A new English translation of the Dīrgha-āgama (Taishō 1)

A cursory look at the translations by Ichimura Shohei (2015, 2016 and 2018) of the Chinese Dīrgha-āgama (長阿含經, Taishō 1), published by the Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai America under the title The Canonical Book of the Buddha’s Lengthy Discourses, Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, brought to light an unfortunate tendency of the translator to add text that is without support in the original.

Since such additions are not marked in any way (such as with square brackets, which are used a few times elsewhere in the translation), the reader is unable to recognize what portions of the text are not found in the Chinese original. Such a non-transparent practice in turn makes the translation unreliable. At times such additions also betray a lack of familiarity of the translator with early Buddhist thought and with current academic knowledge of the Chinese Āgamas, which is evident already in the translator’s introduction to the translation.

Many of the problems that arise in this way could have been avoided if the translator had consulted the renowned Japanese translation of the Dīrgha-āgama by Karashima Seishi et al., published in Tokyo by the Hirakawa Shuppansha 平河出版社 in 1996–2005 under the title 現代語訳「阿含経典」.

Below are a few examples of problematic translations, based on a checking of some selected passages and listed in the order of their occurrence in the Taishō edition.

  • T I 26b26: 入滅想定, “[the Buddha] entered concentration on the cessation of perception”

Ichimura (2015: 151) translates this as “he then entered the final state of cessation, transcendent from senses and ideation, equivalent to third saintly state of an anāgāmin”. Besides the problem that most of this passage has no basis in the Chinese original, the rendering is also wrong, since the Buddha entered cessation as a fully awakened one, not as a non-returner (a term that neither explicitly nor implicitly features anywhere in this passage).

  • T I 42b5: 離生喜樂, “joy and happiness arisen from seclusion”

Ichimura (2015: 242) translates this phrase as “while the sense of joy and bliss increase through removal of the cause of rebirth (i.e., reaching the supramundane sphere)”.

The passage is a description of the first absorption, which has no relation to reaching a supramundane condition or to removing the cause of rebirth. The idea of a removal of the cause of rebirth is not found at all in the Chinese original. The translation is highly misleading, since it conveys the impression that attainment of the first absorption equals full awakening. Such an idea is not found anywhere in the whole of the Dīrgha-āgama.

  • T I 43a7: 汝雖云有他世, 有更生及善惡報, 如我意者, 皆悉無有, “although you say there is another world, there is rebirth, and there is a result of good and evil, according to my understanding all these do not exist”

Ichimura (2015: 247) translates this passage as “although you assert that there is another world, rebirth, and reward and retribution of good and bad, my reply to your previous question, that the sun and moon belong to the other world, leads to my theory that these three (i.e., afterlife, rebirth, and reward or retribution for good and bad) are impossible”.

The part “my reply to your previous question, that the sun and moon belong to the other world” has no basis in the Chinese original. In the present case this is not as problematic as in the previous instances, since it does not result in a major misrepresentation. Nevertheless it would have been preferable if the addition had been signaled in some way.

  • T I 43a10: 有緣, “there is a reason”

Ichimura (2015: 247) translates these two characters as “I have some reason for ascertaining my theory”, where the “for ascertaining my theory” is without support in the Chinese original. Here, too, it would have been better if the additional part (which is not really required to understand the passage) could have been marked in some way.

  • T I 57c5: 漏觸, “contact by the influxes”

Ichimura (2016: 3) translates this as “contact of the [sense] faculties with their respective objects under the influence of defilement”. Except for the word “contact” and “defilement” (presumably a translation of āsava/漏), the remainder has no basis in the original.

  • T I 57c6: 無礙心解脫, “the unimpeded liberation of the mind”

This has been translated by Ichimura (2016: 4) as the “deliverance of the mind that is unshakeable or undisturbed toward the realm that is beyond the influence of defilements”. The part “undisturbed toward the realm that is beyond the influence of defilements” has no basis in the Chinese and could better have been marked as an addition by the translator.

  • T I 57c9: 名與色, “name-and-form”

Ichimura (2016: 4) translates this compound as “the (noetic) category of name, i.e. the four mental skandhas, and the (corporeal) category of form, i.e., the one material skandha”. Besides adding material not found in the original, this is also not correct, since name as part of name-and-form in early Buddhist thought does not yet correspond to the four mental aggregates, which is rather an idea found in later exegesis (and in Sarvāstivāda/Mūlasarvāstivāda Āgama texts). For a proper appreciation of this quite important doctrinal development, the fact that the present passage does not in any way equate name with the four mental aggregates is of considerable importance, making the unmarked addition by the translator rather misleading.

  • T I 57c9 : 無明 and T I 57c10: 明, “ignorance” and “knowledge”

Ichimura (2016: 4) translates these two terms as “ignorance of the Four Noble Truths” and “acquisition of insight on (sic) the Four Noble Truths”. No reference to the four noble truths is found in the original and, in spite of the undeniable importance of this doctrine in early Buddhist thought, it would be important for the reader to know that the passage speaks of ignorance and knowledge on their own, rather than relating these to the four noble truths.

