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  • Translating Totality in Parts: Chengguan’s Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra by Guo Cheen
  • Nicholas Hudson (bio)
Translating Totality in Parts: Chengguan’s Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra. By Guo Cheen. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2014. Pp. vii + 153. Hardcover $60.00, isbn 978-0-7618-6309-0.

Guo Cheen’s Translating Totality in Parts: Chengguan’s Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra translates the first of eighty fascicles or juan of Chengguan’s A Compilation of the Commentaries and Subcommentaries to the Flower Ornament Sutra with Greatly Proper and Extensive Discourses by the Buddhas (大方廣佛華嚴經疏鈔會本) as well as the preface to his The Meanings Proclaimed in the Subcommentaries Accompanying the Commentaries to the Flower Ornament Sutra with Greatly Proper and Extensive Discourses by the Buddha (大方 廣佛華嚴經隨疏演義鈔). Guo Cheen translates the preface first, as it explains why Chengguan wrote his commentaries. The Compilation itself is composed by combining his Commentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra (大方廣佛華嚴經疏) with explanations of those selections from his Subcommentaries. Fascicle 1 of the Compilation covers the preface to the Commentaries, ending with a fuller account of why he wrote his commentaries, thus bringing the translation full circle. Guo Cheen’s notes primarily identify references, give citations for some quoted passages, and explain Buddhist terms, often having to deal with monastic life.

The book also contains three appendices. The first is part of the Chinese text for fascicle 10 of the Compilation (mislabeled as fascicle 9). The second is the Chinese text for Outline to the Commentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra (大方廣佛華嚴經 疏科文) and the Chinese text and English translation of part of the first fascicle of Chengguan’s Commentaries to the Avatamsaka Sutra (大方廣佛華嚴經疏), which helpfully gives the entirety of the text discussed in Guo Cheen’s translation of the Compilation.

The translations comprise the majority of the book, but there is introductory material that discusses both the Huayan school and Chengguan’s place within the tradition as well. Both are quite complex. Guo Cheen stresses that the Huayan school is a retrospective designation, especially with regard to those who, like Chengguan, are considered to be its five patriarchs. What is now called the Huayan school originated not as an organized, sectarian school but in a syncretic study of the Flower Ornament Sutra. Chengguan is portrayed as someone who navigated between the complex political realities of being a member of the court who taught Buddhism to seven emperors and the daily practice of an especially devout practitioner. [End Page 695]

Guo Cheen stresses that Chengguan did not simply explicate the Flower Ornament Sutra, but made original contributions to Buddhism, particularly his account of the Four Dharma Realms: of Phenomena, of Noumenon, of Unobstructed Noumenon and Phenomena, and of Unobstructed Phenomena and Phenomena. As she further notes, Chengguan was also concerned with connecting Buddhism with Daoism and Confucianism, which is seen by how he uses Daoist and Confucian texts and terms to help explain the Flower Ornament Sutra. Furthermore, despite his coming across as intellectual and removed from practice, the purpose of his commentaries is soteriological.

Guo Cheen also discusses how to translate Buddhist texts. As seen by her use of terms such as Phenomena and Noumena to translate shi 事 and li 理, respectively, she largely uses contemporary Western terms in her translations while acknowledging that perfectly equivalent translations do not exist. Nonetheless, following Xuanzang’s advice on the Five Untranslatables (五種不翻) she does use a handful of Sanskrit terms, such as samādhi, that were transliterated in the Compilation or have no English equivalent. These terms are kept to a minimum and explained in the notes. Just as earlier Chinese monks translated Buddhist Sanskrit texts into fluent Chinese, her goal is to avoid a translation that sounds foreign, without being unfaithful to the original. Given that she is translating a commentary, a genre not well-represented in English, this is a difficult task. Finally, and most ambitiously, she outlines a Buddhist theory of translation based on the Four Dharma Realms, one that attempts to avoid reifying meanings since that would prevent access to the ultimate truth that Chengguan’s Compilation aims at conveying. [End Page 696]

Nicholas Hudson

University of Hawai’i


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