ from maybe 1950.

    \oplus Thanks for Ithkuil, which I didn’t know about, also agree re Dutch…

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    The WP article suggests that the hierarchy-of-angels idea reflects the organisation of Hellenistic courts, which seems plausible.

  26. David Marjanović says

    a suitably vowel-heavy Ancient Eldritch Tongue of Power.

    Iä! Iä!

    (…just celebrating the ä key on my keyboard. Nothing to see here, please disperse.)

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    I probably would have expected Enochian to sound kind of like Akkadian or Egyptian or Hittite or Elamite or maybe Ugaritic

    But these are such young languages!

    Proto-Afroasiatic now … it is no accident that so little progress has been made in reconstructing the Great Protolanguage, or that the deliberate misdirections of Ehret and others among the People so muddy the waters. It is no accident that humanity sees only glimpses of the Language Without Vowels.

    Pray that progress continues to be slow …

  28. jack morava says

    @ David Eddyshaw

    My wife recommends Carleton Hodge’s Lislakh hypothesis, which places the PPPIE homeland in the Nile valley circa 17,000 BC… The dispersal route plausibly goes through G\”obekli Tepe…

  29. @John Emerson

    “longer, much longer, and much much longer”

    gate gate paragate parasamgate

  30. It is no accident that humanity sees only glimpses of the Language Without Vowels.
    It all makes sense now. Original sin came into the world when Adam & Eve filled the consonant templates with vowels…

  31. John Emerson says

    Dravidian. Of course.

  32. The Daodejing is still another story, It’s textual history is an utter mess, and the more we learn the messier it gets. During its formative period scribes editors and transmitters seem to have felt little or no reverence for the text they inherited.

    I feel your pain. Same thing with the quatrain about the Cassowary.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Same thing with the quatrain about the Cassowary.

    True. Nevertheless, when I read it, I was Enlightened.

  34. Here’s a detailed description of the post’s main topic, from Tanahashi’s 2014 book on the Heart Sutra, bringing up, among other things, the problematic term “back-translation”. I recommend the whole book, whose author seems reluctant to simply agree that a Chinese translator of that time would completely “invent” a sutra, and who goes on in subsequent chapters to argue for a more nuanced view of the whole issue than Nattier’s.

    A Chinese Apocryphal Text?

    IN 1992, JAN NATTIER, a professor at Indiana University, published a startling paper entitled “The Heart Sutra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?” in which she presented a revolutionary view on the formation of the sutra. Her paper is of great significance for anyone who is interested in the history of the sutra. Her theory, in brief, is this:

    Nattier lists five peculiar features of the shorter text of the sutra: its brevity; the lack of a sutra’s traditional opening (“Thus have I heard . . .”); the lack of the Buddha’s appearance; the role of Avalokiteshvara as the main speaker (Avalokiteshvara generally plays no role in the Prajna Paramita literature); and the placement of the mantra at the end. She points out that these features suggest that the circumstances of its composition may have differed notably from those that led to the more extensive Prajna Paramita texts.

    She divides the sutra into two major parts. The core section begins with the first appearance of “O Shariputra” and ends with the line “no knowledge and no attainment.” The frame section consists of the introduction and conclusion.

    The core section is virtually identical to a passage in Kumarajiva’s translation into Chinese of the 25,000-line Prajna Paramita (Pancavimshati Sahasrika Prajna Paramita). The Sanskrit version of the 25,000-line Prajna Paramita corresponds to Kumarajiva’s Chinese Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra. Thus, it is possible to establish a sequence of formation: Sanskrit 25,000-line Prajna Paramita → Chinese Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra → Chinese Heart Sutra.

    According to Nattier’s comparative analysis of the Hridaya and the corresponding part of the Sanskrit 25,000-line Prajna Paramita, a general similarity in the content of their ideas as well as their sequence is evident. Yet their styles are different: the former is concise, the latter repetitive. Also, there is a notable difference in grammar and vocabulary. Nattier thus argues that the Hridaya did not derive from the Sanskrit 25,000-line Prajna Paramita, or vice versa. Rather, she suggests that the Hridaya is a back-translation (a reconstruction of Sanskrit texts) from the Chinese Heart Sutra. “Such a striking similarity in content, combined with an equally striking difference in vocabulary, can only be explained as the result of a back-translation.”

    Avalokiteshvara’s following among Chinese Buddhists over the centuries had far exceeded his popularity in India. Thus, the choice of Avalokiteshvara as the central figure in a newly created Buddhist recitation text would be perfectly plausible in a Chinese milieu.

