The Unique Phrases of Qú Tán, the "Gotama of the Āgamāḥ"

This post is adapted from another thread on DhammaWheel to suit the purposes of this forum.

EDIT: As I suspected there would be, there are indeed some mistakes (and some bad ones!) in this amateur essay. They are addressed in the discussion section.

Older version here.

Greetings all!

When the old masters were tasked with the distribution of the Dhamma in the lands east of modern India, Nepal, etc, namely, China, they elected to, at some point in their dispensation to the Chinese, translate the discourses of the Buddha, that is to say, the foundations of the Buddhadharma, into Classical Chinese, the language of commerce, trade, and “high culture” in the Far East since ancient times. The result was the collection of Buddhavacana we now call the āgamāḥ, or “agamas” as is more common an English rendering of the plural.

Classical Chinese is a unique language, as is every product of the human linguistic inventive drive, but of all other contemporary languages of the time, it could not possibly have been more different than the classical Indic languages of India, namely, Sanskrit, Prākrit, Pāli, etc.[quote]Literary Chinese was the principal language of written communications in East Asia from ancient times until the early twentieth century. It grew first out of the earliest examples of written language in China- the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang 商 dynasty and the bronze inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou [周] dynasties- and can be read in archaic form in the earliest strata of “Confucian” classics. By the fifth century B.C.E. the language had begun to stabilize and to develope systematic syntactic and grammatical rules. Over the next two centuries the first great flowering of Chinese writing occurred, exemplified in the compendia of the great philosophers (e.g., Mencius 孟子, Xúnzǐ 荀子, Zhuāngzǐ 莊子, and Hánfēizǐ 韓非子) and the early historical narratives […].

Because of the complexity of the character-writing system, literary Chinese evolved a flexible and open-ended grammar with few rules and essentially no inflections. Understanding a passage depends not on the previous mastery of a grammatical system but on the ability to intuit the thrust of an argument or a narrative as well as the knowledge of the past usage of particular characters. Consequently, in premodern times, learning literary Chinese never involved learning a grammatical “system” (as learning Latin or Sanskrit did, for example); rather, it involved memorizing “classic” texts and absorbing their rhythms. These ancient texts formed templates for later composition.[/quote](Paul Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, XI-XII)

I would like to focus our collective internet spyglasses, if others will humour me, on both the wonderful and highly skillful cultural adaptions translators have used to transmit the Buddhadhamma, as well as some particular problems that arise with the issue of such adaptive translations, and one instance in which it is manifest in the real historical world of Buddhism as a religious movement. I am not trying to be unduly critical of the Dhamma-in-translation in general, nor am I trying to imply that the Dhamma cannot or should not be translated, after all, without the Dhamma-in-translation, I myself would be lacking exposure to it.

When the translators of the Indic Buddhavacana chose to localize the texts so that the Chinese could have better access to them, they made certain adaptions and borrowings from pre-existing Chinese philosophical and religious concepts, probably on the advice of people informed about such Chinese concepts. Now whether these Chinese translations were originally intended as introductory Dhamma-initiation texts for Chinese monastics, the assumption being they would eventually learn an Indic language, or if they were intended to be authoritative “true translations” of the Dhamma, one cannot know, I don’t think. Regardless of their original function and the intentions of their translators, these Chinese texts, for a great deal of time, served as the only extant circulation of the dispensation of the “historical Buddha”, if you will, and thus were treated as authoritative original documents when the Chinese were acquainting themselves with Buddhism.

For long periods of time, historically, it has been the case in China that fluency in Indic Dhamma-languages was little known, partially because of the widespread linguistic hegemony of Classical Chinese in the literary spheres of East Asia, and partially because of the need to “make Buddhism Chinese” to gain substantial numbers of converts, sometimes by focussing less on its traditional “Indian” cultural presentations. This also gives context to the syncretic borrowing of linguistic expressions used by the āgama translators from the general religious vocabulary of China at the time (informed by traditional religions/rites, Confucianism, Daoism, etc). It was only during the high ages of late Indian Mahāyāna Vajrayāna esotericism that knowledge of Indian languages (Sanskrit) once again became commonplace in East Asia, before falling into obscurity after the collapse of mainstream Chinese Tantrism. This late blooming of Indian influence can be seen persisting despite its mainstream collapse in the continued existence of the Shingon school today in Japan, for instance. That is the historical linguistic situation as I understand it. I am no-doubt skipping over important things, and probably misexplaining some, that more informed history-enthusiasts than I will no-doubt correct me on.

