Showing posts with label Texts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Texts. Show all posts

20 September 2013

Fixing Problems in the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra

There's an old IT saying: "the good thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from." Standardisation does help to facilitate interactivity. These words are encoded in the English language, written in a script deriving from Roman writing. On my computer, they become encoded at one level as HTML rendered on your screen according to agreed protocols; at a lower level in terms of TCP/IP packets sent to your computer from a server; and at a lower level still as short bursts of voltage changes on a wire. If the parameters of these voltages, packets or markup languages were not agreed upon then the internet would cease to work.

In India, from about the beginning of the common-era, Sanskrit became a kind of standard for religious discourse. Even Buddhists began producing texts in Sanskrit, or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, from around this time, despite the apparent prohibition on using Sanskrit contained in the early texts (Vin v.33.1). Some of the first Sanskrit texts were the early Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, especially the Aṣṭasāhasikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā. However, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is distinct from Classical Sanskrit because it includes many Prakrit forms (to the point where some dialects are more like Prakrit than Sanskrit). In some out-of-the-way places other languages were important: Pāli became the "church language" in Sri Lanka; Gāndhārī was used in the Northwest Frontier and many Gāndhārī texts were translated into Chinese (especially the Āgamas or counterparts to the Pāli Nikāyas). Several Central Asian languages of the Iranian family (e.g., Tocharian and Khotanese) were also important scriptural languages. But most Mahāyāna texts were preserved in a variety of Sanskrit.

Another form of standardisation is the construction of critical editions from manuscript sources. The assumption is that a text that now exists in a variety of versions originated from a single written version, which is obviously not always true in a place like India that favours oral composition. An editor will gather all the existing editions of a text and try to determine a text, an ur-text, that is a plausible ancestor to them all. To do this they note scribal errors, any lines or phrases out of place, broken metre, etc., and try to fix them. Then, when obvious errors are fixed, they look for other ways in which texts evolve: for example, interpolations or other changes by previous editors. The resulting text may be different from any of the surviving manuscripts, as is the case for the Heart Sutra.

In the case of the Heart Sutra, we have known for some time that the core of the text derives from the Pañcaviṃśati Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and Jan Nattier has shown that it specifically comes from the Chinese version by Kumārajīva (T 223). Further investigation tells us that the stemma codicum most closely resembles the Chinese version ascribed to Xuánzàng (T 251), though it is not a perfect match. T 251 is largely in the idiom of Kumārajīva with a few of Xuánzàng's terms over-laid. Though a version is attributed to Kumārajīva (T 250) who lived two centuries earlier, both attribution and date are plausibly disputed. Nattier argues that T 250 draws on T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra), a commentary on Pañcaviṃśati attributed to Nāgārjuna and also translated by Kumārajīva, rather than directly from T 223, suggesting it has been edited by someone familiar with the work of Kumārajīva. T 250 also contains two passages, one of 37 characters, which do not occur in T 251. 

In the previous three essays we rehearsed Nattier's arguments that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a translation from the Chinese, focussing in the process on a number of infelicitous passages, the conclusion being that the Sanskrit text is, indeed, a translation from Chinese, produced by someone with Chinese as a mother tongue. If we were concerned to produce a better reading on our way to proposing a stemma codicum, some of these infelicities were easily fixed. In the case of the phrase, na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi, we simply add the negative particle and a case ending to each word to arrive at idiomatic Sanskrit: na cakṣuḥ na śrotraṃ na ghrānaṃ jihvā na kāyo na manaḥ. Thus, the Gilgit ms. of Pañcaviṃśati and, as it happens, also quite a few of Conze's sources, e.g., Ne, Nh, Nk, Jb, Ce, and Cg (once again, Conze misses the opportunity). But some of the other problems run deeper. They would require us to first better understand the Chinese idiom and then make an informed decision about how to render that idea into Sanskrit.

This essay will look, in particular, at two phrases identified by Nattier as working well in Chinese, but becoming clumsy in Sanskrit and in English translations from Sanskrit.

Satyam amithyatvāt

The Chinese characters are 真實不虛 zhēn shí bù xū. Now, the characters 真 and 實 are used in the translation of yathābhūta-jñānadarśana (knowing and seeing things as they are), viz, 見如實、知如真, literally ‘seeing as real, knowing as true’. Where 真, zhēn, means 'real' and 實, shí, means 'true'. Hence, the sense is 'really true' which can be rendered as 'genuine' or 'authentic'. However, according the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism: 真實 has been used to translate a bewildering variety of Sanskrit terms:
akṛtrima, avitatha, avitathatā, aviparīta, ātmaka, ārjava, kalyāṇa, tattvârtha, tatva, tathātra, dravya, dharma-tattva, naya, niyata, nūnam, parama, paramârthatā, paramârtha-sat, paramârthena, pariniṣpatti, pariniṣpanna, pāramārthika, bhūtatā, thūti, maula, yathābhūta, yathāvat, *vāstavikatā, śuddhā, śubha, saṃsevana, sat, satya-kāra, satyatā, sad-bhāva, samyaktva, sāra, sāratā, sva-tantra, sva-naya, svanaya-pratyavasthāna
Choosing which of these was intended is difficult without more context. However, the second part of the phrase is more straight-forward and gives us a point of reference (note the contrast with the difficulty of this part, amithyatvād, in Sanskrit). 虛, xū, 'false', is also used for a variety of terms including śūnya; ākāśa; mṛṣā, mithyā abhūta, but these are all part of one broad semantic field concerned with lack of substance, either literally (śūnya 'empty') or metaphorically (mṛṣā 'false').

Though we find the Sanskrit satyam amithyatvāt unsatisfactory, there are a number of other possibilities that take in the contrast between truth and falsity. One of the main problems with  satyam amithyatvāt is that satyam is not usually contrasted with mithyā. Satyam is contrasted with asatya or, sometimes, with anṛta or mṛṣā. The Vajracchedikā Nāma Triśatikā Prajñāpāramitā or Diamond Sutra (section 14) contrasts satya/mṛṣāna tatra satyaṁ na mṛṣā 'there is no truth and no lie'. However, this pair is not found in the Pañcaviṃśati and mṛṣā is only used once there, in the compound mṛṣāvādaḥ, 'false speech' (cf. Pāli musāvāda). Mithyā, on the other hand, is usually contrasted with samyañc. Of the various possibilities, samyañc/mithyā seems the more likely pair.

Let us begin with 虛, xū, and take it to convey the Sanskrit word mithyā, 'false'. Thus, 不虛 bù xū ought to be: na mithyā or amithyā, literally, 'not false, non-false', or 'true'. These negative forms are common and important in Buddhist Sanskrit vocabulary (and perhaps also in wider Indian literature). There is a special emphasis in saying that something is "not false" as compared to saying that it is "true". Right down to the present, Buddhists have an anxiety about taking the wrong path, or being given false teachings that do not lead to nirvāṇa. In this phrase, the non-falsity of prajñāpāramitā is almost as relevant as its truth.

The opposite of mithyā is usually samyañc (which becomes samyak/samyag in use, since ñc is not a permitted final). For example, we usually contrast samyagdṛṣti, 'right view', 正見, or 'perfect view' with mithyādṛṣṭi, 'false view', 邪見, xiéjiàn. And so on for all of the Eightfold Path. Though note that the character used here is 邪, xié, rather than 虛, xū.

In Pāli, we sometimes find other juxtapositions of samyañc and mithyā. At SN v.17-8 and DN iii.254 the abstract nouns micchatta/sammatta (Sanskrit mithyātva/samyaktva) are contrasted in terms of the items of the Eightfold Path. At DN i.8 we find that Gotama refrains from arguments of the type 'you are proceeding falsely and I am proceeding correctly' (micchā paṭipanno tvamasi, ahamasmi sammā paṭipanno). And at DN iii.128 a contrast is made between understanding the meaning and the words of any given doctrine, either of which can be micchā or sammā: e.g., ‘ayaṃ kho āyasmā atthañhi kho micchā gaṇhāti byañjanāni sammā ropetīti. (grasping a wrong meaning while having a right sense of the words).

