Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajnaparamita Texts (Conze)

511SBDJ6EXL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Conze spent his academic career studying and translating the Sanskrit Perfection of Wisdom literature, and his work continues to be the standard for the English-speaking audience. Paired with his other major work (The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom), Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajnaparamita Texts serves as a broad survey of these texts in English.

This book begins with the smallest of the multi-chapter Perfection of Wisdom texts, the Questions of Suvikrāntavikrāmin, and continues with translations of the Teaching of Mañjuśrī, an excerpt from the Questions of Nāgaśrī, the Diamond and Heart sutras, and many other lesser known texts. Most of the translations represent the Sanskrit versions. Conze also worked with Lewis Lancaster and R. Robinson to include the Nāgaśrī and Humane King sutras from Chinese sources in the collection.

At this point, this book is the best reference work available for reading and comparing these smaller texts. Conze did much of the foundational scholarship to bring these texts to light in the English world, and his translations remain in print thanks to that. My own ability to understand them (to the extent they can be understood) is owed largely to Conze’s translations, which have been available since the 1970s.

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.

Conclusion

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 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.

 

T235. Kumārajīva’s Diamond Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra

Thus I have heard: One time, the Buddha was at Anāthapiṇḍada Park in Jeta Grove near Śrāvastī with a congregation of 1,250 great bhikṣus. When it was time to eat, the Bhagavān put on his robes and took his bowl into the great city of Śrāvastī to ask for food. Having gone from place to place in that city asking [for food], he returned to his dwelling. After he finished eating his meal, he put away his robes and bowl, washed his feet, prepared a seat, and sat down. [continued … ]

Translated to Chinese by the Indian Tripiṭaka Dharma Teacher Kumārajīva
Translated to English by Charles D. Patton, II

(Second Edition, 2019)

1.

Thus I have heard: One time, the Buddha was at Anāthapiṇḍada Park in Jeta Grove near Śrāvastī with a congregation of 1,250 great bhikṣus. When it was time to eat, the Bhagavān put on his robes and took his bowl into the great city of Śrāvastī to ask for food. Having gone from place to place in that city asking [for food], he returned to his dwelling. After he finished eating his meal, he put away his robes and bowl, washed his feet, prepared a seat, and sat down.

2.

The Elder Subhūti was in that large congregation at the time. He rose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, and knelt down on his right knee. He then saluted the Buddha with his palms together and said, “How extraordinary, Bhagavān! The Tathāgata well attends to the bodhisattvas and well confers [his teaching] to the bodhisattvas. Bhagavān, how should good sons and good daughters who have set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi abide? How should they control their minds?”

The Buddha replied, “Good, good! Subhūti, as you have said, [749a] the Tathāgata well attends to the bodhisattvas and well confers [his teaching] to the bodhisattvas. Now, listen closely: I shall explain for you how good sons and good daughters who have set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi should thus abide and thus control their minds.”

“Yes, Bhagavān! I would be happy to hear this.”

3.

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should thus control their minds: ‘Whatever type of sentient beings they may be, whether they are womb-born, egg-born, water-born, or born of transformation; whether they have form or no form, perception or no perception, or neither perception nor no perception, I will cause them all to enter the Nirvāṇa that has no remainder and completely liberate them.’ Thus having completely liberated measureless, countless, and limitless sentient beings, no sentient beings really will have attained complete liberation. Why is that? Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has the concept of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva.

4.

“Furthermore, Subhūti, no dharma should be a bodhisattva’s abode when she practices generosity. That is to say, she doesn’t abide in forms when she is generous, and she doesn’t abide in sounds, odors, flavors, touches, or notions when she is generous. Subhūti, a bodhisattva should thus be generous and not abide in appearances. Why is that? If a bodhisattva does not abide in appearances when she is generous, her merit will be unfathomable.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the extent of space to the East be fathomed, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān.”

“Subhūti, can the extent of space to the South, West, North, the four intermediate directions, up, and down be fathomed, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān.”

“Subhūti, the merit of a bodhisattva who has no abode in appearances when she is generous is likewise; it cannot be fathomed. Subhūti, bodhisattvas should only abide according to this teaching.”

5.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can you see the Tathāgata by way of his body’s signs, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. It’s not possible to see the Tathāgata by way of his body’s signs. Why is that? It has been explained by the Tathāgata that his body’s signs in fact are not his body’s signs.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “The signs possessed by anyone are false. If you see that these signs are not signs, then you’ll see the Tathāgata.”

