26 June 2015

Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

One of my long time fascinations is with the Pali Kaccānagotta Sutta or Sanskrit Kātyāyana Sūtra. It survives in three versions: Pāḷi, Chinese, and Sanskrit. It is fairly well known that Nāgārjuna quotes a Sanskrit version of this text in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7). It's less well known that a number of Mahāyāna Sūtras appear to quote this sūtra as well. Long term I would like to do a complete survey of how this text was used in Buddhism over time, but we can say that it forms an important link between Mahāyāna and Mainstream forms of Buddhism. Some very useful reading on this subject can be found in Salvini (2011). There is also some discussion focussed on MMK in Kalupahana (1986).

In this essay I'll translate and discuss a passage from the first chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and argue that it recapitulates the argument about dharmas from the Kātyāyana. The implication here is that Kātyāyana provides a conceptual continuity link between trends of Buddhism. It represents a truth about experience that is widely acknowledged by different Buddhist schools of thought.

In my next blog essay I'll be exploring some important ideas about the history of the early Mahāyāna. One thing that has emerged recently is that Mahāyāna texts were almost certainly composed orally and in Prakrit. In the case of the Aṣṭa we have physical evidence in the form of a birch bark manuscript, written in the Gāndhārī Prakrit in Kharoṣṭhī script and carbon dated to the first century CE (the mid-point for the probability curve is 79 CE). So the Sanskrit text is a translation. Aṣṭa might have been translated into Sanskrit as late as the 5th century CE. This undermines the claim of the Sanskrit version of Aṣṭa (or any Mahāyāna text) to be "the original". In some ways the early translations into Chinese might better represent the original text, though this is debatable. 

The passage that I want to explore is Chapter 1, section 19; Vaidya (1960). In Conze's translation (1973) this passage occurs on p.87-88. My translation is:
When that was said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Śāriputra, "thus training, Śāriputra, the bodhisattva mahāsattva does not train in any dharma. What is the reason for it? For the dharmas do not exist in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi polloi take them to exist."  
Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist, Bhagavan?"  
The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though they don't exist. Not-being found in that sense they are said to be unfound (avidye). The foolish, ignorant hoi polloi are engrossed in them. All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing. Having imagined them, they are obsessed by the two extremes. They don’t know or see those dharmas. Therefore all dharmas they imagine are non-existing. Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas] the are engrossed in the two extremes; engrossed they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them they become engrossed in name and form. Non-existing all-dharmas are imagined by them. Imagining those non-existing all-dharmas, they do not know and do not see the path as it really is. Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is they don’t depart from the triple realm and do not awaken to the highest truth. They go by the name “fools”. They do not develop faith in the true dharma. The bodhisattva mahāsattva does not become engrossed in any dharma, Śāriputra."
Typically Conze manages to make this section paradoxical. He has dharmas both existing and not existing at the same time, which does not make sense on any terms. For Conze such non-sense is a way of pointing to a transcendent, ineffable truth that words are incapable of communicating. Supposedly, the contradiction temporarily confuses the rational mind (as conceived) and allows the intuitive mind (as conceived) to make an intuitive leap to the transcendent truth. There are many false assumptions here about the nature of reason and imagination. 
† See for example: Reasoning and Beliefs. (10 Jan 2014)
The important point of the Kātyāyana is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) are not terms that can be applied to dharmas qua mental objects. The typical Mahāyāna explanation, following the Two Truths doctrine is that dharmas both exist and do not exist. Kātyāyana makes sense, the Two Truths explanation does not. I believe that in this passage from Aṣṭa, the Kātyāyana argument about dharmas is being recapitulated in much the same terms, and with the same warning about what happens if we do get caught up in the dichotomy. In other words that this is in fact a tacit reference to Kātyāyana.

