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Attaining Nibbana: Orientalism, Protestantism, and Translation

If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”.  You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”.  “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated).  Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means.  True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence.  Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.

What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”.  The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, are more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism.  Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit.  The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language.  Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.

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The Heart Sutra

Avalokita, the Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond.

He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and He saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Here, O Sariputra,

form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form ;

emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form,

the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.

Here, O Sariputra,

all dharmas are marked with emptiness ;

they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.

Therefore, O Sariputra,

in emptiness there is no form nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness ;

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind ; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind ; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to :

No mind-consciousness element ; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to : There is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path.

There is no cognition, no attainment and no non-attainment.

Therefore, O Sariputra,

it is because of his non-attainmentness that a Bodhisattva, through having relied on the Perfection of Wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble,

he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect Enlightenment because they have relied on the Perfection of Wisdom.

Therefore one should know the prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth — for what could go wrong ? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered. It runs like this :

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.

( Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail !)

This completes the Heart of perfect Wisdom.

–translated by Edward Conze

This is tweaked very slightly in that I put in the version of the mantra with all the correct diacritics, which Conze left out to make things typographically easier (that was the pre-computer days, you know).

This is actually relevant to some points I’m going to make in upcoming posts, believe it or not.  Meanwhile, it’s one of my favorite Buddhist scriptures, and I hope you enjoy it, too.


Avalokita–the bodhisattva of infinite compassion.

Bodhisattva–a being that is highly advanced on the path to enlightenment but has decided to postpone enlightenment to aid the suffering beings of the world. Broadly equivalent to a saint or a demi-god.

Heap–translation of the Sanskrit skandha, often translated “aggregate”; the characteristic properties of which sentient beings are formed:  form, sensation, perception,  mental formations, and consciousness.

Dharma–in this context, “characteristic” or “property”.

Prajñāpāramitā–the perfection of transcendent wisdom.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series Buddhism.