Week 11 Update: Editing, Coding, and Uncertainty

Hello, again, from southern California, where we are gearing up for more rain. The drought is officially over in many parts of the state, which really was in the nick of time.

There haven’t been any new releases this week. Instead, my time has been devoted to editing and researching translations that have already been published. I spent time going over my translation of DĀ 1, the beginning of a process that will hopefully produce a full-fledged book complete with introduction, indices, and the like.

I also noticed more typos in the EĀ Chapter 3 releases than there should be while I was writing last week’s update. So, I gave all ten sutras a good proofreading. That led to my falling into a rabbit hole of looking at mindfulness of breathing parallels, which ultimately served only to refresh my memory on the topic. I didn’t make any discoveries that explain why EĀ’s version of mindfulness of breathing reads the way it does.

Since that took more time that I expected, I decided to spend the last day of the week on coding tasks that I’ve left on the backburner for far too long. I spent yesterday with my IT graduate hat on, improving the Ruby scripts that export database records to text formats, which can be dropped into Dharma Pearls or used by other websites like SuttaCentral. I’m also moving forward with plans to publish the original Chinese alongside my translations, which is a first step toward other learning aids that I’d like to create. That isn’t quite ready yet, but I expect to start doing this in the near future. It’s just a matter of getting a script written and debugged fully to generate the web pages.

Back in September, I wrote an essay about the Mahāvadāna Sutra. It focused mainly on its place as the potential starting point for the cosmic notions that developed among Buddhists, imagining buddhas as distantly scattered through time and space as well as latently permeating the here-and-now. This to me is the doctrinal and historical importance of the Seven Buddhas sutra that formed the core of DĀ 1 and DN 14.

Today, I’d like to return to this subject and wade out into the weeds a little further. Not so far that we get completely lost in them, but far enough that it becomes clear that we could. It’s something I do quite a bit as a translator because I need to evaluate every clause of a text to assure myself that I’ve arrived at as good a translation as I can. So, when there are multiple parallels of a sutra, it’s a matter of due diligence to look at them closely as part of a final editing process.

The Seven Buddhas portion of DĀ 1 has quite a few direct parallels. Two of those parallels are the Pali edition (DN 14) and a reconstruction of a Sanskrit Mahāvadāna Sutra from fragments found in Central Asia. In Chinese sources, there are three more parallels to the Seven Buddhas section of DĀ 1: Taisho 2, Taisho 4, and EĀ 48.4. Taisho 2 is titled “The Seven Buddhas Sutra” (七佛經), but it’s actually a full parallel to the Mahāvadāna Sutra.

Taisho 4 is titled the “Parents and Surnames of the Seven Buddhas” (七佛父母姓字經). It doesn’t include the story of Bodhisattva Vipaśyin, but it includes a unique conclusion, so it must have existed as an independent sutra. EĀ 48.4 confirms that this section of DĀ 1 had existed as an independent sutra in more than one Buddhist canon, given how different it is from Taisho 4, and it includes its own unique conclusion.

When I compare these six editions of the Seven Buddhas teaching, it becomes apparent that there was some disorder in their arrangements, some editions include a little less material than the others, and many of them show some signs of random textual corruptions. Below is a table showing the arrangement of these parallels, minus their introductions and conclusions:

DĀ 1 Sanskrit Taisho 2 DN 14 Taisho 4 EĀ 48.4
Eons Eons Eons and Clans Eons Eons Eons
Life Spans Life Spans Names Clans Clans Clans
Clans and Names Clans Life Spans Names Names Names
Trees Names Parents and Cities Life Spans Parents and Cities Names (2)
Congregations Trees Disciples Trees Life Spans Trees
Disciples Congregations Attendants Disciples Sons Congregations
Attendants Disciples Congregations Congregations Trees Attendants
Sons Attendants n/a Attendants Attendants Life Spans
Parents and Cities Sons n/a Parents and Cities Disciples n/a
n/a Parents and Cities n/a n/a Congregations n/a

We can see, with some close examination, that the common core sections were: (1) the eons, (2) clan types, (3) clan names, (4) life spans, (5) congregations, and (6) attendants of the seven buddhas. Taisho 2 and EĀ 48.4 are the shorter versions, but they lack different sections: EĀ 48.4 lacks the parents and cities and disciples sections, and Taisho 2 lacks the trees section. Among the longer versions, the Pali edition differs in lacking a section on the sons of the buddhas.

The major expansion that’s evident among the core material is the addition of verses that reiterate each section. DĀ 1 makes extensive use of verse, but the Sanskrit edition, Taisho 2, and EĀ 48.4 also added verse to the prose. Taisho 4 and DN 14 didn’t add this embellishment. The verses are likely more recent additions because they vary widely, even while the prose sections they summarize are fairly consistent across parallels. This makes it apparent that the verses are independent creations by different authors, while the prose descends from some older ancestor. Like these added verses, we find that the introductions and conclusions all vary in one respect or another, indicating that each canonical tradition added or embellished one (or more) older sutra(s).

While I was giving the sutras in EĀ’s Chapter 3 an extra editing pass, I realized that the description of mindfulness of breathing found in EĀ 3.8 contains a curious feature that appears to be unique: Mention of hot and cold breaths. It reads:

“‘Breathing’ means observing and knowing, ‘Now my breaths are long,’ when one’s breaths are long. It means observing and knowing, ‘Now my breaths are short,’ when one’s breaths are short. It means observing and knowing, ‘Now my breaths are very cold,’ when one’s breaths are cold. It means observing and knowing, ‘Now my breaths are hot,’ when one’s breaths are hot. The practitioner fully observes their body, observing and knowing it from head to toe.

 “It also means observing, ‘Some of my breaths are long, and some are short,’ when one’s breaths are long and short. They keep their body in mind, fully knowing their breaths to be long or short. They immediately discern and are fully aware of it as they breath in and out. If they keep their body in mind while knowing their breaths are long or short, then they will also know the number of breaths that are long or short, discerning and understanding it clearly.

This description doesn’t match the sixteen steps that are so consistently found in many other Buddhist sources, which has been well documented by Dhammajoti and others. If I break this into a step-by-step process, it might look like this:

  1. Observing and knowing long breaths
  2. Observing and knowing short breaths
  3. Observing and knowing cold breaths
  4. Observing and knowing hot breaths
  5. Fully observing the whole body
  6. Observing breaths sometimes long and sometimes short
  7. Being mindful of the whole body while observing long and short breaths
  8. Being fully aware of the number of long or short breaths

This yields an eight-step rather than a sixteen-step mindfulness practice. A similar description is also found in EĀ 17.1, which is a parallel to MN 62. In this sutra, the Buddha gives instruction to Rāhula, part of which lays out the mindfulness of breathing procedure. Pierquet at Lapis Lazuli Texts has translated the relevant passage for us:

The Bhagavān told him, “Rāhula, suppose there is a bhikṣu who is happy being alone in quietude. In a secluded place, he corrects his body, corrects his intention, and sits cross-legged. Without any other thoughts, he fastens his mind on the tip of his nose. [1] When there is a long breath out, he is also aware of the long breath. [2] When there is a long breath in, he is also aware of the long breath. [3] When there is a short breath out, he is also aware of the short breath. [4] When there is a short breath in, he is also aware of the short breath. [5] When there is a cold breath out, he is also aware of the cold breath. [6] When there is a cold breath in, he is also aware of the cold breath. [7] When there is a warm breath out, he is also aware of the warm breath. [8] When there is a warm breath in, he is also aware of the warm breath. [9] He completely contemplates the in-breaths and out-breaths of the body, aware of them all. [10] When there is breathing, he also is aware of its presence. [11] When there is no breathing, he is also aware of its absence. [12] If there is an out-breath conditioned by the mind, he is aware that the out-breath was conditioned by the mind. [13] If there is an in-breath conditioned by the mind, he is aware that the in-breath was conditioned by the mind. Thusly, Rāhula, one is able to cultivate the practice of Ānāpānasmṛti, to eliminate every notion of worry and sorrow, obtain the great fruit, and taste the sweet nectar of immortality.” (EĀ 17.1: Mindfulness of Breathing)

My only quibbles with this translation are that I think step 9 is a contemplation of the whole body, based on the description in EĀ 3.8, and the first eight steps can be reduced to four. This would dovetail with both EĀ 3.8 and the traditional sixteen-step practice that places a whole-body mindfulness after mindfulness of long and short breaths.

We see, though, that after step 5 in EĀ 3.8 and step 9 in EĀ 17.1, these two passages diverge. EĀ 3.8 depicts the practitioner becoming expert in their awareness of long and short breathing, while EĀ 17.1 focuses on minute awareness of inhalations and exhalations. Neither of them follows the program found in the sixteen-step procedure, which integrates key concepts from the four dhyānas as well as the process of cessation. Here, we have an independent mindfulness of breathing practice which sticks to its subject. It could easily be seen as a preparatory practice before engaging in these more advanced meditative practices, but it doesn’t subsume them into a single program.

So, we have here two non-standard, perhaps earlier, procedures of mindfulness of breathing that are half the size of the sixteen-step procedure that was so consistent in Sarvāstivāda , Dharmaguptaka, and Theravāda sources. This same sixteen-step version is also found in the Chinese translation of the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya, which was procured at Pāṭaliputra by Faxian ca. 410 CE. That creates a problem for the common assumption among academics that EĀ was part of a Mahāsāṃghika canon. If so, it doesn’t seem likely to be the same one that produced Faxian’s Vinaya. EĀ’s provenance remains a mystery in my own mind as result of issues like this.

One thing that occurs to me as a possible explanation for EĀ having two different versions of this teaching is that the edition that has come down to us includes a number of longer MĀ-type sutras that seem out of place. These might have been remnants of Dharmananda’s lost translation of a Madhyama Āgama and/or from other sources. In any case, they may not have hailed from the same Buddhist tradition as the original EĀ translation did. Thus, we may be looking at passages from two poorly represented but related traditions that have not survived elsewhere. If we could find parallels to them that have known provenances, passages like these could help us identify the origins of the Chinese EĀ.

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