Commentarial Literature

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Buddhist commentarial writing spans a period of more than two thousand years. Its rich production, of which only a fragment has survived the vicissitudes of history, closely mirrors all facets of the doctrinal and many aspects of the cultural and social development of the religion.

One may, in the widest possible sense, conceive of all Buddhist scriptures as commentarial: The sūtra discourses comment on the Buddha's insights and the path, the abhidharma literature comments on the teachings given in the discourses, and the MahĀyĀna literature comments on the meaning of ŚŪnyata (emptiness) underlying the teachings. Commentaries elaborate on meaning (artha), meaning that demands special attention. The writing of commentaries belongs, alongside other modes of practice, among the ways of preserving and spreading the dharma. In terms of cultural history, the significance of commentarial literature consists in its capacity to reflect general cultural and religious trends and to serve as a venue for developing interpretative skills and working out fundamental intellectual issues.

Zanning (919–1001), a representative of the Chinese tradition, explains the significance of Buddhist commentaries in his Song gaoseng zhuan (Song Biographies of Eminent Monks): "perfecting the way—this is dharma; carrying the dharma—this is sūtra; explaining sūtra—this is commentary" (T.2061:50.735b). Commentaries by definition are situated downstream of the flow of tradition and thus are never able to supersede scripture. Yet given the priority of meaning (artha) before wording (vacana), commentaries are expected to reiterate and bring to light the meaning that is hidden within scripture.

Indian commentaries

The teachings of the dharma, from the very beginning, called for commentary. Thus one not only learns that the Buddha was frequently called upon to elaborate on teachings he had given, but equally that the Buddha considered some of his disciples, such as ŚĀriputra, to be equally capable of stating the teachings clearly. But this stage is still one of oral exegesis. Only with the establishment of the Buddhist canon (tripiṭaka) did monks begin to write commentaries. In the course of interpreting the teachings, schools of interpretation arose. The two major extant strains of South Asian commentarial writing are the TheravĀda commentaries, written in Pāli, and the SarvĀstivĀda and MŪlasarvĀstivĀda commentaries in Sanskrit. The latter have been translated into Chinese. In addition, a few commentaries from other schools are extant.

At the beginning of the fifth century, Buddhaghosa—on the basis of earlier Sinhala commentaries—composed a series of commentarial works on the Pāli canon. Among them were two commentaries on the vinaya: Samantapāsādikā (The All-Pleasing) and Kaṅkhāvitaraṅī (Overcoming Doubt). The Samantapāsādikā was translated into Chinese by Saṅghabhadra in 489 as the Shanjianlü pibosha (T.1462). The Kaṅkhāvitaraṅī is a commentary on the Patimokkha (Sanskrit, PrĀtimokṢa). As was the case with the vinaya, once the Suttapiṭaka had been established, a number of commentaries on its texts came to be written. Of particular importance are Buddhaghosa's commentaries on the nikāyas (Sumaṅgalavilāsinī, Papañcasūdanī, Sāratthappakāsinī, Manorathapūranī, Paramāṭṭhajotikā), and on the abhidhamma (Aṭṭhāsalinī, Saṃohavinodanī, Pañcappakaraṇāṭṭhakathā).

In the case of the Sarvāstivāda, its writings are for the most part preserved only in Chinese. Its single most important treatise is Katyāyanīputra's Jñanaprasthāna (Foundations of Knowledge, composed around 50 b.c.e.), to which are related the six treatises (pādaśāstra): Dharmaskandha, Saṃgītiparyāya, Dhātukāya, Prakaraṇa, Vijñānakāya, and Prajñapti. The major exegetical collection, the Mahāvibhāṣā (Great Exegesis), compiled at a council held by Kaṇiṣka, is also related to the Jñanaprasthāna. Six of the seven treatises of this abhidharma piṭaka were translated by Xuanzang (ca. 600–664).

Chinese commentaries

Though it is difficult to define beginnings, scholars know that Zhi Qian (fl. 223–253) and Kang Senghui (?–280) were already composing commentaries during the third century c.e. But commentaries probably gained importance only around the time of Dao'an (312–385). From the biographical literature, one can glean indications of a thriving early commentarial literature, but it is almost completely lost. Examples of this earliest phase are Chen Hui's (ca. 200 c.e.) Yin chi ru jing; Dao'an's Ren ben yu sheng jing zhu; Sengzhao's (374–414) Zhu Weimo jing; and Faxian's (ca. 337–418) Fanwang jing pusa jie shu.

