Entering and Remaining: A Non-Obvious Chinese Parallel

One of the little mysteries of the Madhyama Āgama to me for the past couple years has been a verbal expression that occurs quite often at the end of sentences (in Indic fashion): 成就遊. It’s peculiar to two Chinese Buddhist texts: The Madhyama Āgama and the older translation of the Abhidharma Vibhāṣā. Its most frequent usage is as the main verbs in the dhyana formulas, but it occurs in other contexts.

成就遊 is actually two verbs. 成就 means to accomplish or achieve something completely. 遊 means to go for a walk, wander, tour, to travel without a destination. As a result, it sometimes refers to the peripatetic lifestyle of Indian ascetics. Indeed, 遊 occurs in the title of the Dīrgha Āgama’s parallel to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DĀ 2 遊行經, lit. “The Journey Sutra”). These two verbs are almost always tacked onto the end of sentences in the Indic way of verbs coming last (which is not the normal Chinese S-V-O sentence structure).

Let’s look at an example. MĀ 2’s description of the first dhyāna reads:

“Furthermore, the noble disciple is secluded from desire and secluded from bad and unskillful things. With thought/feeling and contemplation, that seclusion gives rise to joy and happiness, and they attain the first dhyāna, accomplishing and traveling [it].”

The confusion is caused by the presence of a verb in the usual Chinese word order: 得 (“to attain”) 初禪 (“first dhyāna”). So, what’s 成就遊 doing there? It seems superfluous. Up until recently, it’s been a head scratcher how to best render this expression, especially 遊. Unsure what it’s intended to translate, I’ve thus far passed over it, translating the passage as “attained accomplishment of the first dhyana” and moving on with my life.

The translators of the BDK edition of MĀ 2 didn’t fare any better, rendering it as “… dwells having attained the first absorption.” They’ve chosen to read 成就遊 creatively to mean something like the Pali reading.

Which brings me to the non-obvious parallelism taking place with this Chinese expression that I’ve noticed on a closer look. The problem appears to be that the Chinese translators interpreted these two verbs, which were probably Prakrit versions of P. upasampajja viharati, differently than Pali translators today.

P. upasampajja can mean to reach, attain, enter upon. This is close to the meaning of accomplish or achieve, though there’s a sense of arrival. P. viharati can mean to live or dwell, but also to sojourn in an area. So, it stands to reason that viharati has been read to mean “sojourn” rather than simply “dwell.”

When we look at the Chinese verb clause 得初禪成就遊, I think what we are seeing is a verb translated twice: In the Chinese way and in a literal Indic way. One is active voice, and the other is passive, but actually I think they both translate the same verbs in the original formula.

To the Chinese reader, it ends up meaning, “attains the first dhyāna, accomplishing and travelling [it].” This might have been to make sure it’s understandable to Chinese readers, who would be confused if 得 wasn’t there. Without it, it would read nonsensically as “the first dhyana accomplishes and travels.” We know that many early translation projects had native Chinese literati touch up texts to make them easier to read. 得 may have been inserted in that editing process after the passage was translated literally.