An Introduction to the Middle-Length Agama

The Middle-Length Agama (MA) is Taisho No. 26, which spans 60 fascicles and 388 pages of the Taisho Daizokyo, Vol. 1. To put this in perspective, a page of Taisho prose typically translates to 1,500 words of English, so a complete translation of MA will probably be 600,000-700,000 words in length. In addition to this complete translation, there are over 70 individual translations of sutras found in MA that still survive as Taisho Nos. 27-98.

History of Chinese Translations

The history of the Chinese translation of MA is well documented in BDK English Tripiṭaka Series’s volume 1, which was published in 2013. It appears that MA, as it survives today, was actually the second complete translation to Chinese. The first was a collaboration between an Indian bhiksu named Dharmanandin and Zhu Fonian in the 384-5 CE. A second translation was produced by a team headed by Gautama Samghadeva only a decade later in 397-8 CE. Chinese records suggest both translations existed for several centuries before the first was lost.

As late as the 4th c. CE, Indian Buddhist texts were still preserved in memory rather than in writing, and we see direct evidence of this in the Chinese descriptions of translation teams. Typically, a bhiksu who had a text memorized recited it in the original language, a bilingual bhiksu then provided a Chinese translation verbally, and scribes wrote down the translation. Thus, the lingual and writing skills were typically divided between two or more people, which makes sense given the difficulty involved. Literacy in Chinese, for example, was a skill separate from the spoken language given that writing was  ideographic rather than phonetic.

Comparing the Agama to the Nikaya

The Middle-Length Agama is organized in a similar way as the Majjhima Nikaya (MN) in the Pali canon, but it contains more texts arranged in a different order. MA is a collection of 222 sutras in five divisions, while MN contains 152 suttas in three divisions. Each division is subdivided into thematic chapters that typically consist of 10 texts each, though MA has a couple larger chapters ranging from 15 to 25 texts.

It’s clear that MA was recited in a program that lasted five days because its divisions are called Recitations titled “First Day Recitation” and so on. These recitations appear to divide the collection into roughly equal segments (60-100 pages), and they sometimes split chapters for this purpose.

When we compare the texts in MA to MN, it quickly becomes clear that the two collections substantially overlap, but about 65% of MA’s texts either have no equivalent in the Pali Canon or they are found in a different Pali collection. Unlike MN, which doesn’t contain brief suttas, MA has many sutras that correspond to texts in the Anguttara Nikaya. Scholars have made efforts to index the parallels between the Agamas and the Nikayas, but it becomes a complex task when we also consider Sanskrit and other Chinese sources. Indexing the major parallels is complete, but the indices aren’t 100% comprehensive yet. At this point, it appears that 10% (23 sutras) of MA is unique, lacking any surviving parallels in other Agamas or the Pali canon.

Actual side-by-side comparisons of MA and its Pali parallels are difficult to generalize beyond the fact that many are clearly variations of the same text. In some cases, one text seems stripped down and simple compared to the other; or they only share certain sections and not others. Numerical lists usually differ only in order, but the actual definitions can be quite different.

Thoughts about the Origin of Variant Sutras

Most of the texts in MA are single topic presentations that center around a parable or numerical list of ideas. Originally, they were lectures given as part of the Buddha’s attempt to educate his students from day to day. These lectures were memorized by bhiksus in attendance and recited regularly to preserve them, becoming a canonical oral tradition after his death. It seems reasonable to assume a couple things about these original lectures during the Buddha’s time.

The Buddha himself probably repeated some lectures more than once to different audiences, and he may well have varied the presentations from one occasion to the next. He traveled from place to place in a repeated circuit for several decades. Thus, some of the variations we see were likely different versions of the same lecture from the beginning. Two variant sutras that claim to have been taught at the same location may have been taught there during different visits, possibly years apart.

As the Buddha gained followers, they spread out across ancient India. Some traveled with him, but more and more probably did not. Lectures that had been memorized at a given teaching were recited in his absence and “copied” into the memories of other bhiksus. Different versions of the same lecture likely were created when recitations weren’t exact or portions of a lecture were forgotten and recreated. This might account for slight differences and texts with the same structure but very different content.

Evidence of Recall Errors and Correction in Early Sutras

One of the common differences I see between versions for a sutra are numerical lists that differ in order. The beginning and end of a list will usually be the same in each version, but the items in the middle of the list will be jumbled. This to me is evidence of recall errors. The beginning and end of lists or narratives are easier to recall than the order of items or events in the middle of them.

