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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 296-298

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Book Review

Le Sutra D'amida Prêché Par Le Buddha

Le Sutra D'amida Prêché Par Le Buddha. By Jérôme Ducor. Schweizer Asiatische Studien: Monographien; Vol. 29. Bern: Peter Lang, 1998. 216 pp. Paper. $35.95 (in U.S.A.; available from the New York office of the publisher)

It is immediately clear that this edition of the Smaller Sukhavativyuha Sutra must be regarded as the standard work on it in a European language. Ducor is both a scholar (at the University of Lausanne and at the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva) and a practitioner (an ordained minister of the Honganji branch of Jodo Shinshu) [End Page 296] and he combines his skills to produce a well-rounded and balanced treatment that demonstrates, by comparison, the limitations of the standard Buddhological approach to Sutra studies.

The methodology of sutra translation is, I believe, a Buddhist-Christian problem, since, ostensibly Buddhist, it often proceeds along crypto-Christian lines. Why do we translate sutras at all? Or, rather, why are the sutras as a rule translated nude, as it were, quivering in the scholar's spotlight, bereft of their seemly covering of s´astras? Sutras are, by themselves, largely unintelligible. They are nuggets of Dharma, to be, on the one hand, digested by the teachers so that they might (to paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux) proffer the milk of nourishing discourses to their disciples and, on the other hand, chanted in mystifying, often artificial, languages, for their meritorious and pacifying effect. When chanted, it is the sound that matters, not the meaning. It is said that a pigeon was reborn as a monk because Asaga compassionately chanted out loud the texts that he was studying. We are to suppose that the fortunate pigeon was not well versed in Sanskrit, yet it benefited remarkably from the chanting. Ducor is aware of this traditional use of the sutras and includes a discussion on "The Amida Sutra in Liturgical Practice" (pp. 131-137). He cites Gyoyo, writing in fifteenth-century Japan, to the effect that the incomprehensible Sino-Japanese "preserves multiple meanings: the masses, on hearing them, mysteriously, according to their capacities, achieve enlightenment," whereas the Japanese translation "bears only a single sense" and therefore "for normal chanting it is best to chant in the Sino-Japanese pronunciation" (p. 134).

But Eurocentric, especially Anglophone, Buddhologists have insisted on translating only the sutras and ignoring their attendant s´astras. Often enough the translations are done from an archaic or even an invented version which is never used in practice but is preferred simply because it is in Sanskrit. The scholar then searches, in the presumed "more original" text, for precisely that single meaning against which Gyoyo warns us. Something seems familiar. Can it be Martin Luther whom we espy lurking behind our Monier Williams? Are we still in thrall to Max Muller, who, even after having naturalized as British, was evangelisch to the core and fought in the Academy under the banner of sola scriptura, believing, with Luther, that a sacred text, because it is revealed, is most truly interpreted by reference to itself, and that its meaning would only be obscured by a human, and therefore fallible, commentary? Perhaps: for the bionic Belgian Buddhologists, we note, were more Catholic in their approach, and translated the summa of the great Buddhist scholastics.

The point is that a sutra can only be said to have been properly presented for our study when it is displayed in its native context, that is, with full reference to the commentarial tradition. Ducor does this. He opens with a translation from the rufubon (the textus receptus or "vulgate" as he calls it) version of the Chinese, attributed to Kumarajiva, and follows it with notes on Kumarajiva, on the principal doctrines of the sutra, and on the place of the sutra in the trilogy (sambukyo) tradition in Japan. Then he repeats the translation, interspersing it with references to the commentaries in China, Korea, and Japan. This is followed by detailed textual notes...