BRINGING BUDDHISM TO THE MASSES – LOOKING BACK AT SAN MIN BOOKS’ “NEW TRANSLATION” SERIES OF BUDDHIST CLASSICS

Written By Shang Haifeng, translated by Corey Bell

Image credit: DSC07560 by Asian Art Museum/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Whether in terms of faith and religious practice, scholastic research, or the propagation of Buddhist culture, Taiwan’s contributions to the flourishing of Chinese Buddhism can be witnessed throughout East Asia. This has in part been driven by the fact that from academics to lay scholars, Taiwanese of different backgrounds have persistently shown a remarkable appetite to learn about this religion, and important dimension of Sinitic culture. A result of this is that aside from the more recent contributions of the publishing houses of prominent Buddhist organisations such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Fo Guang Shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain), a prominent publisher of books pertaining to the humanities and social sciences – San Min Books (三民書局) – had quite early on set about the onerous task of planning and publishing the Buddhist canon. This venerable and influential company began releasing publications on Buddhism as part of its “Series of Annotated Modern Translations [i.e., translations from classical into modern Chinese] of [Chinese] Classics” (古籍今注新譯叢書) as early as the 1960’s. This was at the same time that China’s heritage – and its religious heritage in particular – was suffering sustained attacks during the Cultural Revolution.        

For classical Buddhist texts, whether it be monastic practitioners, scholars, lay devotees or simply lovers of literature, the value of informative annotations and easy to read translations cannot be understated. On this point, San Min’s series’ simple addition of the word “new translation” before each title should not lead people to underestimate their intellectual value. The two characters ‘new translation’ (新譯) actually have their origin in the renderings of the famous Tang translator Xuanzang (602-664), who was not happy with the ‘old translations’ of the Later Qin scholar Kumārajīva (344-413). The ‘old translations’ emphasised making the texts easier to understand for an audience less conversant in the intellectual traditions of Buddhism – however, it paid of price of occasionally twisting the meaning of the original Sanskrit texts. As a result, Xuanzang’s translations emphasised the importance of being faithful to the Sanskrit originals, and of supplementing these translations with precise annotations. In the San-min translations, the word ‘new translation’ presents an evolution of this tenet, and follows the principle of San Min’s founder Liu Chen-chiang 劉振強(1932-2017) – that the translation of classics should maintain a balance between the needs of both an academic and a more general readership.

I have had the privilege of being invited to be a translator/annotator for the “Series of Annotated Modern Translations of [Chinese] Classics,” having just contributed a draft of the ‘New Translation of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment’ 新譯圓覺經. During the early Tang (618-907), the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment captured the interest of Chinese intellectuals, and although there are doubts about its Indian origins, thanks to the enthusiastic promotion of this text by the fifth patriarch of the Huayan school, Guifeng Zongmi 圭峰宗密 (780-841) , it rose to become one of the Four Classics of Buddhism during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and one of the Thirteen Buddhist Classics listed in the Qing (1644-1911). From the late Tang onwards, this was a core canonical text of the Huayan, Tiantai and Chan (Zen) traditions, and after spreading to Korea and Japan, annotated commentaries of it proliferated throughout the Chinese diaspora of East Asia. Along with the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, its significance expanded from being a Buddhist classic to a key element of China’s intellectual heritage – extending its impact up to the influential ‘New Confucian movement’ of early 20th century scholars such as Xiong Shili 熊十力 (1885-1968).

Just as the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment bought Buddhism a more prominent place in the intellectual mainstream, San Min Book’s commitment to making Buddhist classics accessible to a wider audience of Chinese readers helped ensure that Buddhism’s place in China’s literary and philosophical heritage was being both respected and perpetuated at the very time that it was being challenged and degraded by Chinese revolutionaries and nativists. This series has moreover proved to be a valued source not only for Chinese scholars, but also for generations of Chinese-literate scholars from the West and elsewhere. The latter is a particularly important point, for Chinese classics aside, many Indian Buddhist classics only exist in Chinese translation. The delightful thing about this is that such contributions remain ongoing, and are being complemented by a far stronger modern ecosystem of academic, religious and popular publishers who are integrating new findings and injecting new perspectives into these ancient commentarial traditions. Taiwanese publishers are facing growing competition from China and digital platforms, yet as inheritors of this contemporary tradition, they are continuing to play a key role in the preservation of this important part of our global intellectual and literary heritage.         

SHANG Haifeng Aaron is an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, a visiting fellow at Yale University and a visiting fellow at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism at Hanazono University, Kyoto. He focuses on the Sinitic texts in East Asia, and his interest is in the intellectual history of literature and fine arts. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy of Academia Sinica in Taipei.

This article is part of a special issue on Buddhism

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