Double-Character constructions in Middle (Buddhist Hybrid) Chinese

I am wondering if anyone here is familiar with the usage of character duplication in Buddhist Hybrid Chinese, or Middle Chinese in general.

I am aware that character-duplication is often a pseudo-morphological way to mark plurality of a given subject, but its usage in other contexts is what I am finding very confusing. Namely, which relational characters can be inferred between the characters (e.g. “in”, “to”, “of”, “with”, etc.), and which cannot.

I am thinking about this specifically because of the language employed in SA 176 in this phrase:[quote]「為斷無常故,當隨修內身身觀住。
“For severing (or"separating”) [from?] lack [of] constancy, [for] purpose [of this?], act [to] pursue cultivation [of] internal body [as?] bodily[,] insightful (of it’s?)(or “looking (at it’s?)”) cessation.
(Bhikkhu Ānalayo) For the sake of eradicating impermanent things, one should accordingly be established in contemplating the internal body as a body.[/quote]

There are a couple of puzzling word orders employed, but the strangest one is 身身 (shēn shēn), which sort-of says “body body” devoid of knowing how these character relate to each other.

Can anyone shed light on how this compound is used?

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I can’t comment on the Chinese, but this replicates the Indic idiom. The Pali here is:

kāye kāyānupassī

Which is usually translated “contemplating the body in the body”. This is, however, borderline incoherent, and the actual meaning of the phrase is:

observing an aspect of the body

In any case, the use is neither emphatic nor plural.

I suspect the Chinese translation of this phrase may be as confusingly and unnecessarily literal as the English. My understanding is that the Agama texts tend to be somewhat unpolished and overly Indic in their idioms, as compared to the Mahayana translations, which underwent several generations of translation to arrive at the elegant prose of masters such as Kumārajīva and Xuanzang.

It would be interesting to compare the handling of such stock idioms in the Agama with translations by, say, Xuanzang. Many of these passages would be found in his translation of the Yogacarabhumisastra.

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Can this be found online? (all I found is this interesting summary of topics)

The reason I ask is that I have recently watched the 2016 movie on the story of Xuanzang’s journey to India to learn this text from the Indian master Śīlabhadra, and that made me curious on what such text says to make someone go through such a risky trip just to learn them!

Interestingly, Śīlabhadra is said to have been the one who first came up with the three wheel turnings division of the Buddhist teachings.

Bhante, not to disagree with your translation, I think it’s fine for what you’re stated goal for translating the whole body of suttas of making straightforward English translations that make sense.

But I do want to say I believe some doctrinally important words and common phrases like “body in the body” are better off translated literally, not for your entire canon translation project, but for more technical translations. My belief is the original listeners that the Buddha spoke were just as dumbfounded as we are when first hearing those words “kaye kayaa anupassi viharati.” But after slowly grokking the general principles of Dhamma over time, they could figure out what that means in ever deepening ways. By using a fluent, (too fluent!) translation, it may lose the benefit of that repeated reflection of pondering that statement that may have been the intended reason for the cryptic construction in the first place.

It’s at Taisho T 1579, which you can see with Sanskrit, etc. here:

The Yogacarabhumisastra is by Asanga. Much of the text consists of quotes of explanations of the core passages in the suttas, and only in the stages dealing with the Bodhisattva does it introduce specifically Mahayanist ideas.

Yeah, no. The Buddha spoke for clarity and so that his followers would understand. If we turn a simple meditation instruction into a metaphysical riddle, we’re doing language wrong.

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[quote=“sujato, post:6, topic:4768”]
The Buddha spoke for clarity and so that his followers would understand. If we turn a simple meditation instruction into a metaphysical riddle, we’re doing language wrong.
[/quote]If I might suggest another idea, at the same time, Bhante, the Buddha could no more “make” everyone who heard him understand him perfectly than he could “awaken someone” on his own, isn’t it fair to say? Or do you disagree? That is why there is no 他力 (tairiki, “other-effort”) that brings liberation in EBTs. The Buddha cannot (could not?) enlighten people by his own effort.

Their awakening or non-awakening was dependant on their kamma and their own efforts and their own practice, it seems to me (although, to be fair, EBTs do not really use the language of “own effort” in dichotomy with “self effort”).

