Buddhist Hybrid Chinese Study 1: SA 13

This is the first in what will hopefully be many posts about Buddhist Hybrid Chinese. I envision this and future posts to be a place where we can discuss grammar and specialized Buddhist terminology in the Agamas. Although we will kind of be (partially) translating the sutras as we discuss them, I see the goal of these posts to be gaining a deeper understanding of grammar rather than getting complete translations. Of course, if we end up with a nice translation by the time we reach the end of a sutra, that’s great, too! I myself am interested in helping to translate the Agamas (and maybe even Vinaya texts) at some point in the future. However, I just want to make it clear this topic is not about asking for a translation, or jumping in and simply translating everything, but discussing the grammar and terminology. I guess I should also say that some knowledge of Chinese is assumed for participation in this topic.

I thought it would be best to pick a sutra ahead of time, and so picked this sutra: SuttaCentral. Discussing the whole of the sutra at once won’t work, so I copied the first two sentences, and only discussed the first two parts of the first sentence below.

Skipping the introduction that states the setting of the sutra, the Buddha begins by saying this:


As I understand it, this phrase follow the S-O-V format.


So 眾生 (all beings) is the subject, 色 (form/rupa) is the object, and 味 is the verb. The preposition 於 precedes the object. In modern Chinese 味 can mean taste or smell. It seems that it refers exclusively to taste in the EBTs, as in one of the 6 external sense bases (六外處). I don’t think that’s what intended here, obviously, but something along the lines of “delighting in,” as in the way we delight in pleasant tastes. Is there a Pali parallel for this sutra? The Pali and Sanskrit for 味 is rasa.

I’m not entirely sure what role 者 is playing here. I know it is often used to nominalize a verb or verb phrase, but when that is done the nominalized phrase usually becomes the subject of the sentence. However, this phrase already has a subject. So would the difference be between having and not having it literally be:

(no 者): “If all beings don’t delight in form…”
(with 者): “If all those beings don’t delight in form…” or “If all beings who don’t delight in form…”

I suppose it sounds a bit artificial in English either way, since this and the following phrase would mostly like be combined in a way they aren’t in Chinese.

The next phrase is


Here the subject is not explicitly stated, as is often the case, since it’s clear from the context we’re still talking about “all beings who don’t delight in form.” However, now it seems like a S -V-O structure is being used? I noticed this happens later in the sutra, too.

Anyway, in modern Chinese, 染 means to dye, pollute, or contaminate. This first occurrence of 染 is short for 染著, I believe. The full version is used in the second half of the sentence. 染著 is defined in terms of craving (貪愛) and attachment/grasping (執著). 染 seems to emphasize the polluting aspect of klesha, but is also synonymous with attachment/grasping. Grasping seems like a good translation for 執 since also means “to hold in the hand.” Anyway, maybe it would better to go with “attached to” rather than “defiled by” in a translation? Speaking in terms of attachment is probably more familiar to Buddhists.

Anyway, if I were to attempt a translation, I’d say something like,

Those beings who don’t delight in form are not defiled by (or attached to) it.

Please share your thoughts! I thought that after discussing this we could move onto to the rest of the first sentence and the second sentence. That shouldn’t take long since the only new grammar introduced is 以…故.


眾, which literally means “myriad,” makes it seem that 眾生 should be plural, but it’s usually singular (a sattva) unless context makes it a better (or equally good) reading, or a modifier like 諸 or 一切 is added to make it explicit. “All beings” would be 一切眾生.

Yes, it’s SN 22.28.

The Chinese and Pali parallel line reads:

“No cedaṁ, bhikkhave, rūpassa assādo abhavissa nayidaṁ sattā rūpasmiṁ sārajjeyyuṁ.
Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi rūpassa assādo, tasmā sattā rūpasmiṁ sārajjanti.

Here, the parallel word to 味 in Pali is assāda, which matches it quite well.

In this sentence, 者 and 則 are working together to emphasize a contrasting situation. 者 is saying, “The first half of the contrast I’m making stops here.” 則 is saying, “Now, I’m going to tell you the thing you might find surprising about it.” Classical Chinese didn’t have commas, so instead they use grammar words to indicate these kinds of shifts inside a sentence.

