Unraveling the Intent
Degé Kangyur, vol. 49 (mdo sde, ca), folios 1.b–55.b
Translated by the Buddhavacana Translation Group (Vienna)
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In Unraveling the Intent, the Buddha gives a systematic overview of his three great cycles of teachings, which he refers to in this text as the “three Dharma wheels” (tridharmacakra). In the process of delineating the meaning of these doctrines, the Buddha unravels several difficult points regarding the ultimate and relative truths, the nature of reality, and the contemplative methods conducive to the attainment of complete and perfect awakening, and he also explains what his intent was when he imparted teachings belonging to each of the three Dharma wheels. In unambiguous terms, the third wheel is proclaimed to be of definitive meaning. Through a series of dialogues with hearers and bodhisattvas, the Buddha thus offers a complete and systematic teaching on the Great Vehicle, which he refers to here as the Single Vehicle.
Translation by the Buddhavacana Translation Group.
The text was translated by Gregory Forgues and edited by Casey Kemp. With special thanks to Harunaga Isaacson, Matthew Kapstein, Klaus-Dieter Mathes, Jonathan Silk, Lambert Schmithausen, Tom Tillemans, and William Waldron for their helpful comments and advice.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The generous sponsorship of Qiang Li (李强) and Ya Wen (文雅), which helped make the work on this translation possible, is most gratefully acknowledged.
In Unraveling the Intent, the Buddha gives a systematic overview of his three great cycles of teachings, which he refers to in this text as the “three Dharma wheels” (tridharmacakra). In the process of delineating the meaning of these doctrines, the Buddha unravels several difficult points regarding the ultimate and relative truths, the nature of reality, and the contemplative methods conducive to the attainment of complete and perfect awakening, and he also explains what his intent was when he imparted teachings belonging to each of the three Dharma wheels. Through a series of dialogues with hearers and bodhisattvas, the Buddha thus offers a complete and systematic teaching on the Great Vehicle, which he refers to here as the Single Vehicle .
The sūtra is set in an unfathomable palace displayed by the Buddha’s powers and attended by countless beings. The three gates of liberation (emptiness, appearancelessness, and wishlessness) are the entrance to this abode of the tathāgatas, the inconceivable nondual state of a buddha who, possessed of the gnosis (jñāna) of the Tathāgata’s liberation, is dwelling in the domain of truth (dharmadhātu), together with an immeasurable retinue of hearers and a retinue of bodhisattvas including Gambhīrārthasaṃdhinirmocana, Vidhivatparipṛcchaka, Dharmodgata, Suviśuddhamati, Viśālamati, Guṇākara, Paramārthasamudgata, Avalokiteśvara, Maitreya, and Mañjuśrī.
The sūtra is structured in the form of a series of dialogues between the Buddha and advanced bodhisattvas or hearers, as well as between bodhisattvas (see chapter 1). These dialogues deal with both the theory and practice of the entire bodhisattva path. Narrative elements are extremely limited in this teaching. However, a narrative pattern can be found in chapter 2 and 3, which begin, respectively, with a story about a group of non-Buddhists (tīrthikas) and some followers of the Buddha who have gathered to discuss a difficult point regarding the nature of reality and cannot agree on anything. The main protagonists then beg the Buddha to provide an explanation for the quandary these assemblies cannot not resolve, or alternatively to explain his underlying intent when he expounded the teachings that gave rise to conflicting interpretations.
Each chapter starts with a question on a topic requiring further elucidation: In the first chapter, the bodhisattva Vidhivatparipṛcchaka questions the bodhisattva Gambhīrārthasaṃdhinirmocana on the inexpressible (anabhilāpya) and nondual (advaya) ultimate. In the second chapter, the bodhisattva Dharmodgata questions the Buddha on the ultimate beyond speculation (sarvatarkasamatikrānta). In the third chapter, the bodhisattva Suviśuddhamati questions the Buddha on the ultimate that is beyond being distinct or indistinct (bhedābhedasamatikrānta) from conditioned phenomena. In the fourth chapter, Subhūti questions the Buddha on the ultimate that is of a single nature (ekarasa) within all phenomena. In the fifth chapter, the bodhisattva Viśālamati questions the Buddha on the secrets of mind (citta), thought (manas), and cognition (vijñāna). In the sixth chapter, the bodhisattva Guṇākara questions the Buddha on the three defining characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of phenomena. In the seventh chapter, the bodhisattva Paramārthasamudgata questions the Buddha on the three kinds of essencelessness (niḥsvabhāvatā) as well as on the Buddha’s three turnings of the Dharma wheel. In the eighth chapter, the bodhisattva Maitreya questions the Buddha on the practice of mental stillness (śamatha) and insight (vipaśyanā). In the ninth chapter, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara questions the Buddha on the stages of the bodhisattva path and the Single Vehicle (ekayāna). In the tenth chapter, the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī questions the Buddha on the bodies (kāya) and activity of the tathāgatas.
From a broader perspective, it is possible to consider that the teaching imparted in this sūtra is structured in terms of the basis (āśraya), the path (mārga), and the result (phala). The first four chapters on the five characteristics of the ultimate1 as defined in the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras represent a teaching on the abovementioned basis, namely, true reality (tathatā) as it is; chapters 5–9, a teaching on the path in terms of practices and stages to attain awakening; and chapter 10, a teaching on the result through the doctrine of the tathāgatas’ bodies and activity to awaken beings. All major Tibetan traditions consider chapter 3, focusing on the relation between the two truths, and chapter 8, focusing on meditative practice, to be authoritative. These are among the scriptures most quoted on their respective topics by Tibetan authors regardless of lineage.
The first four chapters point out the nature of reality by distinguishing the unconditioned from the conditioned, the pure from the afflicted, the ultimate from the conventional, nondual gnosis from mind’s elaborations, inexpressible reality from conventional expressions, and the actual from the imaginary. The first chapter thus starts with the distinction between conditioned and unconditioned phenomena, which became a prevalent theme in the various Abhidharmas. Through this distinction, the point is made that the ultimate is inexpressible and nondual. The realization of this inexpressible ultimate is achieved through gnosis alone. Conceptions in terms of conditioned and unconditioned merely exist in the way of a magical illusion. Yet, in order to lead beings to awakening, buddhas have to use such labels. The second chapter elaborates on this very point. Although the ultimate is beyond speculation, the Buddha taught liberation by means of verbal expressions and conventions belonging to the domain of phenomenal appearances and notions.
As a consequence, the first two chapters delineate two domains corresponding to the two truths (satyadvaya): (1) the pure domain of the ultimate, which, being inexpressible, nondual, and beyond speculation, is the realm of nonconceptual gnosis free from conventional appearance and notions, and (2) the afflicted domain of dualistic conventional expressions and notions, which is the realm of mental elaborations. These domains are respectively labeled by the buddhas as “the unconditioned” and “the conditioned” only for the sake of instructing beings, for the Buddha explains that this distinction between unconditioned and conditioned is only made on the level of the conditioned, namely, from the perspective of dualistic conventions. Within the realm of these conventional expressions, in the context of the path, it follows that these two domains are apparently mutually exclusive, although the Buddha hints at the fact that, from the perspective of the ultimate, the conditioned is not the conditioned and the unconditioned is not the unconditioned.
Chapter 3 explains how the relation between the ultimate and conditioned phenomena seen from this higher perspective should be communicated on the level of conventions. From this standpoint, one cannot say whether the ultimate is distinct or indistinct from conditioned phenomena. The Buddha shows that positing these two domains as distinct or indistinct is wrong. Since conditioned phenomena are characterized by the fact of being produced by causes and conditions, it is inappropriate to conceive (a) the conditioned and (b) the emptiness of an inherent nature as either identical or different. On the one hand, being conditioned (i.e., dependent on something other) is identical with being empty of an intrinsic nature; on the other hand, the domain of the conditioned is defined as the realm of afflictions, while the domain of the unconditioned is understood as the pure realm. Some might therefore think that phenomena and the nature of phenomena are distinct, but the Buddha teaches in the fourth chapter that the empty nature of conditioned phenomena, the ultimate, cannot be said to be distinct from those phenomena. As such, this subtle and profound ultimate is indeed of a single character within phenomena whose defining characteristic appears to be diverse. To realize this nature of phenomena, which is unconditioned selflessness, one should only rely on nondual gnosis, not mind.
