Early Buddhism in Central Asia

Statue of the translator Kumarajiva at the Kizil caves.

At the February seminar, we had three talks from distinguished academics of Buddhist Studies, focusing on the transmission of Buddhism through Central Asia during the first millenium CE.

First, Hannes Fellner presented his research on Tocharian Buddhism and Buddhist texts dating roughly from the fourth to the tenth century. He first discussed the Tocharian languages spoken especially in the northern Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, which are descended from an Indo-European ancestor spoken around eastern Ukraine about four thousand years ago and suggest an easterly migration of peoples displacing an Indo-Iranian culture before the common era. Ancient and later Tocharian B are found in the west of the Tarim Basin, and both are earlier than the eastern Tocharian A.

All documents written in this now extinct language are incomplete, lacking colophons, but recent work (especially by the CEToM) has brought together almost all extant Tocharian documents to compare them with each other and with correlates in works of other languages to describe the culture that once flourished around Kucha and Yanxi. Almost all Tocharian texts are Buddhist, with the exception a colloquial poem and a fragment of a Manichaean work. They include Sarvāstivāda sutras, monastic regulations (vinaya) and classificatory works (abhidharma), as well as non-canonical literature such as royal lineages, grammars, dramas and narratives.

The Tocharians were famous in China as players and musicians, and this seems to be confirmed by the amount of these latter types of work discovered. Hannes Fellner took us through the paleography, formal features and contents of a number of these works. He then described the linguistic shifts that occurred with the Tocharians’ conversion to Buddhism, and the trends of lexical borrowing, calque vs. free translation, and suggested that speakers of Tocharian B may have converted speakers of Tocharian A to judge from differences in their core Buddhist terminologies. He ended by arguing that scholars of Buddhist Studies have much to contribute to the identification of Tocharian works, contextualisation of linguistic, stylistic and terminological shifts evidenced therein, but that Tocharian texts also could reciprocate in future, as an archaic Buddhist tradition with a comparitively large corpus of extant texts and an especially interesting proclivity for Buddhist belles lettres.

The second speaker, Jan Nattier, provided insights into the second- and early third-century translators and translations of Buddhist works into Chinese. She identified the ethnocons, the Chinese names taken on predominantly by non-Chinese that indicate their ethnic group, as suggesting that most translators were of western Central Asian (Parthian, Yuezhi and Sogdian) heritage, though not necessarily immigrants themselves. These translators included An Shigao安世高, Lokakṣema / Zhi Loujiachen 支婁迦讖, An Xuan安玄 and Kang Mengxiang康孟詳, who displayed different translation styles.

For example, Lokakṣema and his Buddhist translation group (one of the first in China), many times favoured transcription of Indic terminology over translation. In contrast, An Xuan and Kang Mengxiang attempted to translate everything, even leading to some apparent innovations that only later became standard terminology through the popularity of their works. Nattier suggested that these styles reflected different audiences for the translated works, perhaps a polyglot expat group in the case of the former, and an indigenous Chinese elites in the latter case. She also described the evidence for Gandhari underlying the texts translated, rather than Classical Sanskrit as was presumed by earlier generations of scholars.

Finally, Jonathan Silk outlined his current research into eighth- and ninth-century translations of Buddhist works from Chinese into Tibetan. He indicated that such an analysis could help to unlock a certain Chinese understanding of their works, uncovered in the choices made when re-translating them (or translating in the case of Chinese compositions) into Tibetan. Most Tibetan translations carried out towards the end of the Tibetan imperial period (c. 600–850) were translated from Indic languages. However, catalogues of the royal library collections of the time show that many were not, and over thirty of the works translated can be found in Chinese in the Taishō Canon.

Silk went through these works, highlighting where some Chinese-Tibetan translations have become canonical themselves, or where they only exist in the Dunhuang corpus of texts (with or without a corresponding Indic translation in the Tibetan Kanjur Canon). Sometimes the Chinese basis of the translation is clearly indicated in the colophon, or in the transcription of the Chinese title at the beginning of the work. At other times, however, the dependence has to be gleaned from internal textual evidence, and Silk pointed out the types of evidence used to come to these conclusions. Furthermore, he gave some examples where the Chinese understanding of the underlying Indic terminology behind the work shone through the Tibetan translation.

These telltale signs suggest that Chinese speakers, perhaps with dictionaries or glossaries, could see enough of the Indic terminology in the Chinese text to be able to translate it into Tibetan calque terms that also correlated with the Indic original—that they understood the technical nature of these works on a fine-grained level. It is his intention to create multilingual collations of some of these works in the future, to help to unlock the shape of Buddhism at Dunhuang in the late first millennium.