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.
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.
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:
- It needs to readable, modern English.
- 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.