From amongst the many possible translations of 真實 given by the DDB we see an abstract noun formed from samyañc, i.e., samyaktva 'completeness, wholeness; truthful', though this word is seldom used in Buddhist Sanskrit (searching across the whole of the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist canon). It's entirely possible for the same Chinese character to be used to translate both samyañc and samyaktva.

So we might have expected the contrast in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra to be along the lines: samyag na mithyā; or samyak ca amithyā ca; or samyagamithyā. Or, if the abstract was preferred, samyaktva na mithyātva etc. In the critical edition of the Aṣṭa by Vaidya we find this contrast between samyak and mithyā used as adjectives:
Saced evaṃ pariṇāmayati, samyak pariṇāmayati, na mithyā pariṇāmayati. Evaṃ ca bodhisattvena mahāsattvena pariṇāmayitavyam. (72) 
If he transforms this way, he transforms truthfully, he does not transform. And thus the bodhisattva mahāsattva should transform.
In a fragment of the Aṣṭa found in central Asia we find reference to a particular samādhi named 'devouring all truthhood and falsehood': samyaktva-mithyātva-sarva-saṃgrasanaḥ nāma samādhiḥ (AṣṭaK line 13). In another fragment (AṣṭaB) we find this explained as:
tatra katama samyaktvamithyātva-sarvasaṃgrasanaḥ nāma samādhir yatra samādhau sthitvā sarvasamādhīnāṃ saṃyuktvamithyātvaṃ na samanupaśyaty ayam ucyate samyaktvamithyātva-sarvasaṃgrasanaḥ samādhiḥ
There is the best of integrated states called "devouring all truthhood and falsehood", remaining in that state he does not perceive the truthhood and falsehood of all integrated states - this is called the integrated state of devouring all truthhood and falsehood.
The same idea occurs in the Pañcaviṃśati (Dutt 1.203)
tatra katamaḥ sarvasamyaktvamithyātvasaṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ yatra samādhau sthitvā samādhīnāṃ samyaktvamithyātvāni na samanupaśyati tenocyate sarvasamyaktvamithyātvasaṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ
Here the wording is almost identical, except that, in the name of the samādhi or integrated state, samyaktva-mithyātva-sarva-saṃgrasanaḥ 'all devouring' has been substituted with sarva-samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho 'compendium of all truthhood and falsehood'. Kimura (1-1.184) has 'there is an integrated state called compendium of truthhood and falsehood' (asti samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ) and then later (1-2. 65) sarva-samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho as per Dutt, with the same explanation (1-2: 74). Dutt also has (1.143) 'there is an integrated state named compendium of truthhood and non-falsehood' (asti samyak-amithyātva-saṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ).

Elsewhere in the Pañcaviṃśati samyaktva tends to only be used in a compound with -niyato 'connected with, established in, or disciplined by'
bhagavān āha: na mayā subhūte 'nuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbudhya kathaṃcid api sattva upalabdhaḥ, samyaktvaniyato vā mithyātvaniyato vāniyato vā (Kimura 5:120)
The Bhagavan said, Subhuti, I don't perceive a being anywhere having attained supreme perfect awakening, connected with truthhood, or connected with falsehood, or unconnected. 
Thus we have a precedent in the Perfection of Wisdom literature for the contrast samyak na mithya and for samyaktva-mithyātva. The Heart Sutra is trying to convey that the efficacy of prajñāpāramitā is down to the features of both truthfulness and non-falseness. The ablative case ending indicates from what a verb proceeds, either spatially or more abstractly for what reason the action happens. Prajñāpāramitā is a great spell, etc., is the allayer of all disappointment because 真實不虛, i.e., because it is true/truthhood and because it is not-false/not-falsehood (it is difficult to find matching abstract nouns in English). We might combine the two factors into a dvandvā compound: samyaktvāmithyātvāt

Having done all this comparative/deductive work, if we now look again at Conze's critical edition we note that there were a few variant readings of this expression:
Cae: samyaktvaṃ na mithyatvaṃ
Ne: samyaktva amithyātvā
Nb: samyaktvamithyatvat (not noted in Conze's edition)
Thus, the very readings (with some minor scribal errors) which would make sense in the context were, in fact, available to Conze in his mss., but he rejected them in favour of something which was not good Sanskrit and did not really make sense. Also, the lacuna in Conze's list of the alternate readings here is not the first I have found after examining the manuscripts.

Unfortunately, this undermines Nattiers argument that this passage is a back-translation. Other passages withstand scrutiny better, but here the simpler explanation is that we are mislead by Conze's critical edition. There was and is a better translation of this phrase.


This term is more consistent in the mss. and our job here is not identifying a better reading from the extant mss. because there isn't one. The job here is to look more broadly at how Kumārajīva, in particular, might have used this phrase to translate Sanskrit. Since the passage this term appears in has not yet been identified with a counterpart in other Buddhist texts, we must cast a broader net. However, I think we can assume that the general style of Kumārajīva is likely to be a reference point, because where we have found exact correspondences to date they are to Kumārajīva's translations. We are fortunate to have Seishi KARASHIMA's detailed glossary of Kumārajīva's translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sutra (T. 9.262), which shows us where and how each phrase was used and links it to a Sanskrit edition.

The Chinese is 究竟涅槃, jiùjìng nièpán. The last two characters render nirvāṇa while the first two mean 'finally attain' or 'ultimately'. The phrase is usually supplemented in both Sanskrit and Tibetan with the verb pra√āp, 'attains', as a past participle, prāpta. This choice is ironic because the text earlier says na prāptiḥ. Conze tolerates this:
"[Niṣṭhānirvāṇaprāthaḥ) obviously contradicts [na prāpti]. It is just because he seeks no attainment, it is just because attainment is quite impossible, that the Bodhisattva attains or wins Nirvana." (1975: 97-98), 
Conze seems to relish the contradictions sometimes found in Perfection of Wisdom texts, but I've already identified at least two example of how this predilection for nonsense has led Conze astray in editing the Sanskrit text. Generally speaking, when our text is nonsense, we have to ask if we have made a mistake. So we have to ask, is the contradiction part and parcel of the text or simply a mistake? What we want here is something that means 'culminating in nirvāṇa'. The bodhisattva, in a state of non-attaining, relies on perfect wisdom and has no mental obstructions (cittāvaraṇa), and thus they overcome wrong views and attain/reach nirvāṇa. So we can see the temptation to supply a verb like prāpnoti 'to attain' even though the text rules it out. We saw the verb ā√rādh 'to succeed' used in Pāli in the last essay.

Now the characters 究竟 are used to translate niṣṭhā, 'state, condition; conclusion, termination'; but they are also used to translate atyanta, 'ultimate, culmination; arrive, reach', and sometimes atyantaniṣṭhā (pointed out by Dan Luthaus on Buddha-L). It would seem that atyanta is a better choice, here. The terms atyantaśūnyatā, 'ultimate emptiness', and atyantaviśuddhitām, 'ultimate purity', are found quite frequently in Pañcaviṃśati. The compound atyantaniṣṭhā, however, still begs the addition of a verb or verbal form, so in this sense it does not solve our problem. 

