18 July 2008

Which Mahāyāna texts?

It is frequently observed that the proportion of Mahāyāna texts which have been translated into English even once is only small compared to the number in the Chinese Canon. Certain texts have received much greater attention than others, even amongst those available in translation, and are now taken as being normative - that is that our Western understanding of what the Mahāyāna as a whole was saying is based on a subset of those texts available to us in English.

In the introduction to her translation of the Ugraparipṛcchā Jan Nattier makes some observations about this which I would like to highlight. Her comments are in the context of noting that at one time the Ugraparipṛcchā was an important text. It has multiple translations into Chinese, and is cited extensively in anthologies such as Śantideva's Śikṣāsamuccaya. Some explanation of why such a central text has received so little attention in the West seemed to be required.

Nattier notes that texts are more likely to have been translated into English if they have two features: firstly if there is a extant Sanskrit text; and secondly if they have been influential in Japanese Buddhism. Here's a list which will be familiar to students of Mahāyāna.
  • Saddharmapuṇḍarika
  • Suvarṇabaṣottama
  • Sukhāvatīvyūha (both long and short)
  • Avataṃsaka
  • Vimalakīrti
  • Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras - especially Hṛdaya, Vajracchedika, Aṣṭāsahaśrika, and Pañcavimsatisahaśrika
  • Laṅkāvatāra
Only a handful of Mahāyāna texts survive in Sanskrit including all (I think) of the above. Part of the reason for the interest in Sanskrit texts is the focus of Western scholars on "original Buddhism". Westerners, partly influenced by higher criticism of the Bible, are aware of layers in the Buddhist canon, and are motivated to find the "original" text. The idea is that anything from a later period is not authentic, but this is making many assumptions which are not sustainable, nor would they necessarily be accepted by Buddhists. We know that the Heart Sūtra, for instance, was most likely composed in China, but this does not make it any less profound, nor undermine its widespread influence across many Buddhist sects. Buddhists can be fundamentalist about texts, but on the whole it is contrary to the spirit of the religion to be so. The Dharma is anything which helps us realise the truth.

However we need to balance this against Nattier's own comments just a few pages later with reference to Chinese translations from Sanskrit:
In short, when reading any given line of a Chinese Buddhist sūtra - excepting perhaps those produced by someone like Hsuan-tsang, who is justifiably famous for his accuracy - we have a roughly equal chance of encountering an accurate reflection of the underlying Indian original or a catastrophic misunderstanding. (Nattier : 71)
We are a little better off with Tibetan texts because they started later and had better reference works but -
even here, however, we frequently encounter visual, grammatical, or (less commonly) aural misunderstandings (Nattier : 71 n.36)
The solution is to compare extant versions of a text, and a key task for the scholar is to construct an edited (i.e. corrected) text which is pressumed to accurately represent the "original". Unfortunately the extant Sanskrit manuscripts which are seldom much older than a few centuries, are prone to the same problems. Viz Conze's comments on the Nepalese manuscripts of the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra which he describes as "execrable". Leaving aside scribal and translator errors we also know that Buddhist texts frequently changed over time, chapters and sometimes whole independent sūtras, were added or subtracted, chapters were rearranged, and interpolations of all kinds were made by well meaning editors. The fact is that whatever the language of the text it will be far removed in time from its author. So it is that we welcome the work of Jan Nattier and others like her who are translating a wider range of text and drawing attention to the issues of the history of our texts, and the problems of translating them.

The second factor in whether or not a text is popular in the West is whether it is influential in Japanese Buddhism. This is a result of collaborations between the West and Japan which commenced in 1868 (with the Meiji Restoration). Influential Western Scholars such as Max Muller, and Hendrik Kern began to take Japanese students: the former was responsible for many first translations of Mahāyāna Sūtras, while the latter produced the only translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarika from Sanskrit.

However there is a third factor because it is obvious that amongst these few texts, some have greater prestige than others. Nattier cites the Laṅkāvatāra for instance, translated and promoted by no less an authority than D. T. Suzuki as one text which has not had the kind of influence that might have been expected - we still only have Suzuki's rather flawed translation in English for instance. Compare this with the influence of the Saddharmapuṇḍarika which has many English translations, as does the Vimalakīrti, and the Heart Sūtra. Nattier suggests that these texts, and perhaps the Sukhāvatīvyūha texts, have a greater prominence because they:
"portray the Buddhist messages in terms congruent with certain core western values such as egalitarianism (e.g. the universal potential for Buddhahood according to the Lotus), lay-centred religion (e.g., the ability of the lay Buddhist hero of the Vimalakīrti to confound highly educated clerics in debate), the simplicity and individuality of religious practice (e.g., the centrality of personal faith in Amitābha in the Sukhāvatīvyūha), and even anti-intellectualism (e.g., the apparent rejection of the usefulness of rational thought in the Heart Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, and other Perfection of Wisdom texts). (Nattier : 6)
To which list we might add the factor of an "other power" centred soteriology perhaps! In the case of what is in the West an influential sūtra, the Saddharmapuṇḍarika, it is in fact far from being representative or typical of the Mahāyāna - in fact the opposite it true. And yet it has had a huge role in defining the Mahāyāna as it is understood in the West.

Nattier sees her study and translation as an antidote to the prevailing parochialism of the West, and as an attempt to restore a once important sūtra back to its rightful place in the Buddhist canon. Reading it we have to acknowledge that our ideas about the development of the Mahāyāna have been based on too narrow a field of sources and the Ugra challenges our preconceptions.


  • Nattier, Jan. 2003. A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
A selection of Mahāyāna sūtras translated in to English, including some lesser known texts is available at www4.bayarea.net/~mtlee/. Image from that page.
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