    The mantra that concludes the Heart Sutra was also seen in other texts in the Chinese Buddhist canon by the time the sutra was created. It is therefore arguable that the composer of the original Chinese Heart Sutra adopted the mantra from an existing work and inserted it into the sutra.

    A biography of Xuanzang states that he received the sutra from a sick man and used it for protection on the road to India. “This account provides concrete evidence, then, both of Xuanzang’s love for the text and his transport of its content (at least in oral form) to India,” says Nattier.

    According to Huili’s biography of Xuanzang, during his stay at Nalanda University he discovered that the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana was unknown to his Indian co-religionists. His response was to translate the text into Sanskrit. Nattier suggests: “Under the circumstances he may have done just what we would expect him to do: quietly re-translate the text back into Sanskrit. . . . The first Indian commentaries on the text appear roughly a century and a half after Xuanzang’s visit. . . . Until further evidence of other possibilities should surface, Xuanzang must remain the most likely candidate for the transmission of this Chinese creation to India.”

    Based on the findings of John McRae, Nattier suggests that the two versions of the Heart Sutra — considered to represent the lost Chinese translations — are known to us only through their inclusion in Daoan’s catalog, Complete Catalog of Sutras (Zongli Zhongjing Mulu). This list by Daoan was itself lost but was largely reproduced in Sengyou’s Record of the Translated Tripitaka (Chu Sanzang Jiji), completed around 515 C.E.7 Both titles are listed here as the work of anonymous translators. The attributions of these translations to Zhiqian and Kumarajiva, respectively, in later scripture catalogues were clearly added after the fact and can easily be discounted. The likelihood that these titles are genuine references to early versions of the Heart Sutra is doubtful.

    The earliest extant version of the Heart Sutra attributed to Kumarajiva is not found in the earliest catalogs of his work. Indeed, the first attribution to Kumarajiva is in the Kaiyuan Era Catalog of Shakyamuni’s Teachings (Kaiyuan Shijiao Lu), completed in 730.

    The line “Form is not different from emptiness. Emptiness is not different from form” in the so-called Kumarajiva version does not appear in the same way as it does in his translation of the 25,000-line Prajna Paramita. Instead, it appears exactly as it does in his translation of the Dazhidu Lun (Treatise on Realization of Great Wisdom), now attributed to Nagarjuna, which includes citations from Kumarajiva’s own Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.10 Nattier thus suggests that the so-called Kumarajiva version of the Heart Sutra is not the work of Kumarajiva himself or an independent translation from the Sanskrit but rather is the creation of a third party: a Chinese author who was more familiar with the Large Sutra as presented in “in the widely popular commentary of Dazhidu Lun than he was with the text of the sutra itself. The new work would likely have been created after the completion of the Dazhidu Lun in 406 C.E.

    Regarding the Chinese version of the Heart Sutra attributed to Xuanzang, Nattier suggests that we can no longer use the term “translation,” for there is every indication that it was fabricated in China. She writes, “Moreover, Xuanzang’s biography speaks not of his translation of the text, but of his initial encounter with the sutra in Szechwan.”

    The Heart Sutra, according to her, “does not appear where we would expect it to be: as part” of the huge Prajna Paramita scripture Xuanzang translated. In this scripture, “the various sutras are not treated as separate texts, but as chapters in a single work, a rather unusual arrangement that may well go back to Xuanzang himself.”

    “The most likely possibility, it would seem, is that Xuanzang encountered the [Chinese] text in its full form and made only minor editorial changes, in all likelihood after his extended study of Sanskrit terms in India.”

    “He may have ‘corrected’ the text, probably after his travels in India.” “It was certainly Xuanzang . . . who was responsible for the widespread “popularity of the sutra in China, and in all probability for its initial circulation (and perhaps its translation into Sanskrit) in India as well.”

    Nattier reminds us that the longer text of the Hridaya consists of a sutra’s proper introductory section. The core section that follows is nearly identical to the shorter text (the Sanskrit version), which corresponds to the Chinese version attributed to Xuanzang. And the longer text ends with a conclusion, which includes the audience’s response.

    Nattier makes an additional remark: “Even if we accept the idea that the sutra is ‘apocryphal’ in the technical sense, this in no way undermines the value that the text has held for Buddhist practitioners.” Then she concludes: “The Heart Sutra is indeed — in every sense of the word — a Chinese text.”

    Excerpt From: Kazuaki Tanahashi. “The Heart Sutra.” iBooks.

