- Interpretation of Buddhist terminology
- at the background of Chinese traditional
- Latika Lahiri
After the introduction of Buddhism in China in A.D 65-67, the most
stupendous task was lying before a highly religious community with a team of translators
from Parthia, Indo-Seythia, India and Central Asia to render the Sanskrit Buddhist texts
into Chinese. This difficult task spread over several centuries after the inception of
Buddhism. With Buddhism we reach a world of ideas very different from Chinese traditional
thoughts and ideas. Besides this, the Indian language through which the great treasure of
her religion would reveal, was completely different from Chinese. Sanskrit with its highly
developed and intricate system of grammar was different from Chinese that had no
systematic grammar. In the earliest period, the translators faced a serious problem to
give phonetic transcription of Indian proper names specially to render the abstract notion
and concrete ideas of the Buddhist expression by Chinese character which is pictographic
in form and ideographic in nature. The Chinese characters are monosyllabic in sound and
unificational in form. On the contrary, Sanskrit is alphabetic, polysyllabic and highly
infective. Arthur F. Wright says, "the Chinese had shown little disposition to
analyse the personality in its components, while India had a highly developed science of
psychological analysis. In concept of time and space, there were also striking
differences. The Chinese tended to think of both as finite and to reckon time in life
span, generation to political eras. The Indians, on the other hand, conceived of time and
space as infinite and tended to think of cosmic aeons rather than of limits of terrestrial
life". The social and political values of the two ancient civilisations also
differed. The society according to Confucius was an ordinance of heaven and based upon
five relations between ruler and subjects, father and son, husband and wife, elder and
younger brothers and friends. Confucian idea of filial piety was equated with worship of
heaven and he regarded that for the people, it would suffice as a religion. Buddhism, on
the other hand, professes the ideal of wandering ascetic who goes forth to homeless state
to eliminate the sorrows of birth and diseases, old age and death. With such alien
background, the task of finding out suitable comprehensive equivalents for highly
technical Buddhist terminology was a formidable one. The phonetic transcription was
undoubtedly a very difficult task to be performed with the help of ideographic Chinese
character which was less suited for that purpose. This would not have been that difficult
in any alphabetical writing system. Moreover, with the exception of a very few Chinese
monks of the team belonging to highly organised Church of Lo-yang and Ch'ang-an, others
had very little knowledge of Sanskrit and in the archaic period the Central Asian and
Indian monks had also scanty knowledge of literary Chinese.
In the earliest period, translation of Buddhist terminology and text
was very vague and confusing. Amid ever-growing confusion caused by various forms of
Buddhism introduced in China from outside, by importation of missionaries from various
countries belonging to multifarious schools and by translations of some of the Mahaayanist
and Hiinayaanist texts, the Chinese Buddhists were groping in darkness. Later on, they
successfully evolved a Chinese doctrinal system.
Throughout the history of translation of Buddhist texts into, Chinese,
the transcribes had followed certain rules and regulations.
They had used those characters which were not commonly used in written
Chinese, e.g. a, yi, ke, ge, lo, sa, fu, mi, etc. The words Maitreya and Bodhisattvas had
been rendered with such sounds as Mi-lo, Fu-sa. But we find a number of common signs as
shan, she shil, men were frequently used for Buddhist transcription. The Sanskrit word
'Srama.na had been rendered with such phonetical sound as she-men.
One Chinese syllable may be written in various ways as Chinese
characters are homophonous, e.g. shan (to write out), shan (good, benevolent), shan
(mountain). These syllables may stand for various foreign sounds. Generally, we see the
characters like p'o, (ke or ge) chia, (ke or ge) chia are used for transliteration. The
character (chia) stands for Sanskrit sound ke or ge. Thus Bhagavat had been rendered
p'o-ge-p'o. The first syllable p'o had been employed for Sanskrit sounds like va, pa, pha,
bha, vat. A Japanese book called Siddhako± a has
mentioned about a Record of I-ching which contains Chinese equivalent characters for
In early period, transcription of individual words and proper names
were not standarised. It went through many changes. The word Buddha had been rendered into
Chinese as Fo-t'u, Fo-t'ou. The original word Buddha was greatly distorted. Later on, the
character Fo was used for Buddha. It may be an abbreviation of Fo-t'ou. Sir Charles Eliot
says that these two syllables Fo-t'ou once pronounced like vut-tha.