I would like to draw some attention to, in particular, the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit asaṁskṛtaprabhāvitādharma, or “unconditionedness-influenced-dharma” (sorry, I do not know the Pāli here), or as it is more commonly rendered, asaṃskṛtadharma, or “unconditioned dharma”. The translators of the āgamāḥ chose an interesting and peculiar way to render this in Chinese. They chose the expression "無為法 / wú wèi fǎ ".

The translation of the dharma component is straightforward: 法/fǎ, meaning law, principal, rule, but also meaning law, principal, rule, of reality, allowing it to cover both the “teaching” and “phenomenon” meanings of the word dharma. The concept of “unconditioned”, however, was not so simple to translate into Chinese. What the translators elected to use, was “無為/wú wéi”, a concept borrowed from the methodology/soteriology of Daoism. The sage cultivates wú wéi and wú wéi is the nature of the disposition of the sage who abides in the Dào.

Taken on its own, 無為 literally means “lack [of] action” or “lacking action”, and it could also mean “non-action” or “non-doing”. Additionally it could be validly interpreted as referring to a dharma/法 that lacks “doing-quality” or “actionable-quality”. In Daoism, 無為 is a state of harmony, via “non-doing” and nonconceptualizing, where one is in harmony with the Dào/道, literally translated as “path”, but interpreted often as the universal principal and true expression of reality (Daoism is a very vast ranging sea of schools, so I am sure that there are Daoists traditions that my explanation does not apply to at all) that is blissful, passionless, and lacks conceptual identity. It seems that the translators of the āgamāḥ realized a certain kinship between the notions of “the Unconditioned” and 無為, and chose to borrow the terminology to express what an “unconditioned dharma” is, (i.e. Nirvāṇa), by modern Buddhist reckoning. However, as friendly a term to the Dhamma that 無為 is, as a concept, there is one thing the word decidedly does not mean, and that is “unconditioned”. In Early Chinese Buddhism it may well have been impossible to speak of things as “conditioned” or “unconditioned” because those words simply didn’t exist as opposites. There is no “為法/wèi fǎ”, or “action/doing-dharma” to be the opposite of a “無為法 /wú wèi fǎ”, and thus, the soteriological relationship between the path and the goal is subtly changed, and is not linguistically manifest as so obvious an opposite in terms. Buddhists with no access to Indic texts thus could have developed a subtly different notion of “what is conditioned” and “what is not conditioned” on account of the language used to express that notion. This linguistic barrier can obviously be overcome, especially in the present-day, but if knowledge of the Indic linguistic expression of the Dhamma is lost, I think it is fair to say that the Dhamma that is communicated is communicated in a different way than it would have, depending on the attainment of the translator and the education of the text-reader.

In short, to a native Chinese reader of the time, who was lucky enough to be literate in literary Chinese, “無為法 /wú wèi fǎ” refers to a dharma that is either wú wéi itself, originates in wú wéi, participates in wú wéi, or is similar to wú wéi.

Similarly, early Buddhist translators adapted 道 (dào), also from Daoism, to communicate uniquely Buddhist concepts. The āgama I am about to quote, a parallel of SN 43.11, but a highly culturally adapted one, makes liberal use of 道 (dào), although it is technically possible that this borrowing of the word 道 (dào) is expressly not a borrowing from Daoism, given that it appears in the context of 道跡 (dào jì), or “path” followed by a word meaning “trace, mark, footprint, vestige, sign, signpost, deed, miracle, wonder, marvel, search”. In short 道 means “path” and 跡 also means “path” basically. Semantic duplication is not uncommon in Classical Chinese texts, usually for the purposes of clarifying the meaning of a specific word usage. The 跡 () in 道跡 (dào jì) could be used to reinforce the notion that 道 is being used solely for its “path” meaning, and not as a doctrinal pseudo-ecumenical borrowing from Daoism. That being said, the duplication of “path path” might also mean that the first “path”, 道, is being used in its wider Daoism-influenced context while the second “path” 跡, may be a translation of the “path” part of the Pāli compound asaṅ­kha­ta­gāmi­maggo which appears in the Nikāya-parallel SN 43.11 (incidentally I may have just found out what the Pāli equivalent of asaṃskṛta was).