That being said, hearing the Buddha expound the Dhamma in person clearly is depicted as having more potency than hearing the Dhamma from anyone else. It seems to be, at least.

Of course, but that’s not the point. The Buddha’s teaching is svakkhāta, and at every point in the texts he is concerned to express himself clearly so that his followers could understand. There are, it is true, a few instances where people did not get what he was saying, but these are clearly the exceptions, and they do not occur in stock doctrinal passages. Again, things may be difficult because of the inherent difficulty of the subject, such as dependent origination, but satipatthana is a basic meditation instruction, part of the eightfold path, and meant for everyone. The overwhelming characteristic of the Buddha’s speech is clarity, and unless the context forces us otherwise, we must assume he was trying to be clear.

In this case, the problem is simply overly-literal translations. This is a common problem, there is no mystery here.

I have checked briefly the Sanskrit text of the Yogacarabhumisastra, available on GRETIL. It does contain the relevant phrase, but unfortunately the comment avoids discussing the meaning of the repeated construction. With a very loose translation of the relevant portions:

tatra katamaḥ kāyaḥ / katamā kāye kāyānupaśyanā / katamā smṛtiḥ / katamāni smṛter upasthānāni / āha /
… what is kāye kāyānupaśyanā?

tatrānupaśyanā trividhā / yā kāyam adhipatiṃ kṛtvā śrutamayī vā prajñā cintāmayī vā bhāvanāmayī vā, yayā prajñayā sarvaṃ kāyaṃ sarvākāraṃ samyag evopaparīkṣate saṃtīrayaty anupraviśaty anubudhyate //
Herein, observation has three kinds. Having made the body the center of attention (kāyam adhipatiṃ kṛtvā), one uses the wisdom from learning, thinking, or meditation to contemplate, scrutinize, and examine the whole body in all of its aspects (or parts sarvākāraṃ)


My apologies. I was read more into it when was intended.

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regarding kaye kāya anupassi viharati

I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I’m not sure it applies to this case. How do you translate the famous bahiya passage then? It seems to follow a similar kind of pattern. Coincidentally, someone is asking about that passage right now in this thread:

A plain literal translation must sound like a cryptic metaphysical riddle to many people, even many of the original listeners who weren’t ripe yet, but when we reflect on it in the context of other well known frequently recollected sayings like,

“netam mama, neso hamasmi, na meso atta”, (not mine, this I am not,this is not my self).

then it’s not a mysterious riddle anymore, just a simple truth with deep implications. Similarly with, “kaye kaya anupassi”, would then make sense as "body in the body, with no sense of abiding self and/or any other delusion attached to it.

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I was actually asking about the part I did put in bold, the part you quoted here seems logical and understandable, at least to me - the second part is more abstract, and that’s where I got lost.

Since I’m learning Pāli (or trying at least) I’m interested not only in the supposed meaning, but also what is going on in there on a grammatical level.

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But the context is completely different. The Bahiya passage—which I’ve commented on in that post—is a dense, cryptic philosophical passage, specifically to the person identified as having the swiftest understanding. It expresses the entire way of practice and realization in a few lines. Moreover, it is closely located in the pre-Buddhist philosophical background, no doubt because of Bahiya’s background.

The passage on satipatthana is basic meditation instructions, part of the eightfold path, intended for everyone. It is not a teaching on higher wisdom, and precedes any contemplation of not-self or whatever. Its purpose is to teach a meditator what to do to get into jhana, i.e. how to make the mind peaceful.

Compare the following statements:

  • I think therefore I am
  • I eat therefore I am fat

On syntactic grounds, there is much in common between them. But that tells us nothing, except that language is flexible. The differences are small, but they make all the difference. The message is: you can’t infer from a syntactic similarity to a philosophical similarity.


Yikes! Instead of parsing the noun “contemplator”, it parses “contemplation”. That’s also how the Vibhanga does it -

Anupassī”ti. Tattha katamā anupassanā?

Hmm, shared Abhidharma technique!

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Thanks for the explanation Bhante. What you say makes sense, although I’m still agnostic on this issue, since I’m too indoctrinated in EBT at this point in my life to really see things from an objective point of view.