The Legacy of the Chinese Translators

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The Legacy of the Chinese Translators

Kagyu Gunchoe Winter Teachings 2023 • Day 3

19 January 2023

The Gyalwang Karmapa greeted everyone, saying it was the third day of the winter teachings. He began by continuing as he had in the last teaching, to speak about the ancient Chinese translation methods. He reviewed their methods, explained the order, and how the translators and their assistants allocated their work. He divided the history of the Chinese translation of scriptures into four historical periods. To make it easier for everyone to understand it fully, the Karmapa presented a breakdown of each period:

1. Han Dynasty period

During the Han dynasty, Buddhism began to spread in China.

Two translators of that period are: 

  • Shuòfú who translated Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi-sūtra [by Lokaṣema] in 179 (1,844 years ago)
  • Buddhavarman who translated the Great Exposition of the Abhidharma in 383 (1,640 years ago)

2. Before the Sui Dynasty

During the period before the Sui Dynasty, translation schools had hundreds or even thousands of people gathered together engaged in translation. The well-known translators of that period are:

  • Kumārajīva 344–413 CE. (1,650 years ago)
  • Buddhabhadra translated the White Lotus Sutra in 421 CE. (1,600 years ago)
  • Paramārtha who translated the Treasury of Abhidharma 563 CE. (1460 years ago)

 All these translators were from over 1000 years ago.

3. Sui and Tang Dynasties

During this period, only twenty or thirty people who were specialists would work together. The most well-known translator of this era was Tang Xuanzang, who began translating in 645 CE. (1,370 years ago)

4. Song Dynasty

The fourth period was the Song Dynasty. (1,100 years ago)

The translation of the Buddhist scriptures that occurred in China from the earliest period took place over 900 years, from the Han Dynasty to the Song Dynasty. This had been covered in detail during the last session.

The Karmapa explained that there were different ideas about when Buddhism first spread into China. Most contemporary researchers discussed a book called The History of the Three Kingdoms. [Sanguo Zi, by Chen Shou, also translated into the English with the title of the Records of the Three Kingdoms]. Later there were references to stories about The Three Kingdoms. However, The History of the Three Kingdoms is an actual history, and The Story of The Three Kingdoms is a literary work based on the History of the Three Kingdoms;the books are not the same.

The historian Pei Songzhi made annotations to The History. He noted that in the first year of the reign of the Han Emperor Ai, in 2 BCE, the Kushans [known in Chinese as Da Yue Ji] sent a messenger. This Kushan master had a highly qualified Han student, called Jin Yu Liu, and he taught him “a sutra of the Buddha”. This is the most authoritative source for the beginning of the spread of Buddhism in China by the year 2 BCE. more than 2000 years ago.

Thus, in China, Buddhist texts were translated for hundreds of years, and then they were passed down for over a thousand years, during which time many developments and changes occurred. The history of scriptural translation into Chinese has deep and reliable sources.

The three principal steps of translation during the Tang dynasty

The Karmapa then discussed in more detail the Tang dynasty, the time of the great translator Xuanzang:

In his translation school, Xuanzang only had twenty-three assistants. All of them were the most learned of scholars and the greatest of beings of the time. Everyone had their own clear division of labor, along with their responsibilities, and each had strict rules and procedures to follow. What were the rules and procedures they used when translating the scriptures?

Within the translation school, the main translator (Chin. ju yi, or yi ju,;Tib. lochen or kabgar) was extremely important; he bore the responsibility of the translation. He needed to have mastered all three baskets of the scriptures and be learned in both sutra and tantra. His main responsibility was to explain the thought, the meaning, or the difficult points to all the assistants in the translation school. The assistants were specifically chosen scholars, the best of the scholars and the best of the great beings. They already understood the main points, so it was not necessary to explain every word. They had deep discussions about the points that were difficult to understand and were profound. These discussions were based on the Sanskrit manuscript itself.

