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Re-translating the MMK Homage from the Sanskrit

As another post of mine demonstrates, I am taking a deep dive into Nagarjuna’s MMK. I so do not feel qualified to do this… but I figured one way to work on multiple languages at once is to have a text available in the three languages I want to learn and already translated countless times. Anyway, seeking feedback!

Now one of things I am trying to do is preserve the line order in my translation. This is mostly to help facilitate comparison of the three renditions, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan. I did do this in eight lines instead of 4 because poetically I think it looks better (and let’s face it, 16 syllable Sanskrit lines is very unwieldy).

First the Sanskrit:

Anirodham anutpādam,
Anucchedam aśāśvataṃ,
Anekārtham anānātham,
Anāgamam anirgamaṃ.
Yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaṃ,
Prapañcopaśamaṃ śivaṃ,
Desayāmāsa saṃbuddhaḥ,
Taṃ vande vandatāṃ varaṃ.

Now a comparison of other people’s translations (I found the instrumental case challenging, so I placed in bold the translation of the instrumental case):

I greet the best of teachers, the Awakened One
Who taught liberation, the quieting of phenomena,
Interdependent Origination, which is;
Non-ceasing and non-arising, non-momentary and non-permanent,
Non-identical and non-different, non-coming and non-going.
— Louis de La Vallée Poussin (ed. J. W. de Jong)

I salute him, the fully Enlightened, the best of speakers who preached,
The non-ceasing and the non-arising, the non-annihilation and non-permanence,
The non-identity and the non-difference, the non-appearance and non-disappearance,
The dependent arising, the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious.
— David J. Kalupahana

And now for my most preferred translation, both in terms of terminology and in terms of grammar:

The Fully Awakened One who taught
The dependent-arising, the calming of conceptualization, blissful,
[qualified by] non-cessation, non-arising, non-annihilation, non-eternity,
non-one-thing, non-various-things, non- coming, non-going,
I pay homage to him as the best of teachers.”
— Akira Saito

So a few things:

  1. There was no way I could keep Yaḥ in that line without the syntax in English being way too off, so I was forced switch to a passive voice (but hey, I preserved alliteration!).

  2. I dislike bracket translations… and I am not sure why Saito felt the need to bracket what is actually in the original: the instrumental case. And I think, “which is” is clearer.

  3. I tend to like “pacification/pacifying” for “paśama” because there is a whole lineage of practices in Tibetan Buddhism that gets translated as “pacification of suffering” derived from this word in the heart sutra. But I like the alliteration with calming used by Saito.

  4. I struggled with the Anekārtham/anānātham. While I think identity/difference can nicely be applied to social theory analysis (something I like), One/Many is definitely a key part of bundle theory in philosophy and might be clearer. This may be something the Chinese translation got right.

  5. yes I care about the lyricism and poetry when I translate.

Please feel free to challenge me on any of these points.

Now I have a couple of options for translation (The instrumental case is bugging me).

Option 1:

The non-ceasing and the non-arising,
The non-annihilation and the non-eternal,
The non-one and the non-many,
The non-coming and the non-going,
Which is the dependent arising,
The calming of the conceptual, the blissful,
I pay homage to him, the fully Enlightened One,
The best of teachers who had thus taught.

Any preferences between the two, critiques? Also, does anyone have any good free Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit dictionaries in pdf?

Another way I could maybe make the instrumental case clearer would be like this:

Option 2:

By the non-ceasing and the non-arising,
By the non-annihilation and the non-eternal,
By the non-one and the non-many,
By the non-coming and the non-going,
There is the dependent arising:
The calming of the conceptual, the blissful.
I pay homage to him, the fully Enlightened One,
The best of teachers who had thus taught.

http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/BHS%20Dictionary_vol_II.pdf

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So it looks like I totally messed that up. It is in accusative, not instrumental, all modifying dependent arising. Whooops.

Sanskrit is hard to teach yourself. Heh.

So I decided to take inspiration using the word “this” in the Chinese—which I believe is their solution to making the accusative clear.