So, I would maintain the “if … then” sentence structure to capture that contrast. “If sentient beings didn’t savor forms, then they wouldn’t be attached to them.”


I never formally learn Buddhist Chinese - so my comments are amateurish. And I don’t know Pali so wouldn’t be able to comment on whether the Chinese translation is a good correspondence to Pali or not.


One other way I would translate is:
“If beings are not delighted by forms, then they are not defiled by forms.”

I interpret 於 as gesturing passive voice or the English word “by”


I’ll read the Chinese discussion with interest but little comprehension. It may be useful for some to have a literal translation of the pali, to see how it compares.

Yasmā = “due to the fact that”
ca = and
kho = particle, grammatical grease
bhikkhave = monks!
atthi = “there is”
rūpassa = “of form” or “for form”
assādo = gratification
tasmā = therefore
sattā = beings
rūpasmiṁ = “regarding form”
sārajjanti = “with desire” (active verb)

And, mendicants, due to the fact that there is gratification of form (i.e. “form has gratification” or “form is gratifying” or “there is gratification to be found in form”), therefore beings have desire for form.

The yasmā/tasmā construction (relative/demonstrative pronoun) seems to be captured in chinese with 者 and 則. This kind of construction is extremely common in Pali, and is widely used with all kinds of pronouns.


That’s actually a good point. 於 does indicates that the object of a verb is actually the agent, which is one of the ways passive voice is indicated. The other is when the patient of the verb is placed in the subject position and marked with 者. 者 is a tricky grammar word because it’s used in several ways.

The difficulty for me is that 味 requires a person or living being as the subject (“tasting form”), unlike a word like “delight,” which in Chinese might be words like 快, 樂, or 喜. If we choose “delight” in English, then it does work as a passive verb, but I’m not sure it represents 味 that well. So, I end up generalizing it to “enjoy” on Dharma Pearls and using active voice. I think there’s room to read it either way though.

To mimic Sujato’s literal rendering, I’d break the Chinese down like this:

若 “if”/start conditional clause
眾生 “sentient being(s)”/subject of conditional clause
於色 “by form”/out of order verbal agent
不味 “not savor/enjoy”
者 end passive subject/contrastive subject
則 “then”/start predicate
(understood subject) “they”
不染 “not stained/defiled”
於 色 “by form”

以 “because”/begin causative clause
眾生 “sentient being(s)”/subject of clause
於色 “by form”/out of order verbal agent
味 “savor/enjoy”
故 end causative clause
則 “so”/start conclusion
(understood subject) “they”
有 “to have/be”
染著 “defiled attachment”
(understood object) “to form”


Ah, I shouldn’t have relied on the modern Mandarin dictionary I used for that word. That dictionary occasionally has entries related to Buddhism, but I guess they aren’t very reliable.

Indeed it does. The Chinese->Chinese Buddhist dictionaries I checked didn’t list assada as the Pali. That’s frustrating.

I was wondering about that. In John Kieschnick’s A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings he mentions this usage of 者, as well as a few others:

者 zhě - here a particle marking off a topic.

He mentions that it is sometimes paired with 夫.

He also gives this example:


where we see the 若…者 paring, but it is followed by 當. I guess that’s because those two phrases aren’t being contrasted, but showing cause and effect?

“savor” is a nice choice, as it maintains the relationship to taste.

Great, thanks! I flipped through my copy of the SN, but due to my uncertainty about 味, I wasn’t sure what the English translation of the Pali would be.


As an aside, regarding 若 as “if,” someone created a programming language that uses classical Chinese characters and syntax: https://wy-lang.org/. An if conditional statement starts with 若. I was hoping they used 者 to end the if, like if and fi are used in Bash, but it doesn’t.

Yes! Having the Pali is really helpful. Thanks, Bhante!

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Hi Bhante @sujato I think the genitive here is a “locative like” genitive, see §144 The Partitive Genitive in Wijesekera’s Syntax of the Cases in the Pali Nikayas. Gratification in respect of or in relation to form, or just in form.

The Chinese has captured this accurately, in the expression 於色 yú sè, “in relation to form.” The function of 於 yú here is marking a locative-type construction. This is just the very basic meaning of 於 yú meaning “in” or “at”, as in 對於. I don’t get a passive sense, or a sense of “by”, at least not when I think about the case construction in a hypothetical Indic source.

