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Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission

Kōgen Mizuno
Kōsei Publishing Co., Tokyo, (1982) 1995; 220pp
reviewed by Vladimir K.

The transmission of Buddhism from the East to the West took less than one hundred years, beginning at a time when Buddhism was virtually forgotten in its birthplace. We can thank the indefatigable energy and curiosity of the Victorian-era Europeans for “discovering” Buddhism and bringing it to the attention of Western intellectuals and spiritualists.

While it is true King Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries as far west as Greece in the third century B.C., the religion never took hold in the ancient Mediterranean world. (Fields, 1992: 10) It wasn’t until the European colonialists began to spread throughout Asia that Buddhism became known in the West. One of the earliest book coversutras translated into a European language was the introduction of the Saddharmapundarika (the Lotus Sutra), translated into French by Eugen Burnouf in 1844 as L’introduction a l’histoire du Buddhisme indien. In the same year an English translation by Henry David Thoreau appeared in the journal Dial, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson. (ibid, p 61) When Edwin Arnold published his epic poem, The Light of Asia, or The Great Renunciation, Being the Life and Teachings of Guatama, Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism, in 1878, it created a sensation in America, going through eighty editions (ibid, p 68) and laid the foundation for an interest in Buddhism in the English-speaking world. A hundred years after the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 (often cited as the introduction of Buddhism to America), a veritable flood of translations of Buddhist scriptures and teachings were available in many European languages and a large corpus of scriptures and teachings was soon available to anyone interested in Buddhism. On-going scholarly translations of ancient texts and the movement of teachers from Asia to western countries has enabled Buddhism to become established rapidly in the West.

Such was not the case in Buddhism’s spread eastward from India. It took some 1,000 years for the entire Buddhist canon to be translated in China. Unlike in modern times, when it seems we have had almost all the Buddhist scriptures translated at once, the sutras were introduced to China piecemeal, over centuries and in no particular order. Mizuno’s Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission traces the fascinating story of how the scriptures reached China, the struggles of the pilgrims who ventured on the long, perilous journey to India and the difficulties and controversies surrounding the interpretation of these texts.

Originally a series of essays published in the journal Kōsei, this English translation (by Morio Takanashi, Koichiro Yoshida, Takahiro Matsumura and Kazumasa Osaka, adapted by Rebecca M. Davis) was first published in 1982.

Mizuno begins with a brief introduction to the meaning of the word sutra and the origins of the sutras as well as a useful short guide to the languages of the sutras to set the context of the work. He notes that the extant sutras "do not necessarily contain the Buddha's exact words" as none were recorded during his ministry nor are any available in the language of the Buddha (Magadhi). However, Mizuno goes on to say in the same paragraph that the the oldest extant sutras and the Mahayana sutras "are considered correct records of the Buddha's words". (p 22) The confusion of which sutras can be considered "genuine" sutras and which are "spurious" becomes even more complex as the sutras were translated into Chinese. Mizuno points out that even the oldest extant sutras, the Ekottara-agama (Gradual Sayings) and the Samyukta-agama (Kindred Sayings) "were most likely not preached by the Buddha in exactly the form in which they have been handed down to us". (p 116) As for the Mahayana sutras, they undoubtedly are not the exact words of the Buddha. As the difficulties of interpreting and understanding Buddhism grew in China, many spurious works were attributed the cachet of "sutra" even though they were written by Chinese authors attempting to clarify the teachings. By the time of the 730 A.D. catalogue, K'ai-yuan Era Buddhist Catalogue, over one-third of the sutras were "spurious". (p 120) Given that the earliest sutras, the Agama sutras, were not written down until three or four hundred years after the Buddh's death, and the Mahayana sutras even later, it is highly unlikely that any of the extant sutras can be considered the "exact words" of the Buddha. Ultimately, perhaps the only way to accept or reject a sutra as being "genuine' is whether it conveys the "true teachings" of the Buddha, a rather unsatisfactory and ambiguous standard but it may be the only one we have.

