Here is a basic overview of the background of what I am talking about for those unfamiliar with the subject matter:
When the old masters (or who we presume were old masters, I don't know if who exactly translated each and every āgama is known) were tasked with the distribution of the Dhamma in the lands east of modern India, Nepal, etc, namely, China, they elected to, at some point in their dispensation to the Chinese, translate the discourses of the Buddha, that is to say, the foundations of the Buddhadharma, into Classical Chinese, the language of commerce, trade, and "high culture" in the Far East since ancient times. The result was the collection of Buddhavacana we now call the āgamāḥ, or "agamas" as is more common an English rendering of the plural.
Classical Chinese is a unique language, as is every product of the human linguistic inventive drive, but of all other contemporary languages of the time, it could not possibly have been more different than the classical Indic languages of India, namely, Sanskrit, Prākrit, Pāli, etc. Some background on the subject of Classical Chinese, for the purposes of this post, may be in order, if anyone finds themselves lost on the subject of comparative linguistics but wishes to learn more nonetheless:
(Paul Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, XI-XII)Literary Chinese was the principal language of written communications in East Asia from ancient times until the early twentieth century. It grew first out of the earliest examples of written language in China- the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang 商 dynasty and the bronze inscriptions of the Shang and Zhou [周] dynasties- and can be read in archaic form in the earliest strata of "Confucian" classics. By the fifth century B.C.E. the language had begun to stabilize and to develope systematic syntactic and grammatical rules. Over the next two centuries the first great flowering of Chinese writing occurred, exemplified in the compendia of the great philosophers (e.g., Mencius 孟子, Xúnzǐ 荀子, Zhuāngzǐ 莊子, and Hánfēizǐ 韓非子) and the early historical narratives [...].
Because of the complexity of the character-writing system, literary Chinese evolved a flexible and open-ended grammar with few rules and essentially no inflections. Understanding a passage depends not on the previous mastery of a grammatical system but on the ability to intuit the thrust of an argument or a narrative as well as the knowledge of the past usage of particular characters. Consequently, in premodern times, learning literary Chinese never involved learning a grammatical "system" (as learning Latin or Sanskrit did, for example); rather, it involved memorizing "classic" texts and absorbing their rhythms. These ancient texts formed templates for later composition.
I would like to focus our collective internet spyglasses, if others will humour me, on some particular problems that arise with the issue of translation, and one instance in which it is manifest in the real historical world of Buddhism as a religious movement. I am not trying to be unduly critical of the Dhamma-in-translation in general, nor am I trying to imply that the Dhamma cannot or should not be translated, after all, without the Dhamma-in-translation, I myself would be lacking exposure to it.
When the translators of the Indic Buddhavacana chose to localize the texts so that the Chinese could have better access to them, they made certain adaptions and borrowings from pre-existing Chinese philosophical and religious concepts, probably on the advice of people informed about such Chinese concepts. Now whether these Chinese translations were originally intended as introductory Dhamma-initiation texts for Chinese monastics, the assumption being they would eventually learn an Indic language, or if they were intended to be authoritative "true translations" of the Dhamma, one cannot know, I don't think. Regardless of their original function and the intentions of their translators, these Chinese texts, for a great deal of time, served as the only extant circulation of the dispensation of the "historical Buddha", if you will, and thus were treated as authoritative original documents when the Chinese were acquainting themselves with Buddhism.
