In recent days I have been lucky enough to make some significant progress in my translation work, as the suttas have not posed any major difficulties. It looks like that run is at an end, as today I am translating MN 121, the Cūḷasuññata Sutta, or Shorter Discourse on Emptiness. This poses a number of interesting issues in translation, which I will discuss here.
Following my usual practice, I will give some examples of previous translations, and try to show why I have reservations about them. I like to take this chance to remind us all that this is not out of a desire to criticize, but simply to establish what the problem is. In particular, I usually quote Ven Bodhi’s translation, not because they are specially deserving of criticism, but because they are clearly the best available, yet even they contain many things about which one might have genuine reservations.
MN 121 begins with Ānanda remarking on the Buddha’s meditation on emptiness, which is followed by an extensive description of this meditation. This consists of a very pragmatic approach, envisaging what is present and what is absent, starting with obvious physical things like elephants and horses, and gradually moving to the “emptiness” of more and more subtle dimensions of reality. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with it, I would suggest reading it first. Unfortunately we do not yet have a translation on SC, however several translations may be found at Obo.
The key, I think, to this text is a series of statements that contrast the emptiness of what is not there with the “oneness’ of what is there. Let’s look at a typical example, with Ven Bodhi’s translation.
bhikkhu amanasikaritvā gāmasaññaṃ, amanasikaritvā manussasaññaṃ, araññasaññaṃ paṭicca manasi karoti ekattaṃ.
a bhikkhu—not attending to the perception of village, not attending to the perception of people—attends to the singleness dependent on the perception of forest.
Now, the first part of this sentence is clear enough, but what is meant by “attends to the singleness dependent on the perception of forest”? A quick glance reveals that this phrase is handled very differently by different translators.
- Horner: attends to solitude grounded on the perception of forest.
- Chalmers: envisages solitude through the idea of a forest.
- Ñāṇamoḷi: gives attention to the single state (of non-voidness) dependent on (the presence of) perception of forest
The word ekatta is sometimes used in the sense of “solitariness”, and it is understandable how the earlier translators might have adopted this. However given that the sutta continues to states of deep meditation, clearly this is not adequate. A more relevant use of ekatta is in the case of “unified perception” which is characteristic of certain forms of deities, and of course, reminiscent of samādhi.
Ekatta is used throughout the text as a distinct philosophical term in opposition to suññatā. This is a major philosophical statement, and one that should be clearly manifest in any translation. Emptiness, of course, came to be known as one of the signature philosophies of Buddhism, and much of it has its roots in this text.
It is, like so many things in the EBTs, in direct contrast with the Upanishadic doctrine. The Upanishads constantly move towards a non-dual doctrine, affirming the oneness of things as expressions of the world-soul of Brahmā. The point of this sutta is to show that any such oneness, no matter how peaceful, always contains some degree of suffering because of the oneness itself. I don’t mean to imply that the contrast with the oneness of the Upanishads is the only context where the notion of emptiness is relevant, merely that it is foremost here.
I would thus propose that throughout ekatta be translated by “oneness”, in order to bring out this philosophical contrast with emptiness. For the current passage we might have:
a mendicant—ignoring the perception of the village and the perception of humans—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.
A little further down, we have for example:
They understand: ‘There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present.
This brings us to another very striking idiom, one that so far as I am aware, has escaped comment. Ven Bodhi’s translation again:
Evampissa esā, ānanda, yathābhuccā avipallatthā parisuddhā suññatāvakkanti bhavati.
Thus, Ānanda, this is his genuine, undistorted, pure descent into voidness.
The subject of the sentence is suññatāvakkanti, literally:
so there is for him this genuine, undistorted, pure avakkanti of emptiness.
Now, the etymology of avakkanti is ava = “down”, kanti = “go”, hence “descent”. But it’s rarely if ever used in such a literal way. Various forms of the word mean to “leave”, “arrive at” and so on.
But this form is only used one context, that of rebirth. It specifically means the “conception” in the sense of rebirth, as applied to either the embryo, to nāmarūpa, or to the five aggregates, etc. I’m not suggesting that it has the same sense here; but the verbal echo is quite noticeable.
I propose we translate:
That’s how there is this genuine, undistorted, pure birth of emptiness in them.
Or more idiomatically:
That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.
This discourse is certainly a challenge for my goal of producing an idiomatic English version. I find myself typing a phrase like this:
the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.
And I realize, well, that’s just the way it is!