6.

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Bhagavān, isn’t it unlikely that sentient beings will hear such words and statements and really believe them?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Don’t say that. During the last 500 years after the Tathāgata’s extinction, there will be people who observe the precepts and cultivate merits. They will be capable of believing these statements and consider them to be true. You should know [749b] that these people will not have planted their roots of goodness with one buddha, two buddhas, three, four, or five buddhas. They will have planted their roots of goodness with measureless hundreds of thousands of buddhas. If they hear these statements for even a single thought, they will become pure believers.

“Subhūti, the Tathāgata knows and sees that all of these sentient beings will attain such measureless merits. Why is that? These sentient beings will have no more concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. They will have no concepts of Dharma nor concepts of what is not Dharma. Why is that? If the minds of these sentient beings were to acquire concepts, then they would become attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. If they were to acquire concepts of Dharma, then they would become attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Why is that? If they were to acquire concepts of what is not Dharma, then they would become attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Therefore, they should neither acquire the Dharma nor acquire what is not Dharma. It’s for this reason that the Tathāgata always says, ‘You bhikṣus, know that the Dharma I teach is like the Parable of the Raft. The Dharma must be abandoned, so what about what is not Dharma?’

7.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Did the Tathāgata attain anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi? Does the Tathāgata have a Dharma that he teaches?”

Subhūti replied, “As I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has taught, there’s no definite Dharma called ‘anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi,’ and there’s no definite Dharma that the Tathāgata can teach. Why is that? The Dharma taught by the Tathāgata can’t be acquired or expressed, and it’s neither Dharma nor not Dharma. What is the reason for that? All the noble sages are distinguished by this unconditioned Dharma.”

8.

“Subhūti, what do you think? If someone filled the billion-world universe with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving, would the merits attained by this person be rather many, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān. Why is that? These merits in fact would not have the nature of merits. Therefore, the Tathāgata says that his merits would be many.”

“Suppose someone else takes even a four-line verse from this sūtra and expounds it for other people. His merits would surpass that of the other’s. Why is that? Subhūti, all the buddhas and their Dharmas of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi are produced from this sūtra. Subhūti, the so-called ‘Buddha’s Dharma’ is not the Buddha’s Dharma.

9.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is the srota-āpanna capable of thinking, ‘I have attained the fruit of a srota-āpanna,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? Srota-āpanna is a name for entering the stream, but nothing is entered. He doesn’t enter forms, sounds, odors, tastes, touches, or notions. He is called a srota-āpanna.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? [749c] Is the sakṛdāgāmin capable of thinking, ‘I have attained the fruit of a sakṛdāgāmin,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? Sakṛdāgāmin is the name for having one more rebirth, but really there is no rebirth. She is called a sakṛdāgāmin.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is the anāgāmin capable of thinking, ‘I have attained the fruit of an anāgāmin,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? Anāgāmin is the name for not returning, but really there’s no returning. Therefore, he is called an anāgāmin.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is an arhat capable of thinking, ‘I have attained an arhat’s awakening,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? There really is no dharma called an arhat. Bhagavān, if an arhat were to think, ‘I have attained the arhat’s awakening,’ then she would be attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Bhagavān, the Buddha has said I’m the best among people who’ve attained the samādhi of no conflict and the best arhat who is free of desire. I do not think, ‘I am an arhat who is free of desire.’ Bhagavān, if I were to think, ‘I have attained the arhat’s awakening,’ the Bhagavān would not say that Subhūti is someone who enjoys the araṇya practice. Nothing is really practiced by Subhūti, but he is called Subhūti who enjoys the araṇya practice.”

10.

The Buddha asked Subhūti, “What do you think? Was there a Dharma attained by the Tathāgata in the past when he was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. There really was no Dharma attained by the Tathāgata when he was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does a bodhisattva adorn a buddha land, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. Why is that? What adorns the buddha land is not an adornment. It is called an adornment.”

“Therefore, Subhūti, bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should thus form pure thoughts: They should not abide in forms when forming thoughts, nor should they abide in sounds, odors, tastes, touches, or notions when forming thoughts. They should abide in nothing when they form their thoughts.

“Subhūti, suppose, for example, a person has a body that’s like Sumeru the Mountain King. What do you think? Would this body be large, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Enormous, Bhagavān. Why is that? The Buddha has taught that it’s not a body. It is called a large body.”

