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Translation and Interaction: A New Examination of the Controversy over the Translation and Authenticity of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra

College of Humanities, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou 225009, China
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Macau, Macau SAR, China
Religions 2022, 13(6), 474;
Submission received: 29 April 2022 / Revised: 18 May 2022 / Accepted: 20 May 2022 / Published: 24 May 2022


From the Tang era (618–907) to the present day, controversy over the translation and authenticity of the Chinese version of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, which appeared at the end of the early Tang, has been ongoing. The scholar-official Fang Rong (d. 705) has been considered either the translator or the forger of the sutra, while its Chinese elements, especially those from Daoism, have been used as major evidence that the text is apocryphal. By uncovering new historical sources and critically analysing the arguments of modern scholars, this article undertakes a new examination of this old controversy from the perspective of cultural interaction through scriptural translation. The attribution of translators seen in the version of the sutra preserved in the Fangshan stone-canon, as well as the historical context of the translation, proves that—for specific politico-historical reasons—the two early accounts by Buddhist bibliographer Zhisheng (fl. 669–740) do not contradict but rather complement each other. New and solid evidence also supports the argument that Fang Rong indeed participated in the sutra’s translation; moreover, he contributed its Chinese cultural, intellectual and religious elements, and graceful literary style during the process. Additionally, the relationship between early Chan Buddhism, Fang Rong, and Chan master Huaidi, who verified the translation, may have motivated them to make certain embellishments upon the sutra’s central theme of Tathāgatagarbha doctrine. This article thus confirms the Śūraṃgama-sūtra to be a major Mahāyāna scripture that contains elements of the Chinese cultural tradition, and that it in turn has exerted tremendous influence on this tradition.

1. Introduction

The Chinese version of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra (Lengyan jing 楞嚴經, Pāramiti et al. 705) appeared in 705, at the end of the early Tang dynasty (618–907). From the Tang era to the present day, the controversy over the translation and authenticity of this sutra has continued, being one of the most important issues in Chinese Buddhist history. Among other matters in question, the Tang scholar-official Fang Rong 房融 (d. 705) has been regarded as either the translator or forger of the sutra, and the sutra’s Chinese elements—especially those from Daoism—have been used as major evidence that the sutra is apocryphal. Starting with the study published in 1922 by the renowned Japanese scholar Mochizuki Shinkō 望月信亨, a number of modern scholars have asserted the sutra to be a Chinese apocryphal text (see mainly Mochizuki 1922; Mochizuki 1930, pp. 229–44; Mochizuki 1946, pp. 493–509; Lü [1940] 1995, pp. 201–16; Demiéville 1952, pp. 42–53; He 1978, in Zhang 1978, pp. 315–20; Luo 1993; Kim 1993; Ch’oe 2002; Long 2002; Benn 2008). Other scholars (see mainly Epstein 1976; Luo 1978, in Zhang 1978, pp. 321–42; Li 1996; Yang 2001), as well as numerous eminent Chinese monks from the Tang to the present day, have recognized this sutra as an authentic Mahāyāna scripture and extolled its profundity. Meanwhile, both camps of controversy have agreed that, since its appearance in the beginning of the eighth century, this sutra has exerted tremendous influence on almost all Chinese Buddhist traditions, including Tiantai 天臺, Huayan 華嚴, and Chan 禪.
Here my purpose is to undertake a new examination of this old controversy from both external and internal dimensions by bringing forth new historical sources while critically analysing the various arguments of modern scholars, and thereby to confirm that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra is indeed a major Mahāyāna scripture that contains elements of the Chinese cultural tradition. Externally, I discuss scholars’ arguments concerning the sutra’s translation, with a focus on refuting the major claim that the two early accounts of the translation set forth by Tang Buddhist bibliographer Zhisheng 智昇 (fl. 669–740) are in conflict, while also examining and refuting other minor arguments. Internally, I work on dispelling scholarly doubts raised over the doctrines and terminology of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra from several aspects, including comparing the sutra’s doctrinal inconsistencies and consistencies with other sutras, listing Chinese cultural–intellectual–religious elements contained within the sutra, and examining Fang Rong’s relationship with early Chan Buddhism and the sutra’s content, as well as the sutra’s subtitle, Sūtra of the Grand Nālandā Monastery.