By way of explanation, just showing how the Chinese translation does in fact capture the locative-like genitive…to borrow @cdpatton’s framework & to make some tweaks:

若 “if”/start conditional clause
眾生 “sentient beings”/subject of conditional clause
於色 “in relation to form”/marks Indic locative or locative-like case
不味 “not savor/enjoy/delight”
者 “ones” (= modern Chinese 的)/an adjectival modifier/grammatical particle, see note below. Expresses membership of a class/marks the predicate.

則 “then”/start predicate
(understood subject) “they”
不染 “not desire”
於 色 “in relation to form”

以 “due to, through”/begin causative clause
眾生 “sentient beings”/subject of clause
於色 “in relation to form”
味 “savor/enjoy/delight”
故 “cause”/end causative clause

則 “so”/start conclusion
(understood subject) “they”
有 “have”
染著 “desire and attachment”
(understood object) “in relation to form”

My translation of the Chinese:

If sentient beings did not delight in forms, they would not have desire (rāga) for forms. But because sentient beings delight in forms, they have desire and attachment in relation to forms.

I understand 100% why Charles has translated 染 rǎn as “defilement”, but due to its literal meaning of “to dye”, I think it might be understood better in light of Indic original sārajjati. We should read 染 as translating rāga (desire), as the literal meaning of rāga is that which “colours” (dyes) the mind… the verb sārajjati is formed from the same root, raj (to dye) as rāga (desire). There is also a phonetic link with rǎn.

P.S. I do not think that …者 …則 expresses yasmā/tasmā . That would be 以…故,則…, which is expressing yasmā/tasmā.

To understand the function of 者 zhě, it’s helpful to speak a little Singlish sometimes. 者 zhě is a person, just like it is in modern Chinese. So if I wanted to describe my Singaporean friend, (he very shy one lah!), 者 zhě is one, as in, “shy one”. That’s because Chinese won’t let you have a dangling adjective, the adjective needs to go with SOMETHING, whether it’s modern Chinese “的” de or Classical Chinese “者” zhě. It shows that X (e.g. my friend) belongs to a certain class of people or things (the shy). But it can be a bit of an empty filler, too, and will often mark a predicate.

From Baidu: 者(拼音:zhě)用在动词、形容词及其词组后,相当于现代汉语里的“的”,表示从事这一动作或具有某种属性的人或事物。

AND 用在形容词、动词、动词词组或主谓词组之后,组成“者”字结构,用以指代人、事、物。


Yeah, usually dictionaries won’t be so precise, and each translator will use the language in a somewhat different way. This is where the SuttaCentral parallels functionality can be really useful, but it depends a lot on how close the parallels are. Another approach would be to search for similar uses in T 99.



It’s interesting that the Chinese is already abbreviated, by the way, and doesn’t repeat the same formula for each aggregate. I’m assuming that the Sanskrit was also abbreviated? Is this one of the distinguishing characteristics of these texts as compared to the Pali?

I don’t think there much else to say regarding the first two sentences, maybe other than to mention that 以…故 is how “because” is expressed. 故 does appear by itself throughout the Agamas, though, and fulfills a similar role. Again from John Kieschnick’s A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings

In Buddhist texts, 故 most often appears at the end of a sentence, meaning “for this reason” or “because of” what preceded it. It can also appear at the beginning of a sentence, meaning “therefore,” “for this reason.”

He then gives a few examples:

故我默然不欲說法。(Which is the Buddha concluding his explanation as to why he initially thought to stay silent and not teach the Dharma after attaining enlightenment)

Here it’s being used in the explanation of dependent origination:

生滅故老、死、憂、悲、苦惱滅。(“With birth ended, therefore old age/aging, death, grief, sorrow, and suffering are ended”).

The next set of sentences is:


Doesn’t it also introduce the indirect object? That’s how it’s introduced in Classical Chinese for Everyone. Now I’m confused, haha.


Anyway, we have 色 (rupa) , 眾生 (a being/s) and then 不為患.

