I wrote this short essay about six years ago, after translating SA 379 and reading through the other versions of the Dharmacakra Sūtra in Chinese. I had more details in the original, but today I cut it down to just the essentials. Maybe at some point I will do a proper rewrite and expansion, but I'm not sure it would be so useful.
In this essay, the Chinese editions of the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra will be outlined. Various differences will be hilighted, as well as their implications on the understanding of basic doctrines in Buddhism, and their place within several of the Indian monastic sects.
I. Chinese editions of the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra
The Chinese Buddhist canon as preserved in the Taishō Tripiṭaka includes a number of different translations of the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra, each made separately over the course of approximately five to six hundred years. Each of these translations is dateable within twenty-five years, and every translator is identifiable. These versions come in three different forms: translations made specifically for the sūtra, translations in the āgamas, and translations incorporated into the vinayas. There are almost certainly other versions in the Chinese canon in addition to the following, but these are the Dharmacakra sūtras that have been located by the author:
- An Shigao, 148-170 CE, in a separate Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra.
Taishō volume 2, number 109 《佛說轉法輪經》
- Dharmanandi and Saṃghadeva, 397 CE, in the Ekottarika Āgama.
Taishō volume 2, number 125, sūtra 24.5. 《增壹阿含經》
- Buddhayaśas and Fonian, 405 or 408 CE, in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.
Taishō volume 22, number 1428, fascicle 32. 《四分律》
- Vimalākṣa, 413-? CE, in the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya.
Taishō volume 23, number 1435, fascicle 60. 《十誦律》
- Buddhajīva, 423-424 CE, in the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya
Taishō volume 22, number 1421, fascicle 15. 《彌沙塞部和醯五分律》
- Guṇabhadra, 435-443 CE, in the extant Saṃyukta Āgama
Taishō volume 22, number 99, sūtra 379. 《雜阿含經》
- Yijing, 710 CE, in a separate Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra
Taishō volume 2, number 110. 《佛說三轉法輪經》
Of the various translations, the version in the Saṃyukta Āgama looms large over the rest, since this āgama can be considered a parallel collection to the Theravādin Saṃyutta Nikāya, and the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra has traditionally been located in this collection. There is also a version of the text that has been incorporated into the Ekottarika Āgama as part of a larger sūtra.
Scholars have long considered the possibilities of comparing the Pali and Chinese language collections, in hope of learning more about pre-sectarian Buddhism, yet the vast majority of the āgama teachings have not been translated into English. This is presumably due to the size and difficulty of such a task. These, along with all other large Chinese collections, remain in waiting for a later era.
The versions of the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra contained in the vinayas are not complete sūtras with the proper framing, but instead are the main contents, which have been incorporated into a larger narrative. These are reasonably complete and valuable as well because they can be very clearly identified with one particular school. By including these, we can have examples of the Sarvāstivāda, Dharmaguptaka, and Mahīśāsaka versions from the fifth century CE.
II. A translation from the Saṃyukta Āgama
(Removed. Now on SuttaCentral.)
What we have in this Saṃyukta Āgama version is not simply a slight variation, but almost a completely different sūtra. The three turnings and twelve motions of the Dharma Wheel are mentioned in the Pali as well, yet they seem to correspond more with the contents of this Chinese version. In this Dharmacakra teaching from the Saṃyukta Āgama, we have three clearly-divided sections of the discourse, with principles for the Four Noble Truths in each of the three sections.
III. A survey of Dharmacakra doctrines
To clarify the matter further, ideally each of the Chinese editions of the Dharmacakra would be translated into English and provided in example, along with detailed analysis of each section of the text. However, as a simpler first step we may begin by simply providing an overview of the contents, which should suffice and serve others well who simply wish to understand a basic outline of the differences.
From this overview, others can then approach these versions of the Dharmacakra with a general understanding of their respective doctrines. The criteria used for presenting the various differences centers around the essential principles taught in the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra, as they are commonly accepted in the Pali version. The existence of five main doctrines that will be checked for in each of the extant sūtras, are the following:
- Two Extremes: The pursuit of sensual pleasures, and the unhelpful asceticism of self-mortification.
