Dharmatā in the Questions of Maitreya, part 3

By David Reigle on April 22, 2012 at 9:33 pm

The “Questions of Maitreya” chapter speaks not only of the dharmatā (“true nature”) and svabhāva (“inherent nature”) as mentioned in the first post on this, it also speaks of the dhātu (“element”) itself. The Perfection of Wisdom texts had spoken of the unthinkable or inconceivable element (acintya-dhātu, e.g., Edward Conze, The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, pp. 123, 179, 183, 185, 188, 193, 249, 253, 277, 305, 370, 374, 376, 377). This chapter calls it the unspeakable or inexpressible element (nirabhilapya-dhātu, Conze, pp. 646-647, eleven occurrences, translated as “inexpressible realm”). Students of The Secret Doctrine will be reminded of these two adjectives, unthinkable and unspeakable, as applied to the first fundamental proposition of the Secret Doctrine, an omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle (vol. 1, p. 14), which, as discussed here before, would be the dhātu, the one element. The “Questions of Maitreya” chapter is one of the most primary documents we have in relation to this fundamental teaching.

A new translation of the three key definitions from the “Questions of Maitreya” is given below. It is followed by “Translation Notes,” explaining how I understood the Sanskrit. These notes are given because Conze said that he and Lamotte have not understood an important phrase in the definition of dharmatā (p. 648, fn. 17). The notes show how I arrived at my translation of it. Also included below is the full Sanskrit text, which Conze and Iida did not give in their edition. They abbreviated what they regarded as repetitive parts of the text, giving only ellipses in their place. The full text is taken from the Sanskrit edition of the complete Prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra in 25,000 lines, which only recently became available. It was prepared by Vijay Raj Vajracharya, and published in 3 volumes, 2006-2008 (Sarnath, Varanasi: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies). Before giving the translation, I must do what Conze did not do, and which led to Thurman’s criticism of his translations. The technical terms used must be briefly explained.

No one expects to understand a science such as physics or chemistry without first learning its technical terms and their framework. The same is true of religio-philosophic systems such as Madhyamaka or Yogācāra Buddhism. All of Buddhism takes for granted a familiarity with the dharmas, the factors of existence that make up its worldview, often translated as “phenomena.” This is primarily a psychological worldview rather than a physical worldview, like we are accustomed to from modern science. So the dharmas are mostly states of our psychological make-up. These have been just as minutely catalogued in the Buddhist science of Abhidharma as have the physical elements in modern science. Indeed, common lists of dharmas include 75 (Abhidharma-kośa) or 100 (Yogācāra) dharmas, much like the periodic table of chemical elements.

The most basic analysis of a person is in terms of the five skandhas, the five “aggregates” that make up a person. This has been an essential feature of Buddhism from the beginning, before the development of the detailed lists of dharmas. The definitions from the “Questions of Maitreya” of the three aspects of dharmas, or ways in which dharmas are to be seen, are given in relation to the five skandhas, then going on to include all dharmas up to the highest with the phrase, “up to buddha-dharmas.” We do not yet have standardized English translations for the five skandhas or “aggregates.” Common translations for them are: (1) rūpa, “form” or “matter”; (2) vedanā, “feeling” or “sensation”; (3) saṃjñā, “perception” or “perception and conception”; (4) saṃskāra, “formations” or “mental formations” or “karma-formations” or “volitional formations” or “volitions” or “dispositions” or “conditioning forces” or “compositional factors”; (5) vijñāna, “consciousness.”

There is wide consensus that, as one of the five aggregates that make up a person, rūpa (“form”) refers to “matter.” Although this is therefore a good translation, there is also wisdom in keeping the same translation term for the same original term wherever it occurs, as we learned from the marvelously consistent Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts that comprise the Tibetan Buddhist canon. There, rūpa is translated as gzugs throughout. So I will stay with “form” for rūpa. For the second aggregate, vedanā, the translation term “sensation” is not very different from “feeling,” so I will use the more commonly used “feeling.” For the third aggregate, translators have pointed out that when saṃjñā is translated as “perception,” we must also know that “conception” is included in this skandha. The fourth skandha, saṃskārāḥ (plural), is quite the hardest to translate, as may be seen by its many renderings. I will here simply choose one of these, “conditioning forces.” The fifth skandha is translated by most translators as “consciousness” (although a few translate it as “perception” or “cognition”).