2. External Evidence: The Controversy over the Translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra

The controversy over the transmission and translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra and Fang Rong’s role therein has arisen mainly from the differences presented in the two earliest, extant catalogue accounts of the sutra, both of which were given by Zhisheng in 730. The first is seen in his Kaiyuan shijiao lu 開元釋教錄 (Kaiyuan Catalogue of Buddhist Teachings):
Dafoding Rulai miyin xiuzheng liaoyi zhu pusa wanxing shoulengyan jing [Great Buddha’s Topknot Sutra of the Paramount Heroic March and the Myriad Practices of the Bodhisattvas for Cultivating and Realizing the Complete Meaning of the Tathagata’s Secret Cause], ten juan. One volume and ten juan on the right, the text is extant. The śramaṇa Huaidi was from Xunzhou and lived in the Nanlou monastery on Mount Luofu in the prefecture. That mountain is a place where immortals and saints roamed and dwelt. Huaidi had long studied sutras and sastras and deeply understood much. He had also roughly learned the nine philosophical schools and seven bibliographical classifications [of Chinese culture]. Because he dwelt near the sea, where Indian monks often travelled and stayed, Huaidi studied their writings and language with them and was able to comprehend both. In the past, when the tripiṭaka master Bodhiruci translated the Ratnakūṭa-sūtra, he summoned Huaidi from afar to come to [the capital] to fill the role of verifier of Sanskrit meanings. When the task was completed, Huaidi returned to his hometown. Later, as he travelled to Guangzhou, he met an Indian monk (name unknown) who brought a Sanskrit sutra in a case and asked him to translate it together. Completing it in ten juan, this is the Dafoding wanxing shoulengyan jing. Huaidi transcribed the meanings of the sutra and also edited the writing. Once the Indian monk had finished transmitting the sutra, nobody knew where he went. It was due to an envoy to the south that the sutra was circulated here. 大佛頂如來密因修證了義諸菩薩萬行首楞嚴經十卷. 右一部十卷, 其本見在. 沙門釋懷迪, 循州人也, 住本州羅浮山南樓寺, 其山乃仙聖游居之處. 迪久習經論, 多所該博, 九流七略, 粗亦討尋. 但以居近海隅, 數有梵僧遊止, 迪就學書語, 復皆通悉. 往者三藏菩提流志譯寶積經, 遠召迪來, 以充證義. 所為事畢, 還歸故鄉. 後因遊廣府, 遇一梵僧 (未得其名), 齎梵經一夾, 請共譯之. 勒成十卷, 即大佛頂萬行首楞嚴經是也. 迪筆受經旨, 兼緝綴文理. 其梵僧傳經事畢, 莫知所之. 有因南使, 流經至此.
The second account is seen in Zhisheng’s Xu gujin yijing tuji 續古今譯經圖紀 (Continuation to the Pictures and Records of Past and Present Sutra Translators):
The śramaṇa Pāramiti, meaning “Ultimate Measure” in Chinese, was from central India. Holding the [Buddhist] Way, he travelled around and relieved people, converting along the road. He arrived in our Cīna (Indian states colloquially call Guangzhou “Cīna” and call the capital “Mahācīna”) and stayed in the Zhizhi monastery. The assembly knew he was profoundly learned and requested him for many matters. He held the mind of benefiting beings and displayed his secret abstruseness. Therefore, on the xinchou or twenty-third day of the fifth month with jimao as its first day in the first year of Shenlong, he recited a work from the Abhiśekha division, titled Dafoding Rulai miyin xiuzheng liaoyi zhu pusa wanxing shoulengyan jing (ten juan). The śramaṇa Meghaśikha (“śikha” is slightly incorrect, and the correct pronunciation is “shuoqu”, meaning “cloudy peak” here) from Uḍḍiyāna was the translator of Sanskrit words. Fang Rong from Qinghe, a bodhisattva-precepts disciple and former Grand Master of Remonstrance and Joint Manager of Affairs with the Secretarial and the Chancellery, was the transcriber. The śramaṇa Huaidi of Nanlou Monastery on Mount Luofu in Xunzhou was the verifier of Sanskrit meanings. Once the monk finished the work of transmitting the sutra, he sailed back to the west. It was due to an envoy to the south that the sutra circulated here. 沙門般剌蜜帝, 唐云極量, 中印度人也. 懷道觀方, 隨緣濟度, 展轉游化達我支那 (印度國俗呼廣府爲支那, 名帝京爲摩呵支那), 乃於廣州制旨道場居止. 眾知博達, 祈請亦多, 利物為心, 敷斯祕賾. 以神龍元年龍集乙巳五月己卯朔二十三日辛丑, 遂於灌頂部中誦出一品, 名大佛頂如來密因修證了義諸菩薩萬行首楞嚴經一部 (十卷). 烏萇國沙門彌迦釋迦 (釋迦稍訛, 正云鑠佉, 此曰雲峰) 譯語, 菩薩戒弟子前正諫大夫同中書門下平章事清河房融筆受, 循州羅浮山南樓寺沙門懷迪證譯. 其僧傳經事畢, 汎舶西歸. 有因南使, 流通於此.
The first account says that Huaidi, a monk of the Nanlou monastery 南樓寺 on Mount Luofu 羅浮山 in Xunzhou 循州 (present day Huizhou 惠州 in Guangdong), together with an anonymous Indian monk, translated the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. Huaidi played both the roles of transcriber and editor (zhuiwen 綴文). An official envoy to the south then brought the sutra to the capital. The second account tells us that the Indian monk Pāramiti arrived in Guangzhou 廣州 from central India, and transmitted and recited the Śūraṃgama-sūtra in the Zhizhi monastery. The monk Meghaśikha from Uḍḍiyāna was the translator of the Sanskrit words, the former counselor-in-chief (the position of Joint Manager of Affairs with the Secretarial and the Chancellery functioned as counselor-in-chief in the Tang) Fang Rong was the transcriber, and Huaidi was the verifier of the Sanskrit meanings. The task of transmission and translation was completed on the twenty-third day of the fifth month in the first year of Shenlong (18 June 705). Again, an official envoy to the south brought a copy of the sutra to the capital.
Obviously, there are differences concerning the translators of the sutra between Zhisheng’s two accounts. Starting with Mochizuki Shinkō, a number of modern scholars have regarded the two accounts as conflicting with each other, and used this problem as their main evidence to assert that Fang Rong’s role as translator is unreliable, and that the sutra is a Chinese apocryphon (Mochizuki 1922, pp. 1–6; Demiéville 1952, pp. 43–45; He 1978, pp. 36–17). These scholars, however, have not provided solid verification of their argument, and several critical questions can be raised against it: Did Zhisheng himself consider the Śūraṃgama-sūtra to be a Chinese apocryphal text? Do his two accounts really conflict with each other? Are there any particular reasons for Zhisheng to have offered two different accounts?
Let us look at the first question first. In both accounts cited above, Zhisheng clearly states that the sutra was translated from the Sanskrit original. In addition, Zhisheng also records this sutra in the “Dashengjing danyi” 大乘經單譯 (Individual Translations of Mahāyāna Sutras) section of the Kaiyuan shijiao lu (Zhisheng 730a, 12.603a). We should also remember that Zhisheng was among the most serious and excellent Buddhist bibliographers, and that one of his contributions is his strict discernment of texts composed in China but which pretended to be authentic sutras, as seen in the section of ‘Weiwang luanzhen lu’ 偽妄亂真錄 (Records of Apocrypha that Look Authentic) in the Kaiyuan shijiao lu (Zhisheng 730a, 18.672a–680a; Zanning [988] 1987, 5.95; Chen 2001, pp. 10–17). Thus, before recognizing it as an authentic Mahāyāna scripture, he must have carefully scrutinized the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, which appeared contemporarily.
If Zhisheng regarded the sutra as an authentic scripture transmitted from India, do his two separate accounts really conflict with each other? A careful comparison tells us that in fact the two accounts do not contradict but rather each complements the other. Both describe the same event of an Indian monk transmitting the original Sanskrit sutra to Guangzhou and having it translated there. The second account contains more detail, including the name and homeland of the Indian monk, and the names and details of the translator, transcriber, and verifier of Sanskrit meanings, without conflicting with the first account; the only exception is Huaidi’s role, which is described as being that of transcriber and editor in the first account, and as verifier in the second. As we will see, however, this exception may have arisen from political factors.
Why would Zhisheng offer two different yet complementary accounts? Yang Weizhong has proposed a reasonable answer: the account in the Kaiyuan shijiao lu was written first, and the Xu gujin yijing tuji was written somewhat later, after Zhisheng had acquired more information about the sutra’s transmission and translation (Yang 2001, p. 60). This time sequence is revealed in a note at the end of the Xu gujin yijing tuji:
What are written in the former Records have relied on old catalogues and compilations, and therefore there are some errors. I have not deleted or corrected them. If desiring to scribe them on the wall, please rely on the Kaiyuan shijiao lu. With the exception of those composed and compiled in this land, the rest are veridical records. 前 “紀” 所載, 依舊錄編. 中間乖殊, 未曾刪補. 若欲題壁, 請依開元釋教錄. 除此方撰集外, 餘為實錄矣.
Here “the former Records” refers to the Gujin yijing tuji 古今譯經圖紀 (Pictures and Records of Past and Present Sutra Translators) composed by Jingmai 靖邁 (fl. mid-seventh century), to which Zhisheng composed his Xu gujin yijing tuji. In this note, Zhisheng criticizes the former text for incautiously following some errors of old catalogues, and proposes to use his own Kaiyuan shijiao lu to correct the errors. He also indicates that, with the exception of Chinese compositions, all of the records in his continuation are authentic. This note tells us two things. First, because the Xu gujin yijing tuji mentions the Kaiyuan shijiao lu, the former must have been composed later than the latter, as suggested by Yang Weizhong. Second, because the Xu gujin yijing tuji does not say that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra was composed in China, its account of this sutra’s translation must be an authentic record. One scholar has interpreted this note as meaning that Zhisheng composed the Kaiyuan shijiao lu later and asked to use its record to amend the unreliable record in the Xu gujin yijing tuji (Cao 1966, pp. 110–11). This is a misreading of the “former Records” in the note as referring to his own Xu gujin yijing tuji.
