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About us Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Organization Staff PhD Research Comparative Study of Religion

Giacomo Baggio

The Commentary on the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa by Sengzhao 僧肇 et alii : a Mirror on Medieval Chinese Buddhism

Zhu Weimojie jing 注維摩詰經 [T 1775] is a commentary based on Kumārajīva’s translation of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (completed in AD 406). Even though this work is ascribed to Sengzhao 僧肇 , it is in fact an assembly of three different commentaries written respectively by Sengzhao, Daosheng 道生 ( Kumārajīva’s disciples and translation assistants ) and Kumārajīva himself. Their notes preserved very important information on a number of primary issues related to the evolution of Chinese Buddhism during the Medieval times, such as discussions on doctrinal matters, evolution of the exegetical approach, translation techniques etc..

Vimalakīrti debates with Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (scene from the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty)
Vimalakīrti debates with Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (scene from the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty)

The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa had played a key role in the development of Chinese Buddhism since the Medieval times. This text contributed enormously in shaping the so called “gentry Buddhism”, i.e., a completely sinicized Buddhist doctrine developed through the dialogue and exchange between Buddhist monks and Chinese educated upper class which started between 290 and 320. While wars and disorders were spreading in the North of the country, the literati who took refuge in the South-Eastern regions and lived secluded, away from official positions, immediately identified themselves with the figure of Vimalakīrti, a lay householder who had developed an extraordinary insight into the Buddhist doctrines and a superior wisdom. The perfect coincidence between ordinary life and spiritual accomplishment, between worldly matters and religious attainment expounded in this sūtra perfectly suited Medieval Chinese educated upper classes, thus favoring the acceptance of the newly imported religion and the further discussion of its main concepts and ideas.

Among the three surviving Chinese translations of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, the one attributed to Kumārajīva has been undoubtedly the most widespread and influential not only in China, but also all over East Asia. A detailed commentary based on this version of the text [T 1775] which contains information of primary importance for the study of Medieval Chinese Buddhism is still preserved. My research develops from a study of this text under a threefold perspective.

1. Authorship and textual history

Before being assembled into T 1775, supposedly during or immediately after Tang dynasty, the three commentaries on the text by Sengzhao, Daosheng and Kumārajīva circulated independently for some time (the catalogue Zhongjing mulu 眾經目錄 by Fajing 法經 , Sui dynasty, still lists them separately). Thus, as a preliminary work, I will investigate the reasons why they have been put together and the logic behind their rearrangement into one text.

2. Philosophical and exegetical issues

Up to the beginning of the 5th century, Buddhist tenets were generally understood and explained by the Chinese on the basis of the Mysterious Learning, also known as “Dark Learning”, Xuanxue 玄學 , which was the most widespread and influential philosophy among the educated social élite s of the time. The sublime “mystery” (xuan ) that resides beyond words and images mentioned by Laozi and the unfathomable “emptiness” described in the Buddhist sūtras appeared to coincide: it was then possible to explain many obscure and often abstruse conceptions of the Prajñāpāramitā texts using the rich philosophical lexicon developed by Dark Learning like ben (root, unity)/mo (branches, plurality), ti (substance)/yong (application) etc.

Kumārajīva’s arrival in Chang’an (AD 402), ushered in a new phase of Buddhist exegesis. Through the t ranslation of many important works of the Mādhyamika scholastic and exegetical literature, Kumārajīva provided the Chinese - and in primis his Chinese disciples and assistants - with a new, much more precise and far more orthodox explanation of Buddhist “emptiness” and related philosophical concepts.

The Vimalakīrti Commentary, which not only includes the transcript of the discussions held during the translation process between master and disciples but also the further development of some ideas by the disciples themselves, will serve as a source for the analysis of this momentous shift in Buddhist exegesis, the passage from a Buddho-Xuanxue “concept-matching” to a more orthodox understanding based on the Mādhyamika scholastic literature.

3. Buddhist translation activity: techniques and social significance

The translation of Buddhist scriptures was a complex process that included a number of crucial aspects: an economic one (the translation needed to be sponsored), a religious one (the translation was itself a sacred activity) and an exegetical and philosophical one (each word was analyzed and discussed through a dialogue between the depositary of the text and the monks assisting him in the translation). All these aspects would eventually have an influence on the quality of the final result; as Robinson reminds us, “the quality of the translation was doubtless strongly conditioned by the organization of the workshop and the social circumstances in which the work was done.” (Early Madhyamika in India and China, 1967, p. 81) Even though some aspects of this fundamental Buddhist activity have already been studied (a very good description of the Buddhist translation procedures is provided for example in Zacchetti, Stefano 1996, «Il Chu Sanzang Ji Ji di Seng You come Fonte per lo Studio delle Traduzioni Buddhiste Cinesi: lo Sviluppo della Tecnica di Traduzione dal II al V Secolo d.C.», in Annali Di Ca’ Foscari, anno XXXV, 3 (Serie Orientale 27), pp. 347-374 and Jan Nattier 2008, A Guide the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations, Soka University, Tokyo), a lot more remains to be said, and I believe that Sengzhao’s Commentary will prove to be of great help in this respect. This is in fact one of the very few texts recording the views of the translator as well as those of the participants in a translation process along with precious details on the translation activity itself and its techniques.

Vimalakīrtinirdeśa aside, I am particularly interested in the research on Chinese language (classical, medieval and modern), Chinese philosophy (particularly the pre-Qin philosophical traditions and Medieval Dark-Learning), and the interaction and exchange between Chinese traditional thought and Buddhism.

Contact Giacomo Baggio

Last modified:20 November 2019 7.28 p.m.