On Indian Sanskrit literature

Early May 2020 Sangham, resp. Srijan Talks uploaded a long exposé held by Mr. Bibek Debroy(1) on the subject of itihasa and its meaning. The subtext of this Youtube-file reads: “Itihasa has connotations of a timeless history, chronologically written description of important, special and public sector events of the person, society, country, chronological analysis of facts and events. Itihasa means ‘This is indeed what happened’. Itihasa came to be applied to the Ramāyan[a], the Mahābhārata and the Puránas which are part of our culture and history.”

In this same video Mr. Debroy explains a number of technical terms and he speaks about the Pune “critical edition” of the Rāmayāna in 80.000 slokas, and the Baroda “critical edition” of the Mahābhārata, “in size about 1/3 of the Rāmayāna”.

As far as ancient texts about legislation, jurisdiction and policy goes he explains how the Manu Sánghita “tells us about the most important 17 kinds of cases which the king should try in order of priority”. He explains how the funeral rites are given in the Garuda purána (translated by Ernest Wood and S.V. Subrahmanyam, an online file), and that “the way (hindu) temples are constructed”(2) is given in the Matsu purána.

There is lots more of interesting information about the Sanskrit language, information that deserves a wider audience. For instance the word Padaga: tree (not in Monier-Williams) has the root “pi” (speak: “bhe”) for “drinking”. Therefore, he says, padaga has both “foot” (pada) and “pi”. Therefore the literal meaning of the word tree is “drinking with its feet”. Is this important? Yes, it reminds us of our duty to avert or overcome desertification.

Mr. Debroy furthermore explains how a certain Jayadeva has been the first poet, as to Western standards, rhyme-and-all, but that the Sanskrit poem is syllabical and has rhythm (beat) as its most important aspect.

Lastly we should know that Mr. Debroy has by now translated one(3) of the main eighteen puránas, and plans to translate a further two. These are, or will be, the first translations by his hand into English. The above-mentioned Garuda purána is one of the other already translated texts.

(1) Bibek Debroy is an economist and was educated in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur; Presidency College, Kolkata; Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge. Presently, he is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister and Member, NITI Aayog, Government of India. He has worked in Presidency College, Kolkata (1979-83), Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune (1983-87); Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi (1987-93); as the Director of a Ministry of Finance/UNDP project on legal reforms (1993-98); Department of Economic Affairs (1994-95); National Council of Applied Economic Research (1995-96); Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (1997-2005); PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2005-06); and Centre for Policy Research (2007- 2015).
He has authored/edited several books, papers and popular articles and has also been a Consulting/Contributing Editor with several newspapers.

(2) Just as the staff of the East India Company called the island of Phuket “Junk Ceylon” (a junk is a particular kind of vessel, and the greenery of the island remined them of Ceylon [Sri Lanka]), so they had a joking “shaking the pagoda tree” in which sentence the “pagoda” in fact was/is the southern Indian Hindu temple.

(3) In three volumes. The puránas cover a wide range of teaching, astronomical, astrological, geographic, chronological, religious mythology and ethical discussion. One of Mr. Debroys critics deplores how the author omitted “all of the lunar dynastic lists”. Perhaps the next two translations will remedy this.


Where the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon seems to have a correct set of translations of the word sampradāya the editor of one of the wikipedia-lemmata wrongly connects the word with the western concept of “identity”.
Sampradāya means tradition, religious origin, religious system. It does not mean religious identity. Identity is rather a static concept: one’s identity is that of a ginger-haired or that of an Inuit — can’t be altered. Sampradāya on the other hand is rather fluid. One’s sampradāya may at birth be, let’s say, Zoroastrianism. Later in life however one could leave this tradition to adhere to anonther one, to another sampradāya.

Cause and effect

Creation, says Hinduïsm, is the result of a cause. That is, the highest Hindu god, by the name of Krishna, Brahman, or any other name, causes himself, or itself, to manifest in different forms. Hence Hinduïsm speaks of “result-cause“. We first see the result, and on the basis of this we infer that which caused the result: result being the manifest, and cause is he who manifests. This in contrast to the Abrahamic assumption of cause (= God) and result or effect (= the universe).

In classical Sanskrit “result-cause”, in the Vedic-Hinduistic sense is given as phalam, result, or parināma, and
adihetu, first cause, or adikārana, first cause, i.e. the divine mind.

