Ratna-gotra-vibhāga: A Review

By David Reigle on February 28, 2015 at 11:59 pm

(keywords: Ratnagotravibhāga, Ratnagotravibhaga)

A new English translation of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga has now appeared in When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sūtra and Tantra, translated and introduced by Karl Brunnhölzl (Snow Lion, 2014, released by the publisher in Jan. 2015 and at Amazon in Feb. 2015). This volume includes a translation of the accompanying Indian commentary, essential for correctly understanding the verses that comprise the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga or Uttara-tantra. It is the third English translation that includes this commentary, each of which was a major step forward. The first translation, by E. Obermiller published in 1931 (posted on this website under “References”), was competently made from the Tibetan translation before the Sanskrit original was discovered. This pioneering translation was a remarkable achievement, making this text available to the outside world for the first time, and doing so in a generally accurate manner. The second translation, by Jikido Takasaki published in 1966 (posted here under “References”), was the first to be made from the Sanskrit original. It, too, was a remarkable achievement, and well illustrates the improvements in understanding that the Sanskrit original makes possible. The third translation, just published, makes another major step forward. Despite being about transcendental subjects, the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga is an analytical treatise using many technical terms in a precise manner. Translation terminology has advanced considerably in the last few decades, with the publication of so many Buddhist texts. Taking nothing away from the previous two translations, the use of more accurate and precise translation terminology in the third translation makes possible a much clearer understanding of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga.

The translation of the term dhātu, the most central term of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga, is a prime example. Obermiller translated its Tibetan translation (khams) in verse 1.1 as the “Germ (of Buddhahood).” “Germ [of the Buddha]” was used by Takasaki for the term gotra (e.g., p. 288). Takasaki translated dhātu in verse 1.1 as the “Essence [of the Buddha].” “Essence of the Buddha” was used by Obermiller for the term tathāgata-garbha (e.g., p. 89). Brunnhölzl translates dhātu as “basic element,” similar to another translation of it used by Obermiller, “fundamental element.” The central meaning of dhātu is “element.” To distinguish it from its common usage as applied to other elements, the word “basic” was added for its use as a technical term applying to the one element. Translation terminology typically starts with what we may call “ball park” translations, translations that are somewhere within the range of meanings of a particular term. They are thus “in the ball park,” a large playing field. As more and more texts become available, and the particular term can be seen in more and more different settings, it becomes possible to get closer and closer to the central meaning of the term. Brunnhölzl very often uses translations that reflect the central meaning of a term rather than a peripheral meaning, as seen in his choice of “basic element” for the term dhātu.

As a sample, we may look at a passage on the one basic element (eka-dhātu) found in the accompanying Indian commentary on Ratna-gotra-vibhāga 1.12 in the three translations, preceded by the Sanskrit and Tibetan:

evam eṣāṃ bālānām anuśayavatāṃ nimitta-grāhiṇām ārambaṇa-caritānām ayoniśo-manasikāra-samudācārāt kleśa-samudayaḥ | kleśa-samudayāt karma-samudayaḥ | karma-samudayāj janma-samudayo bhavati | sa punar eṣa sarvâkāra-kleśa-karma-janma-saṃkleśo bālānām ekasya dhātor yathā-bhūtam ajñānād adarśanāc ca  pravartate |

de ltar na byis pa bag la nyal dang ldan pa mtshan mar ’dzin pa can | dmigs pa la spyod pa de dag la tshul bzhin ma yin pa yid la byed pa kun ’byung ba las nyon mongs pa kun ’byung ngo || nyon mongs pa kun ’byung ba las ni las kun ’byung ngo || las kun ’byung ba las ni skye ba kun ’byung bar ’gyur ro || byis pa rnams kyi* nyon mongs pa dang las dang skye ba’i kun nas nyon mongs pa’i rnam pa ’di thams cad kyang khams gcig yang dag pa ji lta ba bzhin ma shes pas rab tu ’jug go || 

*kyis in the Der-ge and Co-ne editions; Comparative Tengyur, vol. 70, p. 1003.