  35. Laundry Files!Enochian, whatever it was, sounds like a programming language

    i think it’s partly a nod by stross to his place in the long sf tradition of Languages That Perfectly Describe Reality (And So Can Change It) – the linguistic face of clarke’s law. plenty of novels turn on it: stephenson’s Snow Crash, miéville’s Embassytown, delany’s Babel-19, f’rinstance, all in quite different ways. we’ll never get eco’s account of it in a sequel to The Search for the Perfect Language, though…

    (the only such language currently extant, is, of course, Voynichian)

  36. Thanks AG for that thorough exposition of Nattier’s theory.

    I initially guessed that the line “Form is not different from emptiness. Emptiness is not different from form” must be a rendering of 色卽是空 空卽是色, but was puzzled by “is not different from” instead of simple “is”. Looking it up, it looks like the famous line is directly preceded by 色不異空 空不異色, where 不異 does mean “not different from”.

    Possibly the only reason I’m familiar with the line 色卽是空 at all is because it was used as the title of a 2002 Korean film, 색즉시공 Saekjeuksigong, a sex comedy, naturally. I haven’t seen it so I don’t know the significance of the title as it relates to the film, but it is a bit of a pun as can be seen in the English title Sex is Zero. 色 can mean something related to sex.

  37. jack morava says

    @ rozelle: Thanks! Science marches on:


    example quote “I’m generally interested in what it means to be a thing…” ; nuff said, perhaps.

  38. Perhaps related: “the term hanzi [漢字] first came into common usage among Tang-era (618-907) monks as it was required to distinguish Chinese writing from Sanskrit.” (The whole Log post is worth reading.)

  39. @jm: appropriately hosted on a server named “golem”!

    i myself am also interested in what it means to be a thing. though i am perhaps less haunted than i ought to be by the question “Why types?”

  40. jack morava says

    hi rozelle: I take this stuff seriously but don’t know enough about it to try to say anything useful. Wikipedia on type theory may or may not be useful. Apparently it makes talking to machines easier, especially if you want to quantify over possible worlds. Martin-L\”of is a useful keyword.

    PS IMO I am not a thing.

  41. I noticed in the references to WikiP’s page on the Heart Sutra that Nattier’s work is downloadable:

    Nattier, Jan (1992), “The Heart Sūtra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?”, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 15 (2): 153–223

    It’s 73 pages with footnotes and an appendix, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to evaluate it.


    Somewhat relatedly, I recall reading the mantra of the Heart Sutra in Barry Hughart’s Story of the Stone

    “Interesting,” [Master Li] said, with a faint sign of animation. “One doesn’t often hear ancient Sanskrit. The Great Prayer of the Heart Sutra, to be precise: Gyate, gyate, barag yate, harosogyate, bochi, sowaka! which means ‘Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, what an awakening, hail!’ Nobody can explain why it should be, but the prayer has an extraordinarily soothing effect when one repeats it over and over.”

    Now, this seems rather distant from the transliteration into Latin characters that I’ve seen:

    “Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā”.

    On searching, it looks like that’s more or less based on the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit:

    “Gyate, gyate, hara-gyate, hara-sogyate, boji sowaka”.

    Given that Hughart was writing about a vaguely (I’ve become more aware of how he wove in bits and pieces of other Chinese eras) Tang dynasty China (that never was), I am now curious as to what a Latin transliteration of the Chinese transliteration of Sanskrit would look like. Is the Japanese actually close to what it would have been, or would it be substantially different?

  42. @Owlmirror, the line in question is 揭諦揭諦 波羅揭諦 波羅僧揭諦 菩提娑婆訶.

    Some of these Chinese characters have several possible readings. Using Baxter’s transcription for Middle Chinese:
    揭 gjet, gjot, khjejH, khjet, kjot
    諦 tejH
    波 pwa
    羅 la
    僧 song
    菩 bojX, bjuwX, bok
    提 dej
    娑 sa
    婆 ba
    訶 xa

    Sticking with the first reading in each case where there are several possible ones, I get something like the following (the H and X represent departing and rising tones respectively in Baxter’s notation):

    Gjet-tejH gjet-tejH pwa-la-gjet-tejH pwa-la-song-gjet-tejH bojX-dej sa-ba-xa

    You can sort of see the similarity with the Latin transliteration of the Sanskrit that you gave:
    Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

    In Sino-Korean, this line is 아제아제 바라아제 바라승아제 모지사바하 Ajeaje baraaje baraseung’aje mojisabaha. The first half, 아제아제 바라아제 Ajeaje baraaje was used as the title of a 1989 film by Im Kwon-taek, given the English title Come Come Come Upward.

    The Sino-Korean rendition is interesting. The usual Sino-Korean reading of 揭 is 게 ge, with 갈 gal and 걸 geol also used for rare senses. So it is striking to see the reading 아 a here, which isn’t given in the dictionary I’ve consulted. 諦 is also usually 체 che, but the reading 제 je is at least mentioned in dictionaries.