Perhaps it is worth rehearsing why the denial of existence and non-existence is accurate and not at all paradoxical. My starting point, as always, is to take the subject under discussion to be experience. Being naive realists, or what the text calls "foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi" (bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto), we have an experience and we imagine ourselves to be contact with something real, be it internal or external with respect to our first-person perspective. Ignoring what the experience implies about the world of sense experience, ignoring matters of ontology, the focus of the Kātyāyana is on the experience itself. Is the experience of an object an existing thing or a non-existing thing, irrespective of the nature of the object? Clearly the answer is that it is neither. An experience cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence. It arises, lingers for a short time, and then passes away. But the experience itself is entirely internal to us. Two people may see the same object and agree on it's characteristics. But their experience of it is individual and cannot be agreed on. And thus Conze, in affirming both existence and non-existence, has come to precisely the opposite conclusion because he seeks a transcendent truth behind the words; a noumenon of the text. Conze's Romanticism has a Platonic flavour to it.

The answer that an experience is neither existent nor non-existent is important because it is the understanding the nature of experience that has soteriological value. We say that "things" are arising and passing away, but the Buddhist texts seem to refer mainly (if not solely) to the arising and passing away of experiences. In the Kātyāyana it says that only dukkha arises and only dukkha cease. The same point is made in the Simile of the Chariot. Dukkha here is a synonym for unenlightened experience. This search for understanding is deprecated by Conze, by modern Zen commentators, and many Tibetan lamas, because they too believe in a transcendent truth that requires the suspension of reason (as they conceive reason). In the Spiral Path texts the experience of liberation (vimutti) is initiated by becoming fed up  (nibiddā) with the objects of the senses, i.e. with the intoxicating play of experience. Suspension of reason is not a prerequisite for awakening in these texts.

Central to Buddhist soteriology is the fact that our sense of self, our first person perspective, is also an experience and partakes in the nature of all experiences. Streams of sensory information converge and are woven together to create the persistent illusion of being a self. Though of course we know that the illusion of the first-person perspective can be broken by drugs, trauma, brain injury, and of course by meditation. In this view, insights consist of seeing experience, particularly the first person experience, in such a light that it ceases to intoxicate and fascinate. The word for 'insight', vipassana, literally means to 'see through', not as our translation suggests, 'to see into'. 

In our naivete about experience we imagine each experience signifies something real and we respond to it as though it were real. But in addition to this we are burdened with ideas about what constitutes happiness as the goal of our lives. The unenlightened, the bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto, believe, deep down inside, that happiness is about having pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant experiences. Maximising the former and minimising the latter seems to be the operational definition of happiness. If we can only arrange things so that we have the optimum amount of both then we will be happy and free of unhappiness. For most of us this means living in a unsatisfactory compromise and a lot of self-delusion about how happy we really are. Our pleasures do not satisfy. Our pains are all too many and not the least of them is mortality!

The line of thought in the Kātyāyana is often mixed up with attempts to apply dependent arising to all kinds of other processes, particularly karma and rebirth. And I have showed how this leads to inconsistencies and incoherent statements about the nature of the world across a number of essays (see the Afterlife tab for a list). Many Buddhists end up believing that the impermanence of "things" (e.g. tables, chariots, or other physical objects) is the key teaching of Buddhism, when it's just a truism that everyone is already aware of (See Everything changes, but so what?). The Kātyāyana is one of the texts where the intent of the idea, by which I mean the application to experience and only experience, is apparent. And it was this intent that was, I argue, taken up by the Aṣṭa and by Nāgārjuna some centuries later. Although there are many loud voices arguing about what Nāgārjuna meant to say in his very confusing opus, with most of them seeing Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā as having deep ontological implications. I say that in citing the Kātyāyana in the way that he does, we might understand his ideas better if we take the domain of application to be experience and forget about ontology. Nāgārjuna makes better, if not perfect, sense if we take him to be someone commenting on the phenomenology of experience rather than speculating about metaphysics. 

In the Aṣṭa version of the idea, the author has chosen to use the words that are tricky to translate while retaining the connotations of the original. So in a key passage (Aṣṭa 1.19.4) the Buddha says to Śāriputra:
na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | 
"For the dharmas do not exist (na saṃvidyante) in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi take them to exist (abhiniviṣṭāḥ)." 
Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist (saṃvidyante), Bhagavan?" 
The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though (yathā) they don't exist. Not-being found (avidyamāna) in that sense (evaṃ), they are said to be unfound (avidyā)." 
The last statement in the Sanskrit text is:
yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti |
Conze translates "As they do not exist, so they exist. And so, since they do not exist [avidyamāna], they are called [the result of] ignorance [avidyā]", employing his usual hermeneutic of obscurity. He also translates avidyamāna as "do not exist", but avidye as "ignorance", but by his own logic the latter ought to mean 'not existing'.

