Week 1 Update: EĀ Ch. 1 Released!

Hello, Everyone! Welcome to a New Year. 2023 is the Year of the Water Rabbit in East Asia, which is good, I suppose. Good-natured, adaptable, intelligent people — yes, the world needs more of them to take the wheel. Good-natured people, especially.

The past two months have been a test period for a new translation process that I wrote about in a previous post. The main point of this new process was straightforward: Make myself spend more time editing and proofing translations. Partly, to eliminate more of those simple-yet-hard-to-see little typos and awkward wordings. Mainly, to make myself spend more time with each translation and let a deeper understanding sink in before releasing it to the public.

After a solid couple months of experimentation, I’ve settled on a modified version that reduces the week-to-week multitasking. With the test run out of the way, I plan to release translations on a weekly schedule (on Saturdays or Sundays). This week’s release is the Ekottarika Āgama‘s Introduction. The next five weeks are scheduled to produce these translations:

  1. MĀ 153 Sugandika (cf. MN 75 Māgandika)
  2. EĀ Chapter 2 and 3 (20 sūtras)
  3. EĀ Chapter 8 and 9 (20 sūtras)
  4. EĀ Chapter 10 (10 sūtras) and MĀ 57 (cf. AN 9.1)
  5. EĀ Chapter 11 (10 sūtras) and MA 85 (cf. MN 113)

A question that might be immediately obvious: Why am I skipping EĀ Chapters 4-7? The answer is that these chapters are parallel to AN 1.188-267, except that the lists of disciples, nuns, laymen, and laywomen are much larger than in AN. Decoding the obscure transliterations of Gandhari names will be time consuming (and probably impossible in some cases), so I will be working my way through that section of EĀ for quite some time. They’ll be released When They Are Ready, outside of the regular release schedule.

The general plan after a break in February will be to continue to work my way through EĀ’s Book of Ones (Chapters 2-14) and Book of Twos (Chapters 15-20) and translating selections from MĀ and SĀ as time permits. So, if any readers have specific requests, please let me know. I can always fit them into the schedule around the primary project to translate EĀ.

With that news out of the way, let’s take a look at this week’s release: the (in)famous Introduction to the Chinese Ekottarika Āgama. I say “(in)famous” because it includes some elements that clearly embrace proto-Mahāyāna teachings, which have made it a controversial wonder among modern Buddhists who have become accustomed to the duality of Mahāyāna vs. Theravāda. But these two Buddhist paradigms, which are so starkly contrasted in the present day, are not representative of the kind of Buddhism that existed in 400 CE when the EĀ was translated to Chinese in Chang-an.

In those days, Buddhism had absorbed the addition of bodhisattva teachings without suffering the ideological rupture we see today. Some traditionalist Buddhists certainly kept it to a minimum and focused on the old teachings, but many embraced the concept of bodhisattva practice and weren’t shy about discussing it. It was an era of “big tent” Buddhism. This is why, I would argue, we see bodhisattva related scriptures in the Theravāda canon. They are the remnants of a time when it was normal to include bodhisattva teachings alongside the older Tripiṭaka teachings. Indeed, for a long time, they weren’t identified with a partisan movement called “Mahāyāna.” That was a later development.

So, reading the introduction to this Āgama can be a challenge to modern preconceptions. The author of the introduction didn’t reject or deprecate any part of the Tripiṭaka. He treats the Ekottarika Āgama as containing all of the teachings of both the historical Buddha and the lineage of past Buddhas. He entreats all Buddhists to keep it safe and not allow it to be lost or corrupted. There is no sense here that the author considered the early sūtra piṭaka to be any less the cause of Buddhas than the bodhisattva practices, as we see in the summary verse finale.

Nor does the author deprecate the arhat disciples in any way when he depicts Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa after the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa. They are better behaved than in many other traditional tales about the First Council. There is no condemnation of Ānanda’s supposed misdeeds, and no need for him to become an arhat before participating. The very end of the account of the First Council makes it clear he was not yet an arhat after the compilation of the Tripiṭaka.

Thus, the partisan motifs of deprecating both arhats and the early teachings that we associate with later Mahāyāna writings like the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka or Vimalakīrti are absent here. But there are other motifs present that did become common in Mahāyāna literature, which make reading this Introduction a little disorienting in the context of extolling an Āgama. Let’s point out of the few prominent examples:

The Eternal Dharma Body

The concept of the Buddha possessing an eternal Dharma body that remained after his physical body had perished is mentioned a couple times in the Introduction. However, it clearly refers to the Dharma that he taught and not to some metaphysical entity that later became part of the S. trikāya concept. Let’s look at the two passages that mention it:

“If someone doesn’t want the Dharma to survive,
They’ll be the ruin of the Tathāgata’s teaching.
Let it survive as a promise for sentient beings
To be saved from their troubles and many problems.
“The Śakyan Teacher appeared briefly in the world;
Though his flesh body is gone, the Dharma body remains.
We must ensure that the Dharma root isn’t cut;
Ānanda, don’t be confused when you recite the Dharma!”

In this passage, Maitreya and the gods are encouraging Ānanda before he recited the sūtras. The Dharma body here is not a metaphysical concept, but a metaphor for the teaching (Dharma) that the Buddha had left behind.

Venerable Ānanda then thought,
“The Tathāgata’s Dharma body doesn’t decay.
Enduring in the world, forever and unending,
Gods and people hear it and achieve the path’s fruit.

Here, Ānanda has just decided to divide the sūtra piṭaka into the traditional four Āgama collections. The Dharma body appears to reference the underlying principle from which Buddha teachings are drawn, and which is always present for Buddhas to realize in the past and future. When people hear those teachings, they achieve the fruits of the path. Again, this is not a reference to a metaphysical Buddha, but rather to a concept more akin to the notion of S. dharmadhātu, or “Dharma element.”

Rewards for Ensuring the Survival of Scripture

A common motif of Mahāyāna texts is an exhortation to the readers that maintaining, copying, and promoting the text that they are reading will bring them incalculable merits and rewards. Here in this Introduction, we find similar language about the Ekottarika Āgama:

“Those who focus on retaining the Ekottarika,
They memorize the Tathāgata’s treasury.
Even if they don’t end their bonds in this life,
They’ll get the highest wisdom in a later one.
“If someone copies the scrolls of this scripture,
Supporters who give them silk clothes, flowers, and parasols
Will get merits that are measureless and inestimable
Because this Dharma jewel is rare to encounter.”

Here, though, it’s the supporters who give gifts to those who copy the scripture who get measureless merits, similar to if they had given the same gifts to a Buddha, one might conclude. The rewards of preserving the Āgama in one’s mind in the way of an oral tradition, by contrast, are spiritual: Ending the bonds in this life and gaining the “highest wisdom” in the next. What exactly is that “highest” wisdom? It’s likely a translation of S. pratisaṃvid (P. paṭisambhidā), which means being good at understanding, interpreting, and explaining the teachings. Thus, the verse is saying that those who memorize the Āgama in this life become great teachers in the next.

We know from Chinese sources that Buddhists in 400 CE were both circulating scriptures as written documents and carrying them memorized in their minds. The translation team who produced the Chinese Ekottarika Āgama, in fact, worked in both mediums. Sometimes someone had a written copy (in Brahmi script) to translate, and sometimes a monk recited it from memory (as was the case with EĀ). Thus, this distinction between having the Āgama in one’s mind and copying it would’ve been important at the time.

The Present Recontextualized as an Eternal Re-Occurrence

This is a motif that first developed in paracanonical avadāna texts, the same genre of literature that (in my view) incubated bodhisattva theory until it was canonized by early Buddhist traditions. It takes a number of forms. An early form, which is represented in the Introduction, is that of royal lineages which extend into the distant past, especially lineages of noble wheel-turning kings. The concept of the wheel-turning king is quite ancient, much older than the Buddha, perhaps going back to Middle Eastern civilizations. So, it was a concept that was adopted into Buddhist literature. Perhaps this was in order to deprecate non-Buddhist ideas about these mythical kings, for Buddhist tales about them invariably cast them as being spiritual inferior to Buddhas.

The author of this Introduction to EĀ makes use of the story of King Makhādeva to illustrate the spiritual lineage formed by the Buddha, Ānanda, and Uttara, who keep the correct teachings just as Makhādeva’s two immediate successors did. This story is revealed at the end to be a Jataka tale, in which Makhādeva was a past life of the Buddha, and his successors were past lives of Ānanda and Uttara. Thus, Ānanda’s decision to hand down the recitation of the Āgama to Uttara is recast as a case of eternal re-occurrence. There is no choice in the matter, really: They are just playing the roles they have always played since time immemorial.

Another example of motif is the treatment of the Ekottarika itself. The author of the Introduction asserts that it has been taught by all the past Buddhas (specifically the six who form the lineage of seven Buddhas), and they each have all entrusted that Āgama to Uttara, who was their disciple in past lives. So, again, the fact that this scripture was entrusted to this disciple becomes only the latest iteration of an eternally repeating event.

Aspiration to Become a Buddha

This motif is quite clear at the conclusion of the Introduction. It’s put into the mouth of Ānanda as he exhorts the assembly to keep all the Buddha’s teachings because they will enable to arising of future Buddhas. Yet, there’s no direct connection between this idea and the concept of a bodhisattva. Indeed, unless we believe that the author considered Ānanda a secret bodhisattva, we have to discard the notion that his exhortation falls into the same category as a later Mahāyāna polemic. Still, if the lineage of Buddhas is to continue, the teaching will need to continue and someone will need to aspire to that goal. But the teaching in question is not the six bodhisattva pāramitās: It’s the entire Buddhist scriptural canon, otherwise known as the Dharma body in this text. As Ānanda says in verse:

“Because the Dharma will be remembered,
Tathāgatas will arise from it.
The Dharma produces Completely Awakened Ones,
As well as pratyeka buddhas and arhats.
“The Dharma eliminates all manner of pain
And achieves the fruits [of the path].
Remembering the Dharma, not letting it leave one’s mind,
Brings rewards now and in the next life.
“Someone who wants to become a Buddha
Who’s just like Śākyamuni
Should accept and keep the Tripiṭaka Dharma,
Without corrupting a single line.

We can see here that this is an Introduction written during the era of “three vehicle” Buddhism (S. triyāna), before Mahāyāna Buddhists had begun to reject the notion of an arhat‘s liberation. Thus, there’s no need to even mention bodhisattvas as a result, nor any discomfort in having a trainee like Ānanda compose such verses. Buddhism was still an integrated whole that included the arhat and bodhisattva path.

I could write more, and probably will — e.g., who is Uttara anyway?! — but I will stop there for this week. Next week, I’ll release a translation of MĀ 153, which is parallel to the Māgandika Sutta in Pali.

I want to thank my Patreon and private patrons, current and past, who have so generously pledged contributions to this project. It really gives me hope for the modern world. Thank you!

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