Friday, December 25, 2015


The Reflections of a Great Person
Pali: mahā-purisa-vitakkā
Sanskrit: mahā-puruṣa-vitarkāḥ
Chinese: 八大人覚 
- the eight reflections of a great person - 

1 Vitakka [vi+takka] reflection, thought, thinking.
2 Mahā-puruṣa: m. a great or eminent man ; name of Gautama Buddha. Vitarka: conjecture, opinion; reasoning, deliberation, consideration.
3 Hachi-dainin-gaku is the Japanese pronuncation of the Chinese characters. 


I have been on a solitary retreat for the past couple of weeks, studying and translating mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā -- going back to the middle of Nāgārjuna, I would like to think. One of the key words in MMK is niṣprapañca, which means something like "not philosophizing" or (in the translation of The Middle Way by the Dalai Lama) "no conceptual elaboration." Niṣprapañca is the 8th of the eight reflections under consideration now. 

Today being my 56th birthday, I thought I would take a break from MMK -- which has, if not philosophizing, a lot of difficult philosophy -- and return to the more familiar territory of the eight reflections. 

The eight reflections of a great person form the final chapter in the 95-chapter edition of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo and Zen tradition has it that they were the final teaching of the Buddha on the night before he died.

For these reasons, and also because of its many meaningful metaphors, the chapter was one that seemed particularly to draw me to it. There is an audio recording of Master Kodo Sawaki giving a lecture on the chapter, which I bought while I was in Japan and enjoyed listening to, even though I couldn't understand much of Master Kodo's commentary. I might be able to make a digital recording from the cassette tape and make it available as a podcast if anybody is interested?

One of the merits of a metaphor is that it can facilitate the transmission of real meaning in such a way that less is liable to be lost in translation. In any event, in around 2007-8, I found myself turning again and again, especially in the middle of sleepless nights, to the eight reflections. I felt like my job at that time was somehow to find clearer water further upstream. And there was no clearer water to be found, I intuited, than in the eight reflections. 

So when I obtained EH Johnston's English translation of Buddhacarita in the autumn of 2008, I scanned through the closing cantos to see if the eight reflections were recorded, and sure enough there they were in the next-to-penultimate canto, BC Canto 26. I copied out EHJ's translation and put it on my website, noting at the time:
The following is EH Johnston's translation from the Tibetan of the Buddha's final teaching, as recorded by Aśvaghoṣa. The correspondence is striking with the wording and metaphors found in the text recorded by Master Dogen in Shobogenzo Chapter 95, HACHI-DAININ-GAKU. 
I would very much like to have been able to study Aśvaghoṣa's rendering of the eight reflections in his original Sanskrit. Since that has not been possible, settling for the present on second best, I have been making a record of four other sources, and so today I have decided to publish what I have got so far. 

1. The Tibetan translation of Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit, together with EH Johnston's English translation (revised by me in places) which I think was to some degree based on Freidrich Weller's translation from Tibetan into German.

2. The Chinese translation of Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit, together with Charles Willeman's English translation from the Chinese. (I think I revised this in just a couple of places; I was intending to revise more thoroughly, before MMK took over.)
The Chinese translation is accessible online here
Charles Willemen's English translation can be found here.

3. The Anuruddha Sutta in Pali, from
Aṅguttara-Nikāya 30 (The Book of the Eights). An English translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu can be found here.

4. The Yuikyo-gyo (Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra) in Chinese, which Dogen quoted verbatim in Shobogenzo Chap. 95, together with the Nishijima-Cross English translation published by Windbell in 1999.

Some of the metaphors and other notable elements which are common to the Tibetan and Chinese translations of BC Canto 26, and the Bequeathed Teachings Sūtra, are as follows: 

Small desire
  • is liberation's path / nirvāṇa itself 
Knowing satisfaction 
  • when sleeping/lying happily on the ground
  • contrasted with a flock of birds on a roosting tree
  • contrasted with an old elephant stuck in the  mud
  • like a constant trickle of water drilling through rock 
  • like resolutely twirling the fire-stick to get fire
  • like wearing armour on a battlefield
Meditative stillness 
  • like maintaining a dike/embankment so that water does not go to waste
  • a boat/ship to cross the ocean of aging, sickness and death
  • a lamp/torch to dispell the darknes of ignorance 
  • a medicine for all ills 
  • an axe to fell the trees of afflictive emotions 
Not philosophizing
  •  philosophizing prevents even those who have left home from finding freedom. 
[But see comment below]

1 comment:

Mike Cross said...

Six months further on, I think I see more clearly that the meaning of nisprapanca that Nagarjuna had in mind was "not making things up."

So the point is that even those who have left home, if they do not understand (not only in the abstract but also in the practice of sitting-meditation) the Buddha's teaching of dependent arising, then they are prevented from finding freedom. Because it is the teaching of dependent arising which liberates us from the convenient fiction of seeing things which are empty as if they had their own independent existence as things unto themselves.

Wikipedia explains "hypostatization" as follows:

Reification (also known as concretism, hypostatization, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity.

Thus professors of philosophy have translated prapanca as "hypostatization." But I would like to avoid that term at all costs in my translations, because it is a techical term in philosophy and therefore seems to me to have totally the wrong register.