An Shigao

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An Shigao is the Chinese name of a Parthian Buddhist translator active in the Chinese capital Luoyang circa 148 to 180 c.e. Tradition represents him as a prince who renounced his throne to propagate the dharma in distant lands, becoming a hostage at the Han court, but little is known about his life. Scholars disagree over whether he was a layman or a monk, a follower of the MahĀyĀna or not. What is certain is that he was the first significant translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese. Fewer than twenty genuine works of his are thought to have survived. They include sūtras on such important topics as the four noble truths, pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination), the skandha (aggregate), and mindfulness of breathing and other techniques of self-cultivation, as well as several treatises on similar subjects (one of them an early version of Saṅgharakṣ's Yogācārabhūmi). Two works are in fact anthologies of short sūtras, while two other longer sūtras (Daśttara, Arthavistara) are compendia of terms, thus providing Chinese Buddhists with a comprehensive treatment of their new religion's ideas and vocabulary. All the translations are of mainstream (Śravakayana) literature, most apparently affiliated with the Sarvāstivāda school. The first propagator of abhidharma and meditation texts in China, An Shigao also pioneered the field of Chinese Buddhist translations, and may have established the translation committee as the standard approach. While his archaic renditions were soon superseded by his successors, some of the terms he used (like the transcriptions fo for Buddha or pusa for bodhisattva) have stood the test of time and are still current in East Asia today.

See also:Mainstream Buddhist Schools


Forte, Antonino. The Hostage An Shigao and His Offspring. Kyoto, Japan: Italian School of East Asian Studies, 1995.

Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1959.

Zürcher, Erik. "A New Look at the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Texts." In From Benares to Beijing: Essays on Buddhism and Chinese Religion in Honour of Prof. Jan Yün-hua, ed. Koichi Shinohara and Gregory Schopen. Oakville, ON: Mosaic, 1991.

Paul Harrison

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An Shigao

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