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Interpretation of Buddhist terminology at the background
of Chinese traditional thoughts

Latika Lahiri

After the introduction of Buddhism in China in A.D 65-67, the most stupendous task was lying before a highly religious community with a team of translators from Parthia, Indo-Seythia, India and Central Asia to render the Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese. This difficult task spread over several centuries after the inception of Buddhism. With Buddhism we reach a world of ideas very different from Chinese traditional thoughts and ideas. Besides this, the Indian language through which the great treasure of her religion would reveal, was completely different from Chinese. Sanskrit with its highly developed and intricate system of grammar was different from Chinese that had no systematic grammar. In the earliest period, the translators faced a serious problem to give phonetic transcription of Indian proper names specially to render the abstract notion and concrete ideas of the Buddhist expression by Chinese character which is pictographic in form and ideographic in nature. The Chinese characters are monosyllabic in sound and unificational in form. On the contrary, Sanskrit is alphabetic, polysyllabic and highly infective. Arthur F. Wright says, "the Chinese had shown little disposition to analyse the personality in its components, while India had a highly developed science of psychological analysis. In concept of time and space, there were also striking differences. The Chinese tended to think of both as finite and to reckon time in life span, generation to political eras. The Indians, on the other hand, conceived of time and space as infinite and tended to think of cosmic aeons rather than of limits of terrestrial life"[1]. The social and political values of the two ancient civilisations also differed. The society according to Confucius was an ordinance of heaven and based upon five relations between ruler and subjects, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brothers and friends. Confucian idea of filial piety was equated with worship of heaven and he regarded that for the people, it would suffice as a religion. Buddhism, on the other hand, professes the ideal of wandering ascetic who goes forth to homeless state to eliminate the sorrows of birth and diseases, old age and death. With such alien background, the task of finding out suitable comprehensive equivalents for highly technical Buddhist terminology was a formidable one. The phonetic transcription was undoubtedly a very difficult task to be performed with the help of ideographic Chinese character which was less suited for that purpose. This would not have been that difficult in any alphabetical writing system. Moreover, with the exception of a very few Chinese monks of the team belonging to highly organised Church of Lo-yang and Ch'ang-an, others had very little knowledge of Sanskrit and in the archaic period the Central Asian and Indian monks had also scanty knowledge of literary Chinese.

In the earliest period, translation of Buddhist terminology and text was very vague and confusing. Amid ever-growing confusion caused by various forms of Buddhism introduced in China from outside, by importation of missionaries from various countries belonging to multifarious schools and by translations of some of the Mahaayanist and Hiinayaanist texts, the Chinese Buddhists were groping in darkness. Later on, they successfully evolved a Chinese doctrinal system.

Throughout the history of translation of Buddhist texts into, Chinese, the transcribes had followed certain rules and regulations.

They had used those characters which were not commonly used in written Chinese, e.g. a, yi, ke, ge, lo, sa, fu, mi, etc. The words Maitreya and Bodhisattvas had been rendered with such sounds as Mi-lo, Fu-sa. But we find a number of common signs as shan, she, shil, men were frequently used for Buddhist transcription. The Sanskrit word 'Srama.na had been rendered with such phonetical sound as she-men.

One Chinese syllable may be written in various ways as Chinese characters are homophonous, e.g. shan (to write out), shan (good, benevolent), shan (mountain). These syllables may stand for various foreign sounds. Generally, we see the characters like p'o, (ke or ge) chia, (ke or ge) chia are used for transliteration. The character (chia) stands for Sanskrit sound ke or ge. Thus Bhagavat had been rendered p'o-ge-p'o. The first syllable p'o had been employed for Sanskrit sounds like va, pa, pha, bha, vat. A Japanese book called Siddhakos a has mentioned about a Record of I-ching which contains Chinese equivalent characters for Sanskrit alphabets.[2]