Indeed, some texts are structured in a way to make these kinds of recall errors less likely. As written documents, they read in a repetitive and stilted way, but the purpose was to provide error detection. An example is a list that incrementally adds more detail to each item. It resembles a common way to memorize a long series of numbers:

  • 56
  • 56-87
  • 56-87-90
  • 56-87-90-34
  • 56-87-90-34-76

When we recite this series, it’s easy to realize where something was forgotten, and we can reconstruct a forgotten portion by going back to an earlier item. The Water Parable Sutra is a good example of this method of building error correction into a text. Its items are recited like this (to paraphrase):

  • A person lays in water
  • A person comes up and looks around
  • A person comes up, looks around, and stands
  • A person comes up, looks around, stands, and wades across
  • A person comes up, looks around, stands, wades across, and reaches the other shore
  • etc.


The upshot is that when we take all of these early texts in Pali and Chinese as a whole, we get a sum total of surviving lectures by the Buddha, however much they had evolved over the centuries before they were codified as written canons. I don’t think we can know for certain which are more original than the others when we group the parallels together. In some cases, a larger version might have been an amplification; in another case a smaller version might have been restored from an incomplete memory. In still other cases, we get two or more opinions about what something means.

As I continue my translation efforts, I intend to collect the versions of each sutra into a single document as individual studies. I plan begin working out a good format for this next month.

Book Review: The Dharma of Dragons and Demons (David Loy & Linda Goodhew)


Fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living.

– Ursula Le Guin

The tension between western Buddhists who embrace the traditional forms of the religion and those who blend it with modern culture is palpable at times. In some cases the friction is caused by literalism (from either perspective), and sometimes its source is cultural.

My own path has hewed a route that refuses to separate the modern and the traditional, holding both as equally important. The modern world is the one we live in every day, and the traditional world is an endless source of insight and inspiration. I can’t see a reason to abandon either, and my hope is that the two can be blended into something healthier. That hope has always been the driver of my interest, practice, and study of Buddhism.

David Loy is a contemporary writer who builds bridges on which modern culture and traditional Buddhism can consider each other. The Dharma of Dragons and Demons is a short collection of essays published in periodicals like The Journal of the Faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University (Japan) and Nihon Jidoubungaku. Each article selects a number of western fantasies and draws out principles and themes they have in common with Buddhism. He and his wife edited five of these cross-cultural articles and republished them in this book.

Loy bases each article on a major theme of Buddhist thought: Social engagement, time, nonviolence, death and life. In each, he examines the stories that have captured Western imaginations: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Ende’s Momo, Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Le Guin’s Earthsea books.

What led me to this book a few years ago was my interest in Miyazaki’s films as well as Le Guin’s books. I’ve been particularly fascinated with Princess Mononoke because of the way Miyazaki creates a story about a three-sided conflict: Two warring factions with a third character who comes with wisdom to try to make a peace between them. This was so different from the typical western drama in which a hero simply destroys the “bad” people. Myazaki paints a more realistic story. Both sides have their virtues and their faults, yet one side is indeed the more dangerous one. Still, to make peace and stop the destruction, someone has to form a bridge between the two.

Loy relates this story to an incident in the Buddhist canon when the Buddha intervenes to stop a conflict between two cities. As Loy writes:

… the peoples of Kapilavastu and Koliya were about to battle over water rights to the Rohini River, which meandered its way between them. Due to a drought the river did not have enough water to irrigate fields on both sides. Instead of working out a way to share what was available, the two clans had an argument that led to name-calling and then appeals to both kings, who took up arms to settle the issue.

Using his siddhi (supernatural powers), the Buddha observed from afar that the two cities were about to fight, and that this would lead to widespread misery … [A]s the two kings approached the riverbanks, he appeared between them over the water, hovering cross-legged in midair, and spoke to the astonished combatants: “Is this water more valuable than all of the blood about to be spilled because of it?” His words brought both sides to their senses, and the two kings agreed to settle their differences nonviolently.

Buddhist scriptures often relate fantastic stories that involve miracles, supernatural beings, rebirth, and even beings traveling from one galaxy to the next. These elements make them very similar to modern fantasy and fairy tales in that they use these events that are not found in our common reality of everyday life. People can react violently to questioning these elements in scripture while dismissing children’s stories that include the same devices. In both cases, though, wisdom and truth can be represented without the rigid box of normal life. The point is not whether a story is 100% factually true, but that it communicates something we need to learn today.

