Continuum vs. Teachings

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Continuum vs. Teachings: Discrepancies in the Translation of the Term Tantra (rgyud) in the Subtitle of the Ratnagotravibhāga
Morten Ostensen
2019/07/05
Original content written for the Buddha-Nature Project.
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When it comes to translating the title of the text Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, often referred to simply as the Uttaratantra or Gyü Lama (Rgyud bla ma) in Tibetan, there is a clear discrepancy between those that render the term tantra (rgyud) as a "teaching" or "doctrine" and those that translate it as "continuum." These two camps tend to be divided based on the primary source language from which they approach the task of translation, with Sanskritists gravitating toward the former and those following the Tibetan tradition, by and large, consigned to the latter. Hence, we see, for instance, Takasaki translate the subtitle, Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, as "A Treatise on the Ultimate Doctrine of the Great Vehicle"[1] and Brunnhölzl translating it as "A Treatise on the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna."[2] And while, as readers, we too may find one of these choices more acceptable than the other, it is nevertheless useful to try and understand the reasons behind the choices that translators are inevitably forced to make when bringing a text into a new target language. In this particular case, it seems that the translators' fidelity to their source material lies at the heart of these choices.

      On the Sanskrit side, there is somewhat less ambiguity surrounding the word tantra, as it only appears eight times in the text. Seven of those usages are mentioned in the context of either the actual title at the start of the text or in the repetition of that title which occurs at the conclusion of each of the five chapters of the text, as well as in the colophon. Unfortunately, these mentions don't give us much to go on in terms of context, as the term is somewhat out of place in a sūtra-based Mahāyāna treatise that most likely predates the rise of Buddhist tantric literature.

      However, in the only other appearance of the term in verse I.160, we get a gloss of the meaning of the title. To paraphrase, the context in which this appears in the text is in a discussion of the difference between how the emptiness, or lack of existence, of phenomena was explained earlier as resembling clouds, dreams, and illusions, but again in this later tantra the existence of the basic element (i.e., buddha-nature) was explained for the sake of eliminating five flaws. Takasaki translates the corresponding verses as:

It has been said [in the Scriptures]
All kinds of phenomena, made by causes and conditions
And known in the forms of Defilement, Action and Result
Are, like clouds, etc., deprived of reality.

The Defilements are like the clouds,
Undertaking of Actions is like the enjoyment in a dream;
Being the Results made by Defilements and Actions,
The Group of elements are like illusions made by magic.

So has it been ascertained 'before';
But now, in this 'ultimate' Doctrine,
In order to remove the 5 defects [caused by the previous teaching],
It is shown that the Essence of the Buddha exists.[3]

This is generally taken to be a reference to the second and third turnings of the dharmacakra, or wheel of the teachings, with the second emphasizing nonexistence due to emptiness and the third presenting the basic-element as actually existing. Though, it is perhaps the usage of uttara that gives us the greatest clue in this regard, as it is used in opposition to pūrva, giving these two terms the meaning of earlier (pūrva) and last (uttara), or "before" and "ultimate" as they are translated in the above verse, and thus tantra in this instance clearly seems to reference a type of teaching, doctrine, or exposition that was the latest to occur.

      Therefore, in this vein, the subtitle of the text, Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, might be translated as the "Treatise on the Uttermost Teaching of the Great Vehicle." This reading seems to be confirmed by Vairocanarakṣita's Mahāyānottaratantraṭippaṇī, in which, as pointed out by Brunnhölzl,[4] the author glosses the phrase tantre punarihottare as uttaragrantha,[5] thus interchanging tantra with grantha, a term that means binding, in the sense of how palm leaves were bound together to create books, and thus references literature. And this is certainly how early Sanskritists approached this passage, as the translations by Eugène Obermiller as "Highest of Teachings"[6] and Jikidō Takasaki as "'ultimate' Doctrine"[7]attest. Moreover, both of them took pains to further explain this in their citations on this verse, with Obermiller stating succinctly that "Uttaratantra = the Scripture of the latest period"[8] and Takasaki presenting a lengthy clarification of each of the terms involved.[9]

      On the Tibetan side, however, the situation is a bit more complicated. First of all, the word rgyud appears some twenty-three times in the full text, including the verses and commentary, though only in the aforementioned eight instances does it translate the term tantra. The rest of the time it is translating the term saṃtāna or some derivative thereof, which is commonly rendered as "continuity" or "continuum" in the sense of the mental continuum, and thus we often see this translated as "mind-stream" by those translating from the Tibetan. With that being the predominant usage of the term rgyud in the body of the text, it is not entirely implausible that one could read the above verse as stating that it was taught that buddha-nature exists in the supreme (mental) continuum, rather than that its existence was taught in this later exposition. In that case, we could simply chalk it up to an instance of the Sanskrit referent of the Tibetan term rgyud having been lost in translation. However, this doesn't seem to be the source of the ongoing usage of continuum in the title, which more than likely is derived from the Tibetan commentarial tradition.