  1. After the day’s translation work was accomplished to a fair degree, all the notes about the day’s explanations and discussions were taken to the composition office where the first draft was made in Chinese by dedicated writers who paid attention to the meaning but not the style of the composition. It was then taken for further editing. In an aside, the Karmapa referred to his own experience when translating from Tibetan into Chinese or from Chinese into Tibetan. The first stage was always to establish the meaning of each word very clearly and then translate it literally. The literal translation could then be taken as a basis to refine syntax, grammar and style. Likewise, with these early translators. This first step created the basis for the first draft.
  2. The draft was then taken to the “Proofing for meaning” office, where there were three different types of specialists: an editor knowledgeable about the topic (Chin. Zheng yi), an editor for Chinese (Chin. zhi ju), and a Sanskrit scholar (Chin. fan yu fan wen). They checked the translation against the original to see whether it expressed the meaning and whether there were any gaps between the meaning of the translation and the original. When they saw a mistake in the translation, they would change it and send it back to the composition office. Once the proofreaders for the meaning had revised the translation, they sent it back to the editors who would revise the composition. These editors would take the corrected manuscript and once again evaluate the comments of the editors for meaning and improve the style and syntax. The reason for this was that the editors proofing for meaning needed to see if the translation matched the Sanskrit. These editors would send the manuscript back and forth many times. If the improvement for style made the meaning harder to understand, they would again return the translation back until it was as clear as possible. Until the editors for style and the editors for meaning were satisfied, they would send the translation back and forth countless times. In this way, the second and third steps helped each other.

This method was called, “the repeated analysis of the profound meaning.” (Chin: Yán fù yōu zhǐ). This was a continuation of the old tradition of assiduous editing from the pre-Sui dynasty period in the Qin dynasty.

This was a continuation of the old tradition of assiduous editing from the pre-Sui dynasty period in the Qin dynasty.

Jìngzōng, a prime minister of the Tang Dynasty, wrote a very clear preface in classical Chinese about Xuanzang’s translation of the Yogacara Levels (In Tibetan this text is called The Yogacara Levels.) The Karmapa gave a rough translation:

Xuanzang was the main translator: he had six scribes as assistants, one Sanskrit proofreader, one editor for the text, eight editors or proofreaders for the meaning, and seven to edit the style of the entire Yogacara Levels. These seven divided the chapters amongst themselves. In the end, the great minister of the Tang dynasty, Xǔ Jìngzhōng, read it carefully, as the Emperor required. In total there were twenty-four people involved in the translation. Through this new method in the Tang dynasty, the translation work improved greatly from before.

This new method brought great improvements in the translation in two different areas:

  1. Although there were only a couple of dozen people involved in the translation; each had a clear responsibility. In the previous translation times, only three people did the work. Everyone else came to listen to the Dharma. Compared to this, in the Tang dynasty, the main translator had different specialists who discussed each stage of a translation repeatedly to improve the quality for understanding the translation.
  2. Because the correction and checking continued, the quality improved. Sometimes there were disagreements between the scribes and the editors. For example, Xuanzang’s assistant Fazang (His name means ‘Essence of Dharma’ in English; he was known as the Third Patriarch of the Avatamsaka school, and as Xianshou) later resigned from the translation school because of the differing opinions of the scribes, editors, and style editors. While engaged in the translation, there was a frequent turnover of people at the translation schools. The people in the translation school were very learned in Buddhism as well as in grammar and composition. Since all were eminent masters of Buddhism and composition, any disagreements came down to how to translate the words and the meaning of the text. They were not disagreements arising from individual grudges. The main translator had to resolve the disputes and pacify everyone. These disputes and debates were beneficial for the translation.

At this point, the Karmapa said he would not speak about translation during the Song dynasty because there was no time.

A Summary of Ancient Translation Methods

The Karmapa explained why he had spent so much time describing translation methods.