I further find that the sources of Zhisheng’s two accounts were the two versions of the sutra brought to the capital by official envoys, and I am also able to determine that both versions are extant today. As for the first version, the section titled ‘Individual Translations of Mahāyāna Sutras’ in the Kaiyuan shijiao lu records the Śūraṃgama-sūtra and attributes its translation to “The great Tang śramaṇa Huaidi of Xunzhou together with an Indian monk, translated in Guangzhou” 大唐循州沙門懷迪共梵僧於廣州譯 (Zhisheng 730a, 12.603a). It is notable that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra included in the Fangshan Buddhist stone canon (Fangshan shijing 房山石經) carved during the Liao dynasty (907–1125) also attributes the translation to “The great Tang śramaṇa Huaidi of Xunzhou together with an Indian monk, translated in Guangzhou” (Huaidi and Monk 705, 1.162a), exactly the same as that of the Kaiyuan shijiao lu. Through a careful comparison, Luo Zhao found that the format of the stone-canon version is the same as that of the official transcripts of Buddhist scriptures from the fifth to eighth centuries discovered in Dunhuang, and so he argued that the stone-canon version of the sutra must have been based on an early transcript (Luo 1993, pp. 59–65).
Here we can provide further evidence to support Luo’s argument and make it more specific. In 730, Princess Jinxian 金仙 (689–732), who was also a Daoist priestess, presented a memorial to her elder brother, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang 唐玄宗 (r. 712–756), to request for sending more than four thousand juan 卷 of Buddhist scriptures to the Yunju monastery 雲居寺 in Fanyang district 范陽縣 (present day Fangshan in Beijing) in order to support the on-going stone-canon project. The emperor approved the memorial, and in 740 the scriptures were sent to the Yunju monastery. Interestingly, the envoy of scripture delivery was none other than Zhisheng (Wang [740] 1978, p. 15; Kegasawa 1997, pp. 292–310; Chen 2006, pp. 267–92). Thus, we can speculate that the master copy for the stone-canon version of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra should be the version recorded in the Kaiyuan shijiao lu. Scholars have agreed that this text was the catalogue of the Buddhist canon compiled in the Kaiyuan reign-period, which is generally named Kaiyuan zang 開元藏 (Kaiyuan Canon), and that the Buddhist scriptures sent to the Yunju monastery are likely the main body of that canon (Tsukamoto 1974–1976, pp. 293–610; Kegasawa 1997, pp. 292–310; Chen 2006, pp. 267–92). Therefore, the Fangshan stone-canon version of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra could also be named the Kaiyuan-canon version. This version, which attributes the translation to Huaidi and an anonymous Indian monk, is in perfect accordance with Zhisheng’s first account. Therefore, we can conclude that he must have written his first account faithfully based on this version.
As for the second version of the sutra brought from Guangzhou to the capital, additional detailed information can be found in three early texts. The first is the Japanese monk Genei’s 玄叡 (d. 840) Daijō sanron daigi shō 大乘三論大義鈔 (Digest of Major Doctrines of Mahāyāna Three Treatises). According to Genei’s account, the Śūraṃgama-sūtra was brought to Japan by the visiting monk Fushō 普照 (fl. mid-eighth century) in 754, which caused a debate over its authenticity. Emperor Shōmu 聖武天皇 (701–756; r. 724–749) summoned masters of both the Sanron 三論 and Hossō 法相 sects to discuss this issue, and they concluded that “it is an authentic Buddhist scripture”. Later, when Emperor Kōnin 光仁天皇 (r. 770–781) sent the monk Tokusei 德清 to visit the Tang court, he heard from the lay Buddhist Faxiang 法詳 that the sutra had been forged by Fang Rong. This again raised doubts about this sutra in Japan, but these were dismissed with another report from the Tang that Emperor Daizong 代宗 had the sutra preached at court. A copy of the commentary to the Śūraṃgama-sūtra by Weique 惟慤 (fl. mid-eighth century), which was also brought to Japan, was cited by Genei as follows:
The Dharma master Weique of the Daxingfu monastery in Tang says in his Commentary: “On the twenty-third day of the fifth month in the first year of Shenlong, the śramaṇa Pāramiti from central India transmitted the Sanskrit text at the Zhizhi monastery in Guangzhou. The śramaṇa Meghaśikha from the Uḍḍiyāna state translated the Sanskrit language, and Fang Rong transcribed it”. 唐大興福寺惟慤法師疏云: “唐神龍元年五月二十三日, 中印度沙門般剌密帝于廣州制止寺道場, 對擧梵本, 烏萇國沙門彌伽釋迦譯玆梵語, 房融筆受. ”
(Genei n.d., 3.151b–151c)
From Genei’s citation, we see that in the version of the sutra on which Weique wrote his commentary, the transmitter, translator, and transcriber of the sutra, and its date of completion and site of translation, are exactly the same as in Zhisheng’s second account, with the only omission being Huaidi’s name and role as the verifier of the Sanskrit meanings. This omission is not uncommon, as Buddhist scriptures of Chinese translation often omitted the names of minor roles. For example, we know for certain that Huaidi was also the verifier of the translation of the Ratnakūṭa-sūtra (Baoji jing 寶積經; see further below), but his name does not appear in this sutra. Thus, we can speculate that Zhisheng’s second account was based on this version, which differed from the version of the Kaiyuan canon in the attribution of translators.
The second text concerning the second version of the sutra is Zanning’s Song gaoseng zhuan, in which the whole event of Weique’s writing of the commentary to the sutra is recorded in detail:
By the time when he was near forty years old, Weique still lived in the capital and was once invited to the house of the former counsellor-in-chief Fang Rong. Before the meal, the family displayed a sutra case, saying: “When the counsellor went to Guangzhou to select officials, he took part in the translation and personally transcribed a copy of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. This copy has been retained at our home for worship. Today there are precisely ten monks, so each can select a topic to preach on one juan. Weique’s seat was in the fourth. He opened the sutra and read the section of Pūrṇa asking the meaning of the arising [of the world]. He found its literary style was graceful and the ideas were profound. Therefore, he made a wish to write a commentary on the sutra, in order to make its implications lucid. After returning to the monastery, he swore to depict Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī’s portrait and recite his name for ten years. His will was so strong that consequently he had a mysterious resonation, unexpectedly dreaming that the Marvellous Auspiciousness (i.e., Mañjuśrī) rode a lion to enter his mouth. Since that time he wrote just like the Buddha discussing prajñā with Subhūti, starting in the bingwu year or the first year of Dali. By the time he was about to finish the writing, while sleeping he saw Mañjuśrī riding a lion coming out of his mouth. This is as Mañjuśrī’s wisdom manifests in the Huayan doctrine. The writing was completed in three juan, and Weique himself said that it derived from his shallow wisdom. It prevails today. 年臨不惑, 尚住神都, 因受舊相房公融宅請. 未飯之前, 宅中出經函云: “相公在南海知南銓, 預其翻經, 躬親筆受《首楞嚴經》一部, 留家供養. 今筵中正有十僧, 每人可開題一卷”. 慤坐居第四, 舒經見富樓那問生起義, 覺其文婉, 其理玄, 發願撰疏, 疏通經義. 及歸院, 矢誓寫文殊菩薩像, 別誦名號計一十年. 厥志堅强, 遂有冥感, 忽夢妙吉祥乘狻猊自慤之口入. 由茲下筆, 若大覺之被善現談般若焉. 起大曆元年丙午也. 及將徹簡, 于臥寐中見由口而出, 在乎華嚴宗中文殊智也. 勒成三卷, 自謂從淺智中衍出矣. 於今盛行.
Because Zanning was citing Weique’s words, this account must have been based on the latter’s commentary, possibly his preface that related the event. Back ten years from the first year of Dali (766) was the end of the Tianbao reign-period (742–756); as such, the event of Fang Rong’s descendant hosting monks in the capital Chang’an probably happened before Emperor Xuanzong fled to Sichuan in the sixth month of the fifteenth year of Tianbao (756), or more likely before An Lushan rebelled in the eleventh month of the fourteenth year of Tianbao (755). This descendant should be Fang Rong’s son Fang Guan 房琯 (697–763), who at the time was Director of the Ministry of Justice at court, and who favoured Buddhism just like his father (Ouyang et al. [1060] 1975, 139.4625–4628; Faure 1997, pp. 81–82). Fang Guan stated that his father took part in the translation when he was carrying out a commission of the selection of officials to Guangzhou. As Luo Xianglin correctly indicated, however, Fang Rong was never given such a commission, and Fang Guan simply made up this excuse to cover his father’s disgraced exile to the south in 705 (Luo 1978, pp. 321–42). Zanning’s account further verifies that Weique’s commentary was composed upon the second version of the sutra, which credited Fang Rong as the transcriber.
The third text concerning the second version of the sutra is that of another Tang Buddhist bibliographer, Yuanzhao 圓照 (ca. 723–ca. 804), namely the Zhenyuan xinding shijiao mulu 貞元新定釋教目錄 (Catalogue of Buddhist Teachings Newly Stipulated in Zhenyuan). In the section of this catalogue titled ‘Datang yijing sanzang’ 大唐譯經三藏 (Tripiṭaka Masters of Sutra Translation in the Great Tang), Yuanzhao records the Śūraṃgama-sūtra under the names of both Huaidi and Pāramiti, respectively (Yuanzhao 800, 11.853b). The volume under Huaidi’s name must be the version on which Zhisheng’s first account was based—that is, the Kaiyuan-canon and Fangshan stone-canon version—while the volume under Pāramiti’s name must be the version on which Zhisheng’s second account was based, and which the Fang family possessed. Thus, we know that both versions were included in the Zhenyuan Buddhist canon, which in turn shows that the second version was officially recognized. Finally, by the Song dynasty, the monk Zixuan 子璿 had both versions of the sutra in his hands, and made a comparison: “Now examining the two sutras, although the translators are different, the texts of translation are the same” 今詳二經, 譯人雖別, 譯本是同 (Zixuan 1030, 1.825c).
