Countless commentaries explain or synthesize the sacred writings, and Nattier notes
the commentaries often shape the believers' understanding of the scripture.
Moreover, different schools within Buddhism take separate views of doctrine, and
this in turn is affected by the cultures of countries where Buddhism flourishes.
Nattier, who specializes in Buddhism, explores the differences that these cultures
bring to the transmission of scripture.
Jan Nattier, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, at the Indiana University Art Museum in front of Footprint of the Buddha (1874, Thailand, colors and gold on cloth) --credit
Among sutras, the Heart Sutra is exceptional for many reasons. It is briefer than
most. Unlike other sutras, it does not contain the phrase that attributes its discourse
to the words of the Buddha; it does not mention the historical Buddha at all.
Instead, the Heart Sutra presents itself as the discourse of Avalokitesvara, a
Bodhisattva or a highly advanced candidate for Buddhahood, quite distinct from the
Tibetan manuscript phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol du phyin pa brgyad stong pa (The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses) --credit
Yet, when Nattier looked at the Heart Sutra's Sanskrit version (supposedly the original), she found many discrepancies between the Sanskrit wording of the larger (Pañcavimsatisahasrika-prajñaparamita) sutra, and the Sanskrit version of the main body of the Heart Sutra. For example, the larger sutra has a line: na anyad rupam anya sunyata ("form is one thing and emptiness another") which is rendered in the Heart Sutra as rupan na prthak sunyata ("emptiness is not distinct from form").
Why, wondered Nattier, was the Sanskrit wording changed, if the Heart Sutra was taken from the larger sutra? Why did the Heart Sutra use such vocabulary as ksaya (destruction), when the larger sutra used a synonym, nirodha (extinction)? Why did the Heart Sutra use plural adjective forms in negation, when the larger sutra used singular verbal forms in recording the same ideas?
Pondering this puzzle, Nattier came to a surprising conclusion. She could best explain these differences as translation interference. She theorized that the Heart Sutra was first formulated in Chinese by translating and abbreviating the Chinese version of the Pañcavimsatisahasrika-prajñaparamita sutra (and by adding the beginning and ending frames to match Chinese preferences). Nattier concluded that later the Chinese text was carried to India and then translated into Sanskrit. From the point of that medieval translation into Sanskrit onward, believers and scholars alike naturally considered the scripture to have followed the usual pattern of transmission from India to China. They assumed that the Sanskrit version was the original, and the Chinese version a translation from it. Nattier's detective work has now turned around that view.
Through her ongoing research, Nattier has continually shown the Chinese played a consciously "active role" in receiving and transforming Buddhism. They have even taken a hand in formulating Buddhist scripture, rather than seeing themselves just as passive recipients. The Heart Sutra is now part of the canon in the Buddhist tradition called Mahayana (literally the great vehicle), one of several schools or sects within Buddhism, and the school most popular in China.
According to tradition, the historical Buddha was born in the fifth century B.C.E. or
shortly before, into the ruling family in a minor kingdom in what is now Nepal. At
the age of 29, Gautama renounced his princely life and began to wander India as an
ascetic, in search of understanding. He sought a path of deliverance from the
human conditions of suffering, old age, and death, which he had realized were the
afflictions of all people of every station in life.
Walking Buddha, Sukhothai, Thailand, 14th Century, Bronze --credit
Many of the earliest Buddhists were, like the Buddha himself, renunciates of the secular life. They formed monastic communities, and, after the Buddha's death, followed his rules and teachings as transmitted from memory and oral recitation. Indian culture had always valued recitation over writing, considering the written word more suitable for merchants and bureaucrats than for philosophers. Eventually, however, the teachings of the Buddha began to be written down. Several centuries or more went by (with continuous oral transmission of Buddha's sermons and sayings) before even the earliest scriptures appeared.
The early Buddhist lifestyle, with its renunciate communities of monks, its communal rules and regulations, its meditative techniques, and its philosophy (that the world is in constant flux, and that phenomena are aggregates without enduring selfhood) was supported by the great Indian king, Asoka, in the third century B.C.E. Beginning in his time, missionaries spread the faith to Sri Lanka and later to Southeast Asia. This body of tradition and belief, along with the scriptures that support it, is termed Theravada (the Way of the Elders).
Around the turn of the millennium, a new form of Buddhism arose in India that stressed the need for at least some member of the Buddhist community to strive not merely for enlightenment, but to replicate the path followed by the historical Buddha in its entirety. By doing so they would become not merely enlightened beings (known as Arhats) but fully perfected Buddhas, capable of rediscovering the dharma in the distant future when Buddhism as we know it has died out. Adherents call this form of Buddhism Mahayana, emphasizing the greatness of the task to which its followers devote themselves.
Some Mahayanists took their religious ideas northward to the Silk Road, and by that route Mahayanist texts and teachings reached China and the rest of East Asia. Another form of Buddhism, known as Tantra, relies on sutras containing mystical chants, and on ritual texts (called tantras) that prescribe elaborate initiations, offerings, and meditative exercises. This form of Buddhism eventually prevailed in Tibet and Mongolia.
Nattier's scriptural research has focused on Mahayana texts; currently she is translating one of the earliest Mahayana scriptures in existence, the Inquiry of Ugra. This is cast as the advice of the historical Buddha to a wealthy layman, whom he encourages to become a monk. In studying the text, Nattier has discovered a surprising feature of early Mahayanist thought. "The early Mahayana tradition seems to have been very much for men only," Nattier says. "Later Mahayana beliefs offered a place for laypersons in the attainment of salvation, and spread to China and the rest of East Asia. But it seems to have originated in the monasteries of India around the first century B.C.E., as a form of Buddhist practice for an elite group of super-achievers."
These monks set for themselves the goal of becoming Buddhas. No easy task, it meant honing one's spiritual skills and enduring countless rebirths (a concept shared with other religions native to India) until such time in the future when Buddhism will have passed entirely from human memory. In this new world, Nattier explains, the reborn monastic could then attain enlightenment, just as the Buddha had, and then instruct humanity anew in the dharma and the Middle Way. This selfless and demanding goal, targeted by the most fervent monks, ironically brought about the Mahayana school with its broad reach and a focus beyond the monastic cloisters.
Nattier is well equipped linguistically to track a religion whose scriptures exist in a multitude of languages. In Central Asia alone, scriptures and their commentaries exist in Tibetan, Chinese, Sanskrit, Mongolian, Uighur, Khotanese, Tokharian, and Sogdian. Nattier reads several of these languages and is active in translating the scriptures into English. On the need for translation, Nattier explains, "The Theravada texts, written in Pali, have been translated, but the Theravada canon reflects only one segment of Buddhist thought." Only about 1 percent of Chinese and Tibetan texts exist in English or other Western-language versions, Nattier points out. She frequently organizes reading groups of fellow scholars and graduate students to go through original texts. "Translation of this sort is a demanding and creative activity," Nattier affirms. "It is not the simple one-for-one word selection that translation from one Western language to another is sometimes thought to be. We need more scholars trained to do this."
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