Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.
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.
The Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya or Heart Sutra is often said to be the most popular Buddhist text, and, we are told, it is frequently chanted in Buddhist shrine-rooms and temples all around the world. Within the Heart Sutra, a formula consisting of four phrases, in two symmetrical pairs, is seen as the enigmatic essence, not only of the text, but of Prajñāpāramitā, and perhaps even of Mahāyāna Buddhism as a whole:
“Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form. Form is just emptiness; emptiness is just form.” These symmetrical affirmations of the identity of form and emptiness lead to the negation of important Buddhist doctrines like the five skandhas, twelve nidānas and the four truths of the nobles, giving the Heart Sutra its distinctive paradoxical flavour.
However, the formula is not easy to understand. At face value, it just about makes sense to argue “form is empty” if one is familiar with Buddhist dharma theory. To say, “Form is empty-ness” (using the abstract noun) is less clear. Even when we interpret emptiness as “empty of essence” or “empty of own-being” (svabhāvaśūnya), what can it mean to say that form is the lack of essence? The typical Buddhist interpretation is to take form as representing the objects of perception. This is an ontological statement, but one that does not seem to make sense (at least in terms of Western metaphysical traditions). If we reverse the formula to say, “Emptiness is form”, the metaphysics is even more problematic. When one turns to the ancient commentaries of this text for guidance, one discovers that, as Alex Wayman observed,
“The writers seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition, but rather were simply arranging their particular learning in Buddhism to the terminology of the sūtra.” (1984: 309) In other words, each commentator takes the Heart Sutra to epitomise their views on Buddhism, whatever their views happen to be. Despite widely divergent metaphysics, the Heart Sutra is at once the heart of Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, Huayen, Zen, and Tantric Buddhism; and sometimes quantum physics as well! (Mu 1994). Another modern commentator, Malcolm David Eckel, concludes:
“... to approach the Indian commentaries in the hope that they will somehow yield the ‘original’ meaning of the text is to invite disappointment... what they thought it meant was shaped as much by the preoccupations of their own time as it was by the words of the sūtra itself. (1987: 69-70) Similarly, English translations of the text continue to diverge. In each new translation, the translator strives to produce a unique text that reflects their particular understanding, often extemporising and expanding on the text to reinforce the uniqueness of their “translation”. Ironically, the expanding body of commentary seems not to have a heart. In some cases, the translators and/or commentators seem to have paid scant attention to the source text, a complaint Paul Harrison also makes about canonical Chinese translations of the Diamond Sutra (2010: 244). In some cases, the “translation” is simply a paraphrase of some existing translation, with words rearranged or substituted to highlight the preoccupations of the “translator”. Alternatively, the commentator purports to translate the Sanskrit text, thereby gaining the kudos of working with the putative “original”, but in fact translates a Chinese or Tibetan version of the text.
Jan Nattier’s (1992) watershed article demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Heart Sutra was composed in China using fragments of texts translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva’s translation team. Nattier also identified some problematic aspects of the received Sanskrit text. Inspired by Nattier, some recent research on the Heart Sutra (Huifeng 2014, Attwood 2015, 2017) shows that bypassing sectarian commentaries and turning to the early Prajñāpāramitā literature can provide an illuminating context for interpreting the Heart Sutra. In this article, I employ the same method of tracking the passage of interest back to the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Pañcaviṃśati) and thence to antecedents in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa), to see what light they shed on the enigma at the heart of the Heart Sutra.
It has been known at least since the time of Kuījī’s commentary (T1710), i.e. ca. late 7th century CE, that the “form is emptiness” passage is part of a quote from Pañcaviṃśati (Nattier 1992: 206-7, n.33). The passage consists of four phrases, in two symmetrical pairs. Conze’s Sanskrit edition includes a further pair of statements: yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatā and yā śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ. This was, in fact, a minority reading in his witnesses. The extra phrases are absent from the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati, from all the Chinese texts of the Heart Sutra and Pañcaviṃśati, and from the Tibetan canonical Heart Sutra (Nattier 1992: 204, n.19). I follow Nattier in treating them as a late interpolation and not properly part of the sutra.
The four phrases are shown below in their various versions: from the Gilgit manuscript of Pañcaviṃśati (Karashima 2016, and cited in Nattier 1992); two Chinese versions of the short text Heart Sutra (T250, T251) attributed to Kumārajīva and Xuánzàng respectively; and the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra from Conze’s edition (1948, 1967). Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation of Pañcaviṃśati (T233) is problematic and will be dealt with separately below. All of the Chinese texts use 色 for “form” (rūpa); 空 for “emptiness” (śūnyatā); and 異 for “different”. The translations that follow were chosen to highlight differences in the source texts :
1. nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ Form is not one thing and emptiness another. 2. nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ Emptiness is not one thing, and form another. 3. rūpam eva śūnyatā Form is emptiness. 4. śūnyataiva rūpam Emptiness is form.
rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā Emptiness is not different from form. śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam Form is not different from emptiness. The two Sanskrit expressions “na anya X anya Y” and “X na pṛthak Y” are equivalents. In the latter, X is in the ablative case, so parsing the Sanskrit we get “from X not different Y” and in english, “Y is not different from X”. Similarly, the Chinese expressions “非 X 異 Y” and “X 不異 Y” are equivalent; in these phrases, 非 negates the whole phrase, whereas 不 negates only 異. In plain english, all of these phrases say, “X is Y”. In phrases 3 and 4, the syntax is “X eva Y” in Sanskrit and “X 即是 Y” in Chinese. In Sanskrit, the copular verbisis omitted by convention. It may also be omitted in Buddhist Chinese, but the Heart Sutra includes 是 “is”. The Sanskrit emphatic particle, eva, is represented in Chinese by 即. Eva is indicated in translation by the use of italics or by qualifiers such as “only” or “just”. So in plain English, again these statements boil down to “X is Y”. X here is any one of the skandhas, so it is not only form that is emptiness, but also only sensations etc.
