Chinese Buddhist translations often offer interesting insights into how Indic terms were read in ancient times, but sometimes they are perplexing because they don’t offer much insight at all. One example is a term that has been leaving English translators collectively scratching their heads for quite some time: 奉行.
The trouble stems from two things: First, the term is loaded with connotations in Chinese ranging from it’s use in secular society (“accepting and enacting” [a superior’s orders]) to native exegesis (“receiving and practicing” [a teaching]). It has a literal meaning (“respectfully accept and do”), but it’s also an idiom inside and outside the Chinese Buddhist tradition. The second source of trouble is that it’s difficult to find clear parallels in Indic texts that yield strong evidence of what exactly the term originally translated. It takes some exhaustive searching.
The other day, someone questioned my translation of 奉行 (“handed it down”), “Doesn’t it mean put into practice?” That is the most common understanding, but it doesn’t seem to be correct. The expression that ends Chinese sutras (歡喜奉行) also occurs inside sutras in Āgamas. In those passages, it doesn’t really make sense to read it the way we have been reading it as the sutra closing, but there’s not much context to nail it down exactly. It’s the age old problem of reading idioms without being “in on” what they mean. They are rarely explained unless you ask, and we can’t ask ancient people what they meant. We can only hunt through texts hoping someone else asked what this or that idiom meant at the time. Perhaps a speaker somewhere gave us a hint with context in a story. Or, even better, just told us outright with a clear definition. That’s the legwork of translation: Searching for clear and relevant meanings in usage and then sorting them out in two or more languages.
So, I made an educated guess, like Bingenheimer and the BDK translators did for their MĀ translation, that it means something like “memorize” or “adopt” a teaching or story. For the sutra endings, I ran with that to arrive at “handed it down” (meaning, added the sutra to the oral tradition by remembering it). I threw a dart at the dartboard of meanings and continued translating, intending to come back to that dartboard at a later time because I knew it wasn’t a settled issue.
The other day, I was reminded of that and decided to dig into this again, looking at each place in MĀ that the expression occurs. It wasn’t very enlightening until I starting looking at each Pali parallels for these passages, where I found evidence of what it appears to translate.
There are at least a dozen sutras that use 奉行 as a expression outside of the closing statement of sutras in MĀ. In a few cases, 奉行 is by itself, apparently a verb. But it also occurs in the expression 歡喜奉行 in several sutras. The pattern in these sutras is one in which someone asks a series of questions of the Buddha or a disciple and after each answer, they 歡喜奉行 just like they do at the end of most sutras. So, the context is the same.
The first place I found this pattern was in MĀ 29. Śāriputra asks Kauṣṭhila a dozen questions, and likes the answers so much he 歡喜奉行 each time. Does he rejoice and put the answer into practice? Here’s an example:
Venerable Śāriputra asked, “Venerable Great Kauṣṭhila, isn’t there something that’s a cause for this: A monk achieves a view that attains right view, attains an unbreakable purity in the Dharma, and enters the correct Dharma?”
He answered, “There is. Venerable Śāriputra, it means a monk knows what’s not good and knows the roots of what’s not good. How does he know what’s not good? It means bad physical conduct is not good and bad verbal and mental conduct is not good. This is called knowing what’s not good. How does he know the roots of what’s not good? It means the not-good root of greed and the not-good roots of anger and delusion. This is called knowing the roots of what’s not good. Venerable Śāriputra, if there’s a monk who thus knows what’s not good and the roots of what’s not good, this is called a monk who has achieved a view that attains right view, attains an unbreakable purity in the Dharma, and enters the correct Dharma.”
After he heard this, Venerable Śāriputra commended him: 'Good! Good, Venerable Great Kauṣṭhila!" After commending him, Venerable Śāriputra then rejoiced and 奉行.
What did he do after rejoicing? “Put it into practice”? No, Śāriputra has already achieved this right view of knowing what’s bad conduct. “Handed it down”? That doesn’t make sense either, really. The BDK translators decided on “remembered it well.” It at least fits the context, but that’s all it does. As we’ll see below, it doesn’t fit other passages with this term.
The Pali parallels for MĀ 29 are AN 9.13 and MN 9. Neither of these parallels really captures the content of MĀ 29 directly: AN 9.13 has Sāriputta and Koṭṭhika engaged in a Q&A, but the similarities stop there. MN 9 has Sāriputta as the teacher in a very similar Q&A with some monks. The first time I looked at these parallels, I passed over them. However, the parallel for our Chinese expression 歡喜奉行 is right there under our collective noses in MN 9. After Sāriputta gives an answer, we read:
“Sādhāvuso”ti kho te bhikkhū āyasmato sāriputtassa bhāsitaṃ abhinanditvā anumoditvā āyasmantaṃ sāriputtaṃ uttari pañhaṃ apucchuṃ:
Saying “Good, sir,” those mendicants approved and agreed with what Sāriputta said. Then they asked another question:
This happens a second time later on in the sutta, far fewer than MĀ 29, where Śāriputra responds like this 16 times. But it’s the same expression used in the same context.
