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.

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