  • T I 57c24: 觸食, “the nutriment of contact”

Ichimura (2016: 5) translates this reference as “nutrition ingested by contact through touch”. This involves a misunderstanding, as contact is reckoned a nutriment in the sense of providing the raw data for sense experience, not some form of actual nutrition.

  • T I 57c25: 戒受, “clinging to precepts”

Ichimura (2016: 5f) translates this expression as “attachment to the vow of precepts belonging to other schools”. Besides adding material not found in the original, this is also misleading, as such clinging can take place in relation to the rules of one’s own tradition. The original text does not in any way, explicitly or implicitly, suggest that this type of clinging is not relevant to Buddhist practitioners.

  • T I 58a13: 慈及修梵行, “benevolence, extended to those who cultivate the holy life”

The translation by Ichimura (2016: 7) as “benevolently, pays respect toward those who uphold the practice of austerity”, adds an unwarranted notion of paying of respect and does not recognize that 梵行 renders brahmacārin/brahmacaryā

  • T I 58a15: 意慈, “think with benevolence”

Ichimura (2016: 7) translates this phrase as “through adherence to benevolent and friendly thought, a bhikṣu may obtain material support on the basis of the doctrinal teaching”. The idea of engaging in thoughts of mettā in order to obtain material support is misleading and without any basis in the original.

  • T I 58a18: 智者所稱,善具足持戒, “being well endowed with the upholding of the precepts, praised by the wise”

Ichimura (2016: 7) translates this passage as “equips himself well with the foregoing principles that the learned elders praise and realizes the state of mental concentration”. The idea of realizing a state of mental concentration has no basis in the original.

  • T I 58a23: 六愛, “six cravings”

This has been translated by Ichimura (2016: 8) as “the six kinds of craving desire that are directed to external bases of cognition respectively”, most of which is unsupported by the Chinese text. The rendering is also wrong, since one of the six cravings is in relation to mental objects (T 58a23: 法愛), which is clearly not related to  “external bases of cognition”.

  • T I 59c26: 念覺意, “the awakening factor of mindfulness”

This has been translated by Ichimura (2016: 19f) as “first, a bhikṣu practices the discipline of mindfulness on the basis of nondesire and quiescence, distancing [himself from worldly matters]”. Besides failing to recognize that this passage refers to an awakening factor, most of the translation has no basis in the original. The present example is of further interest in as much as it shows that at times the translator does use square brackets. Yet, proper usage would have required that most of the passage is placed into square brackets, not just the part “himself from worldly matters”.

  • T I 60a2: 世正見, 正志, 正語, 正業, 正命, 正方便, 正念, 正定, “worldly right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration”

Ichimura (2016: 20) translates this sentence as: “They are the eight criteria of the secular world: gain and loss; infamy and fame; praise and blame; and suffering and happiness”. The translation has no relation whatsoever to the original.

The above few examples should suffice to show that the translation produced by Ichimura is unreliable.

Due to these shortcomings, the Āgama Research Group has decided to undertake a new translation of discourses 1 to 29 of the Chinese Dīrgha-āgama, in order to ensure that readers unable to consult the Chinese text or the Japanese translation will have access to a rendering of this important Āgama that is more faithful to the original text.

In past years the Āgama Research Group has edited and digitised the unpublished index to the Japanese translation of the Dīrgha-āgama, which contains important text-critical and lexicographical material.

Further, it has contributed a partial digital edition of Karashima Seishi’s study of the underlying language of the Chinese translation of the Dīrgha-āgama (Taishō 1), 長阿含経」の原語の研究—音写語分析を中心として, Tokyo: Hirakawa Shuppansha 平河出版社, 1994.

Both projects have benefitted from the supervision of Karashima Seishi, who has kindly agreed to offer his supervision also for the present translation project.

In addition to these projects related to essential Japanese scholarship on the Dīrgha-āgama, the Āgama Research Group has held an international research seminar on the Dīrgha-āgama, whose proceedings have been edited by Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā (Research on the Dīrgha-āgama, Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation, 2014), and a volume of collected studies on the Dīrgha-āgama by Bhikkhu Anālayo has also been published (Dīrgha-āgama Studies, Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation, 2017).

It is thus the Āgama Research Group’s hope that the knowledge of this āgama its members were able to gain over the years and the continued collaboration with Karashima Seishi should well equip them for the production of a more philologically and doctrinally accurate translation to be published within a reasonable time frame.

update 25.10.2019: with the unexpected passing of Prof. Karashima on July 23rd, 2019, this project has been put on hold for the foreseeable future.

update 05.06.2021: Bhikkhu Anālayo’s review of Ichimura’s translation (download)