Two oddities are found only in the version of the four phrases in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. Firstly, the pairs of phrases 1-2 and 3-4 are inverted; and secondly, it omits eva in phrase 1, breaking the symmetry found in all the other versions. I know of no explanation for these oddities. The four phrases are part of a longer quotation, but since T250 has the 非 X 異 Y syntax and T251 has the X 不異 Y syntax, this has led to some confusion about the source of the quote. The ostensible source of the four phrases, Kumārajīva’s translation of Pañcaviṃśati (T223), has X 不異 Y (8.223a13-4). This would make T250 the odd one out, despite the fact that it is attributed to Kumārajīva. The possibility is raised that the quote is from, or at least influenced by, another text translated by Kumārajīva i.e. 《大智度論》 Dàzhìdù lùn = Sanskrit *Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (T1509, 25.327c22-23). T1509 is a commentary (upadeśa) on Pañcaviṃśati, attributed to Nāgārjuna (probably apocryphally) and it has the 非 X 異 Y syntax. This is the only difference between T223 and T1509 in the quoted passage.
Nattier (crediting the late Masatoshi Nagatomi) points out that the Taishō edition footnotes record that in the “Sung, Yüan, Ming, and K’ai-pao [Old Sung]” editions of the Tripiṭaka, T223 uses the 非 X 異 Y syntax instead (8.223, notes 1 and 2). She concludes, “My working assumption, at this point, is that these relatively late editions reflect an editorial emendation introduced on the authority of [T1509] itself” (1992: 215, n.75). History records that Kumārajīva and his translation team alternately worked on T223 and T1509 from the summer of 402 CE to 27 Dec 405 CE, proof-reading and revising each in the light of the other (Chou 2004: 298-300). They were also comparing their text to previous texts. I’m not aware of any detailed comparison of the texts of T223 and T1509 so have no point of comparison for judging the significance of this discrepancy, though as far as the quoted passages found in the Heart Sutra go this is the only difference. Nor is there any surviving Sanskrit text of the Upadeśa for comparison. It does seem strange that Kumārajīva’s meticulous translation team should have allowed this trifling discrepancy to remain. On the other hand, T1509 became the standard text for understanding Prajñāpāramitā in China, so if it were the source of the passage in the Heart Sutra this would not be surprising. There is still no way to resolve this conundrum.
Since Pañcaviṃśati is in principle an expansion of Aṣṭa, they have a similar structure. A passage found early in the former ought to have an antecedent early in the latter. We can reasonably expect any predecessor of this passage from Chapter Three of Pañcaviṃśati to appear in the first chapter of Aṣṭa. However, while Aṣṭa is full of references to emptiness, they do not occur in the first chapter. There are two passages in Chapter One that seem to shed light on the Heart Sutra.
The first is: “exactly form, elder Śāriputra, is free from (virahita) essence of form (rūpasvabhāva); just so for sensation, perception, and volition; exactly cognition, elder Śāriputra, is free of essence of cognition. The problem that passages like this are addressing is assumed to be the incipient realism of the Abhidharma project, which culminates in the skandhas being seen as a description of reality. Compare Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary (s.v. khandha), “These are the five aspects in which the Buddha has summed up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence” (1980: 98: emphasis added). Here the skandhas are an ontology. A complication for this discussion is that existence in this context is often assumed to be absolute. In other words, to say that something exists, at all, is to strongly imply that it exists in and of itself, permanently, and without change over time. Given this, it can be difficult to understand how ābhidharmikas were drawn into their insistence that some dharmas are real (dravya).
The ābhidharmikas started out using the word svabhāva to mean a “characteristic quality”. At first, svabhāva defined categories into which dharmas could be slotted by analysis. For example, a dharma might be categorised as good (kuśala), not-good (akuśala), or indeterminate in this respect (avyākṛta). Almost inevitably, the dharmas themselves came to be seen as not merely fitting into that category, but actually possessing such qualities. Before long, the qualities took on a separate life that did not arise and pass away with other dharmas. In this view, kuśala and akuśala are timeless, permanent qualities that exist above and beyond particularly experiences, in order that any experience may always be slotted into the appropriate category. If this were not true, then a project to categorise all dharmas would necessarily fail, precisely because the categories were mutable. Thus any project of categorisation has an inherent tendency to realism.
The Sarvāstivādins, however, were driven by a further problem. The last part of pratītyasamutpāda requires that when conditions cease, effects arising in dependence on them also cease (asya nirodhād idaṃ nirudhyate). In order to account for karma in terms of pratītyasamutpāda, Buddhists had to explain how a condition (specifically an action or karma), could produce an effect long after it ceased. While most Buddhists opted for the doctrine of momentariness, in which a cascade of infinitesimally short-lived cittaseach being the condition for the nextprovide the appropriate and timely continuity required between
action and consequence, the Sarvāstivādins instead reasoned that if a dharma (qua mental event) can act as a condition in the future, then it must exist in the future. Similarly, if a past dharma is the condition for a consequence now, then that past dharma must still exist in the present. If karma was to be connected across time to consequences, then dharmas must always exist, but only be active in the karma process in the present. The first Sarvāstivādin account of this is explored by Bastow (1995). Counter-intuitive though this seems from a modern Buddhist point of view, in fact it has some advantages. The main alternative
approach, the doctrine of momentariness, led to a superstructure of speculative metaphysical entities such as bhavaṅga-citta (Theravāda) and ālaya-vijñāna (Yogācāra) that have to be taken on faith. On the other hand, the sarva-astivāda requires no new axioms and no supernatural entities beyond the dharmas themselves. It simply requires that dharmas function in particular ways that are implied by pratītyasamutpāda itself. However, this argument is academic because momentariness is now universally accepted amongst Buddhists.