患 is dukkha, but 為 has so many uses/meanings that it’s hard to pick the best one. In classical Chinese it can mean “to make,” or “to act as,” and sometimes fulfills the same role as 是 in modern Chinese.


彼 means “that, or those.” It was interesting to me to learn that 是 started out meaning “this” and not “to be,” and so is kind of the opposite of 彼. Anyway, now we have it explicitly stated that 眾生 is being used in the plural with the 諸. 厭 is used for both nirvid(Skt.)/nibbida(Pali) and samvega. Is the difference between them that nibbida is simply a feeling, whereas samvega implies a major shift in thinking because of nibbida?

I was originally thinking that “wouldn’t” sounded more natural as a translation of 不應, but then it occurred to me that, according to the Buddha’s logic, a wise person “should” feel revulsion at something that causes suffering. So maybe “shouldn’t” is actually best?


Not really. Sometimes they don’t agree on where exactly they abbreviate. In a given pair of parallels, the Pali might not abbreviate what the Agama does, and vice versa, but they both do quite a bit of it. It kind of interesting sometimes when they disagree to me because it might indicate that an unabbreviated sutra was considered more important or was used for beginners in that tradition.

That’s probably the more common reading. Honestly, it’s amazing how much about classical Chinese verbs is left to context and interpretation sometimes. Tense? Active or passive voice? Plural or singular? It’s often left for the reader to decide if it doesn’t really matter.

Actually, it’s equivalent to ādīnava (danger, drawback). This sutra presents the enjoyment > danger > escape analysis of the skandhas.

Here’s the Pali parallel to this section:

No cedaṁ, bhikkhave, rūpassa ādīnavo abhavissa nayidaṁ sattā rūpasmiṁ nibbindeyyuṁ.
Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi rūpassa ādīnavo, tasmā sattā rūpasmiṁ nibbindanti.

At this point, the two parallels diverge because the Pali states the enjoyment, danger, and escape of each skandha individually, whereas the Chinese treats the enjoyment of all five skandhas, the danger of all five, etc. But, the closest Pali equivalent for these lines are:

No cedaṁ, bhikkhave, vedanāya …pe… no cedaṁ, bhikkhave, saññāya … no cedaṁ, bhikkhave, saṅkhārānaṁ (nissaraṇaṁ abhavissa, nayidaṁ sattā saṅkhārehi nissareyyuṁ.) No cedaṁ, bhikkhave, viññāṇassa ādīnavo abhavissa, nayidaṁ sattā viññāṇasmiṁ nibbindeyyuṁ.
Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi viññāṇassa ādīnavo, tasmā sattā viññāṇasmiṁ nibbindanti.


It’s probably translating an Indic optative case, like third person optative plural nibbindeyyuṁ. So either should or would, any hypothetical meaning. But the Chinese does feel more like “should” to me…

saṃvega= saṃ+vega, with speed. The feeling of spiritual urgency after seeing the sorrow of the world, etc.

Nibbidā= nir+vid, c.f. nirveda. out+feeling, discouragement in respect of the world.

So there is a slight difference in sense.

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Looks like I need to add another dictionary to the list of ones I check. When I checked on Charles Muller’s website, he had these defintions

患: To be subject to; calamity, evil (Skt. ādīnava, duḥkha…)

“Danger” didn’t jump out as a synonym for calamity or evil. So I was wondering if this sutra was deviating from the enjoyment, danger, escape framework. However, since the danger in form is dukkha, it makes sense that dukkha is listed as the secondary meaning.

Now I think “to regard as” is the meaning here. So,

If form isn’t regarded as dangerous by beings, all those beings shouldn’t be disenchanted with form.

The Chinese reading of ādīnava is a little different than it’s typically translated from Pali. I personally settled on “trouble,” to capture the basic “disaster” meaning of the word.

My personal translation theory is that the Chinese translators usually translated words as they understood them at the time, and so correcting them to read like we’d expect Pali or Sanskrit to read is overstepping the bounds of my role as a translator.

It’s been interesting, too, when I encountered a couple passages that contradict the modern reading of Indic words and discovered that the old Pali commentaries agree with the Chinese, indicating that perhaps modern readings are different than ancient ones. So, I feel that’s a bit of objective evidence supporting my method.