11.

“Subhūti, suppose there were as many Gaṅgā Rivers as the number of sand grains in the Gaṅgā River. What do you think? Would there be many sand grains in those Gaṅgā Rivers, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān. Just the number of Gaṅgā Rivers would be countless. How many more would their sand grains be?”

“Subhūti, I am speaking honestly now when I ask you this: If there were good sons and good daughters [750a] who filled as many billion-world universes as the number of sand grains in those Gaṅgā Rivers with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving, would they attain many merits, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Suppose a good son or good daughter takes even a four-line verse from this sūtra and explains it for other people. The merits of this would surpass the merits of the previous example.

12.

“Furthermore, Subhūti, you should know that all the world’s devas, humans, and asuras should give offerings to a place that follows what’s taught in this sūtra like they would to a buddha’s shrine, even if it’s just a four-line verse. How would it be if someone can accept, retain, read, and recite all of it? Subhūti, you should know that this person will accomplish the supreme, best, and extraordinary Dharma. Wherever there is a copy of this sūtra, a buddha or a venerated disciple is present there.”

13.

At that point, Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, what shall be the name of this sūtra? How are we to preserve it?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “This sūtra’s name is Diamond Prajñā Pāramitā. You should preserve it with this title. What is the reason for that? Subhūti, the prajñā-pāramitā that the Buddha teaches isn’t the prajñā-pāramitā.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is there a Dharma that’s taught by the Tathāgata, or not?”

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Bhagavān, nothing is taught by the Tathāgata.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Are the particles in a billion-world universe many, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān.”

“Subhūti, the Tathāgata teaches that particles are not particles. They are called particles. The Tathāgata teaches that worlds are not worlds. They are called worlds.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is it possible to see the Tathāgata by way of the 32 signs, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. It’s not possible to see the Tathāgata by way of the 32 signs. Why is that? The Tathāgata teaches that the 32 signs in fact are not signs. They are called the 32 signs.”

“Subhūti, suppose a good son or good daughter gives as many lives as the sands of the Gaṅgā River as gifts, and suppose someone else takes even a four-line verse from this sūtra and explains it for other people. His merits would be numerous.”

14.

When Subhūti heard the teaching of this sūtra and deeply understood its meaning, he was moved to tears and wept. He said to the Buddha, “How extraordinary, Bhagavān, that the Buddha has taught such a profound sūtra! From the time I attained the wisdom eye until now, I’ve never heard such a sūtra before. [750b] Bhagavān, if someone else were to hear this sūtra with a faith that’s pure, then she will form the concept of reality. It should be known that this person will achieve the best and extraordinary merits. Bhagavān, this concept of reality isn’t a concept. Therefore, the Tathāgata teaches that it’s called the concept of reality.

“Bhagavān, now that I’ve heard such a sūtra, confidently accepting and retaining it isn’t difficult to do. Suppose there are sentient beings during the last 500 years in the future who come to hear this sūtra, and they confidently accept and retain it. They will be the best and extraordinary people. Why is that? These people will have no concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. What is the reason for that? The concept of a self in fact is not a concept. The concepts of a person, a sentient being, and a soul in fact are not concepts. Why is that? Those who are separated from all concepts are called buddhas.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “So it is, so it is! Suppose again that someone who comes to hear this sūtra isn’t astonished, alarmed, or frightened by it. You should know that this person would be quite extraordinary. Why is that? Subhūti, the best pāramitā that the Tathāgata teaches is not the best pāramitā. It is called the best pāramitā.

“Subhūti, the pāramitā of tolerance, the Tathāgata teaches, is not the pāramitā of tolerance. Why is that? Subhūti, my body was once cut to pieces by King Kaliṅga, and at the time I had no concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Why is that? When I was dismembered back then, I would have become angry if I had had the concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul.

“Subhūti, I also recall that 500 lifetimes ago I had become the sage Kṣānti. During that life, I had no concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Therefore, Subhūti, bodhisattvas should be free of all concepts to set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. They shouldn’t abide in forms when forming that thought, nor should they abide in sounds, odors, tastes, touches, or notions when forming that thought. They should form thoughts that abide in nothing. If that thought abides in something, then it would not be an abode. Therefore, the Buddha has taught that the bodhisattva’s thoughts should not abide in forms when he is generous.