I suggest that we can usefully step away from treating the skandhas as related to ontology at all. Huifeng (2014: 103) noted that if we read the Heart Sutra according to his suggested amendments, then it “shifts the emphasis away from an ontological negation of classical lists, i.e. ‘there is no X’, to an epistemological stance”. This epistemological stance is similar to the reading of early Buddhism described by Sue Hamilton. In Hamilton’s (2000) account, the
skandhas are the “experiencing apparatus” (81, 96), and “… the teachings are designed to enable to understand one’s world of experience by means of understanding the operating of one’s khandhas, and so bring about the ability to achieve liberation from rebirth” (205). Throughout the rest of this article, I explore how this hermeneutic can be applied to the Prajñāpāramitā generally and the Heart Sutra in particular.
Although we experience form or experience ourselves as having form, there is no self-existent form, no “essence of form”. The experience of “form” arises because a visual sense object (rūpa-ālambana) meets the visual sense faculty (cakṣu-indriya) in the presence of visual sense cognition (cakṣu-vijñāna), i.e. because the apparatus of visual experience is functioning. No “essence of form” is required to give being to form, because here “form” refers to an experience rather than a reality. Note especially, that the “object” is only a support (ālambana) for experience, rather than representing a Platonic ideal or noumenon
(I’ll return to this). Because experience is constantly arising and ceasing, if only because attention flits between objects, form as experience cannot have svabhāva in the sense of self-existence. Experience doesn’t have “being” in the ordinary sense, let alone in an absolute sense. Experiencing a dependently arisen form does not give us certain knowledge of the corresponding object. Indeed, Buddhists say that we almost inevitably make mistakes when drawing ontological conclusions from experience.
So this first passage from Aṣṭa critiques realism with respect to dharmas and opens the door to an epistemological reading of the text. However, what we are looking for is a discussion of the emptiness of dharmas themselves. The second passage that sheds light is the only time that Chapter One uses the word śūnya. Furthermore, elder Subhūti, with reference to the bodhisatva mahāsatva said thus:… If he practises with respect to [the idea], “form is empty” (rūpaṃ śūnyam), he practises with respect to a sign (nimitta) …. If he practises with respect to “discernment is empty”, he practises with respect to a sign... This bodhisatva is to be known as “lacking skilful means” (anupāyakuśalo).
This is an unexpected turn. Here “form is empty” is not the essence of Prajñāpāramitā, but one of a long list of ideas (abbreviated above) that can become reified and lead the bodhisatva into error so that they are “without skilful means” (anupāyakuśalo). If one still perceives form, even if one sees it as empty, it is still a sign (nimitta) or percept. One of the refined states of awareness involved in Buddhist meditations associated with emptiness is the signless
mental concentration (animittaṃ cetosamādhiṃ), in which all attention is withdrawn from the signs that constitute experience. The meditative state of emptiness is, like the state of signlessness, a state of awareness with no content: no subject and no object; no arising and ceasing of experience; just an intransitive alertness (i.e. one is aware, but not of anything).14 One comes to this state by progressively withdrawing attention from sensory experience using, for example, the method outlined in the Pāḷi Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121).15 In a later chapter, Aṣṭa expands on the emptiness of dharmas:
Here Subhūti, the bodhisatvas, mahāsatvas, being fully-enlightened Buddhas, teach the Dharma that form has the [same] condition of space in the world. Sensation, perception, and volition are the same. In the same way, Subhūti, all dharmas have the condition of space, not coming, not going, just like space. Just as space does not come or go, it is not made or unmade or shaped, it does not last, remain, or endure, it does not arise or cease; so also all dharmas do
not come or go, they are not made or unmade or shaped, they do not last, remain, or endure, they do not arise or cease, they are not falsely distinguished from these aspects of space. Why is that? Subhūti, the emptiness of form does not come or go. Sensation, perception, and volition are the same. The emptiness of cognitions does not come or go. In the same way, Subhūti, the emptiness of all dharmas does not come or go. The reason is that all dharmas are in a state of emptiness (śūnyatāgatikāḥ sarvadharmāḥ). They cannot escape that state.16
dwells having attained the signless mental concentration.” (Idhāvuso, bhikkhu sabbanimittānaṃ amanasikārā animittaṃ cetosamādhiṃ upasampajja viharati. MN i.297); and “He knows that this [[[signless]] mental concentration], which is ultimately conditioned and volitional, is impermanent and by nature ceases. Knowing and seeing it this way the mind is freed from the taint of desire, the taint of being, and the taint of ignorance.” (Yaṃ kho pana kiñci abhisaṅkhataṃ abhisañcetayitaṃ tad aniccaṃ nirodhadhamman ti pajānāti. Tassa evaṃ jānato evaṃ passato kāmāsavāpi cittaṃ vimuccati, bhavāsavāpi cittaṃ vimuccati, avijjāsavāpi cittaṃ vimuccati. MN iii.107). On signlessness, see also Harvey (1988).