In early period, transcription of individual words and proper names were not standarised. It went through many changes. The word Buddha had been rendered into Chinese as Fo-t'u, Fo-t'ou. The original word Buddha was greatly distorted. Later on, the character Fo was used for Buddha. It may be an abbreviation of Fo-t'ou. Sir Charles Eliot says that these two syllables Fo-t'ou once pronounced like vut-tha.[3]

During the transitional period from ancient phonetic renderings to the time of highly developed transcription system, the same norm of using restricted characters and conventional set of signs had always been adopted for the purpose of transcription. We must note that the system of transcription is not a new innovation. During the glorious reign of the Former and Later Hans when they had close, political and trade relation with the West, they had to transcribe the geographical names of those often-frequented countries. The Records of the Former and Later Hans mentioned about two hundred [4] (mostly geographical) foreign words in transcription. The Buddhist transcribers must have made full use of this rudimentary system for rendering foreign sounds.

The Buddhist literary activity had an interesting method of transliterating Indian words. Indian proper names, specially with obvious meaning were translated, e.g. Divaakara, Asvaghosa, Devadatta, Asoka and Tathaagata as Jih-ku-ang (the rays of the Sun), Ma-ming (neighing of a horse), T'ien-shou (gift of Devas), Wu-yu (not mournful), Ju-1ai (one whose incoming into the world is like the coming of his predecessors), respectively. This translation of Indian proper names gives correct comprehension of their meaning. The transliterated word A-mi-ta-p'o Amitaabha was also rendered as Wu-liang-kuang, boundless light. There are many such proper names which could be easily rendered into Chinese phonetic sound but it is difficult sometime to say where and when they had been transliterated or translated. But many proper names did not tend themselves to such renderings and it was a pretty difficult task to translate the Buddhistic theological terms like Nirvaana and Samaadhi, etc.

The Siddhakosa (880 A.D) a Japanese book says in Nan-hai-kuei-chuan. (The Record sent home by I-Ching) in Chapter XXXIV under the title Si t'an-Chang[5], he had mentioned about 49 Sanskrit letters of the alphabet which are in perfect accord with corresponding Chinese Characters with a very few exceptions.[6]

A system known as Fan-ch'ieh[7] or Fan-yin was devised by Indian Buddhist monks to render approximately in Chinese the Paali or Sanskrit syllables. Fan-ch'ieh is a system of spelling in Chinese Dictionaries[8]. It was a favourite style with the Emperor K'ang-hsi (A.D 1662-1723) of the Manchu Dynasty. According to this system which is similar to Indian Sandhi Prakara.na, a syllable -phonetically of two characters will be combined by dropping the final of the first and the initial of the second to produce a new sound and tone e.g. Fu-wan (to begin late evening) Fan (to respect, to turn over), Chu Yung Chung.

Hsuan-chuang and I-Ching, the noted and profound Sanskrit scholars introduced certain reforms in rendering Sanskrit equivalents for Buddhist terms in Chinese and probably after them, the rendering of Sanskrit terms was more accurate and more precise. Hsuan-chuang preferred to transliterate the Buddhist terminology rather than translating them.

In the early period of translation, most of the Buddhist terminologies were translated through Taoist terms but it was soon found that these terms did not convey the subtle meanings. The translators preferred to keep the foreign words and then transcribe them into Chinese. Consequently, we find Praj~naa Paaramitaa, Nirvaa.na, etc. have been transcribed as Pan-jo-pa-lo-mi-to, Nieh p'an, etc. Towards the end of the 4th century, Toa-an[9], one of the greatest Chinese monks bibliographer and collector of sacred texts, gave some practical suggestions to the members of the bureau of translators. He as a 'general manager' of the team, was always aware of the problems the transcribes often confronted with. The questions before them were whether the translation should be done to cater to the popular need of the people, so as to make it short in form, free and polished which would be welcome by the Chinese people in general or whether the translation should be faithful, literal or repetitious which would be disliked by them. In his preface to Praj~naa Paaramitaa Suutra Tao-an had given some practical suggestions to the transcribers requesting them on what points they should deviate from the original, and also mentioned three points where they should make faithful translation of Sanskrit texts[10]. Hsuan-chuang similarly formulated certain rules for the translators. He had insight in selecting words and as a translator he created marvel in using the choicest Chinese words to translate the Buddhist terms.