Chapter 5 is a presentation of the “secrets of mind, thought, and cognition.” Here the Buddha introduces the concept of “appropriating cognition” (ādānavijñāna), also called “subliminal cognition” (ālayavijñāna), “mind” (citta), or “mind containing all the seeds” (sarvabījaṃ cittam). This mind, in which mental events manifest, acts is like a mirror in which reflections appear. It is the basis of previous mental imprints resulting from volitions and actions that create predispositions (i.e., latent dispositions) to experience reality in conventional terms. However, once bodhisattvas cognize in an intuitive and personal way the ultimate by means of gnosis, they no longer perceive this mind.2 In the closing verses of this chapter, the Buddha explains that this mind is without a self, since it is conditioned and composed by seeds. Through these definitions, the Buddha de facto delineates two realms: the domain of dualistic mind and the domain of nondual gnosis.
Chapter 6 is a teaching on the three defining characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of phenomena: the imaginary defining characteristic (parikalpitalakṣaṇa), the other-dependent defining characteristic (paratantralakṣaṇa), and the actual defining characteristic (pariniṣpannalakṣaṇa): (1) The imaginary defining characteristic is the superimposition onto phenomena of an essence or a defining characteristic existing from its own side, by means of designations or conventional expressions. This imaginary characteristic is utterly false in the way of a visual aberration, since phenomena are ultimately devoid of any defining characteristic that makes them what they are. (2) The other-dependent defining characteristic corresponds to the dependent arising of phenomena. It refers to phenomenal appearances upon which an imaginary defining characteristic is superimposed. This point is grasped once the imaginary defining characteristic of phenomena is understood to be a wrong conception. It is worth noting that the other-dependent defining characteristic delineates the domain of conditioned cognitions, namely, the mind as presented in chapter 5 (this point is made clear in 7.10 with regard to karma and rebirth), and as such, represents the domain of affliction (see 6.11).3 (3) The actual defining characteristic is the permanent and immutable reality of phenomena. It is the ultimate unerring object that is manifest once the selflessness of phenomena, the nonexistence of any fictive defining characteristic in phenomena arising dependently, has been realized. Only the actual defining characteristic constitutes the domain of purification, since the other-dependent defines the domain of affliction, namely, the realm of the conditioned. In the closing verses of this chapter, the Buddha gives a quintessential presentation of the path: one should first recognize that phenomena are devoid of imaginary defining characteristics by seeing them as mere designations superimposed on conditioned cognitions. At that time, one will abandon phenomena characterized by affliction, namely, conditioned phenomena in the form of conditioned cognitions, and turn toward phenomena characterized by purification that are in harmony with ultimate reality.
Chapter 7 begins with Paramārthasamudgata’s question: why did the Buddha first teach the defining characteristic of phenomena, their arising, their cessation, and so forth through the notions of the five aggregates, the twelve sense domains, and so on, when he later explained that all phenomena are without an essence? The Buddha answers by teaching the three kinds of essencelessness, namely, essencelessness regarding defining characteristics, essencelessness regarding arising, and essencelessness regarding the ultimate: (1) Essencelessness regarding defining characteristics refers to the imaginary defining characteristic of phenomena. It is the essencelessness of what is utterly nonexistent (i.e., the defining characteristic), which is like a sky flower. (2) Essencelessness regarding arising refers to the other-dependent defining characteristic of phenomena arising from causes other than themselves. It is presented as the magic illusion of dependent arising, in the context of this teaching the magic illusion of mind. (3) Essencelessness regarding the ultimate has two aspects. The first is the essencelessness of all conditioned phenomena with regard to the ultimate. As a corollary of dependent arising, those phenomena are in fact not born as anything, being dependent on causes and conditions for their arising and therefore impermanent. The second aspect of essencelessness with regard to the ultimate refers to the only unconditioned object of purification, the actual defining characteristic of phenomena, the ultimate selflessness of phenomena, which is like space, itself also unconditioned. This permanent and immutable nature of phenomena is the primordial state of peace of that which, being without a defining characteristic, is unborn and unceasing, by nature in the state of nirvāṇa.
In 7.10, the Buddha describes the entire process leading to confusion: beings reify the other-dependent and the actual defining characteristics in terms of the imaginary defining characteristic. Failing to understand that conventional expressions do not refer to actual things, they superimpose an essence on conditioned cognitions and imagine reality to be just as it is described by their linguistic conventions. Figments of imagination become causes and conditions for their mental activities, which will lead them to the afflictions of action and rebirth. The process described here is akin to a world of virtual reality where even the projector, the conditioned mind, is imaginary. As one takes the projected phenomena as real and reifies them, one acts, suffers, dies, and is endlessly “respawned” within this virtual reality. Although this pseudo-reality projected by mind is nonexistent, it will condition one’s mind and one’s future existence as one will act in accordance with one’s state of mind within this virtual reality. In 7.10, the other-dependent is therefore equated with the appropriating mind, the basis of the imaginary defining characteristic of phenomena, the object of dreamlike conceptualizations (see also 7.25).
Next, the Buddha explains how various beings relate to this process and how he has helped them with teachings corresponding to their circumstances and capacities. For example, some can understand on a dualistic level that defining characteristics (i.e., the virtual reality of phenomena) lack an essence, and thus slowly develop repulsion toward conditioned phenomena, even if they are not able to realize the ultimate nature of phenomena, their nondual primordial selflessness which is the domain of gnosis. In accordance with this model of reality, the Buddha declares that there is only the path and journey toward liberation and thus a Single Vehicle for both hearers and bodhisattvas because there is only a single purification.
In 7.30, Paramārthasamudgata defines the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. Because this doctrine is included in this specific chapter, it seems logical to interpret the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma in relation to the three kinds of essencelessness: (1) The first turning used the notion that phenomena have a defining characteristic to teach the essencelessness of these defining characteristics in a series of teachings such as the five aggregates, the twelve sense domains, and so on (see also 4.1–6). In our metaphor on virtual reality, one could see these teachings as being expounded on the basis of the very imaginary phenomena conceptualized as truly existing. When children experience a nightmare, their parents show that the monster does not exist by implicitly, i.e. provisionally, accepting its existence, saying, “Look! It is not there.” (2) The second turning of the wheel teaches the first aspect of essencelessness with regard to the ultimate, stating that phenomena are unborn. From this perspective, the primordial selflessness of phenomena is still taught in relation to dualistic phenomena. As a consequence, Paramārthasamudgata considers this cycle of teachings as provisional. (3) The third turning of the wheel aims at teaching the second aspect of essencelessness with regard to the ultimate in a way that is not limited to the domain of dualistic phenomena. To pursue our metaphor, this third cycle of teachings gives a complete overview of the three defining characteristics of phenomena: the completely imaginary experience of a virtual reality, the magic illusion of the projecting mind, and the primordial domain of gnosis. Paramārthasamudgata declares the third turning to be of definitive meaning.
It is worth noting that the doctrine of the three defining characteristics can be seen as delineating three great categories of soteriological approaches found in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions: (1) the deconstruction of putative notions of an individual self through mereological and relational strategies; (2) the deconstruction of notions of a self regarding conditioned phenomena through the impossibility of their ultimate arising, since these conditioned phenomena merely exist in dependence; and (3) the pointing out of the nondual ultimate nature of phenomena, which altogether bypasses imaginary mental constructions.
