Some time ago, Coemgenu posted a question about SA 296.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. We have three texts:
Pāli § SN 12:20,
Middle Chinese (MC) SA 296, ca 5th Century, and
Turfan Sanskrit (TS) 14, ca 13th C.
P is a Theravāda text, MC is Sarvāstivāda, and TS is probably also Sarvāstivāda (experience suggests that the Turfan Samyuktāgama texts are closer to MC than to P)
P. uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā. (SN II.25)
“The arising of a tathāgata or the non-arising of a tathāgata, there is an enduring principle: the fact of dhammas being conditioned, the constraints on dhammas, and specific conditionality.”
MC. 若佛出世，若未出世，此法常住，法住法界 (T2.84.b17-18)
“Whether a Buddha arises in the world, or not, this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma, the element of dharma.” (Choong 2010: 45)
TS. ity utpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharmasthitaye dhātuḥ (TS 14.5)
The arising of a tathāgata or the non-arising of a tathāgata, this principle remains: naturalness and the stability of dharmas.
The Pāli seems to me to be the least corrupt text. The gist of what it says is that there is an enduring principle (ṭhitā dhātu) that has three characteristics. I think the context requires us to read these as applying to the items in the list of nidānas (dhammā) rather than to the teaching (Dhamma).
The Turfan Sanskrit manuscript has only two characteristics and one of them has lost a part, i.e. dharma…tā. This is a common scribal error. Also it has moved dhātu to the end. This is not a problem in terms of comprehension, in that sthitā must still be an adjective of dhātuḥ, but it might have introduced an ambiguity (see below). There is no apparent counterpart for idappaccayatā. (Note that in Sanskrit iyaṃ is a feminine pronoun)
MC also has three characteristics 此法常住, 法住, and 法界. Forget the Taishō punctuation, it’s misleading. A couple of things stand out. Guṇabhadra has ignored the context and translated as though dhamma is singular. Hence 此法常住 “The Dharma is eternally abiding”. We know this because later on when he wants to refer to dharmas plural he uses the form 此等諸法.
Now, if we look at this from a Theravāda point of view, then 此法常住 is problematic, because we think the text is talking about the arising of dhammas and they are supposed to be eternal. But from a Sarvāstivāda point of view they are. I’ve looked at this in an essay: Sarvāstivāda Approach to the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance.
Next we notice that 法常住 and 法住 are essentially the same statement. One has “eternal” 常 and one does not. Why the repetition. The character 住 has more or less the same semantic field as √_sthā._ so there are both translations of an Indic term like dhammaṭṭhitatā. Why twice? I’ll come back to this.
The third Chinese characteristic is 法界 where 界 is the character commonly used to represent Indic dhātu. Ergo the obvious reading of 法界 is dharmadhātu/dhammadhātu. At first I thought this might also be an error based on the dhātu being out of place in the Sanskrit text. This assumes that MC and TS were translated from a common or similar original (probably in Gāndhārī). It has been assumed that 法界 = idappaccayatā merely on the basis of position, but this is a strange choice because neither character contributes anything semantic. A modern translation of idappaccayatā is 此緣性 where the Indic pronoun idaṃ is represented by the MC pronoun 此. This does not occur in the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism and nor have I been able to locate how DDB might translate it (C > E is easy; E > C is more or less impossible).
The trouble is that 此緣性 does not occur in the Āgama translations. So how do they translate idappaccayatā? It turns out that in the whole SN idappaccayatā only occurs in SN 12:20. So there is no way to see how Guṇabhadra translated it in other contexts. In fact this word is very uncommon. Across the Nikāyas it only occurs again in MN 26, and there only once. It will take me a while to dig it out.
In the meantime something occurred to me. SA 296 is a Sarvāstivāda text and eternal dharmas (i.e. dharmas that are always existent sarva-asti) is a doctrine peculiar to them. So what if of the three characteristics in this text–此法常住, 法住, and 法界–that 法常住 is the odd one out.
For the sake of argument let us assume that the original text had just two characteristics corresponding to P. dhammaṭṭhitatā and dhammaniyāmatā. Somewhere along the way a Theravāda editor inserted idappaccayatā here because it had become an important term in Theravāda. This happened in South India or Sri Lanka. Meanwhile in the far North where Sarvāstivāda was the major school for centuries, an editor decided to emphasis that dharmas are not just abiding, but eternally abiding.
How would this scenario change how we read the Chinese translation? If we take 法常住 as a late interpolation then we have two terms and they would match the first two Indic terms
dhammaṭṭhitatā = 法住
dhammaniyāmatā = 法界
But is this plausible? Since 住 is commonly used to represent Indic √_sthā_, dhammaṭṭhitatā = 法住 seems unproblematic. But 界 is most often dhātu, so how do we explain this? If we look up 界 in a Middle Chinese dictionary (I use Kroll) then we find it means “boundary, limit”. And what does niyāma mean? It means a “constraint, restriction”; or with a process, “the fixed course and/or outcome of that process.” Or in other words, a limit. So perhaps here, 界 is being used in its usual Middle Chinese sense of limit? At least there is considerably more overlap of semantic fields here than with 法住.
However, later in the text, where TS has dharmaniyāmatā has the Chinese text has 法空. Expert opinion suggests this must be wrong and suggests that 法定 was intended. This kind of mistake is easy to make in Chinese. Also Choong Mun-keat has shown that by this time Buddhist authors were beginning to insert the word śūnyatā or 空 in all sorts of places, and not always felicitously. But then if a character is definitely wrong, who is to say that the correct character is one thing and not another. All we know is that 空 is out of place - by accident or design.
As with idappaccayatā, dhammaniyāmatā only occurs in this sutta of the Samyuttanikāya. We have no record of how Guṇabhadra usually translated niyāmatā because it only occurs this once. So resolving any problems will be difficult. I’ll try to look into whether Guṇabhadra translated other texts that contained this word.
All this is conjecture and I am trying to think of ways of tying it down. It would be useful to get examples of how other Middle Chinese translators dealt with idappaccayatā, for example (perhaps a reader can help with this?). And I will endeavour to track it down in MN 26. Still I think this is a plausible, if complicated, alternative reading that also makes sense of the available information.
I should also note that this text contains other quite unique terminology that does not seem to be assimilated into mainstream Theravāda. And this makes the sutta very interesting for any historian of ideas.
It turns out that the Chinese version of MN 26, i.e. MA 204 omits the passage that includes the word idappaccayatā. But Brahmā’s request to teach (Section 20 of MN 26) is recounted in EA 19.1. EA 24.5 recounts part of the story but also misses out the passage of interest.