    Similarly, 菩 is usually 보 bo as in 보살(菩薩) bosal, Sino-Korean for bodhisattva. The dictionary also gives 배 bae as a possible reading, but there is no mention of 모 mo. 提 is usually 제 je and the dictionary also gives 시 si, but not 지 ji.

    So the rendition of the line in Sino-Korean uses several readings that are quite different from the canonical readings of the characters used, and seem to hint at some sort of lenition going on where initial ㄱ g became zero and ㅂ b became ㅁ m. Maybe it was nasalization for both, in which case the former would have passed through an intermediate [ŋ] stage. In any case, it is easy to picture the mantra being repeated endlessly and settling into this form which differs from how one would usually pronounce the characters one by one.

  43. That’s very interesting, thanks!

  44. Hi, Thanks for this discussion of my Tricycle article, though I could not see many comments that were on topic.

    To answer your question more directly, Jan Nattier’s work is rather neglected. However, it is more and more acknowledged that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese text by English Speaking scholars. My own work has significantly extended Nattier’s. Two more copied passages have been identified. But crucially Nattier also noticed a number of Chinese idioms in the Sanskrit text. I have also documented some of these including, crucially, a phrase that is only ever used in Chinese texts but which has been literally translated into Sanskrit.

    My work is published in 11 peer reviewed journal articles but has so far attracted little comment. However, at least three more articles will be published in 2021. One, which is a comprehensive review of the very solid evidence for Chinese origins will be published this year. At some point people are going to have to acknowledge Nattier’s original work.

    Someone posted a long quote from Tanahashi’s book. There are a number of problems here. Tanahashi doesn’t know any Sanskrit. He was entirely reliant on 3rd parties and he often got things wrong when it came to Sanskrit – the book has many other flaws also. Tanahashi doesn’t notice the grammatical errors in the Sanskrit text he uses for example. He has trouble matching up Sanskrit and Chinese passages. Which is a shame because it was attractively packaged. But Tanahashi’s dealing with Nattier’s material (which requires that one know Sanskrit) was naive and fanciful and clearly didn’t understand what she was talking about. Tanahashi is a religious. His priorities are religious. And as such he does not want to know about facts that challenge his religious views. I get that, I even respect it to some extent, but it does mean that his views are uninformed and off topic.

    SFReader posted some better informed general comments regarding Chinese translation practices that are accurate as far as they go. But they are not relevant since the problem rests on comparing Chinese and Sanskrit versions of the same text in different contexts and looking for patterns of similarity and difference. And since Nattier, Orsborn, and I have done this extensively on different parts of the text, we can say with a very high degree of certainty that the text was composed in Chinese and them translated into Sanskrit (and a poor job was made of it).

    When you really look at the Sanskrit text, especially once you fix Conze’s numerous errors so that it’s more comprehensible, you start to see that its weird. It does not use the idioms of Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts at all. It makes some weird work choices that are not even Buddhist, let alone Prajñāpāramitā. Details of all these problems are mostly published already, with just a few more corrections to get out before I publish a revised version of the Sanskrit and reiterate Huifeng (Matt Orsborn)’s corrections to the Chinese. I hope this will happen in 2021.

    All the best

    P.S. if you have specific questions I’m happy to try to answer them. It’s shame your commenting app doesn’t allow threading, but we can manage.

  45. @Jongseong Park: Thank you kindly!


    While the OP links to a popular summation by Attwood, I note that his scholarly works on the Heart Sutra are available for download, with hopefully greater detail (they are also on academia.edu and researchgate):

    Attwood, J. (2017). Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13. (PDF)


    Connections between Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra and Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra suggest a new interpretation of an important passage in the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya or Heart Sutra. I am able to show that the four phrases exemplified by “form is emptiness” were once a reference to the well-known simile, “Form is like an illusion” (rūpam māyopamam). As the Prajñāpāramitā corpus expanded, the simile became a metaphor, “form is illusion”. It was then deliberately altered by exchanging “illusion” for “emptiness”, leading to the familiar phrases. This connection opens the door to reading the Heart Sutra, and the early Prajñāpāramitā sutras more generally, along the lines of Sue Hamilton’s (2000) epistemological approach to the Pāḷi suttas; i.e. as focussed on experience and particularly the meditative experience known in the Pāḷi suttas as dwelling in emptiness (suññatā-vihāra). In this view, the Heart Sutra makes sense on its own terms without having to invoke paradox or mysticism.


