Solving a Translation Mystery in the Amitabha Sutra

I like a good mystery, especially a nerdy Buddhist one.

One of my favorite sutras in the Buddhist canon is the Amitabha Sutra, sometimes called the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra or even just the Smaller Sutra.  It is a short sutra, frequently used in chanting, that describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, extols the virtues of being reborn there, and so on.

But there’s one little verse I often find puzzling.  For example, here’s a translation from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Finding Our True Home:

When it is time for the midday meal everyone returns to Sukhavati [the Pure Land] and after eating does walking meditation. (pg. 14)

While a translation done by the venerable Bukkyo Dendo Kyoukai translates this same sentence like so:

Then they return to the Pure Land for the morning meal.  After the meal they enjoy a stroll.

I found it really strange that one translation implies a more meditative/Zen activity, while the other implies a more mundane, non-meditative activity.  For some reason this has really bothered me because I feel it changes the image of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in important though subtle ways.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk of the Vietnamese “Thiên” tradition (Zen), while the BDK translation was done by Rev. Zuio Inagaki, a respected Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) minister and translator.

Worse, the actual text in the original Chinese is just four characters:

飯食経行

The first two characters, 飯食, obviously mean “to eat a meal”, which is pretty unambiguous.  But the second two characters, 経行, are less clear.  In modern Japanese these are pronounced as kinhin, a term that refers to the Zen practice of “walking meditation“.  But in the sutra it’s not pronounced as kinhin.  In Sino-Japanese it’s pronounced as kyōgyō instead.  Sutras are usually preserved in the original Chinese such that they diverge from modern Japanese, and the difference in pronunciation implies that the term may have changed over time.

When I looked at other translations, such as those on Chinese-Buddhist sites, they overwhelmingly translated 経行 as “walking meditation” (or something similar).  Given that modern-Chinese scholars have better access and understanding of ancient Chinese-Buddhist terminology, I am inclined to think that Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation is probably more correct.  However, that leaves one question: why would the BDK/Jodo-Shinshu translation be so divergently different?

In the end, I wonder if there’s sectarian bias in each of the translations.  Jodo Shinshu is a Pure Land-Buddhist school that eschews other practices, while mainland Chinese/Vietnamese Buddhism is fundamentally meditation-based Buddhism that subsumes other practices such as Pure Land Buddhism.

I still want to research this more to find out more what the original Chinese actually meant.  Plus, I may also try to consult Sanskrit sources as well.  There are a few examples of a Sanskrit version such as this one.

So hopefully I’ll have an update on this someday.  It’s bothered me long enough that I will probably post some kind of update in the future.  😉

 

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Solving a Translation Mystery in the Amitabha Sutra”

  1. The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (DDB) supports both meanings:

    “To quietly and slowly walk around a certain area, especially to take a break after eating, hard work or sitting meditation, to clear up drowsiness. Customarily done in between long periods of meditation.”

    and

    “To walk about when meditating to prevent sleepiness; also as exercise to keep in health; the caṅkramana was a place for such exercise, e.g. a cloister, a corridor (Skt. caṅkramana, caṅkrama, caṅkramati; anucaṅkramati, caṅkramita, caṅkramya-yukta, bhrama, Pāli caṅkamana).”

    Like

    1. Hello Tatsuo and welcome! I am so sorry for not replying sooner. I truly do appreciate your comment on this. I had utterly forgotten the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, and thus forgot to look it up there.

      Since both meanings are valid, I can’t help but wonder which one the author of the sutra intended. I guess we’ll never really know for sure. 🙂

      Like

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