Can we find other cases of this? Yes. And this cinches the issue for me; it’s a repeated literary device found in the Āgamas and the Nikāyas, but it’s fairly rare. In MĀ 134, MĀ 172, MĀ 187 and MĀ 210, we find this same pattern of responding to something heard (usually from a teacher) with 歡喜奉行.
In MĀ 134, Śakra questions the Buddha and responds in the same way after getting his answers 10 times:
The God king Śakra heard what the Buddha taught, and he rejoiced and 奉行 it.
This looks remarkably like the closing statements of MĀ. The Pali parallel here is DN 21, where Sakka reacts in a similar way four times:
Attamano sakko devānamindo bhagavato bhāsitaṃ abhinandi anumodi:
Delighted, Sakka approved and agreed with what the Buddha said, saying,
The third parallel is MĀ 172, and again we find the same evidence. In MĀ 172, a monk engages the Buddha in a Q&A, and they rejoice after his answers three times:
The monk said, “Good, good! Indeed, Bhagavān!” Then, when he heard what the Buddha taught, that monk rejoiced and 奉行 it.
The Pali parallel for MĀ 172 is AN 4.186, and it’s very similar to the Āgama. A monk asks the Buddha four questions, and three times he reacts:
“Sādhu, bhante”ti kho so bhikkhu bhagavato bhāsitaṃ abhinanditvā anumoditvā bhagavantaṃ uttari pañhaṃ apucchi:
Saying “Good, sir”, that mendicant approved and agreed with what the Buddha said. Then he asked another question:
The fourth example is MĀ 187. In this case, we don’t have a clear parallel because the Pali negates the two keywords similar to the ones we’re interested in, whereas the Āgama doesn’t. In this sutra, the Buddha explains how a monk should respond to a claim of liberation by another monk in a reasonable way to investigate whether the claim is true. The expression 歡喜奉行 occurs 7 times, not counting the sutra closer.
It was then that the Bhagavān address the monks, "Suppose a monk comes and makes the claim to you that he has attained the knowledge: ‘My births have been ended, the religious life has been established, and the task has been accomplished. I’m no longer subject to existence, and I know it as it really is.’ You should well receive it, rejoicing and 奉行. After well receiving him, rejoicing and 奉行, you should thus question that monk, ‘Good man, the Bhagavān teaches the five acquiring aggregates, which are the acquiring aggregate of form and the acquiring aggregates of feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. Good man, how did you know and see these five acquiring aggregates to attain the knowledge that there’s nothing acquired, the contaminants have ended, and your mind is liberated?’
Here, again, the context makes the reading of 奉行 as “put into practice” or “remember well” obviously wrong. However, “agree” or “approve” makes sense. In the Pali parallel, MN 112, the Buddha says this:
Tassa, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno bhāsitaṃ neva abhinanditabbaṃ nappaṭikkositabbaṃ. Anabhinanditvā appaṭikkositvā pañho pucchitabbo:
You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Rather, you should question them:
Again, the keywords appear to have the same meaning, but the Pali has chosen to negate them. The fifth case that we can find in the Madhyama is MĀ 210. In this sutra, the laywoman Viśākhā has a Q&A session with the nun Dharmadinnā. She responds to the nun’s answers with 歡喜奉行 a total of 29 times. An example:
The laywoman Viśākhā then asked, "Venerable, there’s the expression ‘own body.’ What is this ‘own body’?
The nun Dharmadinnā answered, “The Bhagavān teaches the five acquiring aggregates as one’s own body, which are the the acquiring aggregate of form and the acquiring aggregates of feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. This is called the Bhagavān’s teaching the the five acquiring aggregates.”
After she heard this, laywoman Viśākhā commended her, “Good! Good, Venerable!” After she commended her, Viśākhā rejoiced and 奉行.
The Pali parallel for this sutra is MN 44. Again, we see the same expression, though only twice:
“Sādhayye”ti kho visākho upāsako dhammadinnāya bhikkhuniyā bhāsitaṃ abhinanditvā anumoditvā dhammadinnaṃ bhikkhuniṃ uttariṃ pañhaṃ apucchi:
Saying “Good, ma’am,” Visākha approved and agreed with what Dhammadinnā said. Then he asked another question:
Though I haven’t surveyed the other Chinese Agamas, my conclusion for reading the ending of Chinese sutras is that there were Sanskrit texts that added anumodati (or an equivalent) to abhinandati as an amplifying synonym, and it became a uniform formula for sutra endings in the Chinese tradition. This means that the intended meaning of 奉行 is probably “to approve of” or “to agree with”. Using this term in Chinese perhaps was also intended to add gravitas to the expression since outside of Buddhism it often refers to the agreement expected of subordinates in government and in the military.