There is a very informative continuation of this thread at SuttaCentral
, with input from Bhikkhu Sujato that I find very illuminating (not only because he agrees with my assessment of the tentative possibility of SA 296 being either a corrupted recension, or a recension that has been doctrinally influenced by Sarvāstivāda discourse surrounding the persistence of dharmāḥ).
I will summarize my participation in the exchange, as I don't know if I have permission to quote everyone who participated:
I was looking through SA 296 when I came across an interesting line in the translation posted at SuttaCentral by Choong Mun-keat & prepared by Bhikkhu Sujato, who I hope might have a personal insight into the subject matter of my questioning, as I don't know what "prepared by" entails.
The line in question is this:
Which in the Chinese is:
“Whether a Buddha arises in the world, or not, this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma, the element of dharma.
I am hardly one to accuse someone more qualified than I of misreading a text and producing a potentially misleading translation, as I am not of resolute persuasion that my speculations are of definite assuredness, however there are some things in Choong Mun-keat's translation that make me puzzled, and I was hoping to share those hopefully with people more qualified than myself to see if they agree with my assessment or can show me where I go wrong.
The Chinese has 4 blocks of characters separated by commas- the English translation has 5 of these. The first two blocks of texts correspond to the Chinese more or less perfectly, the Chinese is slightly more detailed than the English in the second block (若未出世 means "if not-yet born" rather than "or not" but that is a minor point). The two things that puzzle me are the splitting of the 3rd block of characters into two separate clauses in the English, as well as the rendering of the word 法界 (dharmadhātu).
The translator splits 此法常住 into two different clauses in the English: "this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma,". If you assign one English character per Chinese word, for a word-for-word rendering (this method does not produce "solidly readable" English translations, but does allow one to "get inside" the text to try to see it on its own ground rather than always in comparison), and if you have a knowledge of Classical Chinese grammar, one gets something like this:
"Dwelling/Dwellings/Dwell" here can also be read in the sense of "[proper] place/standing/habitation, rather than literally "dwelling" somewhere.
ruò fó chū shì, ruò wèi chū shì, cǐ fǎ cháng zhù, fǎ zhù fǎ jiè,
If Buddha [is] born, if not-yet born, these dharmāḥ [are] permanent/constant [in their] dwelling[s], [these] dharmāḥ dwell [in] dharmadhātu
I am wondering why dharmadhātu was not translated as dharmadhātu. In its modern Mahāyāna usage, its interpretation is principally coloured by the manner in which it is used in the Avataṃsakasūtra, to refer to a tathātā/yathābhūtaṃ state of "reality (viewed) as-it-is/without delusion", which also informs the function of tathātā-discourse in Tiāntāi, Zen, etc.
However, dharmadhātu appears in Pāli literature (and other EBTs?) as "dhammadhātu", where it has a variety of meanings that are, as a whole, not easily paired down to simply to referring to any one particularly definable "element of dharma/dharmāḥ".
In Theravāda orthodoxy, the term dhammadhātu generally refers via proxy to the (pseudo-?)omniscience of the Buddha. Is this an interpretation that studiers of EBTs disagree with? If so, has that informed the translation choice of "element of dharmāḥ" rather than "dharmadhātu"?
Similarly I am also wondering why the 3rd block of Chinese characters was split into two separate clauses for English-language rendering. Why is "此法常住" translated as "this is the unchangeable nature of dharma, the status of dharma," when the word "status of dharma" seems absent from the Chinese text.
Similarly, why have the plurals been render as singular? The Chinese appeares to read 此法, meaning "these [many] dharmāḥ", meaning that this particular sequence of characters refer to the dharmāḥ spoken of in the main body of the text before and after this sequence of characters, which are described as:
, not the Buddha's teaching on on dependant origination (which is what it refers to in the Nikāya parallel). This āgama actually never seems to use 法/dharma in the sense of "the Teaching of the Buddha" and goes out of its way to doubly insignify the plurality of the dharmāḥ it speaks about (等諸).
此等諸法, or directly "this/these plural-marker myriad dharma/dharmāḥ"
The Chinese and English rendering seem to gloss over a subtle difference in the characterization and classifications of the dharma-theory presented in the text, as the meaning of the āgama to an English speaker, probably in the interest of bringing it into line with its corresponding Nikāya recension, seems to be partially harmonized, when in actuality the two of them are arguing for a subtly different interpretation of dhamma-theory expounded by the Buddha as related to dependent origination. This might make sense given that this is a Sarvāstivāda text, and their resencion of Buddhavacana implies a subtly differently interpreted/presented dhamma-theory, as evidenced by their later divergent Abhidharmāḥ. So I am wondering what the decision may have been to render these plurals as singular, changing the usage of 法/dharma from its "phenomena" meaning to its "the Teaching" meaning.
Anyways that is a summation of some of my points of confusion regarding this āgama translation.