In contrast to this Buddhism rejects the notion of causation or creation in the absolute sense of the word, whether it be in the Hinduistic sense or the Abrahamic. There is no causation-creation of the universe, no causation-creation of beings. There is an ongoing cycle of matter and time in which cycle no ultimate cause, creation, or creator can or needs to be be discerned.
Here the component hetu, as in the Sanskrit adihetu where it carries the meaning of first cause, is considered a relative designation as in the Pāli-word hetu-paccaya: cause and condition(ing) when describing the cyclical wheel of life where one link causes another to act or react. (Pratyaya in Hybrid Sanskrit)
So also the Pāli-word vipāka, product / effect, needs to be understood in the ethical sense of the word, and not as an absolute. (Vipaksa in Hybrid Sanskrit) It stands for the product of karma-producing actions, and not as the effect of ultimate causation or creation.


Especially in online references to the word “dharma” (Skr.) or “Dhamma” (Pāli) a number of editors see “dharma” and “religion” as interchangeable. This incorrect representation of “dharma” has in the 19th-20th century been introduced by western scholars-translators who were raised in the Christian or at least theïstic vocabulary. They were of good faith, but made a mistake as far as translation of the words dharma or dhamma go.
Somewhere in 2017 a commentator correctly stated that the Sanskrit dictionaries have no word for “religion”. In addition to that he surmised that the Western-Christian “religion” and the Arab “mazhab” were interchangeable.

This is incorrect. If we must compare at all, “dharma” and “mazhab” have more in common than “dharma” and “religion”. Mazhab, it is said, denotes a jurisprudence based on the Koran or the Hadith.
The ancient vedic word Dharma denotes a number of things, from “the natural order” over “as it should be” to, in Hinduïsm, “the established Law”.
Buddhism leaves this interpretation of dharma (or dhamma) as “the established Law” out of the list and rather replaces it with “the teachings of (the historical) Buddha.”

Some translate dharma and adharma as “valid resp. invalid ethical conduct”. In all cases the word dharma or dhamma is an untranslatable just als “allelujah” is an untranslatable.

There can be reverence (Skr. bhakti) in Buddhist practice, but there can be no “religion” in the sense of adherence to a revealed moral-philosophical system. Buddhism has no revelation. It rather leans on established knowledge or perception: things are the way we see them; things are not the way an unknown entity wills us to see them. The first is a manifestation of dharma; the latter a manifestation of religion.

The Heart Sūtra

Part of the Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures of early Mahayana

The Heart Sūtra is part of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamitā) literature, a collection of early Mahāyāna Scriptures. There are a number of Perfection of Wisdom collections, both long and short, and there are a number of Heart Sūtras, both long and short.

The Perfection of Wisdom collection was originally written in Buddhist Sanskrit, which is slightly different from classical Sanskrit, and in a number of Sanskrit-related languages and dialects that existed on the Silk Road.
It is quite possible that the long version of the Heart Sūtra that has been translated and published by the office of the Gyalwa Karmapa (www.dharmafellowship.org/libary/texts/heart-sutra.htm) is a most accomplished and correct rendering of one of the long versions.
Sir Leon Hurvitz, one of the early highly esteemed Sinologists discovered a short version of the Heart Sūtra that the monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (or Hsuan-tsang) transcribed from a wall in a cave in Loyang, Northern China. What Xuanzang, who died in 664 discovered must have been an transliterated version of a Sanskrit original. Transliteration means that you write down the heard syllables as faithfully as possible in the script in which your own language is expressed. To give an example of transliteration: an Anglosaxon might transliterate the French word “boutique” as “booteec”, and “pois” as “pooah”. Imagine the misunderstandings that arose in later ages when researchers tried to figure out the Sanskrit words hidden in Chinese characters.

Since Hurvitz’ discovery the short version of the Heart Sūtra has been retranslated into Buddhist Sanskrit first, and after that into English. Now (2009) a version of this Sanskrit → Chinese → Sanskrit → English text floats around in the virtual World Wide Web.
Translating such a text into English was a brave enterprise, especially in the early days of Buddhism in the West. As both the knowledge of Buddhism grew and more and more dictionaries and Sanskrit Grammars appeared, it has become possible to attempt a revised English translation of Xuanzang’s short version of the Heart Sūtra.

On the title:

“Heart” here refers to the essence of the Perfection of Wisdom-texts, being the emptiness of all phenomena. A few words are said in the observations in line 3. The stock phrase “emptiness is form, form is emptiness” is not found in this text, at least not verbatim. Instead line 5, where this phrase appears in other manuscripts, shows influences of Huayen-thinking where it emphasises the fundamental identity of forms in their being empty of “ens”, substance.

1. Prajñaparamitā hrdaya sūtra

2. arayāvalokiteshvaro bodhisattvo

3. gambhīram prajñaparamitā caryam caramano vyavalokāyati
sma panca skandhas tams ca sva bhāva sunyam

1. Sūtra on the heart of the perfection of wisdom

2. The noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
3. coursed in the profound perfection of wisdom; he uninterruptedly coursed (in such a way that he had a fixed view on) the empty world (,namely the emptiness of) that which has arisen, (i.e.) the five skandhas.

