Today we are going to study a sutta from the Middle-Length Discourses of the Chinese Agama. This is from the northern Buddhist school’s canon, probably the Sarvāstivāda. It forms part of the Early Buddhist Texts.

We are going to be looking at one paragraph from a discourse called “The Pārijāta Tree.” This passage is important because it talks about the first jhana, or as it is known in Sanskrit, the first dhyāna. According to this passage, there is jué and guān in the first jhana/dhyāna.

Two Translations

First, let’s look at two translations from Charles D. Patton II. They are about seventeen years apart in composition.

Charles Patton’s 2004 translation:

Furthermore, the Noble disciple separates himself from desires, separates himself from things that are evil and not good. With awareness and investigation, he separates himself from the arising of pleasure, attains the first dhyāna, and consummates it to its utmost. It is then that the Noble disciple is said to be growing his leaves back again, just as when the leaves of the day of liberation tree in the Heaven of the Thirty-three are growing back again (MA Patton 2004).

Charles Patton’s 2021 translation:

Furthermore, the noble disciple parts with desire and bad and unskillful things. With perception and contemplation, this seclusion produces joy and happiness, and he attains accomplishment of the first dhyāna. The noble disciple then is called ‘growing back leaves.’ He’s like the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven’s pārijāta tree growing back its leaves (MA Patton 2021).

We will be focusing on the phrase “With awareness and investigation.” Notice he changed it to “With perception and contemplation.” This is a translation of the Chinese 有覺有觀 (Pinyin: yǒu jué yǒu guān).

Chinese Word Study

Let’s look at each of these words in this phrase. First, there is a word that is repeated twice, 有 (Pinyin: yǒu). This means “to have; there is; there are; to exist; to be” (MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary). Here it carries the meaning “there is.” There is jué, there is guān.

The next word is 覺 (Pinyin: jué). This means “to feel; to find that; thinking; awake; aware” (MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary). Charles Patton first thought it meant “awareness.” In one of his books, Bhikkhu Analayo translates 覺 as “awareness” (Early Buddhist 127). Although in the footnote he notes that it can also be translated as “to awake, apprehend, perceive, realize.” Interestingly apprehend means to “understand or perceive” (OED).

It is interesting that the Pali equivalent is vitakka, which means “thought.” In fact, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “vitakka corresponds so closely to our ‘thought’ that no other rendering seems feasible” (52). It would appear that the translators understood that this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill thinking, but thinking directed at cultivating “awareness.”

The translation “perception” is clearly off the mark. Perception is one of the five aggregates, not a factor of jhana. In this, his original translation was better.

The last word is 觀 (Pinyin: guān). This means “to look at; to watch; to observe; to behold; to advise; concept; point of view; outlook” (MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary). Charles Patton first thought it meant “investigation.” This would match perfectly with my translation of the Pali vicara. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates vicara as “examination.”

I don’t understand Charles Patton’s decision to translate guān as “contemplation.” It muddles the water with Christian contemplation and loses the idea of investigation. I prefer to translate this “insight” or “observation.” To me this makes perfect sense, “There is awareness and insight… and the achievement of the first jhana.”

Bhiksu Thich Minh Chau translates this phrase, in a different discourse as “with initial thoughts and discursive thoughts” (143). Which means that the Chinese is not the far from the Pali version.

Bhikkhu Analayo’s Translation

I now want to look at Bhikkhu Analayo’s translation, which he did for the BDK English Tripitaka. He calles the discourse “The Discourse on the Coral Tree.” It reads as follows:

Again, the noble disciple, separated from desires, separated from evil and unwholesome states, with initial and sustained application of the mind, with joy and happiness born of seclusion, dwells having attained the first absorption. At this time the noble disciple is reckoned as one whose new leaves have appeared, like the appearing of the new leaves on the coral tree of the thirty-three gods (MA 2).