During the transitional period from ancient phonetic renderings to the
time of highly developed transcription system, the same norm of using restricted
characters and conventional set of signs had always been adopted for the purpose of
transcription. We must note that the system of transcription is not a new innovation.
During the glorious reign of the Former and Later Hans when they had close, political and
trade relation with the West, they had to transcribe the geographical names of those
often-frequented countries. The Records of the Former and Later Hans mentioned about two
hundred  (mostly geographical) foreign words in transcription. The Buddhist
transcribers must have made full use of this rudimentary system for rendering foreign
The Buddhist literary activity had an interesting method of
transliterating Indian words. Indian proper names, specially with obvious meaning were
translated, e.g. Divaakara, A± vaghoã a, Devadatta, A± oka and
Tathaagata as Jih-ku-ang (the rays of the Sun), Ma-ming (neighing of a horse), T'ien-shou
(gift of Devas), Wu-yu (not mournful), Ju-1ai (one whose incoming into the world is like
the coming of his predecessors), respectively. This translation of Indian proper names
gives correct comprehension of their meaning. The transliterated word A-mi-ta-p'o
Amitaabha was also rendered as Wu-liang-kuang, boundless light. There are many such proper
names which could be easily rendered into Chinese phonetic sound but it is difficult
sometime to say where and when they had been transliterated or translated. But many proper
names did not tend themselves to such renderings and it was a pretty difficult task to
translate the Buddhistic theological terms like Nirvaana and Samaadhi, etc.
The Siddhako± a (880 A.D) a Japanese
book says in Nan-hai-kuei-chuan. (The Record sent home by I-Ching) in Chapter XXXIV under
the title Si t'an-Chang, he had mentioned about 49 Sanskrit letters of the alphabet
which are in perfect accord with corresponding Chinese Characters with a very few
A system known as Fan-ch'ieh or Fan-yin was devised by Indian
Buddhist monks to render approximately in Chinese the Paali or Sanskrit syllables.
Fan-ch'ieh is a system of spelling in Chinese Dictionaries. It was a favourite style
with the Emperor K'ang-hsi (A.D 1662-1723) of the Manchu Dynasty. According to this system
which is similar to Indian Sandhi Prakara.na, a syllable -phonetically of two characters
will be combined by dropping the final of the first and the initial of the second to
produce a new sound and tone e.g. Fu-wan (to begin late evening) Fan (to respect,
to turn over), Chu Yung Chung.
Hsuan-chuang and I-Ching, the noted and profound Sanskrit scholars
introduced certain reforms in rendering Sanskrit equivalents for Buddhist terms in Chinese
and probably after them, the rendering of Sanskrit terms was more accurate and more
precise. Hsuan-chuang preferred to transliterate the Buddhist terminology rather than
In the early period of translation, most of the Buddhist terminologies
were translated through Taoist terms but it was soon found that these terms did not convey
the subtle meanings. The translators preferred to keep the foreign words and then
transcribe them into Chinese. Consequently, we find Praj~naa Paaramitaa, Nirvaa.na, etc.
have been transcribed as Pan-jo-pa-lo-mi-to, Nieh p'an, etc. Towards the end of the 4th
century, Toa-an, one of the greatest Chinese monks bibliographer and collector of
sacred texts, gave some practical suggestions to the members of the bureau of translators.
He as a 'general manager' of the team, was always aware of the problems the transcribes
often confronted with. The questions before them were whether the translation should be
done to cater to the popular need of the people, so as to make it short in form, free and
polished which would be welcome by the Chinese people in general or whether the
translation should be faithful, literal or repetitious which would be disliked by them. In
his preface to Praj~naa Paaramitaa Suutra Tao-an had given some practical suggestions to
the transcribers requesting them on what points they should deviate from the original, and
also mentioned three points where they should make faithful translation of Sanskrit
texts. Hsuan-chuang similarly formulated certain rules for the translators. He had
insight in selecting words and as a translator he created marvel in using the choicest
Chinese words to translate the Buddhist terms.
