When a Manuscript Is More Than a Text: Princeton’s Sumidera Heart Sutra

In 2012 Princeton acquired an eighth-century Japanese manuscript of twenty lines. The pithy text, called the Heart Sutra, is said to encapsulate the wisdom of the Buddha through such enigmatic phrases as “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” But an examination of Princeton’s Sumidera Heart Sutra reminds us that a manuscript is more than a text.

Japanese, Nara period (710–794), Sumidera Heart Sutra (Sumidera shingyō 隅寺心経), 8th century. Handscroll: ink on paper, 22.9 x 42.4 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, FundThe Princeton example comes from a larger group of Heart Sutra manuscripts that were collected at Sumidera, or Kairyūōji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan. The historian of Buddhism Miyazaki Kenji has argued that these manuscripts were tied to a practice referred to in eighth-century documents as “yearly portion Heart Sutra” (年料多心経), which I call the “daily Heart Sutra project.”1 In this undertaking, copies of the Heart Sutra were made in bulk, in a quantity equal to the number of days in the year. For example, in 746 scribes made 768 copies of the Heart Sutra. As that year spanned 384 days, according to the traditional calendar used in Japan at that time, Miyazaki calculates that two copies per day were intended, one for Emperor Shōmu and one for his wife, Queen Consort Kōmyō, who sponsored the project. Details about the project are recorded in the Shōsōin documents, the archive of an eighth-century scriptorium. According to this archive, one assembler, two scribes, and two proofreaders worked to complete the manuscripts. The scribes copied the Heart Sutra onto individual sheets, which were later bound into twenty-five scrolls of thirty sheets and one scroll of eighteen. The Sumidera manuscripts apparently started to circulate widely as individual sheets during the Edo period (1600–1868), when the scrolls were presumably broken up. Princeton’s copy is in a single-sheet format, so it was likely removed from a larger scroll at this time.

Some manuscripts from the Sumidera project survive in the scroll format, such as one at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo. Miyazaki notes that the individual sheet at the beginning of the Nezu scroll is labeled with the long title of the work, Heart Sutra of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Spoken by the Buddha (佛説摩訶般若波羅蜜多心経), and then switches to the short title, Heart Sutra (心経), for twelve sheets; the scroll ends with sheets that use the medium-length title, Heart Sutra of the Great Perfection of Wisdom (摩訶般若波羅蜜多心経).2 The “daily Heart Sutra project” may have used mass produced copies of single sheets made by individual scribes that were then joined together in a scroll, with certain sheets marked as the beginning and end, as reflected in the Nezu copy. In other words, attention to both the manuscript and the Shōsōin documents can help us figure out how the copies were made. Princeton’s manuscript uses only the short title. If the scroll from which it came had a format similar to that of the Nezu scrolls, it could have been a middle sheet.

Close examination reveals other clues about the manuscripts’ production. If we compare the Princeton manuscript with a Sumidera Heart Sutra from the Harvard Art Museums, we can see different character forms and line breaks across manuscripts. These variations could signal that different scribes copied from slightly different source texts that existed side by side in the scriptorium’s library. These copies would then have been bound together to create a new manuscript of slightly different Heart Sutras, only to be taken apart again around one thousand years later. The question remains: Why would one patron sponsor 768 copies of one manuscript at once? Surely no single individual needed that many copies to read. And even if 768 people wanted to peruse the Heart Sutra, why would scriptorium workers assemble them into scrolls of the same text, one after another?

The answer is that the Heart Sutra was more than a text to be read. It was a powerful object—in many ways like an amulet—whose very production could bring health and protection to the patron. As one recent piece put it, “what these words mean may be just as important as what they can do: offer protection, through apotropaic invocation.”3 In the case of the Sumidera Heart Sutra, the manuscript would protect the rulers for each and every day of the year. The manuscripts were valued not only because of the depth of wisdom they contained but also due to their protective potency. Over time, however, these sutras took on a different and equally revealing meaning. They became attributed to the Japanese monk Kūkai (774–835), a figure credited with founding the Shingon sect and someone who was also deified as an object of worship himself. This is telling because Kūkai postdates these manuscripts. Older manuscripts were not valued over newer versions; rather, collectors preferred to possess manuscripts copied by a god, particularly someone like Kūkai, who was considered one of the great masters of calligraphy. Here, the idea is that the manuscript is imbued with the calligrapher himself. A manuscript copied by Kūkai would possess some of his power. But this attribution was contested. Because Kūkai was closely associated with the Shingon sect, rival movements sought alternative attributions. The Tendai temple Chōhōji, for example, attributed its Sumidera manuscript to one of their sect’s famous figures: the monk Ennin (794–864). In other words, temples that came into possession of these works claimed mythical origins for the manuscripts and connected them to revered figures in their respective traditions. The original meaning of a text copied for the protection of the emperor and his wife was lost; the manuscripts now supported sectarian claims.

The written word is more than semantic meaning. Texts were powerful objects capable of protecting patrons and worshipped for their connections to the calligrapher. Although these manuscripts were mass-produced in a scriptorium by low-paid laborers, their power derives in part from the idea that the Buddhist teachings embody the Buddha himself, and his texts, therefore, function as relics. Now these sacred relics are “art” in the Princeton University Art Museum, a context in which apotropaic vitality has been replaced with aesthetic value. The meaning and power of the manuscript continue to shift in each new context it enters, from the eighth century to the present day, but these meanings are consistently rooted in the materiality of the text.

Bryan Lowe
Assistant Professor, Department of Religion

1 Miyazaki Kenji 宮﨑健司, Nihon Kodai no Shakyō to Shakai日本古代の写 経と社会 (Tokyo: Hanawa Shobō, 2006), 59–86.

2 Miyazaki Kenji 宮﨑健司, “Fukusūbu wo Seikanshita Sumidera Shingyō: Kairyūōjibon to Nezu Bijutsukanbon複数部を成巻した隅寺心経: 海龍 王寺本と根津美術館本,” Ōtani Daigaku Shinshū Sōgō Kenkyūjo Kenkyū Kiyō大谷大学真宗総合研究所研究紀要 35 (2018): 1–15.

3 Hunter Dukes, “Reciting Pictures: Buddhist Texts for the Illiterate,” The Public Domain Review, published January 12, 2022, https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/buddhist-texts-for-the-illiterate