The “Questions of Maitreya” chapter begins with Maitreya asking the Buddha how, if the inherent nature (svabhāva) of all dharmas is non-existence (abhāva), should a bodhisattva practicing the Perfection of Wisdom train in the bodhisattva training in regard to “form” (the first aggregate), “feeling” (the second aggregate), etc., etc. That is, if all dharmas are ultimately non-existent, how does a bodhisattva (who wishes to help others) understand the dharmas that make up the people and the world that are to be helped. The Buddha replies that the bodhisattva should understand all dharmas as just names (nāma-mātra).

Maitreya then says: when the name “form,” etc., is perceived as having substance or being real (sa-vastuka), based on it being the outward sign (nimitta) of something that is conditioned (saṃskāra), then how can a bodhisattva train in understanding “form,” etc., to be just a name. That is, since each thing we see is real in that it is produced by causes and conditions, how can we regard it as being merely a name. Maitreya here uses a phrase that is used throughout the “Questions of Maitreya” chapter, saṃskāra-nimitta, translated by Conze as “the sign of something conditioned.” This is a perfectly good translation, but it needs to be explained.

Something conditioned or compounded (saṃskāra) is something that is produced by causes and conditions, and that is put together or made of parts. This means that it is transitory or impermanent, and will not last. Everything in the phenomenal world is something conditioned or compounded (saṃskāra, saṃskṛta). So to speak of something conditioned is a way to refer to everything in the phenomenal or perceptible world. Then, we do not perceive a thing in its entirety, but we see only the outward sign or visible representation of it. This is its sign (nimitta), how we characterize or define it. It is a way to refer to something according to how we see it, which allows us to identify it, name it, etc. The Tibetan translation of nimitta used here, mtshan ma (as opposed to rgyu mtshan or rgyu meaning cause), emphasizes its meaning as something’s defining characteristic. The compound saṃskāra-nimitta, translated by Conze as “the sign of something conditioned,” thus may also be translated as “defined by being conditioned.” It refers to all dharmas except the unconditioned or uncompounded dharmas, namely, nirvāṇa, and sometimes also ākāśa (“space”), and sometimes also tathatā (“suchness”).

Maitreya goes on to point out here: if a thing that is defined by being conditioned, to which we give the name “form,” etc., actually lacked any substance or any reality, if there was really nothing there, then it would not be tenable to give it the name, “form,” etc. There would be nothing to give a name to. The Buddha replies that the name is adventitious (āgantuka), not inherent, projected onto a thing that is defined by being conditioned, such as form, etc. All along, Maitreya has been asking about the inherent nature (svabhāva) of dharmas. This reply, that the name is adventitious, leads to a discussion of whether the inherent nature of form, etc., is actually perceived. If the name is adventitious, then perhaps it is the inherent nature of form, etc., that is perceived. This is denied. If the name is perceived, then perhaps the name is the inherent nature of form, etc. This is denied.

Maitreya then wonders if form, etc., completely do not exist by way of their inherent characteristics (sva-lakṣaṇa), here used as a kind of synonym of inherent nature (svabhāva). The Buddha replies: I do not say that form, etc., completely do not exist by way of their inherent characteristics. Maitreya responds: how do form, etc., exist? The Buddha replies that they exist by worldly convention, not in reality or ultimately (paramārthataḥ).

Maitreya now brings in the inexpressible “element” (dhātu). He says that, as he understands the Buddha’s teachings, the “element” is inexpressible (nirabhilapya) ultimately. The implication is that, ultimately (paramārthataḥ), one cannot say it exists or does not exist. Students of The Secret Doctrine will here be reminded of H. P. Blavatsky’s statement, “It is ‘Be-ness’ rather than Being” (vol. 1, p. 14). Maitreya wonders, then, why the Buddha would say that form, etc., do not exist ultimately. Wouldn’t they be the same as the element, so that one could only say about their existence that it is inexpressible ultimately, rather than that they do not exist ultimately? The Buddha replies: things that are defined by being conditioned, i.e., form, etc., are neither different from the element nor not different from the element. Maitreya asks how, then, should they be understood.

The Buddha says that they should be understood under three aspects: (1) parikalpita (kun brtags), “falsely imagined,” or “imaginary”; (2) vikalpita (rnam par brtags), “conceptualized,” or “constructed by thought”; and (3) dharmatā (chos nyid), “dharma-ness” or “true nature.” Maitreya asks: which is the falsely imagined form, etc.?; which is the thought-constructed form, etc.?; which is the true nature form, etc.? The Buddha then gives the definitions of these three, where the present translation begins.