Writers like Loy are what we need if we are to escape the literalism of scripture and science and rediscover the path of wisdom that we’ve wandered away from.


Book Review: The Diamond Sutra (Red Pine)

41NW5VQVYQL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Red Pine’s The Diamond Sutra: Text and Commentaries Translated from Sanskrit and Chinese is a book that I recommend to readers who want  to explore the various Diamond Sutra translations and exegesis that remains untranslated today.

In this book, Red Pine presents a translation of the sutra based on his studies of the Sanskrit and Chinese editions and then treats the reader to a tour of the various commentaries as he explores the meaning of each passage.

For those of us who can read classical Chinese and/or Sanskrit, many Buddhist sutras appear more like kaleidoscopic visions than they do single, authoritative texts. Red Pine attempts to communicate that vision to English readers by noting the variations between at least seven different editions of the sutra preserved  in Chinese and Sanskrit.

The English-speaking world is most familiar with two editions of this sutra: Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation and the extant Sanskrit edition. These two versions have served as historical bookends: Kumarajiva’s version was translated in 403 CE, and the Sanskrit version represents a final form reached sometime around 700 CE.

In between those two points, however, are five Chinese translations by Bodhiruci (509 CE), Paramartha (562 CE), Dharmagupta (605 CE), Xuanzang (648 CE), and Yijing (703 CE). We’ve also discovered Sanskrit texts of the Diamond Sutra in recent years that are dated around the time of Dharmagupta’s translation. This is an academic topic because the differences are largely amplifications or minor edits of dialogue.

What’s more interesting in Red Pine’s book is his copious quotation of East Asian and Indian commentaries, giving the reader a sense of the conversation that took place in China about this text. Weaved in between these quotations, Red Pine documents his own journey as he reads and meditates on the sutra himself in modern America. The fact that he avoids the rabbit hole of academic analysis and debate is remarkable given the material that he works with.

Red Pine’s translations are free and meaningful, and the format he uses is reminiscent of exegetical texts in ancient China that collated the comments of various authors. If you’re looking for accessible books that explore the Diamond Sutra‘s place in classical China, this a good place to start.


Wealth, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Human beings are like rats: We like to acquire things. I recall a rat I once took care of for a friend. I had never known a rat before, so it was a learning experience. The most striking thing about the rat to me was that it had a home, a little dome in which to eat in private, and it liked to store all the food it could acquire there.

It had a food bowl in its cage, but it never ate at the bowl. When I put food in its bowl, the rat would hurry over and pick through the day’s winnings, stuffing as many valuable items into its mouth that would fit and stowing them in its house–and with a sense of urgency! Not knowing exactly what a rat likes to eat, I gave it biscuits, seed, nuts, vegetables, and sometimes fruit. From time to time, I would hear it eating in its home, but I had no idea what it was eating. I assumed it took the food it wanted to eat and left the rest.

When I cleaned its cage and lifted its home up for the first time, I discovered the things it didn’t like to eat but wanted to add to its larder anyway. I learned that rats are indeed like people. They have things they want to use now and things they want to accumulate for some future time that may never come. The desire to possess something that might be useful someday but not today wasn’t invented by humans.

Wealth in Material

In the human world, we have material wealth in addition to food that we acquire and use. We own land, homes, vehicles, appliances, clothing, and a whole gamut of personal items. We take it to a level of abstraction never known before modern technology: Wealth in the form of numbers in an account that exists in a computer system. Like the rat, we acquire and accumulate wealth because we want to use it in our daily lives but also because it has some value that makes us desire having more of it.

Our society has become one obsessed with quantities rather than function. We fill our larders for the future, then continue filling beyond present and future need. Worse, we fill our larders so that we can compare them to the larders of other people and feel happy we are ahead of them. At the end of a person’s life, this turns out to be an absurdity similar to a pet rat stowing great piles of unwanted food when it’s well fed every day. The desire to acquire takes on a life of its own, providing a sense of satisfaction when nothing is accomplished but to move something from one place to another.

Wealth in Knowledge

Knowledge is very similar to this. Like wealth, knowledge can be acquired, and it has value because of its usefulness. Knowledge makes it possible to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and acquire new abilities. Knowledge can also be lost when it isn’t used.

If I want to translate an ancient language to English, I have to acquire the knowledge about both languages, my readers, and the original author of the ancient text. Otherwise, the translation will be inaccurate or impossible to comprehend.

Knowledge, though, like material wealth, activates the rat in people. We like to acquire it for reasons other than its use. We want to know everything about a subject and become an expert in it. We want to defeat others in debates by never having the wrong answer. We want to have complete certainty about the unknown. We want to enjoy the pleasure of learning new things.

A single person can study a subject and never reach the end of all the knowledge that can be acquired about it. They can become very admiring of themselves and other people who have become experts in a topic, yet they may only know a fraction of all the knowledge about it that exists. There is simply too much to learn in a single life span. The acquisition of knowledge, like material, can become an endeavor without a purpose beyond piling more into one place.

Wealth in Wisdom

This brings me to another subject: Wisdom.

Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge. It answers “Why?” questions, like why we value one thing more than another, for example. In discussing wealth of material and knowledge, I’ve been careful to avoid mixing in wisdom. People can do the same thing for foolish or wise reasons.

A person can acquire great financial wealth for the purpose of creating a charity that can help society as a whole, or they can acquire great wealth to control society with the power than it makes possible. Knowing which goal is wise and which is foolish is the acquisition of wisdom.

Like material and knowledge, wisdom comes in different kinds. There is wisdom about what is wise in our personal lives. Why are we in a given career? Why do we have the friends and relationships that we choose? Why are we pursuing the long-term goals that we’ve set for ourselves? These are difficult questions whose answers change over the years. The answers never seem to be final. Experience and perspective as we move through life make us re-assess the answers. Often, though, we neglect asking these questions until the answers become so obsolete that we have to stop and rethink our lives.

There is also wisdom about society. We have individual lives, but we exist in larger societies that have their own goals and group wisdom. A company can begin life making a given product that’s innovative and useful. It changes people’s lives for the better. Over time, the company’s purpose can change from providing that innovation to simply controlling a stream of income. The answers to its “Why?” questions can go unquestioned for far longer than an individual person’s do, and its wisdom can dwindle away or grow depending on whether its managers and employees make a habit of asking them or not.

Wisdom also can be about a person’s inner life, which is the kind of wisdom religions and philosophies like Buddhism acquire. This type of wisdom draws conclusions about basic questions like why we are unhappy and why we are satisfied in one situation or another. They ask questions that drive all the other forms of wisdom. They are the core questions whose answers inform the “Why?” questions about relationships, careers, and society.

Unfortunately, these core questions are also often the last “Why?” questions that we ask, and many people only ask them in times of crisis and turmoil. They don’t spend enough time developing the answers, and so personal and societal wisdom goes underdeveloped, being based on poor answers to these core “Why?” questions.

Societies and people who make a conscious habit of acquiring wisdom have a better sense of purpose, have the ability to correct themselves, and have the flexibility to adapt to change. When wisdom is neglected, we become more mechanical in our behavior and thinking.  Habits are difficult to change, systems are difficult to reform, and ideological paradigms become inflexible.

Modern society in America has become very good at acquiring wealth in material and knowledge but not wisdom, and this turning away from wisdom has been exported around the world. It is to me the root cause of many crises that we face in the world, such as income inequality, ethnic conflicts, or ecological disaster, and only wisdom will allow us to solve them.




The Place of the Chinese Āgamas in Buddhist Literature

The Chinese Buddhist canon is unique in that it contains a record of the scriptures and philosophical texts that were circulating in Central Asia and India during the peak of Buddhist literary creativity between 0 CE and the arrival of Islam. Most of the major works were translated several times over a period of about 500 years or so, meaning that we can note their historical development by comparing these “snapshots” preserved in Chinese. It’s also thanks to Chinese historical records that we can date many of these texts.

The Chinese Āgamas are an important piece of the historical puzzle of Indian Buddhist history. Most of the original Sanskrit or Middle Indic canons that the Chinese Āgamas preserved were lost when Buddhism was disbanded in India. The only complete early Buddhist canon that still exists is preserved in Pali by Theravada Buddhists in countries outside of India. To my knowledge, we otherwise only have fragments of original language Āgama texts discovered by archeologists and quotations in secondary works like Abhidharma and Mahāyāna texts.

Like the Theravada Buddhists, the Indian schools of early Buddhism maintained a canon of five divisions:

  • Dīrgha (Long)
  • Madhyama (Middle)
  • Saṃyukta (Thematic)
  • Ekôttara (Incremental)
  • Kṣudraka (Minor)

These are Sanskrit equivalents of the five Pali Nikāyas: Dīgha, Majjhima, Saṃyutta, Aṅguttara, and Khuddaka. Each Āgama or Nikāya is a collection of individual texts that relate a teaching by the Buddha or a chief disciple.