“Subhūti, bodhisattvas should thus be generous in order to benefit all sentient beings. The Tathāgata teaches that all concepts in fact are not concepts. He also teaches that all sentient beings are not sentient beings.

“Subhūti, the Tathāgata speaks honestly, speaks genuinely, speaks thusly, doesn’t speak falsely, and doesn’t speak inconsistently.

“Subhūti, the Dharma attained by the Tathāgata is neither real nor fake. Subhūti, if a bodhisattva’s thoughts abide [750c] in dharmas when she practices generosity, she will be like someone who enters darkness and sees nothing. If a bodhisattva’s thoughts don’t abide in dharmas when she practices generosity, she will be like someone with eyes seeing a variety of forms in broad daylight.

“Subhūti, if there are good sons and good daughters in future times who can accept, retain, read, and recite what’s in this sūtra, the Tathāgata knows and sees with his buddha wisdom that all these people will achieve measureless and limitless merits.

15.

“Subhūti, suppose there are good sons and good daughters who give their bodies as gifts in numbers like the sands of the Gaṅgā River in the morning, who give their bodies as gifts in numbers like the sands of the Gaṅgā River in the afternoon, and who give their bodies as gifts in numbers like the sands of the Gaṅgā River in the evening. They thus use their bodies as gifts for measureless hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of eons. Suppose someone else hears this sūtra with faith and doesn’t reject it. His merits would be greater than those of the other. How would it be if he copies, accepts, retains, reads, recites, and explains it for others?

“Subhūti, essentially speaking, this sūtra has inconceivable, inestimable, and limitless merits. The Tathāgata teaches it for those setting out on the great vehicle. He teaches it for those setting out on the supreme vehicle. If there are people who can accept, retain, read, recite, and fully explain it for others, the Tathāgata knows and sees that all these people coming to achieve immeasurable, inexpressible, limitless, and inconceivable merits. Such people carry the Tathāgata’s anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Why is that? Subhūti, if someone enjoys lesser Dharmas, she is attached to the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul. She cannot hear, accept, retain, read, recite, or explain this sūtra for others.

“Subhūti, wherever it may be that this sūtra is found, all the world’s devas, humans, and asuras should present offerings there. They should know this place to be a shrine and pay their respects by bowing, circumambulating, and scattering flowers and incense around it.

16.

“Moreover, Subhūti, if good sons and good daughters who accept, retain, read, and recite this sūtra are disrespected by others, they will have fallen into unpleasant destinies because of misdeeds done in previous lives. These misdeeds done in their previous lives will be extirpated because they are disrespected by others in the present life, and they will attain anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.

“Subhūti, I recall being in the presence of Buddha Dīpaṃkara measureless asaṃkhyeya eons ago. I had met, made offerings to, and served 84 hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of nayutas of buddhas, and none of it was in vain. [751a] Suppose someone in the final era is able to accept, retain, read, and recite this sūtra. The merits of my offerings to those buddhas would not be a hundredth of the merits attained by him. They wouldn’t be a thousandth, a ten thousandth, or a millionth of it. There is no fraction of his to which my merits could be compared.

“Subhūti, if I were to fully describe the merits attained by good sons and good daughters in the final era who accept, retain, read, and recite this sūtra, some people hearing it would be perplexed and incredulous, and they wouldn’t believe it. Subhūti, you should know that the meaning of this sūtra is inconceivable, and its effects are also inconceivable.”

17.

Subhūti then asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, how should good sons and good daughters who have set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi abide? How do they control their minds?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Good sons and good daughters who set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi will form this thought, ‘I should completely liberate all sentient beings. Once I’ve completely liberated all sentient beings, there really won’t be a single sentient being that was completely liberated.’ Why is that? Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has the concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva. What is the reason for that? Subhūti, there really is no dharma that is setting one’s mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.

“Subhūti, what do you think? When the Tathāgata was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara, did he have a Dharma that attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. As I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has taught, the Buddha had no Dharma that attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi when he was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara.”

The Buddha said, “So it is, so it is! Subhūti, there really is no dharma that is the Tathāgata’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Subhūti, if there was a dharma that is the Tathāgata’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, then the Buddha Dīpaṃkara wouldn’t have given me the prediction, ‘In a future life, you will become a buddha named Śākyamuni.’ That’s because there really is no Dharma that attains anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Therefore, the Buddha Dīpaṃkara gave me that prediction and said, ‘In a future life, you will become a buddha named Śākyamuni.’ Why is that? The meaning of ‘Tathāgata’ in fact is the suchness of dharmas.