- Middle Way: The way of avoiding the two extremes, that has been realized by the Buddha.
- Four Noble Truths: Mention of the names of the Four Noble Truths.
- Definitions: Explanations of the Four Noble Truths (suffering as birth, aging, disease, death, etc.).
- Noble Eightfold Path: Mention of the Noble Eightfold Path as the way to achieve realization.
The contents of the extant Dharmacakra texts include the following doctrines (this was originally a table but has been converted into a list):
- An Shigao: Two Extremes, Middle Way, Four Noble Truths, Definitions, Eightfold Noble Path
- Mahīśāsaka Vinaya: Two Extremes, Middle Way, Four Noble Truths, Definitions, Eightfold Noble Path
- Dharmaguptaka Vinaya: Two Extremes, Middle Way, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Noble Path
- Ekottarika Āgama: Four Noble Truths, Definitions, Eightfold Noble Path
- Saṃyukta Āgama: Four Noble Truths
- Sarvāstivāda Vinaya: Four Noble Truths
- Yijing: Four Noble Truths
An examination of these various texts shows that the only constant doctrine found through each of them is the Four Noble Truths. The versions fall roughly into two camps: those that contain the Four Noble Truths to be contemplated, and those that contain many extra doctrines and explanations. Of the two main groupings, the versions that contain the additional doctrines vary more widely in their contents.
An Shigao’s translation of the text is remarkably similar to that of the Pali, showing that in the second century CE, a relatively common formula linking the five doctrines had already been compiled. This version also has several other features, such as the existence of 1000 bhikṣus and a multitude of devas. After hearing the Buddha speak the Dharmacakra discourse, all 1000 bhikṣus become arhats. This is the only translation that includes any mention of 1000 bhikṣus and their attainment of arhatship. The Mahīśāsaka version is very similar to that of the An Shigao translation, which shows that An Shigao would have been in doctrinally close proximity to the Mahīśāsaka school, which is likely given that An Shigao was considered Parthian. However, the Mahīśāsaka version has no mention of 1000 bhikṣus or of arhatship. It seems likely that a detail such as this would have been more likely to have been added in An Shigao’s independent edition of the text, simply due to the nature of the transmission of short, independent texts.
The Dharmaguptaka version contains most of the five doctrines, but lacks any definitions for the Four Noble Truths. Instead, it contains explanations in the vein of “This is the Noble Truth of Suffering: a teaching which has never been heard before, and which is to be contemplated.” It also contains instructions for contemplating the Noble Truths to sever knowledge or awareness of other truths such as the Noble Truth of Suffering. The Ekottarika Āgama version has content similar to that of the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya, but without any mention of the Two Extremes or the Middle Path.
The versions of the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra in the Saṃyukta Āgama, the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, and the Yijing translation, are largely consistent in contents. Each starts with the simple statements shared with those of the Dharmaguptaka school, and then enter into discussion of contemplation of each of the truths to achieve realization. The text is generally cryptic and repetitive, and these repetitions of a common refrain break the text into several sections. When the occurrences of the truths to be contemplated are counted, they number twelve, and may be divided very cleanly into three phases of the teaching. This corresponds well with the following text that mentions three turnings and twelve practices or aspects of the Dharma Wheel. In these editions there is no mention of Two Extremes, a Middle Path, Four Noble Truth definitions, or a Noble Eightfold Path.
IV. Bodhi and Nirvāṇa
Although we have found that the Theravādin version of the Dharmacakra contains many elements in common with the An Shigao version, we do find differences unique to the Theravāda school. Most significantly, we find that the common refrain is:
... produces vision, knowledge, tranquility, understanding, Bodhi, and Nibbāna.
Few would second-guess this sequence, since it seems to conform to the basic understanding we have of Buddhism. However, it is notable that vision, knowledge, understanding, and Bodhi all reflect mental realization; however, tranquility and Nirvāṇa are more often considered states. Suspicions of these two items are found to be correct when we examine all seven Chinese versions, where these two are not present at all. Instead we find four levels of realization:
... produces vision, knowledge, understanding, and Bodhi.