Through the combined efforts of both foreign missionaries and Chinese monks, enormous body of the Buddhist Suutras was translated which constitutes the bulk of the Canon and with it thousands of new terms were assimilated into Chinese Buddhism. Among the foreign missionaries who made a greatest contribution in translation were An Shih-kao from Parthia, Dharmarakã a from Tukhara, Kumaarajiiva from Kucha.

Buddhism grew and developed with two indigenous religions Confucianism and Taoism. Taoism is a mystic philosophy which was directly opposed to Confucianism. Taoism is ascetic and pantheistic. Buddhist philosophy is also regarded as a philosophy of asceticism which emphasises the withdrawal from the world. Here, we, in fact, find some similar ideas with Taoism and in the Taoist circle Buddhism made its headway. Buddhism entered into China as a foreign religion but soon found expression in Taoist mystic words "The Chinese who became interested in the foreign religion were attracted by its novel formulae for attainment of supernatural power, immortality or Salvation and not by its idea. This early Buddhism (in China) was generally regarded as a sect of Taoism"[11]. The defenders and propagators had to find some arguments to reconcile the Buddhist ideas with traditional Chinese thoughts. Thus Tao (The Way, The Truth, A Principle) was the expression used for Dharma or Bodhi, Ying-jen for Arhat, Wu-wei for Nirvaa.na, Hsiao-hsurt (filial submission and obedience) for 'Siila.

It is of utmost importance to have correct evaluation of Chinese comprehension of Buddhist terms. Both the Indian and Chinese Maadhyamika texts have a sizeable technical vocabularies. The question whether a Chinese term conveys the meaning of Indian equivalent depends on whether the translation keeps the formal system of the original and whether it is understood by the Chinese. if this is fulfilled, then the technical meaning of the term is understood.

In the middle of the Later Han Dynasty (1st Century B. C. to 1st Century A.D.) there was a revival of Taoism. In order to differentiate the original from the revived Taoism, the name Hsuan-hsueh, Dark Learning was known to the contemporary Chinese and Neo-Taoism to the West. Hsuan means dark, profound, metaphysics. This term originated in the first chapter of Lao-tze's The Book of Tao, "They may both be called the Cosmic Mystery Reaching from the Mystery into the deeper Mystery Is the Gate to the secret of all Life".[12]

The Neo-Taoists took delight in contemplating mystery behind all mysteries-the ultimate behind the phenomena; world. They speculated that there must be some absolute Principle at the origin of all phenomena, and some ultimate reality that brings forth universal harmony. The idea of Wu or Non-being is the basis of all things. "Though Heaven and Earth in their greatness are richly endowed with the myriad things, though their thunder moves and their winds circulate, through their revolving operations the myriad transformations came to be - yet it is the Silent and Supreme non-being that is their origin."[13]

The Chinese literary society during the 4th century A.D was greatly dominated by Neo-Taoism, at the same time the Praj~naa School was gaining supremacy among the Buddhist Circle. Both the Schools were influenced by similar philosophy. According to the Buddhist all things by nature are empty  and the Neo-Taoist held that everything had their origin in non-being (Wu wei). Liu-chin (A.D. 438-495) made this statement, "from the K'un-lun Mountain eastward the term 'Great Oneness' is used and from Kashmir westward the word Sambodhi Cheng chueh (Buddhist expression) is used. In the Record of the Later Han Dynasty Fan-yeh (A.D 398-445) says about Buddhism, "If we examine closely, its teaching about purifying the mind and gaining release from the ties of life and its casting aside both 'emptiness' and 'being' we see that it belongs to the same current as do the Taoist writings"" So we feel that the Buddhist and Taoist scholars belonged to the same intellectual trend. An Interesting incident 1 am quoting from the biography of Hui-yuan [15] (A. D. 334-416). One day while the monk Hui-yuan was discussing in the assembly, the audience who gathered there became restless, confused and bewildered about the exposition of the Buddhist theory of reality. The monk immediately quoted the idea of reality of Lao-tze and Chuang-tze and then only the audience became satisfied and pacified.