Consulting Karashima's glossary we find some extra possibilities. Karashima has identified a number of uses for this Chinese phrase in translating the Sanskrit Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or Lotus Sūtra. But one in particular stands out.
為求聲聞者說應四諦法,度生老病死,究竟涅槃 (3c17)
Wèi qiú shēng wén zhě shuō yīng sìdì fǎ, dù shēnglǎobìngsǐ, jiùjìng nièpán
The parallel in Vaidya's Sanskrit Ed. is
yad uta śrāvakāṇāṃ caturāryasatya-saṃprayuktaṃ pratītyasamutpāda-pravṛttaṃ dharmaṃ deśayati sma jāti-jarāvyādhimaraṇaśoka-paridevaduḥkha-daurmanasyopāyāsānāṃ samatikramāya nirvāṇaparyavasānam | (12)
Here 究竟涅槃 corresponds to samatikramāya nirvāṇaparyavasānam, 'going beyond [suffering] to the conclusion of nirvāṇa'. Samatikrama (sam+ati+ √kram) means ‘going entirely over or beyond’; while paryavasāna (pari+ava+√so) means ‘end, conclusion’ or 'ending, concluding'. Kumārajīva also translates nirvāṇaparyavasāna (without samatikramāya) with 究竟涅槃 at 19c4, 50c4, 50c7. Additionally, he used these characters to translate: parinirvāṇa (7c2) and samavasaraṇa (12b5) which overlap semantically. 

Given the context in the Heart Sutra we're looking for a word or phrase that indicates that the bodhisattva's path culminates in nirvāṇa (which is not an attainment, but rather the extinction of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion). Contra Conze (1975), I see no reason to construct this as a paradox. That the goal is a liberation from something, rather than an attaining to something, is not so difficult to grasp. As a compound, nirvāṇaparyavasānam can mean exactly 'culminating in nirvāṇa', because paryavasāna is a verbal noun. As such, it is probably the best candidate for what was written as 究竟涅槃 from amongst the choices identified. The paraphrasing effect of going from Sanskrit to Chinese to Sanskrit might have produced the sequence:

nirvāṇa-paryavasānam → 究竟涅槃 → niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa

I suggest, then, that nirvāṇaparyavasānam is a better reading for 究竟涅槃 in the Heart Sutra than niṣṭhānirvāṇa, and were I editing the text would propose this substitution to create a readable text.

The assumption here is that the Chinese text was inspired by Sanskrit texts throughout. This is an assumption that requires further investigation, though I see preliminary evidence that even the parts not clearly associated with the Large Perfection of Wisdom Text drew on Chinese idioms of Kumārajīva's translations of Buddhist texts. In other words, the text has been composed to conform to Buddhist idioms, probably by somebody familiar with Kumārajīva's translations.


In this essay and the previous one, I have proposed two additional changes to the wording of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, to go with the revision of the first paragraph proposed last year, and the stylistic observations made by Jan Nattier also discussed in my last essay. The two latest suggestions are:
  1. satyaṃ amithyatvāt  → samyaktvāmithyātvāt.
  2. niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa(-praptaḥ) → nirvāṇaparyavasānam
The first is supported by extant mss. readings, though the second is not. In the second case some mss. attempt to solve the problem of the unreadability of niṣṭhānirvāṇa by adding the past participle prāpta, though this creates readable nonsense. The case for the second change, then, is based on readability and an attempt to establish alternatives by tracing how 究竟涅槃 was used to translate Sanskrit terms by Kumārajīva.

Jan Nattier argued that in both cases we have evidence for a back translation from Chinese. I have shown that in the first case this is incorrect, as it seems to be a problem with Conze's critical edition. However, the second does seem likely to an artefact of a phrase moving from Sanskrit to Chinese and back to Sanskrit.

On investigation, we find an accumulation of errors and infelicities in the critical edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, along with a series of suggestions for how to improve the text. A new critical edition, and one which pays much close attention to alternate readings, is now more than desirable, it is urgent. In my next essay I'll propose a new edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra which incorporates the changes suggested so far.



  • Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. 

09 August 2013

The Doors to the Deathless

Siddhaṃ calligraphy of the 
Lalitavistara Sūtra version of the verse
[Updated 30 Aug 2013 with suggestions and corrections from Bhikhhu Ānandajoti (AJ)]

One of the well known archetypal events in the life story of the Buddha is his meeting with Vedic god Brahmā after his Awakening. The episode occurs in Pāli in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta which is considered by many scholars to contain an archaic version of the life-story which is missing many later elements (see The Buddha's Biography). Here Brahmā is called Brahmā Sahampati 'Lord of All'(?), though elsewhere the epithet Sahampati is dropped.

In the episode, the Buddha, thinking about how he might convey what he has discovered, appears to be reluctant to try to teach it. Brahmā appears to him to ask him to teach, because, though many will not understand, there are some people who will. It is quite an evocative image: the creator god of the Brahmanical religion (of the day) begging the Buddha to teach what we now think of as Buddhism. 

This episode has been studied in detail by a number of scholars, most recently by my colleague Dhīvan Thomas Jones in his article 'Why Did Brahmā Ask the Buddha to Teach?' (2009). It was looking at his article that drew my attention to one particularly interesting verse that recurs in several places. All three versions are in triṣṭubh (P. tuṭṭhubha) metre, which has 11 syllables in 3 measures of 4:3:4.* Those who aren't interested in detailed analysis of grammar and metre can skip to the conclusions which discuss the verse in terms of cladistic thinking.

Aryapariyesanā Sutta. MN 26, PTS i.170 (Ap)
apārutā tesaṃ amatassa dvārā
ye sotavanto pamuñcantu saddhaṃ
vihiṃsasaññī pagunaṃ na bhāsiṃ
dhammaṃ paṇītaṃ manujesu brahme' ti
The doors of the deathless are opened for them,
Let those who listen renounce the funeral rites.
Familiar with their vicious minds, I did not speak,
The lofty Dhamma amongst human beings, O Brahma.


^ - ^ - | - - ^^| - ^ - -
- - ^ - | - ^ - | - ^ - -
^ - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
- - ^ - | - ^ | - ^ - -

^ = light syllable
- or ^^ = heavy syllable
Context tells us that lines cd represent the hesitation to teach and lines ab represent the resolution to teach or as the metaphor has it, to open the doors to the deathless. This verse has counterparts in the Lalitavistara Sūtra and the Mahāvastu, both composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and thus giving us an interesting contrast.

Lalitavistara Sūtra (Lv 25.34)
apāvṛtās teṣām amṛtasya dvārā
brahman ti satataṃ ye śrotavantaḥ |
praviśanti śraddhā naviheṭhasaṃjñāḥ
śṛṇvanti dharmaṁ magadheṣu sattvāḥ ||
The doors the deathless are opened,
Always for those who listen, O Brahma.
Those with faith and peaceful thoughts enter,
The beings of Magadha listen to the doctrine.


^ - ^ - | - - ^^| - ^ - -
- - ^ ^ | ^ - - | - ^ - -
- ^ - ^ | - - ^^| - ^ - -
- - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
Lv has the same triṣṭubh metre as Ap, with minor variations. 

Mahāvastu (Mv iii.319)
apāvṛtaṃ me amṛtasya dvāraṃ
brahmeti bhagavantaṃ ye śrotukāmā
śraddhāṃ pramuṃcantu viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ |
viheṭhasaṃjño praguṇo abhūṣi
dharmo aśuddho magadheṣu pūrvaṃ ||
The doors to the deathless are opened,
O Brahmā, let those who wish to hear the Blessed One
Give up the funeral rites and harmful thoughts.  
Well acquainted with vicious thoughts, unadorned.
Formerly there was an impure Dharma amongst the


^ - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
- - ^ ^^| - - - | - ^ - -
- - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -

^ - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - ^
- - ^ - | - ^ ^ | - ^ - -
Once again the metre is triṣṭubh, though here extended to five lines. Re the middle measure of line 2 AJ says "is highly unusual, and probably impossible, as three heavies do not appear in the break".

