DON’T BE LIKE ‘A FROG IN A WELL’: SANSKRIT-CHINESE TRANSLATORS, THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING OPEN MINDS AND STUDYING OTHER LANGUAGES AND VIEWS. Mind-Only Teachings by 17th Karmapa (Day 5)

17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje – Mind-Only teaching (2022)
Introduction

The 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, is currently giving an online teaching on the origins and history of the Mind-Only, or Yogachara school of philosophy. as part of a two week teaching on Vasabhandu’s Mind-Only text, the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā (Chinese: 唯識三十論頌; Wéishí sānshí lùn sòng; Japanese: Yuishiki sanjūronju; Korean: 유식삼십송), also known simply as the Triṃśikā or  by its English translation Thirty Verses on Manifestation Only, is a brief poetic treatise was composed in the 4th or 5th century CE and became one of the core texts for the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In it he touches on foundational Yogācāra concepts such as the storehouse consciousness, the afflicted mental consciousness, and the three natures, among others. In the Tibetan tradition, this viewpoint is considered to be the other main Mahāyāna view, apart from that of Madhyamika.

For the first four days, the Karmapa spoke in detail about the Indian origins of the Mind-Only school and its main Indian proponents, Vasubhandu and Asanga. His teachings have been heavily edited and summarized on the Kagyu Office website here. However, for the full English translation (and/or Tibetan original) see the video links below here.

Due to personal commitments, I have been unable to transcribe in full the teachings as per usual. However, in this first short post, I give an overview and transcribe part of Karmapa’s Day 5 teaching and his advice on the importance of the study of languages and translation to understanding Buddhist Philosophy. How even today, it is so important to study languages if we are serious about understanding Buddhist Philosophy and its origins. That we should not be like the story of the frog in a well, or as we say in English, have your head stuck in the sand (or for the more brazen-minded, up your own ‘a**)!

Indian Translators who translated Mind-Only texts into Chinese
Sanskrit language, Siddham to Chinese transliteration, Buddhist Dharani literature.

On the Day 5 teaching, the Karmapa gave an overview of some of the main Indian master practitioner-translators who translated important Mind-Only texts into Chinese.

  • Dharmarakṣa (: 竺法護;  Zhú Fǎhù)  (385–433 CE) first introduced either the Buddha Nature school or the Mind Only to China. He translated the Bodhisattva Levels into Chinese[1].
  • Guṇavarma (367–431 CE) translated another version of a Sutra, the Discipline of the Bodhisattvas into Chinese. 
  • Guṇabhadra (394–460 CE (求那跋陀罗: Qiúnàbátuóluó;) was a monk and translator of Mahayana Buddhism from Magadha, Central India. His biography is contained in the work of a Chinese monk called Sengyou entitled Chu sanzang ji ji[2]. He went to China translated the Shri Mala Sutra, the Lion’s Roar, the Lankavatara Sutra and the Sutra of the Stream of Liberation (This sutra is mainly the same as the last two chapters of the Sutra Unravelling the Intent.)
Guṇabhadra (394–460 CE (求那跋陀罗: Qiúnàbátuóluó;)
The Ten Stages Sutra translation

The Karmapa then also explained the translators of the Ten Stages Sutra (see his presentation in Tibetan below):

“During the Northern and Southern dynasties, in the first year of Emperor Wu’s reign (508 CE), three Indian monks—Bodhiruci, Ratnamati, Buddhaśānti —arrived in China. At the request of Emperor Wu, they translated Vasubandhu’s commentary on the Sutra of the Ten Levels. They also translated Differentiating the Family of the Jewels (known as the Sublime Continuum in the Tibetan tradition) and the Compendium of the Mahayana. In this way, the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu were introduced to China.”

Paramārtha and The Compendium of Mahayana school

The Karmapa also explained that there are four great translators of texts from Sanskrit into Chinese: Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什; Jiūmóluóshí; 344–413 CE), Paramārtha (see below), Xuanzang (玄奘; fl. 602 – 664),, and Amoghavajra. Some add the name of Master Yijing to this list. 

Paramārtha (真谛; Zhēndì,Yang dag bden pa) (499-569 CE)

For example, Paramārtha (真谛; Zhēndì, Yang dag bden pa) (499-569 CE)  an Indian monk from central India, came to China in 548 CE on the instructions of Lang Wu Ti in the second year of Emperor Tai Qing’s reign. He arrived in the then-capital Jianye. However, because of war in China, he could not settle in one place and had to flee from place to place. He translated many sutras and treatises, including the Vajra Splitter Sutra and the Light of Gold Sutra. His translations of Mind Only treatises include Differentiating the Middle from Extremes and Teachings on the Three Lacks of Characteristics.

