English Translation of Chinese Agamas



I haven’t studied this. But I know that the work on parallels for SC was largely based on the 4 nikayas, so we would definitely like to add parallels for Khuddaka-style texts.

I do recall there being some research on the Chinese Iti, but I can’t recall much about it.


I don’t have access to academic publications too, but I found this from Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s introduction to his translation of Itivuttaka:

The Chinese canon contains a translation of an Itivuttaka, attributed to Hsüan-tsang, that strongly resembles the text of the Pali Itivuttaka, the major difference being that parts of the Group of Threes and all of the Group of Fours in the Pali are missing in Hsüan-tsang’s translation. Either these parts were later additions to the text that found their way into the Pali but not into the Sanskrit version translated by Hsüan-tsang, or the Sanskrit text was incomplete, or Hsüan-tsang’s translation was left unfinished (it dates from the last months of his life).

Itivuttaka: This Was Said by the Buddha


Thanks. Yes, I had seen that comment, too. It’s true that the Chinese doesn’t have any of the Fours, but it has more sutras in the other sections, making it a bit larger than the Pali (137 vs. 112 suttas). The note about the text being translated at the end of Xuanzang’s life was a curiosity. When I looked it up in Dan Lusthaus’ list of Xuanzang’s works, he dates it at the end of 650CE (#39 in the list), over ten years before Xuanzang’s death.


I’ve been quiet lately, but things have been moving forwards. At least, my ambitions, which tend to run a bit far ahead of my resources, have been making progress, so I wanted to give everyone an update.

The past couple months, a part time translation project of Chinese EBTs has been shaping up, but it’s only a 10-15 hr/week commitment at this point due to funding issues that hopefully will improve in the future.

It began with work on the Chinese Udana-varga (T213) last Fall, which led me to take up editing my old translation of the Madhyama Agama, which led me to sit down and think about EBTs in general and how to proceed.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been deciding on an overall translation style, breaking with some of my old “rules” like passing through Chinese transliterations and overly literal grammar in the English. To that end, the translations of MA.1 to 4 have been edited a couple times, though the latest versions are still sitting in the Git Repo.

I’ve also been looking at the other Agamas, re-familiarizing myself with them, and creating master files for translating them. Some preliminary work has begun on the Itivrttaka and the Samyukta-agama and the Ekottarika-agama. The only Agama I haven’t looked at yet is the Dirgha, which is mainly because I prefer to work with shorter texts when my time is so limited.

Going forward, I’ll be continuing to translate the Madhyama as the primary task and will begin releasing translations from the Samyukta as well when I’m confident about the vocabulary in that text. Things will continue to move slowly, but slow and steady wins the race, as they say.



Thanks so much for the update, that’s thoroughly awesome! (Even the “slow and steady” bit—so far I’ve only managed to achieve “slow”, but this is already an accomplishment I’m rather proud of :wink: ).

With regards to the MA translations—including the completely new MA4 (along with a few other legacy text additions) :heart_eyes:—they are due to be updated on the site soonish; the next update was a point of discussion at this week’s team meeting and hopefully will be done before long.

All good wishes in your work!



Please let us know if we can help. We don’t have dedicated funds for this, but in principle I would like to be able to support it.

Can you explain some more exactly what this means, maybe with an example or two? Also, I would be interested to know your philosophy on translating the Chinese text vs. translating the assumed underlying Indic text. Obviously it’s one of the many areas in translation that does not admit of absolutes, but I’d be interested to hear your approach.


In the past, I had a more academic attitude about translation, wanting to represent the Chinese text as closely as possible. So, for example, I would reproduce transliterations and loan words that were common in Chinese, even though many can be translated to English. Chinese translators sometimes go back and forth translating and transliterating the same names. These sorts of things I would simply reproduce. The irony is that my translations back then weren’t always great, because I was still learning.

Now, I think texts littered with diacritics and Indic words isn’t helping anyone in the general audience, and I think the goal should be to try to rescue these texts from archaic languages.

So, for example, in my recent edits I decided to stop transliterating “bhiksu” and “kasaya.” It’s just not necessary. Now those terms are “monk” and “reddish-brown.”

