New English Samyukta-Agama translation

Standing Buddha from Gandhara, showing Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian artistic influence. Such style developed in northwestern India around the beginning of the common era.

Standing Buddha from Gandhara, showing Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian artistic influence. Such style developed in northwestern India around the beginning of the common era.

So, without explaining why it has only been about eight months (!!) since my last post on this blog, I would like to offer here a new project that is appearing in the realm of Early Buddhist studies that may be of interest to some people.

Bhikkhu Anālayo is a German-born monk in the Theravada tradition, ordained in Sri Lanka in 1994. He has recently begun a translation of the Chinese Saṃyukta Āgama into English for the first time; this foundational text is the Chinese counterpart to the Pali Samyutta-Nikaya (the Connected Discourses of the Buddha).

Bhikkhu Anālayo received a PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Peradeniya in 2000, focusing on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta of the Majhima-Nikaya, and was published by Windhorse in 2004 as Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Awakening. Many people, including Bhikkhu Bodhi, feel it is the best book in English on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

Since about that time, Bhikkhu Anālayo has also been involved in the very fertile field of Early Buddhist comparative studies. What many in the west believe to be the only representation of “Early Buddhism” (that is, what represents the word of the historical Buddha) as found in the Pali Canon is, in fact, only one representation of a rich and ancient textual tradition of Early Buddhism. Although the Pali Canon is the most complete collection of Early Buddhist texts we have available, it is the recension of only one of the Early Buddhist schools, that is of the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. There were a number of other Early Buddhist schools that had their own recitation tradition handed down through their ordination lineages and purported to represent the word of the Buddha (for a good history of Early Buddhist schools, Bhikkhu Sujato’s book, Sects and Sectarianism is worth reading – available as a free PDF).

However, all of these other reciter traditions’ canons in their original language were lost and/or destroyed through the ravages of history. What has survived are only fragments in Sanskrit and other Indic languages, and those that were translated into Chinese and Tibetan.

It is, in fact, the Chinese Canon that contains a nearly complete counterpart to the Pali Nikayas in the form of the four Āgamas:

  • 中阿含經 : the Madhyama Āgama – counterpart to the Middle-length Discourses
  • 長阿含經 : the Dīrgha Āgama – counterpart to the Long Discourses
  • 雜阿含經 : the Saṃyukta Āgama – counterpart to the Connected Discourses, and
  • 增一阿含經 : the Ekottarika Āgama – counterpart to the Numerical Discourses.

However, these collections are not all from the same school, and in fact there is not complete agreement on the school affiliations of some of the collections (for a nice, straightforward description of each of the Āgamas and their affiliation, their Wikipedia page is a good place to start.)

I bring this up here mostly to make the point that, if one truly wants to understand so-called “Early Buddhism”, comparative studies between the Pali and Chinese sources (along with whatever Sanskrit fragments and Tibetan parallels) is really the most complete method for doing so. Otherwise, by solely relying upon, say, the Pali Canon, we  indadvertedly get only one Early Buddhist School’s inheritance and neglect the rich sources found presently in translation or in fragments of Indian languages.

This brings us back to Bhikkhu Anālayo, as he is one of the (if not the) foremost scholars in this area, publishing a vast amount of works related to the comparative study of Early Buddhism. For a list of his publications (most of which are downloadable), here is his publications’ page. (For an excellent summary of some of his methodological conclusions and insights, his Reflections on Comparative Āgama Studies is a good read.)

Through the wondrous workings of causes and conditions, I’ve had the great fortune of working with Bhikkhu Anālayo by helping him edit most of his publications over the last year and half, including checking his Chinese translations. (To be honest, this is one of the main reasons why I’ve neglected this blog – he is an extremely productive scholar!) He has also asked me to be a part of his team that has begun the translation of the Saṃyukta Āgama into English for the first time, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

We have finished the first two fascicles (amounting to 58 suttas), and the first fascicle has been published by Dharma Drum Buddhist College’s Journal. It is freely available online for free. Here it is as a PDF download: On the Five Aggregates -— A Translation of Saṃyukta-āgama Discourses 1 to 32.

Very straightforward, practical, and foundational teachings from the Buddha on the Five Aggregates that make up our human experience.

There’s also a blog that has been set up for the translation project here. Subsequent fascicles will be posted there, and I will also post them here on this blog. The Saṃyukta Āgama has 50 fascicles (or 48 if you want to be serious about it). At our current pace of four fascicles a year….well, you’ll see that this is a long-term translation project.

Learning from Bhikkhu Anālayo has been a great feature of studying here in Taiwan, and has opened my eyes and practice to great vistas present within these early texts. I would like to help more people become aware of the Chinese Āgamas through their upcoming English translations. In fact, the Madhyama Āgama has already been translated and is waiting publication through the Numata Center’s English Tripitaka Project.

There will hopefully be more on this blog related to the Āgamas and Bhikkhu Anālayo’s work. He is, for sure, not the only person in this field; however he is the most prolific. He is also one of the few people whose Pali, Chinese, and English language skills allow him to do this valuable work. However, besides a few scholars engaged in this field, there is also another monk whose work I’ve recently come across that is also quite impressive: Bhikkhu Sujato (link to his blog on the left). For example, he has a very nice summary of the value of reading both the Pali and Chinese texts here; it is very much worth a read.

Hoping this out-of-the-rare-blue-skies-of-northern-Taiwan post finds you very well, treading the path with courage, wonder, and joy.

The Buddha's First Sermon

The Buddha’s First Sermon at the Deer Park

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