Saṃvidyante is a passive form from sam√vid. Conze translates as ‘exists’. BHSD defines it as "is found, exists’ (=vidyate ‘is found; often virtually = asti)." PED saṃvijjati2 ‘to be found, to exist’. MW ‘know, recognise; perceive; approve’. It's tricky because there are two homonyms √vid meaning 'to know' (cognate with our word 'wisdom') and √vid meaning 'to find'. The two are indistinguishable except by context. The same goes for vidyamāna, a present participle 'knowing, finding' (here negated by the prefix a-). The other word here is abhiniviṣṭāḥ (abhi+ni√viṣ) which has a range of meanings 'entered or plunged into; intent on, endowed with; determined, persevering). Conze (1973a) suggests "settled down in, is accustomed to suppose."

So Conze is treating almost all the verb forms as meaning "exists". And we ought to point out that if a Sanskrit author wished to assert the existence of something they can do so very directly with the verb asti or some variation on √vṛt. So we need to be alert here to connotations. I think that √vid as found is relevant here. So say that if we go looking for a dharma is it not found, is not the same as saying it means it does not exist. We certainly have experiences, and so to that extent they do sort of exist. But when we say they "exist" we mean only that we have an experience, not that some kind of really existent entity has arisen and persists. Clearly the author of the Aṣṭa has some very like the Kātyāyana teaching in mind. And the consequences is similar in the sense that it leads to two extremes of thought: that dharmas either exist or do not exist and all the problems that this causes. And note that the Two Truth argument adopts both extremes rather than avoiding either of them. Compare Aṣta 1.19.7:
kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | 
Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas] they are engrossed (abhiviviśante) in the two extremes (dvāv antāv); being engrossed (abhiniviśya) they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them they become engrossed in name and form. 
Note the recurrence of abhini√viṣ here, translated as 'engrossed' this time (and as "settled down" by Conze). Taking dharmas to be real, settling into a view, we make mistakes about the nature of experience and by implication suppose that sense experience can be ultimately satisfying. And this is categorically a mistake. 

It has been argued that the Aṣṭa contains no direct reference to the Sarvāstivādin doctrine of sarva-asti (always existent), but Aṣṭa 1.19.7 might be just such a reference. Here the deluded people imagine (kalpayanti) that dharmas exist in the past, future and present. This is precisely what Sarvāstivādins believe. If we recall the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance this 'always on' feature of dharmas was the Vaibāṣika solution to the disconnect between action and result in time that the the doctrine of karma requires. It earned the Vaibāṣikas the nick-name Sarvāstivāda. However after examining two of the early translations T224 《道行般若經》by Lokakṣema (179 CE) and T227 《小品般若經》by Kumārajīva (408 CE) both make the point about the two extremes, but neither of them have this passage about past, future and present. So we must conclude that it was interpolated into the Sanskrit text at a later date. So if criticism of Sarvāstivāda was intended, it was not part of the original intention. Kumārajīva's translation of the dvāv antāv 'two extremes' is prosaically 二邊 'two extremes', whereas Lokakṣema has the more interesting 兩癡耳 literally 'two insane ears'.

Taking the text on face value, the criticism of the two extremes (existence and non-existence) is tilted towards criticising existence. Presumably precisely because the existence view was prevalent at the time. If this interpretation is correct then it may help explain the idiom in the next sentence (1.19.8)
tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ |
All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing.
Kalpita is a past participle from √kḷp. The literal meaning is 'made, fabricated'. I'm presuming here that the fabrication is a mental one. There's not really a word for "imagination" in Sanskrit (one of many differences in how they understand mind). Again the idea here seems to be that one has an experience and in the way of naive realism mistakes it for something more substantial than it is. And when we treat experiences this way it obscures the Buddhist path or as Aṣṭa puts it yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti 'Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is...'