4. pasyati sma iha sariputra

5. rūpam sunyatā vā rūpam rūpan na prthak
sūnyatā sūnyatāya na prthak rūpam
yad rūpam sa sūnyatā ya sūnyatā sa rūpam

4. O, Sariputra, he saw uninteruptedly:
5. that which is emptied is none other than (a single) form and/or forms (plur.); those forms do not distinguish (fundamentally) among themselves; they are empty.

6. evam eva vedanā samjñā samskāra vijñānam
7. iha sariputra sarva dharma sunyatā
8. lakshana anutpanna anuruddha av(i)māla anuna aparpūna.

6. The same goes for physical feeling, the active process of understanding, establishing and maintaining of thought-stream, and consciousness as such.

7. O Sariputra, all phenomena are empty,

8. (therefore their) characteristics (too) are unarisen, (therefore there is no need for) pacifying, (and they cannot be said to be) impure, (or) inferior; (in this sense they are) certainly complete, one.

9a. ta (tada) sariputra sunyatāyam
b. na rūpam na vedanā na samjñā na samskāra na vijñāna
c. na caksuh srotam na ghrāna jihva-kaya manah
d. na rūpa sabda gandha rasa spistavya (sprstavya) dharmah
e. na caksur dhātur yā van (yāva) na mano vijñānam dhātur
f. na vidya na vidya na vidya ksayo vā vidya ksayo
g. yā van (yāva) jaramaranam na jaramana ksayo
h. na duhkha samudaya nirodha mārgajnā
i. na jñānam na prapti na (a)bhis(a)maya tamai (tasmat) na prapti.

9a. In that case, Sariputra, (in) that all encompassing emptiness
b. (is) no materiality; there is no physical feeling, no active process of understanding, no establishing and maintaining of thought-stream, no consciousness
c. (nothing belonging to the sphere of the) eye; it has no faculty of hearing, no smell, no tongue, nothing material.
d. (There is) no form, no sound, smell, taste, touching — nothing phenomenal.
e. There is no sphere in which the eye is operative, upto thinking, or a sphere in which consciousness is operative.
f. (There is) no knowing, no exhaustion of knowing or knowing that knowing has been exhausted.
g. This (holds true upto) old age and death and the extincion of old age and death.
h. There is no origin of affliction (or) extinction of the search.
i. (This all encompassing emptiness has) no supreme knowledge; there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be clearly understood; therefore there is nothing to be attained.

10. tvad bodhisattva prajñaparamitā asritya (srutya)
11. viha ratya (vihāratya) citta varano vidya ksayo na vidya ksayo

10. You, bodhisattva, heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom (thus:)

11. (it) is to be dwelt in (thus:), he chooses this (line of) thought: nor is knowing exhausted, nor is it not exhausted.

12. na duhkha-samudaya nirodha-mārgajnā
na jñānam na prapti na (a)bhis(a)maya tamai (tasmat) na prapti.
13. tvad bodhisattvanam prajñaparamitā asritya (srutya)
14. vihāratya citta varano | citta varano
na siddhitvad (nāstitvat) atrasto viparyasa ti kranto (tikranto)
15. ni sthā (nisthā) nirvāna | tya dhā vyāva stitah.

12. There is no origin of affliction, there is no extinction of the search.
(It has) no supreme knowledge; there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be clearly understood; therefore there is nothing to be attained.

13. You who (now) belong to (the line of) bodhisattvas heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom (thus:)

14. It is to be dwelt in (thus:); he chooses this line of thought | this way of thinking:
Because of non-existence of the hindrances of the mind, he is not frightened, he has crossed over distortions; |

15. indeed he will be firmly established in nirvāna.

16. sarva buddhah prajñaparamitam asritya (srutya)
17. anuttaram samyaksambodhim abisambuddhah

16 – 17. All unexcelled, perfectly enlightened, highest Buddhas heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom.

18. tasmat jñatavyam
19. prajñaparamitā-mahā-mantram mahā-vidya-mantram
anuttara-mantram asamasama-mantram.

18. Therefore they knew this.

19. The Perfection of Wisdom is a great utterance, an utterance of great knowing,
an on all levels unexcelled utterance.

20. sarva duhkha prasa manam satyam amithyātvat
21. prajñaparamitayam ukto mantrah tadhyathā

20. All afflictions are cast aside as the mind does away with falsety, unreality.

21. Thus has been declared the utterance on the perfection of wisdom.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha

(Is) gone, (is) gone, gone to the other shore, altogether gone to the other shore; a salute to bodhi, enlightenment.