14 I speculate that ancient Brahmins had the same kind of experience but interpreted it differently, i.e. as Brahman or “being, consciousness, and bliss” (saccidānanda), a concept that Richard Gombrich has argued was familiar to early Buddhists (2009: 68-70).
15 For a practice oriented commentary on this sutta, see Satyadhana (2014).
16 iha subhūte bodhisatvā mahāsatvā anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbuddhāḥ santo lokasya ākāśagatikaṃ rupam iti dharmaṃ deśayanti | evaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ | evam eva subhūte sarvadharmā ākāśagatikā anāgatikā agatikā ākāśasamāḥ | yathā ākāśam anāgatam agatam akṛtam avikṛtam anabhisaṃskṛtam, asthitam asaṃsthitam avyavasthitam , anutpannam
The bodhisatva must not identify with the world of experience. The meditating bodhisatva (aspiring to liberation) aims at the state of emptiness, i.e. a state in which the world of experience has effectively ceased, but they are still awake and alert. The Cūḷasuññata Sutta also describes a “state of emptiness” (suññatāvihāra) that, in this case, is attained by gradually eliminating the arising of experience by withdrawing attention (amanasi karoti) from sources of experience. Since attention is one of the conditions for the arising of experience, withdrawing attention prevents experience from arising. This can result in “the attainment of the cessation of perceptions and sensations” (saññā-vedayitanirodha-samāpatti), often simply called “cessation” (nirodha). In this context, Pāḷi suñña means something like “absent” and suññatā “absence”, i.e. the absence of sensory or mental experience. It can also refer to the absence of ātman (C.f. Choong 1999: 8-31).
Aṣṭa emphasises that “All dharmas are in a state of emptiness” (śūnyatāgatikā sarvadharmāḥ), which echoes the Heart Sutra’s phrase “all dharmas are characterised by emptiness” (sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣanāḥ). This is different from how emptiness is used in Nikāya and Āgama texts (Cf. Choong 1999: 8-31). Here the meditative experience becomes an analogy for the nature of dharmas. Presumably, the reasoning was along the lines that, while in the state of emptiness, all conditioned dharmas are absent (śūnya); and since experience is simply a collection of dharmas, if emptiness applies to the whole state, then it
applies equally to all aspects of that state. The dharma is the microcosm to the psycho-physical macrocosm of the human being. We know from early Buddhist texts that dharmas are empty of existence or non-existence, empty of ātman. This is extended to deny the Abhidharma svabhāva, especially in the later meaning of existing in and of itself. The idea is expressed in the metaphor of the state of emptiness experienced by the meditating bodhisatva: all dharmas are like space, in that, for ancient Buddhists, the ontological status of space is also indeterminate. None of the metaphysics that applies to objects, such as location, extension in space or time, causality, or dichotomies like “existence/ nonexistence” can be applied to dharmas or to experience more generally.
aniruddham, evam eva subhūte sarvadharmā anāgatā āgatā ākṛtā avikṛtā anabhisaṃskṛtā asthitā asaṃsthitā avyavasthitā anutpannā aniruddhā ākāśakalpatvād avikalpāḥ | tat kasya hetoḥ? yā subhūte rūpasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā | evaṃ vedanāyāḥ saṃjñāyāḥ saṃskārāṇām | yā subhūte vijñānasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā | evam eva subhūte yā sarvadharmāṇāṃ śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā | tat kasya hetoḥ? śūnyatāgatikā hi subhūte sarvadharmāḥ | te tāṃ gatiṃ na vyativartante | (Vaidya 1960: 148)
A similar analogy is found in the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthitasamādhi-sūtra (PraS), which applies Prajñāpāramitā ideas to Pure Land practices involving the visualisation of Buddhas (buddhānusmṛti). According to Paul Harrison:
“[PraS] first underlines the fundamental unreality of the entities experienced during the samādhi by comparing them with those things perceived in dreams… and thenoften without the shift in focus being made explicitproceeds to emphasise the emptiness of all dharmas, which supposedly constitute the basis of our experience in the waking state” (1990: xix)
Harrison describes this as an “analogical extension or generalisation” from the emptiness of meditative experiences to the emptiness of dharmas (xix). Although there is much here that is of interest in understanding Prajñāpāramitā generally, we do not seem to have discovered the direct antecedent of the Pañcaviṃśati passage that ended up in the Heart Sutra. In fact, there is a passage in Aṣṭa that has the same syntax as the Pañcaviṃśati passage, but with a significant difference.
“If the Bhagavan were asked, ‘Can the man of illusions (māyāpuruṣa) train in omniscience (sarvajñā), will he come near it, and will he go forth to it?’ How would the Bhagavan explain the answer to this question?”