The non-ceasing, the non-arising,
The non-annihilation, the non-eternal,
The non-other thing, the non-one thing,
The non-coming, the non-going,
This dependent arising,
The calming of the conceptual, the blissful.
I pay homage to him, the fully Enlightened One,
The best of teachers who had thus taught.

I do see how trying to stick to line by line word order loses some of the clarity or the Sanskrit though.

Because really it should be something like this:

I pay homage (or prostrate) to the fully Enlightened One, the best of teachers, he who taught this dependent arising, the non-annihalation, the non-eternal, the non-other thing, the non-one thing, the non-coming, the non-going, which calms the conceptual and brings forth bliss.

I am not sure if keeping the original phrasing order in my translation manages to convey the relationship between the phrases. Though I do think keeping the phrase order can be important. There is something powerful with starting with the list of the unconditioned (Nirvana). The order of presentation of ideas is important.

The Chinese translation kept the order (apart from flipping the pairs):

不生亦不滅,
不常亦不斷,
不一亦不異,
不來亦不出。
能說是因緣,
善滅諸戲論,
我稽首禮佛,
諸說中第一。

My line by line translation:

The non-arising and the non-ceasing,
The non-permanence and the non-severance,
The non-one and the non-other,
The non-arriving and the non-going.
To the one who can explain this causality—
Good at extinguishing all discursiveness—
I bow my head respectfully to the Buddha,
Foremost among speakers.

Note I needed help for this use of 中/ zhōng as I had never seen this usage when I took Chinese in college.

Also I was unsure if I can translate 因緣 as dependent arising. When I looked these words together up in the dictionary, I got:

  1. chance; opportunity. 2. predestined; predestined relationship; fate; destiny. 3. Buddhism: hetu and prataya; principal and secondary causes; 4. chain of cause and effect.

I went for “chain of cause and effect” here and used “causality” as did Christopher Bocking, the only one I know to have translated this text from the Chinese. Can someone tell me if 因緣 is consistently used for “dependent arising” and therefore translatable as such?

The Tibetan sacrificed the line by line order to fit their grammar:

གང་གིས་རྟེན་ཅིང་འབྲེལ་པར་འབྱུང།
འགག་པ་མེད་པ་སྐྱེ་མེད་པ།
ཆད་པ་མེད་པ་རྟག་མེད་པ།
འོང་པ་མེད་པ་འགྲོ་མེད་པ།
ཐ་དད་དོན་མིན་དོན་གཅིག་མིན།
སྤྲོས་པ་ཉེར་ཞི་ཞི་བསྟན་པ།
རྫོགས་པའི་སངས་རྒྱས་སྨྲ་རྣམས་ཀྱི།
དམ་པ་དེ་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་ལོ།།

Note, I am mildly confused by the grammar of the last three lines, but here is my line by line attempt:

Whatever is dependently arisen is
Non-ceasing, non-arising,
Non-annihilated, non-eternal,
Non-coming, non-going,
Neither different nor same—
The calming of elaborations—explained thus,
By the perfect Buddha, who taught.
Homage to the most excellent teacher.

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My dictionary gives hetupratyaya (“causes and conditions”) not paṭicca-samuppāda for 因緣

Here’s a Chinese-Sanskrit dictionary and Chinese Buddhist dictionary

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Basically, it’s a postfix preposition meaning “in” or “among.” So, the prepositional phrase is 諸說中 = “among speakers.” Normally, we’d get an indication that the verb 說 is being turned into a person with the postfix 者. So, the line should read:

諸說(者)中第一

Subordination word order is the reverse of English and often unmarked: “The best (第一) (of those) among speakers (諸說者).”

There is a classical grammar word to show subordination that’s implied here: 之. If we add that in, we get:

諸說(者)中(之)第一

The optional nature of grammatical words is what makes it difficult sometimes to read and translate properly. Classical Chinese relies on word order when the writer feels the relationships are simple enough. The slipperiness of part of speech is tricky sometimes, too, since many of these characters are like English words that can be sometimes nouns, sometimes verbs, sometimes adjectives. But unlike English, the only indication we get is word order and how terms usually relate to each other. So, fluency is critical to reading classical Chinese properly. (Hmm, that sounds circular! Classical Chinese is fun like that!) It takes some practice to get a handle on what they usually are to decipher complex clauses.