Some context as to why I think what is rendered in English as "the dharma" actually refers to a certain "these dharmāḥ (dharmas)", and refers to the separate constituent dharmāḥ of what is called "dependant origination" in the Páli (there appears to be no single word than can express paṭiccasamuppāda in the Chinese lexicon of this specific piece of SA literature, the ágama instead describes a series of "self-evident" "predestined" dharmāḥ instead of referring to the whole of dependent origination as a process in-the-abstract). Consider the beginning of the Buddhavacana:
To-say how [is] caused predestined dharma/dharmāḥ? To-speak-of this bhāva causing that bhāva, to-speak-of [the] predestination [of] ignorance [and] activities, predestination [of] activities [and] knowing, therefore concluding thus this pure great suffering aggregation origination.
To-say how because-of causality [is/are] predestined [the] dharm(a/āḥ)?
To-say how because-of causality [are] predestined [the] dharmāḥ? That-is-to-say, ignorance [leading to] capabilities/activities.
The list is later filled in as to what other specific dharmāḥ the discourse concerns:
that-is-to-say [the] predestination [of] ignorance [to] becoming [ie bhāva] [of] capability, and-furthermore [the] predestination [of] becoming [to] age and death.
And then goes on to clarify:
This Tathāgata on his own initiative is aware, accomplishes [the] rank [of] samyaksaṃbodhi, conducts his speech, expresses, shows, cultivates, that-is-to-say [the] predestined development of causes, becoming aging, sickening, dying, worrying, grieving, becoming-angry, and suffering.
Then the Buddhavacana concludes, concerning what was just expounded:
These many dharmāḥ, [these] dharmāḥ['s] residence/dwellinng/abiding, [these] dharmāḥ['s] emptiness, [these] dharmāḥ self-explain/[are-]thus [i.e. They have quality of being self-evident?], [these] dharmāḥ [are] thus-so, [these] dharmāḥ [do] not depart [from their] thusness/self-evidency, [these] dharmāḥ [are] not different/other than [their] thusness/self-evidency, judged as truly real, not delusional (or "without delusion").
Then for good measure the ágama has the discourse repeated one final time:
Thus following obeisance [to] causes [of] arisings, this [is] named [the] development [of the] predestination [of the] dharmāḥ. That-is-to-say ignorance, capability, knowing, naming [and] forming, the six senses' touching, touching, receiving, lusting, taking, becoming, developing, aging, sickening, dying, worrying, grieving, [becoming-]angry, suffering, this [is] named [the] development [of the] predestination [of the] dharmāḥ.
I think that the differences in the recensions can be brought into context by examining the doctrines and interpretations of the school that this āgama came from, the Sarvāstivāda. In the Nikāya recension, a number of qualities are given to paṭiccasamuppāda, namely, and forgive me for not being able to word-for-word it:
The meaning of this is not exceptionally esoteric or complicated, I don't think. It merely says that the teaching of the Buddha, in as much as it is true and in as much as it relates to the subject matter of the sutta in question, is true regardless of whether or not a Buddha teaches it, i.e., dependant origination is not "created" or "made up" by the Buddha, or, the Dharma pre-exists the Buddha's teaching of it.
Uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā.
Whether there is an arising of Tathagatas or no arising of Tathagatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality.
I agree that the difference is highly subtle, but highly subtle differences in interpretation, wording, phrasing, etc, of the Buddhavacana can have extremely profound doctrinal implications when orthodoxies are built and/or arise out of the Buddhavacana's interaction with practitioners and/or interpreters.
I think this is evidenced in the highly divergent Abhidharmāḥ generated by the Sarvāstivāda and Theravāda historically, particularly as related to the classifications of dharmāḥ presented in their respective divergent dhamma-theories. The Sarvāstivāda (or the "everything exists school" or the "all-existent school", for those unfamiliar with them) held a doctrine of the quasi-eternal persistence of all dharmāḥ in the past, present, and future, as well as conceiving of existent reality as predicated on existent "prime dharmāḥ". They were polemicized against by Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu as holding heretical metaphysics, in some interpretations of those writers' works.
This āgama's characterization of the natures of certain dharmāḥ (namely ignorance, capability, knowing, naming [and] forming, the six senses' touching, touching, receiving, lusting, taking, becoming, developing, aging, sickening, dying, worrying, grieving, [becoming-]angry, suffering) is consistent with Sarvāstivāda orthodoxy, because the dharma themselves are described as "thus, thus-so, thusness", lending to them the quasi-eternal "persistence" spoken of in the Nikāya-parallel when it speaks of "this element" in its text. In the Sarvāstivāda āgama-recension, this quasi-eternal persistence is ascribed to the particular dharmāḥ specified therein. In the Nikāya-parallel it is the "principal" or, to phrase it more loosely, the "process" of paṭiccasamuppāda that is a "persistent" element. Now this āgama does not go so far as later Sarvāstivāda orthodoxy would go in its treating of dharmāḥ as quasi-eternally persistent, but it does take a step in that direction that is not present in the Nikāya-parallel, wherein no dharmāḥ at all are characterized as persistent.
I think that this recension might be an example of the latent seeds of "potential-readings" from which later Sarvāstivāda elaborations of doctrine, based in their traditions of interpreting their Buddhavacana-recensions, would manifest concerning dhamma-theory, and ultimately metaphysics and ontology.