Translating dharma texts is not at all easy. First, the translators must be highly qualified. For example, the main translator must be learned in the three baskets of the Buddhist scriptures, sutra and tantra. The translator’s assistants must also be trained in their own specialties and skills. There must be a Sanskrit specialist, a specialist in Classical Chinese or ancient Chinese writing, and a specialist of Buddhist learning in the literature of the sutras and treatises. The translation schools of those times were places where scholars gathered, and these were gatherings of great beings. Even if only a single word from the ancient translations was used, it required detailed thought, a careful choice, and examination before the right word was determined. It was a collaborative effort of many scholars from different areas.

Xuanzang’s translation school had different specialists: a specialist who was an upholder of the vinaya lineage, a patriarch of the school; Kuiji was the founder of the Mind Only school in China, the upholder the founder of the Dharma Appearance school; Fazang was the third patriarch of the Avatamsaka lineage, and many others like that—all of these great beings were founders of schools and upholders of lineages (this was comparable to Sakya Pandita, Longchenpa, or Lord Tsongkhapa in Tibet).

Among them, even the assistants on the lowest level were khenpos and great masters from great Chinese monasteries. It was not an exaggeration to say that all the scriptures were the product of the education and practice of those bodhisattva great beings from their entire lives.

The Karmapa then emphasized that these scriptures need to be cherished and regarded very highly, and we should recognize what is precious and important:

For example, in Tibet, whether it was with the Kangyur or Tengyur, the scriptures had two titles. They gave the name in Sanskrit, and then in Tibetan. There were two primary reasons.

The first is so the readers could understand a little about the translation, they could see, “this Sanskrit word stands for this word, and this for that” they could know a fair amount from that and understand a little about the correlation of the language.

The second reason is to remember the kindness of the translators, bringing difficult-to-understand texts in Sanskrit into languages that we could read and understand easily.

The Karmapa emphasized, “These are not points that we just utter. They must be put into practice.” We remember and feel grateful for them. He then explained the second point.

We need to understand how it is not easy to translate the scriptures. We should appreciate how the ancient scriptures have a different potency and blessings when we read them. There is a different feeling that comes to your mind when you read them. As is often said, “There is not a single word of the scriptures that is not the path to achieve liberation.” If you know how to practice and know how to take the understanding, there is not a single word that is not a path to liberation.”

To illustrate this, the Karmapa recounted a story of Je Tsongkhapa and Chennga Rinchen Pal. They had a discussion about the meaning of the word “Kadam” as in the name of the Kadampa school [Tib. བཀའ་གདམས་པ]  Chennga Richen Pal explained that not even a single word of the Buddha can be discarded or eliminated; they must all be regarded as instructions. He defined a Kadampa as “Someone who sees that all the words (Tib. བཀའ་/ ka) of the Buddha, without leaving out even a single letter, are instructions/advice (Tib. གདམས་པ་ /dam) to be practised.” If you understood that, you were a Kadampa. At that point, Tsongkhapa was extremely pleased. He went outside and told his students, “Today our spiritual friend, Chennga Rinchen Pal, has really taught me something. When I asked him what “Kadam” means he replied, ‘It is not being able to discard a single letter of the Buddha’s word.’ “

For each word of the Kangyur and the Tengyur, “there is not a single word that is not a means to achieve liberation,” the Karmapa stated. If the great beings were not satisfied until they made the scriptures as excellent as possible, how could the scriptures have the power of blessings? There were two reasons: 1) the translators of the past were able to express the best meaning of the words; 2) they had the experience and realizations combined, so this produces a different feeling.

There is an example of a famous master, Huineng, the sixth patriarch of the Chan lineage. His Holiness explained that Tibetans refer to this school mistakenly as the Chinese Haxiang (Ha-shang) view because it was the view propounded by the Chinese monk Haxiang Mahayana during the famous debate with Kamalashila at Samye monastery in Tibet. Its correct name is the Chan school. Huineng was a great being and highly intelligent, the Karmapa explained, but he was illiterate, so he dictated the Liuzi dai ning, one of the most important Buddhist treatises in Chinese, and his students wrote it down. He had the realization and recognition of the nature of mind at the same time. It is said that when he heard the words of the Vajra Cutter Sutra, “Rouse bodhichitta without abiding,” he achieved realization. This demonstrates the uncommon power of the words in the Chinese translation of the Vajra Cutter.