There is reason to think that Buddhists of the time may not have wanted to be so ecumenical with Daoism, which puts the framing of 道 as a borrowing from Daoism on less sure a ground than the Buddhist borrowing of the Daoist term 無為. Daoism has many concepts and ideas that are friendly to Buddhist thought, but it also has concepts and doctrines that are unacceptable to Buddhists, being sassatavāda or overly theistic in nature, for example:[quote]There is a being, wonderful, perfect;
It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!
It stands alone and it does not change.
It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.
All life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and yet it claims no honour, it does not demand to be Lord.
I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao, the Way, and I rejoice in its power.[/quote](Dàodéjīng 25)

I would like to given an example of an āgama, in which the nature of the “無為法 /wú wèi fǎ” is expounded and very heavy usage of the term “wú wéi dharma” is employed. To the best of my knowledge this is a hitherto untranslated āgama, so please do not take my nonprofessional amatuer translation as “solidly authentic Buddhavacana”. My goal in presenting the āgama is to outline a linguistic inter-religious curiosity of the Early Chinese Dhamma-dispensation, not to claim to be qualified to interpret the “true Dhamma”, and, since there is no English translation of this available, I don’t think it can hurt to add to the internet literature, especially if I am sure to make myself clear that this should not be considered an “authoritative” translation.

Here is an example of usage of the term 無為法 in the literature, in the interest of the larger discussion on Dhamma-in-translation I will try to render the passage word-for-word, with subjective grammatical clarifications [in square brackets]:[quote]如是我聞:
Thus this I heard:

One time, Buddha dwelt [at] Śrāvastī [at] Jetavana [at] Anāthapiṇḍada’s park.

So at-that-time, [the] Bhagavān said [to the] myriad monks:

"Apposite doing you I-speak [i] [of] wú wèi fǎ [asaṃskṛtadharma], and [the] wú wèi dào pathway [to that].

Listen careful, think wise, what [is] wú wèi fǎ?

That-is-to-say greed[,] craving, permanent exhaustion, aversion[,] rage, ignorance[,] delusion permanent exhaustion,

All vexing afflictions permanent exhaustion, this [is] wú wèi fǎ.

What [is the] doing [of the] wú wèi dào pathway [to that]?

That-is-to-say [the] eight sage dào ranks, true view, true wiseness, true speech, true karma, true livelihood

True method proficiency, true ideas, true dhyāna, this [is] called [the] wú wéi dào pathway [to that]."

Buddha['s] word[s] this sūtra thereafter [was], many monks heard Buddha teach it, [and] joyful[,] practiced [it].

Thus wú wéi, thus difficult [to] realize, no moving, no bending, no dying, lacking secretions,

overflowing [in] yìn, [an] island shore, ferrying[,] crossing, dependency ceasing, no circulating transmissions, cutting-off kindling [for] flame, cutting-off burning thusly,

Cutting-off kindling [for] flame, cutting-off burning thusly, flowing openly, pure cool, secret subtlety, calm occultation,

Lacking ailment, lacking owning, Nirvāṇa, also thus so said [by the Buddha].[/quote](SA 890)

The āgama is a fascinating hybrid text, pulling terminologies and concepts from native Chinese religious traditions to explain the Buddhadharma. It even coins new words (or at least from Google searches, the term “無為道/wú wéi dào” is strictly used in Chinese Buddhist context) out of existing terms, adapting them to a new usage and a new nascent Buddhist framework.

That being said, it is also possible that this free syncretic borrowing could come at a cost. If sufficient contact is not kept up, if the orality of early Buddhist orthodoxies fail to reach the audience, to contextualize and explain these adaptions, it is inevitable that this syncretic borrowing results in “fusional religiosity”, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all, I’m not criticizing being open-minded in practice, but has the potential to, little by little, transform the Dhamma as a whole in ways that may not be in conformity to what is preserved in the Indic linguistic tradition.

