Reciting Pictures: Buddhist Texts for the Illiterate


The focus on correct pronunciation here has always bothered me in a particular way: the Heart Sutra ends in a Sanskrit mantra -- "gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā", or "gone, gone, far gone, awakening, svaha".

But in each of the languages that inherited the Chinese rendering of the Heart Sutra -- Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and others -- the mantra is pronounced completely differently, by the principles of sound change over the centuries!

In fact, the Japanese rendering is "gyatei gyatei haragyatei harasōgyatei boji sowaka", while the Korean rendering is "aje aje bara-aje baraseung-aje moji sabaha". Each of these is in turn the Sino-Xenic reading of the same Chinese transliteration of the mantra: 揭諦揭諦波羅揭諦波羅僧揭諦菩提薩婆訶.

So I wonder, if you believe in the power of the sound symbolism of the mantra, why was it ever acceptable to transliterate the Sanskrit into Chinese, and from there into a multitude of other languages?


> why was it ever acceptable to transliterate the Sanskrit into Chinese

I'd say it wasn't transliteration, it was just writing.

Sanskrit was written with local script throughout the world. Unlike some other languages, which have strong affinity for one script, Sanskrit can be written with lots of scripts (e.g. Burmese, Tibetan, etc.). So Chinese characters were probably perceived just as another way of writing, not as some kind of vulgarisation.

Sure, in the end the pronunciation drifted in unexpected ways. But I think it's not because people used Chinese characters, but because the knowledge of Sanskrit in China, Japan or Korea was not that widespread.


thinking from a purely vibrational point of view, maybe it's more-or-less the same punch because when one says "wom wom wom" or "nom nom nom" we're still getting similar propulsions in vibratory-space. +, the real tone is intention.


> First of all, most East Asian canons of sacred Buddhist texts — known as Tripitaka and venerated by practitioners in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan — have long been written in Classical Chinese.

Chinese Buddhist texts are famous in the study of ancient Chinese for often (though not always) being not Classical or at least incorporating an atypically large number of vernacular elements. However, to the article's point, they do often remain difficult to read without an understanding of certain Sanskrit-derived Buddhist proper nouns.


This reminds me of a very interesting post I came across a few months ago. Not sure how I did, but the author’s argument is essentially that culture is becoming far less “literate” in the modern world, in the sense of reading and analyzing long books. Subsequently religions that are built on deep connections with texts will decline. Or rather, religions that focus exclusively on the text and ignore architecture, music, and other audiovisual elements will decline.

I’m not sure this will hold for all religions, but I think the general thesis is essentially correct. And it made me think about how technology itself ends up shaping belief systems. Without the “technologies” of writing and books, the history of the last ~2,500 years would be very different, religion/culture wise. No Bible, no Quran, no academic methods of analysis which arose out of examining scripture, etc. The interesting question is what the religious artifacts of the future will look like, influenced by computers and the internet.


Public Domain Review is such an amazing site. I am continually impressed by the writing and editing and presentation.


“The sound of the rain needs no translation”


For more colorful expeditions into the depths of the Internet Archive Nicholas Rougeux is pretty good


When I lived in Japan I had no interest in Buddhism. It's sad, now I do, and so much of the language is influenced by Buddhism. There is a word ("gedatsu") which if pronounced according to the rules of converting Chinese characters (kanji) to their Japanese pronunciation would be kaidatsu. The word means enlightenment. It harkens back to a different era in the language when people could recite 800 page books from memory.


Using a drawing of breasts (乳 ち chi) to represent wisdom (智 ち chi) must have been a popular choice, though it makes me wonder whether whoever came up with that idea was pulling an elaborate prank.


Are they the original of emojis? Only half joking.