Line 2.: — Arayāvalokiteshvaro. Āvalokiteshvara (he who reaches down (aval) to listen to voice/sound (svāra) of the earth (loka)) is Buddha’s Compassion aspect; a bodhisattva is an enlightening being, according to the Mahāyāna philosophy.

Line 3.: — sma: uninterruptedly, fixed

vyavalokāyati. Vyava in classical Sanskrit is a prefix indicating action: to fix, to do etc. Lokāyati (gramm.: infin.) = the world. Vyava-lokāyati ought to be read in conjunction with caryam and sunyam: to course/coursing (caryam) in empty/the empty (sunyam) world (lokāyati) of …

caryam caramano indicates the dynamic though wordless Buddhist meditation.

sva bhāva (svabhāva) = that which has arisen, that which has been born, the existent. In classical Hindu-thought it is often given as “the self-existent”. This, however, would not be the correct interpretation here.

Skandhas are enumerated in lines 5 and 6 as: materiality (form), physical feeling, the active process of understanding (samñjā), establishing and maintaining of thought-stream (samskāra), and consciousness as such (vijñāna).

Sūnyam here is clearly understood in the Southern Buddhist sense of absence of an unchanging, ever abiding self, soul. It indicates the ever changing nature of all phenomena including the self or the soul. It should be understood that the Perfection of Wisdom-collection is one of the first, if not the first long manuscript that expouses the early Mahāyāna philosophy.

Line 4.: — Sariputra, a contemporary of Sakyamuni Buddha, was one of the Arhats, enlightened monks, having, according to Southern or early Buddhism, the same enlightenment as Buddha, yet standing a step below him. Sariputra used to be the trainer of novices. In later ages he therefore is projected as one of Buddha’s most important partners in discussion, and is here, in the Heart Sūtra, presented as one who understood this teaching, and therefore now has joined the ranks of the bodhisattvas, enlightening beings.

Line 5.: — “Form” is described by the Daoïst as “apparatus”, “capacity”, or “ability”.

— Following the rule that verb and object have to agree in number, sūnyatāya, “is emptied”, should be considered the verb, and sa, a “pleonasm” here used in the sense of “this here” has been given the role of subject.

— There is an interplay of singular and plural in the use of rūpam (acc. sing. 3rd. masc.) and rūpan (acc. plur. 3rd. masc.).

prthak, in the original given as prithak and prithag, has the meaning of widely apart, separately, differently, singly, severally, one by one. In conjunction with na, not, it has been rendered as “none other than”, and “do not distinguish”.

Line 7.: — sarva. Lokesh Chandra (the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara) is of the opinion that this should be read as sarpa: come.

Line 8.: — This line lacks object. The object has to be found in the word “phenomena” in line 7. Lakshana therefore has been chosen as the adjective of dharma, phenomena.

Aparpūrna does not occur in either Classical Sanskrit or in Hybrid or Buddhist Sanskrit. Hence “certainly complete, one” has been chosen as a composite of the Hybr. Sanskr. apara, “a certain”, and pūrna, “full, one”. I.e. the absence of ens, substance in both the phenomena and their characteristics IS the characteristic of the phenomena and their characteristics as we perceive them with our senses.

Line 9.: — One has tried to respect the adjectives, gerund, and datives where they occurred.
— a. sūnyatāyam has been rendered as if the adjective sunyatā were a pronoun with the additional 3rd (= we) form -tāyam.
— c. caksuh should be understood as an ablativus, just as manah.
— d. sprstavya. –tavya is a gerund.
— e. and g. van. In classical Sanskrit should be understood as moving, and van as acquiring. However, yāva in Pali should be understood as “upto” or “down to”.
Tasmai in classical Sanskrit generally means “unto Him”, and occasionally “therefore”. The latter interpretation is chosen since the first does not make sense in this line.
— d. “… upto old age and death” refers to the 12-fold chain of dependent origination (pratitya samutpāda) that starts with ignorance and ends with old age and death, after which the cycle starts again.
— h. Affliction and origin of affliction: duhkha, resp. duhkha-samudaya.

Especially this line speaks of the meditatively experienced eternal moment of now, the non-moving or timelessness. Again here Buddhist philosophy cannot be divorced from Buddhist meditation and vice versa without seriously distorting the one or the other.

— In Hybrid or Buddhist Sanskrit mārganā is “act of searching, seeking”. –jñā here should be understood as a transliteratory error, although classical Sanskrit has rasajñā, “having a taste for”, and suyajñā, “sacrificing well”. The pronounciation of – (n-dot) and –jñā is practically identical.
— i. “Nothing is clearly understood”: na abhisamaya; the original has a slight error. “Nothing to be attained” is a stock phrase of zen.