Mochizuki, noting these records, used them as evidence that the text was apocryphal, as it was rare to attribute the same sutra to different translators (Mochizuki 1922, 4). In contrast to Mochizuki’s opinion, however, these records in fact confirm the reliability of the translation event. The version crediting Huaidi as the transcriber was the Kaiyuan-canon version catalogued by Zhisheng, as well as the master copy for the Fangshan stone-canon version. Meanwhile, the version crediting Fang Rong as the transcriber was the one retained in the Fang family and included in the Zhenyuan canon, as well as the version with Weique’s commentary, which Genei and Zanning had seen. In the Song dynasty, Zixuan compared the two versions and found that they were completely the same in content. Moreover, modern scholars Luo Zhao and Chen Yanzhu 陳燕珠, in comparing the Fangshan stone-canon version, the Zhaocheng-canon version 趙城藏 (which is a reprint of the Song-dynasty Kaibao-canon 開寶藏 version in the Jin 金 dynasty), and other versions, found only about 360 variants in Chinese characters, while the content and structure of the sutra were the same (Luo 1993, p. 63). The results of comparisons made in the past and present thus confirm that the manuscript retained in the Fang family is reliable, and that both versions are the same, with the exception of the translators’ names.
Here comes our final question: If the two versions are fundamentally the same, and both are authentic, why were they attributed to different translators? This question can be resolved by looking at the politico-historical context at the time of the translation. The first year of Shenlong was a turbulent time of power transition between Empress Wu 武后 (r. 684–705) and Emperor Zhongzong 中宗 (first reign, r. 684; second reign, r. 705–710). On the twenty-second day of the first month (20 February 705), Zhang Yizhi 張易之 and Zhang Changzong 張昌宗—two brothers who were Empress Wu’s favoured courtiers—were killed, and Fang Rong was imprisoned for his close association with the Zhang brothers. Then, on the yimao 乙卯 or fifth day of the second month (4 March 705), “Fang Rong, Grand Master of Remonstrance and Joint Manager of Affairs with the Secretarial and the Chancellery, was removed from the official list and exiled to Gaozhou” 正諫大夫同平章事房融除名流高州 (Sima [1084] 1971, 208.6583–6584; Liu et al. [945] 1975, 7.137; Ouyang et al. [1060] 1975, 4.106). In his second account, Zhisheng states that Fang Rong took part in the translation in Guangzhou and completed it in the fifth month of the same year, with the title of “former Grand Master of Remonstrance and Joint Manager of Affairs with the Secretarial and the Chancellery”. Thus, traditionally it has been believed that Fang Rong stopped by Guangzhou on his way to exile in Gaozhou 高州 (present-day Gaozhou in Guangdong) and took part in the translation (see further below). Because Fang soon died as an exiled convict in Gaozhou in the same year (Ouyang et al. [1060] 1975, 139.4625), it is highly likely that the first version of the sutra brought to the capital by the envoy to the south cautiously omitted Fang’s name and vaguely attributed the entire task of translation to Huaidi.
On the other hand, Fang Rong was not the only one exiled for his association with the Zhang brothers. Many other court officials were also exiled to the south at the same time and for the same reason, including the famous official-poets Li Qiao 李嶠 (ca. 645–ca. 714), Du Shenyan 杜審言 (ca. 645–708), Shen Quanqi 沈佺期 (ca. 656–ca. 716), Song Zhiwen 宋之問 (ca. 656–712), and so forth (Sima [1084] 1971, 207.6579–6580, 208.6599). However, the accusation of association with the Zhang brothers was soon pardoned, and from the winter of 705 to the spring of 707, all of these officials were summoned back to the capital or offered amnesty one after another (Liu et al. [945] 1975, 94.2992–2995, 190a.4999–5000, 190b.5017; Ouyang et al. [1060] 1975, 123. 4369–4371, 201. 5735–5736, 202.5749–5750; Tao and Fu 2013, pp. 294–300). Because Fang Rong died soon after arriving in Gaozhou, he unfortunately never got the opportunity to return to the capital, but because the grounds for his exile were subsequently pardoned, there was no longer any need to avoid the taboo of signing his name on the sutra. As a result, the second version of the sutra brought back to the capital by the official envoy to the south listed all of the translators, as seen in Zhisheng’s second account.
There is one more doubt concerning this account: Did Fang Rong have sufficient time to arrive in Guangzhou on his journey of exile? Lü Cheng 呂澂 discredited the possibility of Fang Rong’s participation in the translation by raising this doubt in his Lengyan baiwei 楞嚴百偽 (One Hundred Reasons Why the Śūraṃgama-sūtra Is Apocryphal):
Fang Rong was exiled to Gaozhou on the jiayin day (the fourth day) of the second month in the first year of Shenlong. Gaozhou was more than sixty-two hundred li from the capital (juan 41 of the Jiu Tangshu). If Fang travelled several dozens of li through the passes and mountains each day, it would have taken him more than one hundred days to barely arrive at the site of exile. How could he calmly transcribe and complete the translation in Guangzhou? 按融以神龍元年二月甲寅 (四日) 流高州, 州去京師六千二百餘里 (舊唐書四十一), 關山跋涉, 日數十里, 計百數日, 幾不達貶所, 安能從容於廣州筆授而卽成其所譯耶?
This is the only hard evidence provided in Lü Cheng’s one hundred and one reasons. It is, however, mere speculation and not a concrete examination of historical geography. In contrast, I have discovered solid evidence that Fang Rong could have arrived in Guangzhou at the latest in the early fourth month. First, Lü Cheng did not give the correct day of Fang’s exile. Neither the Jiu Tangshu 舊唐書 (Old Tang History) nor the Xin Tangshu 新唐書 (New Tang History) record the specific date of his exile, and instead simply report the event as having occurred after the events of the jiayin 甲寅 or the fourth day of the second month (3 March 705); the former also mistakenly records the place of exile as Qinzhou 欽州 (Liu et al. [945] 1975, 7.137; Ouyang et al. [1060] 1975, 4.106). The yimao or the fifth day, as recorded in the Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒 (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government) mentioned earlier, is exact. Second, Fang Rong did not depart from the western capital Chang’an 長安 but from the eastern capital Luoyang 洛陽, which was only forty-nine hundred li from Guangzhou and fifty-five hundred li from Gaozhou (Liu et al. [945] 1975, 41.1712, 1722). Third, in the Tang era people often travelled by cart or boat; if traveling downstream by boat, the speed could be more than two hundred li each day (Li 808, in (Dong et al. [1819] 1983), 638.9b–11a; Yan 1990, pp. 35–69).
We can take the itinerary of Song Zhiwen, who was also exiled to the Lingnan region at the same time for the same charge, as a reference for Fang’s itinerary. Song composed a poem titled ‘Zhi Hongzhou zhouxing zhishu qishi’ 至洪州舟行直書其事 (I Arrived in Hongzhou by Boat and Wrote the Event Directly), which reads: “I bid farewell to the nation’s gate in mid-spring, with an awful trip of ten thousand li ahead” 仲春辭國門, 畏途橫萬裏 (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 51.623–24). “Mid-spring” refers to the second month, and “nation’s gate” refers to the capital. Thus, we know that Song left the capital at the same time as Fang. Another poem by Song titled ‘Tuzhong Hanshi ti Huangmeiyi ji Cui Rong’ 途中寒食題黃梅臨江驛寄崔融 (Celebrating the Cold Food Festival on My Trip I Wrote This Poem on the Wall of the Huangmei Station and Sent It to Cui Rong) reads: “Missing the wise sovereign in the northern ultimate, I was a banished subject to the south sea” 北極懷明主, 南溟作逐臣 (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 52.640). From this we know that Song had already arrived in Huangmei (present day Huangmei in Hubei) by the time of the Cold Food Festival at the beginning of the third month. Song had two more poems: one was titled ‘Zaofa Dayuling’ 早發大庾嶺 (Departing the Dayu Ridge in Morning), which reads: “Spring warms up shadowed plum blossoms; miasmas decline from sun-shined bird wings” 春暖陰梅花, 瘴回陽鳥翼 (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 51.623); the other was titled ‘Zaofa Shixing jiangkou zhi Xushicun zuo’ 早發始興江口至虛氏村作 (Departing the River Mouth in Shixing in the Morning I Arrived at Xushi Village and Composed this Poem), which reads: “Waiting until morning to go over the Min hill, I gaze afar at the Yue terrace buoyed by spring” 候曉逾閩嶂, 乘春望越台 (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 52.651–52). Both poems describe spring scenes, from which we know that when Song went over the Dayu ridge located on the border between Jiangxi and Guangdong and arrived in Shaozhou 韶州 (i.e., Shixing commandery 始興郡; Li [813] 1983, 34.900), it was still late spring, or the third month (Tao and Fu 2013, pp. 289–91).
Now returning to Fang Rong, he also composed a poem in Shaozhou titled ‘You Shixing Guangguosi shanfang’ 游始興廣果寺山房 (Visiting the Mountain Chamber at Guangguo Monastery in Shixing), in which he expressed his sorrow over his exile: “Withered and wasted, I sigh for my declining years; dreary and cheerless, I entrust myself to the superb cause” 零落嗟殘命, 蕭條托勝因 (Ji 1987, 13.186). Fang did not describe the season or time, but in accordance with Song Zhiwen’s itinerary, we can speculate that he should have also arrived in Shaozhou in the third month. Guangzhou was midway between Shaozhou and Gaozhou, and from Shaozhou to Guangzhou it was only “five hundred and thirty li of water and land”, of which the travel by water was downstream (Li [813] 1983, 34.901; Li 808, 638.11a). Thus, it would have taken only a few days for the trip, and Fang could have arrived in Guangzhou at the latest in the early fourth month. The Song-dynasty monk Zuxiu 祖琇 also recorded that Fang Rong arrived in Guangzhou in the fourth month and was invited by the Prefect to take part in translating the Śūraṃgama-sūtra:
In the first year of Shenlong, … the counsellor-in-chief Fang Rong was banished to Gaozhou. In the fourth month of summer, Fang Rong met the Indian monk Pāramiti, who arrived with the Śūraṃgama-sūtra in Sanskrit in a case. The Prefect [of Guangzhou] invited Pāramiti to recite and translate the sutra in the Zhishang monastery, and Fang Rong transcribed it” 神龍元年, … 流宰相房融於高州. 夏四月, 融於廣州遇梵僧般剌蜜諦賷楞嚴梵夾至, 刺史請就制上道場宣譯, 融筆授.
(Zuxiu 1126, 14.562b)
“Zhishang monastery” must be a scribal error for “Zhizhi monastery”. Zuxiu’s record was probably based on the monastery’s gazetteer. According to Zhisheng’s second account, the translation was completed on the twenty-third day of the fifth month (18 June 705), and the sutra had a total of only about sixty-two thousand characters. Fang Rong thus would have had nearly two months to work on the translation, and so the time should have been sufficient.
In addition to the major argument discussed above, a few minor arguments proposed by scholars are also in need of fresh examination and clarification.
Some scholars have used the Tang lay Buddhist Faxiang’s assertion that Fang Rong forged the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, mentioned above, as evidence that the text is apocryphal (Mochizuki 1922, pp. 7–9; Demiéville 1952, pp. 45–46). This too can be refuted by Fang’s experience in 705. In both of his accounts, Zhisheng stated that the sutra was brought to the capital by official envoys from Guangzhou. From the Song dynasty onward, many literati had composed poems and prose works to extol the Inkstone of the Counsellor-in-Chief (Chengxiang yan 丞相硯), the Pavilion of Transcription (Bishou xuan 筆受軒), the Terrace of Translating Sutra (Yijing tai 譯經臺), and other relics related to Fang Rong and the translation of the sutra in the Guangxiao monastery 光孝寺 (i.e., Zhizhi monastery) in Guangzhou (Luo 1978, pp. 321–42). Although these are not necessarily actual historical relics, they do reveal that the translation was related to Fang Rong and the Zhizhi monastery in Guangzhou. Fang was exiled from Luoyang in the second month, and travelled more than five thousand li to Gaozhou. Exhausted both mentally and physically, he died the same year in Gaozhou (Ouyang et al. [1060] 1975, 139.4625). Although it would have been manageable for Fang to stop in Guangzhou for a rest and participate in the translation, it is highly unlikely that he had sufficient time and energy to manufacture the entire sutra by himself. The Śūraṃgama-sūtra encompasses almost all of the major Mahāyāna theories, and is famous for its doctrinal sophistication and logical inference. Although Fang Rong was a keen follower of Buddhism, he was not known for excellence in philosophical thinking and writing, and produced no works in this regard. Instead, he frivolously attached himself to the notorious Zhang brothers and rose and fell with them in officialdom. While it is possible that he made certain modifications and embellishments in the process of translation, it would have surpassed his intellectual ability to compose the entire text.1
There are later stories concerning the transmission and translation of the sutra, such as Pāramiti’s violation of his ruler’s prohibition against bringing the sutra to foreign countries, Fang Rong’s presentation of the sutra to Emperor Zhongzong by himself, Shenxiu’s 神秀 (606–706) copying of the sutra and bringing it to Jingzhou 荊州, and so forth (Zixuan 1030, 1.825c). However, these sorts of later-derived stories and legends appear all the time in Buddhist history, and are not solid evidence for discrediting Fang Rong’s participation in the translation, as some scholars have claimed (Mochizuki 1922, pp. 4–5; Demiéville 1952, pp. 44–45; He 1978, p. 318).
Another piece of evidence used by scholars to discredit the translation is the incorrect time sequence of the translations of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra and Ratnakūṭa-sūtra presented in Zhisheng’s account (Mochizuki 1922, p. 4; Lü [1940] 1995, pp. 201–2; He 1978, p. 318). In his first account, Zhisheng records that before translating the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, Huaidi was invited by Bodhiruci 菩提流志 to the capital to assume the role of verifier of the Sanskrit meanings for the translation of the Ratnakūṭa-sūtra. However, this sutra was translated in 706–713, after the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. Here Zhisheng must have occasionally misremembered the time sequence, because he did record the correct time of the translation of the Ratnakūṭa-sūtra and Huaidi’s role in the translation in other places of his Kaiyuan shijiao lu (Zhisheng 730a, 9.569b, 570b–570c). As indicated by Luo Xianglin, it was probably because Huaidi had become famous for verifying the Sanskrit meanings of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra that he was invited from the far south to the capital to assume the role of verifier of the Sanskrit meanings (Luo 1978, p. 331). We can add that the fact that Huaidi was only invited as verifier, not as transcriber, also indicates that he was not the transcriber of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. Again, this occasional misremembering of the event sequence should not be used as evidence of unreliability.
Another argument put forward by some scholars is that Huaidi forged the sutra. As mentioned above, Luo Zhao insightfully discovered that the Fangshan stone-canon version attributed the translation to Huaidi and an Indian monk. However, mistakenly regarding it as a new edition, he further speculated that the sutra had been forged by Huaidi himself (Luo 1993, p. 66). This speculation is invalid, however, because the stone-canon version is not a new version, but is the same as that of the Kaiyuan canon, as confirmed above. Besides this, according to Zhisheng’s account, while Huaidi was known for being proficient in Sanskrit, his reputation did not include writing good Chinese, and he also wrote no works of his own. The Śūraṃgama-sūtra, meanwhile, has generally been regarded as both sophisticated in philosophical reasoning and graceful in literary style, but Huaidi seems not to have possessed such ability.
Other scholars have claimed that the sutra was forged by an anonymous author. Ch’oe Changsik 崔昌植, noting that the copies of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra discovered in Dunhuang do not name any translator, speculates that this means that both of Zhisheng’s accounts are unreliable, and that the sutra was forged by an anonymous Chinese author (Ch’oe 2002, pp. 334–41). He does not, however, provide any solid evidence for his speculation, and we could conversely surmise that because there were different attributions of the translators, the scribes did not know which one to follow, and therefore did not attribute the sutra to anyone. It may also be that they simply wanted to save time by omitting the names and their long titles, which together add up to a total of seventy-four characters in common versions.
A final argument is that the bibliographer Yuanzhao altered the account in the Xu gujin yijing tuji. According to Lin Min 林敏, in the ancient transcripts of this work preserved in the Kongōji 金剛寺 and Kōshōji 興聖寺 in Japan, Zhisheng’s account of the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra is the same as that of the Kaiyuan shijiao lu, with Huaidi as the translator and without Fang Rong, as seen in other versions. Lin speculates that the ancient Japanese transcripts presented Zhisheng’s original text, and that the transmitted version was altered by Yuanzhao when he composed the Zhenyuan catalogue in 800. Lin offers several reasons for this speculation: (1) Emperor Daizong ordered that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra be preached at the court; (2) Emperors Xuanzong, Daizong, and Dezong 德宗 (r. 779–804) intervened with the organization, structure, and content of the Buddhist canon in order to control Buddhism; and (3) in his Zhenyuan xinding shijiao mulu, Yuanzhao used the record of Pāramiti to replace the record of Huaidi in the Kaiyuan shijiao lu (Lin 2011, pp. 1064–68; Lin 2014, pp. 105–26).
These reasons are groundless. First, although Emperor Daizong was famous for his reverence of Buddhism, there is no evidence that he held only the Śūraṃgama-sūtra in esteem. Second, there is no historical evidence that the three emperors ever intervened in the structure and content of the Buddhist canon for the purpose of controlling Buddhism. Third, in his catalogue, Yuanzhao still recorded the sutra under both names of Huaidi and Pāramiti respectively, without deliberately deleting the version attributed to Huaidi. Finally, the version signed with the names of Pāramiti, Fang Rong, and others had both been sent to the capital and preserved in the Fang family; Weique composed his commentary on this version during the Daili reign-period (766–779), and it had been included in the Zhenyuan canon. All of these were well-known facts at that time, and Yuanzhao had no reason to risk his own reputation by altering Zhisheng’s famous work. In fact, we could conversely speculate that it was the ancient Japanese transcripts that altered the record in the Xu gujin shijiao tulu. It may be that the scribe had noticed that Zhisheng’s two accounts differed, and so used the account in the Kaiyuan shijiao lu to correct the other account, possibly misunderstanding the note at the end of the Xu gujin shijiao tulu—“What are written in the former Records have relied on old catalogues and compilations, and therefore there are some errors. I have not deleted or corrected them. If desiring to write them on the wall, please rely on the Kaiyuan shijiao lu”—as referring to the Xu gujin yijing tulu, as some modern scholars have also misunderstood it (see above).