In all extant Chinese texts from the other early Buddhist schools, the Buddha is teaching the five bhikṣus that the final result of the Four Noble Truths is realization of Bodhi. The overwhelming evidence from the Chinese editions shows that they were being taught the way to Bodhi.
This is an important matter that impacts our basic understanding of Buddhism, and on assumptions made about the basic goals of early Buddhist practice. In these statements we can see some divergence between the Theravāda school and the schools prevalent in India. Why was Nirvāṇa added as a separate item?
V. Āgama assignment implications
It has been conventionally thought that the extant Saṃyukta Āgama belongs to the Sarvāstivāda school. Since the versions of the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra match between the Saṃyukta Āgama and the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, the evidence seems to support a very close relationship between the two, and most likely a common origin in the same school. Because Yijing translated numerous texts of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school, we can tentatively place his translation in with the Mūlasarvāstivāda or Sarvāstivāda schools. If the text was indeed Mūlasarvāstivādin in origin, it is evidence that this school did not add anything significant in this fundamental discourse as it had been preserved by the Sarvāstivāda school at least 300 years earlier.
The Ekottarika Āgama has in the past often been attributed to the Sarvāstivāda school. However, in more recent years an origin in the Mahāsāṃghika branch has become a more favorable explanation. The contents of the Dharmacakra doctrine that this āgama includes are in fact different from that of the Sarvāstivāda school, and also markedly different from those of the Mahīśāsaka and the Dharmaguptaka. Unfortunately we cannot clearly assign it to any school yet, and the extant Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya does not appear to contain any Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra, unfortunately. We can therefore tentatively state that the text may yet have a Mahāsāṃghika origin, but almost certainly does not belong to the Sarvāstivāda school.
VI. Issues of Indian composition
In other cultures and literary traditions, there are varying ways that texts are modified. However, in Buddhist works authored in India, there tend to be two main patterns that are easily observable when comparing various Chinese translations with extant Sanskrit manuscripts. One is the tendency to add more sections of text and explanations. This means that Buddhist works tend to grow over time, sometimes to enormous proportions. The other is to change relatively little in the process of adding the text. Some transitions therefore appear quite jarring, and others seem to make little sense. However, it does appear that they were added for various reasons, often in response to questions or disputes.
What is somewhat rare in Buddhist works, is for sections of text to simply be removed. Therefore, we can reasonably rely on understanding the differences in Buddhist texts as being the product of additions, combinations, and minor modifications.
There is no real reason why the Dharmacakra should be exempt from the general patterns of Indian Buddhist composition in being substantially cumulative. In light of differences between the various recensions, there is little choice but to assume that the common material is pre-sectarian, and that differences largely reﬂect later additions.
As for the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra itself, it does seem to the author that the version as it exists in the Sarvāstivāda recensions is probably closest to a hypothetical "earliest" version. Of the variations that exist, it is the most doctrinally independent, the simplest, and the most internally consistent.
VIII. A few notes from 2016
I know that Bhikkhu Analayo has written at length about these texts, but I had not read his articles when I first wrote this. After reading the articles, though, I did not find some of his ideas to be convincing with regard to the shorter and simpler versions. It seems that whenever genuine differences came up, he would say that while the material was missing from the simpler versions, it could be found in other texts (usually later texts). Therefore, the smaller (older) versions were likely just "extracts" from the larger (later) versions.
I cannot agree with this line of reasoning. If we were to take that route, we would simply assume that the longest texts in the Buddhist canon were the earliest, and the shorter versions were simply extracts from the longer "originals." Yet we know that almost the opposite was the case. The Saṃyukta is now widely recognized as the earliest collection. Without good reason, we should take not assume that the smaller texts therein are simply "extracts" of the longer and more complex texts of later collections.
I am probably fixating too much on this one point, but at least this was the big thing that really stuck out in my mind. Regardless, I hope you found at least the above short summary of doctrines between the different versions to be interesting.