“Thus the ordinary worldly beings, possessed of the residues and seeds of the defiling forces and clinging to the reality of separate entities, are directed toward the (illusionary worldly) objects. Accordingly this gives rise to the wrong appreciation which is the origin of the passions. The latter in their turn call forth the deeds and these are the cause of (repeated) births. All these different forms of defilement peculiar to the worldlings, those of passions, deeds and repeated birth, manifest themselves in this world owing to the ignorance of the unique Germ (of Buddhahood) in its true character.” (Obermiller, p. 136)

“Thus these people, having tendencies [of Desire, Hatred and Ignorance], regarding the [unreal] characteristic [as real], and making it the basis of cognition, [affectionally] hanging on it, produce the Irrational Thought, from which consequently arises Defilement. Because of origination of Defilement, there arises Action; from the origination of Action, there arises Rebirth. And all kinds of impurity (saṃkleśa) of these Defilements, Action, Rebirth, etc. come forth because people do not know, nor perceive the one [real] essence as it is.” (Takasaki, p. 170)

“In this way, improper mental engagement manifests in naive beings who possess those latencies, grasp at [certain] characteristics, and engage in them as their focal objects. From that, the afflictions arise. From the arising of the afflictions, actions arise. From the arising of actions, there is the arising of birth. So all aspects of the afflictiveness of afflictions, karma, and birth of naive beings operate by virtue of not realizing and not seeing the single basic element in just the way it is in true reality.” (Brunnhölzl, p. 344)

As may be seen, the term dhātu, Tibetan khams, appears in Obermiller’s translation as the “Germ (of Buddhahood),” in Takasaki’s translation as the “[real] essence,” and in Brunnhölzl’s translation as the “basic element.” For the technical term kleśa, Tibetan nyon mongs pa, Obermiller uses “passions,” Takasaki uses “Defilement,” and Brunnhölzl uses “afflictions.” The latter, “affliction,” has now become widely used by translators of Buddhist texts, because it accords with the etymological meaning of kleśa. Of course, translators choose what seems best to them, and Brunnhölzl’s choices of translation terms do not always coincide with what is widely used. The key term in this literature, tathāgata-garbha, for which Obermiller had used both “Essence of Buddhahood/the Buddha” and “Germ of the Buddha,” and for which Takasaki used “Matrix of the Tathāgata,” is translated by Brunnhölzl as “tathāgata heart.” Most translators use words such as “matrix” or “embryo” for garbha in this compound. Elsewhere the word garbha commonly means “womb.” The meaning “heart” comes from snying po, the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit garbha here in this compound. The Tibetan word snying po also frequently translates the Sanskrit word sāra, meaning “essence.” It is apparently in the sense of “essence” that snying po was chosen for garbha in this compound by the early Tibetan translators, and it is apparently in the sense of “essence” that “heart” was chosen by Brunnhölzl (see p. 53).

Brunnhölzl tells us in his Preface that he has translated this text “from the Sanskrit and Tibetan” (p. xi). He had there noted that Obermiller’s translation was made “from the Tibetan,” and Takasaki’s translation was made “from the Sanskrit and Chinese.” Actually, Takasaki’s translation was made from the Sanskrit, under the guidance of V. V. Gokhale during Takasaki’s stay in India from August 1954 to January 1957, as Takasaki tells us in his Preface (p. xi). He certainly used the Chinese translation thoroughly, as may be seen in his many footnotes, and he also used the Tibetan translation thoroughly, as may also be seen in his many footnotes. Takasaki’s translation, however, was made from the Sanskrit. Brunnhölzl’s translation, as he tells us, was made from the Sanskrit and Tibetan. In many places his translation is clearly based on the Tibetan translation rather than on the Sanskrit original. Of course, he made full use of the Sanskrit original in conjunction with the Tibetan translation.

