Yesterday I was editing a section of Kumārajīva’s Commentary to the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra. It was an explanation of dhāraṇīs attained by the bodhisattvas attending the sūtra. And one dhāraṇī described in particular I thought ironic to my modern ear given that I live in a society drunk on public controversy and offendedness.
08 May 2014 2 Comments
It has been nearly twenty years now since I first laid eyes on a Buddhist text in Chinese. I had already been teaching myself some rudiments of Chinese from Taoist translations that included the Chinese with the English. I was a college student a few years out of high school and I had found something to be starry-eyed and idealistic about. Taking Buddhism at face value, it’s not hard to do. Being a poet and an idealistic person in the first place, it was quite natural.
After I left school and entered working and family life, studying Buddhist Chinese continued to be an enduring interest (alongside science fiction and Myazaki films). It is one part of many that I’ve fit together over the years in a desire to find ways to bring old wisdom back into the “new” postmodern world of technological socialization. Cloud Atlas is a good example of the sort of thing I’ve had a mind to do–though perhaps with less complexity. It is a very interesting way to present the abstract ideas that Buddhists have assumed create the fabric of our lives and the context of our lives. The use of various genres and time periods to recreate stories of a similar theme and connection is a brilliant way to represent the notion of rebirth in Buddhism, which is not the same as reincarnation. (There was also a movie based on the book.)
That has always been the context of my interest in studying ancient Chinese Buddhist translations of even-more-ancient Indian Buddhist texts (the originals being lost to the mists of time today). It quickly became its own deep rabbit hole, but it has always been a journey with a purpose.
This year, the intermission finally came to an end and these interests have come back to the forefront. I’m back in school to polish my skills of presentation with a technical communications degree. As a consequence, I also have that precious resource in much greater quantities: free time. This summer I will be diving headlong into studying and producing English translations from the corpus of Chinese texts created by Kumarajiva‘s translation work in China at the outset of the fifth century CE. This is a large amount of material–some 50 texts, a couple of which are very large–but it is a well-defined and manageable subset of the metaphorical ocean of Buddhist scriptural literature.
I will be beginning again where I had begun in the 90s, with a re-translation of Kumarajiva’s Diamond Sutra. But the major work I am hoping to complete by this autumn will be a translation of his version of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines.