There’s Nothing Like a Good Translation Controversy

The portion of the Heart Sutra that we’re discussing in class next week reads:

Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita. Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana.

The end of that section sounds wrong to me. First, if bodhisattvas have no attainment, how or why would they attain complete nirvana? Perhaps this is one of the paradoxes with which Buddhism is rife. But then there’s also the deeper question of why bodhisattvas, practitioners of the Mahayana, would seek the Hinayana attainment of nirvana. After all, the bodhisattva vow is specifically not to attain nirvana (which, as the Madhyamaka school demonstrates is not separate from samsara, with both being empty) until all sentient beings have done so.

In other translations of the Heart Sutra, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche renders that last line as, “Completely transcending false views, they go to the ultimate of nirvana,” and Geshe Thupten Jinpa, translating for the Dalai Lama, has, “…by going completely beyond error, they will reach the end of nirvana.” These translations point, the latter more clearly, at bodhisattvas going beyond nirvana. Red Pine, translating a shorter and, he claims (convincingly from my uninformed perspective), earlier version of the Heart Sutra, offers this translation of that section

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

And he offers this discussion of that last line (“viparyasa atikranto nishtha nirvanah,” or “they see through delusions and finally nirvana”):

Since this sutra is a critique of the views of the Sarvastivadins in particular and other early Buddhist sects in general, Avalokiteshvara includes under “delusions” not only the four views of the mundane world but also the four views of those early sects that maintained nirvana was permanent, pleasurable, self-existent, and pure. Thus, bodhisattvas not only see through (atikranto) delusions concerning the existence of sansara, they also see through delusions concerning the existence of nirvana. But this is not all. Bodhisattvas also see through delusions concerning the non-existence of nirvana, for existence and non-existence are terms in a dialectic that does not apply to what is beyond all duality.

Several copies of the longer version of the Heart Sutra add the verb prapta (attain) at the end of the phase nishtha nirvana (finally nirvana). Conze also included it in his Sanskrit edition 1948/1957 (cf. Buddhist Wisdom Books), but he deleted it in his second edition of 1967 (cf. Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies). Other translators and commentators, either aware of this variant or thinking it must be implied, have taken this phrase to mean something equivalent to “finally attain nirvana.” But this would amount to the attainment of something that cannot be attained and would contradict Avalokiteshvara’s earlier statement in line 20 that there is “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” To avoid this problem, I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta. Thus, bodhisattvas do not reach or attain nirvana but overcome all delusions, including those that concern the ultimate goal of nirvana, namely, views that see nirvana as either permanent or not permanent, pleasurable or not pleasurable, self-existent or not self-existent, pure or not pure. Nirvana is simply the final delusion. Thus, Mahayana sutras never tire of telling us that bodhisattvas do not attain nirvana and even avoid it, that their goal is elsewhere, namely the liberation of all beings. This is also the view of the Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-five Thousand Lines, which states that while bodhisattvas lead others to nirvana, nirvana itself is a dream or delusion. And in Chapter Two of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha tells Shariputra and the other arhans seeking to become bodhisattvas that the nirvana they have attained is really but an imaginary oasis on the road to buddhahood.

I find this compelling. Do you?

2 Replies to “There’s Nothing Like a Good Translation Controversy”

  1. Is Nirvana “real”? Wouldn’t many Buddhists say it doesn’t matter, the importance is in the journey–not the goal?


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