The Sanskrit text accompanying the translation is from Āryapañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā, ed. Vijay Raj Vajracharya, vol. 3, pp. 1328-1329. This corresponds to the Conze and Iida edition, p. 238, nos. 39-41 (attached earlier). The corresponding Tibetan translation from the Prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra in 18,000 lines is found in the Collated Kangyur, vol. 31, pp. 387-388; the one from the Prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra in 25,000 lines is found in vol. 28, pp. 775-776. In the revised Prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra in 25,000 lines, it is found in the Collated Tengyur, vol. 51, pp. 790-791. As said before, Conze’s English translation of this passage is found in his book, The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, p. 648 (attached earlier). Here is the Sanskrit text and new translation:

bhagavān āha | yā maitreya saṃskāra-nimitte vastuni rūpam iti nāma saṃjñā saṃketaḥ prajñaptir vyavahāraḥ niśritya rūpa-svabhāvatayā parikalpanedaṃ parikalpitaṃ rūpam | yan maitreya tasmin saṃskāra-nimitte vastuni vedaneti saṃjñeti saṃskārā iti vijñānam iti yāvad buddha-dharmā iti nāma saṃjñā saṃketaḥ prajñaptir vyavahāraḥ niśritya vedanā-svabhāvatayā saṃjñā-svabhāvatayā saṃskāra-svabhāvatayā vijñāna-svabhāvatayā yāvad buddha-dharma-svabhāvatayā parikalpaneyaṃ parikalpitā vedanā-saṃjñā-saṃskārā vijñānaṃ yāvad ime parikalpitā buddha-dharmāḥ |

“The Blessed One said: Maitreya, in regard to a thing that is defined by being conditioned, the false imagination as to the inherent nature of form, based on the name, notion, label, designation, or conventional expression ‘form’, is the falsely imagined form. Maitreya, in regard to this thing that is defined by being conditioned, the false imagination as to the inherent nature of feeling, as to the inherent nature of perception, as to the inherent nature of conditioning forces, as to the inherent nature of consciousness, up to as to the inherent nature of buddha-dharmas, based on the name, notion, label, designation, or conventional expression ‘feeling’, ‘perception’, ‘conditioning forces’, ‘consciousness’, up to ‘buddha-dharmas’, is the falsely imagined feeling, perception, conditioning forces, consciousness, up to the falsely imagined buddha-dharmas.”

yā punas tasya saṃskāra-nimittasya vastuno vikalpa-mātra-dharmatāyām avasthānatā[-]vikalpaṃ pratītyābhilapanatā tatredaṃ nāma saṃjñā saṃketaḥ prajñaptir vyavahāro rūpam iti vedaneti saṃjñeti saṃskārā iti vijñānam iti yāvad buddha-dharmā iti | idaṃ vikalpitaṃ rūpam iyaṃ vikalpitā vedanā iyaṃ vikalpitā saṃjñā ime vikalpitāḥ saṃskārā idaṃ vikalpitaṃ vijñānam ime yāvad vikalpitā buddha-dharmāḥ |

“Next, this thing that is defined by being conditioned is an expression dependent on the thought-construction of [its] status as to the true nature of thought-construction only. What, in regard to this, is the name, notion, label, designation, or conventional expression ‘form’, ‘feeling’, ‘perception’, ‘conditioning forces’, ‘consciousness’, up to ‘buddha-dharmas’, this is the thought-constructed form, this is the thought-constructed feeling, this is the thought-constructed perception, these are the thought-constructed conditioning forces, this is the thought-constructed consciousness, up to these are the thought-constructed buddha-dharmas.”

yā utpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitaiveyaṃ dharmāṇāṃ dharmatā dharma-sthititā dharma-dhātur yat tena parikalpita-rūpeṇa tasya vikalpita-rūpasya nityaṃ nitya-kālaṃ dhruvaṃ dhruva-kālaṃ niḥsvabhāvatā dharma-nairātmyaṃ tathatā bhūta-koṭir idaṃ dharmatā rūpam iyaṃ dharmatā vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā vijñānam ime yāvad buddha-dharmāḥ |

“Whether tathāgatas arise or do not arise, this true nature (dharmatā) of dharmas simply remains; [it is] the condition for the abiding of dharmas (dharma-sthititā), the element of dharmas (dharma-dhātu). [It is] the absence of inherent nature (niḥsvabhāva) of this thought-constructed form as [it appears as] this falsely imagined form throughout permanent, permanent time, and constant, constant time; [it is] the absence of self in dharmas (dharma-nairātmya), suchness (tathatā), the reality limit (bhūta-koṭi). This is the true nature form (dharmatā rūpa), this is the true nature feeling, perception, conditioning forces, consciousness, up to these are the [true nature] buddha-dharmas.”