Also, although I know that it is more important that their translations reflect good Dhamma, I do wish that āgama translators would try to preserve something of the character and flow of the Chinese text (without orientalism of course, as difficult as line that is to tread in trying to preserve the distinctly Chinese mode of linguistic expression). The Buddha sounds very different in tone, phrasing, and characterization in Chinese than he does in Pāli, or English for that matter, and I think many people would very much enjoy becoming acquainted with the Buddha-in-Chinese, if only the trends in translation veered more toward literal-word-correspondence rather than expansive adaption.


What an erudite treatment of the subject! Lovely work. :sunglasses:


覆蔭 / fù yìn / “Overflowing/smothered [in] yin” is also a very interesting and culturally distinct way to linguistically frame Nibbāna, I’m not sure if there is a native Indic expression that would correspond to this phrase, given that it seems to reference Chinese yin-yang cosmology. It is also interesting that 覆 can mean either “overflowing with” or “smothered by”, and possibly both at the same time. In a strange way it reminds me of how certain Mahāyāna Buddhists, like Kazuaki Tanahashi, argue that discourse surrounding “emptiness/voidness”, 空 (kōng), should be better translated as “without limit”, or in Tanahashi’s specific case “boundlessness”.

It would be interesting if that sort of thematic trend in East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism had its precedence in culturally adaptive coinages in the Chinese translations of EBTs, like 覆蔭 (fù yìn), that are quite possibly absent in the Pāli and postulated other Prākrit suttāni, although proving that would be a heavy feat indeed.


To second Mr-Squeaky-The-Cat, that’s a lovely article, thank you.

It’s interesting for me to think as a translator whether these renderings were required for lack of a better alternative. Or were they conscious adaptations, thinking that people would find the original too challenging? It’s not helpful to second-guess motives, of course, but it is interesting to see very similar forces at work in modern translations. As you say, any language forces certain patterns of meaning, and it is not always possible to discern what these are.


[quote=“sujato, post:4, topic:4572”]
It’s interesting for me to think as a translator whether these renderings were required for lack of a better alternative. Or were they conscious adaptations, thinking that people would find the original too challenging?
[/quote]My thinking is that the translators were highly invested in the goal of expressing Buddhist thought in the language of Chinese intellectual and spiritual culture, in an attempt to “indigenize the Dhamma” in a fully Chinese outward cultural presentation, at least in the case of this specific agama.

Notice how it makes an allusion to Chinese yin-yang cosmology, via the phrase 覆蔭 (fù yìn). What is interesting to note is not only the borrowing of Chinese cosmological terminology, but also the inversion and subversion of it in the name of Buddhadharma. In any conventional Chinese yin-yang discourse, the primary soteriological goal would be the balancing of the two, or would have something to do with their mutual compatibility, or their duality, or their non-duality.

However, what we are given, as a proxy for Nibbana, in this Buddhist framing of yin-yang cosmology, is not a non-dual coming together of opposites, nor is it to do with the mutual compatibility of these two concepts: 覆蔭 (fù yìn), “Overflowing, smothered, covered, in yin”. The conventional presentation of the mutual dichotomy between yin and yang is subverted and suspended for the purposes of adapting yin-yang cosmology to Buddhist ends. Nibbana is described as a state of complete or utter yin. No yang to speak of. This would be unthinkable to a Daoist or Confucian thinker.

The borrowing of 道 (dào) is less clear, as 道跡 (dào jì) could as easily mean “the dao pathway [to that]” as it could mean “the path trodden”, “the path to be trod”, “the path with signposts” or “the path [with my] footprints” or even technically “the amazing path”, but that last reading is more obscure.


I like to think of an amazing path, it definitely borrows people interest! :grin:

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to the extend that my meagre knowledge of Pali and non-existent knowledge of Classical Chinese allow me i would venture to propose that 無為 is a pretty accurate literal rendering of asaṅkhata, to be sure Chinese is rich enough lexically to render it in several other different ways but as it stands, to me it appears good enough

saṅkhata/saṃskṛta essentialy means made up, concocted, constructed, prefabricated (from the root kṛ - to do, to make, to create etc) hence the popular translations of saṅkhāra/saṃskāra in the suttas as fabrication/formation/preparation

asaṅkhata/asaṃskṛta as the antonym would have the meaning not made, not constructed (and, by extension, not conditioned)