Here sarvajñā “complete knowledge, omniscience” is a common synonym of Prajñāpāramitā. By way of answer, the Buddha asks Subhūti a related question: What do you think Subhūti: is illusion (māyā) different from form? Different from sensation, apperception, or volition? Is illusion different from cognition?19 Subhuti answers:
Bhagavan, illusion is not different from form. Bhagavan, the illusion is form; form is the illusion. Bhagavan, illusion is not different from sensation, from perception, or from volition. The illusion is sensation, perception, and volition; sensation, perception, and volition are only illusions. Bhagavan, the illusion is not different from cognition. The illusion is cognition; cognition is the illusion.20 It is this paragraph that uses the familiar sentence structures, but with “illusion” (māyā) instead of “emptiness” (śūnyatā). In the Gilgit manuscript of Pañcaviṃśati:
nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā | nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ | rūpam eva śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpam And here in Aṣṭa: na hi anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva māyā | māyaiva rūpam | There are some minor spelling differences caused by sandhi, and by the use of pronouns and particles in Aṣṭa, but these are superficial. The basic sentence idiom idaṃ sarvaṃ meaning “all of this, all of creation, the entire universe”. See also my notes on sarva and these texts (Attwood 2014). 1 9 Bhagavān etad avocat – tat kiṃ manyase subhūte anyā sā māyā, anyat tad rūpam, anyā sā māyā, anyā sā vedanā | anyā sā saṃjñā, anye te saṃskārāḥ | anyā sā māyā, anyat tad vijñānam? (Vaidya 1960: 8). The form of this question also suggests that Conze has erred in interpreting māyāpuruṣa as a karmadhāraya “illusory man”, i.e. a man who is an illusion. Rather we should read it as a tatpuruṣa the “man of illusions”, i.e. a man who has illusions about experience. The Buddha seems to be asking whether we can separate the man from his illusions about experience.
20 subhūtir āha - na hy etad bhagavan | na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva rūpam | na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyā sā vedanā, anyā sā saṃjñā anye te saṃskārāḥ | vedanā saṃjñā  saṃskārā eva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskārāḥ | na bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyat tad vijñānam | vijñānam eva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vijñānam || (Vaidya 1960: 8-9).
structure is still na anya X anya Y, followed by X eva Y. Aṣṭa only has three phrases instead of four, leaving out the expected first phrase: na hi anyat tad rūpam anyā sā śūnyatā. Otherwise, the two passages are too similar for this to be a coincidence. It seems plausible to conjecture that this Aṣṭa passage is the source of the passage in Pañcaviṃśati, and thus the ultimate source of the passage in the Heart Sutra. We may also conjecture that the author of Pañcaviṃśati deliberately changed māyā to śūnyatā.
What Subhūti is saying in this passage is that māyā or illusionsi.e. the conditioned experiences that the unenlightened take to be realare not found outside the five branches of experience (pañca skandhāḥ). In fact, experience (in the sense of the operation of the skandhas) is the illusion. The skandhas working together are experience; they are what we mistakenly take to be existent or nonexistent. At least for the unenlightened, experience is an illusion that we buy
into. The Buddha can say this because he often dwells, per the Cūḷasuññata Sutta, in the state of emptiness (suññatāvihāra), i.e. in a state where the skandhas are temporarily inoperative. From this perspective, experience, including the experience of having a first-person perspective on experience, is an illusion, but one that a skilled meditator can wake up from. In particular, spending time in the śūnyatā-samādhi radically alters one’s perspective on experience so that one no longer mistakes it for reality.
The earliest Chinese translation of Aṣṭa, completed ca. 179 CE, by Lokakṣema (T224), renders the passage as: “Illusion (幻) and form are not different; form is illusion, illusion is form; illusion and sensation, perception, volition, and cognition are not different.” Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation of Aṣṭa (T227) completed in 408 CE, better reflects the syntax of the passage in T223, and it includes the missing fourth statement that is absent in the Sanskrit edition of Vaidya (1960):
“Illusion is not different from form; form is not different from illusion. Illusion is just form; form is just illusion. Illusion is not different from sensation, perception, volition, or cognition; cognition is not different from illusion. Illusion is just cognition; cognition is just illusion.” So it seems that Aṣṭa is consistent in using māyā here. Unfortunately, this passage does not occur in the 1st Century Ce gāndhārī manuscript of Aṣṭa published by Falk & Karashima (2012), but we can find a probable counterpart to this passage in the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (Rgs). Here, the one who knows that the five skandhas are like an illusion (māyopamaṃ),
The one who practises for peace is free of multiplying perceptions, He practises the highest perfection of understanding. Having established that extant versions of Aṣṭa and Rgs have māyā rather than śūnyatā, it will be worth reviewing how Buddhists have viewed rūpa in the light of the concept of māyā.
In early Buddhist texts, the relationship between form and illusion is usually stated as a simile. For example, in the Pāḷi Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95) we find: Just so, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees some form, past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far away or right here, he studies it, investigates its origins... and to him it appears (khāyati) unreal, hollow (tucchaka), without substance (asāraka). After all, what substance (sāra) is there in form?
The etymology of the word sāra is obscure, but it refers to the essential, inner core of anything, or to the best part of something: the heartwood of a tree, the marrow of a bone, the cream of milk. The point of the simile is that when one investigates the experience of “form”, it has no such core. Significantly, this means that Buddhists did not see the object of perception (ālambana) as the core of experience, though it is acknowledged to be present. They also did not see appearance as a manifestation of some ideal (they did not posit a noumenon behind every phenomenon). To reiterate, the ontology of an experience is
ambiguous, hence the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15) says that the experiential world (loka) is usually conceived of in terms of existence (atthitā) and non-existence (natthitā). The Buddha teaches a middle way between these two extremes, which amounts to saying that only dukkha arises and ceases.27 Sue Hamilton has shown that in Pāḷi dukkha is synonymous with the khandhas, and both with loka, and all three with unenlightened experience (2000: 205). Pañcaviṃśati, echoing the Pāḷi suttas, says, “The tathāgata calls the five skandhas ‘the world’ (loka),”28 implying that Hamilton’s observations also apply in the context of Prajñāpāramitā.