Ap and Lv are more or less identical in line a, taking into account spelling differences between Pāli and Sanskrit. Mv mirrors these two but has the first person instrumental pronoun me instead of the genitive/dative third person plural pronoun tesaṃ/tesāṃ. In Ap and Lv the doors were open "for them" and in Mv "by me". The metric pattern of all three is triṣṭubh, but, whereas in Lv and Ap resolve on heavy syllable as two light (a mṛ and a ma), Mv must take a mṛ as two light syllables. Thus the Mv version fits the metre more naturally that Ap or Lv. In fact if we changed tesaṃ to me in Ap then the metre of the verse would be more symmetrical - lines a and c, and b and d having identical patterns.

In all cases the conjunct consonant dv fails to 'make position' or cause the preceding syllable to be heavy. I'm less sure about Sanskrit metre even than Pāli, but I suspect this is an artefact of the underlying Prakrit in the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. 

In line two Ap and Lv refer to 'those who have ears' (sotavanto/śrotavantaḥ), i.e. those willing to listen, however they diverge quite a bit otherwise. In Lv the statement (marked by 'ti' at the end) is concluded and the Buddha tells Brahma that the way is always (satataṃ) open. This addition creates downstream effects which will be discussed below. Mv changes śrotavantaḥ to śrotukāmā 'those who desire to hear'. Since the Mv poet here has exchanged satataṃ 'always' for bhagavantaṃ, the two light syllables in bhaga resolve as one heavy syllable.

A significant difference creeps into Lv at this point. Where Ap and Mv have pamuñcantu and pramuṃcantu 'they should give up' (in the imperative mood), Lv changes the verb to praviśanti 'they enter' (present indicative) and the meaning of the sentence is changed considerably. What is more, the verb in the plural is in a line with two words in the nominative plural, forcing us to read them as adjectives or predicates of an implied subject 'they': i.e. "those who have faith and not vicious thoughts". Presumably the composer of Lv thought of the faithful entering the doors to the deathless.

In Ap and Mv what should be given up is saddhā/śraddhāOften we would translate saddhā as 'faith', but here K.R. Norman (2001) has suggested that saddhā refers to the Brahminical funeral rites. These rites, which include being cremated according to specific instructions, are intended to assure the rebirth of the Brahmin in heaven.** Certainly it would be strange if the Buddha were suggesting giving up faith! Ñānamoḷi and Bodhi here have "let those with ears show their faith". They must be reading pamuñcati as "to let loose, give out, emit". The Sanskrit root is √muc - 'to free', and the prefix pra- indicates the forward direct: hence 'let loose'. This is a valid translation also.

The context supports the reading as "renounce the funeral rites" because the deathless or undying (amata/amṛta = Latin im-morta-) is a Vedic idiom. At least in some cases it is precisely the amṛta , i.e. an end to repeated death in saṃsāra that is sought by Brahmins in their funeral rites. This is reinforced because the Buddha is speaking to Brahmā, the creator god of the Brahmins (seen in crude terms anyway). But the ambiguity remains.

Sanskrit viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ is synonymous with Pāli vihiṃsasaññī (though there is a closer Pāli equivalent in viheṭhasaññā) and in the phrase vihiṃsasaññī paguṇaṃ is often rendered as "perceiving trouble". However 'trouble' hardly seems a sufficient translation of vihiṃsa, which means: 'hurting, injuring, cruelty, injury'; whereas viheṭha (from the verb viheṭheti) is 'to be hostile, to oppress, to bring into difficulties, to vex, to annoy, plague, hurt'. In Pāli a saññin is 'one who perceives, a perceiver', however in Lv the compounds ends with -saṃjñāḥ and Mv -saṃjñāṃ neither of which adds the possessive -in ending though it is available in Sanskrit. I would read the Pāli vihiṃsasaññī as 'one whose thoughts are vicious', and the Sanskrit as simply 'thoughts of cruelty'. 

Here Ap and Mv has a word missing from Lv: paguṇa (Skt. praguṇa) 'well acquainted'. In the narrative context we know that the Buddha has been considering whether or not he could teach what he has discovered and some dramatic tension is built up by his first opinion that people won't get it. He is well acquainted with their vicious minds (vihiṃsasaññī paguṇa) thus he concludes it is hopeless to teach them. The lack of this word praguṇa drastically changes the sense of the passage - leaving the poet of Lv with this word viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ to be fitted in somehow.

Where in Ap it seems natural to take vihiṃsasaññī in line c, by including satataṃ in line b, Lv pushes the replacement verb praviśanti into line c. While "entering faith" makes good sense, it requires a further change because the next word is P vihiṃsa-saññī or S. viheṭha-saṃjñā 'vicious thoughts' and if one is 'entering' instead of 'renouncing' then it requires the vicious thoughts to be negated. Hence Lv has na viheṭhasaṃjñā 'not vicious thoughts', or 'peaceful thoughts'. Furthermore Lv has saddhā and viheṭhasaṃjñā in the nominative case when they are in the accusative in both Mv and Ap.

So in Ap saddhā is the patient of the verb pamuñcantu but vihiṃsasaññin forms part of a sub-clause in a different sentence. In Lv na viheṭhasaṃjñāḥ and saddhāḥ are predicates of an implied subject of the substituted verb praviśanti. (Note we should almost certainly read praviśantī to correct the metre. AJ) And in Mv viheṭhasaṃjñāṃ and śraddhaṃ are both patients of pramuṃcantu. Ap seems more natural than either Lv or Mv in this case.

It's possible here that the author of Lv heard pamuñcantu saddhā and thought it could only be understood as 'abandon faith'. And thus emended the verb to praviśanti, and then realised that a further change was required. Holding the changes within a metrically constrained context meant that the changes became even more significant.

Finally where Ap has vihiṃsasaññī pagunaṃ na bhāsiṃ 'familiar with their vicious minds I did not speak'; Mv has 'viheṭhasaṃjño praguṇo abhūṣi' 'familiar with their vicious minds, unadorned'. The difference is between na bhāsim 'I did not speak' (aorist first person singular from √bhāṣ 'to speak') and abhūṣi 'unadorned' (from √bhūṣ 'to adorn'). The word unadorned does not fit here, and the case or conjugation is unclear (if a verb the a- prefix would indicate past-tense rather than negation). Metrically, the final syllable is anceps, i.e. can be heavy or light, and here ṣi is light. This is allowed, however all the other lines end with heavy syllables. The two words bhāsiṃ and bhūṣi are very similar and would have been written in very similar ways in early manuscripts. The Classical Sanskrit past imperfect of √bhāṣ would be abhāṣani or aorist abhāṣi. Given that Mv is written in a Hybridised Sanskrit it's likely here that abhūṣi is a scribal error for Prakrit na bhāsiṃ. Note that Lv makes no mention of the preliminary decision not to teach in this verse.

There are further changes that could be commented on. We could remark on the change from "Magadhans" to "manuja" (men) in Pāli, if that was the direction of change. We might also reflect on the way that the Dharma is worked into the last lines as something the Buddha almost did not speak (P), something the Magadhans listened to (Lv) or something that pre-existed in impure form (Mv). But in terms of the kinds of processes which are at work in the production of variant texts, we have plenty to think about already and I want to offer some concluding thoughts. 

Thinking Cladistically

This verse seems to have existed independently of all the extant written texts. The fact that the metre is triṣṭubh in all three cases above suggests that the verse was originally in this metre, and the similarity of the first line suggests that it must have been in the original, though perhaps with the pronoun me instead of tesaṃ. Probably the third line of Ap (fourth in Mv) was in the original as well.

However, as Dhīvan makes clear in his article what we have here are three versions of a verse that pre-dates all three texts. Lv and Mv are not thought to have evolved from the Pāli. The stemma, or original text, is no longer extant and what we have are three refractions of the original through three different prisms. Where "prism" is a metaphor for culture, language, and the predilections of the author/editor. The study of the differences is interesting, even if it does not contain profound insights into the Dharma. It illustrates an aspect of the nature of the Buddhist literature. 