To give some context to the linguistic situation of Chinese Buddhism, Śramaṇa Zhìyǐ, largely considered the foundational building block of the entire East Asian scholastic tradition of Buddhism, who lived some time during the 500s CE, had only a very basic beginners grasp of Buddhist Sanskrit, and was not able to read texts in Indic languages himself as a fluent reader, and he was considered one of the most well-schooled Chinese Buddhist philosophers of his time. This has been the case historically in China for a great deal of time, partially because of the widespread linguistic hegemony of Classical Chinese in the literary spheres of East Asia, and partially because of the need to "make Buddhism Chinese" to gain substantial numbers of converts, sometimes by focussing less on its traditional "Indian" cultural presentations. This also gives context to the syncretic borrowing of linguistic expressions used by the āgama translators from the general religious vocabulary of China at the time (informed by traditional religions/rites, Confucianism, Daoism, etc). It was only during the high ages of late Indian Mahāyāna Vajrayāna esotericism that knowledge of Indian languages (Sanskrit) once again became commonplace in East Asia, before falling into obscurity after the collapse of mainstream Chinese Tantrism. This late blooming of Indian influence can be seen persisting despite its mainstream collapse in the continued existence of the Shingon school today in Japan, for instance. That is the historical linguistic situation as I understand it. I am no-doubt skipping over important things, and probably misexplaining some, that more informed history-enthusiasts than I will no-doubt correct me on.
More to the point:
I would like to focus, in particular, on the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit asaṁskṛtaprabhāvitādharma, or "unconditionedness-influenced-dharma", or as it is more commonly rendered, asaṃskṛtadharma, or "unconditioned dharma". The translators of the āgamāḥ chose an interesting and peculiar way to render this in Chinese. They chose the expression "無為法 / wú wèi fǎ ".
The translation of the dharma component is straightforward: 法/fǎ, meaning law, principal, rule, but also meaning law, principal, rule, of reality, allowing it to cover both the "teaching" and "phenomenon" meanings of the word dharma. The concept of "unconditioned", however, was not so simple to translate into Chinese. What the translators elected to use, was "無為/wú wéi", a concept borrowed from the methodology/soteriology of Daoism. The sage cultivates wú wéi and wú wéi is the nature of the disposition of the sage who abides in the Dào.
Taken on its own, 無為 literally means "lack [of] action" or "lacking action", and it could also mean "non-action" or "non-doing". Additionally it could be validly interpreted as referring to a dharma/法 that lacks "doing-quality" or "actionable-quality". In Daoism, 無為 is a state of harmony, via "non-doing" and nonconceptualizing, where one is in harmony with the Dào/道, literally translated as "path", but interpreted often as the universal principal and true expression of reality (Daoism is a very vast ranging sea of schools, so I am sure that there are Daoists traditions that my explanation does not apply to at all) that is blissful, passionless, and lacks conceptual identity. It seems that the translators of the āgamāḥ realized a certain kinship between the notions of "the Unconditioned" and 無為, and chose to borrow the terminology to express what an "unconditioned dharma" is, (i.e. Nirvāṇa), by modern Buddhist reckoning. However, as friendly a term to the Dhamma that 無為 is, as a concept, there is one thing the word decidedly does not mean, and that is "unconditioned". In Early Chinese Buddhism it may well have been impossible to speak of things as "conditioned" or "unconditioned" because those words simply didn't exist as opposites. There is no "為法/wèi fǎ", or "action/doing-dharma" to be the opposite of a "無為法 /wú wèi fǎ", and thus, the soteriological relationship between the path and the goal is subtly changed, and is not linguistically manifest as so obvious an opposite in terms. Buddhists with no access to Indic texts thus could have developed a subtly different notion of "what is conditioned" and "what is not conditioned" on account of the language used to express that notion. This linguistic barrier can obviously be overcome, especially in the present-day, but if knowledge of the Indic linguistic expression of the Dhamma is lost, I think it is fair to say that the Dhamma that is communicated is communicated in a different way than it would have, depending on the attainment of the translator and the education of the text-reader.
In short, to a native Chinese reader of the time, who was lucky enough to be literate in literary Chinese, "無為法 /wú wèi fǎ" refers to a dharma that is either wú wéi itself, originates in wú wéi, participates in wú wéi, or is similar to wú wéi.