We certainly have experiences, but they are not real in the way that objects are real. Experiences are not simply subjective, since they require an object to be present; but when we have an experience, nothing comes into existence as a result, nor does anything cease when the experience stops. This view is also informed by the meditative experience of emptiness, i.e. the possibility of being alert, but unaware of any experience. The Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta concludes with a well-known verse:
khāyati, tucchakaññeva khāyati, asārakaññeva khāyati. Kiñhi siyā, bhikkhave, rūpe sāro? (SN iii.140-1). The Chinese Samyuktāgama counterpart has a related pericope at this point “[[[form]]] is nothingness (Skt. ākiṃcanya), not-durable, not, real, without substance; like sickness, like a boil, like a stab, like murder; impermanent, disappointing, empty (空; Skt śūnya), and insubstantial ( 無所有、無牢、無實、無有堅固，如病、如癰、如刺、如殺，無常、苦、空、非我。 SA 265 T2.68c1-7). Cf also T105, T106 which are standalone translations of a similar text.
27 Dukkham eva uppajjamānaṃ uppajjati, dukkhaṃ nirujjhamānaṃ nirujjhatī ti (SN ii.17). Compare the Vajirā Sutta (SN 5:10) “For only suffering is produced, persists, and ceases. Nothing other than suffering is produced, nothing other than suffering ceases.” (Dukkham eva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca; Naññatra dukkhā sambhoti, naññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī ti SN i.136).
We also find the simile in Aṣṭa, “form is like an illusion” (māyopamaṃ rūpam. Vaidya 1960: 9; c.f. Rgs 1.14 above). A similar verse occurs at the end of the Vajracchedikā (Vaj), where the simile becomes a metaphor:
So there is some continuity of this idea from Buddhist texts in Pāḷi into the early Prajñāpāramitā texts (Aṣṭa, Rgs, and vaj). Huifeng (2016: 245) notes that, compared to the early and mainstream (i.e. commentarial and Abhidharma) usage, the semantic fields in Aṣṭa and Rgs are narrowed down to simply “illusion”. The substitution of śūnyatā for māyā in Pañcaviṃśati is an interesting development in Prajñāpāramitā literature, especially as “only form is emptiness” becomes paired with “only emptiness is form”. In the introduction, I pointed out how difficult this is to understand taken at face value. Of course, there are various ways of resolving this difficulty, which are found in commentaries both ancient and modern. How does the Prajñāpāramitā literature view the problem?
Pañcaviṃśati also has the expression “form is like an illusion”. More importantly, it has it in conjunction with the phrase “form is emptiness” (rūpam śūnyatā). Chapter Three opens with a dialogue between the Buddha and Śāriputra. Śāriputra asks, “Moreover, Bhagavan, how should the bodhisatva mahāsatva practise with respect to perfection of wisdom.”31 The Buddha’s reply is that the bodhisatva does not perceive (na samanupaśyati)32 the fact of being a bodhisatva, the name “bodhisatva”, the practice (cāryam) of a bodhisatva, or the perfection of wisdom. And they also don’t perceive the skandhas. Why not?
kadalūpamā; Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ, desitādiccabandhunā (SN iii.142). The Chinese text of SA 265 closely approximates this: 觀色如聚沫，受如水上泡，想如春時燄，諸行如芭蕉，諸識法如幻，日種姓尊說。 (T2 69a18-20). 30 tārakā timiraṃ dīpo māyāvaśyāya budbudaḥ | supinaṃ vidyud abhraṃ ca evaṃ draṣṭavya saṃskṛtam ||Vaj 22 || (Harrison & Watanabe 2006) 31 kathaṃ punar bhagavan bodhisatvena mahāsatvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caritavyam (Kimura 2010: 1-1, 53).
32 Conze translates samanupaśyati as “reviews” (1975a: 56) and notes (n.4) that he takes it to mean, “sees repeatedly”, i.e. “re-views”. Because a bodhisatva is indeed empty of self-existence. It is not through being empty that form, sensation, perception, volition, and cognition are empty. Emptiness is not separate (nānyatra) from form. Emptiness is not separate from sensation, apperception, volition, or cognition. Form just is emptiness. Sensation, perception, volition, and cognition are only emptiness.
What is the reason? Because bodhi, bodhisatva, and śūnyatā are merely names (nāmamātra). Form, sensation, apperception, volition, and cognition are mere names. For this reason, form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are like illusions (māyopama); and a mere name is not situated or located [anywhere]: non-existent, unreal, false, an illusory idea; essenceless and without essence; non-arising and non-ceasing, not decreasing nor growing, not defiled nor purified.
Note the similarity in meaning of the last part of this passage with a section of the Heart Sutra, though the choice of words is different. Here, form is emptiness because “form” is “merely a name” (nāmamātra) [for an aspect of experience or a skandha] and names are “like illusions” (māyopama). It’s not that there is some entity called “form” that is empty; but that emptiness is inseparable (nānyatra) from the experience of form; but at the same time “form” is not located anywhere in space, so it is unlike the object that supports (ālambana) the experience, which is located in space. Form is not the object of cognition;
it is the cognition. This parallels Sue Hamilton’s observation that dukkha “… is not descriptive of the world in which we have our experience; it is not descriptive of everything we perceive out there and then react to. Rather, it is our [unenlightened] experience” (2000: 82; emphasis in the original). This outcome is not the result of the ontology of objects, but of the epistemology implied by the skandhas as “the apparatus of experience” (205).