If we focus on one of the bodies of Buddhist literature (say the Pāli, though I believe the Pāli Canon consolidates multiple lines of textual development) then we can start to see it as 'original' or 'authentic' at the expense of the others. But this is a distortion. While it is true that some texts are more elaborate than others (certainly the hagiography of the Buddha in the Lv and Mv are very much elaborated compared with similar material found in Pāli) we cannot say that one is closer to the original text that others. Mv and Lv are, generally speaking, no less authentic representations of Buddhist thought than Ap is, despite some indications that they might have mangled this particular verse more than Ap. 

The antidote for this hierarchical thinking is to see things in a cladistic way. This way of thinking derives from evolutionary biology. Traditionally, in the wake of (culturally) Christian scientists, we see nature in terms of hierarchies of increasing complexity and perfection. Some of us may see humans, for example, as the top of the evolutionary ladder (as it is sometimes called). Hence also the cult-like interest in apex predators, especially those of a solitary nature such as great white sharks or tigers. However, some evolutionary biologists point our that every living thing we encounter today has been evolving for about 3.5 billion years and thus all organisms are equally evolved. Some of the simplest and seemingly 'primitive' organisms are far better fitted to their ecological niche than we are. When humans as a species are long gone, bacteria that have hardly changed for 3.5 billion years will continue to thrive. The life we encounter can certainly be divided up into categories or 'clades' for the purposes of study, but as we abandon anthropocentrism we can also abandon the false hierarchy we have imposed on species. Indeed Lynn Margulis argued that 'primitive' bacteria are all able to exchange genetic material and thus ought to be considered one species that is massively diversified. Also they always cooperate in colonies of mixed varieties and in many ways are hardly less complex than we are. Genetically speaking the bacteria that hitchhike on our bodies, often playing vital roles in maintaining our bodies, have several orders of magnitude more genes than our own cells. 

We may also say that all forms of Buddhism currently extant are equally developed though some forms have features that others lack. Buddhism thus exists in a variety of clades, but all forms of Buddhism presently being practised are equidistant from the origins of the religion. With texts we know that they were composed at particular times and thus can be formed into rough chronological order, though this is complicated because the act of composition and the act of writing down often occurred several centuries apart. Additionally writing down was not always the end of the changes that occurred in texts. Chronology, even when we can establish it with any certainty, does not necessarily correlate with authenticity or originality.

In the case of the texts studied in this essay, Ap, Lv and Mv were all written down at around the same time. Thus while we can consider them as occupying different clades, the written texts we are looking at all date from roughly the first century BCE. There is also a minority opinion that the Pāli texts date from a much later period. We have Chinese translations of counterparts of these particular texts dating from the second century CE, so it's possible that the written texts were not created until shortly before the transmission to China (possibly for this express purpose?)

Compared with a large body of literature the idea that such picayune details as I have examined here, in a single verse, are important can seem unconvincing. We may want to take in the majestic sweep of the canonical narratives of Buddhism and forget about the minutia. However unless we understand that our the texts, and the very ideas that are contained in them, are subject to various kinds of change over time, and some quite mundane changes at that, then we might make the mistake of seeing this literature in idealistic terms. Typically religious people come to see their texts as eternal or infallible. But texts are never eternal or infallible. They are cultural productions with all the limitations of their human authors and transmitters (including editors and commentators). 

As religieux we might not want to admit to the humanity of our texts. Too many Buddhists want to see the texts as "the Word of the Buddha" in the same way that fundamentalist Christians see the Bible as 'the Word of God'. But these texts are not the word of the Buddha. They are the words of Buddhists. Good words in many cases, beautiful and inspiring. Though in other cases confused, obscure and dull. Perhaps these words were inspired by stories of meetings with the Buddha that were preserved for centuries by devotees. Even so they are third hand at best.

This is not to say that we should not be inspired by the idea that the doors to the deathless are open. I recall the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and a moment awe when I first heard these words spoken aloud (and interestingly from an historical perspective I heard them from someone called Aśvajit). As far as I can see, if we live as though there were 'doors to the deathless' and that they are open to anyone who will harken to the ideals of Buddhism, then we might live well. The way to the deathless is through practising the Buddhist virtues of generosity, kindness, awareness, etc. And if the deathless is just a fairy story, then at least we can be sure that practising these virtues makes the world a better place. We need not become fundamentalists or indulge in the triumphalism that so often disfigures Buddhist discourse in order to practice these virtues, but we will need inspiration and perseverance. And it is often from telling, and listening to, stories that humans derive inspiration and find the courage to persevere.



* My thanks to Bhikkhu Anandajyoti for his work on Pāḷi metres and for some pointers on the meter of this verse in correspondence. 

** In fact I over simplify her for brevity's sake. The goals of the rites change over time and summarising them would take too long, and not be of much relevance to the main point.


01 June 2012

Irrelevant Details

Please note that a revised and extended version of this essay has been published as:
Attwood, Jayarava. (2013) Translation Strategies for the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta and its Chinese Counterparts. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 5, 42-63. Online:


Revised 7.6.2012 with suggestions from Bryan Levman (BL). Many thanks.

I'VE BEEN READING the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta (M 63) which is a well known text, if only because of the allegory of the man shot by an arrow who refuses treatment before finding out all the details of the person who shot him, and what he was shot with, and dies because of the delay.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that translators and commentators have focussed on the main point, and glossed over the details that consumed the proverbial victim. Unfortunately some of the details are no longer understood because scholars, from Buddhaghosa onwards, were not paying attention. This makes for unconvincing translations. Having the kind of mind I do, I've been trying to reconstruct what the terms might have meant in order to accurately translate them. Some aspects are probably lost forever now. And before anyone gives me a hard time about becoming engrossed in the details; yes, I do see the irony; and no, I don't care. Since the Chinese version of the text (Taisho T.01 n.94 p.0917c21) provided an insight or two I have included my notes on it below as well. Thanks to Bryan Levman of the Yahoo Pāli Group for the suggestion of checking the Chinese, and supplying a reference to it. [Note: there are in fact two versions of this text in Chinese T 1.26 and T 1.94. Also it is paraphrased at T 1509.15]


Here's my translation of the Pāli passage (M i.429)
"Suppose a man was struck by an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends, colleagues and relations would engage an arrow-removing physician to treat him. And suppose the man would say: 'as long as I do not know that man who shot the arrow, whether he was warrior, priest, merchant, or peasant; his name & clan; whether he is tall, short, or middling; dark, brown or fair [of complexion]; and whether he came from a village, town or city I will not allow the arrow to be removed. And as long as I do not know whether I was shot with a cāpa bow or a kodaṇḍa bow; whether the bowstring was akka, or bamboo, or sinew, or bow-string hemp; whether the arrow shaft was gathered or planted; whether the arrow was fletched with the feathers of a vulture, heron, falcon, peacock, or sithilahanu; and bound with cow, buffalo, deer or monkey sinew; and whether the tip was a point, knife-edged, barbed, iron, calf-tooth, or leaf shaped, I will not allow the arrow to be removed.' That man would die before all this was known, Māluṅkyaputta."

The first thing that I was struck by is that the man's friends and relations ...bhisakkaṃ sallakattaṃ upaṭṭhapeyyuṃ.  Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (hence forth Ñ&B) render this as "brought a surgeon to treat him" (p.534) which as far as I can see leaves out the word sallakattaṃ altogether; c.f. Gethin (2008) "summon a doctor to see the arrow" which acknowledges the salla part of sallakattaṃ, but there is no verb 'to see' here! A doctor is bhisakka.  The verb is upaṭṭhapeti a causative form of upaṭṭhahti 'to stand near, to attend, nurse'; from upa- 'near' + √sthā 'stand'; and it's in the optative mood so means 'would cause to attend'. So his relations 'would cause a doctor to attend' but again this misses out sallakattaṃ.