      In the explanation of the meaning of the title (mtshan don bshad pa) in several prominent commentaries, the term rgyud is repeatedly equated with the term rgyun chags. This term, which is defined in Tibetan as "unlimited or uninterrupted" (mtshams mi 'chad pa'am bar mi 'chad pa), in other words "continuous", seems to be the source of the continuum we find in the titles of the work. In this sense, that which is expressed (brjod bya) by this rgyud is the overarching subject of the text, buddha-nature, which, as Jamgön Kongtrul explains, is "because it is continuous throughout the three occasions of the ground, path, and fruition."[10] It seems that this reading of rgyud by Tibetan commentators is fairly widespread across sectarian lines.

      On the other hand, bla ma, the Tibetan equivalent of uttara, is apparently much more contentious, as it can be glossed as either "highest" (gong na med pa) or "last" (phyi ma). For example, the Sakya scholar Rongtön Sheja Kunrik takes issue with the latter explanation as it is commonly used to associate the text with the third turning of the dharmacakra, while he asserts it to be in accord with the emptiness explicated in the second turning.[11] However, his one time student Gö Lotsāwa, who takes the opposing position in terms of the turnings, represents the three dharmacakra in terms of the continuation of guidance imparted in successive stages to individuals as a reason for the usage of rgyud.[12] In other words, even when paired with "later" or "last" he still sticks with "continuum" as the intended meaning of rgyud. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that those translating from the Tibetan would necessarily follow suit.

      This brings us back to the notion of fidelity in translation and how it comes to bear on this particular case. Because even though the Sanskrit, aptly referred to in Tibetan as the "well-ordered language" (legs par sbyar ba skad), seems rather straightforward in its usage of uttaratantra, as glossed by the phrase tantre punarihottare in verse I.160, those working from the Tibetan would already have been instructed by commentators that rgyud = rgyun chags before they even get to the first verse of the treatise. Thus, we have two divergent translations, both of which are, nevertheless, faithful to their sources.

  1. Takasaki, Jikidō. A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra): Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Serie Orientale Roma 33. Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (ISMEO), 1966: p. 141.
  2. Brunnhölzl, Karl. When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sūtra and Tantra. Boston: Snow Lion Publications, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, 2014: p. 331.
  3. Takasaki, Jikidō. A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra): Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Serie Orientale Roma 33. Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (ISMEO), 1966: pp. 306-307.
  4. Brunnhölzl, Karl. When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sūtra and Tantra. Boston: Snow Lion Publications, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, 2014: p. 1106n1507.
  5. For the passage in question, see the critical edition of the Mahāyānottaratantraṭippaṇī in Kano, Kazuo. "rNgog Blo‐ldan‐shes‐rab's Summary of the Ratnagotravibhāga: The First Tibetan Commentary on a Crucial Source for the Buddha‐nature Doctrine." PhD diss., University of Hamburg, 2006: p. 546.
  6. Obermiller, E. "The Sublime Science of the Great Vehicle to Salvation Being a Manual of Buddhist Monism." Acta Orientalia IX (1931): p. 238.
  7. Takasaki, Jikidō. A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra): Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Serie Orientale Roma 33. Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (ISMEO), 1966: p. 306.
  8. Obermiller 1931, p. 238, nt. 3.
  9. See Takasaki 1966, pp. 306-307, nt. 18.
  10. gzhi lam 'bras bu'i gnas skabs gsum du rgyun chags pas so. 'Jam mgon kong sprul. Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i tshig 'grel. New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2005: p. 137.
  11. Rong ston shes bya kun rig. Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos legs par bshad pa, in Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos rtsa 'grel. Khreng tu'u (Chengdu): Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2008: pp. 60-61.
  12. 'khor lo gsum po yang gang zag rim par bkri ba'i rgyun chags pa yin pas rgyud ces bya ba. 'gos lo tsā ba gzhon nu dpal. theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos kyi 'grel bshad de kho na nyid rab tu gsal ba'i me long. gser rta rdzong: gser ljongs bla ma rung lnga rig nang bstan slob grwa chen mo, 2005: pp. 14-15.