Around the beginning of the fifth century, a new type of commentary emerged. Dao'an and Daosheng (ca. 360–434) played major roles in this transition. Fayao's (ca. 420–477) Nirvana Sutra and Zhu Fachong's (ca. 268) Lotus SŪtra commentaries (both lost), and Zhu Daosheng's extant Lotus commentary are the earliest examples of this new type of commentary. Two extensive commentaries from the first half of the sixth century are also extant: one (in seventy-one fascicles) on the Nirvāṇa Sūtra (Da ban niepan jing ji jie, 509) collected by Baoliang, the other (in eight fascicles) on the Lotus (Fahua jing yiji, 529) collected by Fayun (467–529). Both of these commentaries played important roles in the formation of the Sinitic Buddhist schools, and both reveal an important feature of this type of literature, namely, their explicit or implicit referencing of earlier exegesis.

The third phase of Chinese Buddhist commentarial writing began with the masters of the Sui dynasty (589–618) and was followed by a long series of extremely prolific masters of the Tang dynasty (618–907), who developed their doctrinal positions in the context of systematic exegetic efforts, eventually setting the stage for the emergence of schools of exegesis such as Tiantai, Huayan, and Faxiang. Noteworthy representatives of that phase are the Dilun master Jingying Huiyuan (523–596); the Sanlun master Jizang (549–623); the Tiantai masters Zhiyi (538–597), Guanding (561–632), and Zhanran (711–782); the Faxiang masters WŎnch'Ŭ;k (613–696, from Korea), Kuiji (632–682), Huizhao (?–714), and Zhizhou (679–723); the Huayan masters Zhiyan (628–668), WŎnhyo (617–686, from Korea), Fazang (643–712), Chengguan (738–840), and the lay Li Tongxuan (?–730); and the esoteric master Yixing (683–727).

The major exegetes commonly wrote commentaries on a broad set of scriptures. Thus one and the same scripture is marked by a long series of commentarial treatments. The Lotus Sūtra, the Diamond SŪtra, and the Heart SŪtra, respectively, are the scriptures most often commentated on in China. There are about eighty extant Chinese commentaries on each of these sūtras. Besides these, the Huayan jing, Vimalakīrti, Wuliangshou, Amituo, Yuanjue, Nirvāṇa, Laṅkāvatāra, and Fanwang jing also drew much exegetic attention. Among the treatises, the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun) was most often commentated on. The extant commentaries serve as the most important sources for information on the formation and development of Chinese Buddhist thought.

Exegesis, the plurality of transmissions, and the commentarial context

The development of Chinese Buddhist commentarial literature was influenced by the fact that the transmission of scriptures was far from systematic. At almost any period a broad set of scriptures of diverse provenance was available that reflected various stages of the development of Buddhist doctrine. This plurality was born from translations in the third and fourth centuries of dhyāna, prajñāpāramitā, and tathāgatagarbha scriptures, in the early fifth century by a series of Madhyamaka and Sarvāstivāda abhidharma works, and in the sixth and seventh centuries by the systematic Yogācāra and abhidharma transmission of Xuanzang. This situation necessitated the creation of a method that allowed the systematic integration of all available teachings under a common roof (panjiao). The premises of this method were that all scriptures could be assigned to different stages in the Buddha's teaching career, that they all address different audiences according to their respective maturity, and that they make the ultimate meaning explicit to varying degrees. In terms of commentarial practice this translated into a set of rules of interpretation. Foremost among these rules was the fourfold prop (catuḥpratisaraṅa) of Buddhist hermeneutics, which emphasized meaning (artha) before wording (vacana), complete meaning (nīta) before incomplete meaning (neya), and true insight (prajñā) before cognition and reasoning (vijñāna).

Some Chinese commentators indicate that their commentaries were based on lectures, and written commentaries were often composed by disciples on the basis of lecture notes, so that one can assume that the two major contexts of commentary writing are lecturing and translating. There is evidence from Dunhuang showing the homiletic context of scriptural interpretation, and this background does not seem to have ever been completely lost. In the context of translating from Indian or Central Asian languages into Chinese, translation and interpretation could not be separated because translators usually offered explanations of the scripture being translated, and the explanations often crept into the text itself. Thus, for example, the writings of Sengzhao on prajnĀpĀramitĀ literature were based on his cooperation with KumĀrajĪva (344–409/413), or the commentaries of Kuiji were created in the context of the translation academy of Xuanzang.

Types of commentaries

The oldest type of Chinese commentary, the zhu (only three of which are extant), may derive from an oral context. The zhu is a straightforward line-by-line exegesis that weaves glosses into the main text. These commentaries are prefaced by introductions that interpret the title and explain the setting of the discourse and the reasons for the commentary. This simple type of commentary was superseded by the shu commentary, which flourished between the sixth and mid-ninth centuries. The shu embodies the best of the monastic and scholastic tradition, exhibiting all signs of a flourishing exegetic culture and displaying a level of sophistication probably unsuited for the nonexpert laity.

