Languages at the Austin Zen Center

by Mark Bykoski

The Soto Zen Buddhist tradition practiced at the Austin Zen Center could be said to come to us from Japan by way of San Francisco. Its more distant origins, however, are fairly complex. To describe its roots chronologically, Buddhism began in India, spread to central Asia, and then to Tibet and China. When Buddhism met with the native Daoist tradition in China, there developed a school known as Chan (, from the Sanskrit dhyana, meditation). As Chan spread, it became known as Son in Korea and as Zen in Japan.

As Buddhism spread geographically, it developed different modes of expression in the various cultures where it found a home. Texts traveled and were translated from one language to another. New texts were composed, drawing from the multilinguistic background of the tradition. This process began as Buddhism first started to spread through different regions of India, and it continues in our own culture today.

Here at the Austin Zen Center, we encounter texts and terminology from languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese. This material comes to us through various layers of translation and transliteration, making for a linguistically complex body of scripture and lore.

The earliest extant Buddhist writings are in Pali, a language of ancient India. Pali belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and is distantly related to English and to most of the other languages of Europe. The refuges are often chanted in Pali during retreats at AZC, at the end of the day:"Buddham saranam gacchami... Dhammam... Sangham...." (I take refuge in the Awakened One... in the Teaching... in the Community....). Pali texts may also be encountered in classes at AZC. Sometimes it may be confusing to run across Pali words that correspond to Sanskrit words that we are more familiar with. A few examples:

Pali Sanskrit English
dhamma dharma teaching; element of experience
nibbana nirvana "extinction," leaving cycle of birth and death
bhikkhu bhiksu (or bhikshu) monk
arahant arhat "worthy," one who has extinguished passions
anatta anatman no self
paticca-samuppada pratitya-samutpada dependant co-arising
magga marga path
sutta sutra "thread," a talk given by the Buddha
khanda skandha "heap," aggregate, element of sensory experience

The later Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") tradition that developed in northern India generally used the Sanskrit language (a close relative of Pali) in writing. While Pali was one of a number of regional languages, Sanskrit had for centuries been the main literary language of India. It is Mahayana, with its Sanskrit literature that eventually spread to China and Japan. In addition to the words mentioned above, Sanskrit terms encountered at AZC include, bodhisattva ("enlightening being", one dedicated to the liberation of others), prajna-paramita (perfection of wisdom), and dana (generosity).

Buddhism started to make its way into China in the first century of the Common Era. Most of the many terms of Chinese origin used at AZC are known to us by their Japanese pronunciation. Occasionally we run into words in their Chinese form (transliterated into our alphabet), particularly Daoist philosophical terms such as dao (,"the way"), and wuwei (無爲, "without doing", effortless action). One text that is chanted in English at AZC is known to us by its Chinese title, Xinxinming (信心銘, Trust in Mind Inscription).

The Chan/Zen teaching stories known as koans ( , Chinese: gong'an,"public case") were mostly written in China in the tenth to thirteenth centuries (based on anecdotes reputed to go as far back as the fifth century). They are sometimes studied at AZC in English translation.

The earliest translators attempting to find Chinese equivalents for Buddhist Sanskrit terminology tended to use terms from Chinese philosophy, such as dao (,"the way") for dharma. Later translators moved away from that approach. The word that was eventually settled on as the standard translation of dharma is fa (, Japanese: ho), which originally means"law" or"method". In Chinese Buddhist contexts, however, it may be used much the way dharma is used in Sanskrit: to refer to the Buddhist teachings, or to mean"element of experience" or"phenomenon." Translating that term from Chinese (or Japanese) into English, we usually render it using the original Sanskrit word dharma, transliterated into our Roman alphabet. The Chinese also chose to transliterate the sounds of some Sanskrit terms, rather than translate them according to their meaning (for example, niepan for nirvana). The Chinese Buddhist lexicon eventually settled into a combination of translation and transliteration for terms derived from Sanskrit. When Buddhism made its way into Japan, the Japanese generally used the Chinese terminology.

The Japanese did not write their language until they had come into contact with the Chinese. Chinese and Japanese are very different languages, and when the Japanese began to use the Chinese writing system around the fourth century of the Common Era, they did not initially write their own language, but rather learned to write in the Chinese language of the time. The Chinese written characters are called Kanji in Japanese. At some point the Japanese began using certain Kanji for their sound rather than their meaning, to represent syllables of the Japanese language. That system is known as Manyogana. Eventually, in order to make the characters used for their sound distinct from those used for their meaning, the Manyogana characters were stylized to form two different sets of phonetic characters, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji continued to be used for their meaning, but were now supplemented by Hiragana and/or Katakana to represent all of the grammatical endings and particles that had no equivalent in the Chinese writing system. Modern Japanese usually uses Hiragana for grammatical elements, and Katakana for newer foreign words or for emphasis.

The Japanese not only imported Chinese characters, but a great many Chinese words as well, especially technical terms relating to government, philosophy, religion and the arts. The Japanese pronounced these loan words according to the Chinese pronunciation at the time, adapted to the sound system of Japanese. This is why some Japanese words sound similar to their Chinese equivalents, while other words bear no resemblance. Kanji were used not only to write loan words from Chinese, but also to write native Japanese words according to their meaning. Consequently many Kanji have at least two pronunciations in Japanese. The pronunciation derived from Chinese, used for loan words from Chinese is called On-yomi. The pronunciation for native Japanese words is called Kun-yomi. For example, the character meaning"heart" (心, pronounced xin in modern Chinese) has the On pronunciation shin in loan words such as Shin Gyo (心經, Heart Sutra), but it also can be used to write the native Japanese word for"heart," kokoro, (its Kun pronunciation).

Most of the Japanese technical terms used at AZC are loan words from Chinese pronounced according to On-yomi. (Examples: zendo, zafu, han, kinhin, chiden, mokugyo, tenzo, doshi, shuso, oryoki, shikantaza, dokusan)

The Japanese imported words from Chinese during more than one historical period, with the result that some Kanji have more than one On pronunciation. For example, we pronounce the transcription of Maha Prajnaparamita as"Maka Hannya-haramitta" in the Heart Sutra, but as"Moko Hoja-horomi" in the"Jiho sanshi" chant (the latter appears to be closer to the modern Mandarin pronunciation, Mohe Boreboluomiduo).

Rather than translate the Chinese Buddhist texts into Japanese, the Japanese monks generally chanted and studied the Chinese texts, using Japanese pronunciation. This Chinese language chanted in Japanese is sometimes referred to as"Sino-Japanese." The Maka Hannya-haramitta Shin Gyo, Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo and the Robe Chant are examples that are chanted at AZC.

In cases where the sound of the original language was believed to have special power, the Chinese chose to transliterate rather than translate certain Sanskrit texts. An example chanted at AZC is Daihi Shin Dharani, a text originally written in Sanskrit, transliterated according to ancient Chinese pronunciation into Chinese characters, and now chanted using Sino-Japanese pronunciation (the end result of that convoluted history does not sound much like Sanskrit).

Some texts chanted or studied at AZC were originally written in Japanese. Sandokai is an example that is chanted in Japanese. The difference from the Sino-Japanese language is readily apparent.

Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese Zen ancestor who traveled and practiced extensively in China, and who founded Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in both Chinese and Japanese. His works, some which are characterized by inventive wordplay, are chanted and studied at AZC in English translation.

— Mark Bykoski is a member of the Austin Zen Center. He studied Chinese at the University of Maryland and has traveled to China.

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