3. Internal Evidence: The Controversy over the Authenticity of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra

In addition to discrediting the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra and Fang Rong’s role as translator, scholars who have argued the sutra to be a Chinese apocryphon have also sought for their arguments’ internal evidence from the sutra’s doctrines, allusions, and terminology. Here I examine and clarify these scholars’ arguments from five aspects.
First, some scholars have listed a number of doctrinal consistencies and inconsistencies with other sutras to prove that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra is apocryphal. Usually, they assert consistencies to have been stolen and inconsistencies to be fabrications, without extensive demonstration in either case (see mainly Mochizuki 1922, pp. 12–22; Lü [1940] 1995). This kind of ploy, however—as indicated by Ronald Epstein—is logically contradicting, and proves nothing solid about authenticity (Epstein 1976). Among the Buddhist scriptures generally recognized as authentic, it is common to see inconsistent and even conflicting doctrines and ideas. Indeed, just several decades prior to the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, one of the reasons for Xuanzang’s 玄奘 (602–664) travel to India was to find answers for the inconsistencies in Buddhist scriptures of Chinese translation (Huili and Yancong 688, 1.222c; Liu et al. [945] 1975, 191.5108; Tang 1982, p. 18; Fang 1995, pp. 18–24). On the other hand, similar ideas and expressions are also seen everywhere in Buddhist scriptures, which are either a doctrinal interrelationship or a parallel historical development. Overall, the Śūraṃgama-sūtra demonstrates doctrinal diversity while containing a large number of Sanskrit words and Indic materials (Epstein 1976). In particular, the first four juan expound the theory that all phenomena in the world, including living beings, are the manifestation of the true mind of Tathāgatagarbha, and analyze the five aggregates, six entrances, twelve places, eighteen realms, and seven elements using sophisticated argumentation and logical deduction. Whereas this kind of deliberate and complicated reasoning usually does not fit indigenous Chinese works, it is typical of Indian philosophical writings. Even Mochizuki admired the sutra as “implying deep and profound doctrines” (Mochizuki 1922, p. 22).
Second, some scholars, discerning Chinese elements—especially from Daoism—scattered throughout the sutra, have used these as evidence that the sutra is a Chinese apocryphon. These elements are mostly trivial allusions and terms, such as jellyfish having shrimp for eyes, wasps (pulu 蒱盧 or guoluo 蜾蠃) adopting mulberry worms and transforming them into their own children, earth-owls (tuxiao 土梟) and broken-mirror birds (pojing niao 破鏡鳥) eating their parents, mirrors and moxa tinder being used to make fire, the enumeration of the ten types of transcendents (shizhong xian 十種仙) and ten types of demons (shizhong gui 十種鬼), the ingestion of special foods (fu’er 服餌), the swallowing of saliva (jinye 津液), reference to spells and prohibitions (zhoujin 呪禁), and so forth (Mochizuki 1922, pp. 18–19; Demiéville 1952, pp. 46–47; Long 2002, pp. 126–30; Benn 2008, pp. 57–89).
However, these scattered, trivial Chinese elements comprise only a tiny ratio of the whole sutra, and are mostly sporadic terms and allusions that do not form significant ideas of indigenous Chinese origin; thus, they do not necessarily indicate a Chinese origin for the sutra. Rather, they can be seen as translative substitutions of parallel Sanskrit elements applied by the translators. Indeed, Chinese terms and allusions appear more or less in almost all Buddhist scriptures of Chinese translation. For example, Daoist “philosophical” terms such as Dao 道, wu 無, wuwei 無為, and so forth appear everywhere in authentic translated sutras. While Daoist “religious” terms are less commonly seen, several sutras translated during Empress Wu’s reign do contain this kind of terminology (Osabe 1982, pp. 1–33). Furthermore, the early Tang rulers organized a series of inter-religious debates between representatives of Buddhism and Daoism at court. Although these debates were competitive, they also represented a tendency toward dialogue, interaction, and incorporation (Daoxuan 664; Assandri 2009, pp. 15–32; Assandri 2014; Assandri 2015).
This tendency reached a high peak under Empress Wu. Although she made use of Buddhism to validate the legitimacy of her rule, the empress also offered remarkable support to Daoism (Rao 1974, pp. 397–412; Sun 1981, pp. 495–97; Qing 1996, vol 2, pp. 55–65). In 701, just four years before the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, a group of court scholar-officials completed a huge encyclopedia titled Sanjiao zhuying 三教珠英 (Pearls of the Three Teachings) under Empress Wu’s order. This encyclopedia used another official encyclopedia titled Wensi boyao 文思博要 (Profundity and Quintessence of Literary Deliberation)—completed earlier, in 641—as a basis, and deliberately added two more categories of Buddhism and Daoism (Sima [1084] 1971, 206.6546; Hu 1982, p. 86). The great Huayan master Fazang 法藏 (643–712), who was revered by Empress Wu and active in the capitals around 700, promoted the Daoist theory of immortality in his writings, incorporated Daoist elements into his performance of Buddhist rituals, and followed the Daoist practice of ingesting special foods (Chen 2007, pp. 274–87). Under such a politico-religious context of synthesizing the three teachings, and with its two translators Fang Rong and Huaidi being well-versed in Chinese culture (Zhisheng’s first account cited above and below again), it is not at all surprising that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra should contain some Chinese elements, including Daoist ones.
Thus, Huaidi, who was the verifier of the Sanskrit meanings in the translation of the sutra, lived on Mount Luofu, a Daoist sacred place. In his first account of the sutra’s translation, Zhisheng specifically indicated that “the mountain is a place where immortals and saints roamed and dwelt”, and that Huaidi “had also roughly learned the nine philosophical schools and seven bibliographical classifications [of Chinese culture]”. This statement may hint at Huaidi’s possible contribution to, or agreement with, the Daoist and other Chinese elements used as substitutions for parallel Sanskrit items in the sutra. Fang Rong, who played the role of transcriber, has long been credited with the sutra’s graceful literary style by both Chinese literati and Buddhists. Fang was a close friend of the famous early-Tang writer Chen Zi’ang 陳子昂 (ca. 661–ca. 700) (Lu 700, in (Dong et al. [1819] 1983), 238.23a–28a; Demiéville 1952, p. 44), who has been regarded as a forerunner of the classical-prose movement (guwen yundong 古文運動). The sutra’s literary style, meanwhile, presents the classical style of non-parallel prose, and occupies a position in Chinese literary history. As the great Song-dynasty writer Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101) remarked: “Among all the Mahāyāna sutras, the Śūraṃgama-sūtra stands out alone with its style of exquisite details and superb beauty. This is because Fang Rong transcribed it” 故大乘諸經至楞嚴, 則委曲精盡勝妙獨出者, 以房融筆授故 (Su [1095] 1986, 66.2084). The eminent Ming-dynasty monk Jiaoguang Zhenjian 交光真鑑 (1368–1644) further commented:
This sutra comes to several tens of thousands of words. Although the writing is lengthy and broad, both the sacred words and doctrines are marvelous, and the beginning and ending correlate with each other, threading together the sequence of themes without any discoordination or discontinuation. 此經滿數萬言, 文雖長廣, 而聖言辭義雙妙, 首尾照應, 脉絡貫通, 無有不相照應不相通貫之處.
(Zhenjian n.d., 1.310a)
The Qing scholar Zhao Yi 趙翼 (1727–1814) even raised Fang Rong to the level of Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 (344–413): “Just like the sutras translated by Kumārajīva and Fang Rong, their doctrines are the same as the original texts, but there are terms that come from embellishment during the process of translation” 略如鳩摩羅什及房融等之譯經, 其義則原本, 其詞則有出於翻譯時之潤色者 (Zhao 1790, 1.10a). These commenters thus all admired how the sutra expounded Buddhist doctrines with graceful literary embellishment.
Third, some scholars have noted a possible relationship between the early Chan movement, Fang Rong, and the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, and again used this relationship as evidence that the sutra is apocryphal (Lü [1940] 1995, p. 216; Demiéville 1952, pp. 47, 51; Jorgensen 2005, pp. 510–19; Benn 2008, pp. 86–87). However, while this relationship can be further explored, it does not necessarily lead to questions of authenticity. It has generally been agreed that the central theme of the sutra is Tathāgatagarbha thought. As the Song monk Zhipan 志磐 wrote: “I once said that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra intensely discusses the everlasting true mind and clearly reveals the cultivation and realization of the one vehicle, representing the final authoritative scripture” 嘗謂楞嚴一經, 劇談常住真心, 的示一乘修証, 為最後垂範之典 (Zhipan 1271, 10.205a). Here, “true mind” refers to Tathāgatagarbha. The eminent Ming monk Hanshan Deqing 憨山德清 (1546–1623) further assured: “This sutra roughly takes the Tathāgatagarbha true mind of one-taste pure dharma-realm as the root, relying on this one mind to establish three insights, and in turn relying on the three insights to realize one mind” 此經者蓋以一味清淨法界如來藏真心為體, 依此一心建立三觀, 依此三觀還證一心 (Deqing 1586, 1.59a). Mochizuki also admired the sutra as “revealing the pivot of Tathāgatagarbha and indicating the path of marvelous bright mind” 如來藏を顯するの樞要, 妙明心を指すの徑路 (Mochizuki 1922, p. 22).