Mizuno discusses the early translations and gives a good account of the difficulties, both linguistically and conceptually, that the Chinese faced with this new religion. His descriptions of the tribulations faced by the early Chinese travellers to India to acquire copies of the Buddha’s Dharma is both fascinating and illuminating. Much of this reads like a boy’s own adventure — pilgrims traversing mountains, deserts, facing hostile tribes, storms at sea and any number of difficulties, all with the burning spirit of bringing Buddhism to China. While most of the early translators were Indian or Central Asian monks or priests, such as Kumarajiva (344-413), many Chinese made the perilous journey to Central Asia and India to bring back the teachings. Fa-hsien (ca. 337-422), the first important Chinese pilgrim, left Ch’ang-an in 399 and although he may have been already sixty years old when he set out, he spent fourteen years seeking the Law, traversing deserts, mountains and rivers before setting sail for home. His Record of Buddhist Kingdoms gives a vivid description of the difficult and dangerous journey. For example, after negotiating the Pamir Mountains and finally inside India itself, a mountain path lay ahead where movement along a high cliff face was by two short sticks thrust into holes drilled approximately every thirty centimetres and the traveller had to drag himself along only to find at the end of this perilous and terrifying path, a single rope bridge across a sixty-meter wide rushing river. (p 67) Although hundreds, perhaps thousands, made the journey through Central Asia and modern Afghanistan and Pakistan into India via the north-west, only a handful of names remain and the number of deaths are unrecorded. These were intrepid travellers.

Mizuno describes not only the passages of these early pilgrims but also delves into the controversies regarding the translations and the struggle of the Chinese to understand a doctrine that was quite alien to their way of perceiving the universe and man’s place in it. Taoism and Confucianism were well-established by the time Buddhism arrived and the spiritual states and doctrines described by a hodge-podge of translated texts were extremely difficult to comprehend. Although the first compilation of texts was made in 374 by the translator Tao-an (321-385), it was far from complete. Even Tao-an, who “rendered the greatest service to Chinese Buddhism, ensuring the correctness of its teachings” (p 49) died “without gaining a full understanding of the difficult doctrines”. (p 51) Not only did the early Chinese scholars and monks have difficulty with transcribing Indic words and concepts which had no equivalent in Chinese, but the cultural gap, the way of thinking and expressing ideas, seemed as vast as the deserts and mountains the pilgrims had to conquer to secure the teachings in the first place. Furthermore, the fact that the translations were fragmented and had no relation to the chronological order they were written, being as they were divorced from their historical and doctrinal context, just added to the confusion. In addition, many of the early Indian and Central Asian missionaries came from different Buddhist traditions and were often at odds with each other, adding another layer of complexity for the Chinese to unravel. (Gregory, 2002:108) Unfortunately, Mizuno does not address these issues in any depth, focussing to a large extent on the linguistic and conceptual difficulties of the Chinese.

This book about the transmission of Buddhist sutras from India to China is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of Buddhism. Although it does discuss spiritual doctrine and some of the controversies of interpreting Buddhist thought, even a non-Buddhist reader should not have any difficulty in understanding these arguments. This is not a deep scholarly work on Buddhist doctrine but an easy-to-read historical account focussing largely on the transmission of Buddhist scriptures to China. The Appendix contains a twenty-page list of scriptures and catalogues which may prove useful for further research. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography so the sources used by Mizuno are unknown nor are there any notes to further clarify the historical accuracy of the work. This weakness of scholarly references leaves Mizuno open to accusations of mixing historical fact with legend. For example, although the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), is accepted in Zen practice as the heir to Hung-jen (602-75), modern scholarship attributes this not so much as Hung-jen’s confirmation that Hui-neng “saw with the eye of the spirit and was able to perceive the true nature of a sutra” (p 146) but perhaps more to the machinations of the monk Ho-tse Shen-hui (670-762). Furthermore, Mizuno implies that hearing the Diamond Sutra “impelled him to enter the priesthood and become a monk” (p 145) yet even the legend of Hui-neng says that he did not become a monk until many years after becoming the Sixth Patriarch. (see my Legends in Ch’an: the Northern/Southern Schools Split, Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra) However, there is much to like in this book and although a more detailed and scholarly text would be welcome, this book would be a valuable and useful addition to any Buddhist library.


Fields, Rick, 1992 (1981), How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, Shambhala, Boston & London
Gregory, Peter, 2002 (1991), Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu

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