In the past, I’d also do what many translators do with Chinese texts, which is to translate them literally and force unnatural grammar in the English. As a writer, I shake my head at that looking at my older work. Chinese places adverbial clauses before the verb most of the time when English would put them in the predicate, and Chinese is fine with double negatives, and the like. It also doesn’t think subjects are necessary, so then you have to decide how to fill them in with pronouns. (As an aside, it’s sometimes a little humorous to me when translator place alot of English in brackets when translating from Chinese–in truth 50% of the English should be in brackets, we have to add in so much.)

One of the main editing tasks for my older work is simply applying modern English grammar and getting rid of the awkward or wordy style I used.

So, those are the two main things I was meaning about changing my style.

I’ve also begun carefully identifying repeated expressions and standardizing the English throughout as I translate. I have the entire Madhyama in a single Word file now, for instance, and as I finalize a translation, I search for repetitions and translate them as well. It seems like the best way to avoid an editing nightmare from past experience. It turns into a kind of non-linear workflow, progressively translating the entire text as I go, but it seems to work so far.

When it comes to the problem of translating translations, I’m much more agnostic about the underlying text having studied parallels quite a bit. The Chinese canon is unique, I think, in that we get a really detailed “history” of how these texts evolved over time. Some sutras like the Diamond Sutra have a half dozen Chinese translations that span 500 years. When I sit down and compare them to extant Sanskrit or Pali, I realize that these aren’t always just a single version that’s evolving. There were multiple versions sometimes. The Diamond Sutra, for example, had a verbose and simple version still by the time of Xuanzang and Yijing. Yijing’s reads like the extant Sanskrit, and Xuanzang’s much more expanded, but Yijing’s is the later translation.

I come away from this believing that it’s not possible to know what the underlying originals really said. I can guess what the original term was in obvious cases, but in others it could be one of a few different synonyms. Just because the Pali or Sanskrit we have differs doesn’t mean the Chinese is incorrect. The original they translated may have been different. I regard the Chinese to be the only extant copy of a lost text, essentially, and I focus on understanding what the translator intended.

I do my best to discern how the Chinese terms were used by the translator. I start with internal glosses, then I look at the way he used them in his other translations, to the dictionaries compiled by Chinese scholars in ancient times, and then I fall back to the way the terms are used in literary Chinese outside of Buddhist texts.

It’s also important to be clear about the grammar being used in a text. Ancient Chinese evolved quite a bit from 150 CE to 800 CE, when most of the translations were done, and different translators sometimes created their own personal “Hybrid Buddhist Chinese.” Reading Gautama-sanghdeva is very different from reading Xuanzang. It’s challenging, but we have great resources and searchable electronic texts that make it easier now.

That’s a basic overview of what I’ve been doing. Feel free to ask more questions or make suggestions.



Thanks so much, this is very illuminating. I hear your journey from literalism to understanding, and i try to follow that same path myself. Echoing a famous line from Asimov, I tell myself, ‘Literalism is the last resort of the incompetent translator’. It’s odd that we equate this with an “academic” style; who is it that decided academia should be driven by such a mechanistic approach? Is there really anyone who thinks this kind of translation is valuable except as a crib for students?

Good, I too try to translate everything as much as I can.

Preaching to the converted here!

Right, there are certain passages that presented with very high consistency in Indic texts, the jhana formula being one of them. But in most cases there is considerable room for variation. If we pre-digest the Chinese texts too much we lose the point in comparing versions at all.

I learned a little about the pitfalls of this when translating the Digha Nikaya. It seems that Walshe’s translation is largely based on Rhys Davids’. When Rhys Davids encountered a gnarly bit of Pali, it is sometimes reflected in a clumsy or obscure turn of phrase in English. Walshe then “tames” RD’s rendering, resulting in what sounds like a more fluent, even more plausible English phrasing; but if you compare it with the Pali, it is actually less accurate and often simply wrong.

I am a strong believer that there is no one true translation method; any translation both adds somethings and omits something. ideally there would be multiple translations from different perspectives, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. But the most important thing is that a translation is guided by a strong and coherent philosophy. What I am saying is, sadhu! :pray:


Today I finished editing my translation of MA.5 The Wood Pile Parable, which is equivalent to AN.7.72 The Bonfire.