為 in Chinese among other things means to do, to make and so basically semantically is paralleled to the Indic root kṛ, hence 無為 can be considered an equivalent of asaṅkhata

and although asaṅkhata is past participle, considering the fact that, if i’m not mistaken, in Classical Chinese clear distinction between verbal voices and aspects was not particularly developed, it’s possible to interpret 無為 not only as not making/doing but also as not made

[quote=“LXNDR, post:7, topic:4572, full:true”]
to the extend that my meagre knowledge of Pali and non-existent knowledge of Classical Chinese allow me i would venture to propose that 無為 is a pretty accurate literal rendering of asaṅkhata, to be sure Chinese is rich enough lexically to render it in several other different ways but as it stands, to me it appears good enough

saṅkhata/saṃskṛta essentialy means made up, concocted, constructed, prefabricated (from the root kṛ - to do, to make, to create etc) hence the popular translations of saṅkhāra/saṃskāra in the suttas as fabrication/formation/preparation

asaṅkhata/asaṃskṛta as the antonym would have the meaning not made, not constructed (and, by extension, not conditioned)

為 in Chinese among other things means to do, to make and so basically semantically is paralleled to the Indic root kṛ, hence 無為 can be considered an equivalent of asaṅkhata
[/quote]So English was the culprit all along. Neither the Indic nor the Chinese means “unconditioned” :astonished: colour me surprised.

It’s such a well-established convention of translation, to render that word as “unconditioned”, I just assumed it would be an accurate rendering. Unconditioned and unmade or unfabricated do not mean the same thing at all! :disappointed:

Very interesting. My notion of how the Buddha described the goal of Buddhist practice has shifted subtly.

in the EBT the words profusely employed to convey the meaning of cause, reason, condition are hetu and paccaya, so one would expect that the meaning of unconditioned would be transmitted with their cognates

but certainly being no expert in Pali i can’t make any definitive calls in this respect

That is an excellent point. The sense of saṅkhāra/saṅkhata is, generally speaking, something that is made or fashioned, especially something created via will, i.e. intention or choice. It is true, however, that it is, not infrequently, used as a straight synonym for hetu, paccaya, etc., which justifies the reading “unconditioned”. Perhaps translating it as “uncreated” would serve.


I actually recall seeing the word idappaccayatā, meaning something like “fixed conditionality” when exploring the Paccayasutta SN 12.20. That makes sense.

I wonder to what extent though, in the literature, they are treated as “literal” synonyms. For instance, does the Buddha ever say anything to the effect of (and forgive my poor Pāli):

“Katamo ca, bhikkhave, _apaccaya_­-­maggo?"

I don’t have a good enough grasp of Pāli to construct this sentence with proper grammar, but I hope one can see what I was trying to get across:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned?", this time literally using the Pāli-equivalent of “unconditioned” (I think?). This is a common enough construction in English, to use “the unconditioned”. Even if the original Pāli consistently uses asaṅkhata where some English renderings use “unconditioned”, I can certainly see how it isn’t “wrong”, but I can see how it isn’t necessarily right either. One can theoretically speak of Nibbāna as being “un-” a great many things and be “technically” correct.

Does a grammatical construction something like “a-paccaya” abound in Pāli Buddhavacana at all though, even if not being in a compound like “apaccaya-maggo”?

EDIT: I’ve found a few compounds, but my Pāli isn’t good enough to know exactly what they mean and their proper context. Does apaccayāmatanibbāna mean “unconditioned deathless nibbāna?”

There is also this passage from DN 2:[quote]Evaṃ vutte, bhante, makkhali gosālo maṃ etadavoca: ‘natthi, mahārāja, hetu natthi paccayo sattānaṃ saṃkilesāya, ahetū apaccayā sattā saṅkilissanti.[/quote]But I can’t find where apaccaya comes up in the English translation.[quote=LXNDR]to the extend that my meagre knowledge of Pali and non-existent knowledge of Classical Chinese allow me i would venture to propose that 無為 is a pretty accurate literal rendering of asaṅkhata, to be sure Chinese is rich enough lexically to render it in several other different ways but as it stands, to me it appears good enough
saṅkhata/saṃskṛta essentialy means made up, concocted, constructed, prefabricated (from the root kṛ - to do, to make, to create etc) hence the popular translations of saṅkhāra/saṃskāra in the suttas as fabrication/formation/preparation
[/quote]I’ve been thinking this over in my head for a while, and I think more knowledge of the history of Daoism is needed, on my part at least. Because the way that it is being used here is sufficiently ambiguous as to call into question if the translators did indeed know that much about Daoism after all.

