I was looking through SA 296 when I came across an interesting line in the translation posted at SuttaCentral by Choong Mun-keat & prepared by Bhikkhu Sujato, who I hope might have a personal insight into the subject matter of my questioning, as I don’t know what “prepared by” entails.
The line in question is this: [quote]“Whether a Buddha arises in the world, or not, this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma, the element of dharma. [/quote]
Which in the Chinese is:[quote]若佛出世，若未出世，此法常住，法住法界，[/quote]
I am hardly one to accuse someone more qualified than I of misreading a text and producing a potentially misleading translation, as I am not of resolute persuasion that my speculations are of definite assuredness, however there are some things in Choong Mun-keat’s translation that make me puzzled, and I was hoping to share those hopefully with people more qualified than myself to see if they agree with my assessment or can show me where I go wrong.
The Chinese has 4 blocks of characters separated by commas- the English translation has 5 of these. The first two blocks of texts correspond to the Chinese more or less perfectly, the Chinese is slightly more detailed than the English in the second block (若未出世 means “if not-yet born” rather than “or not” but that is a minor point). The two things that puzzle me are the splitting of the 3rd block of characters into two separate clauses in the English, as well as the rendering of the word 法界 (dharmadhātu).
The translator splits 此法常住 into two different clauses in the English: “this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma,”. If you assign one English character per Chinese word, for a word-for-word rendering (this method does not produce “solidly readable” English translations, but does allow one to “get inside” the text to try to see it on its own ground rather than always in comparison), and if you have a knowledge of Classical Chinese grammar, one gets something like this:
ruò fó chū shì, ruò wèi chū shì, cǐ fǎ cháng zhù, fǎ zhù fǎ jiè,
If Buddha [is] born, if not-yet born, these dharmāḥ [are] permanent/constant [in their] dwelling[s], [these] dharmāḥ dwell [in] dharmadhātu[/quote]
“Dwelling/Dwellings/Dwell” here can also be read in the sense of "[proper] place/standing/habitation, rather than literally “dwelling” somewhere.
I am wondering why dharmadhātu was not translated as dharmadhātu. In its modern Mahāyāna usage, its interpretation is principally coloured by the manner in which it is used in the Avataṃsakasūtra, to refer to a tathātā/yathābhūtaṃ state of “reality (viewed) as-it-is/without delusion”, which also informs the function of tathātā-discourse in Tiāntāi, Zen, etc.
However, dharmadhātu appears in Pāli literature (and other EBTs?) as “dhammadhātu”, where it has a variety of meanings that are, as a whole, not easily paired down to simply to referring to any one particularly definable “element of dharma/dharmāḥ”.
In Theravāda orthodoxy, the term dhammadhātu generally refers via proxy to the (pseudo-?)omniscience of the Buddha. Is this an interpretation that studiers of EBTs disagree with? If so, has that informed the translation choice of “element of dharmāḥ” rather than “dharmadhātu”?
Similarly I am also wondering why the 3rd block of Chinese characters was split into two separate clauses for English-language rendering. Why is “此法常住” translated as “this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma,” when the word “status of dharma” seems absent from the Chinese text.
Similarly, why have the plurals been render as singular? The Chinese appeares to read 此法, meaning “these [many] dharmāḥ”, meaning that this particular sequence of characters refer to the dharmāḥ spoken of in the main body of the text before and after this sequence of characters, which are described as: [quote]此等諸法, or directly “this/these plural-marker myriad dharma/dharmāḥ”[/quote], not the Buddha’s teaching on on dependant origination (which is what it refers to in the Nikāya parallel). This āgama actually never seems to use 法/dharma in the sense of “the Teaching of the Buddha” and goes out of its way to doubly insignify the plurality of the dharmāḥ it speaks about (等諸).
The Chinese and English rendering seem to gloss over a subtle difference in the characterization and classifications of the dharma-theory presented in the text, as the meaning of the āgama to an English speaker, probably in the interest of bringing it into line with its corresponding Nikāya recension, seems to be partially harmonized, when in actuality the two of them are arguing for a subtly different interpretation of dhamma-theory expounded by the Buddha as related to dependent origination. This might make sense given that this is a Sarvāstivāda text, and their resencion of Buddhavacana implies a subtly differently interpreted/presented dhamma-theory, as evidenced by their later divergent Abhidharmāḥ. So I am wondering what the decision may have been to render these plurals as singular, changing the usage of 法/dharma from its “phenomena” meaning to its “the Teaching” meaning.
Anyways that is a summation of some of my points of confusion regarding this āgama translation.