This sutra is a another case like the first four that largely agrees with the Pali, but the Chinese version is more elaborate. Both AN.7.72 and MA.5 contain seven similes indicating the irony of basing one’s actions on immediate pain or gratification rather than the moral implications of maintaining the precepts. Thus, it’s a warning to the monks not to allow themselves to become corrupted by the pleasures of the alms they receive from the laity.

The negative similes used are drawn from traditional descriptions of hell in other Buddhist texts; especially the punishment of swallowing a red-hot iron ball, laying on a hot bed, and being cook in a stew. After the simile of the burning wood pile, the sutra juxtaposes six such hellish punishments with the gifts a monk might receive from laypeople.

The Madhyama Sutra has these seven similes:

  1. Laying in a burning wood pile and laying with a beautiful woman
  2. Having the calf cut through with horse-hair rope and getting a massage
  3. Having a leg lopped off with sharp sword and being venerated
  4. Wrapped in a hot iron plate and receiving clothing
  5. Swallowing a red-hot iron ball and getting a delicious meal
  6. Being forced to lay on a hot iron bed and receiving a bed to lay on
  7. Being tossed into a hot iron caldron and being given a private dwelling

The Pali has people bowing to the monk rather than giving him a massage in #2, even though the Chinese seems a better parallel (but also a little strange sounding. Does the vinaya allow monks to get massages?).

The Pali differs in #3, in which a person is simply stabbed in the chest.

The Chinese in #4 has the person’s mouth being pried open with forceps rather than a spike, which might be the translator borrowing a common tool in Chinese culture.

The Chinese text is a little awkward in #6 and #7, in that the punishment is being done to a third party rather than the monks the Buddha is speaking to; it doesn’t match the chorus that follows each example.

Also, the Chinese in #7 doesn’t mention being boiled in a caldron, only that it’s burning hot. Being cooked like a stew is one of the traditional punishments in hell, so perhaps it was omitted as common knowledge.

Both sutras also end the same, with 60 monks achieving the destruction of the asravas and 60 deciding to give it up and go home. Both the Pali and the Chinese feel they need to explain this by saying how difficult the training is.

There’s one other version of this Sutra in Chinese–in the Ekottarika Agama, EA.33.10. The EA version is much simpler and older looking–in fact it has only five similes instead of seven, and not the repeated chorus analyzing the meaning after each one. Instead, the analysis is done at the end. It has the same unique conclusion of 60 monks being enlightened and 60 going home, so it would seem to be the same text.

EA.33.10 has these similes:

  1. A burning tree and a handsome woman
  2. Having your hands and feet chopped off with a sword and being venerated
  3. Having a hot iron sheet wrapped around your body and receiving clothing
  4. Swallowing a red hot iron ball and receiving a meal
  5. Laying on a hot iron bed and receiving a bed to lay on


Dear @cdpatton,

In translating the Madhyama Agama from Chinese into English, have you compared it with the English translation of MA by Bhikkhu Analayo and his team? Perhaps you can make some comments/remarks from this comparison :grin:


I consult other translations when I hit difficult passages to see how other translators deal with them. The BDK translation unfortunately is usually not very helpful when I do this because they tend to gloss or skip over the difficult phrases or terms. Sometimes they just don’t seem to understand the Chinese very well, but the overall effect is small in terms of their accuracy. I’ve seen a couple cases though that it gets in the way of seeing parallels with the Pali, and sometimes they seem to want the Chinese to read like Pali when it doesn’t.

In terms of the style of their English, I think it’s very awkward. The wording, overuse of em dashes, and all of the added stuff in brackets really isn’t necessary at all. That’s not to mention the indented formatting that seems to try to avoid quotation marks. I feel like they could use someone with an English degree (at least a BA) on their editorial team with the power to say, “No, this is an modern English document, not some weird hybrid thing.” That’s just personal preference, though. I guess they like to experiment with formatting.