It is possible that the translators borrowed 無為 because they weren’t highly familiar with Daoist usage of the term as well, but they knew the term was used nonetheless.

無為 is a methodology in Daoism, which makes the coinage 無為道跡 (wú wéi dào jì) particularly appropriate, since that is the asaṅ­kha­ta­gāmi­maggo “to” the asaṅkhataṃ (hopefully I am using that term correctly).

However its usage in 無為法 is interesting because it seems less appropriate, given that Daoism already has a concept that literally means “unfabricated/unmade”, it is 樸 (), which is traditionally poetically translated as meaning “the uncarved block”, but modern trends in translating have it more literally rendered as “unworked wood”. It refers to a simple untampered with and unfabricated way of being and/or nature. As a word it literally refers to something that is unmade, or perhaps from a Buddhist perspective, unarisen.

However (and sometimes I feel like my posts consist of nothing but the word “however” followed by a contradiction of what I last said) this fact could also strengthen the notion that the translators were familiar with Daoism and specifically chose the slightly more awkward adaption 無為法 deliberately over something like 樸法 because of the connotations that 樸 has for anattā/無我. 樸 refers to an unmade nature that is generally conceived of, in Daoism, as “within us”, or “our original nature”, or even “our true nature”. Daoism does not have a theory of the mind that maps onto Buddhist discourse perfectly, but it is possible that the early āgama translators chose 無為法 over 樸法 specifically to avoid an “eternal citta” interpretation of Nibbāna, or possibly to avoid a “eternal self” interpretation of Buddhavacana.

When I had finished speaking, Makkhali Gosāla said to me: ‘Great king, there is no cause or condition for the defilement of beings; beings are defiled without any cause or condition.

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It is an interesting line of inquiry, and I am not quite sure what to make of it. As LXNDR shows, there are passages that speak of apaccaya, though these do not have the same sense as asaṅkhata. Asaṅkhata is a past participle, (“unconditioned”) whereas paccaya is not.

The meanings of saṅkhāra and paccaya do overlap in some contexts, eg. SN 48.40:

uppannaṃ kho me idaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ, tañca kho sanimittaṃ sanidānaṃ sasaṅkhāraṃ sappaccayaṃ
The faculty of pain has arisen in me. And that has a precursor, a source, a condition, and a reason.

However this does not mean that they always do. In fact, it is fairly rare, and normally they have distinct meaning; saṅkhāra refers to an energy or force, especially an ethically potent volitional act, i.e. choice. So the normal sense is that the saṅkhāra is the energy, force, or action by which something is conditioned (paccaya).

Something else that just occurred to me is that this is another potential example of a Chinese Sarvāstivāda āgamā-recension bringing something into the domain of potential dharma-theory, while that tendency is significantly less strong in the sutta-parallel.

The word “dhamma” never appears at all in the sutta-parallel (SN 43.11). It appears three times in the āgama. (Edit: five times if we count my eccentric-and-probably-wrong theory about the translation of 道 presented later).

Asaṅkata” in the Pāli, “asaṃskṛtadharma/無為法” in the āgama, at least the Chinese recension, if a Sanskrit one exists I do not know, none were listed at SuttaCentral when I checked.

It is not a significant point necessarily, however this āgama seems to specifically go out of its way to frame Nibbāna as a dhamma, and to classify that dhamma (無為). This is completely absent from the nikāya parallel, where there is no reason given to conclude that the asaṅkata is a dhamma.

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With the above discussion in mind, I would like to put up a revised translation for pondering.

It is not a workable translation effort that would be terribly useful, necessarily, for introducing the Dhamma to learners, but it does attempt to do something characteristic: to preserve as accurately as possible the rhythms and the underlying structure of the Chinese.