Brunnhölzl’s translation has also made full use of all the advancements in our understanding of this unique text since the publication of the Sanskrit original in 1950, edited by E. H. Johnston (posted here under “Sanskrit Texts,” along with Nakamura’s 1961 Sanskrit edition with the Chinese translation, his corresponding edition of the Tibetan translation, and his two multi-lingual indexes). This includes all the corrections and proposed emendations to the published Sanskrit text. Johnston used for his edition photographs of two old Sanskrit manuscripts discovered in Tibet in the 1930s by Rāhula Sāṅkṛityāyana, one of which was missing more than half of its leaves, and the other “does not reach the standard of accuracy of most Nepali MSS. of its period,” in Johnston’s words (p. vii). Johnston used both the Tibetan and Chinese translations in helping to establish the Sanskrit text. Johnston’s edition was seen through the press after his death by T. Chowdhury, who provided the first corrections and emendations (pp. i-iii, xvi). Takasaki in the course of preparing his 1966 translation noted many more, listing them in an appendix, pp. 396-399 (see also the corrigenda to that book, here attached as: Ratnagotravibhaga, A Study on, Takasaki, corrigenda). Then J. W. de Jong in a 1968 review of Takasaki’s translation provided another large group of corrections and emendations (here attached as: Ratnagotravibhaga, A Study on, Takasaki, review by de Jong). After that, Lambert Schmithausen in a long German article published in 1971 provided yet another large group of corrections and emendations (here attached as: Ratnagotravibhaga, Philologische Bemerkungen zum, Schmithausen 1971). He was able to use photographs of the Sanskrit manuscripts for these. In 1985 the Sanskrit Mahāyānottara-tantra-ṭippaṇī by Vairocana-rakṣita was published, edited by Zuiryū Nakamura (posted here under “Sanskrit Texts”). It provides many glosses on selected words and phrases, helpful for establishing both the meaning and the correct readings. Brunnhölzl used a later edition of it found in Kazuo Kano’s unpublished 2006 PhD dissertation. Brunnhölzl gives glosses from it in the notes to his translation of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga. Yet another page of corrections to the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga was given in Kano’s 2006 dissertation that Brunnhölzl acknowledges using (p. 1060, n. 1106). Kano recently informed me that he is preparing a new Sanskrit edition of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga. This will bring together all these many needed corrections, as Brunnhölzl laboriously did for his careful translation, and more.

Brunnhölzl includes a translation of one more Sanskrit text in this book. In 1974 and 1975 Takasaki published the Sanskrit text of a brief upadeśa or “pith instruction” in 37 verses by Sajjana on the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga, also discovered in Tibet in the 1930s by Rāhula Sāṅkṛityāyana (posted here under “Sanskrit Texts”). Brunnhölzl’s translation of this utilized a fuller Sanskrit edition including the interlinear glosses, found in the unpublished 2006 PhD dissertation by Kazuo Kano, and is based on Kano’s unrevised and uncorrected preliminary draft translation. Kano will be publishing a revised and corrected translation of this text shortly.

Brunnhölzl’s translation of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga is also informed by several Tibetan commentaries. Two of these are included in English translation in this 1334-page book. Valuable as these commentaries are, this review is limited to the Sanskrit materials, as was my review of the Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṃkāra posted here on Dec. 31, 2014. Suffice it to say that the first of these Tibetan commentaries is a very early one apparently written by an anonymous student of the translator Mar pa do pa chos kyi dbang phyug (1042-1136). According to its colophon, it gives Mar pa do pa’s teachings and those of the Indian pandit Parahitabhadra. It is “A Commentary on the Meaning of the Words of the ‘Uttaratantra’.” Its English translation occupies pp. 473-694. The other one is by the Karma Kagyu teacher (B)dud mo bkra shis ’od zer (15th-16th century). It incorporates the otherwise unavailable topical outline of the Uttara-tantra written by the Third Karmapa, Rang ’byung rdo rje (1284-1339). It occupies pp. 695-776. Following this are translations of six short Tibetan texts pertaining to the Uttara-tantra, four of which are by the Kadampa teacher Skyo ston smon lam tshul khrims (1219-1299). 

In conclusion, Brunnhölzl has provided us with what is quite the most accurate English translation of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga and its essential accompanying Indian commentary now available. Takasaki’s 1966 translation has deservedly held the field for nearly fifty years, and remains a necessary reference with its many grammatical notes. Brunnhölzl has fully utilized all the refinements of the Sanskrit text that have been published in the interim, has fully utilized the wide Tibetan exegetical tradition, and has employed more accurate and precise translation terminology that the intervening years have made possible.

Category: Noteworthy Books | 1 comment

  • […] the effects produced out of the inexpressible “one basic element,” or eka-dhātu (cf. Ratna-gotra-vibhāga: A Review or The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, 1888, pg. 571). They are the emanators of the monads (Gr. monas, […]


  • You must be logged in to post a comment.