Through the combined efforts of both foreign missionaries and Chinese
monks, enormous body of the Buddhist Suutras was translated which constitutes the bulk of
the Canon and with it thousands of new terms were assimilated into Chinese Buddhism. Among
the foreign missionaries who made a greatest contribution in translation were An Shih-kao
from Parthia, Dharmarakã a from Tukhara, Kumaarajiiva
Buddhism grew and developed with two indigenous religions Confucianism
and Taoism. Taoism is a mystic philosophy which was directly opposed to Confucianism.
Taoism is ascetic and pantheistic. Buddhist philosophy is also regarded as a philosophy of
asceticism which emphasises the withdrawal from the world. Here, we, in fact, find some
similar ideas with Taoism and in the Taoist circle Buddhism made its headway. Buddhism
entered into China as a foreign religion but soon found expression in Taoist mystic words
"The Chinese who became interested in the foreign religion were attracted by its
novel formulae for attainment of supernatural power, immortality or Salvation and not by
its idea. This early Buddhism (in China) was generally regarded as a sect of
Taoism". The defenders and propagators had to find some arguments to reconcile
the Buddhist ideas with traditional Chinese thoughts. Thus Tao (The Way, The Truth, A
Principle) was the expression used for Dharma or Bodhi, Ying-jen for Arhat, Wu-wei for
Nirvaa.na, Hsiao-hsurt (filial submission and obedience) for 'Siila.
It is of utmost importance to have correct evaluation of Chinese
comprehension of Buddhist terms. Both the Indian and Chinese Maadhyamika texts have a
sizeable technical vocabularies. The question whether a Chinese term conveys the meaning
of Indian equivalent depends on whether the translation keeps the formal system of the
original and whether it is understood by the Chinese. if this is fulfilled, then the
technical meaning of the term is understood.
In the middle of the Later Han Dynasty (Ist Century B. C. to Ist
Century A.D.) there was a revival of Taoism. In order to differentiate the original from
the revived Taoism, the name Hsuan-hsueh, Dark Learning was known to the contemporary
Chinese and Neo-Taoism to the West. Hsuan means dark, profound, metaphysics. This term
originated in the first chapter of Lao-tze's The Book of Tao, "They may both be
called the Cosmic Mystery Reaching from the Mystery into the deeper Mystery Is the Gate to
the secret of all Life".
The Neo-Taoists took delight in contemplating mystery behind all
mysteries-the ultimate behind the phenomena; world. They speculated that there must be
some absolute Principle at the origin of all phenomena, and some ultimate reality that
brings forth universal harmony. The idea of Wu or Non-being is the basis of all things.
"Though Heaven and Earth in their greatness are richly endowed with the myriad
things, though their thunder moves and their winds circulate, through their revolving
operations the myriad transformations came to be-Yet it is the Silent and Supreme
non-being that is their origin."
The Chinese literary society during the 4th century A.D was greatly
dominated by Neo-Taoism, at the same time the Praj~naa School was gaining supremacy among
the Buddhist Circle. Both the Schools were influenced by similar philosophy.
According to the Buddhist all things by nature are empty or ±
uunya and the Neo-Taoist held that everything had their origin in non-being (Wu wei).
Liu-chin (A.D. 438-495) made this statement, "from the K'un-lun Mountain eastward the
term 'Great Oneness' is used and from Kashmir westward the word Sambodhi Cheng chueh
(Buddhist expression) is used. In the Record of the Later Han Dynasty Fan-yeh (A.D
398-445) says about Buddhism, "If we examine closely, its teaching about purifying
the mind and gaining release from the ties of life and its casting aside both 'emptiness'
and 'being' we see that it belongs to the same current as do the Taoist
writings"" So we feel that the Buddhist and Taoist scholars belonged to the same
intellectual trend. An Interesting incident 1 am quoting from the biography of Hui-yuan
 (A. D. 334-416). One day while the monk Hui-yuan was discussing in the assembly, the
audience who gathered there became restless, confused and bewildered about the exposition
of the Buddhist theory of reality. The monk immediately quoted the idea of reality of
Lao-tze and Chuang-tze and then only the audience became satisfied and pacified.