In the eighth chapter, the famous Maitreya chapter on meditation, the Buddha first gives a series of definitions followed by the description of a process, a pattern frequently used in this sūtra. First, the objects of the practices of mental stillness (śamatha) and insight (vipaśyanā) are defined as, respectively, an image without and with conceptualization, while their objects, when both practices are combined, are the point where things end (vastvanta) and the accomplishment of the goal (kṛtyānuṣṭhāna, i.e., the attainment of the path). Mental stillness consists in directing one’s attention (manasikāra) inward toward the mind that is directing attention (see 8.3). It follows a state of inner absorption produced by concentrating on a referential object. The practice of insight consists in analyzing, discerning, and differentiating the various cognitive aspects of the image (pratibimba) that is the object of concentration. These two practices are neither different nor identical. They are not different in that they take mind as a referential object, but they are not identical because insight takes a conceptual image as its referential object. The Buddha thus explains in an often-cited passage that this image taken as an object of concentration is not different from mind insofar as cognition is constituted by the mere representation (vijñaptimātra) that is the object of this cognition. The mind and the image, which is its object manifesting as a mental event, appear as different, although they are not. All mental images, whether in the context of practice or not, are mere representations. Once one has realized this, directing one’s attention toward true reality is the one-pointedness of mind in which mental stillness and insight are unified. A superior way to practice this path is therefore to focus on that which is universal in all the various specific teachings imparted by the Buddha. This approach, which is based on a practice devoid of mental engagement (vitarka) and investigation (vicāra), directly focuses on the element that converges toward true reality. The ensuing shift in one’s basis of existence (āśrayaparivṛtti) mentioned in this sūtra does not here refer to a transformation of the subliminal cognition (ālayavijñāna). According to 10.2, this shift, once all corruption has been eliminated, consists in nothing other than the bodhisattva’s attainment of the truth body (dharmakāya).
The Buddha then explains how one attends to phenomenal appearances in an increasingly nonconceptual way. He also gives an elucidation of the analytical knowledge of designations (dharmapratisaṃvid) and their objects (arthapratisaṃvid) attained through the practice of mental stillness and insight. In this context, a few key definitions are given; for example, the true reality of representations is that all conditioned phenomena are mere representations (see 8.20.2.iii). When presented in four aspects, the analytical knowledge of designations and their objects encapsulate the entire path through the four stages of mental appropriation, experience, affliction, and purification. When asked about the nature of gnosis, the Buddha answers that it “consists in the mental stillness and insight that take a universal teaching as a referential object” while “perception consists in the mental stillness and insight that take a specific teaching as a referential object” (see 8.25). Practically, bodhisattvas direct their attention to true reality, discarding the phenomenal appearances of designations and objects of designation. Without taking any essential characteristic as a referential object, they do not pay attention to phenomenal appearances. Their attention is focused on that which is of a single character within all phenomena. The Buddha then gives a list of all the phenomenal appearances eliminated by emptiness, from the emptiness of all phenomena up to the emptiness of emptiness. By letting go of their object of concentration, the phenomenal appearance corresponding to a mental image, bodhisattvas free themselves from the bonds of conditioned phenomenal appearances (nimitta). Connecting these instructions on meditative practice with his teaching on the three defining characteristics, the Buddha explains that he taught the defining characteristic of emptiness in the Great Vehicle as the nonexistence and nonperception of an imaginary defining characteristic with regard to both affliction and purification in the other-dependent and actual defining characteristics of phenomena.
Practical instructions are also given to overcome obstacles and distractions to the practice of mental stillness and insight. On the ultimate stage of the path, these practices eliminate extremely subtle obstructions resulting in the complete purification of the truth body. The gnosis and vision utterly free from attachment and hindrance are attained. Finally, the Buddha explains how bodhisattvas obtain their great powers by being skillful in the following six points: (1) the arising of the mind, (2) the underlying condition of the mind, (3) the emergence from the mind, (4) the increase of the mind, (5) the decrease of the mind, and (6) skillful means. In this section of the Maitreya chapter, an overview of the vijñaptimātra doctrine is given through the notion of cognition, which includes the appropriating cognition as well as the arising cognitions taking various phenomenal appearances as their object. In this context, it is explained that the supramundane mind of the buddhas does not have any phenomenal appearance as its object.
In chapter 9, the Buddha is questioned on the stages (bhūmi) of a bodhisattva and a buddha, the names of these stages, and their adverse factors and specific arising, as well as on the ten perfections (pāramitā). A final instruction is imparted regarding the Single Vehicle. As mentioned in previous chapters, the Buddha explains that he taught the essence of phenomena in the vehicle of hearers in terms of the aggregates, the sense domains, and so on, and that he presented these phenomena in the light of a single principle in the Great Vehicle, the domain of truth (dharmadhātu). Those who conceptualize these teachings by taking them literally do not understand his underlying intention, which is that both vehicles are in fact teachings based on a single principle.
In the tenth chapter, Mañjuśrī questions the Buddha on the defining characteristic of the truth body of the tathāgatas. The Buddha explains the truth body in the sense of a result attained through the practice of the stages and perfections. This attainment consists in a shift in one’s basis of existence. From the perspective of beings belonging to the domain of mental elaborations and conditioned phenomena, the truth body is therefore inconceivable, being utterly beyond mental elaborations,. Here again the Buddha delineates two distinct realms.
The tathāgatas, who appear as emanation bodies (nirmāṇakāya), are said to be like a manifestation, an apparition. Through their skillful means and sovereign power (adhiṣṭhāna), they liberate beings by imparting three kinds of teaching: the sūtras, the Vinaya, and the mātṛkās (generally taken as more or less equivalent to the Abhidharma and related literature): (1) The sūtras teach what was heard, how to take refuge, the training, and the awakening. (2) The Vinaya teaches the precepts and prātimokṣa vows to hearers and bodhisattvas. (3) The mātṛkās are systematic teachings on important doctrinal points, such as the defining characteristic of the conventional and the ultimate, the defining characteristic of referential objects consisting of the awakening factors and their features, and so forth. In the section of the mātṛkā pertaining to the ascertainment of the qualities of cognitive objects, the Buddha goes into a lengthy discussion on logical analysis according to the four principles of reason (yukti): (1) the principle of reason based on dependence (apekṣāyukti), (2) the principle of reason based on cause and effect (kāryakāraṇayukti), (3) the principle of reason based on logical proof (upapattisādhanayukti), and (4) the principle of reason based on the nature of phenomena itself (dharmatāyukti). The explanation given by the Buddha on the third yukti of this list (cf. 10.7.4.vii.c) is very extensive and resembles a short treatise on epistemology in which the notion of means of knowledge or valid cognition (pramāṇa) is meticulously investigated. In this section, the Buddha explains the characteristics of valid and invalid reasonings. He concludes by stating that three types of valid cognition should be accepted: direct cognition (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), and authoritative scriptures (āptāgama).
The Buddha next elucidates “the meaning of the dhāraṇī through which bodhisattvas comply with the underlying intention of the profound Dharma expounded by the tathāgatas, the complete meaning of the sūtras, the Vinaya, and the mātṛkās.” This quintessential teaching encapsulating the meaning of the entire Dharma states that beings are in truth beyond activity and beyond being afflicted or purified. It is only because of their reification of illusory phenomena in terms of identity and essence that they conceive their reality in the way they do, which leads them to suffering. Abandoning this “body afflicted by corruption” (dauṣṭhulyakāya),4 they obtain the truth body that is inconceivable and unconditioned (i.e., the dharmakāya). In this context, the Buddha concludes by explaining that the tathāgatas are not characterized by mind, thought, and cognition. Their mind arises without effort in the way of an emanation (nirmāṇa). In their case, one cannot say whether their mind exists or not, their domain consisting of pure realms. It follows that the tathāgatas are characterized by nonduality: “They are neither completely and perfectly awakened nor not completely and perfectly awakened; they neither turn the wheel of Dharma nor do not turn the wheel of Dharma; they neither attain the great parinirvāṇa nor do not attain the great parinirvāṇa. This is because the truth body is utterly pure and the emanation body constantly manifests.” Once the truth body has been purified through the practice focusing on the domain of truth (dharmadhātu), “the great light of gnosis manifests in beings, and innumerable emanated reflections arise.” One should keep in mind, though, the teachings imparted in Chapter 3 on the conventional and ultimate truths. From the perspective of the ultimate, nothing has ever been purified by anybody, as the concluding verses of the formula in Chapter 10 make clear:
“Relying on views resulting from their latent dispositions,They reify [the ego through concepts such as] ‘I’ and ‘mine.’As a consequence, notions arise, such as ‘I see,’ ‘I eat,’ ‘I do,’ ‘I am afflicted,’ and ‘I am purified.’
