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As it spread throughout Asia, Buddhism succeeded in crossing a remarkable number of linguistic boundaries, in some cases being transposed into languages very different from those spoken in India. Its doctrines came to be presented orally in numerous languages and dialects, and its canonical literature, once written down, was translated into over a dozen languages even in premodern times. Since the historical sources do not permit scholars to identify all the languages used for oral presentations of the teaching, the following entry will focus on written expressions, considering oral transmission during only the early period of Indian Buddhism.

Whether any words of the Buddha are preserved in his own tongue is a matter of dispute. The TheravĀda claims that Pāli, the Middle Indian language used by that school for its scriptures, was the language of the Buddha. Modern research, however, has convincingly shown Pāli to be a western, or rather a west-central, dialect of Middle Indian, while the Buddha himself must have spoken an eastern dialect, most probably Old Māgadhī, the local language of the area in which he wandered, or perhaps some form of "Gangetic koine." Not a single utterance of the Buddha is preserved in that language, but certain words and forms in the Pāli canon reveal traces of a transposition from the eastern into the western dialect. Therefore it is safe to assume that during the early phases of its transmission, the word of the Buddha was transposed into local dialects wherever Buddhist monks traveled and taught.

The Buddha himself is said to have regulated the use of languages or dialects for the spread of his teaching. According to a difficult passage preserved in various vinayas, two monks, both former brahmins, asked the Buddha for permission to redact the teaching in a form corresponding to (Vedic) Sanskrit in order to avoid corruptions. The Buddha, however, declined the request and apparently ordered that everybody should transmit his teaching in their own (spoken) language. This passage is generally understood as permitting the use of the various vernaculars for the spread of the doctrine; it is consistent with the exoteric nature of Buddhism and its basic intention of making its doctrines accessible to everybody, in deliberate contrast to brahminical restrictions.

It is questionable whether any kind of Urkanon took shape during the lifetime of the Buddha or soon after. Initially, preservation of the teachings with their wording unaltered was not considered a necessary criterion of authenticity, and this contributed greatly to fostering linguistic diversity and spreading the teaching as Buddhism left its homeland in the Ganges plain. The texts that had hitherto been transmitted orally were then transposed into other more or less supraregional Middle Indian dialects to facilitate understanding and wider dissemination. At present we know of only two, Pāli and Gāndhārī, Pāli being a western dialect, whereas Gāndhārī was widely used in the northwestern part of the subcontinent and, with the growth of the Kushan empire, in Bactria and Central Asia. Pāli became the canonical language of the Theravāda school, and Gāndhārī that of the Dharmaguptaka. Considerably later sources mention other Prakrits used by various schools, namely Paiśācī, Apabhraṃśa, and Maddhyoddeśika. Apabhraṃśa is assigned to the Saṃmatīyas or to the Sthaviras, and Maddhyoddeśika to either the Sthaviras or the MahĀsĀṂghika school.

All schools must at first have transmitted their canonical texts in Prakrit. Some of them, like the Theravāda, retained their Middle Indian language, while others participated in the so-called Sanskrit renaissance and started to Sanskritize their received literature. Sanskritization was apparently a gradual process permitting schools that were spread over a vast area to undergo different regional developments. The literature of the (Mūla-)Sarvāstivāda is preserved only in Buddhist Sanskrit, but its older layers reveal many traces of the underlying Prakrit. Surviving fragments suggest that the Dharmaguptakas also took part in the process of Sanskritization, at least in Central Asia. The growing number of fragments found in Afghanistan since 1994 supports the view that the Mahāsāṃghikas, and especially the Lokottaravāda, used a specific mixture of Prakrit and Sanskrit that may be termed Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit in the true sense, and which was probably referred to as Maddhyoddeśika (intermediate recitation), a term not yet fully understood.

Retention or translation

When Buddhism began to spread beyond the Indian subcontinent, missionaries and local followers were confronted with the problem of how to communicate the teaching, the rituals, and the literature in a totally different linguistic environment. Basically, two possibilities offered themselves: to preserve the Indian language used so far, or to translate into the local language. Preserving the Indian original offered practitioners several advantages, among them a sense of the sacredness of oral and written texts derived from their use of the holy language supposedly spoken in the homeland of the Buddha or even by the Buddha himself; continuing access to other Indian sources; and, very importantly, unambiguousness in terminological matters. It also provided a useful common currency in a multiethnic and multilingual environment, no small issue when a Buddhist missionary movement came to be supported by the ruling powers for its unifying potential. On the other hand, Indian languages would have been incomprehensible to most followers outside India and a deterrent to prospective converts, especially in areas where non-Indo-European languages were spoken. This unintelligibility would have facilitated their readiness to exchange the Indian original for a more suitable vernacular, even if it necessitated the gargantuan task of finding at least approximate equivalents in the target language for difficult Indian Buddhist terminology. Discussions preserved in several Chinese and Tibetan treatises clearly show that some translators were well aware of the methodological, philological, and cultural problems involved in the translation process; their reflections on these problems resulted in attempts to establish guidelines for bridging the linguistic and cultural divide.

In the course of history both these possibilities—retention of the Indian original and translation into the vernacular—were employed, sometimes side by side. Several times the vernacular chosen for translation became itself a transregional "church" language (i.e., the idiom used for canonical scriptures and liturgical purposes) when its specific form of Buddhism crossed further linguistic borders, as in the case of Chinese and Tibetan. Although no Buddhist tradition developed prescriptions for or against the use of a specific language, in most cases one observes a slowly but steadily increasing tendency to regard the language of the written canonical texts as sacred, and this greatly reduced the original openness to linguistic changes characteristic of the early period of oral transmission in India. Wherever the language of the canonical literature was not identical with the vernacular, sooner or later the vernacular came to be used for the production of a sometimes very rich noncanonical Buddhist literature consisting of commentaries, story collections, manuals, poetry, devotional texts, and the like, and sometimes this led to the development of a new literary language in its own right. Examples are the use of Newari, Tamil, and Old Javanese alongside Sanskrit, and Thai, Japanese, and Mongolian alongside Pāli, Chinese, and Tibetan, respectively.

Central Asia. A most interesting case exemplifying the various possibilities is Central Asia, where various forms of Buddhism coexisted during the second half of the first millennium. First, there were some ethnic groups, notably speakers of the two dialects of Tocharian (the easternmost form of western Indo-European), of the two Saka dialects, Tumshuq and Khotanese (Middle Iranian), and of Uigur (a Turkish language), who continued to use Sanskrit as their "church" language, but also translated scriptures into their vernacular and composed their own Buddhists texts. That these ethnic groups transmitted scriptures in Sanskrit is proven by the existence of a considerable number of bilingual manuscripts and texts, manuscripts where glosses in one of the local languages are added to a Sanskrit text between the lines, as well as texts, at least in the case of the Tocharians and Uigurs, where the Sanskrit original and the vernacular translation alternate word by word or sentence by sentence in the same line. Second, there were the Chinese and the Tibetans, both of whom translated Buddhist literature into their own languages from the very beginning of missionary activity in their countries. Finally, there is the specific case of the Sogdians, speakers of another Middle Iranian language, whose merchants must have been instrumental in spreading Indian Buddhism and its literature from the Kushan empire to China. When they started in the second half of the first millennium to translate Buddhist texts into Sogdian, they did so from Chinese translations of Indian originals. All this can be gleaned from Central Asian manuscript finds, and specifically from the walled-up library in Dun-huang, where texts in all these different languages were found side by side.

According to Jan Nattier no translation of an Indian Buddhist text into a vernacular is found west of Kashgar, the westernmost town in the Tarim basin. So far, recent manuscript finds in Afghanistan confirm her view, since nearly all the texts are written in Indian languages. There is only one exception—a Buddhist text in Bactrian, yet another Middle Iranian language, but at present it is not clear whether it is a translation or a ritual text written in the vernacular for a specific purpose.

China and East Asia. As soon as Buddhism reached China it proved necessary to translate its texts into Chinese. One reason for this must have been the extreme grammatical and phonetic differences between Indian languages and Chinese; another reason was the sheer foreignness of Buddhism to the Chinese, whose highly sophisticated and literary culture was distinguished by rather different value systems and aesthetic perceptions. Translation techniques went through various models and periods, starting with the second-century translator An Shigao, who made extensive use of the vocabulary and other features of the spoken language. This tendency to incorporate vernacular elements was followed by a period that was characterized by an attempt to employ Daoist vocabulary to express Buddhist terms and ideas, and to write in a more literary mode. A new standard was set during the fifth century when the famous translator KumĀrajĪva (350–409/413) introduced the translation bureau, a team of Chinese and foreign specialists who, usually under state patronage, jointly took care of the various steps involved in the translation process. Similar institutions were set up several times in the history of Central and East Asian Buddhism—for example, in Tibet during its imperial age, and later in Central Asia and China for the translations of the Tangut, Mongol, and Manchu versions of the tripiṭaka.

As Chinese culture became paradigmatic throughout East Asia, Buddhism went along with it. In its Sinitic form, Buddhism spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and literary Chinese became the "church" language of Buddhist literature throughout East Asia. In Central Asia, as mentioned above, Chinese translations served as the basis for all the translations into Sogdian, but also for many into Uigur and some into Tibetan. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, a considerable number of translations—first of Chinese, then also of Tibetan translations of Buddhist texts—were further translated into Tangut or Xixia, another Sino-Tibetan language used in the Tangut empire northwest of China, before its destruction by Genghis Khan.