What does sallakattaṃ mean? The salla part means 'arrow' (which is what the whole thing is about) and this leaves us with -katta. According to BL "the only phonological explanation for the -tt- is if the geminate replaced an original conjunct consonant. The only one that would be contextually relevant is the noun karta [from √kṛt 'to cut'] which means "hole, cavity." Hence sallakatta must refer to the 'arrow wound'. This reading requires the verb to take two patients, and it's not clear whether this is allowed. DOP lists no examples of this.

BL notes that Buddhadatta concise Pāli-Eglish Dictionary defines sallakata as 'surgeon' (and sallakattiya as 'surgery', on the basis, apparently that salla can mean a surgical instrument. PED derives katta from *kartṛ 'worker' (the word exists in Skt. so I'm not sure why they use the asterisk). However the obvious meaning of sallakartṛ would be 'arrow maker' or 'fletcher', rather than surgeon. Compare MW śalyakartṛ 'arrow maker'; but śalyakarttṛ 'a remover of splinters, i.e. a surgeon'. Apte's English Sanskrit Dictionary suggests śalyataṃtravid and śasravaidyaḥ for surgeon. I think the answer is that Pāli sallakatta is Skt. śalyakarttṛ 'arrow remover' rather than śalyakartṛ 'arrow maker' or śalyakarta 'arrow wound' (all three devolve into Pāli with the same spelling); and that we should avoid translating this as 'surgeon', because here, anyway, it seems to be an adjective rather than a noun. It's not inconceivable that an arrow maker might also have found employment as a remover of arrows, being conversant with arrows. Just as a medieval European barber found other employment for their razor (though again calling this 'surgery' is over the top). 

All this means that we do not have to impose two patients on the verb, and that bhisakkaṃ sallakattaṃ is a straightforward apposition 'an arrow removing doctor'.

Moving on we come to the bow. Most translators cope well with this sentence. There are in fact three words: dhanu, cāpa and kodaṇḍa. The first two are synonyms, though dhanu (Skt. dhanus) is also a word for 'rainbow'; and may be related to words for trees, c.f. dāru 'wood'. PED suggests that the word cāpa, by contrast, comes from a root meaning 'to quiver' from PIE *qēp. However, my new Sanskrit etymological dictionary, Kurzgefaβtes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen (CSED), suggests *kēp or *kamp. The root *kēp does not occur in my standard PIE sources, but *kamp does and it means 'to bend' (AHD/OIEL).

A kodaṇḍa is according to PED a 'cross bow' though it is doubtful whether the technology existed in the Buddha's time; c.f. DOP 'a kind of bow'; MW & Böhtlingk who both define it as 'bow' with no mention of 'crossbow'. CSED makes the obvious point that daṇḍa is a stick, or staff, but adds that ko- here is a pejorative prefix (a form of Skt. ku) so that it must mean something 'bad stick'. Note that the Chinese version of the text does not mention the cross-bow although they clearly had them by the time the translation was made. BL's suggestion is that kodaṇḍa is a loan word from Munda and refers to the bows that the Munda speaking peoples used. Certainly daṇḍa appears to be a loan word (C.f Witzel 1999, p.16) [I have one more ref to check on this JR]

Bow String
Calotropis gigatea
Now we come to the bow string. In translating this passage we need to keep in mind that a bow string must be able to withstand considerable tension, and can't be made of ordinary rope. The choices of material here are in Pāli: akka, saṇṭha (or saṇha), nhāru, maruvā and khīrapaṇṇiṇ. PED is quite good at identifying plant names, though some of them have been revised in the mean time.

Pāli akka is Calotropis gigantea (Skt. arka). Variously called in English “calotrope, crown flower, giant milkweed, swallow-wort, and apple of Sodom.” Chiefly notable in the present for its milky sap, which has medicinal properties, and for its attractive flowers; in the past the leaves were used in Vedic ceremonies, and apparently the plant produced fibers strong enough to be woven into bowstrings. The last item in the list is Pāli khīrapaṇṇin, but this is simply a synonym for akka; literally meaning ‘having leaves with milky sap’. Ñ&B translate it as ‘bark’; MA informs us that bowstrings were made from the bark (vāka) of the akka – though as a flowering shrub it doesn’t have bark per se, so here it must mean the outer layers of the stems. Compare the notion of ascetics wearing the vākacīra or ‘bark garment’, which presumably is from cloth woven of rough fibre produced from this or a similar source. According to the Udāna-Aṭṭakathā, Bāhiya used akka stalks (akkanāḷāni) to make a robe and shawl (nivāsana-pāvuraṇāni) to clothe himself. akkanāḷāni chinditvā vākehi paliveṭhetvā nivāsanapāvuraṇāni katvā acchādesi (UdA 77).

Pāli saṇṭha (Sri Lankan and PTS eds.) PED ‘a reed (used for bow strings)’; or saṇha (CST) PED ‘smooth, soft’. I can’t find any more information on saṇṭha or a Sanskrit equivalent. MA glosses veṇuvilīva: meaning ‘slivers of bamboo’. Bamboo is certainly a source of strong fibres that can be woven. Another possibility is that these are variations of saṇa, sāṇa: PED ‘hemp’; Skt. śaṇa, MW: hemp (Cannabis sativa), or sunn hemp (Crotolaria juncea) aka ‘Bengal flax’.

Pāli nhāru is a variant spelling of nahāru meaning 'sinew'. Sinew is, of course, the connective tissues from animals, particularly tendons. It's possible that 'gut' might be included under this heading, since as we know stringed instruments used to (and sometimes still do) use gut strings and these are able to bare considerable tension.

Sanseveria roxburghiana
Pāli maruvā is a plant of the genus Sanseveria (also spelt Sansevieria) specifically S. roxburghiana. One of the characteristic plants of this genus is the ornamental ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’ (S. trifasciata). Sometimes called ‘bowstring hemp’, though not related to the cannabis plant. Other names for the genus include: dragon’s tongue, jinn’s tongue, snake tongue, etc. Some species are excellent sources of fibre, and used for making rope (and bow strings) in India and Africa. For an illustration of how fibres were obtained from such plants see:

The Chinese substituted various kinds of sinew (筋) at this point in their text.

Saccharum sa
The shaft of the arrow is the next thing that concerns us. Here we have two options: gaccha or ropima.

Pāli gaccha ‘a shrub or bush’. MA ‘from a mountain bush or river bush etc.’ (pabbatagaccha-nadīgacchādīsu jātaṃ). PED gaccha ‘shrub, bush’ often in comparison with trees (rukkha) and vines (latā); PED denies the confusion with Skt. kaccha; (PED Sv. kaccha pabbatakaccha & nadīkaccha mountain & river marshes’).

Pāli ropima ‘what has been planted’. MA ‘having sown, raised, desiring sara; having got sara, [the arrow] was made’ (ropimanti ropetvā vaḍḍhitaṃ saravanato saraṃ gahetvā kataṃ.). Pāli sara is Saccharum sara (aka muñja grass) which sends up long (2m) tufted spears that can be made into arrows. Alternatively ‘desiring sara’, saravanato, could be ‘from a grove (vana) of sara’ - though does grass grow in 'groves'? Ñ&B, following MA, understand this and previous term to mean “wild” and “cultivated”.

The Chinese have three options: muñja grass, bamboo and luó é lí wood (羅蛾梨木) though I could not produce a plausible translation for the last.


For an arrow to fly true it needs some stabilising fins or vanes at its base. Traditionally these were made from feathers. In our allegory the feathers might have come from the vulture, heron, falcon, peacock, or sithilahanu. The latter is a mystery.