The only complete extant versions of the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra (Saṃdh.) are Chinese and Tibetan translations produced from Sanskrit manuscripts. All the recensions of the sūtra in Tibetan include a prologue followed by ten chapters. In addition to the various Kangyur editions, the sūtra is also quoted in full in the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi. The list of the available recensions of the text across Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan include:5
1. Sanskrit (including Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit)
• Nagao 1964: 43 (gives the list of the seven kinds of tattva mentioned in Saṃdh. 8.20.2 and quoted in the Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya)
• Tucci 1971: 1 (two verses from Saṃdh. 3.7 that are quoted in Kamalaśīla’s Bhāvanākrama: nimittabandhanāj jantur atho dauṣṭhulabandhanāt / vipaśyanāṃ bhāvayitvā śamathañ ca vimucyata iti) and ibid., p. 22 (a sentence drawn from 7.15 also quoted in the Bhāvanākrama: ekāntasattvārthavimukhasya ekāntasaṃsārābhisaṃskāravimukhasya [nā] uttarā samyaksaṃbodhir uktā mayeti)
• 相續解脫地波羅蜜了義經 (Taishō 678) and 相續解脫如來所作隨順處了義經 (Taishō 679) translated by Guṇabhadra (394–468 ᴄᴇ) between 435 and 443 ᴄᴇ (these two texts include respectively chapters 9 and 10)
• 深密解脫經 (Taishō 675) translated by Bodhiruci (fl. 508–535 ᴄᴇ) in 514 (includes a prologue followed by ten chapters as in the Tibetan versions of the text)
• 佛說解節經 (Taishō 677) translated by Paramārtha (498–569 ᴄᴇ) in 557 (mentioned in Wonch’uk’s commentaries on the sūtra; the prologue is different from those translated by Bodhiruci and Xuanzang; only the first four chapters are translated)
• 解深密經 (Taishō 676) translated by Xuanzang (596–664 ᴄᴇ) in 647 (a complete translation of the prologue and the ten chapters)
a. Tshalpa group
• C747 mdo sde, ca 1b1–71a7 (vol. 29)
• D106 mdo sde, ca 1b1–55b7 (vol. 49)
• J51 mdo sde, ca 1b1–59b8 (vol. 44)
• Kǫ774 mdo sna tshogs, ngu 1b1–60b7 (vol. 29, p. 1)
• R106 mdo sde, ca 1b1–55b7 (vol. 49)
• U106 mdo sde, ca 1b1–55b7 (vol. 49)
• VD D4038 mdo ’grel (sems tsam), zi 44a–97b
• VG GT3542 mdo ’grel (sems tsam), ’i 59b–136a
• VP Kǫ5539 mdo ’grel (sems tsam), ’i 47b–109a
b. Thempangma group
• L82 mdo sde, na 1b1–80b1 (vol. 42)
• S106 mdo sde, na 1b1–80b1 (vol. 63)
• T107 mdo sde, na 1b1–70b1 (vol. 68)
• V156 mdo sde, na 1b1–69b6 (vol. 65)
• Z137 mdo, na 1b1–93a6 (vol. 59)
c. Mustang group
• X mdo sde, wa 66a–132a
• He64.6 mdo, wa 62b5–125b8
d. Bhutan group
• Cz082-001 mdo, na 1b1–82a5
• Dd031-001 mdo, ca 1b1–69b2
• Dk034-001 mdo, na 1b1–87b1
• Gt028-001 mdo, na 1b1–72b3
• Np012-001 mdo, na 1b1–87a7
• Pj043-001 mdo, ca 1b1–62b4
• Pz045-001 mdo ca 1b1–61a5
e. Mixed/Independent editions
• F156 mdo sde, ba (tsha) 1b1–72a7 (vol. 68)
• H109 mdo sde, ca 1b1–87b7 (vol. 51)
• Lg11.8 mdo, da-L74 224b5–276a2
• N94 mdo sde, ca 1–81a7 (vol. 51)
• Ng13.07 mdo pa dgongs 111b3–162a8
• O23 mdo sde, cha
f. Other canonical collections
• Ablaikit collection IOM, RAS Tib.979/117
• Go19,01 ka 1b–36a6 (vol. 19)
• Bd3.7 vol. 3 (ta) pha 1b1–84a6
• Do mdo sde, da 196a–246b
g. Dunhuang manuscripts
In addition, five commentaries have been composed on the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra:
• Asaṅga’s Āryasaṃdhinirmocanabhāṣya (dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa’i rnam par bshad pa) D3981 mdo ’grel (mdo), ngi 1b–11b
• Wonch’uk’s *Āryagambhīrasaṃdhinirmocanasūtraṭīkā (dgongs pa zab mo nges par ’grel pa’i mdo rgya cher ’grel pa) D4016 mdo ’grel (mdo), ti 1b–di 175a9
• Jñāṇagarbha’s Āryasaṃdhinirmocanasūtre āryamaitreyakevalaparivartabhāṣya (dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa’i mdo las ’phags pa byams pa’i le’u nyi tshe bshad pa) D4033 mdo ’grel (sems tsam), bi 318b–345a
• Changchup Dzutrül (byang chub rdzu ’phrul)’s *Āryasaṃdhinirmocanasūtravyākhyāna (bstan bcos sna tshogs), D4358 mdo ’grel, co 1b–jo 183b
• Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde brtsan)’s *Samyagvākpramāṇoddhṛtasūtra (bka’ yang dag pa’i tshad ma las mdo btus pa) D4352 mdo ’grel (bstan bcos sna tshogs), co 173a–205b
I applied various methods and followed a series of steps during the process of translating the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra from the Tibetan:
I first collated all the available Tibetan editions of Saṃdhinirmocana: Bd, C, D, Dunhuang (Hakayama 1984–87), Do, F, H, L, N, S, Kǫ, U, VD, X, and Z, as well as the various extant Sanskrit fragments found in Buescher (2007), Levi (1925), Matsuda (1995, 2013), Nagao (1964), and Tucci (1971). For the Chinese, we used Xuanzang’s translation.10 I then produced a critical edition of the text prologue (nidāna) to get a sense of the textual variations across major available editions of the Tshalpa (tshal pa), Thempangma (them spangs ma), mixed Kangyurs, and independent Kangyur groups. In addition, Dr. Kojirō Katō (Tokyo University), who is editing the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, kindly sent me his critical edition of the seventh chapter.11 His work has proved invaluable to confirming the findings of my own work on the prologue. The editions belonging to the Thempangma differ significantly from those included in the Tshalpa line of transmission. As an independent Kangyur close to the Thempangma line, the Phukdrak (phug brag) edition offers very interesting readings on the level of syntax and lexicography compared to the editions of the Tshalpa group. It also diverges from the Thempangma witnesses in many locations. In the absence of colophons mentioning the translators’ and editors’ names across the available editions, it remains difficult to understand the history of these witnesses from the perspective of the underlying translation and editing process. As a consequence of its palatable variant readings compared to the Tshalpa and Thempangma editions, I used the Phukdrak witness quite extensively while translating the Degé edition, as well as the Stok edition and the Degé version of the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī, to examine more thoroughly difficult passages. The available Sanskrit fragments were on occasion also useful to determine the Sanskrit equivalent of a Tibetan technical term. They, however, did not reveal major variations from the Tibetan texts. I referred to the Dunhuang recension sporadically, as Schmithausen warned us not to follow it blindly.12 I also referred to Xuanzang’s translation regarding a few difficult passages of the text. This translation is similar to those of the Tshalpa group and might have been carried out on the basis of a Sanskrit manuscript similar to the one (or those) used for the translation upon which the Tibetan Tshalpa editions are based.
The Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra is a major text of Indian Buddhism that has early on attracted the attention of Buddhist Studies scholars. It has been translated into French, English, and German (partially). Lamotte (1935) provided a critical edition of Saṃdhinirmocana and a translation from Tibetan (N) and Chinese (Taishō 676) into French. He also attempted to reconstruct or identify technical terms in Sanskrit, which have for the most part been confirmed by subsequent finds of Sanskrit fragments.13 Lamotte’s work is a major resource for the study of Saṃdhinirmocana. It has been until now the standard edition and translation of this text on account of its accuracy and methodological academic approach. As a side note, I followed Lamotte’s segmentation of the text into paragraphs. His French translation is generally reliable, although some technical passages can be significantly improved, particularly in the case of chapter 8 on meditation and chapter 10 on the result of the path. Frauwallner (1969) gives a partial translation of Saṃdhinirmocana (i.e., chapters 6 and 7) from Tibetan into German. As one would expect, Frauwallner’s academic translation of these two chapters aims at accuracy over readability. Kawasaki 1976 is also a partial translation of chapter 8 into English (§6.1–9). This translation does not improve Lamotte’s. Powers’ (1995) translation from Tibetan (D) into English, in spite of its merit, could be widely improved upon in terms of methodology, accuracy, and readability.14 Brunnhölzl 2018 offers a partial translation of chapter 7, as well as a few key passages from chapter 5.
Translations by Cleary (1999) and Keenan (2000) are from the Chinese (Taishō 676) into English. I used Keenan’s work to get a sense of the Chinese text while translating the Degé edition but only referred to Cleary occasionally. Keenan’s work seems to me more accurate than Cleary’s, although the latter was useful for unraveling difficult passages, since his style is more free and primarily intends to communicate the meaning of the text. Cornu (2005) has provided a translation of the text from Tibetan (D) into French that mainly follows Powers 1995, a somewhat regrettable fact since Lamotte’s (1935) is more accurate. Schmithausen’s (2014) work contains numerous difficult passages of Saṃdhinirmocana translated from various Tibetan and Chinese editions into English. It is an invaluable resource for the study of Saṃdhinirmocana. In addition, it offers useful Sanskrit reconstructions of important technical terms. Together with Lamotte’s translation, it has been a constant companion while translating the text.
The Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra is part of a larger network of texts, both in the Kangyur and the Tengyur:
1. The nidāna of Saṃdhinirmocana almost exactly matches those of the Buddhabhūmisūtra (D275) and the Tathāgataguṇajñānācintyaviṣayāvatāranirdeśasūtra (D185). The Buddhabhūmisūtra is a very short text that was also translated into Chinese by Xuanzang in 646 (see Keenan 1980, p. 336ff.). Textual parallelisms of this kind are useful to double checking some passages or gathering more background information about the source text.
2. As mentioned above, Saṃdhinirmocana is also found in extenso in the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi and is therefore part of a tradition of texts sharing common ideas.15 This point should be kept in mind while translating, particularly when one has to evaluate the potential impact of terminological choices from the perspective of a more philosophical approach to the text, which, in the case of Saṃdhinirmocana, should be a major concern. For example, one should pay attention to the fact that interpreting “representation-only” (vijñaptimātra) as a strong form of idealism essentializing mind could be misleading from the perspective of a cultural translation of the worldview propounded in Saṃdhinirmocana since mind, just as much as the external object, is explicitly declared to be empty of any own-being, essence, or intrinsic nature (see chapter 8 on the three kinds of niḥsvabhāvatā) in this text.16
3. Another important point is the presence of the aforementioned five commentaries on Saṃdhinirmocana found in the Tengyur (D).17 I occasionally referred to these works while finalizing the final draft of the translation. However, I first focused on the available editions of Saṃdhinirmocana itself as I did not want to be influenced by the interpretations of later authors. Instead, I attempted to go through all possible logically meaningful readings according to the Tibetan and Sanskrit sources without any preconceptions resulting from my reading of later commentarial traditions.
4. In the same vein, one should note that Saṃdhinirmocana has played a major role in Tibetan hermeneutical debates. For centuries, it has been considered a central scripture referred to extensively in the writings of Tibet’s great luminaries, such as Jé Tsongkhapa (rje tsong kha pa, 1357–1419) or Jamgön Mipham Gyatso (’jam mgon mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846–1912). While it would certainly be fascinating to study the impact of Saṃdhinirmocana in the context of Tibetan Madhyamaka,18 I chose not to take into account Indian or Tibetan commentaries or exegeses of the sūtra in order to focus on the source text itself.
I proceeded to search all articles and monographs referring to Saṃdhinirmocana I could find at the very beginning of this translation project. In this quest for relevant academic research, I benefited from the excellent bibliography found in Delhey 2013 regarding research done on the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi, which I expanded with a list of complementary reference works (see the bibliography). Among the existing academic literature on Saṃdhinirmocana, Schmithausen 2014 stands out and, unsurprisingly, proved to be a major resource for this translation project.
1. The translation of the title of the text became the object of several discussions among scholars regarding the meaning of the Sanskrit words saṃdhi and nirmocana as a consequence of Lamotte’s first complete translation of the text.19 Among the various available options, I opted for simplicity and translated the Sanskrit Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra with “The Sūtra Unraveling the Intent,” which I believe renders accurately the meaning and structure of the text. Various interlocutors indeed ask the Buddha repeatedly to explain difficult points in order to clarify the purpose of his seemingly contradictory or complex doctrines on the nature of reality.
2. Regarding the content of the sūtra itself, I proceeded to organize secondary sources by chapter and referenced this research in the notes accompanying my translation.20 The last chapter of Saṃdhinirmocana includes a very technical passage on valid cognition (pramāṇa) whose definitions predate Dignāga’s system of logic. Translating Trisong Detsen’s *Samyagvākpramāṇoddhṛtasūtra, which is a commentary on the teaching on the four principles of reason (rigs pa bzhi), would help us better understand pre-Dignāgean Buddhist logic.21
1. The first stage of the translation process is purely analytical. A passage is translated on the basis of lexicographical resources (e.g., dictionaries) and syntactic rules (e.g., grammars). During this operation, it is important to distinguish what is understood and what still remains problematic. All options should be kept open. Interpretations or eisegetical readings should be rejected. From a practical perspective, I systematically used the Mahāvyutpatti to find the Sanskrit terms behind general Tibetan expressions. For technical terms, I relied on Schmithausen (2014) and the academic research mentioned above.
Our Tibetan text is itself a translation. This somewhat complicates our task since we have to decipher the Sanskrit behind the Tibetan in order to make sense of some difficult sentences or passages. However, this approach is necessary on a lexicographical and syntactic level as can be seen in the following examples: One should read the Tibetan brtsams pa as ārabhya, a Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit expression that has the meaning of “referring to/having to do with” and not “beginning with.”23 Likewise, rab tu phye ba stands for prabhāvita, which in the Saṃdhinirmocana means “consisting in/characterized as/characterized by” and not “distinguished.”24 The problem is even more acute in the case of Sanskrit compounds that have been translated into Tibetan according to the way they were formulated in Sanskrit. As an illustration of this, compounds ending with lakṣaṇa (Tib. mtshan nyid) often make more sense in Saṃdhinirmocana as bahuvrīhis than karmadhārayas or tatpuruṣas, not to mention dvandvas. Lamotte thus reads rtog ge kun las ’das mtshan nyid (sarvatarkasamatikrāntalakṣaṇa) as a bahuvrīhi,25 which I believe is appropriate in the context of the passage in question.
2. Once a “technically correct” translation of the source text has been produced, Billeter advises us to bring together the various elements of a sentence or a passage until we obtain a clear picture of what is said in the source text. This step therefore consists in understanding the meaning of the translated passage by literally seeing (or visualizing) its meaning. In a way, the first operation is about das Erklären (“explanation”), while the second concerns das Verstehen (“understanding”). In this sense, the latter uses the resources of one’s imagination and metalinguistic knowledge to establish connections with a web of meaning that is not restricted to the translated sentence or passage alone.
The second operation is therefore a synthesis, a recognition of relations between meaning units of various orders (one would think here of the idea conveyed by saṃjñā and similar terms in which the upasarga sam- plays a central role), whereas the first phase is analytical (in the sense of vicāra, vicāraṇa, and vijñāna, in which the upasarga vi- expresses the notion of taking apart). In fact, translators translate into the target language their comprehension of the source text. They actually never translate the text itself but their understanding or representation of ideas, situations, and emotions conveyed by a text. To illustrate this point, one could mention the problem, encountered by scholars, of translating terms related to meditative practice. The Maitreya chapter of Saṃdhinirmocana is probably the most difficult to understand if one is not familiar with Buddhist practice. Lamotte translates manasikāra with “réflection,” while Frauwallner uses “Beobachtung” (lit. “observation”). Both these translation choices obfuscate the meaning of what the term “directing one’s attention” actually denotes. This is not in itself a major issue, but if such inaccuracies proliferate in the same passage or chapter, the meaning of the translation becomes unclear, although it may well be technically correct on a syntactic level and lexicographical perspective (at least when it comes to correctly identifying Tibetan technical terms on the basis of the Sanskrit).
