A few basic points on reading Chinese Buddhist texts

A few points to consider as a beginner if you wish to start reading through some Buddhist texts in Chinese:

  1. Determine the difficulty level. Sometimes the text itself may be inherently difficult, as in abhidharma. The text itself may use a lot of specialized language and depend on you understanding complex theories. Simply jumping into the text will not work in that case. Sometimes the translation is instead difficult due to the choices of the original translators. For example, using overly terse language, smashing prose Sanskrit into Chinese verse, or keeping Sanskrit grammar in a Chinese text. In some cases you may need to research the organization of the text quite a bit before attempting verification or translation. In other cases you may need to research the basic vocabulary used by the text. This vocabulary may be specific to the translator or even to the text.

  2. Familiarize yourself with the basic use of grammar in the text. You can do this simply by reading some passages for yourself, paying attention to how each sentence flows. This means how it begins and ends, how pauses are indicated, and the overall translation style. While doing this, you may find it useful to ignore some of the punctuation, so you can focus on the characters themselves. You will find that each translator had his own style, and it is beneficial to get a feel of it for yourself.

  3. Look for obvious sentence patterns and parallels. Especially in early Buddhist texts, repetition of stock phrases is very common due to their oral tradition. Look at the overall structure of the text and not just individual sentences.

  4. Read other translations of the text if they exist. Consider them to be just another interpretation, and not absolutely definitive. Often other translators have not fully understood the text, or have made poor translation choices along the way. Do not presume that you are looking at the definitive “answers,” and do not feel bad for “cheating.”

  5. Use a variety of references to get different readings. This means both general and specialized reference works such as dictionaries and translation tools. My (very biased) preference is for the Sanzang Utils stuff because these programs work transparently like Unix tools, without cluttering the text with too much output. However, I also use dictionaries in case vocabulary is missing, or just to get different readings.

  6. Sometimes a single sentence will not make sense at all. If you have spent more than five or ten minutes looking at it, just mark it as problematic and move on. Returning to the sentence when you have the time and patience to do so, try looking at other translations of the text (if any exist). If no example translations exist, then search the text for other examples of the part that is giving you trouble. If that does not work, search the entire canon for examples of the term(s), and consider possibilities based on these other uses.

  7. Nobody is a true native speaker of this language anymore. The Chinese Buddhist canon was written by people who spoke Middle Chinese, a language with four tones in two registers. Buddhist texts were often translated into somewhat awkward, semi-colloquial forms of Middle Chinese, with Indic terms mixed in. This is different from ancient Chinese, classical Chinese, literary Chinese, and modern standard Chinese. Even native Chinese speakers well-versed in Buddhism will have some difficulties with these texts.

  8. The language and grammar tend to vary a bit. Classically, Chinese grammar was taught through example, not systematically. As a result, older Chinese works did not have one basic style that was always followed. If you are accustomed to a language like Sanskrit, this may be a bit unnerving because Chinese may seem very “loose.”

  9. Build better reference materials as you go. Take advantage of modern methods and computers. Do not just write a reference book or dictionary, but encode it and package it so others can use it. For example, if you want to understand the exact language and vocabulary of one of the Agamas, then you could build a translation table just for that work. For example, the Gunabhadra version of the Samyukta Agama could have entries for Chinese characters, Pinyin, Pali, English, etc. The Lokaksema Prajnaparamita could have entries for Chinese characters, Pinyin, Gandhari, Sanskrit, English, etc. This is a lot of ugly and difficult work, and maybe something more suitable for academics than volunteers (but unlikely that many will do this type of work because it is decidedly un-sexy). In my opinion, though, this is the sort of approach necessary to create a true bridge between the languages (rather than relying on lone translator-savants).

If you are frequently having difficulties: this is a good indication that you lack necessary information for reading and interpreting the text. This may be related to the organization of the text, its vocabulary, or even strange use of grammar. Try to determine what is missing and then decide what can be done about it. Will you supplement your reference materials with the necessary information? Will you make a careful outline of the ideas and organization of the text? Will you look at other translations of the same text, or of similar texts?

Everyone has a slightly different setup that is ultimately the same. Scholars will tend to use texts from CBETA, maybe along with DDB, and aided by a variety of other reference materials. My own setup is more based around using computer programs that basically do the same thing but without the page turning and other hassles. In the end, though, it’s all basically the same thing.