Original text of 雜阿含經(八九〇)無為法:[quote]如是我聞:




如無為,如是難見、不動、不屈、不死、無漏、覆蔭、洲渚、濟渡、依止、擁護、不流轉、離熾焰、離燒然、流通、清涼、微妙、安隱、無病、無所有、涅槃,亦如是說。[/quote]Altered translation:[quote]Thus I heard this:

At one time, the Buddha dwelt at Śrāvastī at Jetavana at Anāthapiṇḍada’s park. At that time, the Lord said to the myriad monks: “Presently, here with you, I speak of the uncreated dharma, and the uncreated principle of the path leading there. Listen careful, think wise, what is the uncreated dharma? To speak of, greed, craving? Permanent exhaustion. Aversion, rage, ignorance, and delusion? Permanent exhaustion. All vexing afflictions? Permanent exhaustion. This is the uncreated dharma. What is the following of the uncreated principle of the pathway there? To speak of the eight ranks of the principles of the sage, true view, true wiseness, true speech, true karma, true livelihood, true proficiency, true mindfulness, true dhyāna: this is called the uncreated principle of the pathway there.”

Buddhavacana this sūtra thereafter was, many monks heard the Buddha teach it, and, joyful, they practiced.

Thus is uncreation, thus is what is difficult to know: no moving, no bending, no dying, no secretion. Smothered in yìn- it is the shore of an island. There is ferrying, there is crossing, there is the cessation of dependency. There are no circulating transmigrations. Removing kindling from the flame removes the burning itself. Flowing openly, pure and cool, secret and subtle, calm and hidden. Lacking ailment, lacking owning: thus is Nirvāṇa.

-also thus so said by the Buddha. [/quote] It certainly would need some formatting that deviates from the 3-paragraph grouping of the Chinese characters if it were to be more easily read. Given that certain odd features it has really show that it is non-English grammar being represented in English, which few are familiar dealing with. Some of these formatting decisions would be regarding indentations and new paragraphs/lines for certain “ideas”/“images” presented, etc.

Although “uncreated” was one of the possible translations I had been considering, for a while, for the Chinese 無為, credit should also go to Ven Sujato, who considered it aloud earlier and inadvertently convinced me it was the proper rendering after all.

The only problem with “uncreated” is that it forces the non-standard grammatical coinage “uncreation” during the ending dialogue, if one wants to try to slavishly stick to exactly how the Chinese is presented in-and-of itself, a unique problem to this translation experiment.

Uncreated, unfabricated, and unconditioned might all be fundamentally unable to express the Classical Chinese because they all eclipse the importance of the fact that this is a two-word construction in the source text, as there were no polysyllabic words in Classical Chinese. This makes the seperateness of the two words, wu and wei, “heavier”, although I suppose that could just be me projecting. Perhaps it is pedantic, but it seems that “lacking X” or “without X” would be even better, but that has the drawback of simply sounding pedantic.

Seeing how keeping dào with the reading of “principal” (as per some Daoist discourse) throughout, and seeing how that obscured “noble eightfold path” (which the “eight ranks of the sage” no-doubt refers to), is not highly convincing. The original intended meaning, here at least, for dáo is probably “path”, which calls into question the readings of dào presented earlier.

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With that in mind, in the above postulated translation featuring 道 (dào) as “principle”, substituting “path” for “principle”, as an experiment, as a reading of dào, we get something like this, for the relevant sentences:[quote][…] the uncreated path leading there?


What is the following of the uncreated path leading there?


To speak of the eight ranks of the path of the sage, […][/quote]This translates a little closer to the Pāli, however, there is an issue.

Now the path itself is unconditioned. We have at least two unconditioned dharmāḥ (unacceptable in non-Sarvāstivāda early Buddhist discourse!).

Is this inherent in the Pāli word asaṅ­kha­ta­gāmi­maggo? That the path itself is “unconditioned”, not only the goal?

Calling the path itself “unconditioned” seems like a subversion of the “Parable of the Raft”, wherein what applies to the “other shore” does not necessarily apply to the raft that one assembles to get there.

No, the path is explicitly said to be sankhata, and the compound means “the path leading to the asankhata”.

As you mention, other schools acknowledge more than one asankhata—in fact the Theravada seems to be quite rare in insisting on only one—and it is possible that they had a variant phrase in a different meaning. But, as it stands, the Pali phrase must mean “the path leading to the asankhata”.