Translation Notes

Before getting to the problem area, a few other translation issues should be clarified. Sanskrit regularly uses what has been called a yat-tat correlative, where the relative pronoun yat, “what, which,” is correlated with the demonstrative pronoun tat, “this, that.” This includes all forms of the Sanskrit pronouns, in any gender or any declension, and not only the forms yat and tat. Such a construction with correlating pronouns is not used in English. In our first definition above, the core sentence is: yā parikalpanā idaṃ parikalpitaṃ rūpam, where the correlating pronouns are yā, “what,” and idam, “this.” It says, literally, “what is false imagination, this is falsely imagined form.” But in English, we merely say, “false imagination is falsely imagined form.” We do not use the correlating pronouns. So my English translation of this definition purposely omits these pronouns. This same core sentence structure is used for all three definitions, beginning with yā, “what,” and ending with the correlative idam, “this.” In the second two definitions, however, the beginning part giving the “what” is lengthy, so the definition requires more than one English sentence. In the second definition, I have not omitted the “what,” but have moved it to the beginning of the third English sentence. Even though it does not make very good English, I have retained it in the translation because the correlating “this” in the ending part of the definition is repeated for each item. In the third definition, I have omitted translating the “what” in the lengthy beginning part of the definition, but I have translated the “this” at the beginning of the English sentence giving the ending part of the definition.

On specific terms: As already said, the word nimitta, often translated as “sign,” is here translated in the compound saṃskāra-nimitta as “defined by,” following the Tibetan translation of it used here, mtshan ma. The word saṃketa is also often translated as “sign.” Conze here translated it as “social agreement.” I have here translated it as “label.”

Then, the compound dharma-sthititā is not easy to understand. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates its Pali equivalent as “the stableness of the Dhamma.” Conze translates it as “the established order of dharmas.” My translation of it as “the condition for the abiding of dharmas” is based on the form of this catechism-like saying as it occurs in the Saṃyuktāgama: utpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā dharma-sthitaye dhātuḥ. Here, sthiti is declined in the dative case, “for the abiding of dharmas.” The whole sentence may be translated as: “Whether tathāgatas arise or do not arise, this true nature (dharmatā) simply remains, the element (dhātu) for the abiding of dharmas.” The Sanskrit of this text was discovered among the Turfan finds in the early 1900s. See: Funfundzwanzig Sūtras des Nidānasaṃyukta, edited by Chandrabhāl Tripāṭhī (Sanskrittexte aus den Turfanfunden, vol. 8. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962, p. 148). The word “condition” in my translation renders the -tā suffix.

The problematic phrase is given by Conze (p. 648) as: “the absence of own-being which is characteristic eternally and through all eternity, constantly and through all time, of that discerned form because of that imagined form.” In a footnote to this, Conze refers to and partially quotes a French translation by Lamotte, concluding: “We have not understood this phrase.” The reference is given as “Lamotte II 1. p. 91.” As happens all too often, this is not listed in the abbreviations, and there is no bibliography. Paging backwards, we find on p. 583 fn. a reference to “E. Lamotte, Le traite,” but this is a different book. The reference, it turns out, is to Lamotte’s 1938 book, La somme du grand vehicule, tome II, fascicule I. There, in a long footnote quoting material from the Chinese translation of the Upanibandhana commentary, this same passage occurs. The phrase in question is: “En raison de cette matiere imaginaire (parikalpitarūpa), la matiere pensee (vikalparūpa) est eternelle et constante.” This is then summed up as: “En raison de ces attributs de Buddha imaginaires (parikalpitabuddhadharma), les attributs de Buddha penses (vikalpabuddhadharma) sont eternels et constants.” Ani Migme translates Lamotte’s French of these phrases as (p. 133): “Because of this imaginary nature (parikalpitarūpa), conceptual form (vikalparūpa) is eternal and constant”; and “Because of these imaginary attributes of the Buddha (parikalpitabuddhadharma), the conceptual attributes of the Buddha (vikalpabuddhadharma) are eternal and constant.”