Many scholars used Lao-tze's and Chuang-tze's ideas and thoughts to
expound Buddhist ideas. Such use of Taoist terminology to explain Buddhist concept was
known as Ke-yi method of analogy. This method was a specialised system of teaching
Buddhism to the literary and gentry class who were well versed in Confucious and Taoist
classics. In the beginning of the 4th Century A.D Tao-an (A.D 312-385) who came from an
eminent Confucian family evolved this system. This method of Ke-yi was employed for those
who were well-equipped with the doctrinal terminologies of Taoism and Confucianism but
were ignorant of Buddhist terminology. But Tao-an himself had to give up Ke-yi when he
found this method of instruction useless. Later on, Flui-yu, the disciple of Kumaarajiiva
condemned this system. Tao-an in the early stage always taught Buddhism with the help of
"Three Mysteries" Lao-tze, Chuang-tze and I-Ching (The Book of Change).
So we find that the Buddhist ideas and concepts were equated with
Chinese ideas and thoughts. Thus the five important cardinal virtues of Confucianism
Wu-ch'ang were equated with the five Buddhist Siilas and the four Buddhist Mahaabhuutas
with the Chinese five Elements Wu-hsing.
During the period of disunity lasting from the disintegration of the
Han in 220 A.D till the Sui (A.D 590-617) and the T'ang (A.D 618-907), Taoism became
increasingly important. The Buddhist antithesis of Bhuuta-tathataa or Absolute Chen-ju and
the temporal, permanent and change, Nirvaana and cycle of life and death found their
equivalents in the Taoist ideas of non-being and being. Wu and yu, the Mahaayanist concept
of Praj~naa (Chih-hui), the void Suunyataa (K'ung) Stillness ('Saanti, Chi), expediency
(Upaaya, Feng-shih), amalgamated with their counterparts in Hsuan-hsueh of Saintiliness
(Sang), Emptiness (hsu), Non-being (Wu-wei), etc.
In course of discussion between Tathaagata and Subhuuti in the
Vajracchedika Praj~naa Paaramitaa Suutra, Subhuuti concluded saying, Yi-ch'ieh
hsien-Shang Chieh-yi wu-wei fu-erh yu-Cha'pie. The sages and wise men all adopted
diffusive doctrine that admits of no particular distinction (Wu-wei) has been interpreted
in many ways. It means non-activity, passive, spontaneous, transcendal, non-phenomenal
nominal interpreted as Nirvaa.na, etc. "The famous Taoist doctrine of Wu-wei is
no less than the practical application of this philosophy of the infinite to our daily
Among hundred of Suutras translated into Chinese a sizeable number
comprises Dhaara.ni. These texts show that these are the works of transcription rather
than that of translation. The transcription of Dhaara.ni does not confront with major
obstacles. It does neither require thorough knowledge of intricacies of Sanskrit grammar,
nor it requires knowledge of literary Sanskrit. For transcribing Dhaara.nii, a knowledge
of Indian script was sufficient.
The Indian script in a variety of Braahmii called Siddham  became
very popular and played an important part in Chinese Buddhism ever since it was introduced
in China and Japan in the 8th century with spread of Mantrayaana, the esoteric school of
true word, Siddham script was specially employed to transcribe Dhaara.niis, Mantras and
Viijaakã aras or germ letters. An attempt was made in
early period to transcribe the Indian formulae phonetically syllable by syllable with
corresponding Chinese sound but before long it proved to be inefficacious. With the advent
of the 8th century the transcrivers mostly used Siddham letters. The prolific translator
Hsuan - chuang made certain reforms in the method of translation. The terms regarding
esoterism like Dhaara.niis or Ma.n¯ alas were left
untranslated by him.