Interestingly in 1.19.12 the wrong view is seen as an impediment to the development of faith in the truth of the dharma (satyaṃ dharmaṃ). This suggests that the mistake is foundational and must be sorted out right at the beginning of the religious life. My sense is that most modern Buddhism is already lost in speculation about ontology and supernatural forces. As Justin Whitaker recently pointed out to me ,most Buddhists and scholars still invoke some variation of "seeing reality as it is" when describing Buddhist soteriology. But reality implies existence. Whatever we see as it is (yathābhūta), it cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence and therefore is neither real nor unreal. Reality can have nothing to do with Buddhist soteriology by definition. To be real whatever it is would have to be permanently existing and I don't think I need to explain why that is a problem.

I hope I have showed that at the very least the author of Aṣṭa had Kātyāyana in mind as they were writing this section. I think this shows that at least at the beginning of producing the Prajñāpāramitā texts the authors saw the domain of application of the Dharma as experience. They were not caught up in the metaphysical speculations of the Ābhidharmikas. They were however caught up in their own metaphysical speculations about the nature of the Buddha, though that is a story for another time. The importance of this discovery is that it helps us to understand the apparently paradoxical texts of the Prajñāpāramitā literature. In flirting with paradox they were trying to describe an attitude towards experience that had a liberating effect. They did not set out to confuse the reader, but to draw attention to our suppositions about experience and reality. The former we can know and understand, the latter we can only make inferences about, based on the commonality of experience with reference to the same object.

A first step in reforming modern Buddhism would be to establish the domain of application of our theory and practice, and in such a way as our theory and practice were complimentary. Despite all the bitching from Buddhists about the Mindfulness Therapy movement I think they have a much better handle on this focus and integration of theory and practice. Better to be working with experience in a shallow way than to have a deep engagement with the kind of ontological speculation that typifies contemporary Buddhists discourse, because the latter is not beneficial in any way while the latter at least is mildly beneficial and creates a basis for progress.



Conze, Edward. (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
Conze, Edward (1973a) Materials for a Dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Suzuki Research Foundation.
Drewes, David (2009). Early Indian Mah ay ana Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.Religion Compass 4/2 (2010): 55–65, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x. https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship
Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.
Salvini, Mattia. (2011) The Nidānasamyukta and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: understanding the Middle Way through comparison and exegesis. Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies.II: 57-95. https://www.academia.edu/1925584/The_NidÄnasamyukta_and_the_M_lamadhyamakakÄrikÄ_understanding_the_Middle_Way_through_comparison_and_exegesis
Vaidya, P.L. (1960) Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 4). http://fiindolo.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/bsu049_u.htm

Sanskrit text 

Aṣṭa 1.19. (Vaidya 1960)
evamukte āyuṣmān śāriputro bhagavantam etad avocat – evaṃ śikṣamāṇo bhagavan bodhisattvo mahāsattvaḥ katamasmin dharme śikṣate? evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat evaṃ śikṣamāṇaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvo mahāsattvo na kasmiṃś cid dharme śikṣate | tatkasya hetoḥ? na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante  yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evamavidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | tān bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ  | te tān kalpayitvā dvayor antayoḥ saktāḥ tān dharmān na jānanti na paśyanti | tasmāt te 'saṃvidyamānān sarva-dharmān kalpayanti | kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tairasaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ | te tān asaṃvidyamānān sarvadharmān kalpayanto yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti | yathābhūtaṃ mārgam ajānanto 'paśyanto na niryānti traidhātukāt, na budhyante bhūtakoṭim | tena te bālā iti saṃjñāṃ gacchanti | te satyaṃ dharmaṃ na śraddhadhati | na khalu punaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvā mahāsattvā kaṃcid dharmam abhiniviśante ||

PS. If any one has a pdf of Conze's Sanskrit edition of Aṣṭa I'd love to get a copy.

19 June 2015

Buddhist Shibboleths

I've already done some work on comparing translation styles between 4th century Chinese translators of the Āgamas and 20th/21st century English translators of the Pali texts (Attwood 2012). Where terms are unique or obscure the strategies available are quite limited. One can try to preserve the Indic word untranslated using your native script to represent the Indic sounds or with an Indic script such as Siddham; or one can substitute a similar word from one's own language, e.g. when the word occurs in a list of similar items (types of bird for example) one can substitute a familiar kind of bird; or, at a pinch one can ignore the difficult term; All of these approaches have their pros and cons, especially when seen in the light of centuries of hindsight. 

