The standard formula for the fourth jhana includes the following phrase:
Which I translate as:
pure equanimity and mindfulness
Ven Brahmali translates it similarly:
purity of mindfulness and even-mindedness
But Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as: (DN 2)
mindfulness fully purified by equanimity
or in MN 27
purity of mindfulness due to equanimity
Or his most recent rendering in AN 3.58:
which has purification of mindfulness by equanimity
So the question arises, why is there this difference? Ven Bodhi translates it to give a specific relation between elements of the compound: the mindfulness has become purified because of equanimity. This gives a strongly articulated sense to the compound. He has retained this reading over more than three decades, with only minor adjustments in rendering.
Now, in Pali, compounds are complex, and frequently they may be construed in multiple ways. Grammatically there are several kinds of compounds, that allow a wide range of relations between the terms, and these are not explicit but must be inferred from context.
Now, there is nothing definitive in the suttas that can explain this. I think Ven Bodhi’s rendering reflects the Theravadin interpretation, which is first found in the Abhidhamma Vibhanga, Jhanavibhanga. This is one of the early strata of Abhidhamma texts, postdating the Buddha by perhaps 200 or 300 years. It says:
Ayaṃ sati imāya upekkhāya vivaṭā hoti parisuddhā pariyodātā
This mindfulness is clarified, purified, and cleansed by that equanimity.
This is quite straightforward, and gives a nice, relatively early, support for this reading. So why don’t I agree with it?
Well, first, there are two general principles that inform my translation. These are somewhat counter-intuitive, so it is worth spelling them out.
One is the “principle of least meaning”. This is a handy rule of thumb, that stems from the observation that we tend to read excessive meaning into texts, especially ancient spiritual texts. To counteract that, it is often prudent to read the texts in the most simple and plain way possible, unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. In this case, the Vibhanga interpretation gives a more highly articulated meaning to the passage, so a simpler reading would be preferred.
The second is the “principle of least accuracy”. This stems from the observation that Buddhist studies and translations are still in an immature stage, and we are a lot less certain about things than we think. People like it when two translators are consistent, because it “reduces confusion”. But confusion is entirely appropriate when it is a confusing matter. If everyone translates things the same way, it conveys the impression that all the experts agree that this is what it means. But if you talk to the experts, they will frequently say, “well, it could easily be the other thing, this is just a best guess”. This is similar to the problem of false precision in mathematics. Thus a translation should strive to convey no more accuracy than is justified, and this is considered in light of other translations, too. Seeing two different translations informs a reader that there are a variety of possibilities.
Okay, so in the current phrase, translating as “pure equanimity and mindfulness” is a less complex and articulated meaning, in agreement with the “principle of least meaning”. And it differs from a standard translation, so it agrees with “principle of least accuracy”.
But these are, of course, very general rules of thumb. Is there anything more specific we can point to?
Yes, there is! The most decisive point, I believe, must be from the jhana formulas themselves, rather than from any later explanation. In the third jhana, equanimity and mindfulness are present. But there is no special relation between them: a meditator is simply said to be “equanimous and mindful”. Now, unless there is good reason to think otherwise, surely the same situation would pertain in the fourth jhana. The addition of “purified” makes perfect sense here, too: it’s basically the same thing, but better.
A further point of reference is MN 111 Anupada. This late sutta gives a list of factors present in the fourth jhana:
Ye ca catutthe jhāne dhammā—upekkhā adukkhamasukhā vedanā passaddhattā cetaso anābhogo satipārisuddhi cittekaggatā ca,
the phenomena in the fourth absorption: equanimity and neutral feeling and mental unconcern due to tranquility and pure mindfulness, and unification of mind;
Here, as you can see, “pure” is applied to mindfulness, not to equanimity, and the two items appear as simple factors side-by-side, with no relation between them. This would suggest the rendering:
with equanimity and pure mindfulness
This raises the question as to whether we are right to distribute “pure” across both terms. The Sanskrit Abhidharma texts offer more guidance on this point, as we shall see.
The following are a range of Sanskrit texts that feature the fourth jhana formula. Even though most or all of these are late, the jhana formula is presented with only inconsequential variants throughout.
So that’s not much help.
Turning to the Sanskritic Abhidharma texts not on SC, I found the following:
catvāryaṅgāni upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiḥ aduḥkhāsukhā vedanā cittaikāgratā ca
Four factors: pure equanimity, pure mindfulness, no pleasant or painful feeling, unification of mind
caturthe dhyāne upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiśca
In the forth jhana, pure equanimity and pure mindfulness
tatra catvāryaṅgāni aduḥkhāsukhā vedanā upekṣāpariśuddhiḥ smṛtipariśuddhiḥ samādhiśca
Therein, the four factors are no pleasant or painful feeling, pure equanimity, pure mindfulness, immersion
caturthe khalu dhyāne śubhe catvāryaṅgāni | aduḥkhāsukhāvedanā upekṣā ca smṛtipariśuddhiḥ samādhiśca
In the forth jhana, four beautiful factors: no pleasant or painful feeling, equanimity, pure mindfulness, immersion
Obviously these are very similar and represent a coherent tradition. They are quite unambiguous, and simply list equanimity and mindfulness as distinct factors. With the notable exception of the last text—which is reminiscent of MN 111—all of them distribute “pure” across the two terms, mindfulness and equanimity.
It thus seems that the northern tradition—here, the Yogacara, probably reflecting the broader Sarvastivada—differed from the Sri Lankan Mahavihara in the explanation of these terms.
However, a more nuanced take than any of these is offered by Harivarman.
upekṣāsmṛtipariśuddhamiti | atropekṣā pariśuddhā | anīṣaṇatvāt | triṣu dhyāneṣvasti īṣaṇaṃ yadidaṃ sukhamiti |
Equanimity-mindfulness-purified: herein, equanimity is purified, as it is without movement (“hastiness”). In the three (former) jhanas there is movement, that is, pleasure.
asmiṃśca dhyāne smṛtirapi pariśuddhā | kasmāt | tṛtīyadhyāne sukhāsaṅgitvāt smṛtirvyākulā | caturthadhyānaṃ prāpya sukharāgasya prahāṇāt smṛtiḥ pariśuddhā |
And in this jhana mindfulness is also purified. Why? As the three jhanas possess a connection with pleasure, mindfulness is unsteady. But having attained the fourth jhana, due to the abandoning of desire for pleasure, mindfulness is purified.
This gives us support for both readings. It explicitly says that both equanimity and mindfulness are purified. But it also says that the purification of mindfulness is due to the ending of desire for pleasure, i.e. equanimity.
What is, I believe, happening in such cases, is that the text has a simple meaning, and the commentator is drawing out implications. That’s the role of commentators. However, it’s not the role of translators: our job is to state the core, plain meaning clearly, keeping interpretation to a minimum. This comes back to the principle of least meaning.
In sum, I would say that the preponderance of evidence supports the plainer reading. Due to the fact that mindfulness and purity are together in the compound, and that MN 111 and the Abhidharmadipa associate them more closely, perhaps we should favor “pure mindfulness and equanimity”, rather than “pure equanimity and mindfulness”.
The notion that mindfulness is purified “by” equanimity is probably best left to exegesis rather than translation. This is, however, a matter of taste rather than anything definitive. This reading is found in the Jhanavibhanga, which is probably the oldest explicit interpretation of this point that we have, and following its lead is by no means unreasonable.