“Suppose someone were to say, ‘The Tathāgata has attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.’ Subhūti, there really is no dharma that is a buddha attaining anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Subhūti, there is nothing about the Tathāgata’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi [751b] that is either real or fake. Therefore, the Tathāgata says, ‘All dharmas are the Buddha’s Dharma.’ Subhūti, the term ‘all dharmas’ in fact is not all dharmas. Therefore, it is called all dharmas.

“Subhūti, take for example a person whose body is huge.”

Subhūti said, “Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has taught that the person’s body that’s huge is not a large body. It is called a large body.”

“Subhūti, a bodhisattva is likewise. If she makes the statement, ‘I shall completely liberate measureless sentient beings,’ then she is not called a bodhisattva. Why is that? Subhūti, there really is no dharma that’s called a bodhisattva. Therefore, the Buddha teaches that all dharmas have no self, person, sentient being, or soul.

“Subhūti, suppose a bodhisattva makes this statement, ‘I will adorn the buddha land.’ He is not called a bodhisattva. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that adorning the buddha land in fact is not an adornment. It is called adorning [the buddha land]. Subhūti, if a bodhisattva fully comprehends the Dharma of selflessness, the Tathāgata has taught that she is called a genuine bodhisattva.”

18.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the flesh eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the flesh eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the deva eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the deva eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the wisdom eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the wisdom eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the Dharma eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the Dharma-eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the Buddha eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the Buddha eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Has the Buddha spoken about the sands that are in the Gaṅgā River, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata has spoken about these sands.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? There are Gaṅgā Rivers equal to the sands in a single Gaṅgā River, and buddha worlds numbering like the sands of all those Gaṅgā Rivers. Would they thus be rather many, or not?”

“Numerous, Bhagavān.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “The Tathāgata knows all the types of thought that are possessed by the sentient beings in those lands. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that thoughts are not thoughts. They are called thoughts. What is the reason for that? Subhūti, past thoughts are inapprehensible, present thoughts are inapprehensible, and future thoughts are inapprehensible.”

19.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Suppose someone filled the billion-world universe [751c] with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving. Would this person obtain many merits by means of these causes and conditions, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. This person would obtain numerous merits by means of these causes and conditions.”

“Subhūti, if these merits were real, the Tathāgata would not say that he would obtain many merits. The Tathāgata says that he would obtain many merits because these merits don’t exist.”

20.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be seen by way of his perfected form body, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata should not be seen by way his perfected form body. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that the perfected form body in fact is not a perfected form body. It is called the perfected form body.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be seen by way of his perfected signs, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata should not be seen by way of his perfected signs. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that the perfection of signs in fact is not a perfection. It is called the perfection of signs.”

21.

“Subhūti, don’t say that the Tathāgata had this thought, ‘I will have a Dharma that I will teach.’ Don’t think this. Why is that? Suppose a person says, ‘The Tathāgata has a Dharma that he teaches.’ That in fact is slandering the Buddha because he cannot understand what I teach. Subhūti, there is no Dharma that a Dharma teacher can teach. She is called a Dharma teacher.”

It was then that the Venerable Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, isn’t it doubtful that there will be sentient beings in future eras who will hear this Dharma and believe it?”

The Buddha replied, “Subhūti, they won’t be sentient beings, nor will they not be sentient beings. Why is that? Subhūti, ‘sentient beings, sentient beings,’ the Tathāgata has taught, are not sentient beings. They are called sentient beings.”

22.

Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, was the Buddha’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi the attainment of nothing?”

The Buddha replied, “So it is, so it is! Subhūti, there is not even the slightest dharma that I can be obtain in anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. It is called anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.”

23.

“Again, Subhūti, the Dharma is level, without high or low. This is called anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Because they have no self, person, sentient being, or soul, cultivating all wholesome dharmas attains anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Subhūti, the term ‘wholesome dharma,’ the Tathāgata has taught, is not a wholesome dharma. It is called a wholesome dharma.

24.

“Subhūti, suppose someone takes and uses for gift-giving piles of the seven treasures like all the Mount Sumerus that exist in a billion-world universe, [752a] and suppose that a person accepts, retains, reads, recites, and explains for others even a four-line verse from this Prajñā-pāramitā Sūtra. The former’s merits would not be to a hundredth, a thousandth, a ten thousandth, or a millionth of her merits. There’s no fraction of it to which the former’s can be compared.