During the early Tang period, as the Chan movement began to arise, the core doctrine of early Chan was precisely the “one-mind dharma” of Tathāgatagarbha. For example, the ‘Erru sixing’ 二入四行 (Two Entrances and Four Practices) attributed to Bodhidharma 菩提達摩 states: “To realize the essence through instruction and to believe firmly all living beings share the same true nature” 藉教悟宗, 深信含生同一真性 (Daoxuan 645, 16.551c). Similarly, the epitaph of Chan master Shenxiu 神秀 (606–706), written by Zhang Yue 張說 (667–731), reads: “To abandon all the delusive consciousnesses and to see clearly the original mind” 盡捐妄識, 湛見本心 (Zhang 706, in (Dong et al. [1819] 1983), 231. 1b). Here both “true nature” and “original mind” refer to Tathāgatagarbha, or the Buddha-nature. Significantly, Shenxiu was invited by Empress Wu to the eastern capital Luoyang in 700, and when the empress moved to the western capital Chang’an in 701 and then back to Luoyang in 703, Shenxiu was invited to accompany the imperial migrations. He thus became “dharma master for the two capitals” 兩京法主, and “princes and nobles down to gentlemen and commoners in the capital contended to seek audience with him upon hearing the news. Those who worshipped him from afar counted ten thousand each day” 時王公已下及京都士庶, 聞風爭來謁見, 望塵拜伏, 日以萬數 (Zhang 706, 231.2b; Liu et al. [945] 1975, 191.5109–11). As a result, the teachings of early Chan prevailed in the capital.2 Meanwhile, from about 700 to 704, Fang Rong was Administrator 長史 of Huaizhou 懷州, which was located next to Luoyang, and from there he was summoned to the capital as counsellor-in-chief (Lu 700, 238.23a–28a; Liu et al. [945] 1975, 4.105). Thus, when Fang was in Huaizhou and Luoyang, Shenxiu was in Luoyang most of the time, and was extremely revered. As a bodhisattva-precepts disciple, Fang must have been one of those people who “sought audience with Shenxiu”.
Moreover, as mentioned above, when Fang passed by Shaozhou on his journey into exile in 705, he visited the Guangguo monastery 廣果寺 and composed a poem. This monastery’s original name was the Baolin monastery寶林寺; it was where Chan master Huineng 惠能 was living at that time.3 Thus, Fang and Huineng had certain contact as well. Later, Fang Rong’s son Fang Guan wrote the ‘Liuzu tu xu’ 六祖圖序 (Preface to the Portraits of the Six Patriarchs) for the lineages and portraits of the six Chan patriarchs from Bodhidharma to Huineng composed by Shenhui 神會 (668–760) (Zanning [988] 1987, 8.175). Fang Guan also appears in Shenhui’s discourse records discovered from Dunhuang, in which he discussed with Shenhui the identity of affliction and enlightenment (Yang 1996, p. 94). It is likely that Fang Guan’s connection with Buddhism and Chan was influenced by his father. Meanwhile, Huaidi also appears in Shenhui’s discourse records, in which he is named “Chan master” and has a conversation about the relationship between pure self-nature and the dharma of life and death (Yang 1996, pp. 84–85). Therefore, both Fang Rong and Huaidi had some connections to early Chan, and it is possible that they made certain embellishments and elaborations upon the terms, or even the central doctrine, of Tathāgatagarbha when translating the Śūraṃgama-sūtra.
Fourth, some scholars have detected that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra presents certain similarities to the Dasheng qixin lun 大乘起信論 (Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna), as well as to writings by Fazang and certain Chinese philosophical features, such as the application of the essence–function paradigm, and again have used these as evidence for inauthenticity (Mochizuki 1922, p. 22; Mochizuki 1930, pp. 229–44; Mochizuki 1946, pp. 493–509; Lü [1940] 1995, p. 204; Demiéville 1952, pp. 46–47; Benn 2008, p. 65). The theoretical foundation of the Qixin lun is Tathāgatagarbha thought as well, and it has been generally agreed that this text exerted great influence on the early Chan movement.4 While Fazang is famous for participating in the translation of the Huayan jing 華嚴經 (Avataṃsaka-sūtra) and his excellent commentaries and interpretations of this sutra, from 699 to 704 he also took part in the retranslation of the Qixin lun and the Lengqie jing 楞伽經 (Lankāvatāra-sūtra) in the capitals, as well as writing commentaries on both texts (Chen 2007, pp. 217–39). The Lengqie jing, one of the most important Tathāgatagarbha sutras, also greatly influenced the early Chan movement. Fazang elaborated the theory of nature-origination from Tathāgatagarbha by applying the paradigm of essence–function, which is also applied in the Lengqie jing, Qinxin lun, and the Śūraṃgama-sūtra (Fazang 690, 405a–c; Fazang n.d., 637b–c; Yang 2001, pp. 62–65; Jia 2006, pp. 77–78; Muller 2016; Kwon and Woo 2019; Zhang 2020, pp. 734–39). While this paradigm has been generally regarded as a significant feature of Chinese philosophy since Xuanxue 玄學 (Profound Learning) thought emerged in the Wei-Jin 魏晉 period, recent scholarship has contended that it was not of completely indigenous Chinese origin. Rather, it was influenced to a certain extent by the prajñā theory of emptiness contained in the sutras translated during the Eastern Han to Wei-Jin periods (25–420). The empty nature of all phenomena implies a kind of essence–function relationship between nature and phenomena, which inspired the metaphysical turn of the Xuanxue. Then, the prajñā theory and Xuanxue thought engaged in deep interaction with each other, leading to the Sinification of Buddhism and the turn of Chinese philosophy from cosmology to ontology (Wang 1993, 1996, 2003; Cai 2009; Liu 2017).
Thus, during Empress Wu’s reign from the late seventh to the early eighth century, we see the dominance of Chan master Shenxiu and early Chan in the capitals, the retranslation of the Qixin lun and Lengqie jing, Fazang’s theories drawn from interpreting these texts, and the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. All of these presented the central concern of Tathāgatagarbha doctrine, the application of the essence–function paradigm, and the use of certain similar terms and concepts. Immersed in such an atmosphere, it is not at all strange that Fang Rong and Huaidi, consciously or unconsciously, should have given a certain embellishment or free rein to some terms and concepts within the Śūraṃgama-sūtra during the translation process.
Fifth, since the appearance of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra, generation after generation of eminent Chinese monks have unanimously recognized it as an authentic Buddhist scripture, and many renowned Chinese scholars have highly adored it. More than one hundred commentaries have been written on the sutra, over eighty of which are extant (Demiéville 1952, pp. 43–52; Epstein 1976; Ōmatsu 1991, pp. 130–33; Kim 1993, pp. 381–87). Of course, these eminent monks and scholars were aware of the Chinese elements scattered throughout the sutra. However, observing it from the mainstream of doctrinal developments in Indian and Chinese Buddhism, they agreed that the main body of the sutra not only does not deviate from fundamental Buddhist doctrine but also presents a perfect synthesis of various theories in the Mahāyāna tradition. For example, the Ming eminent monk Ouyi Zhixu 蕅益智旭 (1599–1655) praised the sutra as “the compass for both the Chan school and doctrinal schools, the summarization of nature and form, the quintessence of dharma doctrines through time, and the orthodox seal for becoming a buddha and patriarch” 宗教司南, 性相總要, 一代法門之精髓, 成佛作祖之正印也 (Zhixu 1654, 11.98b). The modern scholar Li Fuhua indicated:
[The Śūraṃgama-sūtra] includes fundamental Mahāyāna theories, such as the thought of the empty nature of all dharmas in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra, the thought of numerous buddhas in the ten directions and the mind-only of all dharmas in the Avatasaka-sūtra, the true-form of all dharmas in the Saddharmapundarīka-sūtra, and the doctrine of Buddha nature in the Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra, as well as various contents involving the pure land and esoteric teachings such as Vinaya, meditation, and mantra. 既包涵般若經諸法性空思想, 又包涵華嚴經十方諸佛, 萬法唯心的思想, 還包涵法華經諸法實相, 涅槃經的佛性說等大乘佛教的基本理論, 以及律儀, 禪定, 誦咒等種種涉及淨土和密教的內容.
Furthermore, in accordance with this synthetic nature of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra and the fact that its “esoteric contents are closer to the tantric texts appearing around the fifth century”, Li Fuhua has speculated that this sutra was likely produced in the fifth or sixth century at the Nālandā monastery (Li 1996, pp. 76–77). Indeed, in the Dunhuang and other versions of the sutra in various Buddhist canons, a note appears at the beginning of each juan, following the sutra’s title: “It is also titled Sūtra of the Grand Nālandā Monastery in Central India” 一名中印度那蘭陀大道場經. This is in accordance with Zhisheng’s account of the transmitter Pāramiti coming from central India. In addition, in the versions of the Zhaocheng canon 趙城藏 and Taisō canon, prior to the long magical spell (dhāraṇī) in the seventh juan, there is a note: “It is also named ‘Magical Spell of the Bathing Ritual (Abhiṣeka) at the Maṇḍala of the Grand Vajra Monastery of Nālandā in Central India’” 一名中印度那蘭陀曼茶羅灌頂金剛大道場神呪 (Pāramiti et al. 705, 7.133c). This long spell presents different contents in different versions of the sutra, including those of the Dunhuang transcripts, ancient Japanese transcripts, and various Buddhist canons, and also has similarities and differences with spells in various Tantric scriptures (Keyworth 2016). Some scholars have seen this spell as evidence of forgery (Mochizuki 1922, pp. 10–11; Lü [1940] 1995, p. 202), but it is more likely that this kind of spell was originally produced and applied in Nālandā, and then changed in the course of transcription, circulation, performance, and translation.
Ronald Epstein also contended that “the Sutra’s general doctrinal position, which is tantric/tathagatagarbha, corresponds to what we know about what was going on at Nalanda during the period in question” (Epstein 1976). Established in the fifth century in central India, Nālandā has been regarded as the first comprehensive university in the world. Buddhist logico-epistemology also started to develop from the fifth century, and was taught at Nālandā. The Śūraṃgama-sūtra was thus likely composed by monk-scholar(s) of Nālandā monastery, who summarized various theories and practices of the Mahāyāna tradition and offered sophisticated argumentation and logical reasoning, especially in the first four juan that present the tendency of logico-epistemology. Although both Mochizuki and Lü Cheng surmised that the two subtitles referring to Nālandā were forged by imitating the title Jingang dadaochang jing 金剛大道場經 (Sūtra of the Grand Vajra Monastery) mentioned in other sutras, they offered no solid verification for this argument (Mochizuki 1922, pp. 9–10; Lü [1940] 1995, p. 201).5