Ñ&B translate sithilahanu as ‘stork’, but on what authority? The name is a hapax legomenon (a one off) in the Canon. Buddhaghosa's commentary (MA) merely says ‘a bird of that name’ (evaṃ nāmakassa pakkhino)! The sub-commentary (MṬ) ‘Sithilahanu is the name given for an bird with ears(?)’ (sithilahanu nāma dattā kaṇṇo pataṅgo) where kaṇṇa means ‘angle, corner; ear; rudder’; pataṅga is not in PED, but the CST dictionary lists ‘a bird’ (c.f. Skt. pataṃga ‘flying; any flying insect’). PED sv. sithila ‘loose, lax’; and sithilahanu ‘a kind of bird’. Sithilahnu is not in DOPN; nor is the Sanskrit (śithirahanu/śithilahanu) in MW. Searching PED electronically reveals no occurrence of the word ‘stork’. Buddhadatta’s English-Pāli Dictionary sv. stork gives ‘bakavisesa’; while Apte’s English-Sanskrit dictionary gives nothing like sithilahanu for 'stork'. Thomas (1913) and Gethin (2008) leave the word untranslated; c.f. Horner (1954-9) “some other bird” (vol.2, p.99). Note that also in our text we have the name kaṅkha 'heron' (from √kaṅk which may have an onomatopoeic origin).

Grus monacha
The Chinese version of this text (Taisho T.01 n.94 p.0917c21) records the name as 鶬鶴 (cāng hè) which is Grus monacha, the Black or Grey Crane. However the text only includes three names: peacock (是孔雀), black crane (鶬鶴), and eagle (鷲). So cāng hè could just as easily be a substitute for heron as for stork, and indeed G. monacha could be said to more closely resemble a heron.

There is a suggestion that sithilahanu refers to the open billed stork (Anastomus oscitans). This is mentioned in a blog post by Shravasti Dhammika for instance. The Envis Centre on Avian Ecology in collaboration with the Bombay Natural History Society lists "shithil hanu bak" as the Sanskrit name of the A. oscitans. This has obviously been Hindi-fied and ought to be śithilahanubaka. But where has this come from?

If we translate sithalahanu it means something like 'slack jawed' (hanu is cognate with the English chin) which might plausibly be a reference to the open billed stork since it's lower beak does not quite fit the upper leaving a gap. Sanskrit-English and Pāli-Eng. dictionaries only include the more gracile herons and cranes under the name baka; but Eng-Skt. and Eng-Pāli dictionaries include baka as a name for the stork.

Anastomus oscitans
Ali & Ripley in their authoritative guide to India birds (2001), give the Hindi name of A. oscitans as Gūnglā, Ghonghila, or Ghūngil. Hindi etymology is difficult to establish but Skt. ghoṇa 'beak, nose', Skt gila 'swallowing' might allow for a hypothetical Skt. *ghoṇagila(?). Though there is nothing like this in either my Pāli or Sanskrit dictionaries. The Bengali names are given as Thonte Bhānga, Shāmukh Bhānga, Shāmukh Khol. Here I've had more luck (with help from a young naturalist): ṭhōnṭa 'beak'; śāmukh 'mollusc'; bhaṅga 'breaking'; khol 'cover; shell; hollow, crevice, open' (e.g. চোখের খোল (cokhera khola) 'eye socket'; and পেটের বা বুকের খোল (peṭera bā bukera khola) 'chest cavity'.) Which gives us Thonte Bhānga 'broken beak'; Shāmukh Bhānga 'mollusc breaker'; or Shāmukh Khol 'mollusc hollow(?)' as possible names. The Tamil name is Naththai kuththi narai 'Snail Pecking Stork'. The Bihari name is given as Dokar, but I cannot find any more information on this word. So none of the modern Indian names of the bird resemble sithilahanu, either in form or content.

In tracing this further I think I found the source of the equation of sithalahanu and the open-billed stork. In his 1949 book on bird names, celebrated Indian scholar Raghu Vīra lists (entry 2215, p. 426) Anastomus oscitans as घोंघाशा शिथिल-हनु (ghoṃghāśā śithila-hanu) and then slightly below as शिथिल बक (śithila baka). At first sight this would seem to be definitive, but we note that Vīra does not list any Sanskrit sources. In his notes he only refers to a yet-to-be-published book by K. N. Dave seen in manuscript which referred to the stork by this name. This book was subsequently published (apparently posthumously in 1985) and it reveals something interesting about the Sanskrit name of A. oscitans (p.395-6). In trying to identify the open billed stork in Sanskrit literature Dave tentatively identifies a number of other candidate names, but these are by no means certain. Significantly he does not list śithilahanu as a Sanskrit name, suggesting that he did not find it in any Sanskrit text. However he has noticed the Pāli bird name sitihlahanu which translates as 'having a lower mandible loose or relaxed' and says
"I need hardly add that शिथिलहनु [śithilahanu] is a most fitting name and a correct rendering of the English name Open-bill for the bird."  (p.396)
Dave has performed a remarkable slight of hand here. Although there is no traditional equation of the open billed stork with sithilahanu that I can find, or that he cites, he has made the leap and connected them. Then in another great leap he equates the Pāli with the Sanskrit, spelling the Pāli word in the Sanskrit manner, and somehow śithilahanu becomes the perfect name for the bird, even though this Sanskrit name does not exist, and there is no a priori reason to believe that the Pāli name refers to this bird! Indeed his enthusiasm rests partly on the way that his invented Sanskrit spelling fits the English.

In fact there is nothing 'loose or relaxed' about the very robust bill of the stork (have another look at the picture above) it just doesn't fit together. 'Loose' is hardly a "fitting or correct rendering" of 'open' when you stop to think about it. These unjustified leaps are given a seal of approval by the great Raghu Vīra and it becomes a "fact" that the Sanskrit name is śithilahanu, or reading the Devanāgarī Hindi fashion: Shithil Hanu

Unfortunately connection is entirely spurious, and this means that, after a thorough search, I can find no authority for translating sithilahanu as 'stork' or 'open-billed stork'. The word sithilahanu appears to be lost to us unless some new evidence should emerge.


Ruru Jataka bas-relief

Next our man wants to know about the binding used for the feathers, and again we are left with some mysteries. The choices are the sinews of the cow (gava), buffalo (mahiṃsa), something called roruva (or in CST bherava), and something called semhāra.

CST has bherava ‘fearful, terrible’, which MA glosses as kāḷasīha ‘black lion’ (the Asiatic lion can apparently be a mottled black in colour); other editions have roruva ‘deer’ (the two words are in fact related from the root √ru ‘roar’ [as is the -rava part of my Sanskrit Name]. Male deer do roar in the rutting season, to attract mates and warn off rivals.) Roruva is the name of a hell realm (DOPN). Skt. ruru is a kind of antelope, but can refer to savage animals in general.

Under semhāra PED "some sort of animal (monkey?)", noting that it is explained as makkaṭa  (monkey) by Buddhaghosa's commentary. The Sanskrit markaṭa is also ‘the Indian crane, a spider, and a sexual position’). This word is also a hapax legomenon in the Canon and my research has not turned up anything interesting. There is no Sanskrit equivalent that I can find, unless semhāra is related to, or a dialectical form of the Sanskrit siṃha 'lion' (Pāli 'e' is the guṇa and vṛddhi grade of 'i'); though note that Gāndhārī spells it siṃha. Like sithilahanu this word seems to be lost to us.


The arrow heads have produced the least informative translations, but it's possible to reconstruct what the terms might have meant by casting our net a bit wider than PED, and by looking at the shapes that arrow heads traditionally take. In Pāli we have: salla, khurappa, vekaṇḍa, nārāca, vaccha-danta, and karavīra-patta.