25.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Don’t say that the Tathāgata thinks, ‘I will liberate sentient beings.’ Subhūti, don’t think that. Why is that? There really aren’t any sentient beings that the Tathāgata liberates. If there were sentient beings that the Tathāgata liberates, then the Tathāgata would have a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul. Subhūti, the Tathāgata teaches that having a self is not having a self, but ordinary people take it to be having a self. Subhūti, ‘ordinary people,’ the Tathāgata has taught, are not ordinary people.”

26.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is it possible to examine the Tathāgata by way of the 32 signs, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “So it is, so it is! The Tathāgata is examined by the 32 signs.”

The Buddha said, “Subhūti, if the Tathāgata is examined by the 32 signs, a wheel-turning holy king would be a Tathāgata.”

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Bhagavān, as I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has taught, the Tathāgata should not be examined by way of the 32 signs.”

The Bhagavān then spoke this verse:

“If he sees me by way of my form
or seeks me by way of my voice,
this person practices the wrong path
and cannot see the Tathāgata.

27.

“Subhūti, suppose you were to think, ‘It was not because he perfected the signs that the Tathāgata attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.’ Subhūti, don’t think that it was not because he perfected the signs that the Tathāgata attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.

“Subhūti, suppose you were to think, ‘Someone who sets their mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi teaches the elimination of dharmas.’ Don’t think that. Why is that? Someone who sets their mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi doesn’t teach the elimination of dharmas.

28.

“Subhūti, suppose a bodhisattva filled worlds numbering like the sands of the Gaṅgā River with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving. Suppose someone else knows that all dharmas are selfless, and he can achieve tolerance of them. The merit attained by this bodhisattva is greater than that of the former bodhisattva. Subhūti, this is because bodhisattvas don’t accept merit.”

Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, how do bodhisattvas not accept merit?”

[752b] “Subhūti, a bodhisattva should not covet the merits that he makes. Therefore, I say he doesn’t accept merit.

29.

“Subhūti, suppose someone says the Tathāgata comes, goes, sits, and lies down. This person doesn’t understand the meaning of what I teach. Why is that?  A Tathāgata doesn’t come from anywhere and doesn’t go anywhere. Therefore, he is called a Tathāgata.”

30.

“Subhūti, suppose a good son or good daughter were to grind the billion-world universe to particles. What do you think? Would that multitude of particles be rather many, or not?”

“Numerous, Bhagavān. Why is that? If this multitude of particles really existed, then the Buddha would not say it’s a multitude of particles. What’s the reason for that? The Buddha has taught that this multitude of particles in fact is not a multitude of particles. It is called a multitude of particles.

“Bhagavān, that billion-world universe the Tathāgata mentioned is not a universe. It is called a universe. Why is that? If these worlds really existed, then this would be the concept of an entity. The Tathāgata has taught the concept of an entity is not the concept of an entity. It is called the concept of an entity.”

“Subhūti, the concept of an entity is inexpressible. Only ordinary people covet such things.

31.

“Subhūti, suppose someone says, ‘The Buddha teaches the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul.’ Subhūti, what do you think? Does this person understand the meaning of what I teach, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. This person does not understand the meaning of what the Tathāgata teaches. Why is that? The Bhagavān has taught that the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul are not the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul. They are called the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul.”

“Subhūti, someone who sets her mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi should thus know, thus see, and thus be confident about all dharmas. She does not form the concept of a dharma. Subhūti, the term ‘concept of a dharma,’ the Tathāgata teaches, in fact is not the concept of a dharma. It is called the concept of a dharma.

32.

“Subhūti, suppose someone filled a measureless asaṃkhyeya of worlds with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving. Again, suppose there is a good son or good daughter who has set their mind on the bodhisattva’s thought and accept, retain, read, recite, and expound for others even a four-line verse taken from this sūtra. Their merits would surpass that of the former’s. How would they expound it for people? Not grasping onto concepts or suchness, they would be unmoved. Why is that?

“All conditioned dharmas are like
Dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
dew, and like lightning:
They should thus be contemplated.”

Once the Buddha had taught this sūtra, the Elder Subhūti, the bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, [752c] upāsikās, and all the world’s devas, humans, and asuras who heard what the Buddha taught rejoiced. They faithfully accepted and handed it down.