The Karmapa then said it was not necessary to say too much, but there were two main points:

  1. When we see translations from ancient times, we need to have gratitude and deep appreciation from our hearts. When we read, we should think that we have such great merit ourselves. Those great beings made efforts over their entire lives and because of that we can read their translations. We can experience the Dharma that is unmistaken, the true Dharma with the undiminished flavor and scent of the Dharma, we can understand the unmistaken meaning of the scriptures.
  2. From another perspective, in the future if we can engage in translation ourselves, it is of course possible. Among all of us who are listening to the teachings, it is definite that some of us will have the opportunity to translate scriptures, and when we have that opportunity, we should follow the methods used by the great scholars and translators of the past. We should be very careful and precise about each word of the text and be modest and careful in reciting them. Just reading some dictionaries and commentaries, knowing some foreign languages and then translating is unacceptable. We should be extremely assiduous. We must try to be the best we can, the highest we can, the best of the best, and the greatest of the greatest. We must have courage to uphold the lineage of this tradition so that the efforts of the translators of the past do not go to waste.

    We need to translate bearing the responsibility for future generations, not for our own fame or for minor ends. The instructions and fine explanations by authors of the scriptures, the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and root and lineages, will not go to waste.

With that the Karmapa said he would leave the topic of translation.

His Holiness then returned to the topic of the first day of the teachings on the Thirty Verses when he mentioned he would be speaking primarily about Xuanzang’s Treatise Proving Mind Only or the Treatise Proving Consciousness Only as the main topic for the teaching. In addition, he would also take Kuiji’s Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only for supplemental points.

In order to set the background, His Holiness gave a brief introduction to Kuiji’s guru, Tang Xuanzang, the most famous and influential figure in Chinese Buddhism and translator of the Treatise Proving Mind Only:

There is probably not a single Chinese person who has not heard of Tang Xuanzang because of The Great Travels to the West [English title is Journey to the West], a literary account of Tang Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to the west [ i.e. to countries west of China]. There, Tang Xuanzang met the monkey and the pig and became a Buddhist master, so no one was more well-known to the Chinese than he.

The Life of Kuiji

The Circumstances of Going Forth as a Youth

Shi Kuiji was born in 632 CE and died in 682 CE. His name as a layperson was Hóng dào. His family name was Yu chi.  He came from Chang'an (present-day Xian, Shanxi province). He was one of the great masters of the Tang dynasty, and the founder of the Chinese Mind Only school (Faxiang Zhong, the school of Phenomenal Appearances). He had many different names; he was also known as Ling Ji, Zhan Ji, Da Zhong Ji, Ji Shi, or simply Ji. Later he was well known by the name Kuiji. His most honorific title was Ci’en Da shi (Great Master of Ci’en Temple). He came from an important military family. His grandfather, his father and his uncle were all generals in the imperial army. His paternal uncle, Bo Fu, was especially well-known; he was the Tang Dynasty General Yu Xie Jin. In Chinese culture, protector gods were placed each side of an entrance gate and Yu Xie Jin became one of them as the protector general.

Kuiji’s life story is written in the Song dynasty book, Lives of Eminent Monks, which describes the miraculous events around his birth. His mother Pei Sang dreamed she swallowed a moon the size of her palm and then she became pregnant with Kuiji. After he was born, he was unlike other children. He was very smart and bright. He memorized many different old Chinese texts and verses when he was young. These were not dharma texts but worldly texts. Given that he came from a military family, he had memorized many texts about being a general. It was the nature of generals to be very straightforward and direct because they were commanders and quite violent, so Kuiji himself was a very direct and forthright person. He lacked the social graces of ordinary, non-military people.