Long before the spread of Buddhism the Chinese were familiar with
Taoist spells, magic charms and sorcery. Therefore, they became very much interested in
Buddhist Mantras and Dhaara.niis. The first foreign monk who arrived at Ch'ang-an in 625
A. D. with the text of thousand of Dhaara.nis and Saadhana, was a native of Central India.
These texts were translated under the name of T'o-lo ni-chi-ching Dhaara.nii
Sa"ngraha. The original is lost, the translations exist.
The following centuries saw a galaxy of Tantrik adepts who brought many
more Mantrayaanic texts. Among the foreign monks special mention may be made of Subhakara
Si"mha, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, all from India. Subhakara Si"mha translated
Mahaavairocana, the basic text of Tantrayaana.
Under the imperial patronage, by the pious devotion of selfless
painstaking and persevering monks, by their loyal supporters and by private contribution
the translation work continued unceasingly, unabated throughout the long period of
Buddhism in China. The latest Japanese editions of the Catalogue of Chinese Tripi.taka
contains 85 volumes and 3053 items. It is a rare wonder in the history of human
civilisation, so far its amount and perfection are concerned. It is matchless and cannot
be compared with the translation work carried on by the team of modern world. Indian
philosophical ideas and thoughts, political and social systems were opened to the Chinese
which had lasting cultural impact on Chinese mind.
Living in the highly advanced scientific world we really wonder how
could it be possible to produce such bulk of Buddhist Canon in, Chinese by simple human
1. Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese Histonary.
2. Sir Charles Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism.
3. The Catalogue of Chinese Tripi.taka, Taisho Edition, Vols.
4. James Legge, The Tao.
5. Fung-yu-1an, The History of Chinese Philosophy (Translation
from Chinese to English).
6. Fung-yu-1an, Chung-kuo-che-hsueh-shih (in Chinese).
7. Lin -yu-tang, Wisdom of China and India.
8. K.K.S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China.
9. R.H. Van Gullik, Siddham.
10. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China.
11. Soothhill, Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms.
1. Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History, pp. 33-34.
2. J. Takakusu-A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practised in India
And Malaya Archipelago. P. lx. Ixi.
3. Sir Charles Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, Vol. Ill, p.
4. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, p. 40.
5. J. Takakusu, A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practised in India
And Malaya Archipelago, pp. 170, 171.
6. Ibid, pp. lx, Ixi. T. Watters, On Yuang Chwang's Travels in India,
Vol. 11, pp. 152-56.
7. Dr. L. Wieger, Chinese Characters, Ed. Henri Vetch, Peking,
pp. 17, 18.
8. Vide Preface to K'ang-hsi Dictionary.
9. Taisho Ed. Tripi.taka, Vol. 50, No. 2059, p. 351.
10. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, p. 203.
Kenneth K.S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China, pp. 369, 370.
11. Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History, pp. 32, 33.
12. Lin-yu-tang, The Wisdom of China and India, p. 583 (Modern
Library, New York).
13. Fung-yu-1an, The History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton,
1953) Vol. 2, p. 2181.
14. Ibid, p. 2240.
15. C. Tripi.taka, Taisho Ed. Vol. 50 Kao-Seng-chuan 6, p. 357.
16.Ibid, No. 2059, p. 355 E. Zurcher, Buddhist Conquest of China,
pp. 12, 184, 187,
App. IV 18.
17. Fung Yu-1an, The History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 11
E. Zurcher, Buddhist Conquest of China, pp. 73-74.
18. Chinese Tripi.taka, Vol. 8, No. 235, P. 749, 2nd folio 1.17.
19. Soothhill, Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, p. 380.
20. D.T. Suzuki, The Tao, James Legge, Introduction, p. 22.
21. H.R. Van Gullik, Siddham (Saraswati Vihar Series) Ed. bv
Buddhism Today Edition 2000
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via Buddhism Today by arrangement with the author.
Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa