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Buddhism and Language: Thoughts on the Relationship between Word, Writing, and Performance in Buddhist Cultural History

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by Brian Ruppert

Just as the Gospel of John offered a new interpretation of language with its discourse of logos at the time of its completion near the end of the first century CE, the appearance of the Mahayana sutras constituted a watershed moment in the history of the ritual and narrative role of language in Buddhist belief and practice.

One of the initial difficulties when considering the relationship between Buddhism and language concerns the connection of such an investigation to modernity. That is, what do we mean by "language" and related concepts such as "scripture"? Moreover, more basically, how do we understand "religion" as the unspoken backdrop for such an enterprise?

Of course, language, scripture, and religion are originally Western concepts and thus in a sense foreign to the premodern Buddhist world. However, given that we are communicating in English and our traditions of religious study - both academic and otherwise - began with reflections on Christianity, it makes sense that we employ these concepts so long as the social phenomena we analyze have characteristics that prominently approximate these. In what we call Buddhist traditions, we find what is clearly of use as well as reflection on issues directly related to language, such as translation and practices of textual interpretation. Similarly, we find that Buddhist traditions have variously seen certain individual works and groups of texts as more central than others and thus, by implication, have attributed something akin to the authority of scripture to them. Moreover, Buddhist traditions focused on one or more figures who were seen as having awakened to a complete understanding of certain truths regarding our world, and institutionally, these traditions featured professional practitioners (that is, the sa?gha) who were trained in the tradition and guided lay believers who supported them - all characteristics common to prominent religious communities historically, such as Christianity.

One thing to recognize initially is that there seems to have been no effort among followers of the Buddha to find or create a single sacred written or ceremonial language to be used in ritual, such as Vedic Sanskrit, later Hindu Sanskrit, or Latin. It is thought that the Buddha taught in his local language of Maghadi rather than Sanskrit, apparently partially in connection with the fact that Sanskrit was the language of the Brahman priestly class (Rupert Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha: A Selection of Suttas from the Pali Nikayas [[[Oxford University Press]], 2008], xxiv; Robert E. Buswell Jr., and Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism [[[Princeton University Press]], 2014], 612b). Moreover, although Pali was the consistent language of the earliest texts (circa second to first centuries BCE), texts associated with Mahayana traditions written in Sanskrit began to appear within decades thereafter, and Buddhist texts were routinely translated into Chinese from the second century CE, if not a bit earlier.

Among the so-called Three Baskets of the Pali scriptures promoted by groups we now call the Thera school (Theravada) - the only complete early canon extant - it is clear that the sutta (Skt., sutra; hereafter sutra) basket was, together with that devoted to the precepts (vinaya), the oldest set of sacred texts. Although the vinaya included numerous and very old stories concerning the Buddha, the sutras, as discourses by Sakyamuni Buddha given at distinctive times and places - embodying the Buddha's Dharma and also authenticating it through a kind of historical attribution by the reporter-hearer Ananda (marked by the phrase "Thus have I heard") - arguably held the highest authority among scriptures.

With the Mahayana movements, which began to appear at roughly the beginning of the Common Era, however, the power of sutras became all the more prominent. Written in Sanskrit rather than Pali, the Mahayana sutras emphasized the ritual and illocutionary force of the Buddha's words as much as their referential meaning. Sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and others included spells (mantras) or longer mnemonic incantations (dhara?i) that often invited the protection of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian deities. These invocations would become part and parcel of esoteric Buddhist sutras and tantras (so-called Vajrayana) later, perhaps in part related to the fact that the semantic meaning of their content was typically obscure or incomprehensible, but they were common much earlier in the Mahayana scriptures.

Just as the Gospel of John offered a new interpretation of language with its discourse of logos at the time of its completion near the end of the first century CE, the appearance of the Mahayana sutras constituted a watershed moment in the history of the ritual and narrative role of language in Buddhist belief and practice. Although this began in India, it would soon prove extremely influential in East Asia, where Mahayana Buddhism came to greatest prominence. Figures such as the particularly active central Asian monk Kumarajiva (344-ca. 413) translated works such as the Lotus Sutra into Chinese. However, it is significant to note that they did so in a variety of ways, albeit almost invariably through the patronage of sovereigns and, often, with the help of groups of unnamed translators (Toru Funayama, Butten wa do kanyaku sareta ka [How were Buddhist scriptures translated into Chinese?] [[[Iwanami]] Shoten, 2013], 55-57). Kumarajiva's translations are known for the beauty of their classical Chinese style, while other translations reveal varying tendencies to use, for example, Buddho-Daoistic language (an amalgam of Buddhist and Daoist terminology and the like) - borrowing Daoistic vocabulary to suit the Chinese context - or to directly transliterate rather than translate significant elements in the sutras, including invocations retaining their Sanskrit or Hybrid Sanskrit pronunciation. Indeed, as Victor Mair has noted, the Buddhist texts were engaged not only with issues of translation but also with vernacular Chinese, and it is evident that even in the earliest period of translation, vernacular Chinese was included in varying degrees in the Buddhist works in China - and that, moreover, the voluminous Buddhist works of medieval China (circa first to seventh centuries CE) incorporated vernacular language to a far greater extent than did "secular literature" (Victor Mair, "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages," Journal of Asian Studies 53, no. 3 [1994]: 709-10).

At the very least, as Mair and many others in Buddhist studies have emphasized, the Buddhist concept of expedient devices (Skt., upaya), most clearly represented in the Lotus Sutra (chapter 2), would help enable us to understand that Buddhists would make the effort to present the Buddha Dharma in ways accessible to local audiences. That is, the Buddha is thought to have consciously used language accessible to those around him, skill in means being implied in the Pali scriptural corpus in parables like that about the raft constructed to cross to the "other shore" - where the importance of nonattachment to the teachings is emphasized (Buswell and Lopez, Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 942b). Although, as noted, this concept is more famous in the Mahayana, it was also present in the Pali. By implication, the Buddha consciously chose to teach in a language different from that of the elite Brahmans (Richard P. Hayes, "Buddhist Philosophy of Language," in The Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Robert E. Buswell Jr. [Macmillan Reference USA, 2004], 451b), a practice that would match the general strategy of translation of Buddhist works later.

It is well known that the Buddha, according to Pali texts, taught the truth of nirva?a as beyond all linguistic distinctions - in fact, transcending finitude, the world of duality. It does not seem, however, that he was suggesting a "revealed" truth but that he was instead using language at what is sometimes called the level of relative truth to point toward absolute truth that is nondual in character. Thus discourses of the Buddha in Pali literature about nirva?a, which are few, most commonly use negative rather than positive terms - for example, the absence of or cessation of dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction), which is undoubtedly related to what David Kalupahana called the Buddha's "anti-essentialist" position focused on language as an activity rather than a signifier. Kalupahana noted, moreover, that the Buddha had made clear distinctions reflecting that position concerning languages in countries outside his own (David J. Kalupahana, The Buddha's Philosophy of Language [[[Sarvodaya]] Vishva Lekha, 1999], 49, 51).

We can see, for this very reason, that there seems to be a common discursive and, presumably, practitional thread in the Pali scriptures and those of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions, including the esoteric traditions: teachers communicate to their disciples that, when ultimately understood, the world of karmic relativity that is referred to in Pali textual traditions as dependent arising (pa?iccasamuppada) can be seen as essentially empty (Skt., sunya) in character, lacking an ongoing individual identity (essence) distinct from the surrounding world or rebirth. Although there is a series of scholastic debates about these concepts, it is clear that the discourse that came to be called the Two Truths offers an implicit answer to thorny questions concerning the connection between enlightened understanding and life in the finite world. The most succinct presentation of the notion that language/thought (relative) and enlightenment (absolute) are, despite a seemingly infinite gap, ultimately nondual is that of Nagarjuna (second century), who wrote: "Whatever is dependently co-arisen / That is explained to be emptiness. / That, being a dependent designation, / Is itself the middle way" (Jay L. Garfield, Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation [[[Oxford University Press]], 2002], 174, translation of Mulamadhyamakakarika 18).

Although the historical Buddha might be described as anti-essentialist in his general view of language, with the appearance of Mahayana Buddhist sutras, which included invocative spells (Skt., mantras) and typically longer mnemonic formulas/incantations (Skt., dhara?i), a mode of ritual language became increasingly prominent in the Buddhist world. The Buddha is described in a Pali sutta to have forbade the use of mantras, which were associated with Brahmanical practice and views on language, but it is thought that his focus was not on their use per se but on efforts to use them to gain financial profits; in other words, he presumably did not object to their use if it were for appropriate purposes (Hayes, "Buddhist Philosophy," 452a). The very verbalizing of Abhidhamma (Skt., Abhidharma) commentaries was seen as having a kind of talismanic power in Buddhist traditions (Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism [[[Oxford University Press]], 1998], 204). The Mahayana formulas, for their part, were used in connection with the notion that sutras had not only referential capacity but also, when properly enunciated, talismanic, medicinal, or other powers, and the notion was thus presumably related as well to the "cult of the book." The Chan (Kor., Son; Jpn., Zen) lineages would attempt to hearken back to what might be called the anti-essentialist position of the historical Buddha, but it is important to recognize that even a figure like the Soto lineage proponent Dogen (1200-1253) held sutras - especially the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra - in very high regard and would not have questioned the use of mantras or dhara?i in the works nor, presumably, their liturgical use.

Thus, as has been recently noted, it would be incorrect to associate the use of dhara?i, for example, primarily with tantric, that is, esoteric Buddhist traditions such as in Tibet or the Shingon (Chn., Zhenyan) school of Japan. These devices indeed seem to have been pan-Buddhist historically, since even the non-Mahayana Dharmaguptaka lineage in early India featured dhara?i (Buswell and Lopez, Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 242a). And as we saw above, study of Pali works suggests that the historical Buddha accepted mantra use, if used for positive purposes. Moreover, although mantras are technically distinct from mnemonic incantations, the terms were often used interchangeably, and so we see an evolving tradition of incantation, dating from the period of earlier Indian schools of Buddhism to the rising prominence of Mahayana sutras to the varied lineages of East Asia and Tibet.

Thus, the Buddha and Buddhist traditions seem to have promoted the use of translation and presentation of the faith in local language. They were always vigilant, bearing in mind the limitations inherent in language use, but meanwhile understood that language was necessary for communication of the Dharma. The Buddha lived in the late Vedic era (1000-500 BCE) in the Indian subcontinent and seems to have seen, in perhaps very practical terms, medicinal and other benefits of the use of talismanic and mnemonic incantation. Hence we see a series of traditions that, while they often emphasized the inability of discursive language to express that which is ineffable, recognized the need for its continued use as skillful means in teaching, whether in the case of Chan, Lotus Sutra-focused, Pure Land, or esoteric Buddhist traditions. They also respected the power of nondiscursive invocative language, with its liturgical and sometimes thaumaturgical power. It is precisely, I would suggest, for this series of reasons that we see that even the Chan (especially Zen) and esoteric Buddhist traditions (Tibet, Japan), which are known for their emphasis on direct transmission of enlightened realization - beyond language - from teacher to disciple, produced extremely large quantities of narrative and ritual texts. They understood, from their perspective, that using language in multiple modes is necessary along the Buddhist path.

Brian Ruppert, PhD (Princeton), is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Department of Religion, University of Illinois. He is the author of Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan (Harvard University Press, 2000), "Buddhism in Japan" (in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., Macmillan Reference, 2005), "Buddhism and Law in Japan" (in Buddhism and Law: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2014), and numerous articles in Japanese. He is coauthor of the forthcoming A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015). This article was originally published in the October-December 2014 issue of Dharma World.