Two major features characterize shu commentary, namely, its method of segmenting the scripture (kepan) and its topical introductions. The topical introductions discuss the scope of the commentary and the issues at stake for the Buddhist commentator. The introductions comprise two major groups of topics: dogmatic (the aim of the teaching, the meaning of the title, the work's basic thought, the intended audience of the teaching, its relationship to other teachings) and historical (the transmissions of the work and the history of its promulgation, including places and conventions, history of its translation, and its miraculous power).

This type of commentarial introduction reflects not only on Chinese exegesis, but on major issues of Buddhist exegesis. Accordingly, Vasubandhu (fourth century c.e.), a major representative of Indian exegesis, summarized in his Vyākhyāyukti (Practice of Exegesis; extant only in Tibetan) the commentarial task: state the aim of the teaching (prayojana), state its overall meaning (piṅḍa) and its detailed meaning (padārtha), state its internal consequence (anusaṃdhika), refute objections (codyaparihāra) with regard to wording (śabda) and meaning (artha), in order to show its perfection (yukti). Chinese commentators classify Vasubandhu's first two tasks as independent introductory topics; the other three are incorporated into the main body of exegesis.

Vasubandhu presumes that the word of the Buddha is perfect, that all scriptures are the Buddha's word, that only perfect words need and deserve commentary, and that a person cannot understand scripture unless he or she understands the purpose of a certain teaching. In particular, one must understand a scripture in terms of the audience it is meant to address, especially if the audience is not deemed to be mature enough to comprehend the scripture's deeper meanings. This latter assumption was a fundamental element in determining the liberty a commentator might take in interpreting scripture.

Segmental analysis

Chinese scholastic commentary is also characterized by segmental analysis (kepan), by which the author assigns to scripture a chain of exegetic terms. The most obvious aspect of this approach, which gained importance after the fifth century, consists in the segmenting of scripture into (1) introduction (xu), which gives the setting of the discourse (location, participants, occasion); (2) main body (zhengzong), which consists in the discourse proper, and (3) eulogy (liutong), which describes the joy of the listeners and the promise of the spread of the dharma. This triple partition of sūtra may have derived from the Fodi jing lun (T.1530.26:291c). Although segmental analysis is related by tradition to Dao'an, the oldest extant example of its application can be found in Fayun's Lotus Sūtra commentary (Fahua jing yiji, T.1715.33:574c).

Beneath this first tripartite level, scholastic commentaries have further layers of segmentation, which consist of a sequence of exegetic terms (often several hundred) assigned to designated passages of scripture. One group of exegetic terms specifically marks off parts of scripture as phases of dialogue between the speaker and the interlocutor. Since most sūtras are in the form of dialogues between the Buddha and his disciples, it is possible that the first step a commentator might have taken was to segment the sequence of speech acts. Indeed, in some of the older commentaries of the early Tang period, the exegetic chain is built around a dialogic baseline. Knowing that an exegetic chain may include several hundred terms, the modern reader may wonder how any reader could be expected to keep track of the commentary's expository structure. In order to remedy this situation, graphic charts displaying the exegetic structure were developed. Although it may seem otherwise, most kepan and their accompanying charts are probably rooted in the homiletic situation, and are not a product of a culture dominated by writing. In fact, the kepan structures point back to the earliest stage of Buddhist exegesis, where they may have served as mnemonic aids for oral interpretation.

After the Tang period, kepan-style exegesis yielded to other methods, and scholastic introduction in general was replaced by newer, simpler forms. The genre of commentarial literature as a whole from the Song dynasty (960–1279) onward shows a process of simplification, a transformation that probably resulted, in part, from the advent of new printing technologies.

This simplification process was also part of a major transformation of the social context of exegesis. Whereas before the Song, commentators were mainly monks, from the Song onward a substantial body of commentaries were written by lay Buddhists. In addition, the Chan school and its rhetoric of immediate insight without reliance on words found support in the fundamental notion of the ineffability of the ultimate meaning of the dharma, which may have substantially impeded the further development of formal scriptural exegesis. Despite these factors, and though many assume that the genre of Buddhist exegesis passed its zenith centuries ago, commentaries on Buddhist teachings are still being written.

See also:Canon; China; India; Scripture


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Maraldo, John C. "Hermeneutics and Historicity in the Study of Buddhism." Eastern Buddhist 19, no. 1 (1986): 17–43.

Alexander L. Mayer