— In line 9. philosophy and meditative practice merge. It is furthermore a rephrasing of the abhidharmic teaching on the senses. It describes the senses, e.g. the eye, as a/ the physical organ, b/ as a faculty, i.e. its functioning, and c/ the field in which it is operative.
The earliest strand of Buddhism says of the senses and all that belongs to materiality and mentality: “all this is not me, myself (na me so atta)”. The later strands say: they are empty (sunya), there is emptiness (sunyatā). The Perfection of Wisdom-collection to which the Heart Sūtra belongs does not yet say that emptiness of substance equals illusoriness, though this particular Chinese manuscript leans very much towards it.

Line 11.: — Vihāratya: is to be dwelt in.
Varano from varana: choosing: he chooses / the chooser.

Line 14.: — Part of line 14. plus the first 2 words of line 15, delineated by | |, occur in a different manuscript that bears both similarities and differences. It has been translated by a Pali class of Taiwan University as: citta-avarana-na-astitvat a-trastah viparyāsa-atikrantah nisthā-nirvāna-praptah. It is rendered as: “Because of non-existence of the hindrances of the mind, he is not frightened, he has crossed over distortions, at the end he will attain Nirvana.”
Both a Sino-Korean recitation book on the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara and the Lotus Sūtra have the compound viparyāsa-tikranta, not viparyāsātikranta. I.e. there is no negation here.

Line 15.: — It may well be that the last part of this line: tya dhā vyāva sthitah is a distortion that occurred as a result of initial rendering of Sanskrit into Chinese and retranslation into Sanskrit. Should we try to understand the line as it stands, then tya should be tyad, indeed; dhā should be understood as “holding (in place)”; and vyāva should be understood as in line 3.

Line 19.b. : — asamasama. In Classical Sanskrit sama has a number of renderings, among others “homogeneous”. Hence asamasama is translated as “on all levels”, ignoring the possibility that the initial “a” could be a negative.

Line 20.: — prasa should be prāsa: casting, throwing. Amithyātvat ought to be understood in the line of the Cl. Sanskrit mithyātva: falsety, unreality.

Line 19 – 21.: — mantrah is rendered as “utterance” since a mantra is not in all instances a spell or a short saying without meaning; in fact, it is never without meaning.

gate in the final line is the passive form as in “is done”, “is seen”, in this case “is gone”. The popular interpretation “let’s go together” cannot hold. What is given here is a salute to Avalokiteshvara, he has gone to the other shore (enlightenment).

The sword in Buddhism

One might conclude that the word “sword” in Buddhist scriptures appeared for the first time in a Song of the Brethren (Theragāta 1, 757). There we find asattha (n. adj.) [a = negating particle + sattha] “absence of a sword or knife”, which indicates a characteristic of the monk: he is non-violent.
The word sword, however, is more often given als asi, a vedic expression, i.e. belonging to the Sanskrit lore that shaped Hinduism.

It is therefore remarkable that Buddha-ghosa (“Buddha-voice”), a fifth-century native of Bodhgaya in northern India, who migrated to Sri Lanka where he penned his large commentary on the Pali canon under the title Visuddhi-magga, mixed Sanskrit-elements with his newly acquired command of the Pali language. We find another example in Cittā’s gātā.

In his Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa speaks of ñānāsi which by most translators is translated as “the sword of knowledge“. The paragraph in one of the translation runs as follows (Vism.II, ch, xii):
6. And these enemies (ari), these defilements, are destroyed (hata) by the path. / Because the enemies are thus destroyed he is thus accomplished (arahanta)./ The enemies (ari) that were deployed / [i.e.] greed and the rest, have been destroyed (hata) / by his, the Helper’s, wisdom’s sword (ñānāsi), / So he is “accomplished” (arahanta), all agree on that.

We might say that here, in ñānāsi, we do not encounter a combination of subject and object. Therefore we might translate it as “the sword (āsi) which is knowledge (ñānā).” Ñānā in Buddhist philosophical thinking is generally given a somewhat subordinate place in comparison with paññā, and especially with bodhi. Bodhi (or buddh) is invariably given as “wisdom”. When at the end of his First Exposition of his dharma (or dhamma) Buddha exclaims: “Aññā Kondañña“, he says: “Kondañña knows!”, not “Kondañña has attained to supreme wisdom [buddhi] or insight [pañña]”.

As Buddhaghosa’s family belonged to the upper stratum of Indian society he must have had discussions with brahmin priests who cited the famous Bhagavad Gīta verse (ch.4, 42):
“Therefore, with the sword of knowledge, cut asunder the doubts that have arisen in your heart. O scion of Bharat (India), establish yourself in karm[a] yog[a]. Arise, stand up, and take action!” (“Karma yoga” being the religious cultivation through action.)