4. Conclusions

By uncovering new historical sources and by critically analyzing the various arguments of modern scholars, I have used both external and internal evidence to show that the early accounts of Fang Rong’s participation in the translation are in fact reliable, and that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra is indeed an authentic Buddhist scripture whose Chinese elements are the result of translation.
Externally, the main argument of some scholars that Zhisheng’s two accounts of the translation of the sutra are in conflict has not been solidly established. Instead, both accounts in fact do not conflict with but rather complement each other. The first account, from the Kaiyuan shijiao lu, was based on the first version brought from Guangzhou to the capital by an official envoy. This version, which was included in the Kaiyuan canon and is extant in the Fangshan stone-canon, named the translators as Huaidi and an Indian monk, exactly as the Kaiyuan shijiao lu does. The reason this version omitted Fang Rong’s name is because—at the time of the translation—he was a disgraced, banished official. Zhisheng’s second account was then based on the second version brought from Guangzhou to the capital by an official envoy at a somewhat later time. Because by then the grounds for Fang Rong’s exile had been pardoned, this version lists in full the transmitter and translator of the sutra, including Fang Rong as the transcriber and Huaidi as the verifier of the Sanskrit meanings. In their works, both Genei and Zanning also offered detailed accounts of this second version, which perfectly accord with Zhisheng’s second account. This version was then included in the Zhenyuan canon, and is extant in various later Buddhist canons. I have also demonstrated that Fang Rong’s itinerary of exile was in complete accordance with Zhisheng’s account of the completion date and site of the translation. I further refuted other minor arguments concerning the translator and translation of the sutra using convincing sources. The confirmations of the facts surrounding the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra as well as Fang Rong’s role as translator thus establish that the sutra was translated from the Sanskrit original, and therefore is not a Chinese apocryphal text.
Internally, I have dispensed with some scholars’ doubts concerning the doctrines and terminology of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra from five aspects. First, their argument of comparing the sutra’s doctrinal consistencies and inconsistencies against other sutras as evidence for its being an apocryphon is logically conflicting and invalid for proving inauthenticity, because such consistencies and inconsistencies are commonly found in Buddhist scriptures. Instead, the sutra’s doctrinal sophistication and logical reasoning, as well as the large numbers of Sanskrit words and Indic materials, make it unlikely to have been forged in China.
Second, while some scholars have correctly discerned Chinese elements within the sutra, these elements do not necessarily indicate a Chinese origin, as they have asserted. Rather, because these elements are mostly scattered allusions and terms that comprise only a tiny ratio of the entire sutra, they can be seen as translative substitutions for parallel Sanskrit elements. Furthermore, Fang Rong’s contribution to the graceful literary style of the sutra has long been acknowledged by Chinese literati and Buddhists. Moreover, within the politico-religious context of the seventh century, as the three teachings were undergoing interaction and synthesis, especially under Empress Wu, it is not at all surprising that the Śūraṃgama-sūtra would contain certain Chinese elements, including those from Daoism.
Third, although some scholars’ findings on Fang Rong’s relationship with early Chan Buddhism are insightful, again this relationship does not necessarily mean that Fang must have forged the sutra. Rather, it can be explained by noting that Fang Rong—as well as Huaidi, who was a Chan master himself—made certain embellishments upon the sutra’s central theme of Tathāgatagarbha theory, which lies at the core of Chan doctrine.
Fourth, while some scholars have discerned certain similarities between the Śūraṃgama-sūtra and the Qixin lun, as well as Fazang’s theories and Chinese philosophical discourses, these similarities again do not prove the sutra’s inauthenticity. During Empress Wu’s reign, many influences were interactive and interconnected: among these were the prominence of Shenxiu and early Chan in the capital; the retranslation of the Qixin lun and Lengqie jing, which promoted Tathāgatagarbha theory; and Fazang’s elaboration of this theory and application of the essence–function paradigm, which had been features of Chinese philosophy since Wei-Jin Xuanxue thought but were possibly influenced by Buddhist prajñā theory. Immersed in such an atmosphere, Fang Rong and Huaidi may well have, consciously or unconsciously, given certain elaboration or free rein to some of the terms and concepts within the Śūraṃgama-sūtra while translating it.
Finally, by focusing on the sutra’s main body of Buddhist doctrines, rather than on some scattered allusions and terms, all of the eminent Chinese monks unanimously recognized the sutra to be an authentic Buddhist scripture encompassing various theories of the Mahāyāna tradition. The sutra’s synthetic nature and its subtitle Sūtra of the Grand Nālandā Monastery, as well as Zhisheng’s and other Tang peoples’ accounts of its provenance in central India, suggest that the sutra was likely a late Mahāyāna scripture composed by monk-scholar(s) residing in the Nālandā monastery.
As a final point, contemporary translation theory emphasizes the role of the translator, which contributes to the production, content, and meaning of a translated text (Robinson 1991; Lefevere 1992). The New Philology theory that has developed over the past several decades highlights transcription, interpretation, exegesis, and transmission as important stages in the formation of a text, and underscores how transcribers, interpreters, commentators, and transmitters continually contribute to the content and meaning of a text (Cerquiglini 1989; Nichols 1990; Restall 2003). The participation of Fang Rong and Huaidi in the translation of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra; the more than one hundred commentaries on this sutra; and the reading, reciting, and practicing of the sutra by numerous monks, laymen, and literati all comprise organic parts of the sutra. It is therefore time to acknowledge the Śūraṃgama-sūtra as a major Mahāyāna scripture that was influenced by the Chinese cultural tradition through translation and interpretation, and that it in turn has exerted significant influence on this tradition.


This research received no external funding.

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Conflicts of Interest

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The Song huiyao 宋會要 (Collected Important Documents of the Song) records that Fang Rong played the role of transcriber in the translation of the Yuanjue jing 圓覺經 (Sūtra of Perfect Enlightenment; Luo 1978, p. 327). This event is not seen in any Tang text or any other texts after the Tang, and therefore must simply be an accidental error of confusing the Śūraṃgama-sūtra with the Yuanjue jing.
For studies on the early Chan movement, see mainly (McRae 1986; Faure 1997).
In his Xixi congyu 西溪叢語 (Miscellaneous Words from the West Stream), the Song-dynasty scholar Yao Kuan 姚寬 (1105–1162) cited the Baolin zhuan 寶林傳 (Biographies of the Baolin Monastery) composed in 801, stating that the Guangguo monastery was originally named Baolin monastery in 503 and changed to Guangguo monastery in the Shenlong reign-period (705–707) (Yao n.d., 1.33b–34a). Fang Rong’s poem titled “You Shixing Guangguosi shanfang,” which is included in the Tangshi jishi and mentioned above, was titled “You Shixing Guangshengsi Guo shangren fang” 游始興廣勝寺果上人房 (Visiting the Venerable Guo’s Chamber at the Guangsheng Monastery in Shixing) in the Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華 (Flowers of the Literary Garden) (Li et al. 1201, 236.11a), and “Zhe Nanhai guo Shixing Guangshengsi Guo shangren fang” 謫南海過始興廣勝寺果上人房 (Exile to Nanhai and Visiting the Venerable Guo’s Chamber at the Guangsheng Monastery in Shixing) in the Quan Tangshi 全唐詩 (Complete Tang Poetry), with a note under the title: “It is also titled ‘Visiting Shaozhou Guangjiesi’ ” 過韶州廣界寺 (Visiting the Guangjie Monastery in Shaozhou) (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 100.1076). The variants of “guangjie” 廣界, “guangsheng” 廣勝, and “Guo shangren” 果上人 are likely scribal errors. Song Zhiwen also composed a poem titled “You Shaozhou Guangjiesi” 游韶州廣界寺 (Visiting the Guangjie Monastery in Shaozhou), and in the Quan Tangshi a note under “jie” 界 says that “it is also written as ‘guo’” 果 (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 52.640). Song composed another poem as well titled “Zi Hengyang zhi Shaozhou ye Neng Chanshi” 自衡陽至韶州謁能禪師 (From Hengyang to Shaozhou to Visit Chan Master Huineng) (Peng et al. [1707] 1960, 51.622). The Chan master Neng also referred to Huineng. Later, Zanning also said: “There was the event when Song Zhiwen visited Huineng and wrote a long poem” 有若宋之問謁能, 著長篇 (Zanning [988] 1987, 8.175). This proves that Guangguo monastery is the correct name, and that Huineng was living in the monastery at that time.
As is well-known, there has also been sharp controversy over the authenticity of the Qixin lun among modern scholars. Since this issue is even more complicated, I do not have space to discuss it here.
Although the original Sanskrit text of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra has not yet been found, there have been several clues concerning its existence. (1) In 1921, an official named Xu Dan 許丹 visited India on a mission and reported that he had found the Sanskrit text of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra in central India (Xu 1921, pp. 13–17; Liu 2020, pp. 104–14). (2) Li Wenzhu, while investigating Sanskrit scriptures written on pattra leaves in China, found a fragment of the sutra with two hundred and twenty-six leaves extant at the Puti monastery 菩提寺 in Nanyang 南陽 city, Henan province, which is now preserved in the Peng Xuefeng Museum 彭雪峰紀念館 (Li 2010, pp. 53–62). (3) According to Cai Bing’s research, the Tibetan canon includes two fragments of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra from an ancient Tibetan translation, and the eminent monk Butön Rinchen Drup 布敦仁欽竹 (1290–1364) said that one of the fragments had been translated from Chinese. This seems to imply that the other fragment may have been translated from Sanskrit or another language (Cai 2014, pp. 88–97). These clues, however, have either been lost track of or not been verified.


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Jia, J. Translation and Interaction: A New Examination of the Controversy over the Translation and Authenticity of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. Religions 2022, 13, 474.

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Jia J. Translation and Interaction: A New Examination of the Controversy over the Translation and Authenticity of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra. Religions. 2022; 13(6):474.

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Jia, Jinhua. 2022. "Translation and Interaction: A New Examination of the Controversy over the Translation and Authenticity of the Śūraṃgama-sūtra" Religions 13, no. 6: 474.

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