In the context of pre-Dignāgean Buddhist logic, chapter 10 represents another case in point. This chapter is indeed replete with abstruse concepts not belonging to the well-researched and documented later systems of Buddhist logic. In this case, translating the many occurrences of the connective particle kyi in long compounds with the English preposition “of” will not help the reader much, though it will certainly give the translators the peace of mind of having produced a “technically correct” translation. However, I believe that translators have only two options here: (a) take a risk and, for example, tell us if they actually understand the connective kyi in the sense of “belonging to,” “resulting from,” “consisting of,” and so on; or (b) admit that they do not understand the source text. In the case of the technical compounds found in chapter 10, I therefore tried to ask myself what these terms actually referred to, what could have been the system of logic presented in these pages. For example, I read gzhan gyi rigs kyi dpe nye bar sbyar ba’i mtshan nyid (anyajātīyadṛṣṭāntopasaṃhāralakṣaṇa)26 as rendering into Tibetan a Sanskrit bahuvrīhi. As a consequence, I translated this long compound with “[The logical proof] characterized by a demonstration through an instance belonging to a different class [of phenomena]”
It goes without saying that these translations are at this stage provisional, as further research on the subject matter is necessary. But in order to translate these technical terms, we cannot just give a technically correct translation of a succession of words. Beyond the first phase of the work, which is purely analytical, we still need to develop a mental representation of the situation presented in the text by establishing relations with a context that might go beyond the text.
3. In the third operation, Billeter insists on the necessity for translators to become writers. They should formulate in the target language their understanding of the source text as accurately and naturally as possible. At this stage, translators should focus on literary elements of the translation, such as idioms, voice, and figures of speech. According to Billeter, difficulties in writing accurately and naturally in the target language are often the direct consequence of not having performed the second operation. The translation might well be technically correct, but it still does not make sense, an experience all translators go through when they fail to understand the meaning (or visualize the situation) referred to by the source text.
4. In the fourth operation, translators should reflect on the role played by linguistic constraints and conventions in the formulation of the source text as well as those imposed by the target language. What options did the author of the text have in terms of expression? How would someone express the same ideas in the target language? As a consequence, the notion of form and pragmatics in the target language becomes central. To detail the various operations leading to an actual translation, Vinay and Darbelnet’s model is useful.27 Translators should first identify the units of translation in relation to the translation process: the lexicon (e.g., semantic values, objective and affective aspects, lexical associations and modulations), the syntactic structure (e.g., transpositions between word classes, supplementation of pronouns or conjunctions, modifications in terms of gender, number, characterization, tenses, voice, modality, and verbal aspects), and the message (e.g., meaning, stylistics, pragmatics, topicalization, figures of speech, metalinguistic aspects, specific segmentation of reality). Then, they should examine the descriptive, affective, and intellectual content of the units of translation in the source text to reconstitute the situation at the origin of the message. These two first steps correspond to Billeter’s two first operations. Finally, translators still have to formulate the message in the target language without omitting any relevant element from the source language.
To achieve this, Vinay and Darbelnet argue that translators have only two methods: direct and oblique translation. Direct translation includes three strategies:
• a. Borrowing: the term in the source language is used in the target language to overcome an insuperable metalinguistic lacuna, or it is used because the term is also commonly used in the target language. For instance, I use the Sanskrit bodhisattva and nirvāṇa in my English translation.
• c. Literal translation: most lists and simple sentences are for instance relatively unproblematic direct translations of the source language.
When a Literal translation fails to render the message, is structurally impossible, or misleads the reader due to the lack of a corresponding expression belonging to the same register, one should turn to an oblique translation method among the following strategies:
• d. Transposition: one replaces a word class by another. For example, the frequent nominalizations of Sanskrit and Tibetan are turned into verb clauses. The highly technical nature of some terms makes it necessary to reflect the Sanskrit as much as possible while “unpacking” what is a condensed compound. As an illustration, I translated tadanyavairūpyopalabdhi with “a perception that does not conform with anything other than the [thing to establish],” in which vairūpya is translated as a verb.
Our text is mostly written in the same way as a treatise (śāstra), reflecting what is referred to as the nominal style in Sanskrit, or scholastic Sanskrit, in which the nominalization of verbal clauses by means of compounds or suffixes is common. As is often the case in technical or hyperspecialized environments, processes or conceptual frameworks are encapsulated as technical terms (often nouns) implying a complex or recurring pattern. As an analogy, think of a medical term such as hemiglossectomy standing for a removal of a part of the tongue. The passive impersonal phrase “a hemiglossectomy was performed on the patient at 11 pm” includes the nominalization of an action through a compound (hemiglossectomy). It could be rewritten as “[the surgeon] removed a portion of the patient’s tongue at 11 pm.” As can be seen from the translations of Lamotte and Frauwallner, nominalization seems to be less of a problem in French and German than it is in modern (American) English in which readability is more of a concern. When translating the Saṃdhinirmocana, I therefore tried to turn nominal compounds common in scholastic Sanskrit into English verbal sentences by transposing these compounds into verbal sentences. However, since the text is very technical (particularly from Chapter 7 onward), I decided in some cases to keep nominal compounds that were indicative of a technical term and not just a nontechnical action or state of affairs. For example, the text mentions throughout a “concept” being referred to a “X” (see for instance 7.3–6). Just like the surgical term above, such complex nominal compounds stand for a specific action or concept and are part of a “specialist’s jargon.” Turning these compounds into verbal sentences might have the counterproductive effect of erasing an essential feature of this kind of literature consisting in endless lists of often technical terms. Therefore, in this particular case, it would probably be best to avoid transposition.
• e. Modulation: this strategy implies a change of perspective or standpoint made in order to avoid an awkward rendering of the source language. In its simplest form, translating sla ba ma yin (D, folio 25.b, 7.32) with “it is difficult” is an illustration of an optional modulation. Any change of syntactic subject for the sake of clarifying a sentence would be a modulation. Whether this decision is appropriate or not on the part of the translator is something that one should evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
I would like to illustrate this point with issues related to the nidāna of the sūtra, in which topicalization plays an important role. The first paragraph of the prologue is a presentation of the place where the Buddha is dwelling. The topicalization of the temple (khang) is achieved through a succession of compounds, mainly bahuvrīhis. Lamotte’s translation reflects this thematization to perfection. In contrast, Powers fails to topicalize the palace to the same degree. In his translation, the logical subject of the several clauses describing this palace is sometimes ambiguous. In this case, one should consider the fact that the Sanskrit structure of this paragraph is built on a process of topicalization that we can easily render in English. In a word, we have no reason to alter this literary device by inducing a modulation of the translation through a change of perspective induced, for example, by a modification of the grammatical or logical subject in the target language.
• f. Equivalence: the same situation can be expressed both in the source language and the target language in completely different stylistic and structural ways due to the necessity to resort to idioms in order to convey the message of the source text. For example, I translated evam etat (de de bzhin te/no) literally with “so it is” in English, which is a slightly pompous and old-fashioned expression no one would probably use today. Instead, one would probably say in an actual dialogue something like “You are right, Dharmodgata” or “This is true, Dharmodgata.”28
• g. Adaptation: this method aims at replacing altogether a reference to a situation in the source language if it is completely unknown in the target language. I generally try to avoid adaptations while translating, for the simple reason that one has to be certain that, for instance, two different metaphors or examples refer to the same situation or object.
To conclude on this point, it seems to me that a number of fixed or technical expressions in the Kangyur could be translated in a systematic way following Vinay and Darbelnet’s approach. This research would establish a set of solid conventions that would improve accuracy and readability.