If we read the Prajñāpāramitā literature as expounding an epistemology rather than an ontology, some of the apparently paradoxical statements become clearer, especially if we keep in mind the context of meditations in which experiences cease (at least temporarily) without the cessation of consciousness per se. Having explored the history of these ideas in the Prajñāpāramitā texts, I want to say a few words about the introduction of such changes to Buddhist texts.
Changing Buddhist Texts
When the Pāḷi texts were written down it was the end of large-scale changes in them. They became a canon. By contrast, evidence from surviving manuscripts and Chinese translations suggests that Mahāyāna texts continued to change and especially to grow over centuries, despite being written down, so that each new translation into Chinese was longer than the previous translations. Some later translators and commentators, not appreciating this, criticised earlier translators for “abbreviating” the texts.
There are many reasons why texts are amended and adapted. These are not always to do with increasing wisdom over time; sometimes the changes are ideological; sometimes texts have been amended in ways that are dubious at best and catastrophic at worst. In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, for example, during a discussion between the Buddha and ānanda on the Buddha’s funeral arrangements (between the sections on the four pilgrimage places and how to deal with the Tathāgata’s remains), there is a passage about how bhikkhus should have nothing to do with women (DN ii.140-1). It is out of place and destroys the flow of the narrative at a critical juncture. However, for an apposite example of poor editorial choices, we can turn to the Heart Sutra itself. Take the line:
No ignorance or end of ignorance... up to... no ageing and death, no end of ageing and death (nāvidyā nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmaraṇam na jarāmaraṇa-kṣayo). This is the standard list of twelve nidānas, in both the forward (anuloma) and reverse (pratiloma) directions at once, with just the first and last items on the list, and using the adverbial pronoun yāvat ‘as far as’ to stand for the middle ten items. One could hardly get a more orthodox pan-Buddhist idea than this list, and the Chinese Heart Sutra exactly follows the text of T223. However, in the palm-leaf manuscript held in Hōryūji Temple, probably the oldest extant Sanskrit manuscript of the Heart Sūtra, this passage reads (with interpolations underlined):
No knowledge, no ignorance, no end of knowledge, or end of ignorance... up to... no ageing and death, no end of ageing and death (na vidyā nāvidyā na vidyākṣayo nāvidyāksāyo yāvan na jarāmaraṇaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo)
It’s almost as if the editor did not recognise the twelve links here and, noticing two negations, interpolated their opposites as though this was the point of the exercise.35 Similarly, Huifeng (2014) has pointed out that in some manuscripts of the Heart Sutra the phrase “no attainment, no non-attainment” (na prāptir nāprāptiḥ), which is included in Conze’s Sanskrit edition (1967), is problematic. The next phrase in the text attributes the success of bodhisatvas to “being without attainment” (aprāptitvād), so it doesn’t make sense to negate non-attainment. 36 None of the Chinese versions have an equivalent of “no non-attainment”.
Another example is found in the study of śūnyatā in Chinese Āgama texts by Choong Mun-Keat (1999). In the Pāḷi text SN 22.90, a bhikkhu called Channa asks some elder bhikkhus to instruct him and they give him a teaching on the impermanence and essencelessness of the khandhas. He replies that he also thinks about the khandhas the way the elder bhikkhus talk about them.
“However, as a result, my mind does not leap towards, gain faith in, settle on, find satisfaction in, or embody the calming of all constructs, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, or extinction.”37
of ignorance...” (na tatrāvidyā nāvidyānirodhaḥ… Gilgit ms. folio 21 verso); or “No arising of ignorance, no cessation of ignorance…” (nāvidyotpādo nāvidyānirodhaḥ… Kimura, 1-1: 64). Which is further supporting evidence, if needed, for the Chinese origins hypothesis.
36 In fact, Huifeng (2014) problematises the translation of the Chinese phrase 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād, pointing out that Kumārajīva regularly uses the same characters to translate anupalambhayogena, which could mean “due to being engaged in [the practice of] non-perception [of objects]”, which would fit the context of the Heart Sutra. This suggests that the original translator of the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit was unfamiliar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom.
37 Atha ca pana me sabbasaṅkhārasamathe sabbūpadhipaṭinissagge taṇhākkhaye virāge nirodhe nibbāne cittaṃ na pakkhandati nappasīdati na santiṭṭhati nādhimuccati (SN iii.133).
In other words, though he thinks about things the same way as the elder bhikkhus talk about them, he is not yet liberated. In the Chinese version of this text, SA 262, the Pāḷi “calming of all constructs” (sabba-saṅkhāra-samatha) has been replaced with “the emptiness of all activities” (一切諸行空寂) (Choong 1995:34-5). Another example is that the classic list of three characteristics (tilakkhaṇā) of the khandhas (i.e. anicca, dukkha, and anattā) is extended by the insertion of “emptiness” giving four characteristics, for example in SA 259
“impermanent, disappointing, empty, and essenceless” (無常、苦、空、非我。 Choong 1995 = T2.65b15). As the Mahāyāna developed, śūnyatā became the most important concept, so it may have seemed natural to insert or interpolate this word into texts. Even though these new readings were sometimes grammatically or semantically problematic, they came to signify something important for Buddhists who chanted and studied them.
By tracking the four phrases“Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form. Form is just emptiness; emptiness is just form.”from the Heart Sutra back into earlier layers of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, I discovered that an important change had taken place during the composition of Pañcaviṃśati. Aṣṭa, Rgs, and Vaj, all look back to existing imagery found in early Buddhist texts. It is only in Pañcaviṃśati that this is restated in relation to the experience of emptiness. And from there it appears in the Heart Sutra. We can diagram this progression: form is like an illusion [simile] (Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta, Aṣṭa, Rgs)
The key to understanding the enigmatic affirmation in the Heart Sutra, then, is the old Buddhist simile that form “is like an illusion” or that it is “without substance”, where form represents all of the skandhas. As Huifeng (2016) has emphasised, this characterization of the skandhas originally referenced a broader set of semantic fields, but subsumed fields like “hollowness” under the concept of illusion (māyā).
