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.

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.




Diamond Sutra: Dharmas, Laws, and Notions

Today, I want to continue with a short explanation of the specific meanings of the term “dharma” in the Diamond Sutra.

Yesterday, I narrated a contemplation about baseballs to demonstrate how I understand the Diamond Sutra‘s insistence that named things are just names. In the process I explained the very general use of “dharma” in Buddhist texts: The separate concepts we have for the things we deal with in our everyday life, ranging from objects like baseballs to abstract things like skills, relationships, and professions. If you can name it and have a specific understanding of it, it’s a dharma. This is the meaning used in expressions like “all dharmas are empty.”

There are a couple more specific meanings of dharma found in the Diamond Sutra: Dharmas, laws, and notions.

The word “dharma” in Sanskrit is very general: It means a rule, pattern, or way that guides how things happens, how people behave, or how the mind understands its experience of life. As a result, it has different meanings in different contexts.

When dharma is translated as a proper noun “Dharma” it means a religious, secular, or professional doctrine or teaching that people use as a guide. The Buddha’s Dharma is the teaching and guidelines that Buddhists follow as a religious practice. The Dharmas of ordinary people would mean the ways of life among secular people. The Dharma of humans would mean the way of life of people in general compared to animals or mythical beings like the devas that live in the heavens. This is one use of the word dharma.

Dharma can also mean the rules and regulations created by humans to control each other’s behavior. I usually translate this use of dharma as “law” or “rule.” Dharma can mean laws that are enforced by governments, and it can mean the rules created by organizations, or even the informal “rules” of politeness. It could refer to a rule that you take your shoes off when entering a particular friend’s house.

A third meaning of dharma in the Diamond Sutra is the sixth type of sensation in Buddhist theory of experience: The mental sensation. There are the five bodily sensations: Sight, sound, odor, taste, and touch. Dharma is the term used for the sensations that happen in the mind’s eye when dreaming, imagining, thinking, or remembering things. I translate the term as “notions” for want of a better word in English because it runs a gamut of things like thoughts, emotions, decisions, mental imagery, etc. The baseball that we imagined holding in our hand yesterday was this type of dharma.




Diamond Sutra: A Baseball Is Not a Baseball; It’s Called a Baseball

The Diamond Sutra addresses a number of Buddhist concepts and themes but at the core of its mystery is an unexplained formula that is repeated over and over. It can be summarized as a sort of equation:

X is not X. This is called X.

The Sutra authors apply this equation to many things: The stream-enterer, the once-returner, the non-returner, and Subhuti’s famous practice as a peaceful hermit meditator who doesn’t argue about anything are the first things the formula is applied to in section 9 of the text.

We are given a strong hint before that in sections 6-8 about the reasoning behind the formula. The Buddha makes the point that even the teachings of the Buddha himself must be transcended and discarded at the end of the spiritual journey. They are like a raft that gets us safely from one side of a raging river to another. Therefore, the spoken teachings are not really the Buddha’s Dharma, they are just descriptions of it. Indeed, when that Dharma is examined closely, it’s like every other dharma.

But what is a dharma?

Suppose you are sitting at a desk. You might not be sitting at a desk now. If you are, imagine you are sitting somewhere else. Imagine there is a baseball sitting close by, and you notice it. It’s clearly a baseball. It looks like one, has the correct size and appearance: A white leather ball with stitching around it in that way baseballs are stitched.

Imagine you pick it up and hold it in the palm of your hand. It has a particular weight, a smooth feel against your hand. You squeeze it. It’s solid, but it does give just a little. If you’ve ever played baseball, you can remember a game you played. Catching a baseball like this one with a baseball glove and the sting of catching a baseball in the wrong way so that it hits your hand too fast. You can remember hitting a ball like this with a bat.

You may not have ever seen a baseball nor played a baseball game. You may only vaguely know about the game through snatches of conversation, or you might have seen a little of a game on television or at a website somewhere.

But now, you are holding a baseball in your hand in your mind. You feel it and see it; you can even smell it: It vaguely smells like old leather.

Now, this baseball you are imagining in your mind with all of these characteristics is an example of a dharma. It is something that is unique and particular. It has a baseball-ness all its own, and other baseballs can be recognized because they are very similar. In fact, unless you pay close attention, other baseballs will seem identical to it. They are all instances of the dharma ‘baseball.’

Depending on how well you know baseballs, if you’ve ever played the game or watched others play baseball, your ‘baseball’ dharma is going to differ from someone else’s. You might only know vaguely what an American baseball looks like, whereas someone who has played baseball as a child and as an adult knows much more. They know it’s weight, how much force to use when throwing it to someone else, how to catch it without hurting their hands, and how to hit it in different ways with a baseball bat. That person’s ‘baseball’ dharma is much more detailed, but it’s still a dharma.

Now, imagine you get up and take the baseball to a table. You want to know how a baseball is made; what’s inside of a baseball? You might know, but you’d like to see what it looks like out of curiosity. You find a sharp knife and cut through the leather skin that covers the ball, or you carefully sever the thread that sows it together. Either way, you work at it until the skin has been removed. You find a tightly wound ball of yarn! You might have known that was what was underneath; if you didn’t it might be a surprise. You cut through the yarn and unravel it.

At the center of the ball, after you’ve made a tangled pile of yarn, is a small ball of cork wood. It’s light and soft.

We’ve destroyed the baseball, reduced it to its constituent parts. A couple pieces of colored cow’s hide, a large pile of yarn in a couple colors, and a ball of cork.

Now, imagine you go back to your desk that you were sitting at. There’s another baseball sitting on it, just like the one you just destroyed.

How is that possible? You just destroyed a baseball, but you can imagine there is another one. The ball you imagined destroying and the new baseball you just imagined finding are not actually the dharma of baseballs. You can always imagine a baseball because you have the concept of a baseball–that is the dharma of baseballs.

If you did not have the concept of a baseball, this entire thought experiment would have been very difficult to imagine. You would have imagined calling something a baseball, but it may not have looked or felt or weighed the same as a baseball as I was meaning when I described it. This is because you did not have the concept of a baseball, or only a very vague one that was just a word and maybe an image from a magazine somewhere.

The Diamond Sutra’s authors might say, “The Buddha has explained that this is not a baseball. It’s called a baseball. Therefore, there are many baseballs.”

Indeed, it’s because the dharma of baseballs is something created in your mind that you can imagine any number of baseballs you’d like to, and they will all be like that concept that you have. It’s also why you can imagine all sort of things that are definitely not baseballs. It’s why you can imagine things that are only similar to baseballs.

But before anything was ever conceived as a baseball, there weren’t any baseballs. If someone came and saw a baseball who had never seen or heard of baseballs before, it wouldn’t be a baseball to them. It would just be an odd looking sphere. Maybe a ball.

The dharma of baseballs is a fiction our mind uses to understand the world as we experience it. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is one of the central insights that underlies the Diamond Sutra.

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