April/May Update: Parinirvāṇa Sūtra Released

This month’s releases represent an important milestone for me as a translator. I’ve released translations of both the Mahāvadāna Sūtra (DĀ 1) and the Parinirvāṇa Sūtra (DĀ 2). I first read and considered translating these two large sūtras that begin the Dīrgha Āgama about 15 years ago when I first became seriously interesting in translating Chinese Āgamas. Back then, I didn’t have the proper circumstances to see such large projects to completion. Thanks to the support I’ve received over the past two years, this wish has become a reality in 2022.

Both of these sūtras are great works of early Buddhist literature and represent the development of literary devices that became prominent in other genres, such as in early Mahāyāna sūtras and avadāna collections. Whether it’s the use of alternating verse and prose or switching narrative perspectives, the growing storytelling prowess of these ancient writers compared to the earliest texts becomes obvious. It’s reminiscent of how fiction writers often begin writing simple first-person narratives and develop the skill to manage multiple perspectives and plot lines. Writing is an artform, and we can see the development of technique and style in these ancient scriptures. In fact, these writers were among the pioneers in the art of writing, being among the first to explore what can be done in the medium.

This update also is the largest yet for the Dharma Pearls project in terms of length. DĀ 1 is about 13,000 words, and DĀ 2 is 30,000 words. If we add in the other small sūtras released this month, the total comes to 45,000 words, which is the length of a short novel.

I have an even larger sutra (DĀ 30) to finish editing this month. This one approaches 50,000 in length and is a multi-chapter work on Buddhist cosmology. I’ve also discovered a study of DĀ’s transliterations by the late Dr. Karashima, which should help with deciphering DĀ 19. After that those two sutras are edited, we’ll have a complete initial release of the Dīrgha Āgama!

Below are the translations released in April/early May:

DĀ 1 The Great Legend

This is the sūtra that canonized the concept of reoccurring buddhas in the distant past up to the present as well as depicting them with standardized life story. These ideas were more fully developed in avadāna literature.

DĀ 2 The Final Journey

This is the Dharmaguptaka version of the Parinirvāṇa Sūtra. It’s the closest to the Pali version of the half dozen that still exist. Its title is likely a reference to the initial half of the sūtra, which follows the Buddha’s final teaching tour before falling ill and passing away. (I’ve taken a little poetic license by adding “Final” to the title.)

Beyond this, the main differences between DĀ 2 and DN 16 are matters of literary style. DĀ 2 makes much more use of verse reiterations and section summaries. The summaries, in particular, serve to mark out section endings, which would have been important in a long sutra without subheadings. The stories also tend to be more developed. The biggest difference by length is that DĀ 2 includes the entire Mahāsudarśana Sūtra, which is an independent text in DN.

MĀ 15 Intention

This sūtra presents the path of ten bad deeds as an ethical model for people to follow. It’s a parallel to AN 10.217-219.

MĀ 55 Nirvāṇa

This sūtra, which doesn’t have a clear parallel in Pali, fuses two chains of dependent origination together to form a causal link between suffering and Nirvāṇa. Needless to say, this is pretty interesting, as the concept that suffering is a condition of awakening is found in many early Mahāyāna texts. Apparently, the idea had occurred to Sarvāstivādins.

SĀ 3.1 (284) Planting a Tree
SĀ 3.2 (285) A Great Tree

These two sūtras present short chains of dependent origination that begin with clinging and craving and depict them as codependent in a similar way as name and form and consciousness in some version of dependent origination. They use metaphors of growing trees to explain that life comes about when various conditions are present for it to develop. Pali parallels are SN 12.55-58.

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