The Land Of Bliss by Luis O.Gomes

The Land Of Bliss

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The Land Of Bliss
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About the Book:

This is a free translation of two Buddhist texts on what is arguably the most popular of all Buddhist conceptions of an ideal world, the "Land of Bliss" of the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. The two texts, known to Western students of Buddhism as the "Smaller" and "Larger" Sukhavatiyuha Sutra, explain the conditions that lead to rebirth in the Pure Land and the manner in which human beings are reborn there. The Longer of the two texts also tells the story of how the Buddha of Infinite Light came to preside over the marvel-filled paradise. Both texts describe the Layout and the wonders of the Pure Land, and the preconditions that lead to form the spiritual foundation of pure faith that pervades East Asian Buddhism, a doctrine of faith the parallels Western doctrines of grace while reflecting a complex historical and doctrinal cross-current of faith, effort, and visionary religion. At times solemn, fantastic, and humorous, the accounts reflect the rich literary and religious imagination of India, alternately expressing abstract conceptions and intense feelings deeply rooted in the culture and belief systems that gave birth to them.

Each of the two sutras is translated from Sanskrit and Chinese versions to capture some of the nuances that separate South Asian and East Asian forms of Pure Land faith. The translator, a leading Buddhist scholar, seeks to make the sutras accessible to those only vaguely familiar with Buddhism and Buddhist ideas by paraphrasing his interpretation of the text instead of echoing the syntax and surface meanings of the source languages. Like the translations, the accompanying introductions are written for the nonspecialist. The present volume containing a free English rendering of both sutras will be followed by two forthcoming volumes that will contain the original texts with detailed scholarly translations and notes. The Land of Bliss, the Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light is the first English translation in a century of two great religious classics of India and the world.


About the Author:

Luis O. Gomez is Charles O. Hucker Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan.



Tins is THE FIRST of three volumes devoted to the translation and annotation of two Buddhist texts on what is arguably the most popular of all Buddhist conceptions of a blissful world beyond the grave. The two texts depict an ideal world, a "Land of Bliss" that lies to the west of our own, imperfect world. This distant world is the wondrous paradise of the Buddha Amitabha (Amitabha), the Buddha of Infinite Light. The two texts explain the conditions that lead to rebirth in that land and the manner in which human beings are reborn there. The longer of the two texts also tells the story of how the Buddha of Infinite Light came to be a Buddha and came to preside over this marvel-filled paradise.

These two texts have been known to Western students of Buddhism since the last century as the "smaller" and the "larger" Sukhava- tivyuha Sutra. In Asia, their influence has been felt for centuries among those who follow the various forms of Buddhism known as "The Great Vehicle" or Mahayana (Mahayana). The two texts are considered to be sacred revelation—~the exact words of the Buddha, committed to memory by his disciple Ananda (Ananda). They belong to the genre of the sutra (sutra), and are therefore, in a manner of speaking, scriptural texts, presenting to the modern reader (and many an ancient reader as well) the problems that scriptures the world over present, especially as they age and as they travel across cultures.

Like many other sutras, these two texts are at times solemn, almost ritualistic, at times fantastic, perhaps humorous. The rich literary and religious imagination of India shines through each line, alternately expressing abstract conceptions and intense feelings deeply rooted in the culture and belief systems of ancient India. Although they must be counted among the great religious classics of India and the world, and as such express aspirations and values that are common to many of us, a full understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of these two texts requires some preparation—the acquisition of certain basic tools. The two texts are at the same time about other, ideal worlds and from cultural universes separated from ours by time and space. Successful passage to these two worlds requires courage and imagination, but can be made easier if one also has a traveler’s guide. As an effort in translation (a form of passage to other worlds), the present study seeks to make these sutras from ancient India accessible to a modern audience, turning the modern reader into an informed traveler, as it were.