We have experiences, but ontological terms such as “existence” and “nonexistence” don’t apply to the world of experience. This is important because it tells us why the skandhas are amenable to the analogies, similes and metaphors in question. Form qua mind-independent physical object is not like an illusion. On the contrary, physical objects are the contrast against which an illusion is defined. An illusion is the opposite of physical form as interpreted in the usual ontological sense. The figurative use only applies to form qua experience; i.e. form as a mental object. Experience is like an illusion because it is unlike reality. This only makes sense when this contrast between solid objects and ephemeral experience is clear. even now, the ontology of experience presents a difficult problem for scientists and philosophers alike. Clearly, we have experiences, but in the midst of an experience what has come into being? Even with our far more sophisticated understanding of the processes involved in having an experience, there is still no easy answer to this question.
Early Buddhists understood that the presence of an object was required for experience, but they subsequently ignored objects and focussed on the mental and emotional processes that contribute to experience, i.e. the activity of the five skandhas. They did not take objects as being real or as collectively constituting a reality; nor did they make a fuss about this conclusion. Early Buddhists vigorously attacked any suggestion of an unchanging entity underlying being or experience, e.g. ātman, satva, puruṣa, jīva, and so on. However, they did this on the basis that we never experience permanence, because experience itself is always ephemeral, even when objects are not—which is often the case. If experience is always temporary, then we have no way to experience permanence, therefore we never will experience permanence.
What we see in the Prajñāpāramitā literature is the meditative attainment of emptiness, being used as an analogy for an anti-realist approach to experience. Rather than there being ultimately real entities in experience as the late ābhidharmikas proposed, Prajñāpāramitā represented the (pre-existing early Buddhist) view that nothing in experience was ultimately real: the mental objects that ābhidharmikas postulated to be real (and thus permanent and unchanging), cease altogether during the śūnyatā-samādhi. Dharmas, mental objects, then are not like physical objects. Rather they are just like illusions: they have appearance, but not substance.
Buddhists understood that even (or especially) the observing self is an experience of the same kind; it can also simply cease. It does so in sleep, of course, but it can also cease while remaining alert in samādhi. In the key passage from Pañcavimśati, “form” (representing the skandhas or experiencing apparatus) is simply a name for an experience that arises and passes away. Along with the Mahāyāna, a new shorthand emerged for the ambiguous ontology of dharmas, i.e. that they are śūnyatā; or not simply empty, but like the meditator, in the state of being empty. Though if we think in terms of “forms are empty”, we are still dealing in signs (nimitta), which is not the same as being in the meditative state of emptiness in which there are no signs.
Far from being deliberately paradoxical, read in the light of Sue Hamilton’s work on early Buddhism, the Prajñāpāramitā is an attempt to discuss and celebrate the state of being empty: literally and metaphorically. Affirmatively, it tells us that experience is just like the state of being empty. The things we experience are just names, just illusions. Experience is just an appearance in which even the observer of the appearance is like an illusion. Experience arises without existing (i.e. without being permanent and unchanging) and it ceases without being nonexistent. Negatively, it tells us that in that state of being empty, there are no experiences, no categories of experience, no subject, no object, no directions, no time, and so on. This experience is an analogy for how dharmas are and how they may be categorised. In other words, when the ideas are appropriately contextualised, there is no paradox in the Heart Sutra. In (the state of) emptiness, there is literally no form, no sensation, etc.
Changing the simile “form is like an illusion” into the four phrases does more to obscure the message of the Prajñāpāramitā than reveal it. Whereas anyone can see what the simile is getting at, the four phrases are esoteric in the sense that they don’t make sense to anyone not au fait with the jargon of the sect. One can appreciate the enthusiasm for emptiness, particularly in an environment in which a powerful faction within Buddhism had announced that some or all dharmas were real and permanent, while another faction was regularly spending time in the meditative state of emptiness and knew that this could not be the case. Such is the power of this critique of realism, that the Heart Sutra had an almost universal and eternal appeal once it was created. It has meant that the Heart Sutra has a significance that transcends the grammatically and semantically problematic phrases. Conze typifies the approach of boldly stating something that does not make sensesuch as “A is what A is not” (1975a: 84)and asserting that it makes perfect sense, leaving his readers “dazed by so much splendour” (1975a: 90). A clearer case of the Emperor’s new clothes is hard to imagine, but it still draws crowds of admirers.
A secondary conclusion about the text itself is that the four phrases ought to be symmetrical. Where the received Sanskrit Heart Sutra has rūpam śūnyatā; śūnyataiva rūpam, to fit the pattern of all the other occurrences of this passage, it ought to have rūpam eva śūnyatā; śūnyataiva rūpam. We can add this to the list of problems with the received Sanskrit text identified by Jan Nattier (1992) and by subsequent research in the same vein (Huifeng 2014, Attwood 2015, 2017).
Abbreviations Aṣṭa Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra DN Dīgha-nikāya MN Majjhima Nikāya Pañcaviṃśati Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra SA Samyuktāgama (Chinese translation) SN Saṃyutta Nikāya T Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyo (The Tripiṭaka in Chinese) Vaj Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtr a Bibliography
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