Of these terms nārāca ‘iron’ seems to be the odd one out, though the Sanskrit Epics mention arrows of iron which were used to kill elephants (Singh p.105). The other names seem to concern shape of the arrow head:
various arrow heads
  • the salla is a simple point [c.f. no. 6, right].
  • khurappa (PED ‘hoof’) is the Epic Skt. kṣurapra ‘knife edged’ arrow [c.f. 4] (Singh 1989, p.105) and hence Ñ&B have read this too literally, or been mislead by PED. Note that Cone's new DOP gets this right and lists it under khura1 'a razor or sharp blade'.
  • vekaṇṇa (barbed); [9]
  • vaccha-danta calf’s tooth (Skt vatsa-danta) is mentioned in the Epics and said to be in the shape of a calf’s tooth [similar to 7] and extremely sharp (Singh 1989, p.105); 
  • karavīra-patta or oleander leaf, the shape of which is technically described as ‘narrow lanceolate’, i.e. a narrow, elongated oval coming to a sharp point. [11]
Note the similarity of some of the names in the Chinese version below.


Why should we care about such details in a text which is primarily making a metaphysical point about what kinds of questions are answerable and/or important to ask? For most people, and most translators judging by their approach to this text, the answer seems to be that the details are irrelevant, which is to take the message of the text rather literally. After all I am not pierced by an arrow, or trying to emotionally blackmail anyone, I'm trying to translate a text so as people who don't know Pāli can read it. I'm not Māluṅkyaputta. I'm not refusing to practice unless I find the answers, but I am interested, and enjoy the investigative process.

I think what made me spend time looking into these questions is that the poor quality of the other translations jarred, and disrupted my sense that the text was a living document. The lack of concern for preserving knowledge of small details has meant that we have lost any hope of definitively understanding them - I can speculate, but in the long run neither I nor anyone can reconstruct terms that were lost unless some new evidence should emerge - perhaps a Gāndhārī version of the text for instance. 

It might be argued that losing Pāli terms for archery is no great loss, but if we get these details wrong through indifference then what other details are we getting wrong? How many of us, for example, picture Bahiya going around draped with great lumps of tree bark instead of roughly spun jute cloth? Keeping the past alive, or bringing it to life, means making use of such details to give our picture resolution. Why settle for vague blur when we can do considerably better than that?

I think word extinction is a problem. Perhaps not a huge problem, if one tree dies, we still have the forest, but it's a sign of carelessness, or neglect. If we value these texts for what ever reason, then there is an imperative not just to preserve them, but to keep alive what they mean. If we allow a words to cease being meaningful, then the whole is marginally less complete and less beautiful. Most likely we'll never recover what has been lost.


    Chinese Text
    What follows is a very rough rendering of the same passage from the Chinese text (Taisho T.01 n.94 p.0917c21) from CBETA, using online translation (often ludicrous), dictionaries, pattern recognition,  and some guess work on the basis that it can't be that different from the Pāli. Notes on each paragraph are included below it in bullet points. While the grammar is less than crystal clear, one can pick out key words, the nouns and adjectives, which is all we need for a general comparison. The caveat is that I only know a handful of Chinese characters (and that from my interest in Japanese). MO = notes by Maitiu O'Ceileachair.
    I cannot remove the arrow (我不除箭) until I know of the one who shot me (誰以箭中我): what was his surname (姓), his name/mark(?) (字); was he long (長) or short (短); if he was dark (黑) or pale (白); kṣtriya (剎利), Brahmin (婆羅門), layman (居士), or worker (工師姓); from the East (東方), South (南方), West (西方) or north (北方)?
    • The 字 is what is usually known as the style name, that used to be taken by a man at 20. Here it just means name. (MO).
    • 剎利 shālì = kṣatriya
    • 婆羅門 póluómén a phonetic rendering of brāhmaṇa.
    •  居士 Jūshì = lay, scholar, Buddhist.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow (我不除毒箭) until I know: was the bow sala wood (薩羅木), tala wood (多羅木), or chì luó yāng jué lí wood (翅羅鴦掘梨木)?
    • sà luó i.e. Skt. sala.
    • duō luó: Skt. tala i.e. palmyra
    • chì = ke, ki, ḍa; luó = la, ra; yāng = aṇg; jué = ku, gu; lí = ri. Karungali? (Acasia catechu) Keralan name; c.f. kirankuri (Emilia sonchifolia) a herb in Hindi.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: were the sinews (筋) which wrapped the bow (而用纏彼弓) beef sinew (若牛), sheep sinew (羊筋), or yak sinew (氂牛筋)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: was the bow grip (弓弝) white bone (白骨), black lacquer (黑漆), or red paint (赤漆)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: was the bowstring (弓弦) beef sinew (牛筋), sheep sinew (羊筋), or yak sinew (氂牛筋)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: is the arrow [shaft] Shě luó wood (舍羅木), bamboo (竹), or Luó é lí wood (羅蛾梨木)?
    • 舍羅 Shě luó = Skt. śara (Pāli sara) = Saccharum sara used for making arrows. 
    • Luó é lí = The first and last characters are used to transliterate ra and ri, but I haven't found an example of 蛾 used this way. Literally the characters read 'gather moth pear'.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: is the arrow binding (纏箭) beef sinew (牛筋), sheep sinew (羊筋), or yak sinew (氂牛筋)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: are feathers (毛羽 used to make the vanes (取彼翅用作羽), peacock (孔雀), black crane (鶬鶴), or eagle (鷲)?

    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: was it iron (鐵), or calf [tooth] (婆蹉), póluó (婆羅), or nàluó 那羅,  or jiāluó bǐng (伽羅鞞)?
    • 婆蹉 pó cuō is a translation of vātsīputriya; c.f. Pāli vatsa 'calf'. Burnouf & Buffetrille (2010), p.518.
    • 婆羅 = póluó = Skt. pāla, bāla, bala, sāra.
    • 那羅 = nàluó; = Skt. na ra; c.f. 緊那羅 kinnara; cf. Pāli nārāca 'iron'.
    • 伽羅鞞 jiāluó bǐng = Skt karavī[ra]?; cf. Pāli karavīra-patta 'oleander shaped leaf'.
    In addition I cannot remove the arrow until I know: what was the blacksmith's (鐵師) last name (姓); long or short; dark or pale; in the East, South, West or north?
    • I think 鐵師 means 'blacksmith'. It occurs quite frequently in the canon and from context it usually seems to refer to a craftsman of some sort. (MO)
    Despite considerable obscurity remaining, most of the content of the text can be identified. Even without fully understanding the Chinese we can see that the form is much the same as the Pāli text, but that content is mostly quite different. The Chinese translators have used two different methods to deal with unfamiliar words or entities. Firstly they transliterate using a Chinese character (汉字 hànzì) to represent the sound, e.g. 婆羅門 póluómén for brāhmaṇa; secondly they substitute with something more familiar, as with black crane (鶬鶴) for heron (kaṅka).

    It's useful to know that Chinese translators sometimes transliterated and I'm grateful to my friend Maitiu O'Ceileachair for many long discussions about the ins and outs of this and other translation issues (and thanks for giving me a few pointers post publication, noted above). I'm also grateful to the anonymous person who extracted many examples of the Chinese translation approach from the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (which has an incomprehensibly restrictive access policy).

    A final note is that we can tell from the way of the words are transliterated that the original the Chinese translators were working from was not in Pāli, but in Sanskrit, or a more Sanskrit-like Prakrit. For instance when transliterating sara the 's' is aspirated (sh)--舍羅 shě luó--which is not a feature of Pāli, but compare the Sanskrit equivalent, śara, which is aspirated, and note that the Gāndhārī Dhammapada (G-Dhp 329) has śara for the Pāli saraṃ 'arrow' (Dhp 320). At least some of the texts reaching Chinese were written in Gāndhāri (c.f. Boucher 1998)


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