Brief Description of the Present Study

To that end, I have followed the unorthodox approach of translating and presenting two versions of each sutra: a Sanskrit version and a Chinese version. Additionally; I have translated twice each of these two source texts of each sutra. The first set of translations forms the present volume. It is arranged and introduced in a manner that will allow the uninitiated reader access to the texts without complicated technical annotation. These English renditions are called "free" translations, in contrast to the more technical, heavily annotated translations that will appear separately in two volumes to be published in this same series, with the corresponding texts in the source languages.

This manner of presentation may seem at first cumbersome, but I hope the organization of these volumes will prove to be user friendly The structure of this study is also meant to provide a number of step- ping stones towards understanding the two sutras. The central themes of doctrine and the main literary motifs are introduced in the present volume of free translations—through the translations themselves and in the introductions to the translation. By concentrating commentary in the introductions and limiting annotation to a bare minimum, the reader can enjoy more easily the necessary illusion of a direct reading. Differences in language and content are conveyed by juxtaposing translations from two separate versions for each sutra.

The scholarly deliberations and choices behind these translations, barely suggested in the free translations, will be conveyed more explicitly in the technical studies that will follow. There, the presentation of texts, cross-references, and notes is organized in a pattern that attempts to represent the complexity of the source texts and of the choices made by the translator. The introductions to the technical translations, more- over, reexamine some of the issues raised by the introductions to the present free version, but in greater detail, and with close attention to the methodological issues raised by the study and translations of texts of this genre.


Suggestions to the Reader: How to Use This Study

The pedagogical plan of the present volume is, in short, a brief and very general introduction to the mythology and imagery of the Shorter Sutra, followed by a free translation of its Sanskrit version. Next comes a free translation of the Sanskrit text of the Longer Sutra, with a more detailed introduction that both acquaints the reader with the content of this sutra and highlights the common and divergent points between the two sutras. Lastly free English translations of the Chinese versions are presented, preceded by a single, brief introduction to the East Asian transmission of the sutras. Thus, the free translation of the Sanskrit version of the Shorter Sutra and its introduction are used as pre- ambles to the Longer Sutra and its introduction. The two translations, together with their respective prefatory materials, serve in turn as a stepping stone to both the free translations of the Chinese texts and the more technical notes to appear in the technical study.


Source and Target Texts

In the course of the present project, the Sanskrit versions of the two sutras were translated first. But the two sutras exerted their greatest influence outside India, in East Asia, where they were transmitted through Chinese translations. I therefore decided to translate the two texts from their most popular Chinese versions as well. Accordingly; each of the two sutras was translated twice, from Sanskrit and from Chinese. l approached these translations in two distinct manners. Each translation was first worked on technically as closely as possible, trying to account for every word and allusion, and annotating every important or problematic passage. These technical translations were then used as the basis for a "free" rendering, prepared with the bare mini- mum of essential annotations. Thus, I prepared two different renderings of each of the source texts: a free and a technical translation each of the Sanskrit version of the Shorter Sutra and of the Longer Sutra and of the Chinese version of the Shorter Sutra and of the Longer Sutra. In the present volume, the English rendition of the Sanskrit texts appears first, followed by free English translations from the Chinese versions most popular and authoritative in East Asia—respectively, the Longer Sutra in the Chinese translation attributed to Sanghavarrnan (Sanghavarman), and the Shorter Sutra translated by Kumarajiva (Kumarajiva).


Reasons for This Unorthodox Approach

The choices that led to the structure and organization of these translations were those faced typically by any translation of classical Buddhist literature: an original, or source, version had to be selected; variant readings had to be culled; translation equivalents and paragraph divisions had to be set. In more than one sense this book may be regarded as a modern version of the classical texts chosen for the present study In other words, the book you now hold in your hands is not simply a copy of these two sutras: it is one of many renderings of the two sutras. An explanation is therefore in order.