On the other hand, the Chinese translations aren’t perfect, and there are cases of apparent confusion that may predate the translators, as scholars have noticed evidence that words may have changed when they were translated multiple times between Prakrits and Central Asian languages, changing their pronunciations slightly and then being converted to different words when they were Sanskritized.

As an example, Dr. Karashima had proposed that Skt. Mahāyāna may have originally been Skt. Mahājñāna, but ended up the greater vehicle rather than the greater knowledge because in some Indic languages the jñ became a y, and then it was Sanskritized to -yāna rather than -jñāna. Once that happened, texts evolved to explain it. It’s almost like the evolution of species caused by the happenstance of genetic mutations, except in language it’s phonetic mutations.

All in all, it’s an ancient mystery that’s not very resolvable because those ancient Indian and Central Asian languages have largely disappeared, leaving us with Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan to work with. So, I stick to the face value of the Chinese and let readers and academics argue about it if I can’t decide. At least what exists has been rendered into a language more people can read.


Those seems reasonable. I think it’s unfair to assume that the Pali has to be right when the Chinese texts deviate from the Pali.

Picking up where I left off, this section repeats the grammar of the first section, just replacing 味 with 患. So,

Because form is regarded as troublesome, all those beings are then disenchanted with form. Thus, [if] feeling, perception, intention, and consciousness are not regarded as troublesome by beings, all those beings shouldn’t be disenchanted with consciousness. Because feeling, perception, intention, and consciousness are regarded as troublesome, all those beings are then disenchanted with consciousness.

The next section is the “escape” section:


One of the Chinese → Chinese dicionaries I check has naiskramya (Skt.)/nekkhamma(Pali) for 出離. Charles Muller has renunciation as the “basic meaning.” I suppose renunciation is a kind of escape, but how fanciful of a translation is “renunciation” for this word?

Then we get something new:


五受陰 is the “five appropriated aggregates,” as Charles Muller translates it. pañcôpādāna-skandha is the Sanskrit. It’s interesting to contrast this with 五取蘊, which I believe is pañca-upādāna-skandha in Sanskrit. Looking at entries for 受, besides translating feeling (vedana), which we see in this sutra, it can also refer to the receiving of ripening karma. So I guess that’s where the “appropriated” comes from in Muller’s translation. The emphasis being “This body and mind that we’ve acquired from past karma”? Where as 取 is upadana. So with 五取蘊 the emphasis is “This body and mind that we are attached to through our false belief in it being permanent, able to provide happiness, and having or belonging to a self”?

I’ll have to finish this up later (it’s late here), but the final two sections are different from the Pali parallel. The Chinese finishes with the Buddha talking about how he could/ couldn’t claim to have achieved annutara-samyak-sambodhi without seeing the enjoyment, trouble, and escape in the 5 aggregates. The Pali carries on speaking about (sentient) beings. Interesting.

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受 is a very general verb meaning to receive something, like English “to get.” It’s used in all kinds of contexts, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a person put any effort into getting it. I think this is how it ended up translating vedana. The feeling happens without any intention or effort. So, literally, as vedana, it means “receiving” rather than “feeling.”

取, on the other hand, involves making the effort to get hold of something and keeping it, so it does translate to “clinging” quite well, although really it means to take something, like reaching out and snatching something out of someone else’s hand. It’s more forceful and intentional than 受. It’s used, for instance, as the verb when Ajatasatru says he’ll “seize” the Vajji lands at the beginning of the Nirvana Sutra.

五受陰 is the early Kumarajiva-era translation of pañcôpādāna-skandha, and 五取蘊 is the later more Xuanzang-era translation. It’s really just word choice in this case. Apparently, by the time everything was Sanskritized, upādāna was understood to clearly mean something like clinging or appropriating than the more passive receiving or acquiring, given that the translators all switched to that reading as more accurate.


Interesting! Thanks!