He especially went to great efforts to spread the Treasury of Abhidharma and Asanga’s Compendium of the Mahayana/Mahāyānasaṃgraha( Chinese:攝大乘論; Shè dàchéng lùn, Tibetan: theg pa chen po bsdus pa). He said he had done what he could to teach them one hundred times. 

After Paramārtha had translated Compendium of Mahayana, a complete framework of the Mind Only philosophy could spread in China. There had been the commentary on the Ten Levels Sutra up to that point, but there had been no complete presentation of the Mind Only tenets. Those who followed Paramārtha and his teachings were known as the Compendium of Mahayana school.

Fǎxiàng – Chinese name for the Mind-Only school
China’s Autonomous Mind-Only School

To end the teaching, the Karmapa began to explain how unlike China, the Tibetans never developed their own autonomous Mind-Only school. Reasons for that will be explored in the next couple of posts on Karmapa’s teachings and his personal overview and research on how Mind-Only spread in Tibet and why there was a strong bias and prejudice towards it in favour of Madhyamaka (Middle Way philosophy). Additionally, the Karmapa’s view of Zhentong and Rangtong and how it is related to Mind-Only.

As it is the first time a Tibetan Buddhist master (and head of a major lineage) has taught in such detail (with reference to scholarly works) on the origins and actual view of Mind-Only, in particular, how it spread in Tibet and its connection to differing views on emptiness and Madhyamaka, my next couple of posts will cover those teachings in more detail. For now, may we all appreciate and understand the importance of study and open-mindedness to other viewpoints, traditions and languages when it comes to studying the Buddha Dharma!

Music? It’s Only Words by Boyzone… ‘And words are all I have to take your heart away’.

Written and transcribed by Adele Tomlin, 5th February 2022.

MIND-ONLY TEACHINGS by 17th Karmapa (January- Feburary 2022)
PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT (DAY 5)

These days in the world there are two traditions that uphold the Mahayana: The Tibetan tradition and the Chinese tradition. So the Northern tradition is the Chinese and the Tibetan traditions, and also includes the Nepalese, Japanese and Korean traditions. Then there is the Southern Tradition [as practiced in Sri Lanka and countries in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia], Within the Northern tradition, there are both the Mind-Only and Middle Way. However in the Tibetan tradition, the Mind-Only tradition never really developed into it’s own school. There was no-one who set up an autonomous Mind-Only school. However, in the Chinese tradition, there are still masters who uphold all the Mind-Only traditions. We need to learn from them and gain some knowledge from them about the Mind-Only school.

Otherwise, we are like the ‘frog in the well’ story when the frog is in the well, since it has never jumped anywhere else, it thinks there cannot be anything bigger than this. Until one day, the frog in the well sees the ocean, there is a danger it would have a heart attack and die! The reason for that is because the frog has never seen anything so vast. He had always thought the largest thing there could be was a well. So when he sees something bigger than that, it does not fit in his mind and he might have a heart attack. There is this parable.

So similarly, we only know about our own situation and don’t know about other situations, then sometimes out of chance, we might  hear about another way of talking about Buddha Dharma and some  doubts might arise and we think ‘oh, is that so?’  However, afterwards, after understanding it properly we  might even start to get a little jealous of it. Sometimes if it does not work well, and we cannot get our minds around it, even if we do not have a heart attack, our brain will fall to pieces! So at the beginning, we must not be narrow and closed-minded, we need to have open minds and think that we need to do whatever we can to have a wider perspective and study as much as we can. 

We often say that there are the teachings of the Buddha and there are the five sciences and so on to study, but really we don’t do this, do we?  When there is something new to learn, a new view or opinion, we immediately refute it. We say that is confused and mistaken and give many reasons to categorically refute it and toss it away.  So in a way we are left behind. If we continue like that, then it will be difficult for us to improve. So if we need to improve our situation then we have to open our minds and have some confidence and take a broader view and understanding.

