A Buddhist manuscript

Translation and transmission of Buddhist texts

Professor Tim Barrett explores the translation and transmission of Buddhist texts, looking at the spread of Buddhism from its origins in India, into China and Southeast Asia.

In the Buddha’s lifetime a number of languages were spoken in the India through which he journeyed, besides the Sanskrit language that carried the highest prestige. These were closely related both to that ancient tongue and to each other, roughly in the same way that early versions of Spanish and Italian related to Latin, perhaps more as dialects than distinct languages. Whatever his mother tongue was, he was probably proficient in more than one of these, and there is no sign that he considered any one language superior to any other. Pāli, the language in which the teachings of the Buddha were preserved in Sri Lanka, seems to have been one of the languages from this broader environment. However there are signs here and there of words and word forms more consistent with some other dialect rather than with Pāli itself, suggesting that at some point a, not entirely successful, effort had been made to impose some consistency on what had been a more complex picture.

How did Buddhism spread from India?

By the time of the reign of Ashoka in India in the middle of the 3rd century BCE it is clear that Buddhist ideas were no longer limited to those closely related languages. We know this because ancient inscriptions of his edicts found in also contain terms in Greek and Aramaic. Buddhism also spread eastwards along the trade routes overland to China that skirted the vast Central Asian Taklamakan Desert to its north and south through chains of small oasis kingdoms, such as Kucha on the northern side and Khotan on the south.

A Buddhist scroll with illustrated cover

painted silk. The image represents two confronted geese standing on lotus flowers.

With the spread of Buddhism eastwards through Central Asia, a whole corpus of Buddhist works was translated and produced in multiple languages, including local vernaculars. This Buddhist manuscript item contains six different texts, which are in Sanskrit and Khotanese.

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Alternatively China could be reached by sea from India via Southeast Asia, with ships reaching the present-day Hanoi area, which two thousand years ago was under Chinese control.

When were Buddhists texts translated in South East Asia?

Meanwhile, the Pāli language Buddhism of Sri Lanka had started to spread throughout much of South East Asia, in many cases displacing forms of Buddhism that had used Sanskrit as a sacred language. In these countries Pāli sacred texts were transcribed into locally used scripts like Mon, Khmer, Burmese, Thai and Lao Dhamma script. New compositions in that language and commentaries in Pāli language were added. In more recent times the stories contained in the Pāli scriptures were also retold in vernacular languages which again in some cases gave rise to further translations into minority languages like Shan, Tai Lue and Tai Khoen for example.


Atthakatha, Or 6603 258, ff001v-002r

Sinhalese manuscript containing bi-lingual Aṭṭhakathā (commentaries), which also includes a translation in Sinhalese language of the commentaries in Pāli language to the Tipitaka of Theravāda Buddhism.

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When did Buddhism reach China?

The area spanning the present-day borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, known as Gandhāra, became a base for Buddhist culture. From there, in the 2nd century CE, texts using the local Indian language (that modern linguistics have called Gandhari) began to have an impact in China, where Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese. This may have been only a part of the wider dissemination of Buddhism, but it marked the beginning of one of the most extensive and protracted translation enterprises in world history that lasted over a thousand years and rendered well over one and a half thousand works out of Indian languages into Chinese, including many that have not survived in their South Asian forms.

Such was the influence of these Chinese translations, moreover, that they frequently formed the basis for further translations into the languages of the interior of Asia during this period: Tibetan, Tangut, Sogdian and Uighur sources all include translations from Chinese as well as from Sanskrit, and only Khotanese seems so far to be an exception in adhering exclusively to Indic originals.

Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

The image in the middle this leaf from Or 14980 possibly displays the family of the sponsor of the manuscript. Above the image is writing in gold on a blue background

Leaf from an early West-Tibetan ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ manuscript.

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Further east, literacy was more or less synonymous with a knowledge of Chinese writing, so all Buddhist literature circulating in what is now Korea, Japan and Vietnam was based on these Chinese translations, and for a long time locally produced Buddhist works used the same language.

Sutra for the Illiterate

Folding paper book priinted with symbols of everyday objects in columns. When the symbols are read out (in Chinese) the sounds form the word. An English example would be to represent the word ‘belief’ with a picture of a bee and a leaf.

This small, Japanese folding book contains the text of the Heart Sūtra represented in pictures and was intended to allow illiterate people to recite this popular Buddhist sūtra.