I’m a bit confused by the usage of 是 in the phrase 味是味、患是患、離是離. At this time, 是 never had the meaning of “to be,” right? It usually means “this” and refers back to something in an earlier statement? Without 味是味、患是患、離是離, I think it would be something like

If I didn’t understand correctly the enjoyment, trouble, and escape in these five grasped aggregates…

With it, maybe it would be:

If I didn’t understand correctly the enjoyment, trouble, and escape in these five grasped aggregates as enjoyment, trouble, and escape…

Is the repetition of enjoyment, trouble, and escape preceded by 是 the equivalent of “for what they are” in Bhante Sujato’s translation of the Pali?

As a side note, I think I prefer to use “grasped” rather than “grasping,” as is often done. “Grasping” makes it seem like the aggregates are doing the grasping, doesn’t it? But they are the things that are grasped, aren’t they? Maybe it’s more correct to say that they grasp themselves? That’s kind of a weird thought. What do you think Bhante @sujato?


This one is a bit tricky. This is a guess as to how it would be translated:

I wouldn’t be freed, delivered, or have escaped from among the gods, Maras, Brahmas, ascetics, brahmins, gods, and humans, but forever hold wrong views.

This is one of those familiar stock phrases, but feels different in the Chinese than what I’m used to in the English translation of the Pali. The Pali usually has something like:

…escaped from this world—with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans

I’m not seeing the “this world” in the Chinese, just lists of different kinds of beings - 天、若魔、若梵、沙門、婆羅門、天、人. I think the 眾中 is the equivalent of “this population” in the Pali translation. I don’t know if “this world” is implied in the Pali, and added in the the English so that it makes more sense.

顛倒 is viparyāsa in Sanskrit.

I also couldn’t have realized for myself the attaining of annutara-samyak-sambodhi.

This is where the Chinese is quite different than the Pali, since instead of continuing to speak about beings in general, the Buddha is speaking about his own enlightenment.

The final section is the Buddah speaking of how he was able to attain enlightenment because of correctly understanding the enjoyment, trouble, and escape of the 5 aggregates:


I’m wondering why 阿耨多羅三藐三菩提 was transliterated instead of translated. Maybe because of how old the text is? There are numerous translations of that word into Chinese, like 無上正等覺. It would make sense that over time, as the terms were better understood, transliterations would be used less and less.

I don’t know any Chinese but I’m interested

Xuanzang had a rule called 五種不翻 Five Untranslatables, the 4th is that the term 阿耨多羅三藐三菩提 was well established by Kāśyapa Mātaṇga so out of respect they keep the word use


Loka is missing, but otherwise it’s almost exactly the same as the Pali. Let’s break this complex sentence into it’s parts:

我 / subject
於諸天、若魔、若梵、沙門、婆羅門、天、人眾中 / locative phrase (adverbial)
不脫、不出、不離,/ series of verbs
永(adverb)住(verb)顛倒(object) / another verbal clause with a direct object

Notice how 於 … 中 encloses the locative phrase. It’s the same method of embedding a clause we saw with the “because” clause. In this case it marks a “among” or “in” phrase. Classical Chinese places adverbial clauses between subject and verb, but in English they usually belong in the predicate unless there’s special emphasis, then they go before the subject.

It’s possible to read the last verbal clause as independent like the Pali translation since it has its own direct object:

“I wouldn’t have been freed, delivered, or escaped [from?] among the gods, whether Mara or Brahma, and the assemblies of ascetics, priests, gods, and humans, and I would’ve forever stood in error.”

Then it’s pretty close!

What I’ve always found awkward about 於諸天、若魔、若梵、沙門、婆羅門、天、人眾中 is that it seems like two lists combined:


I’ve always wonder what the first 諸天 really refers to, but 若魔、若梵 appear to be examples of it, which makes the 若’s function like “whether … or …” in English. My guess that it means the major god kings like Sakra, Mara, and Brahma.

Another thing to notice is that often when there’s a list of the same category, classical Chinese writers will save ink by putting the main noun that applies to each item after only the last one. So, 眾 (assembly) is understood for each of those four items. I would translate it as “assemblies of sramanas, brahmins, gods, and humans.” As is often the case, we reverse the word order in English to express the subordination with a preposition.

Strictly speaking, the Chinese expression should be written 沙門、婆羅門、天、人眾 to make the subordination explicit. But the translator must have felt it was too obvious to bother with. This is what makes the grammar of these translations “fun.” The rule of thumb is conciseness, so even grammar words can be left understood.