There is another possibility that is alternative to my own amateur pet hypothesis, which asserts that the ambiguity between "this dharma" and "these dharmāḥ" is merely a byproduct of the ambiguities of Chinese grammar, and a side-effect of the transmission of the Buddhavacana across highly unlike languages, that side effect being that the Chinese is rendered, perhaps, insufficiently clear.
In the Pāli text, there is a mention of "dhamma" and a mention of "dhammā" (dhammas):
The first usage of "dhamma" is speaking about the principal or law of paṭiccasamuppāda. The second usage, dhammā, might refer to what is systematized as the twelve nidāni (nidanas).
ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā
[... followed by...]
[...after which follows a list of dhammā, specifically an outlining of the 12-links-discourse, more-or-less congruent to the list of dharmāḥ given in the āgama-parallel.]
If we look at the Chinese, there are also two usages of 法 that correspond with loosely where dhamma and dhammā correspondingly appear in the Nikāya-text. The first is given in
To-say how [is] caused predestined dharma/dharmāḥ? To-speak-of this bhāva causing that bhāva, to-speak-of [the] predestination [of] ignorance [and] activities, predestination [of] activities [and] knowing, therefore concluding thus this pure great suffering aggregation origination (origination=集=samudaya, not 緣 as in 緣起)
Later in the text, 法 appears again, just like in the Pāli, and is marked as a plurality (此等諸法), just as in the Pāli (dhammā).
It is possible that the two usages of 法 in the Chinese text correspond to the two different meanings of "dhamma" in its initial appearance (dhamma) in the Pali and its second appearance (dhammā).
There is only one other problem. In the Pāli, it is still the first, singular, instance of "dhamma" that is marked as ṭhitāva (persistent, I think?), not the dhammā. In the Chinese, the plural 法, 此等諸法, is marked as "法如、法爾", not the potentially singular instance of 法, in the opening: 「我今當說因緣法[...].
To simplify, the conundrum is not quite gone with the above concessions, as:
Dhamma(s) mentioning #1: Pāli, dhamma. Ch, 此法. In the Pāli, the first is "persistent" and the second isn't.
Dhamma(s) mentioning #2: Pāli, dhammā. Ch, 此等諸法. In the Chinese, the second is "thus" or has "thusness" and the first does not.
[Tentatively concluding, during the discussion, that it is either the case that this is a compromised transmission,] or this is simply a divergent recension, while the Sanskrit SF āgama and the Pāli Nikāya are convergent. But convergence does not necessarily imply greater authenticity, said the epistemic agnostic regarding EBT convergence-theory.
The Sarvāstivāda, IMO, has an equally-valid possibility of being "original Buddhism" as other postulated "Early Buddhism" frameworks of orthodoxy. If that is the case though, it is a depressing one, as it would imply "original/early" Buddhist orthodoxy is all but lost (and let us hope that is not the case).
The issue, IMO, is one of practicality for reconstructing and/or educatedly speculating as to "Early Buddhism". Even if one line of Sarvāstivāda parallel-recension could be objectively determined as being "more correct" than any other, like the Pāli, for instance, and "objectively" proving that claim is at this point impossible, there is no continually-extant unbroken quasi-Sarvāstivāda tradition of āgama-interpretation that is not dramatically coloured by Mahāyāna discourse.
Of all the Mahāyāna greats that I can immediately recall, I believe it is Śramaṇa Zhìyǐ (538–597 CE) who gives the āgamāḥ the most attention, and even that attention is brief at best. He would have been working with the Chinese āgama preserved in the SA and/or SA-2, etc, recensions, as his knowledge of Indic languages was poor, and no one was around nearby at the time in China who could have taught him better. This would be a source of some interest, but unfortunately, from an EBT-informed perspective, his interpretations, as early in Chinese Buddhist discourse as they may be, are decidedly influenced by the nascent influence of Lotus Buddhism, which he is now considered the founder of, and are beholden to his operative Lotus-hermeneutic of interpretation, that is to say, beholden to the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra (decidedly not an EBT!).
Is there any "Great Commentary" equivalent preserved that originates exclusively from within the Sarvāstivāda tradition? As far as I know, the case is that there is not such a thing. With such a vital body of outlined interpretational orthodoxy missing, the precise nuanced Sarvāstivāda tradition of how they interpreted their Buddhavacana becomes highly more speculative and inconclusive (with only their Abhidharma to guide us), as evidenced by the inconclusive speculation I offered.
IMO, the issue is one of practicality. If the Sarvāstivāda recension that is divergent is, in fact, authentic, than it becomes slightly less likely that we are able to produce a Buddhism from EBTs alone that is consistent in its dhamma-theory. If the convergent parallel recensions are correct, than the feasibility of producing a Buddhist orthodoxy from EBTs is unchanged. So while the divergent recension is "likely a faulty transmission," it could also not be. However, for practicality's sake, it is prudent to consider it potentially as a faulty transmission more evidence to the contrary withstanding. Like you [Ven Sujato] said earlier, I agree.