Returning to Billeter’s schema, in his fourth operation the translator should verify that what has been translated into the target language corresponds to the meaning of the source text. Do the two texts express the same idea? Do they produce the same effect on the reader? To answer these questions, Billeter recommends reading one’s text aloud. During this operation, translators should also check whether the translation fits within a specific cultural register in the target language. Discourses take place within a corpus of existing literature that is culturally determined by centuries of textual production. Some statements from a different cultural background resonate through a web of meaning, discursive practices, or literary figures of speech once expressed in the target language. In fact, the web of meaning of the target language within which the translation is received finds its parallel in the web of meaning within which the source text was produced. Within the source text and culture, concepts, ideas, and references resonate throughout sentences, paragraphs, chapters, works, and genres. For example, some philosophical definitions can represent intratextual and extratextual variations on a theme for which there is no metalinguistic context in the target language. Translators therefore need to understand the text not only as a whole and in relation to its various components, but also in connection with both the source and the target cultures. This is of course particularly true of more “philosophical” texts for which it is essential to evaluate how the translation interacts with the webs of meaning of the source and target cultures. Practically, it is important to cross check the consistency (or lack thereof) of meaning units across the text while keeping in mind that the translation is also obviously culturally situated. This process is fundamental because it facilitates the validation (or invalidation) of translation hypotheses resulting from the two first steps of the translation process.
In the context of Saṃdhinirmocana, the problem is compounded by the fact that the sūtra can be read as a collection of independent texts that would have been put together during the third or fourth century ᴄᴇ. The academic community considers the sūtra as a highly composite compilation lacking coherence from a philological perspective.29 Lamotte explains that the first four chapters represent a Prajñāpāramitā for the reasons mentioned above. He sees chapters 5 through 7 as forming a second group of ideas found in the Prajñāpāramitā literature that influenced the Yogācāra school. Finally, he considers chapters 8 through 10 to be later additions.
It is undeniable that the various recensions in Tibetan and Chinese refer to texts that are quite different in structure. For instance, Paramārtha’s translation includes only the first four chapters, which, according to Lamotte, might have originally formed an independent sūtra. In addition, it is obvious that the ten chapters of Saṃdhinirmocana do not follow a consistent textual pattern. The first six have no title. They are concluded by a few summarizing gāthās and a standard formula indicating the name of the person who questioned the Buddha and the number of the chapter (e.g., “This was the chapter of Guṇākara—the sixth chapter”). Chapter 7 has a whole summary of the chapter in the form of a supplement right after the concluding gāthās, while in chapter 10 the Buddha is questioned on complementary topics once the concluded gāthās have been proclaimed. Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10 each come to an end with a nītārthanirdeśa (instruction of definitive meaning) on the chapter topic. This nītārthanirdeśa is referred to as a Saṃdhinirmocana and used as the chapter title. On account of this, Lamotte surmises that there might have originally been several independent Saṃdhinirmocanasūtras that came to be grouped together as the text we know today.
One should also note that the dialogue structure of chapters 1 through 7 differs from that of chapters 8 through 10. In the first group, the Buddha elaborates on a topic in the form of a monologue once his interlocutor has questioned him on a specific topic, whereas in the second group a dialogue takes place through short questions and answers. As a consequence of all these philological divergences, one has to conclude that the text is rather composite in nature and probably the result of a succession of additions and adjustments. In a word, I agree with Schmithausen that Saṃdhinirmocana is not an organic whole that would have been composed from the onset in its present form and that its chapters are not mutually dependent.30 However, this hypothesis should ideally be the object of further research by a team following an approach similar to that of Professor Jonathan Silk’s European Research Council project “Open Philology — The Composition of Buddhist Scriptures” at the University of Leiden, to which I have had the good fortune to take part. The multiformity and intertextuality of Mahāyāna sūtras are not the result of a linear development from an Ur-text but the expression of oral-formulaic processes of composition and transmission. For our research program focusing on the Ratnakūṭa collection of sūtras, we have been developing digital and philological tools to identify, analyze, and map the fluidity and modularity of Mahāyāna texts. By using these tools, we could better understand the historical development of the complex textual environment of the Saṃdhinirmocana, which includes several translations and many witnesses of this work.
From the perspective of the narrative and doctrinal content of the Tibetan translation, a somewhat different picture emerges. Even if each chapter does not depend on all others in terms of meaning, there is definitely a progression with regard to the flow of thought in Saṃdhinirmocana insofar as later chapters do depend on the definitions and lines of thinking posited in the former chapters, a central fact for translators of this complex text. We can perceive this continuity in the intratextual cross-references that create a terminological resonance echoing throughout the text. Unraveling these cross-references is as important during the translation process as noting the textual variations indicating a deviation from a specific literary pattern. While translating I thus tried to evaluate the text in terms of regularities and discontinuities in the use of definitions and the flow of meaning unfolding throughout the text. One should therefore temper the impression that the text has been “patched” together on the basis of loosely related texts on the basis of philological arguments whose significance is difficult to assess. For example, the fact that chapter 1 is the only chapter in which a dialogue occurs between two bodhisattvas has never been mentioned by any researcher as a textual inconsistency preventing them from considering the first four chapters as a coherent whole. Minor divergences should therefore not deter us from asking ourselves why these chapters were taught or put together in the first place. I would like to illustrate with a few concrete examples the doctrinal coherence of the text. The term ādānavijñāna in 5.3 is also found in 8.37.1.i; the model of the three kinds of essencelessness (niḥsvabhāvatā) of chapter 7 corresponds to the model of the three defining characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of chapter 6, of which two are foreshadowed in 1.2 through the terms parikalpa (kun tu rtog pa) and *apariniṣpanna (yongs su ma grub pa); the other-dependent defining characteristic (paratantralakṣaṇa) introduced in chapter 6 is mentioned in 7.10; chapter 8 presupposes chapters 5 and 6;31 the concluding paragraphs of 7.33 and 8.41 are almost identical; as noted by Schmithausen, saṃskāranimitta is referred to in similar ways in both 1.5 and 7.25–27;32 *viśuddhyālambana is mentioned with the same function in 4.8, 7.6, 7.25–27, and 8.20; 10.7.2 refers to the seven aspects of true reality (tathatā) defined in 8.20.2; 8.21 and 10.7.4.ii contain the same formulation; the famous quote “Whether tathāgatas . . .” is found in 4.10, 7.9, and 10.7.4.vii.d; 10.9 mentions the enumeration citta, manas, and vijñāna exactly in the way it is expressed in 5.1–6; 10.9 enumerates the domains as in 8.23.
On account of the elements adduced above and with Davidson’s principle of charity in mind, I would like to formulate the hypothesis that there is a good reason why these chapters are found in this order: the structure of the text as we know it today is necessary to provide Mahāyāna practitioners with a systematic teaching on (1) ultimate reality qua basis, which is the nondual inexpressible domain of gnosis (chapters 1 through 4), (2) the path to awakening from the domain of mind to the domain of gnosis (chapters 5 through 9), and (3) ultimate reality qua result of the path, which represents a shift in one’s basis of existence as one attains the domain of gnosis (chapter 10).
Indeed, it seems impossible to deny that, considered as a single text (and not as a succession of independent texts), the Saṃdhinirmocana aims at providing a systematic teaching on the Single Vehicle through the three aspects of basis, path, and result in order to solve seeming contradictions and quandaries in doctrines that were of primary importance for followers of the Great Vehicle (e.g., the two truths in chapter 3 and meditative practice in chapter 8). Now, if we read the Saṃdhinirmocana as a single text, we have to confront the web of meaning found in this text in its entirety with the web of meaning of the target culture in order to avoid potential misunderstandings.
This operation has a major impact on the translation of some key terms, such as vijñaptimātra. Since idealism (in the sense that mind is an unchanging essence) is not an option given the teaching imparted in this sūtra, I tried to avoid any potential confusion resulting from an unfortunate choice of terminology. In a word, I would rather stay on the safe side than insert in my translation a potentially misleading term. As a consequence, I decided to translate vijñaptimātra as “a mere representation” instead of using nominalizations such as “cognition-only.” The first expression is relatively unambiguous in the target culture as it minimizes the risk of misunderstanding the message of the text. Another option would be “just a representation.” These formulations mitigate the risk of superimposing an essence on what is meant by vijñapti.33 The formulation “cognition-only” in the sense of “pure cognition” is in contrast ambivalent. It could also (but not necessarily) signify that only cognition truly exists and by extension, that only mind exists as an essence.