The two texts probably were composed in India’s northwest frontier (present—day Pakistan), at least seventeen hundred years ago by an author (or authors) whose names are not only lost, but actually were never meant to be known. The Indian versions have come down to us in Sanskrit, although some have argued for a hypothetical original of the Longer Sutra in a different Indian language. Whatever their early forms may have been, the versions we possess today—in Sanskrit and in Chinese and Tibetan translations—must have undergone many changes in the process of transmission.

The fact is that the two texts have come down to us across many centuries and in many forms. "Many forms" refers first to the existence of more than one version or recession of each of the texts. Secondly the expression "many forms" also refers to the several languages in which the texts have been transmitted. There is, additionally more than one way to read the "story" more than one way to look at the form and content of the two sutras. Form and content are in fact transformed according to the context in which the sutras are read and used. In their many incarnations, the "shorter" and the "longer" Sukhcivativyilhu sutras have been recited, read, and venerated in India, Central Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. In the earliest stages of their development they were most likely part of a larger, diffuse, devotional movement and of a prolific literature about Buddhist paradises. As their popularity increased, the two texts, separately and as a set, formed the core of special devotional practices—which, in some of their modern forms, include the ritualized recitation of all or parts of the two sutras.

Through several Chinese translations the Shorter and the Longer Sutra played a major role in the development of Buddhism of faith and devotion in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, where they engendered a rich theological literature. In both their ritual and canonical functions, the two sutras continue to play an important role in East Asia.

Our task—mine as translator and annotator, yours as reader—is to attempt to understand the two sutras, keeping in mind this diversity of uses, contexts, and meanings. Modern readers in any of their roles (translator, interpreter, or reader of someone else’s translation and interpretation) live in their own cultural and personal worlds——partly alienated from the texts' own complex history partly immersed in the world of the texts through the traces of that world that remain in the texts themselves. How does one show, on two-dimensional sheets of paper, the many-layered history and significance of an ancient text? How is it possible to maintain a certain degree of openness and yet come to read and understand a text? The manner of presentation and the style of translation chosen for the present study are an attempt not so much to solve these dilemmas as to preserve them. My presentation is intended to help the reader across this obstacle course, not to remove the obstacles.

Nevertheless, scholarly translations of classical Buddhist texts can create obstacles of their own. Those of us who teach undergraduate students are all too familiar with the experience of using English translation that read more like Sanskrit than English. We are familiar as well with the resulting lecture, in which one explains the hybrid English of the text by referring back to the Sanskrit—retranslating, as it were back into the source language. In the free renderings I have had in mind the audience of such lectures. A certain amount of hybridization to is always inevitable; but I have tried to paraphrase in English, not back into Sanskrit. Whenever I thought that an explanation was essential, but could be woven into the text of the sutra, I did so. I inserted explanatory paraphrases within the text, instead of relegating them to the footnotes. This means that l have taken liberties with the text that are not customary in scholarly translations—liberties that change, to a certain extent, the rhythm and tone of the original. This allowed me to avoid, as much as possible, neologisms, foreign words, and philological annotations.

It is true that the translator and the reader must pay a price for these gains in readability some of the foreign and arcane flavor of the original is gone; the text has lost some of the hieratic style and technical tone of Buddhist scripture. Inasmuch as the goals of the free translations were ease of reading and intelligibility the results are worth the price. Much is gained, especially by those who must rely on English translations to gain access to the mystery and the enjoyment of these texts. l trust the reader of the free translations will still be able to experience the way in which a Buddhist scripture can be solemn, mysterious, and sublime, yet fantastic and playful. I hope that the reader will pick up some of the lost nuances and tone from the forthcoming technical translations: the sense in which these scriptures are also arcane (if not obscure), accurate and technical (if not rigid), and ritualistic (if not repetitious).




Introduction to the Shorter Sutra
The Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra
Introduction to the Longer Sutra
The Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra
Epilogue and Transition

Introduction to the Chinese Versions
The Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra
The Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra


For Further Reading

Sample Pages

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