I would like to given an example of an āgama, in which the nature of the "無為法 /wú wèi fǎ" is expounded and very heavy usage of the term "wú wéi dharma" is employed. To the best of my knowledge this is a hitherto untranslated āgama, so please do not take my nonprofessional amatuer translation as "solidly authentic Buddhavacana". My goal in presenting the āgama is to outline a linguistic inter-religious curiosity of the Early Chinese Dhamma-dispensation, not to claim to be qualified to interpret the "true Dhamma", and, since there is no English translation of this available, I don't think it can hurt to add to the internet literature, especially if I am sure to make myself clear that this should not be considered an "authoritative" translation.
Here is an example of usage of the term 無為法 in the literature, in the interest of the larger discussion on Dhamma-in-translation I will try to render the passage word-for-word, with subjective grammatical clarifications [in square brackets]:
Thus this I heard:
One time, Buddha dwelt [at] Śrāvastī [at] Jetavana [at] Anāthapiṇḍada’s park.
So at-that-time, [the] Bhagavān said [to the] myriad monks:
"Apposite doing you I-speak [i.e. "I speak to you appositely."] [of] wú wèi fǎ [asaṃskṛtadharma], and [the] wú wèi dào [dào, from Daoism] pathway [to that].
Listen careful, think wise, what [is] wú wèi fǎ ?
That-is-to-say greed[,] craving, permanent exhaustion, aversion[,] rage, ignorance[,] delusion permanent exhaustion,
All vexing afflictions permanent exhaustion, this [is] wú wèi fǎ.
What [is the] doing [of the] wú wèi dào pathway [to that]?
That-is-to-say [the] eight sage dào ranks, true view, true wiseness, true speech, true karma, true livelihood
True method proficiency, true ideas, true dhyāna, this [is] called [the] wú wéi dào pathway [to that]."
Buddha['s] word[s] this sūtra thereafter [was], many monks heard Buddha teach it, [and] joyful[,] practiced [it].
Thus wú wéi, thus difficult [to] realize, no moving, no bending, no dying, lacking secretions,
overflowing [in] yìn [i.e. as in "yin-yang"], [an] island shore, ferrying[,] crossing, dependency ceasing, no circulating transmissions, cutting-off kindling [for] flame, cutting-off burning thusly,
Cutting-off kindling [for] flame, cutting-off burning thusly, flowing openly, pure cool, secret subtlety, calm occultation,
Lacking ailment, lacking owning, Nirvāṇa, also thus so said [by the Buddha].
The āgama is a fascinating hybrid text, pulling terminologies and concepts from native Chinese religious traditions to explain the Buddhadharma. It even coins new words (or at least, I had never heard of the construct "無為道/wú wéi dào" used anywhere but in this particular Buddhist text) out of existing terms, adapting them to a new usage and a new framework. That being said, it is also possible that this free syncretic borrowing could come at a cost. If sufficient contact is not kept up, if the orality of early Buddhist orthodoxies fail to reach the audience, to contextualize and explain the adaptions, it is inevitable that this syncretic borrowing results in "fusional religiosity", which is not necessarily a bad thing at all, I'm not criticizing being open-minded in practice, but has the potential to, little by little, transform the Dhamma as a whole in ways that may not be in conformity to the Indic linguistic tradition.
Also, although I know that it is more important that their translations reflect good Dhamma, I do wish that āgama translators would try to preserve something of the character and flow of the Chinese text. The Buddha sounds very different in tone, phrasing, and characterization in Chinese than he does in Pāli, or English for that matter, and I think many people would very much enjoy becoming acquainted with the Buddha-in-Chinese, if only the trends in translation veered more toward literal-word-correspondence rather than expansive adaption.
What are your thoughts on the Dhamma in translation? What are your thoughts on the necessity or lack of necessity of learning Pāli, given this Chinese example? What are your thoughts on this āgama, keeping in mind that it is only my own amateur English-rendering? What are your thoughts on the compatibility or incompatibility of "Indian" Buddhism with Chinese Daoism?