Comfort and ease

The meaning of zì zai (Chin.), resp. chaje (Kor.)


The 20th of March 2016 a Korean Buddhist group proposed to build a hospital for Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks. The group dubbed this initiative the “Ulsan Chaje Bhikku Hospital“, Ulsan being one of the big cities in South Korea, and chaje (Kor.), resp. zì zai (Chin.) meaning free, unrestrained, comfortable, at ease. Hence we must translate the phrase as “the Ulsan Hospital for bhikkhus (monks) where their health is restored to its former comfort, ease.”

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism under the guidance of Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2014 Princeton) translates chaje and zì zai in an altogether different way. Nonetheless the lemma accompanying this sentence in which we come accross “ba da zizai wo” (Chin.), resp. “p’al tae chaje a” (Kor.) clearly refers to the physical prowess of “buddhas and bodhisattvas”. This lemma says:

Ba da zizai wo (J. hachidai jizaiga; K. p’al tae chaje a) In Chinese the “eight great types of autonomy of the self”. In distinction to mainstream Buddhist teachings about the absence of a perduring self … the Chinese recension of the Mahāyana Mahāparinirvānasūtra teaches a doctrine of a “great self” (dawo, S. mahātman) that is realized through enlightenment. According to the Chinese renderings, a buddha, having realised this great self, is capable of eight kinds of miraculous transformations (ba shenian; ba zizai): (1) self-manifesting (he has the power to make his body appear as multiple emanations; nengshi yishen wei duoshen); (2) infinite enlargement (his physical body appears to fill the myriad world systems; shi yichenshen man daqian jie); (3) levitation and translocation (viz., to transport himself to remote places through space; dashen qingju yuandao); (4) incarnating into myriad species or categories of sentient beings (xian wulianglei changju); (5) intentional synesthesia (e.g. to see with his ears, to smell with his eyes, etc.; zhugen huyong); (6) attaining any ability imaginable, but without giving rise to the (conceited) thought of attainment (de yiqie fa wude xiang); (7) elaborating on the meaning of a single scriptural stanza for innumerable eons (before exhausting his knowledge and eloquence; shuo yiji yi jing wuliang jie); (8) pervading all of infinite space (shenbian zhuchu youru xukong). Other Mahāyana scriptures outline similarly fantastic and dramatic depictions of greatly apotheosized buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas.

The “Princeton” “eight great types of autonomy of the self” ought therefore be translated as “the eight  great attainments, while demonstrating physical ease and comfort“. This is in accordance with descriptions in the Mahāyana sūtras such as the Avatamsaka Sūtra and others.

In translating correctly we do not draw the “wo” (Chin.), resp. the “a” (Kor., litt. I or me) into the atman/anatman (Skr. for self/not-self) discussion, but merely acknowledge the fact that “wo”/”a” stands for this particular individual in its physical appearance: a buddha, or a bodhisattva in his highest “stage” of attainment. The sūtra says that it is capable of performing supernormal feats. The above-mentioned “dawo” (Chin.) is therefore not to be translated as “Great Self” in the sense of the Sanskrit mahātman, but rather as physically infinitely large, great, all-pervading. And indeed, in Chinese religious circles this greatness is taken literally (1); it literally permeates the cosmos: look at me — dawo, immense me!

Close-reading of the Mahāyana sūtras results in the realisation that here we find not only wishful thinking with regards to supernormal prowess. In first and last instance it is a visualisation-meditation: wish it were true; if I apply my thoughts well enough, maybe, just maybe, it will come true; at least in my own practice buddha is indeed immense, his words resound throughout the cosmos, to be heard by all and sundry.

(1) Chinese pre-Buddhist philosophy and folk-religion knows gods like the earth-god or the mountain-god that necessarily demonstrate themselves as physically immense. Buddha cannot be smaller; his appearance needs to include, or better, needs to visually obliterate the popular gods that fade in his presence. One day on a Taiwanese mountains the popular gods were carried out of their own shrines to be placed at the feet of the Buddha image in the temple hall that opened its doors for a day long Buddhist cultivation. The populace — that fiercely would not accept a no for an answer — placed their folk gods in the temple hall to receive the empowerment of Buddha; their gods would become better gods through being present.

Sāgara, samudra

Sāgara (Skr. and Pali) and samudra (Skr.) or samudda (Pali) are the two words that early Buddhist writers used when describing huge water surfaces. As of the earliest translations into German, French and English sāgara and samudra have almost exclusively been rendered as ‘ocean’. More recent linguistic and geographical studies show however that during the rainy season rivers running over their floodplains also belonged to the category sāgara and samudra: a person standing on one bank could only imagine the further shore.
As a result of visions of this immensity of samudra[s] (samudda[s]) stories and parables came into existence. We know a story in which the sāgara/samudra is the recipient of anything and everything without showing preferences. It symbolises the epithome of equanimity. There is another story in which even the slightest drop of water eventually dissolves into this ocean — and is thus liberated. Nevertheless, this latter image is basically a Hinduïstic concept, as we shall see below.

“It is like the water flowing from the lake Heatless; by four great river currents it suffices the continent, inexhaustible, ever increasing, benefiting infinite beings, and finally pours into the great ocean: that water from the very beginning is headed for the ocean.”

This short passages is to be found in the Avatámaka sūtra [Garland sūtra], the book The Ten Stages. That is to say, it at least belongs to the second or later Tibetan inspired version translated under the supervision of Shiksha-nanda (652-710). Shikshananda headed the royal translation bureau in the northern Chinese capital of Luoyang. It is possible, and even highly likely that in his translation office there were Tibetans among his scribes who had finished their studies at Nalanda in Northern India but who were not yet prepared to go back to the precarious living conditions in Tibet.

An earlier Avatámaka sūtra translation, this time under the supervision of Buddha-bhadra (359-430), came to be written (and printed) in Xi’an, another former capital of Northern China.
Nalanda as “university” may have existed in Buddhabhadra’s 4th-5th Cent., but as Buddhism entered Tibet (and today’s Bhutan) not before the 6th Cent., it is highly unlikely that Tibetan Buddhist monks were present in Buddhabhadra’s translation office. Hence the shortness of the Buddhabhadra-version as compared to Shikshananda’s manuscript. It lacked at least the versified resumés of the later extended version. We may assume that Shikshananda’s translation received additions and embellishments written by Tibetans who remembered “Lake Heatless”, i.e. Lake Manasarovar with its four great rivers. Manasarovar is also called Anotatta (Pali), Anavatapta or Manasa (Skr.).


To take up the image of ‘heatless’ (Heat, root: ‘tap‘). The Advaita-tradition of Hinduïsm has a saying that runs as follows: “the heatless, smokeless light of the Divine Effulgence, of “Vedanta Incarnate“. Whether the “heatless” in this sentence should rather be compared with the “tapas“, the extreme physical effort of the saintly sadhu, which thus is rejected, is a discussion that we will leave in the capable hands of Hindu scholars.

Dissolving into the ocean. The said Advaita-tradition is all about stressing the concept of non-duality, i.e. the One.
In particular the Buddhist Lankāvatāra sūtra contradicts this concept of Oneness in the Hinduïstic sense of the word. Or rather, becoming One is strongly rejected. The “Lanka” rather stresses a “not-two = not-two; it is not One either”. Chapter III illustrates it in different ways. E.g.:
“There is an exalted state of inner attainment which does not fall into the dualism of oneness and otherness, of bothness and not-bothness; …” (III, 172)

“There is nothing but that which is seen of the Mind itself, the duality too is of the Mind; …” (III, 181, 65)

“… some philosophers … declare this to be Nirvāna: that there is a primary substance, there is a supreme soul, and they are seen differently by each, and that they produce all things from the transformations of the qualities. … All these view … are not in accord with logic, nor are they acceptable to the wise.” (III, 183-184 Tr. D.T. Suzuki)