Many scholars used Lao-tze's and Chuang-tze's ideas and thoughts to expound Buddhist ideas. Such use of Taoist terminology to explain Buddhist concept was known as Ke-yi[16] method of analogy. This method was a specialised system of teaching Buddhism to the literary and gentry class who were well versed in Confucious and Taoist classics. In the beginning of the 4th Century A.D Tao-an (A.D 312-385) who came from an eminent Confucian family evolved this system. This method of Ke-yi was employed for those who were well-equipped with the doctrinal terminologies of Taoism and Confucianism but were ignorant of Buddhist terminology. But Tao-an himself had to give up Ke-yi when he found this method of instruction useless. Later on, Flui-yu, the disciple of Kumaarajiiva condemned this system. Tao-an in the early stage always taught Buddhism with the help of "Three Mysteries" Lao-tze, Chuang-tze and I-Ching (The Book of Change).

So we find that the Buddhist ideas and concepts were equated with Chinese ideas and thoughts. Thus the five important cardinal virtues of Confucianism Wu-ch'ang were equated with the five Buddhist Siilas and the four Buddhist Mahaabhuutas with the Chinese five Elements Wu-hsing.

During the period of disunity lasting from the disintegration of the Han in 220 A.D till the Sui (A.D 590-617) and the T'ang (A.D 618-907), Taoism became increasingly important. The Buddhist antithesis of Bhuuta-tathataa or Absolute Chen-ju and the temporal, permanent and change, Nirvaana and cycle of life and death found their equivalents in the Taoist ideas of non-being and being. Wu and yu, the Mahaayanist concept of Praj~naa (Chih-hui), the void Suunyataa (K'ung) Stillness ('Saanti, Chi), expediency (Upaaya, Feng-shih), amalgamated with their counterparts in Hsuan-hsueh of Saintiliness (Sang), Emptiness (hsu)[17], Non-being (Wu-wei), etc.

In course of discussion between Tathaagata and Subhuuti in the Vajracchedika Praj~naa Paaramitaa Suutra[18], Subhuuti concluded saying, Yi-ch'ieh hsien-Shang Chieh-yi wu-wei fu-erh yu-Cha'pie. The sages and wise men all adopted diffusive doctrine that admits of no particular distinction (Wu-wei) has been interpreted in many ways. It means non-activity, passive, spontaneous, transcendal, non-phenomenal nominal interpreted as Nirvaa.na, etc.[19] "The famous Taoist doctrine of Wu-wei is no less than the practical application of this philosophy of the infinite to our daily life."[20]

Among hundred of Suutras translated into Chinese a sizeable number comprises Dhaara.ni. These texts show that these are the works of transcription rather than that of translation. The transcription of Dhaara.ni does not confront with major obstacles. It does neither require thorough knowledge of intricacies of Sanskrit grammar, nor it requires knowledge of literary Sanskrit. For transcribing Dhaara.nii, a knowledge of Indian script was sufficient.

The Indian script in a variety of Braahmii called Siddham [21] became very popular and played an important part in Chinese Buddhism ever since it was introduced in China and Japan in the 8th century with spread of Mantrayaana, the esoteric school of true word, Siddham script was specially employed to transcribe Dhaara.niis, Mantras and Viijaakã aras or germ letters. An attempt was made in early period to transcribe the Indian formulae phonetically syllable by syllable with corresponding Chinese sound but before long it proved to be inefficacious. With the advent of the 8th century the transcrivers mostly used Siddham letters. The prolific translator Hsuan - chuang made certain reforms in the method of translation. The terms regarding esoterism like Dhaara.niis or Ma.n¯ alas were left untranslated by him.