In particular, if we need to study the scriptures in other languages, then first, we need to study the languages! Language is VERY important. The languages in our Himalayan tradition, there are many Indians, Nepalis, Bhutanese and so on who can say a little bit of broken English and they can talk about food and drink and so on. But that of no real benefit when you study the philosophy. When we Tibetans first arrived as refugees, in order to preserve our own language and culture, we objected to studying other languages. When the 16th Karmapa was in Rumtek, he did not like it when monastics studied and had interest in English.  On the one hand, he did not like it. However, another way to think about it is what is your AIM for studying a language? Knowing that is important, isn’t it? Are you really going to study? Is your aim to study the texts of other Buddhist schools in other languages, if that is really aim then we should be delighted and celebrate! But if your aim is not very stable and you think that maybe in the future you can go abroad and ‘do something to benefit beings’, you say and get a few ‘red envelopes’ (offerings), if that is your thought when you are studying there is not much point to it. We only have a few decades in this life and it takes a long time to study a language and if you spend all that time and make a lot of effort, if you are not doing it for a great purpose and reason, then you are wasting your time!

Therefore, it is really important to study languages especially for the Buddha Dharma. We need to know several languages, Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan. It is like that. There is a reason for that.  The Japanese, European and American scholars I mentioned the other day, most of them know English, and also Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan. They are looking directly at the original manuscripts. They are looking at manuscripts in the Sanskrit itself. What we (Tibetans) do is we read everything and mispronounce it.

There is actually a tradition within the Tibetan translators’ texts on how to recite mantras but we do not even look at those.  If you are a Khampa, you do it with a Kham accent, if you are from Amdo, you do it with an Amdo accent.  If you are from central Tibet you do it with a central Tibetan accent. We could study the mantras but we are not even able to recite mantras with the proper pronunciation and think that having confidence and devotion when saying them is sufficient.

We must do this, especially as these days, facilities are much better than the past. The translators of the past did not have dictionaries or search in Google. They did not have such easy technology to help them but they worked very hard and had great resolve. They determined to translate many different texts and thought it was very important to study them. They disregarded their body and life and went to India. They spent gold and silver and their wealth without any reserve to do that. They translated mountains of scriptures in Tibetan and Chinese.

If we think about this it is absolutely amazing! This is something we should have a lot of faith in. We need to learn a lesson from them. We need to see if we can have that resolve and motivation. That is important. Can we do that ourselves? Otherwise, we think to ourselves, ‘oh there are great beings, like Buddhas, it is like they came from heaven to earth but we are just ordinary people and there is no way we could do that.’ So from the beginning we think there is no way we could do that and remain in self-deprecating laziness. It is not like you are a Buddha from the beginning though right? No-one is like that at the beginning of the stages of the path. Therefore, it is important for all of us to keep this in mind. I have said many things that may have had no point but there it is.”

ENDNOTES

[1] It is said that altogether, Dharmaraksa translated around 154 sūtras. Many of his works were greatly successful, widely circulating around northern China in the third century and becoming the subject of exegetical studies and scrutiny by Chinese monastics in the fourth century.[8] His efforts in both translation and lecturing on sūtras are said to have converted many in China to Buddhism, and contributed to the development of Chang’an into a major center of Buddhism at the time. Some of his main works are:

  • The Saddharmapundarika Sūtra (正法華經; Zhèng Fǎhuá Jīng)
  • The Panca Vimsati Sāhasrikā prajnā pāramita Sūtra ( 光贊般若波羅密經; Guāngzàn Bōrě Bōluómì jīng)
  • The Dasabhūmika-sūtra (漸備一切智德經;  Jiànbèi Yīqiè Zhìdé Jīng)
  • The Lalitavistara ( 普曜經; Pǔyào Jīng)

[2] Gunabhadra was said to have originally been born into a Brahman family but studied the Miśrakābhidharmahṛdaya under a Mahayana master which led to his conversion to Buddhism.[2] He traveled to China by sea with Gunavarma in 435 after first visiting Sri Lanka. They were both treated as honored guests by Emperor Wen of Liu Song, the ruler of South China at the time. In China, he translated one of the key Mahayana sutras, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, from Sanskrit to Chinese, and Vekhanasa Sutra , which forms “a volume from the Issaikyō (a Buddhist corpus), commonly known as Jingo-ji kyō,” as it was handed down at the Jingo-ji temple.[3] Before translating the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, he translated another important sutra, the Saṃyuktāgama into Chinese. He continued to be active in other translations and preaching. His Chinese biography also details that he mastered the Tripiṭaka.

FURTHER READING

 

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