Dharmatā in the Questions of Maitreya, part 2

By David Reigle on April 11, 2012 at 5:26 am

The “Questions of Maitreya” chapter in the Perfection of Wisdom texts shows us that we may substitute the wider Buddhist term dharmatā for the specifically Yogācāra Buddhist term pariniṣpanna in verse 6 of stanza 1 of the Book of Dzyan. As we see from The Secret Doctrine, we could also substitute the Advaita Vedānta term pāramārthika for it (vol. 1, p. 356): “Says a ‘Gupta Vidya’ Sūtra: ‘In the beginning, a ray issuing from Paramārthika (the one and only true existence), it became manifested in Vyavahārika (conventional existence) which was used as a Vahan to descend into the Universal Mother, and to cause her to expand (swell, brih)’.” In Advaita Vedanta we also have a listing of the three modes of existence that would correspond to the three svabhāvas of Yogācāra Buddhism, and to the three aspects taught in the “Questions of Maitreya.” These are: pāramārthika, “ultimate”; vyāvahārika, “conventional”; and prātibhāsika, “false appearance,” i.e., “illusory.”

We are seeking a Book of Dzyan, which, as said before, must necessarily use some set of terminology. From the indications we have, at least some of its terminology is distinctive Yogācāra Buddhist terms. Nonetheless, other formulations of the same ideas would be possible; and according to the above quotation from a “Gupta Vidya” or “Hidden Knowledge” Sūtra, do in fact exist. This quotation uses distinctive Advaita Vedānta terms. Despite the fact that these systems combat each other exoterically, their teachings are considered identical in the Secret Doctrine. It makes no difference that those who are regarded in the Secret Doctrine as being high initiates, when giving their exoteric teachings, argue against each other. The great Advaita Vedānta teacher Śaṅkarācārya refutes the Buddhists, and the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsongkhapa refutes his fellow Buddhist Jonangpas, precisely because their doctrine is too much like that of Advaita Vedānta! On this issue, see the important paragraph spanning pp. 636-637 of vol. 2 of The Secret Doctrine. So we proceed with bringing in parallel terms and ideas that have historically linked the Yogācāra teachings and the Perfection of Wisdom or Madhyamaka teachings, from Haribhadra to Dolpopa.

The “Questions of Maitreya” chapter of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras in 18,000 and 25,000 lines has been translated into English by Edward Conze in his 1975 book, The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, pp. 644-652 (attached as Questions of Maitreya-English-Conze). He and Shotaro Iida had previously edited and published the original Sanskrit text in their 1968 article “‘Maitreya’s Questions’ in the Prajñāpāramitā,” in Melanges D’Indianisme a la Memoire de Louis Renou, pp. 229-242 (attached as Questions of Maitreya-Sanskrit-Conze Iida). The late Edward Conze was practically the sole translator of the massive Perfection of Wisdom texts throughout his lifetime, and every student of these texts in English translation owes him a large debt of gratitude. Conze’s translations have been criticized by Robert Thurman in his Foreword to Lex Hixon’s 1993 Mother of the Buddhas, p. xvi, as follows:

“His translations thus resemble cookbooks full of recipes translated with a dictionary by someone who has no idea what the foods and spices are, who has never cooked or never eaten such a meal. I have assigned his translations to classes of students, decade after decade, with the invariable result that they feel confused, mystified, and shut out of the real message of the text.”

While what he reports about his students being confused by Conze’s translations is no doubt true, the reason he assigns for this is unlikely, and is unfair to Conze. The earlier part of this paragraph associates “basic preconceptions of nihilism” with Conze, says that he “did not himself practice the yoga of transcending wisdom,” and that “He never found the liberating logic of what might superficially appear to be meaningless paradoxes or irreconcilable contradictions.” This is not the impression that I get of Conze from his various journal articles and books, as well as oral information from former students of his. In fact, Conze had a difficult time in academia for the same reason that Thurman did at the beginning: He was a believer in Buddhism at a time when it was thought that scholars could not remain objective if they believed in what they studied.

The difficulty with Conze’s translations is not that they are dictionary translations by someone who does not know what the text is talking about, but rather that he used stock translations of technical terms that are not normal English (such as “own-being” for svabhāva), and never stopped to give notes explaining their meaning. Conze had a huge amount of material to translate, and he did not write extensive explanatory notes like his colleague Etienne Lamotte was famous for. Thurman concludes: “Prajnaparamita still cries out for a completely revised presentation.” I agree, but not because of thinking that Conze seriously misunderstood the material.

I will give a new translation of the definitions of the three ways in which dharmas are to be seen, from the “Questions of Maitreya,” shortly. In the meantime, one can try to understand Conze’s translation of them, found on p. 648 (attached above). He here translates dharmatā as “dharmic nature.” There are several significant misprints in this book, such as “earth” for “death” on p. 644, that further hinder one’s understanding. Although I regard writing in books as a cardinal sin, I have here made an exception and have written in pencil in the margins a few corrections.

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