These collections had their genesis from the initial sermon that the Buddha gave to his first five disciples. Throughout his teaching career, the practice of memorizing teachings and events and preserving them as an oral tradition built up a living canon that continued on after his death. It was several centuries later that these oral traditions were set down in writing. I say oral traditions because the Chinese Āgamas suggest that, by the time they arrived in China (circa 4-5th c. CE), each major branch of early Buddhism had an alternate version of the original oral tradition.

Scholars have begun to compare them to the Pali and to fragments of Indian works that exist. What they have found is that while the basic teachings and historical events are shared between each canon, they are seldom identical and vary a great deal in presentation and wording. Indeed, there are even differences in understanding the meaning of basic words because of Sanskrit rather than Pali derivations.

What has been striking to me is how certain parallel texts are very close in wording when we compare the Chinese to the Pali, while others are very different. There is also only a partial overlap: That is, that the Nikāyas have texts that are absent from the Chinese Āgamas and vice versa. It’s clear that the early Buddhist canon was not a word-for-word preservation like the Christian Bible, but rather a fuzzy body of literature handed down through multiple lines of transmission.

Efforts to translate and publish the Chinese Āgamas to English began during this decade, most notably with publications by the BDK translation project and also Dharma Drum Buddhist College. I had explored the Āgamas in the early 2000s during a period of study and translated a few of them in 2004. I am taking this effort back up because of the need for a careful rendering these difficult texts to English. It will give scholars and practitioners alike a way to get a better understanding of early Buddhism as a whole.


Weekly Update: Agamas and Dharmapadas

It’s been over a month since my last update on my translation work. I began the year with a general idea of updating my previous translations that needed polishing and correction, and I republished a much improved edition of Kumarajiva’s Diamond Sutra in February.

In March things changed somewhat when I rediscovered some of my translations from the Middle-Length Agama preserved at SuttaCentral. There has been work accomplished in recent years in translating the Chinese Agamas at BDK, which is encouraging. After some thought, I decided to move in a different direction and began work on updating the translations at SuttaCentral to support their open source philosophy. The first three sutras of the Middle-Length Agama have been given a fresh translation, and I have to say that the old translations were less than stellar. The references we have today compared to 2004, in addition to the experience I’ve gained since then, makes quite a difference.

I also experimented with social media over the past month and a half. I drafted translations of the Chinese Dharmapada and posted them in four or five verse segments with illustrations in a photo album on the Dharma Pearls Facebook page.  The English needs polishing, but it’s been an interesting project. It’s unfortunate that Facebook doesn’t make publishing texts in coherent collections very easy. They do provide “Notes,” which are like individual web pages, but there’s no way to organize them. The photo albums are the only way I could find to present a text in a linear fashion.

Of course, all of this has caused multi-tasking overload, as I can only spend 1/3 of my time on these projects. When the middle of April arrived, I took some time to think about an overall strategy going forwards.

What I’ve settled on is to focus on texts in the Agama, Avadana, and Prajna divisions of the Chinese canon that either could use a new translation or aren’t likely to be translated. For the time being, this will mean continuing to work on the Middle-Length Agama, the Dharmapada, and the smaller perfection of wisdom sutras. That’s alot of material for one person working part-time, which means I’ll work on each in a rotating fashion.

I’ve also decided to cease any new translations to polish what’s been completed thus far and work on a publishing process. I’ll be working on publishing PDFs to my Patreon page to make it more valuable to anyone interesting in subscribing to my work. For the general public, I want to publish the translations as eBooks, too. This will be the main goal for May.

I hope everyone is having a good year so far. It’s been an interesting challenge here as I settle into a new home on the west coast and work on creative projects on a shoestring budget. Life is best lived when it’s challenging (in a good way), and we can give something back to the world that’s meaningful.


Book Review: The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion (Thich Nhat Hanh)

The Di41cWrOXWMxL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_amond that Cuts through Illusion is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary on the Diamond-Cutting Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, which was first published by Parallax Press in 1992. The English translation from Kumarajiva’s Chinese was led by Hahn with the help of Annabel Laity and Anh Huong Nguyen. Hahn’s commentary on the Sutra was translated to English by Nguyen from Vietnamese. Continue reading “Book Review: The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion (Thich Nhat Hanh)”