But we have some problems with more familiar common words as well. I've been thinking about some of the common epithets of the founder of Buddhist: buddha, tathāgata, sugata, arhat, and bhagavat. These words are devilish to translate into natural sounding English. We end up with a string of phrases in the form "The X One" and/or with meaningless literal translations like "the Thus Gone" or "the Well Gone". None of these work very well as translations. The translations don't convey any more information than the untranslated terms, so add nothing to the comprehension of the text. A phrase like "Thus Gone" still requires translation to be comprehensible. With a translation like "Thus Gone" we might actually be worse off because whereas we might pass over the untranslated tathāgata without much thought, when we see the English words "Thus Gone" we may be tempted to stop and think about them and tie our selves in knots trying to figure what they mean.


The most successful of the standard translations is probably "the Blessed One" for bhagavat. We're still in awkward territory with the phrasing but at least it conveys something of the Indic and evokes an image in the Western mind. To be blessed, in English, is to have the grace of God, often bestowed by a priest, or to have good luck. Neither of which apply here. The word bhaga comes from the root √bhaj 'to divide, to share' and means 'a share'. The suffix vat or vant (Skt or Pali) indicates possession. So bhagavat means 'one who has their share'. In an earlier essay I explored how Buddhaghosa explained what the word means: see Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism (2008).

Apparently, bhagavat is originally a military term meaning one who has a share in the spoils of war; or a feudal term for a lord is entitled to a share of his vassals production (the forerunner of taxation). Hence, perhaps, many older texts translate bhagavat as "Lord" (though this might also be imitation of the King James Bible). In the Buddhist context we sometimes also see it translated as the "Fortunate One", again with the suggestion of good luck - and the Buddha's awakening was nothing to do with luck! But "blessed" is a good one word translation. We have an English name from the Latin benedictus meaning "blessed" which is Benedict.

One of the tricks that English linguists have when they want to mark a word as serious or sacred is to either use a Latin form or to Latinise it. Thus where Freud wrote in the vernacular about the Ich, Es and Über-Ich the English translators adopted the Latin words ego, id, and super-ego. In becoming Latin the word acquires a substance so that we all think of "the ego" as a thing nowadays even though Freud conceived of it as a process. Such a word also acquires the gravitas of medical terminology since doctors still prefer Latin, or Latinate, to Anglo-Saxon or vulgar (i.e. common) terms for body parts and processes.Of course Germans capitalise all nouns, but the capitalisation of Ego, etc. helped to reinforce this perception.

Another trick, widely employed by Buddhist translators is to adopt Sanskrit syntax for English words. Thus we see the creation of a Buddhist Hybrid English that employs Sanskrit word order, but it is done in imitation of the 17th century King James Bible. As in "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so" for mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ or "Enlightenment" (capitalised) for bodhi. Likewise Chinese translators created a Buddhist hybrid Chinese (based on Middle Chinese) which retained Indic word order. 

It is true that vulgar English has moved away from Latin forms, if only because the teaching of Latin, which used to be a universal part of education, has fallen away. Where once every educated person was familiar with the Latin and Greek classics in the original, nowadays such knowledge is rare. And yet here we are trying to introduce Sanskrit and Pali words into the language. One might argue that "Benedictus" conveys both the meaning and spirit of the Bhagavat at least as well as "the Lord" or "the Blessed One". However for some the use of Latin is tied to experience of the Catholic Church rather than Horace or Virgil.

The standard Chinese translation is 世尊 world-honoured, i.e. honoured by the world. I'm much less familiar with the history of these Chinese terms. 