They also seem to favor simplifying the Chinese to fit Pali readings. An example is the line in the chorus that I translate as “I will explain this for you, so you trainee mendicants will not lose the mendicant path.”

This is a fairly literal rendering of the Chinese, which reads


But it’s not completely literal. The very literal English would be “I will explain for you and not allow you trainee sramanas to lose the sramana path.” I dropped the “not allow” verb so the English would flow better.

The BDK translation seems to want “I explain for you” to be “I declare to you” like the line in the Pali. The rest is not in the Pali, but they still want to drop more words to make it simpler. This is what I mean by glossing over difficult wording. The MA is an elaborate, over-wrought kind of Buddhist text, so the translation ought to capture that, in my opinion.

Anyway, that’s just a couple thoughts about it.


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.


Really helpful, and very interesting to read of the differences in translation approaches. I am sure I have mentioned this before, but it bears saying again: in such a vast and under-resourced field, we should promote multiple approaches as each style has its own benefit.

Readers might want to note that the BDK translation referred to, of MA 6, is in the first volume, which was by a variety of translators. Subsequent volumes are by Analayo and Bucknell only; I am not sure how this affects the translation.


合會 = union / meeting
(止)息 cessation
迹 trace / sign / trail / mark / track
無上 supreme / ultimate

What is now the continuation should be abandoned; and if thus abandoned equanimity shall be attained . Therefore , not tainted by enjoyment of existence nor attached to the union ; If one practise accordingly , sign of ultimate cessation can be seen but one has not actually attained to the state yet .


This was the other difficult part of the passage. Initially I read 無上息迹慧 as “wisdom that hints at unsurpassed peace,” not realizing 息迹 was a term. It was when I reached the end of the sutra and read:


“I say that monk doesn’t go east and doesn’t go west … or down. Here in the present, he {stops making tracks?} and is completely liberated.”

Then it dawned on me that 息迹 was a term and looked it up. It’s still perplexing. It never occurs again in MA, so there’s no other usage to work with.


Hi Charlie ,

Found 息迹 in the Treatises of SengZhao (肇論) .
" 顯迹為生,息迹為滅 " ,
manifestation sign is arising
dissolution sign is cessation

So 息跡 is cessation .

無上息跡 = unsurpassed cessation

滅度 = nibbana


Nice catch. I hadn’t searched for 息跡 outside of the MA yet. That’s actually in a commentary on the Zhaolun (T1860) that’s of a late date (1200-1300 CE). It’s rare elsewhere, but occurs in a few different texts once or twice.

T1860.231a12: 斯乃希夷之境太玄之鄉。而欲以有無題榜標(指)其方域而語其神(妙)道者。不亦邈(遠)哉 涅槃之道非聲非色。豈可以有餘為有。無餘為無。依名榜示標指處。所謂王宮託質為有。雙林息跡為無。而說其妙道。豈不遠乎。以成前文應物之假名爾。

“The path of Nirvana is neither sound nor form. How could it have a remainder that exists? Without remainder, it’s nothing. We rely on names to indicate the place we are pointing to. That is, in the royal palace, the entrusted gift was existence. Between the pair of trees, the stopping of traces was inexistence. That was to teach his wondrous path. How is that not far reaching?”

T1860.233b04: 其為稱也(二名)因應而作。顯跡為生。息跡為滅。生名有餘。滅名無餘 生滅因乎顯息。有無復由生滅。隨跡而起。非假名何。

“Manifesting tracks is birth; stopping tracks is cessation. Birth is a term for having a remainder while cessation is a term for no remainder. The cause of birth and cessation is manifestation and stopping. To have or not have anything more is a result of birth and cessation. According to tracks, they are produced. What would a non-provisional name be?”

It seems to refer to the act of disappearing as an existent thing, I guess. So, it was associated with Nirvana without remainder. It’s one of those metaphorical idioms that bedevils a translator.



Glad you manage to sort out after all .


Thanks so much for this and the fascinating post!

Just wanted to check if you’d like me to code this translation for SuttaCentral?


Sure, you can go ahead and do that. I think MA.5 and 6 have yet to be added to SuttaCentral. I’d decided it would be less work to wait and do it in batches in case of edits that come up.