Xuanzang saw Kuiji for the first time when he was walking on a narrow path between fields. He noted that Kuiji had a very attractive face, and his behavior and comportment were appropriate, so Xuanzang thought, “He does not look like a general’s son. There is a deep dharma karmic connection between us. If I can take him as a student, I will have someone to pass my lineage to.” Xuanzang recalled an earlier event when he was returning from India. At that time, a Jain ascetic made a divination and said, “After you return to China, you will meet a student with innate brilliance and intelligence.” He thought this Kuiji was probably that student.

Xuanzang felt very happy and went to the general, gave some advice, and expressed the hope that this child might become a monk and become his student. Since this child came from the lineage of generals that protected the Tang Dynasty, Kuiji’s father had hoped that his son would follow the family tradition and go into the military too. However, because Xuanzang was very famous and highly-respected, the general was unable to deny his request immediately. Instead, he suggested that Kuiji was not suited to a monk’s life. “My child behaves very badly, we’re all from a family of generals, so generals have very harsh violent actions. It’s difficult for someone like him to be receptive to the true dharma,” he said.

Xuanzang countered that it was because he had been born into the general’s family and the general was his father that Kuiji had such skills and a wide perspective. He really liked Kuiji’s character. Finally, the general capitulated and agreed that Kuiji could become a monk. However, Kuiji himself objected. Xuanzang returned to the household many times, and in the end Kuiji had no choice but to agree to his request, but not gracefully. He was angry and said, vehemently, “I have three conditions. I will only become a monk if you agree to these. Otherwise, I won’t. First, I will not give up desire. I will not give up women, and so forth.” Because he was so handsome and from a high-ranking family, he probably enjoyed sensory pleasures. “Second, I must eat meat.” Monastics in China did not eat meat. They were also forbidden to eat after midday, so Kuijis’ third demand was, “I must eat in the afternoon. Otherwise, I can’t become a monk.”

Xuanzang agreed to these three conditions so that Kuiji could go forth and tame his mind through the dharma. So the story goes that Kuiji filled three whole wagons with the things he needed and went off to become a monk. The first wagon was full of beautiful women, the second had meat and alcohol, and the third was filled with worldly, non-dharma books. Although monks usually give up everything, Kuiji brought three wagons with him, and was nicknamed “the three-wagon monk.”

However, Kuiji’s own account of his life contradicts this rather. The Song dynasty book, Lives of Eminent Monks, quotes what Kuiji himself wrote in his own book, Difficult Points of the Treatise Proving Mind Only. He said he experienced many ups and downs in his life, and when he was nine, one of his close relatives died—some say his mother died—so he grew up alone. Then at fourteen, he gradually grew further away from the bustling, busy world. At the age of seventeen, he felt the wish to go forth, and so he became a monk. If what he wrote is true, then nicknaming him the “three-wagon monk” was baseless slander, because from the time he was young he had some revulsion toward worldly ways.

In any case, at the age of seventeen, Kuiji went forth and became Xuanzang’s student. He first entered the Guǎngfú Temple (Extensive Merit Temple). Later, because he was so intelligent, he went with Xuanzang to the Great Ci’en Temple (Great Temple of Compassion and Loving Kindness) where Xuanzang lived. At the age of twenty-three, he took the Mahayana bodhisattva vows and learned Indian languages. He was so intelligent and diligent in studying the scriptures and the meanings that, in a very short time, he was able to learn and understand them. Many people praised him highly. When he was twenty-five, he began working on translating scriptures, probably at the emperor’s decree. Although Kuiji was the youngest, he was allowed to participate in the work of the translation school. If he did not have innate intelligence, he would not have been allowed in.

From the time he began to study, he was able to learn in their entirety some thirty texts from the Foundational and Mahayana vehicles. When the master was teaching, there was a tradition of making a note of the master’s comments, so Kuiji was able to be the note-taker on the text given at that time.