Another thing I’ll add is that 不 is normally a negation of verbs and adjectives but not nouns. It’s not an absolute rule, but it’s pretty consistent. If the list of negatives were nouns, then 非 would be the more typical negation word. So, normally, I would read 不生亦不滅 as “not arising and not ceasing.” Or, we could combine 亦不 to make a “neither … nor” statement in English: “Neither arising nor ceasing.” Either way, though, it’s a little weird for 不 to negate nouns.

Yes. Sometimes context makes “causes and conditions” sound better, but it’s also dependent arising as a concept.

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First of all, it is worth noting the more recent translation from Sanskrit MMK by Siderits and Katsura (2013):

I salute the Fully Enlightened One, the best of orators,
who taught the doctrine of dependent origination, according to which
there is neither cessation nor origination, neither annihilation nor the eternal,
neither singularity nor plurality, neither the coming nor the going
[of any dharma, for the purpose of nirvāṇa characterized by]
the auspicious cessation of hypostatization.

I do not get what you noted about the meaning of 中 in 諸說中第一 (The best among all the orators). Yet if you have never seen such usage of 中 as among, then I guess you have not been interested enough in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國志演義) in which famous general Lu Bu(呂布) and his steed Red Hare(赤兔) are referred as “人中呂布, 馬中赤兔” (Amongst Men Lu Bu; Amongst Horses Red Hare). The phare itself is recorded in the document of the 3rd century, slightly more than a century before Kumarajiva translated MMK into Chinese.

For your question of 因緣, in short; yes. 因緣 is the direct translation of hetu-pratyaya, and, is one of the frequent translations of Pratītyasamutpāda. The term itself is a very invention of translator-monks of Buddhists Texts in the 2nd century. Like many other Buddhist terms, the translation is so elegant that the term has been used as a general word for cause and effect.

Kumarajiva translated Pratītyasamutpāda to 因緣, 因緣法, and 衆因緣生法 in MMK. Maybe the real problem for contemporary Chinese was, he also used 因緣 for translations of other Sanskrit terms in MMK: pratyayāḥ, prayojana, and of course, hetu-pratyaya. So the translation was not 1-to-1, and that might be why later Xuanzang (玄奘) translated Pratītyasamutpāda to 緣起, a direct translation of the term.

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Well the only language I have actually studied formally is Tibetan (for three years). Albeit that was ten years ago, so even that involves brushing up. Plus I have only kept up with liturgical texts and have only worked on translating Sadhanas. So brushing up on philosophical texts is a whole other ball game.

I only took one year of modern Chinese (twice, years apart—the second time in 2008). And never took a Sanskrit or Pali class. I just have a lot of covid related pandemic time on my hands. So decided that I will try to teach myself, with guidance along the way. Downloaded a flashcard app and I am making flashcards as I go through the text. One of the things I can do is not bother to learn to write the characters. That is why I gave up on Chinese both times!

Definitely not trying to write the definitive translation, as I am really not qualified. But hopefully I will get to a place where this text becomes smoother for me to understand and I can improve the translation as I go. And maybe once I finish Nagarjuna—years down the road—I can look at Jizang and Mipham’s commentaries. Which really are the main reasons I am interested in doing this.

Of the classic novels, I only read Journey to the West, in translation.

This is one of those cases where having the Sanskrit and Tibetan will help. I don’t want to assume that either the Tibetan or the Chinese were based off this Sanskrit text. But when two texts agree and the Chinese seems to agree but is ambiguous, I can take an educated guess on which way he meant it.

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I apologize for the possible offensiveness of my question in reply. I never intended it. However, my choice of words was not careful. I thought that there is a latent meaning beneath the note.

I do know nothing about Jizang’s commentaries on the Great Three Treatises. All I can say that is it would be worthwhile If you are interested in the Early Chinese Madhyamaka based on the Three Treatises. Why did Chinese end up preferring Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra (大智度論) to the Three? Perhaps you would find a cool answer! For Mipham the Great, I have awe of his works and his philosophical project though I am not quite familiar of Tibetan Madhyamaka and never learned the Tibetan language.