First, I want to deal with the translation of 禪 (Pinyin: chán) as “absorption.” This is plainly wrong. IT means: “dhyana (Sanskrit); Zen; meditation (Buddhism)” (MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary). It means “meditation.” To translate it as “absorption” is an interpretation, not a translation.

It also violates the stated intent of the series, which says “we favored literalness over style” (BDK xxvi). A literal translation would call the “the first dhyana” as Charles Patton does.

Second, notice how he translates 有覺有觀 (Pinyin: yǒu jué yǒu guān): “with initial and sustained application of the mind.” This is not a translation, it is a paraphrase at best. The introduction says that “Interpolations to the text made by the translator generally appears in brackets” (xxvii). In that case, it should read “with initial and sustained [application of the mind].” But 覺 never means “initial” and 觀 never means “sustained.”

Why such a breach of translation protocol? Because Bhikkhu Analayo has gravely misunderstood what jhana/dhyāna is. He is convinced by later Theravada Buddhist tradition that it is a state of absorption. Even the first jhana is a state of full absorption. Which does not match the early Buddhist suttas. These clearly indicate that thought and investigation happen in the first jhana (SN 45.8 PMT).

What saddens me is that such attachment to this view actually makes him mistranslate passages where 有覺有觀 (Pinyin: yǒu jué yǒu guān) occur. The fact is that his interpretation is wrong. The first jhana/dhyāna is a state of collectedness of mind that is not absorption. Only in the fourth jhana/dhyāna is full absorption reached.

The Corrected Translation

I just received the second volume of the BDK English Tripitaka: The Madhyama Agama (Middle-length Discourses) and was pleased to learn that they have decided to correct future translations to read “[directed] awareness and [sustained] contemplation.” This I find to be accurate to the underlying Chinese. They did not, however, corrected the translation of dhyāna.

Their corrected translation of this passage, plus my change of absorption to dhyāna, reads as follows:

Again, the noble disciple, separated from desires, separated from evil and unwholesome states, with [directed] awareness and [sustained] contemplation, with joy and happiness born of seclusion, dwells having attained the first dhyāna. At this time the noble disciple is reckoned as one whose new leaves have appeared, like the appearing of the new leaves on the coral tree of the thirty-three gods [corrections in bold] (MA 2).

I, however, would translate it “with awakening and insight.” This is because I believe that insight meditation is taking place in the first stage of meditation (jhana).

Since Bhikkhu is one of the editors and therefore could have blocked this correction, I have to give him credit for it. It was the right thing to do. So I am pleased with the correction they have made. I just wish they would have used dhyāna instead of absorption.

References

  • Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. Barre, MA: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 2017.
  • BDK English Tripitaka: The Madhyama Agama (Middle-length Discourses), vol 1. Marcus Bingenheimer, Bhikhu Analayo, and Roderick S. Buckwell, eds. Moraga, CA: BDK America, 2013.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
  • Chau, Bhiksu Thich Minh. The Chinese Madhyama Agama and The Pali Majjhima Nikaya: A Comparative Study. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2009.
  • Forrest, Jay N. “The Great Jhana Debate (Part 1).” Studies in Early Buddhism. 2022. https://jayforrest.org/the-great-jhana-debate-part1/
  • Forrest, Jay N. “The Great Jhana Debate (Part 2).” Studies in Early Buddhism. 2022.  https://jayforrest.org/the-great-jhana-debate-part2/
  • Forrest, Jay N. “The Great Jhana Debate (Part 3).” Studies in Early Buddhism. 2022. https://jayforrest.org/the-great-jhana-debate-part3/
  • Patton II, Charles D. “Madhyama Āgama.” Sutta Central (legacy), 2004. https://legacy.suttacentral.net/en/ma2
  • Patton II, Charles D. “The Medium Discourses: A Translation of the Chinese Madhyama Āgama.” Sutta Central (legacy), 2021. https://suttacentral.net/ma2/en/patton