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The feat of copying out by hand the totality of canonical texts as a group was repeated frequently in East Asia. As time went by and even more translations and other texts were added, copying out the whole thing became more and more of a task. In medieval Japan it was found that provided the task was portioned out to ten thousand people or so the entire undertaking could be accomplished in a single day. Hand copying gains the copyist karmic merit, and in some places became a form of Buddhist practice.

Printed copy of the Diamond Sutra

Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra showing a woodblock print of the Buddha

This copy of the Diamond Sūtra in Chinese language, complete with a beautifully illustrated frontispiece, is the world’s earliest dated, printed book. It was produced on the 11 May 868, according to the Western calendar.

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Held by© British Library

How did printing help the spread of Buddhism?

In due course an alternative solution to hand-copying also become available. By the 8th century printing was well established China, with very early examples also being available from Korea and Japan. Sponsoring printing also generated good karma, through spreading the word and image of the Buddha. In the late 10th century the entire text of the canon was carved into woodblocks in Szechuan, China, so that it could be printed off any number of times without the need for scribal copyists. The government moved these blocks to the capital so that they could create new sets whenever they wanted, and add new blocks as more were translated. Now it was the feat of carving all the woodblocks that came to be repeated, no less than seventeen times over the centuries, if we include also editions created in Korea and Japan. These canons in Chinese were not the only ones produced this way, for civilisations bordering on China that had translated Buddhist materials into their own languages had also turned to woodblock as well as manuscript copying.

How were the Buddhist texts translated in China?

It is difficult to generalise about all this translation activity, but in the best documented case of translation into Chinese it is clear that translation approaches were refined over time. The earliest Chinese translations from the language of Gandhāra, in which different translators adopted different solutions in rendering the terminology of Buddhism, were added to from the end of the 4th century by new translations from Sanskrit. These employed a more systematic vocabulary, thanks largely to the popularity of the translations of Kumārajīva (344–413), a Kuchean whose command of Chinese allowed him to achieve unprecedented levels of accuracy and readable style. After the Chinese monk Xuanzang (c. 602–664) was able to study for over a decade in India and return with many more texts to translate, he established a new terminology on the basis of a new set of translations, even if in some cases his versions did not replace those that had already become familiar.

Decorative copy of the Heart Sutra in Chinese

Front page of Decorative copy of the Heart Sutra in Chinese

The Heart Sūtra is considered one of the best-known and most popular Mahāyāna scriptures. There are several versions of this sūtra in Chinese, this one was edited and completed in 649 CE by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (c. 602-664).

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In the 10th century a government translation bureau was even established, though it eventually ran out of Chinese monks with a good knowledge of Sanskrit. Over time Chinese translators and their counterparts working with other languages were able to build up extensive bilingual glossaries or other aids, and these provided some foundation for the study of Indian languages well before the return once more of regular travel from East Asia to India in the 19th century.

Dharanis transcribed in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan

A collection of Dharanis transcribed in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan

A multi-volume anthology of dhāraṇīs, transliterated in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, created by order of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–1796).

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Local Buddhist texts

Based on the original teachings of the Buddha, there was a whole corpus of Buddhist texts that reflected local indigenous adaptations. Some writing in Japanese became important from the 12th century onward, as Japanese Buddhist leaders addressed their followers in their own language, while from the 15th century Korean began to be used in Buddhist works also. Tibetans, on the other hand, were able to draw directly on contacts with late Indian Buddhism, and so created a body of canonical literature quite distinct from that further east that became the model for further translations into Mongol from the beginning of the 14th century onward, though many Mongols also wrote on Buddhist topics in Tibetan itself. In mainland South East Asia, collections of Paññāsa Jātakas were composed based on the structure of the Jātakas, or the Buddha’s Birth Tales, to convey the message of rebirth and the Buddha’s long path to enlightenment in local settings.

Phra Malai and Abhidhamma extracts

This manuscript from central Thailand, made from mulberry paper. Illustrations are to the left and right of the text

Thai folding book containing mainly the legend of the monk Phra Malai in Khmer (Khom) script, with illustrations of scenes from the story of the monk-saint Phra Malai which is popular in mainland Southeast Asia. Central Thailand, 1849 CE.

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How did Buddhism spread beyond Asia?

The widespread availability of Buddhist works in translation had an impact far beyond the monasteries in which learned monks studied the scriptures. Storytelling in a number of Asian languages, outside of India, took up Buddhist themes and spread Buddhist ideas. The lives of the Buddha in his earlier existences, the Jātakas, which also encompassed stories in which the Buddha had been an animal, proved immensely popular in Central, South East and East Asia in any number of retellings. In South East Asia these stories were collected together as an ensemble that circulated in different versions in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In this way Buddhism became diffused through storytelling to a very wide audience that was, in many countries, predominantly illiterate. The legend of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat is one such example of how the story of the Buddha’s life travelled, in this case modified so that it came to tell the life of a Christian saint. Initially found in Persian and Arabic, it eventually turned up in medieval Europe in vernacular languages such as Italian, Provençal, Spanish, German, Middle English, Irish and Old Norse, via Georgian then Greek and Latin. An early Latin version dates back to the 12th century. It is the only Buddhist text found in Africa in form of the Ethiopic version Baralam and Yewasef dating back to at least the 16th century.

Ethiopic Version of a Christianised story of the Buddha

The Ethiopic Version of a Christianized story of the Buddha, Or 699, folio 4 verso. Black text with red details

Bärälam Wäyəwasəf is a Christianised, Ethiopic version of the Barlaam and Josaphat narrative, comprising the parables and the collections of teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha.

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Usage terms The Ethiopian manuscripts published in digitised format by the British Library are to the best of our knowledge not in copyright under Ethiopian law. However the British Library recognises broader interests in the cultural heritage which the Ethiopian manuscripts represent. The manuscripts included are often of a religious nature, and the Library has taken considerable care not to distort or alter the underlying material. We ask users also to show appropriate respect in reusing the digital images of the Ethiopian manuscripts, which should not be altered or reused in ways that might be derogatory or offensive to the Ethiopian communities for whom they are of special cultural importance.

How has Buddhism interacted other religions?

The availability of so much Buddhist material also had an impact even beyond the world of Buddhist believers themselves. The religious traditions of Bon in Tibet, Daoism in China and Shinto in Japan, while remaining distinctive, were all influenced by the format of Buddhist texts in translation, and often by the content as well. In the Chinese and Tibetan cases, the way in which these religious traditions organised their scriptures into larger collections was also informed by Buddhist examples as well. In a sense these influences can be seen as the outcome of a form of ‘translation’ of an Indian tradition into the new cultural setting.

A Chinese-Tibetan manuscript of the Lankavatara Sutra

A Chinese-Tibetan manuscript of the Lankavatara Sutra - partially folded

This concertina manuscript contains a Chinese commentary on the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, with the text of the sūtra also written in Tibetan between the lines of Chinese.
It is likely is that this manuscript was used as a translation aid.

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How does translation change language?

Translation also affected many of the languages of the areas that came into contact with Buddhism. It radically affected, for example, the Tibetan language at an early stage in its development. It even added to the Chinese language, which had accumulated a considerable linguistic inheritance even before the arrival of Buddhism; new words for new concepts such as ‘perfection’ or ‘absoluteness’ were created. Small wonder, therefore, that Confucians throughout East Asia have for the past thousand years fretted over the extent to which the ancient teachings might have been compromised by shifts of meaning due to Buddhist influence. The word for ‘pagoda’, says one early 19th century Chinese scholar, readily betrays its foreign, Buddhist origin since it cannot be found in the Chinese Classics.

What are the challenges to translating Buddhist texts?

Though some Buddhist fragments have been transferred to European languages for four centuries or more, we are still at the stage China was seventeen centuries ago. How can we come up with a consistent terminology for many sources that have reached us in a number of Buddhist languages, and which have been rendered into English by translators coming from a range of different cultures? As yet there are not that many large bodies of translated texts that can serve as sources for standardisation. The Pali Text Society has been translating Buddhist materials in some quantity for well over a century, confining its efforts primarily to one element within the larger Buddhist heritage. The Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai (BDK) or Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, founded by Yehan Numata (1897–1994), has produced dozens of English translations of Buddhist works from the Chinese since 1982. Scholars such as Jeffrey Hopkins (b. 1940) and Robert Thurman (b. 1941) have also undertaken many translations from Tibetan. But if all this activity has taken place in a piecemeal way without any overall translation planning, that is probably very much the way that the Buddha himself disseminated his message from the start.

  • T H Barrett
  • Professor T. H. Barrett is Professor Emeritus of East Asian History at SOAS, University of London. He works primarily on the religious history of East Asia, and also on British perceptions of East Asia, in both cases dealing mainly with China. Though he has written on may topics from the history of cats in China and Daoism in Japan to the transmission of the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’, he has a particular interest in the history of the book in East Asia, on which he has published The Woman Who Discovered Printing and other studies. He is now working on a survey of Buddhist attitudes to other forms of Chinese religion.

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