Today, I posted my translation of MA.6 The Good Person’s Departure, which is equivalent to AN.7.55 Places People Are Reborn.
This is an esoteric sutra that doesn’t explain itself in a straight forward manner, perhaps for mystic effect. It gives seven metaphors for the destiny of non-returners (apparently) who are destined for Nirvana but not necessarily after an equal length of time upon leaving this world.
Judging by Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Pali, which is strewn with brackets, I’m guess the Pali is equally thorny to render to English as the Chinese is.
The first difficulty is the passage describing the monk’s practice who has reached this level of attainment. The Chinese seems clearer than the Pali. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation reads:
“Here, a bhikkhu is practicing thus: ‘It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be; it will not be mine. I am abandoning what exists, what has come to be.’ He obtains equanimity. He is not attached to existence; he is not attached to origination. He sees with correct wisdom: ‘There is a higher state that is peaceful,’ yet he has not totally realized that state. He has not totally abandoned the underlying tendency to conceit; he has not totally abandoned the underlying tendency to lust for existence; he had not totally abandoned ignorance. With the utter destruction of the five lower fetters he becomes an attainer of nibbana in the interval.”
Sujato’s translation reads:
"Take a mendicant who practices like this: ‘It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be, and it will not be mine. I am giving up what exists, what has come to be.’ They gain equanimity. They’re not attached to life, or to creating a new life. And they see with right wisdom that there is a peaceful state beyond. But they haven’t completely realized that state. They haven’t totally given up the underlying tendencies of conceit, attachment to life, and ignorance. With the ending of the five lower fetters they’re extinguished between one life and the next. "
This passage makes up about half of the sutra because it’s a repeated chorus for all eight cases taken up (with a slight change in the last one).
The Chinese in this case is a little simpler and clearer. It reads:
There’s a couple things to note. The first line of the monk’s quote clearly has a first person pronoun, demarcated with 者 for clarity (我 can mean the concept of self or be a pronoun). It reads: “I have no self and nothing is mine.” Like the Pali, the next sentence is in future tense: “The future has no self, and nothing will be mine.” This is quite different than the “To be or not to be” type of statement that the Pali begins with.
Others terms of interest are 有樂, 合會, and 息迹, the last of which forced me into using brackets for this first edition because it’s a borrowed concept from Daoism.
The BDK translation in my opinion strains to translate these terms technically when there’s no context here or elsewhere in the MA to suggest they should be. Their translation reads (quotes added by me):
A monk practices thus: “There is no self, nor is there anything belonging to a self; in the future there will be no self and nothing belonging to a self. What has already come to exist will be abandoned; and when it has been abandoned, equanimity will be attained. [I shall be] neither defiled by delight in existence nor attached to contact [through the senses].”
First note that they choose to ignore the pronoun at the start of the quote. They also translate 有樂 as “delight in existence” and 合會 as “contact [through the senses].” Of course, there’s nothing about the senses or sense objects in this text.
When I studied all the occurrences of 合會 in MA, it was clear that it simply means “to come together.” It’s used for the coming together of parents to conceive a child, the coming together of causes and conditions to cause an event, etc. Here, it probably refers to the aggregates having come together into a human existence.
有樂 also occurs elsewhere in the MA, but it doesn’t refer to the delight in existence. Instead, 有 is either a verb “to have/there is” or an adjective “with” (someone having/with pleasure, etc). So, my translation is more prosaic in that case, too.
Which brings me to 息迹. This term has a literary precedent in classical Chinese, occurring in the Chuangzi. It means “to stop making tracks.” The passage in the Chuangzi reads: 處靜以息迹 “Remain still in order to stop making tracks.” This was a metaphor for wuwei. The mind must attain stillness to stop trying to obtain desires and causing unforeseen consequences.
The Buddhist translators were probably borrowing this concept, which left me scratching my head when I realized it. Literally, it probably was thought to be parallel to the concept of not making any more karma.
BDK translates it as “state of peace,” which works well enough, but it’s really borrowing from the Pali translations. I decided to translate it as “stillness [of mind]” to capture the Chinese understanding.
As to the metaphors in these two texts, they are fairly close. The Pali in this case has greater detail added than the Chinese.
The Pali metaphors:
1: A spark flies off and is extinguished. Nibbana in the interval.
2. A spark files off, rises up, and is extinguished. Nibbana in the interval.
3. A spark flies off, rises up, and is extinguished before hitting the ground. Nibbana in the interval.
4. A spark flies off and is extinguished after landing on the ground. Nibbana upon landing.
5. A spark lands on some straw and burns but is extinguished when out of fuel. Nibbana without exertion.
6. A spark lands on a wider pile of staw and burns but is extinguished when out of fuel. Nibbana through exertion.
7. A spark lands on straw and sets a forest on fire, burning until it reaches a barrier. Bound for the Akanittha realm “upstream.”
The Chinese is a little different, but not by much.
It begins with burning a bit of chaff instead of a spark and doesn’t have no. 6 which is almost identical to no. 5. The descriptions of the different Nirvanas are:
1-3. Nirvana in the interim
4. Nirvana at birth
5. Nirvana with practice
6. Nirvana without practice
7. Nirvana upstream in Akaniṣṭha.
This replaces No. 4 in Pali with something seemingly more related to rebirth and 5. and 6. are reversed. No. 7 also explicitly mentions Nirvana.