In the last step of the translation process, Billeter recommends that translators perform various operations aiming at polishing the translation, such as replicating the possible effects of semantic resonance throughout the text, improving the connection between sentences and paragraphs, modifying the order of clauses, solving problems of euphony, or editing the translation to make it clearer and simpler by chunking long sentences or eliminating repetitions. To illustrate one of these various tasks in the context of the present project, I decided to review all the terminology pertaining to the semantic field of insight (vipaśyanā) after I had finished translating the entire text. I took as a starting point 8.4, in which vipaśyanā is defined by means of a series of technical terms, such as pratyavekṣaṇa, vibhājanā, pravicaya, paritarka, parimīmāṃsā, nitīraṇa, and vitarka. I first tried to find the best translation for each term in the context of this chapter. Next, I checked the usage of all these terms and other related concepts (e.g., pratisaṃkhyā) throughout the text to standardize the corresponding English terminology. I also tried to minimize the use of square brackets indicating additions to the text when these additions were logically implied by the source text. A typology of such situations would include various operations, such as breaking down a compound, clarifying an abbreviated form corresponding to a well-attested collocation, stating a logical subject, object, or verb that is elided in the source text, mentioning the number of a technical term that usually comes as a list of individual items.
Through all these operations, my aim has been to maximize both accuracy and readability while maintaining the consistency of the very systematic presentation of the Great Vehicle developed in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra. This text is important in this spiritual tradition since it condenses all aspects of Mahāyāna. I hope that this translation will contribute to improve our understanding of the interplay between liberation as a path and primordial freedom as the ground of being.
|Bd||Bardan (Zanskar) canonical collection|
|C||Choné xylograph Kangyur|
|Cbeta||Chinese Electronic Buddhist Association, (www.cbeta.org)|
|D||Degé xylograph Kangyur|
|Do||Dolpo canonical collection|
|F||Phukdrak manuscript Kangyur|
|Go||Gondhla (Lahaul) canonical collection|
|H||Lhasa xylograph Kangyur|
|He||Hemis I Kangyur|
|J||’jang sa tham/Lithang xylograph Kangyur|
|Kʙ||Berlin manuscript Kangyur|
|Kǫ774||Peking 1737 xylograph Kangyur|
|L||London (Shelkar) manuscript Kangyur|
|Lg||Lang mdo Kangyur|
|N||Narthang xylograph Kangyur|
|Pj||Phajoding I Kangyur|
|Pz||Phajoding II Kangyur|
|S||Stok manuscript Kangyur|
|Saṃdhdh||Dunhuang manuscript: Stein Tib. n°194 (49 folios) and Stein Tib. n°683 (1 folio) (Hakamaya 1984–1987)|
|T||Tokyo manuscript Kangyur|
|Taishō 676||解深密經, translated by Xuanzang (596–664 ᴄᴇ)|
|U||Urga xylograph Kangyur|
|V||Ulaanbaatar manuscript Kangyur|
|VD||Degé; xylograph of the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi from the Tengyur|
|VG||Golden; xylograph of the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi from the Tengyur|
|VP||Peking; xylograph of the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi from the Tengyur|
|VinSg||Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi|
|X||Basgo manuscript Kangyur|
|YBht P ’i||Tibetan translation of Acarya Asanga’s Yogācārabhūmi from the Peking Tengyur (n°. 5540, sems-tsam, ’i 143aI-382a5 (vol. I l l : 121-217)|
|Z||Shey Palace manuscript Kangyur|
’phags pa dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryasaṃdhinirmocananāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 106, Degé Kangyur vol. 49 (mdo sde, ca) folios 1.b–55.b.
’phags pa dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–9, vol. 49, pp. 3–131.
Asaṅga. rnal ’byor spyod pa’i sa (Yogācārabhūmi). Toh 4035, Degé Tengyur vol. 127 (sems tsam, tshi) folios 1.b–283.a
Asaṅga. rnal ’byor spyod pa’i sa rnam par gtan la dbab pa bsdu ba (Yogācārabhūmiviniścayasaṃgraha). Toh 4038, Degé Tengyur vol. 130 (sems tsam, zhi), folios 1.b–289.a; vol. 131 (sems tsam, zi), folios 1.b–127.a.
Buddhabhūmisūtra (sangs rgyas kyi sa’i mdo). Toh 275, Degé Kangyur vol. 68 (mdo sde, ya), folios 36.a–44.b.
Kamalaśila. bsgom pa’i rim pa (Bhāvanākrama). Toh 3915, Degé Tengyur vol. 110 (dbu ma, ki), folios 22.a–41.b; Toh 3916, Degé Tengyur vol. 110 (dbu ma, ki), folios 42.a–55.b; and Toh 3917, Degé Tengyur vol. 110 (dbu ma, ki), folios 55.b–68.b.
Mahāvyutpatti (bye brag tu rtogs par byed pa chen po). Toh 4346, Degé Tengyur vol. 204 (sna tshogs, co), folios 1.b–131.a.
Māyājāla (mdo chen sgyu ma’i dra ba). Toh 288, Degé Kangyur vol. 71 (mdo sde, sha), folios 230.a–244.a.
Tathāgataguṇajñānācintyaviṣayāvatāranirdeśasūtra (de bzhin gshegs pa’i yon tan dang ye shes bsam gyis mi khyab pa’i yul la ’jug pa bstan pa’i mdo). Toh 185, Degé Kangyur vol. 61 (mdo sde, tsa), folios 106.a–143.b.
Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde brtsan). bka’ yang dag pa’i tshad ma las mdo btus pa (Samyagvākpramāṇoddhṛtasūtra). Toh 4352, Degé Tengyur vol. 204 (sna tshogs, co), folios 173.b–203.a.
Vasubandhu. dbus dang mtha’ rnam par ’byed pa’i ’grel pa (Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya). Toh 4027, Degé Tengyur vol. 124 (sems tsam, bi), folios 1.b–27.a.
Wonch’uk. dgongs pa zab mo nges par ’grel pa’i mdo rgya cher ’grel pa (*Āryagambhīrasaṃdhinirmocanasūtraṭīkā) Toh 4016, Degé Tengyur vol. 118 (mdo ’grel, ti), folios 1.b–291.a; vol. 119 (mdo ’grel, thi), folios 1.b–175.a.
IOL Tib J 194. British Library, London. Accessed through The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online.
Bd3.7 vol. 3 (ta) pha, folios 1.b–84.a
C747 vol. 29 (mdo sde, ca), folios 1.b–71.a
Dd031-001 (mdo ca), folios 1.b–69.b
Dk034-001 (mdo na), folios 1.b–87.b
Do (mdo sde, da), folios 196.a–246.b
F156 vol. 68 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 1.b–72.a
Go19,01 vol. 19 (ka), folios 1.b–36.a
Gt028-001 (mdo na), folios 1.b–72.b
H109 vol. 51 (mdo sde, ca), folios 1.b–87.b
He64.6 (mdo, wa), folios 62.b–125.b
J51 vol. 44 (mdo sde, ca), folios 1.b–59.b
Kǫ774 vol. 29 (mdo sna tshogs, ngu), folios 1.b–60.b
L82 vol. 42 (mdo sde, na), folios 1.b–80.b
N94 vol. 51 (mdo sde, ca) folios 1.a–81.a.
Np012-001 (mdo na), folios 1.b–87.a
Pj043-001 (mdo ca), folios 1.b–62.b
Pz045-001 (mdo ca), folios 1.b–61.a
R106 vol. 49 (mdo sde, ca), folios 1.b–55.b
S106 vol. 63 (mdo sde, na), folios 1.b–80.b
U106 vol. 49 (mdo sde, ca), folios 1.b–55.b
X (mdo sde, wa), folios 66.a–132.a
Z137 vol. 59 (mdo, na), folios 1.b–93.a
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