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More thoughts on the usage of 無為 (wú wéi), 法 (), & 道/道跡 (dào, dào jì) in this āgama, in light of the fact that asaṅ­kha­ta­gāmi­maggo, it seems, cannot be said to mean “unconditioned path to the unconditioned”:

As said before, it is tempting to read 跡 as a semantic doubling of 道 in 道跡, which would render it simply meaning “path [to there]”, however, this creates the issue of the text speaking about an “uncreated path” (無為道跡).

This means that it is likely that the usage of 道 here, as I initially suspected, is probably a borrowing from Daoist religious terminology, and is an effort to engage in explaining Dhamma through traditionally un-Dhammic linguistic means. If we consider the notion of this āgama truly arguing for a “uncreated path” equally as uncreated as a/the “uncreated dharma” to be unacceptable, it means that 道 here, is very possibly actually a translation of the word “dhamma” itself.

Consider how 道 appears in the piece. It appears once in “noble eightfold path” (八聖道分), where it seems very likely that it means “path”, but could also mean “principal, law, etc.” It is its appearance in [quote]為無為道跡?[/quote]
is what makes me think of this, admittedly eccentric idea, that 道 is being used as a translation of the term “dhamma”, specifically the idea of the “dhamma” as a principle.

A while ago, Ven Sujato posted this possible rendering of the word “dhamma” as principle in this passage from the Paccayasutta:[quote]ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā
that property indeed stands, that stability of principle, that lawfulness of principle, specific conditionality.[/quote]I think it might be possible that the translators of the āgamāḥ may not have used the same Chinese word to translate “dhamma” every time “dhamma” may have come up in the source text. This is in much the same way that English renderings of Pāli generally translate “dhamma” when it appears, contextually.

With this in mind, the reading of 為無為道跡 comes to mean something like “[what is the] acting/doing/fabricating [of] [the] uncreated principle (dharma?) [of the] pathway [to the “uncreated dharma” spoken of earlier]”. This presumes a great deal of flexibility in the possible usage of 跡 which I need to check, and it is possible that 無為 refers exclusively to 道 and 跡 might not be referred to as 無為 at all, which would bring the passage into closer consistency with the Nikāya-parallel, if it proves to be a convincing and plausible set of readings for these characters. If it does prove to be a convincing set of readings, 為無為道跡 could well mean something more like “doing of the uncreated dharma’s pathway-there”, but like I said I need to do more research on how 跡 is used.

The Chinese recensions of the āgamāḥ seem, and this is very tentative, to generally have a tendency to want to label various things as dhammā that the Indic recensions might not label as such. If “dhamma” was a generally more common word in the Prākrit source text for the āgamāḥ that would later constitute the ZA (SA) and BZA (SA-2), this phenomena of diversely labelled linguistic insignifiers for a single word, “dhamma”, would be multiplied greatly. Unfortunately proving that is completely impossible so it is just an interesting idea.

The question now is, is it at all correct, from a perspective informed by actual Buddhism, not just meta-linguistic speculation, to say that there is such a thing as an uncreated “principle” of the path? Is the category of “asaṅ­kha­tadhamma” something that is expounded in the EBT Buddhavacana? Is the notion of a dhamma called a “asaṅ­kha­tadhamma” a product of later dhamma-theories, like the Abhidhamma?

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This is really fascinating to me. I’d like to read the Pali/English version of the Agama that was translated so that I have a better feel for the word choices; which sutta is it?

[quote=“AndyL, post:19, topic:4572, full:true”]
This is really fascinating to me. I’d like to read the Pali/English version of the Agama that was translated so that I have a better feel for the word choices; which sutta is it?
[/quote]SN 43.11

A lot less potential proto-dhamma-theory in the Nikāya than the Āgama, as per the discussion above. It is certainly a fascinating artefact, this āgama, if anything I have brought up has merit.

This āgama also isn’t necessarily a translation of a text that resembles SN 34.11 100%.

The peculiarities of this āgama, IMO, can be explained as having two, among other no-doubt, potential causes: 1) possibly the oddness of it is a result of trying to “indegenize Dhamma” into Chinese society to convert the Chinese, or 2) this āgama’s oddness comes from the Prākrit or Sanskrit original, and as such, it has a rather divergent emergent dhamma-theory, possibly Sarvāstivādin, that exists in-parallel with emergent Theravāda dhamma-theory.

My own belief is that option 1 is more likely, but it is certainly possible that option 2 is the case.

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