The Master of One Hundred Teachings

Of the many names he had, Kuiji also received the title of “The Master of One Hundred Teachings” because of his diligence and determination in note-taking. He was also very skilled at taking notes, writing treatises and explanations. As described in the historical resources, working on translations of scriptures, Kuiji would write detailed notes on all Xuanzang’s teachings, and, in this way, he wrote many commentaries. Every day, Xuanzang would begin to teach at mid-morning, and all the sangha members would take notes and transcribe the teachings. Kuiji was very determined at the notetaking and transcribing, and was the most diligent. He was able to write commentaries on Xuanzang’s view, those texts Kuiji wrote, or authored, were primarily his notes on what Xuanzang had said.

Later, after Xuanzang passed away, people held Kuiji’s notes and commentaries as the most authoritative source for Xuanzang’s words. An excerpt from a text by Kuiji called Miscellaneous Essays (Zá jí lùnshù jì) says:

The wonderful excellent teachings have now become nothing,
I will now put down what I heard before into notes.

After  Xuanzang passed away, his translation school at the Yuhua (Jade Flower) monastery was disbanded. Kuiji returned to the Great Ci’en monastery and began writing commentaries on philosophical texts, as well as nurturing his students. He spread Mind Only philosophy widely and many began to call him the Ci’en Master.  

Chinese historians call Kuiji the founder of the Chinese autonomous Mind Only school, but this is rather awkward to say because Kuiji was merely recording the teachings he received from Xuanzang. However, it is true to say that while Xuanzang was still alive, there was no established autonomous Chinese Mind Only school.  Known as the school of Phenomenal Appearances, it only developed during the time of Kuiji.

Over the course of his life, Kuiji wrote a great many treatises, and for that reason, he was also called the “Master of One Hundred Texts,” or “Master of One Hundred Commentaries.” Among these, forty-four were the most well-known, of which twenty-four are still extant.

The Karmapa said that he had wanted to show a list of them, but he had not translated all the titles into Tibetan for it was not easy to translate some of them.

Kuiji’s works are numerous and cover a very broad range of topics. Some were on the foundational vehicle, some Mahayana, some epistemology, some Mind Only. The Karmapa said the main thing he focused on was the Yogacara Mind Only philosophy. There was no Mind Only sutra or treatise related to the Mind Only that Kuiji did not explain—not only did he write single explanations, he wrote commentaries on each of the texts that Xuanzang had translated and moreover added commentaries on older translations by Paramārtha.

When looking at the catalog of his works now, Kuiji’s commentaries primarily concentrated on the Mind Only treatises by Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu.

Likewise, when he was writing these commentaries, Kuiji primarily held the positions of the tradition held by the master Dharmapāla. Kuiji himself translated them, compiled the ten commentaries proving the treatise, and he also wrote four commentaries on this treatise. Together they take thirty-six volumes.

Among them, the longest commentary was a sub-commentary which is an explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only. Depending on the edition it is either ten or twenty volumes long. Kuiji’s commentaries take Xuanzang’s explanations as their basis for and present Xuanzang’s positions as they are, but his own works combine the thought of both the master and disciple. These works represent the Ci’en school view. In brief, Kuiji wrote many commentaries on sutras and treatises and propagated Mind Only philosophy. Within these, there were more than a few of his own innovations and ideas.

Kuiji wrote commentaries on two texts of logic and epistemology that Xuanzang had translated. The first was the six-volume Commentary on the Introduction to Logic,  written by Shankara, and considered very important. Kuiji wrote a six-volume commentary on that, although Tibetans do not consider that text as particularly significant. The other commentary was the Notes on the Introduction to Logic a commentary on Dignaga’s Niyayamuka, or Introduction to Logic. Kuiji propagated widely the teachings on logic and epistemology, and his lineage of epistemology was held by his student, Huizhao, who then passed it on to Zhizhou. After that it spread into Japan, and into the tradition of epistemology right up to the present.



2023.01.19 Day 3: The Legacy of the Chinese Translators