Upāsaka Dharmavardhana Jñānagarbha
To destroy all views, he taught the Saddharma,
out of compassion: I bow to him, Gautama.
Those who venerate the Saddhamma,
who have abided in it, and are abiding in it,
grow in the Dhamma,
like well-moistened herbs.
The second Kodhagaru Sutta
When we analyze the Buddha, the Bhagavat, by reasoning that his Textual Tradition has been written down by many different Makers of the Communal Chanting, in the languages of many different countries, it turns out that he is Omniscient, teaching the Dharma in the language of the Omniscient Ones; and this is not the case of others such as Hari, Hara, etc.
The Stainless Light Commentary on the Kālacakratantra
Explaining Nāgārjuna’s verse appearing above, which is the last verse of the ‘Root Stanzas of Madhyamaka’, the great Candrakīrti offers two complementary interpretations: it is called Saddharma because it is the Dharma of the Noble Ones (ārya), who can also be called ‘good’ (sat); alternatively, it is itself the ‘good Dharma’, meaning that it is worthy of praise, as it causes the destruction of the entirety of the suffering of saṁsāra.
Both explanations highlight how the term Saddharma can exclusively refer to the teachings of the Buddha. Nobles Ones have abandoned all wrong views (i.e., non-Buddhist views of either an eternal self or of denial of rebirth), and only the awareness of selflessness, unique trait of the Buddhist teachings, can lead to complete liberation from saṁsāra.
Both Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti are Buddhist, speaking with a Buddhist voice; quite obviously non-Buddhist philosophers will not agree. Our conversation often went back to this point – and I felt I had to be cautious in finding a balance between being honest vs running the risk of creating misconceptions. Passages wherein the unique features of the Buddhist teachings are highlighted need to be handled with care when speaking to a broader audience, and especially when interacting with non-Buddhists. Not everyone easily grasps the difference between looking down on a certain view versus saying that it is greatly beneficial but not the one that one finds most convincing. I suppose this is because we are talking of what people often care the most about – their entire view of themselves, or more briefly, themselves.
Generally, Buddhist authors remark that several non-Buddhist views can be the basis of vast benefit and happiness within saṁsāra, but that the realization of the nature of things, and thus liberation, is achieved through the middle way as taught by the Buddha; and indeed the Buddha himself dealt with this point extensively in such Sūtras as the ‘Sūtra of the Net of Brahmā’, and more succintly in such Sūtras as ‘The Sūtra of the Five and the Three’. Quite a lot of the Buddhist teachings are devoted to the clarification of right view and of the reasons why one shall discard other views as not leading to liberation: it is not a matter of being obsessed with technical distinctions – it is a matter of life and death, and of how to go beyond them once and for all. To put it differently, it is a matter of vipaśyanā: ‘One who sees things as they are, is liberated’ (bhūtadarśī vimucyate).
Mutual misunderstandings rather often result from our use of language; this seems especially true when we are interacting at a distance, with limited amounts of time, and sometimes just via short written comments. It seems therefore that the decision of having a conversation on the language we use to study, practice, and convey the Buddhist teachings should be a very profitable starting point.
For example: can non-Buddhists be enlightened? This question was the occasion for other questions: first of all, what does the person who asks mean by ‘enlightened’, and, why use such word? Does it really belong to a Buddhist context? Is it a harmless term, or is it a case of imposing European and Christian images onto a context where they are bound to create some degree of confusion? To some extent, we explored these questions: while we may have not offered much by way of a solution, in order to gain clarity it seems necessary to first acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and at the very least we succeeded in showing this point. It was rather clear that we are not clear: I suspect it took many millions of lifetimes of merit to get to this level of clarity on February 27th 2564. Now we share a mutually comprehensible chaos.
From the perspective that I find most convincing, there is no completely uniform perception among sentient beings; this is especially true when talking of the way a Buddha appears to those who require guidance. It is sometimes said that from his own side the Buddha never spoke a single letter, yet his audience was ‘satisfied with a shower of Dharma’. The appearance of the Buddha’s teaching arises in dependence upon various factors: the previous accumulations and aspirations of the Buddha during the Bodhisattva path; the karma and perception of sentient beings. Or, to put it very shortly, it depends from the mind. Since the latter is not the same for all, and since the aspirations of Bodhisattvas have no limit, the Buddha does not appear in the same way to everyone. This theme is very clearly presented in a number of Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as ‘The Ornament of the Light of Awareness’, as well as in the main treatise on Buddha Nature, called ‘The Divisions of the Jewel-Lineage’ (Ratnagotravibhāga). While this may not go well with the prevailing religion and world-view of materialist causality, it is I think rather clearly emphasized in the Buddhist teachings that ‘the mind is the forerunner of all things’. The brain, too, is one among many temporary accidents of the mind.
From this perspective asking ‘in what language did the Buddha speak’ loses significance as it is based on the unproven assumption that the teachings appeared uniformly to all listeners, and also, that we perfectly understand the nature of time. But if that were we case, we would not be ordinary sentient beings, since that understanding is the Perfection of Wisdom herself.
We find that the Buddhist tradition offers different accounts regarding the languages of the Dharma. According to some traditions, from the outset there were several languages even for the non-Mahāyāna Sūtras; according to other traditions, the non-Mahāyāna Sūtras were taught in the language of Magadha, while the Mahāyāna Sūtras were taught in Sanskrit, and the Tantras in a few different languages; according to some influential masters in the Pāli traditions, the Magadha teachings are the most genuine ones. In all the traditions we also find an injunction against translating the teachings into chandas, i.e. the language of the Veda – this, it should be noted, is not identical with Sanskrit as a whole, as Vedic language has its own special grammatical rules, etc. On my part, I think that all of these traditionals account are perfectly accurate, for those who practice according to a particular lineage due to their convictions about the nature of possible and impossible things.
We spoke of the importance of learning Sanskrit and Pāli in terms that emphasized the long-term preservation of the Dharma. I would like to introduce one more consideration, to complement what has already been said: Sanskrit and Pāli carry a long tradition of ‘empowering presence’ (adhiṣṭhāna), from the Buddhas of the ten directions, from Arhats, Pratyekabuddhas, Bodhisattvas, Siddhas, and meditational deities. Unlike modern English translations, Buddhist texts in Sanskrit and Pāli have rhythm and rich prosody; they are fit to be chanted, which is an easy way to bring a ‘magical’ element into one’s daily life. By this, I mean a subtler form of dependent arising, closer to the mind and less involved with measurable things.
Dr Mattia Salvini
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the SATTVA Project or its members.
Dr Mattia Salvini
PhD in Buddhist Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (London)