Tathāgata & Sugata

Tathāgata and sugata may really be untranslatable and the common translations are all quite hopeless in that they communicate nothing. Indeed Buddhists may long have misunderstood the meaning of these words. Richard Gombrich has pointed out that -gata at the end of a compound means 'relating to, existing in'. Some examples include:
  • antar-gata - in the middle
  • kaṇṭha-gata - reaching the throat
  • guru-gata - belonging to a particular teacher
  • nīca-gata - at the lowest point
  • bhūmi-gata - fallen to earth, on the ground
  • mukha-gata - in the mouth, in the face
  • hṛdaya-gata - dwelling in the heart
Of course it can also take the more obvious meaning of a past passive participle, i.e. 'gone', but the special meaning has some advantages. Tathā is a modal adjectival pronoun: 'thus, that way, in that manner, like that'. We can see where the more usual translations of tathāgata might have come from: he is 'one who has gone in that way'. However tathā-gata might also mean something like 'one who resides in that state', i.e. one who is awakened. Paul Harrison's Vajracchedikā translation uses Realised One for this term, which I quite like. Some consider that there an ambiguity with tathāgata because it might also result from tathā-āgata where āgata means 'come'. I think this is pretty unlikely, especially given the unambiguous sugata, but some lineages see it as the primary sense of the word and in this sense it is translated as "Thus Come". Chinese texts translate tathāgata as 如來 "as come". Even if this were the meaning, what does a reader make of "The Thus Come One"? 

Similarly su is a prefix meaning 'complete, well, or good' (cognate with Latin eu- and in euphony, euphemism, euphonium etc.). Sugata then means 'completed, one who is well, in a good state'. The fashion at present is to leave these two epithets untranslated and perhaps to footnote the most common interpretation of the Indic. The standard translations of "the Thus Gone" and "the Well Gone" really don't communicate anything. There is a Latin word which has more or less the same meaning as sugata which is beatus from which we get words like beatify. Beatus carries the connotation of blessed, but also of happiness. When a person is "beatified" (beatus + facere 'to make') by the Catholic Church, the first step on path to sainthood, the implication is that they are even now experiencing eternal bliss. This is also the implication of sugata. I know one woman called Beata, and I suspect it's a relatively common name in some Slavic/Catholic countries.

Sugata is translated into Chinese as 善逝 'well gone'. Where the character 善 is also used for Sanskrit words like kalyāṇa (beautiful), kuśala (expert, wholesome), and śubha (lovely, beautiful). Apparently they could not make up their minds where the Buddha was coming  or going ! In a weird quirk of history 逝 now means 'dead, passed away' in Mandarin. So in modern Chinese 善逝 means 'well dead'.


The other common epithet is arhat (Skt) or arahant (Pali). This is from the verbal root √arh which means 'to be worthy, to have a claim, to be able, to be allowed'. The present participle arhat (Pali arahant) means 'worthy, capable, entitled, deserving'. According to PED it was used in pre-Buddhist times as an honorific for those in high office, similar to 'His Worship', and in a sense very close in meaning to bhagavat (one who is entitled to a share). We might think of it as referring to someone who has claimed to have done what needed to be done in the holy life (brahmacārya) which is how it is often phrased in the texts. The arhat is effectively a 'saint' from Latin sanctus 'holy, consecrated'.

There is a folk etymology for arhat as well. This derives the word from ari-√han 'to strike an/the enemy' or sometimes 'foe-destroyer'. This etymology was given a boost by Richard Gombrich, who has has argued that the present participle is "jarring" in this context and there is perfectly good adjective from the same root, i.e. araha. Since Jains used two Prakrit forms of the word arahanta and arihanta, the folk etymology may well be the correct etymology, Gombrich argues that this stems from the same metaphor as the Jain title "jina" or conqueror, from which jaina means 'connected with the jina' (2009: 57-8).

The Chinese term is 阿羅訶 which is a transliteration pronounced āluóhē or 阿羅漢 āluóhàn. It is perhaps best known in the abbreviated form 羅漢 luóhàn.

Saṁbuddha and Samyaksaṁbuddha

Perhaps the most difficult to translate when used an an epithet is samyaksaṁbuddha. Samyañc means 'accord, concord, agreement' (literally 'bending together'). My understanding of this term is that it refers to the being in sync with the way things are (and its opposite mithyā means to be out of sync).  Saṁ means 'complete, together' and buddha as we know is the past participle of √budh 'to know, to understand, to wake up to'. So saṁbuddha means something like 'fully cognisant'. And samyaksaṁbuddha means 'fully cognisant of the way things are' though it is usually translated as "fully and perfectly awakened", where samyañc is somewhat reduced in significance to just mean 'perfectly', which plays to Romantic tendencies in Buddhism.