Long before the spread of Buddhism the Chinese were familiar with Taoist spells, magic charms and sorcery. Therefore, they became very much interested in Buddhist Mantras and Dhaara.niis. The first foreign monk who arrived at Ch'ang-an in 625 A. D. with the text of thousand of Dhaara.nis and Saadhana, was a native of Central India. These texts were translated under the name of T'o-lo ni-chi-ching Dhaara.nii Sa"ngraha. The original is lost, the translations exist.

The following centuries saw a galaxy of Tantric adepts who brought many more Mantrayaanic texts. Among the foreign monks special mention may be made of Subhakara Si"mha, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, all from India. Subhakara Si"mha translated Mahaavairocana, the basic text of Tantrayaana.

Under the imperial patronage, by the pious devotion of selfless painstaking and persevering monks, by their loyal supporters and by private contribution the translation work continued unceasingly, unabated throughout the long period of Buddhism in China. The latest Japanese editions of the Catalogue of Chinese Tripi.taka contains 85 volumes and 3053 items. It is a rare wonder in the history of human civilisation, so far its amount and perfection are concerned. It is matchless and cannot be compared with the translation work carried on by the team of modern world. Indian philosophical ideas and thoughts, political and social systems were opened to the Chinese which had lasting cultural impact on Chinese mind.

Living in the highly advanced scientific world we really wonder how could it be possible to produce such bulk of Buddhist Canon in, Chinese by simple human endeavour.


1. Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese Histonary.
2. Sir Charles Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism.
3. The Catalogue of Chinese Tripi.taka, Taisho Edition, Vols. 18. 50.
4. James Legge, The Tao.
5. Fung-yu-1an, The History of Chinese Philosophy (Translation from Chinese to English).
6. Fung-yu-1an, Chung-kuo-che-hsueh-shih (in Chinese).
7. Lin -yu-tang, Wisdom of China and India.
8. K.K.S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China.
9. R.H. Van Gullik, Siddham.
10. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China.
11. Soothhill, Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms.


1. Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History, pp. 33-34.
2. J. Takakusu-A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practised in India And Malaya Archipelago. P. lx. Ixi.
3. Sir Charles Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, Vol. Ill, p. 300.
4. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, p. 40.
5. J. Takakusu, A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practised in India And Malaya Archipelago, pp. 170, 171.
6. Ibid, pp. lx, Ixi. T. Watters, On Yuang Chwang's Travels in India, Vol. 11, pp. 152-56.
7. Dr. L. Wieger, Chinese Characters, Ed. Henri Vetch, Peking, pp. 17, 18.
8. Vide Preface to K'ang-hsi Dictionary.
9. Taisho Ed. Tripi.taka, Vol. 50, No. 2059, p. 351.
10. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, p. 203.-- Kenneth K.S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China, pp. 369, 370.
11. Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History, pp. 32, 33.
12. Lin-yu-tang, The Wisdom of China and India, p. 583 (Modern Library, New York).
13. Fung-yu-1an, The History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, 1953) Vol. 2, p. 2181.
14. Ibid, p. 2240.
15. C. Tripi.taka, Taisho Ed. Vol. 50 Kao-Seng-chuan 6, p. 357.
16.Ibid, No. 2059, p. 355 E. Zurcher, Buddhist Conquest of China, pp. 12, 184, 187, App. IV 18.
17. Fung Yu-1an, The History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 11 -- E. Zurcher, Buddhist Conquest of China, pp. 73-74.
18. Chinese Tripi.taka, Vol. 8, No. 235, P. 749, 2nd folio 1.17.
19. Soothhill, Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, p. 380.
20. D.T. Suzuki, The Tao, James Legge, Introduction, p. 22.
21. H.R. Van Gullik, Siddham (Saraswati Vihar Series) Ed. bv Raghuvira. .

Source: Transcribed by Venerable Sister Lien-Hoa, Buddhism Today, http://www.buddhismtoday.com

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