Ironically, as you know, that is based on Xuanzang’s journey to India.

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@FelixC and @cdpatton

One of the challenges I find in regards to the translation ambiguities of the Chinese (using the same term for multiple Sanskrit terms for example) is that it’s tough to make the choice of whether to remove the ambiguities when translating into English or to preserve them. The question I would want to ask myself would be, was this ambiguous to the learned Chinese reader of the text given the nexus of texts they had access to (sutras, Abhidharma texts, etc.)? But this would require a much deeper knowledge of Chinese Buddhism on my part. So like if Jizang is commenting on the MMK and makes it clear he understood “dependent arising” versus “cause and effect” versus “causal condition,” (to stick to this example), then I would feel good in correcting the ambiguity in translating it into English. But I have no means to know this at my current stage. I suspect if I manage to get that far in my studies to read Jizang, I will be editing my translation a lot along the way.

None taken. Just wanted to clarify why I don’t even have the basics down yet.

My biggest interest is in Hua Yen. Though I am also learning to appreciate Tientai. But early Chinese Madhyamaka was important for the development of both of these schools. And really, I am also am just really sad at how little access we have to the great Chinese commentaries and how people don’t know how much they rival the Tibetans in their scholarship and understanding. I wish we were in a place where we could place Mipham, Tsongkhapa, Gorampa, Jizang, Zhiyi, Zongmi, Fazang, etc. on the same page when talking about the finer points of Sarvastivada, Madhyamaka, Yogachara, and Buddha Nature.

What I really wish we knew was who wrote that text. From what I understand, the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra and the Abhisamayālaṅkāra (the tibetan’s preferred madhyamakan Abhidharma text) are commentaries on the same sutra. It would be fascinating to compare these texts and the overlap/divergence in the understanding of Mādhyamaka of these texts and the divergent development of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism that these preferences enjoined. This may be simplistic, but this where I see the divergences:

Mādhyamaka:

  • Chinese: Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra
  • Tibetans: Abhisamayālaṅkāra, Chandrakirti, Shantarakshita (for Mipham)

Yogachara

  • Chinese: Vasubhandu, Asanga, Dharmapala, Dignaga
  • Tibetans: Vasubhandu, (sometimes) Asanga, Dharmakirti

Buddhanature

  • Chinese: Faith in Mahāyāna
  • Tibetans: Uttaratantra

(Separating these out as three schools is heuristic and somewhat arbitrary here, as both the Tibetans and Chinese all mix them up, and in uniquely different ways from thinker to thinker. Plus Indian school association of these texts are hotly disputed in Tibet. And Buddha Nature was never a separate school in India, but in my opinion a part of later developments in Yogachara that later Madhyamakans, namely Tibetans, incorporated into their works).

Anyway, I am getting far off topic. I want to keep this thread open for future issues in translating MMK verses.

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I think the problem with the MMK verses is that they are really abstract and offer little context by themselves. So, a Chinese reader at the time could well misunderstand them if they were new to this type of philosophy. This is probably why Kumarajiva included a commentary to help with interpretation. Looking at the commentary for the initial verses, it says:

佛欲斷如是等諸邪見令知佛法故。先於聲聞法中說十二因緣。又為已習行有大心堪受深法者。以大乘法說因緣相。所謂一切法不生不滅不一不異等。畢竟空無所有。

Because he wanted to stop such types of wrong view and help people understand the Buddha teaching, the Buddha first taught the twelve [links of] dependent origination to the disciples. He also taught the nature of dependent origination with the Mahayana teachings for those who were trained, had great minds, and were capable of receiving the profound teaching; that is, that all things don’t arise, don’t cease, aren’t identical, aren’t different, etc. They are ultimately empty, nothing at all.

It goes on to discuss dependent origination in the context of Agama and Mahayana teachings. It seems pretty clear that 因緣 refers to 十二因緣, or dependent origination.

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