As often happens there are many different Chinese translations of this term: 正徧知 or 正遍知 or 正等覺. We also find partial transliterations such as: 三耶三佛 sānyésānfó and 三耶三佛陀 sānyésānfótuó where 佛 is a translation of Buddha and 三耶三 transliterates saṃyak-saṃ-. 

Epithets and Titles

Clearly these epithets fall somewhere between names and titles. An epithet is something which is "put on" from the Greek epi 'in addition' + tithenai "to put". A name we hang on something. Sometimes we resort to epithets because the name of the person concerned is taboo. The Buddha seems to have forbidden his disciples from using his personal name (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta). An epithet might also be used when a person's name is prosaic and followers wish to highlight some aspect of their character or recall some event or achievement. All of these seem to apply to the Buddha. 

It is interesting to compare the ecclesiastical titles adopted by Tibetan priests in exile. Amongst the Tibetans we find a variety of His Holinesses and His Eminences. In fact these come from the Roman Catholic Church. A Pope is addressed as His Holiness or Your Holiness, and a Cardinal as His/Your Eminence. If we were also to ape the Catholics then the most common form of address to the Buddha would be, bhagavan (vocative case) = Your Holiness. But these titles are finely tuned to indicate hierarchies and to indicate power and subordination. They now have a medieval ring to them which no longer trips of the tongue (though arguably the Tibetan priesthood get on very well with them). Roman ecclesiastical titles are surely inappropriate to the Buddha, if not to Tibetan priests, and got quite a strong negative reaction when I tried them out on a few friends. The words under discussion are not really titles anyway. In fact they're adjectives rather than nouns and they all describe someone who has had a particular kind of life changing experience.

Other forms of address are routinely taken over from ecclesiastic or temporal hierarchies. For example "Venerable" seems to substitute for āyuṣmat 'possessing life, vital, long lived, elder'. Buddhist monks are routinely referred to as "The Venerable". In the FPMT I've met the Venerable Robina Courtin and the Venerable George Churinoff for example. The word "venerable" comes from the Latin venerari "to worship, revere" and means 'fit to be worshipped or revered'. No doubt some monks are fit to be worshipped, but it's a rather grand title unrelated to the Indic term for an elder. In early times Europeans were more automatically respectful towards their elders, nowadays hardly anyone commands respect. 

Buddha is of course an Anglicised term and hardly needs much explanation, though too many people mistake him for the Chinese god 布袋 Bùdài the so called "Laughing Buddha". For new-comers the epithets are inevitably odd and difficult to understand. And when they ask questions it quickly becomes apparent that no one really knows what they mean. No one does any more. And yet we have to keep repeating these words because they crop up so often in the texts. 

Whether Latin words would aid or hinder us in communicating our history and ideas is moot. No doubt some people recoil at the very thought of using archaic Latin to communicate modern Buddhism, and for others it invokes the Catholic Church, though personally I find I associate Latin mainly with medicine, the Romans, and early Enlightenment writers such as Newton's Principia Mathematica and Hooke's Micrographia. And yet on the whole Pali and Sanskrit are more archaic and foreign to the ear than Latin or Greek. I find that most of my colleagues want to use English (or their mother tongue) most of the time and only use the minimum of Indian jargon. Most cannot tell the difference between Sanskrit and Pali.

On the other hand, English is a language which is more than happy to borrow words from other languages. For example from Hindi we borrowed: shampoo, pyjamas and bangle; or from Persian: caravan, divan, ghoul, jackal and shawl. However the problem here is that most of these are concrete nouns. They have a specific referent and there is no doubt what they refer to.

I don't really see any resolution to the problem of translating the epithets. They all apply specifically to the Buddha (though some are borrowed from other contexts), but the specific meaning is long lost. So we're left with all these different ways of referring to the Buddha, none of which really convey anything meaningful to anyone any more that forced to retain them because they are traditional. They only value they have nowadays is as shibboleths, i.e. the ability to pronounce these terms is a marker of Buddhist identity. 


Attwood, Jayarava. Translation Strategies for the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta and its Chinese Counterparts. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol 5, 2012. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/54.
Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox. 

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