Certainly this verse speaks of knowledge that cuts through doubts (or ignorance in other translations) just as a sword cuts through matter. Why later on Arjuna, the main character of the Gīta yet saw the need for using the sword in cutting through matter, Buddhaghosa may not have gotten a satisfactory answer to. Nevertheless, this use of the word sword in connection with knowledge (or wisdom in other translations) must have stuck in his mind, and once in Sri Lanka he jotted the ñānāsi down at the appropriate place, in the passage that describes how the arahan (the enlightened who has almost attained to Buddhahood) cut through the defilements of the mind, so liberating himself. In doing so Buddhaghosa led the reader back to the original meaning of the word: the monk, or arahan (arhat) does not use a sword, and certainly not in the literal sense. His “sword” is his knowledge/wisdom.

Many centuries later when the 13th century Vietnamese zenmonk Tue Trung apparently spoke in riddles when answering questions by his disciples he too refers to the sword, but hardly in combination with knowledge or wisdom.
He says (Les Propos de l’Éveillé Tue Trung, Paris 2015, p.63/64)

Kiém truóc Long Tuyén hiêu
A marvelous sword called Dragon’s Source (Une épée merveilleuse appelée Source de Dragons)


Kiém xung xuát hap cáu khói phuc,
The sword is drawn out of its sheat to re-establish peace (L’épée sort du fourreau pour rétablir la paix),

The Vietnamese word for sword is kiẽm.

Where did Tue Trung got this concept of sword from? Was he inspired by Buddhaghosa? That is highly unlikely since his first utterance “A marvellous sword called Dragon’s Source” rather belongs to East-Asian religio-philosophical iconography, and not to the Indian lore.
In the Chinese language one of the translations for sword is jiàn. Is the Vietnamese kiẽm a degeneration of the Chinese jiàn? This seems to be the case. Where did Buddhist China the concept of “the sword called Dragon’s Source” get from? From the Serindian Buddhist canon as it had been carried over the border at Dunhuang? Not so sure.

In Tibetan Buddhist parlance, taught and brought back from the earliest university of Nalanda — a Buddhist(ic) interpretation that did not come to the fore before the 6th/7th century — we find: “flaming ‘sword of wisdom’ “, given as “shes rab ral gri“. Gri meaning “sword”. Tibetan translators even came up with a Sanskrit(ic) source: chūrikā as in prajñā-chūrikā: “knife of wisdom” which they eventually altered into ‘sword of wisdom’, in line with Buddhaghosa’s ñānāsi but a tad different because ‘we’re no theravādin, we’re sarvastivādin if not vajra-yānin. Hence we don’t employ the dictionary of the theravādin.’

It’s therefore not the Tibetan prajñā-chūrikā (wisdom-sword) that Tue Trung had come across. Was he inspired by monks that accompanied Mongolian invadors into Vietnam and Korea? The Mongolian word for sword is ildü (or ildy(n) in the first English-Mongolian dictionary by the hand of Ferdinand D Lessing). No, ildü and kiẽm are in no way comparable.
The only conclusion is therefore that Vietnam obtained the concept of flaming sword out of China, and that China used this concept in the most literal form possible — as all concepts that China uses are to be understood in the literal sense of the word.

The sequence is therefore as follows:
In the earliest period of Buddhism the monk did not carry a sword, i.e. he was by nature and praxis non-violent;
In Buddhaghosa’s 5th century wisdom had become a symbol that, as a sword, cut through mental defilements;
In the next Chinese and Mongolian period of Buddhism one employed a literal flaming sword in ceremonies that were designed to establish the opinion that (evil and/or) ignorance had to be forcefully destroyed — stamp it out!;
In the Vietnamese 13th century the king-monk used the sword wisely (in his opinion) to literally re-establish peace, not to cut through ignorance of defilements.

Brain, mind and consciousness

Recently work of the artists Antoni Tapiès (1923 – 2012) and Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) came into auction, respectively were brought together in a dedicated exhibition.
That allows us to dwell on the concepts of the brain in connection with physical feelings and that of consciousness and unconsciousness/the subconscious.

Tapiès’ biography (on “Fundacio Tapiès”) states: “The works of the last years are, most of all, a reflection on pain – both physical and spiritual – understood as an integral part of life. Influenced by Buddhist thought, Tàpies believes that a better knowledge of pain allows us to soften its effects and therefore improve our quality of life.

antoni-tàpies-ondulacions-i-brac 2009

Modern science says that at any one moment our brain is receiving about 100 million pieces of information which are fed into the nervous system through the ears, eyes, nose, tongue and touch receptors in the skin. This enumeration, and nothing more than the enumeration, by the way, is taken from the Abhidharmic Buddhist teachings, particularly where it deals with the concept of (Skr./Pali) vedanā, physical feelings. Well done, we might say; the scientific world is learning fast.