Tibet and Mongolia. Buddhism reached Tibet around the seventh century. From the very beginning, apparently, texts were translated into the vernacular, but they did not encounter an existing literary heritage as they had in China; indeed the traditional sources inform us that the Tibetan script was created specifically to translate Buddhist materials. A few of the early translations are preserved. Their grammar is often awkward, if not contrary to Tibetan usage, because of their attempt to reproduce the word order of the Indian original, and different Tibetan words are employed to express the same Buddhist term. Another difference from the situation in China concerned the role of Buddhism in Tibet: It appears that from the beginning Buddhism served domestic political purposes and received considerable support from the royal court. This close relationship with royal power led at the beginning of the ninth century to a singular event in the translation history of Buddhist literature. With a view to setting general standards for translation methods and producing renditions intelligible to everybody, the king issued a decree laying down compulsory rules for translators. To implement the decree, a royal translation bureau published a list of about ninety-five hundred Sanskrit technical terms and their standard Tibetan equivalents, together with a treatise explaining the translation of some four hundred Buddhist terms. After that, fresh translations were made and the older ones revised according to these new rules, which continued to be observed after the fall of the royal dynasty in the mid-ninth century until the end of the translation period in the fifteenth century. This led to a unique phenomenon in the Buddhist world: The language of nearly all Tibetan translations is extremely standardized and, usually without violating the rules of Tibetan grammar, faithful to the Sanskrit originals to a degree never again reached in any other language used for translating Buddhist texts.

Like Buddhist Chinese for East Asia, Classical Tibetan became the "church" language for much of Central Asia. In the final period of their Buddhist tradition, the Uigurs translated several works from Tibetan. After the Mongols arrived in the domain of Tibetan Buddhism in the sixteenth century, Tibetan texts were continuously translated into Mongolian. During the eighteenth century Chinese emperors even supported complete Mongolian translations of the Bka' 'gyur (Kanjur) and Bstan 'gyur (Tanjur), the two collections of canonical translations in Tibetan. Mongolian lamas wrote works in Mongolian, but Mongolian never succeeded in replacing Tibetan as the prime language for ritual and literature. From Inner Mongolia in the east to Buryatia and the Kalmyk steppe in the west, Mongols continued to study Buddhism in Tibetan. As in the case of the Mongolians, in the eighteenth century the Chinese Qianlong emperor, whose dynasty was of Manchu origin, sponsored the translation of canonical texts into Manchu. Although these translations were made from Chinese recensions, the collection was then styled Bka' 'gyur after the Tibetan model. However, this enormous effort was primarily a political gesture and, unlike the Mongolian case, did not lead to Buddhist literary activity in Manchu.

South and Southeast Asia. Wherever Buddhism spread in South and Southeast Asia, its canonical literature was not transposed into the many vernaculars, but remained Indian. Depending on the background of the missionaries involved, it continued to be transmitted in either Pāli or Sanskrit. Although the canon of the Theravāda came to be written in many different scripts, such as Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, and Khmer, its language until modern times was always Pāli, and Pāli remained the medium of Buddhist ritual and scholarship in Sri Lanka and in all the Theravāda countries of Southeast Asia. Individual texts of the canon, however, were translated into various vernaculars (Burmese, Khmer, Lanna Thai, Mon, Thai) from the eleventh century onward, and in these and several other vernaculars (Arakanese, Lao, Shan, Tai Khun, Tai Lue), rich indigenous Buddhist literatures were created. Sanskrit was used by other traditions of Buddhism, most of them following MahĀyĀna or even Tantrayāna doctrines, in Burma, Laos, and Cambodia before the arrival of Theravāda, and in Java and Bali.

Modern vernaculars

All this has changed dramatically during the last 150 years. In the West, scholarly studies of Buddhism began around the middle of the nineteenth century, when the first canonical texts were translated into Western languages. Somewhat later, scholars in countries throughout Asia started systematically to translate texts from their "church" languages into the modern vernaculars, especially when this entailed a shift between two different language families. As a result, one can hardly find a literary language in today's world, with the possible exception of Africa, that has not been used for translating Buddhist texts, and it would also be fair to say that English has now overtaken Chinese as the most frequently used medium for the spread of Buddhist ideas and literature.

See also:Buddhist Studies; Canon; Chinese, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in; Gāndhārī, Buddhist Literature in; Language, Buddhist Philosophy of; Newari, Buddhist Literature in; Pāli, Buddhist Literature in; Sanskrit, Buddhist Literature in; Sinhala, Buddhist Literature in


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