    Attwood, J. (2018). The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 15. (PDF)


    The phrase tryadhvavyavastithāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ “all the buddhas that appear in the three times” in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a hapax legomenon in Buddhist Sanskrit, but it is similar to the common Chinese idiom 三世諸佛 “buddhas of the three times”. In every case where this Chinese phrase is used in a Prajñāpāramitā text, other than the Heart Sutra, the corresponding extant Sanskrit texts have atītānāgatapratyutpannā buddhāḥ “past, future, and present buddhas” instead. Additionally, where one translator has used the phrase 三世諸佛 another frequently prefers 過去未來現在諸佛 “buddhas of the past, future, and present”, suggesting that their source texts also had this form with the three different times spelt out. The phrase tryadhvavyavastithāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ is unambiguously a Chinese idiom translated into Sanskrit in ignorance of Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā conventions. This proves that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese.

  46. Hey, welcome, Jayarava, and I’m glad you found the discussion!

    I could not see many comments that were on topic.

    Actually, this thread is far more on topic than many; here at Languagehat there is no expectation of sticking to the subject, since I believe in letting conversations follow their own path. In any case, I hope you will get responses from people who (unlike me) know something about the topic; all I can say is that I find your approach plausible and interesting.

  47. Quite a bit more on the Heart Sutra by Jayarava Attwood on researchgate.

    (When I first posted, I did not see Attwood’s comment here. It’s just a coincidence that I was copying from my Google Scholar searches, and wanting to be sure the links and formatting looked OK, so I didn’t look up.)

  48. Hi Languagehat and Owlmirror,

    There is indeed a lot more info in my published articles which are available on academia.edu (https://independent.academia.edu/JayaravaAttwood) and research gate (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jayarava_Attwood), as well as directly from the journals. Most of this work has been published in Journal of the Oxford Centre of Buddhist Studies, but also the Journal of Chinese Buddhism, and Pacific World. I have forthcoming articles on the Heart Sutra in Buddhist Studies Review, and the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies.

    These articles deal with a variety of topics. I was drawn into the subject by the need to correct Conze’s errors in his Sanskrit text (Heart Murmurs 2015; Notes on Niṣṭhānirvānaḥ 2018). And I was struck by the fact that these simple grammatical errors had stood for 70 years and been translated by many people, including some experts on Sanskrit. How did people translate the text without noticing these basic grammatical errors?

    This eventually led me to question Conze’s place in history (A Call to Reassess Conze 2020).

    I have also been interested to apply Jan Nattier’s methods to other parts of the text (Form is Not Emptiness 2017, Epithets 2017, Three Times 2018) which showed that the same patterns of similarity and difference. And then working through the consequences of this and an article by Huifeng for how we edit the Sanskrit text (Ungarbling 2020).

    Finally I have tried to make some contributions to the history of the text including some notes on the earliest physical evidence of the Heart Sutra (Xuanzang in light of Fangshan 2019) and some clues about provenance from the earliest commentaries (Palimpsest 2020).

    Forthcoming articles look at issues such as materials and methods for studying the Heart Sutra, a grand overview of evidence for the Chinese Origins Thesis, and some preliminary work on the extended text in Chinese – there seem to be two unrelated recensions of the extended text suggesting it was extended twice.

    I’m still in the preliminary stages of a article on the real philosophy behind the Heart Sutra – which the Tricycle Magazine article hints at.

    Once everything else is in place I plan to publish a revised Sanskrit edition and a Revised Chinese edition. This will include an idiomatic Sanskrit translation from Chinese to who how different it is from the current Sanskrit translation.

    I was shocked by the mistakes in Conze’s Sanskrit and then increasingly aware that a great deal of basic philological, historical, and philosophical work had simply never been done. Then I was surprised that Jan Nattier’s work was virtually ignored. So I kept at it, thinking I might turn things around. It remains to be seen how much impact I have.

  49. Sounds fascinating — I too am continually astonished at the errors and mistranslations that thrive uncorrected for years. Let me know when you publish your revised editions.

  50. I wonder how many important texts from various traditions simply haven’t received enough scholarly attention through the years with the result that the errors in the works of pioneers have stood uncorrected for decades.

  51. I’m pretty sure the answer is: lots.

  52. January First-of-May says

    I wonder how many important texts from various traditions simply haven’t received enough scholarly attention through the years with the result that the errors in the works of pioneers have stood uncorrected for decades.

    …I suspect that there are probably just as many, if not more, cases where the traditions have since been extinguished (or, at least, no longer use the same texts) and the works of pioneers will never be corrected (except perhaps by emendation), as the sources for correction are no longer extant.

    (It’s probably even more common, even proportionally, with less important texts.)

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