There is however a little snag, because in cases of Tapiès’ pains, for example, it’s not the brain that receives information and sends it through to the sense-organs. Rather it’s a malfunction of the body somewhere that sends it’s information “up” to the brain where it is processed as “arm hurts”, to give an example.
Now we must deal with the question of where this pain is located. Where is it sensed? Is there a sensing part of the brains’ functioning in that painful arm? No, actually, there is no proof of the presence of brain-matter anywhere else but in the head.
Well then, is the pain located inside the brain, in the head? No, in the case of a hurting arm or a broken leg the (physical) brain is without pain, it merely processes information.
So where is pain? What is pain?
In the mind of a meditator these questions might lead to a particular insight into the concept of pain — without however solving the scientific question, that’s not the task and function of meditation.

All this is not to say that Mr. Tapiès had a little meditative breakthrough; we don’t know what his “knowledge of pain” consisted of. It merely shows that the scientific labour of love on concepts such as physical sensations and their connections with the brain is only halfway through. More has to be figured out.

Salvador Dali gained fame with his dreamlike paintings: warped watches, dreamlike landscapes, etc.
No doubt the scientific worlds of psychiatry and psychology will be more than happy in suggesting that here the subconscious came into action — subconscious in the sense De Quincey gave it in 1823: “not wholly conscious” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/subconscious). As of 1874 subconscious morphed into something like ‘consciousness on a deeper level’, to emerge suddenly and without manifesting itself as “sub-“; i.e. in the person’s perception it’s seen as real, physically existing, or on an artistic level not to be denied.

Western writers on Buddhism used this Romantic and post-Romantic concept of subconscious when treating the word/concept of (Skr./Pali) Citta: consciousness, as it appears in almost all canonical works of Buddhism.
However, as Buddhism did not arise in the Western world, but in the East, the word subconsciousness cannot be found in any of the canonical treaties of Eastern religion and philosophy. Subconsciousness is foreign to the Eastern thinking.

What we dó find in Eastern thinking is the concept of “unprompted consciousness”, and “consciousness” here is not cittá, but the above-mentioned physical experience called vedanā: feeling with the body.
In that case there is mention of ansankharika vedanā (speak: asan khá rika). Len Rek interprets it as “an attribute of an intention”. A ninth-century Pali-Abhidhamma compiler uses it in a citation that begins with “Vedanā-ñāna-[a]sankhāra …”: knowing that there is an unprompted ([a]sankhāra) feeling (vedanā).
This in apposition with “prompted feeling” as in (Pali) “itthā kantā manāpā piyarūpā kāma rajaniyā“: … endowed with pleasantness, prompting desires. (D i.245=M i.85; 504; D ii.265; M iii.267; VvA 127.)

“Unprompted” seen as “suddenly” has become an important subject in Eastern Buddhist thought when contrasted to, or compared with Daoist thinking. In his translation of Asvaghosa’s Sraddhotpāda shastra (The Awakening of Faith) Yoshito S. Hakeda points to the Chinese concept of hu-jan as in “Suddenly, a deluded thought arises; this state is called ignorance.” His dwelling on the concept is no longer extant in the online Heidelberg translation, but it is referred to in Whalen Lai’s treatment of the scripture called Hu-Jan Nien-Ch’i: Suddenly a Thought Rose; Chinese understanding of Mind and Consciousness. (The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1980, Vol. 3, Nr 2)
The Chinese understanding of “suddenly”, hu-jan, is that actually this particular piece of consciousness did not arise (out of nothing or out of the subconscious) but was there all along, though not realised. Now when it is suddenly there this non-arisen present mind (i.e. a piece of memory) has in the East never been called subconscious. It is “unconsciousness” and as such a source of embarrassment. Hence it is called ignorance — how stupid could I be, not to see this before! Had I been conscious of it, had I been smarter, I would have had more wisdom; there’s work to be done.

Pity and martyrdom


Even Sir Monier-Williams (1819 – 1899) whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary saw the light in the last year of his life could in his translatory activities not avoid employing the religio-philosophical terminology that is so important in that culture of which he was a child. When describing the mental attitude of compassion, as it was expressed in the Hindu canon, he automatically translated “day” with “hav(ing) pity”, and “dayā“, resp. “dayākara” with (sympathy, compassion, and) “pity”, resp. “store of pity”.

The same is true for the earlier translators of the Buddhist Sanscritic and Pali canon. Here terms such as “anuganhāti”, “anuddaya”, “anukámpaka/anukámpika”, and even “karunā” are rendered with “merciful” and/or “full of pity” (and “compassion”).
These translators made no distinction between compassion and pity. It seems that the early Buddhist scriptures did. That is to say, when in the Birth Story (Jātaka) the bodhisattva senses the hunger and pain of the trapped tigress who is about to eat her cubs, he offers his own body. Was this a sign of pity?  Was this martyrdom? Could we replace compassion (anuganhāti, anuddaya, anukámpaka/anukámpika, karunā) with pity?

