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Buddhist Diamond Sutra

Finding New Meaning in One of the World’s Oldest Books

Since at least the fifth century, generations of Buddhists have memorized and chanted the Diamond Sutra, a short Mahayana Buddhist scripture. The work, which offers meditations on illusion and perception, was originally written in Sanskrit and first translated into Chinese in 402 A.D.

Despite the text’s longevity, Stanford religious studies professor Paul Harrison’s latest research suggests that previous translations may have incorrectly interpreted certain words in a way that affects the entire meaning of the text. For the last seven years Prof. Harrison has been working on re-editing and re-translating the Diamond Sutra.

Though he is a professor of religious studies his translation work falls squarely in the field of philology. Harrison is often surrounded by a large semicircle of previous translations and dictionaries that he consults as he combs through the sutra one word at a time. The Diamond Sutra is one of the most historically important texts in the Buddhist faith, in part because a copy of it is the oldest surviving dated printed book in the world (868 A.D.).

Also known by its Sanskrit title Vajracchedika, the Diamond Sutra posits that something is what it is only because of what it is not. The text challenges the common belief that inside each and every one of us is an immovable core, or soul—in favor of a more fluid and relational view of existence. Negative, or seemingly paradoxical statements by the Buddha abound in the text, such as “The very Perfection of Insight which the Buddha has preached is itself perfection-less.”

Professor Harrison elaborated, “I think the Diamond Sutra is undermining our perception that there are essential properties in the objects of our experience. “For example, people assume that they have “selves.” If that is the case then change would be impossible or it would be illusory.” said Harrison. “You would indeed be the same person that you were yesterday. This would be a horrifying thing. If souls or “selves” did not change, then you would be stuck in the same place and be as you were when you were, say, two [years old], which if you think about it, is ridiculous.”

Questioning Meaning and Identity

Harrison’s familiarity with previous translations has not stopped him from making his own amendments to the text. His mission is to correct, in his view, a flaw that has been propagated in the many translations of the Diamond Sutra, something that he only became aware of by spending so much time with the text and struggling with the puzzle its logic presents. Most existing translations feature negative statements saying things like “a bookcase is not a bookcase, therefore it’s called a bookcase,” to use an example from our own experience.

According to Harrison though, this simple negation does not pay enough attention to the original Sanskrit. As he explains, it ignores another possible interpretation of two-term compounds (words such as bookcase or lighthouse which are comprised of two distinct words) in favor of a more convenient—but possibly incorrect—reading. “The standard reading often ignores the fact that there are two terms in each compound which the text takes up, and that only the second term is negated, and it construes the negation as one of identity rather than of possession,” said Harrison, who has been teaching at Stanford’s Religious Studies department since 2007.

“You’re left with a kind of negation which says AB is not AB—or not B, if the translator is being more careful—therefore it is AB.” “It seems to come out as a simple denial of identity, which to my mind doesn’t make good sense, and therefore people are left thinking that the Diamond Sutra is engaging in a mystical subversion of ordinary language. But in my view, that doesn’t make sense.” 

Beyond Mysticism

Harrison believes that the Vajracchedika is more than just a mysterious and opaque text; it follows the rules of sense and logic, and this is part of what he is hoping to reestablish in his translations of the text. What makes more sense to Harrison is that a bookcase has no case—a case is not essential to a bookcase’s identity—and that is precisely why a bookcase is able to be what it is. To him, the distinction between “is not,” (what nearly all past translations have opted for) and “lacks”—what his translation says—makes all the difference.

In his terms, one could say that AB lacks B, therefore it is AB. Harrison thinks that this linguistic interpretation helps express the meaning of the Diamond Sutra in a more nuanced and sensible way. “There’s no ‘case’ apart from its substantiation in various forms,” Harrison further explained. “Like a suitcase or a briefcase, for example. The objects of our experiences are actually fluid and relationally constructed--when you look around here there’s no essence of cases. If you took the book part away, you wouldn’t be left with a case.”

Scholars Work to Improve Buddhist Manuscript Research

Translating the Diamond Sutra is just one of Harrison’s projects and responsibilities these days. Aside from his on-campus teaching responsibilities, Harrison serves as an editor for the series Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, and as co-director of the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford.

In June, the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford hosted the "Indic Buddhist Manuscripts: The State of the Field" conference, which Harrison organized. Participants discussed the latest trends and technologies relating to deciphering, identifying and editing Buddhist manuscripts.

Harrison attended another recent conference on Buddhist translations in Los Angeles, which brought together over 30 translators and editors of Buddhist texts from around the world. A focus of discussion was the unique challenge that scholars face when translating a language like Sanskrit into English. This type of work is a quite different from, and more difficult than doing the same with modern languages like French or German.
“It’s not regarded by some people as really academic work,” Harrison said. “They think that translating a Buddhist text is something like translating a French novel into English. But this is an entirely different kind of thing, because it involves so many more mental operations.”

Harrison sees himself as someone who has a chance to help improve the current state of Buddhist translations, with which he has a few bones to pick.

The first is stylistic: “This is a general problem with translations of sacred Buddhist texts. A kind of dialect has developed that we call Buddhist Hybrid English. We’re so used to the style that it’s very hard for people who do Buddhist  translations to break away from it.”

The second deals with uncovering the meaning of texts more accurately: “The challenge is to actually reverse some of the existing misunderstandings of texts. Some of them result from simple mis-readings of the Sanskrit, but then there’s the more difficult question of the philosophical import of the text.”

Changing Ideas

Harrison hopes that his work on the Diamond Sutra, which is set for publication in 2010, will avoid some of the problems often found in the translation of Buddhist texts. From the reviews he has gotten from Buddhist philosophers who have seen preliminary versions of his translation, it looks like he may be on to something.

“I’m happy to say that so far they have reacted very positively to this new way of approaching the Diamond Sutra, which rescues it from negative mysticism and tries to think more about the doctrinal program that underlies the text,” Harrison said.
“They tell me that this way of translating it makes more sense, so I’m encouraged by that. I’m going to continue with this way of reading it.”