As may be seen, Conze’s and Lamotte’s translations agree in saying “because of that imagined form/this imaginary nature.” One must wonder why anything eternal and constant would be because of something imagined or imaginary (I have translated this as “falsely imagined,” because the prefix “pari” gives kalpita, “imagined,” the sense of “falsely”). The “because of” is a translation of the instrumental case ending, “-ena,” on parikalpita-rūpeṇa, and its corresponding pronoun declined in the instrumental case, tena. The instrumental case is not always easy to translate, because it has more than one meaning. One of the less-known meanings of the instrumental case is “as.” It is not found in Sanskrit textbooks known to me. But it can be found in this meaning in a related text, Vasubandhu’s commentary on Maitreya’s Madhyānta-vibhāga, 3.2: tat punar daśa-vidhaṃ daśa-vidhātmagrāha-pratipakṣeṇa veditavyam, “Further, this group of ten [principles] should be understood as an antidote (pratipakṣeṇa) to the group of ten graspings of self.” It can also be found in this meaning in another old text, Gauḍapāda’s Māṇḍūkya-kārikā, 3.3: ātmā hy ākāśavaj jīvair ghaṭākāśair ivoditaḥ, “The ātman has arisen as individual souls (jīvair, instrumental plural), like space as the space in pots.” Indeed, this text even uses it in this meaning with the cognate verbal, vikalpita, in 2.17 and 2.19. The latter is: prāṇādibhir anantais tu bhāvair etair vikalpitaḥ, “[It] is imagined as prāṇa, etc., as these infinite existing things.” This establishes that the instrumental case can mean “as.” Does it mean “as” here?

In a text by Vasubandhu, the Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa, the corresponding three svabhāvas taught in the Yogācāra school of Buddhism are explained. These are: (1) parikalpita svabhāva, the “falsely imagined nature”; (2) paratantra svabhāva, the “dependent nature”; and (3) pariniṣpanna svabhāva, the “perfect nature.” They are defined in verses 2-4, which I translate as follows:

yat khyāti paratantro ’sau yathā khyāti sa kalpitaḥ |

pratyayādhīna-vṛttitvāt kalpanā-mātra-bhāvataḥ || 2 ||

2. What appears is the dependent, because it functions in dependence on conditions. As it appears is the imagined, because of being imagination only.

tasya khyātur yathā-khyānaṃ yā sadāvidyamānatā |

jñeyaḥ sa pariniṣpannaḥ svabhāvo ’nanyathātvataḥ || 3 ||

3. The ever non-existence of what appears, as it appears, is to be known as the perfect nature, because it is changeless.

tatra kiṃ khyāty asatkalpaḥ kathaṃ khyāti dvayātmanā |

tasya kā nāstitā tena yā tatrādvaya-dharmatā || 4 ||

4. Of these, what appears? The imagination of what is unreal. How does it appear? In the form of duality. What is the non-existence of that as that (tena)? Their true nature without duality.

Here in verses 2 and 3, the word yathā, “as” (in the sense of “the way in which”), is twice used to define the (falsely) imagined nature (kalpita used for parikalpita to fit the meter): “as it appears.” Then in verse 4, the pronoun declined in the instrumental case, tena, clearly means “as that/this.” This is also what it means in the problematic phrase from the “Questions of Maitreya” chapter. It does not here mean “because of this/that,” as Lamotte took it in his early work (translated from a Chinese translation rather than the Sanskrit original) that he never had time to go back and revise, and as Conze also gave but responsibly added a note saying, “We have not understood this phrase.” It here means “as this falsely imagined form”; so I have translated this phrase as “the absence of inherent nature (niḥsvabhāva) of this thought-constructed form as [it appears as] this falsely imagined form throughout permanent, permanent time, and constant, constant time.” I added in brackets “[it appears as]” so that “as this falsely imagined form” would not be taken as “as also this falsely imagined form.”

Not a single one of the seven English translations of the Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa now available took tena in verse 4 as “as that/this.” Two translations simply omitted the tena (Sujitkumar Mukhopadhyaya, The Trisvabhāvanirdeśa of Vasubandhu, 1939; and Stefan Anacker, Seven Works of Vasubandhu, 1984). Two translations took the tena as “with this/that” (Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti, “with this (duality),” Journal of Indian Philosophy, 1983, p. 252; and Karl Brunnholzl, “with that [duality],” Straight from the Heart, 2007). Two seem to have taken the tena in the meaning “by this,” and then paraphrased this as “will result from” (Thomas A. Kochumuttom, A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience, 1982), or as “is the consequence of” (Jay Garfield, Empty Words, 2002, but the translation is too loose to tell for sure). One seems to have taken the tena as “in virtue of which” and placed it with the last metrical foot of the verse (Thomas E. Wood, Mind Only, 1991). Despite the yathā (“as”) in the definitions in the preceding two verses, the meaning of the instrumental case as “as” is too little known.

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