All Buddhist teachers reject the use of the word pity since pity easily entails an attitude of looking down on the person who is “to be pitied” by the person who is so much better off and has a so much better understanding and attitude towards the situation. The pitying person speaks from his very own top of the mountain about the to be pitied masses down below.
Compassion (karunā), in the Buddhist sense of the word, starts off as an universal attitude to be cultivated as an abstractum, not (yet) necessarily directed or applied towards some individual sufferer somewhere. In cases of urgency this universal attitude of karunā is made manifest in a more specific line of action towards the individual: beings in situations like this suffer, or could be better off, hence let me lend a helping hand because in my heart of hearts I know what it feels like; in the distant past I may have been there, and perhaps one day I will be there again.


Neither the classical Sanskrit, nor the Hybrid-Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist Chinese etc. have a word that could be translated with “martyr”, or “martyrdom”. Buddhism has no martyrs; sometimes it has co-sufferers.

Confucianism and martyrdom

When scholars such as Walter H. Slote and ‎George A. De Vos in a publication of 1998 speak of Confucianism and mention that “filiality requires” “self-sacrifice”, they too apply the philosophical terminology of the West on concepts of the East. The same goes for another writer who in a publication of 2002 speaks in terms of “the [Chinese Confucian] martyr’s dedication to advancing society through selfless commitment to justice in public administration, ….”
Even Dorothy Ko, ‎JaHyun Kim Haboush, and ‎Joan Piggott (2003) cannot help but to refer to “the category ‘martyr'” when speaking of the Korean “widows [of the past] who commit suicide as a demonstration of loyalty to a deceased husband, or to avoid ‘humiliation’ …”.

It might be that Confucianists reading theses such as these would raise the same objections as Buddhists do when Western translators jollify the Buddhist canon with such highly sensitive words such as pity and martyrdom.

Ksémendra’s riddles

The Vaisnavist (devotee of the Hindu god Vishnu) Ksémendra, who at the same time happened to be an admirer of Buddhism as it was presented to him, composed in the year 1052 a series of verses on the subject of Dependent Origination.

The Chain of Dependent Origination is presented in its twelvefold appearance, a half-loop forward starting with ignorance leading ultimately to death, and a half-loop backwards beginning with death (and rebirth) which inevitably leads to ignorance in the end. Both semi-loops vacillate back and forth, back and forth until the truth about this chain is seen and hence broken.

Ksémendra’s poem is kept at several places in blockprint-copies in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. This author collected his bundle of verses under the title “Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā“: Narrations on the glorious exploits (avadāna) of the bodhisattva, narrations that are like the fabulous creeper (kalpalatā) [which according to the earlier strands of Vaisnavisme granted all wishes].

Mr. Marek Mejor has done the world a service by transliterating Ksémendra’s poetry. His bundle appeared in 1992 in Tokyo, at the International Institute for Buddhist Studies. In his bundle he not only presented us with a transliteration, but also ventured into a translation. Considering the play on words so appreciated by writers of Sanskrit who with their intertwining of names, concepts and verbs rather venture into riddles than into literature that is comprehensible to all, the unravelling of all this is no minor task.

To illustrate Ksémendra’s word play we may repeat the first Sanskrit stanza of his opus magnum:

sarvam avidyamūlam samsārataruprakāravaicitryam /
jñātum vaktum hantum kah sakto nyatra sarvajñāt.

Marek Mejor translates:
Who is able, except the Omniscient, to know, to tell of, to destroy all the varieties of different kinds of the world-tree, having as its root(s) ignorance?

It may well be that Marek, with the above kalpalatā (creeper) in mind, and coming across both the word -mūlam (root) and the difficult to understand composite samsārataruprakāra-, decided that where there are roots there must be a tree.

I present another solution to the riddle:
All rootcauses of ignorance, manifold [as they are throughout] samsāra, are verily made manifest by the All-knowing; who else but [he] sees and knows them, speaks of them and [personally] made an end to them.

(Samsāra is the endless roundabout of the world and everything on it.)

To repeat with the Sanskrit components added:
All (sarvam) rootcauses of ignorance (avidyamūlam), manifold (vaicitryam) [as they are throughout] samsāra (samsārata), are verily (kāravai) made (kār[a]) manifest (ruprat)/
by the All-knowing (sarvajñāt); who else (kah) but (nyatra) [he] sees (sakto) and knows (jñātum) them, speaks (vaktum) of them and [personally] made an end to (hantum) them.


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.