The Diamond Prajñā Pāramitā Sūtra

Progress Report

Things have been busy as I juggle a number of different projects in addition to my translation work. I’m still working on a re-release of Kumārajīva’s Diamond Sutra in English, having taken a break from it to draft an English translation of Mañjuśrī’s Teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom from Xuanzang’s Chinese. I’ve decided that for 2019, my initial goal will be translate the smaller Perfection of Wisdom texts to English. You can see the initial list of texts here.

I’ve also decided that I will publish the translations to this blog and fuller editions with introductions and/or annotations as e-books this year. I hope everyone had a wonderful New Year and for this year to be better than the last.

Progress Report: the Diamond Sūtra

The past two weeks, I’ve been working on my new edition of Kumārajīva’s Diamond Sūtra. This critical translation will be as accurate and readable as I can make it. My concerns as a translator of a text like this are twofold:

  1. It needs to readable, modern English.
  2. It needs to represent as closely as possible what Kumārajīva wrote.

These two concerns clash somewhat, but they aren’t impossible to accomplish. It means that the prose adheres to generally accepted standards of modern English grammar and style. Contractions are fine, sentences should not be complex or long-winded, and clauses should not be convoluted or awkward in order.

One difficulty of goal #2, however, is the need to preserve some of Kumārajīva’s choices as a translator, such as when he chose to transliterate Sanskrit words rather than render them to Chinese. Another is the fact that some of his word choices are ambiguous. He uses the Chinese word 相 in a couple different ways, as an example. Comparing his Chinese to Sanskrit and later translations to Chinese makes these ambiguities easier to manage, even as I attempt to keep the English a translation of his voice and not what I speculate was what he was translating.

Such are the puzzles of translating translations of ancient documents. They guarantee that there will always be judgement calls that others will nitpick, but careful readings and flexible use of modern English idioms can at least ensure that the reader isn’t misled.

As I review and edit my old version of this sūtra, many topics of interpretation have occurred to me. One is Subhūti himself. He’s quite a character: An obscurity in the Pali Canon, yet an imposing standard-bearer in the Prajñā-pāramitā literature. How or why did he get drafted for the role? Another is the role of the Diamond Sūtra in relation to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, in which Subhūti teaches the bodhisattvas how to practice the prajñā-pāramitā rather than asking the Buddha about it. And, of course, there’s the task of deciphering a text that doesn’t appear to have any rational organization to it as it rambles along reiterating several points in different ways.

I’ll try to take some time in the next week or two to outline some of these topics here on the blog, and I will also expand on them in an introduction to the new translation. Currently, I’ve completed the first pass on the manuscript and have begun the second pass to resolve the more thorny issues of translating this classic of Buddhist literature.

A New Start: 20 Years Later

It’s been a little more than 20 years since I first laid eyes on a volume of the Taisho Daizokyo as a young student at Ohio State University. I had begun to teach myself to read Chinese because of my frustration with how much one translation of the Dao De Jing varied from the next. In those days, circa 1998, the World Wide Web was just beginning, and I was one of many eager experimenters who learned HTML and created free home pages to share with the world. These two interests quickly combined, and I began publishing English translations (albeit novice translations) to my website, which began as the The Gateless Passage and in later years morphed into Dharma Pearls.

Many of my translations from those early days are still circulating. The Diamond Sūtra, in particular, was released to the public and was posted on websites ranging from Buddhist to New Age in interest. You can find a well-preserved example at Buddhism Today. It was my first attempt at translation, and it was a good place to start because of lack of difficult technical terms, transliterations, and Kumārajīva’s easy Chinese prose.

Over the next 10 years, I translated a number of other short texts like Xuanzang’s Smaller Pure Land Sūtra and the Visualization of Amitabha Sūtra. My largest project was an attempt at translating the Great Parinirvāṇa Sūtra from Chinese, but it was about 25% into the draft that I realized my knowledge of Buddhism and Chinese were still too lacking to complete it properly.

However, my studies of Buddhism and classical Chinese continued, and I’ve finally decided it’s time to return to this work. I will be updating my previous translations, editing them both for accuracy and style, and republishing them. I will also be returning to my draft of the Nirvāṇa Sūtra, dusting it off, and continuing the work that I had begun many moons ago.

Stayed tuned for more reflections, articles, excerpts, and news; and thanks for reading!