Skip to main content Skip to page footer

Jātakanidāna – Preface (D. Seyfort Ruegg)

sKyes pa rabs kyi gleṅ gźi (Jātakanidāna): Edition, Translation and Study – Preface by David Seyfort Ruegg

Dr Gaffney's work is devoted to a post-canonical text entitled Nidānakathā in Pāli — the language of the Theravāda tradition of Buddhism now followed in Sri Lanka, in Southeast Asia, and even by some in Nepal — and to a parallel text in Tibetan entitled sKyes pa rabs kyi gleṅ gźi('i bśad pa). Based on and updating Dr Gaffney's London University doctoral thesis of 2003, the work addresses a number of matters relating to the contents, background, and context of the Pāli and Tibetan texts.

According to its translator-colophon, the Tibetan text was rendered from an original in the language of India (rgya gar skad) by a team consisting of the Pandit Ānandaśrī and the translator (lo tsā ba) Thar pa Ñi ma rgyal mtshan dpal bzaṅ po. Ānandaśrī is on occasion referred to as a Sinhala (i.e. Sri Lankan) scholar. In Thar pa Lotsā ba's appelation, Thar pa indicates his connection with the monastery of Thar pa gliṅ founded in 1274 in the southern Tibetan province of gTsaṅ not far from the border with Nepal. And the term lo tsā ba designates a person regarded as an important and highly respected translator. The designation dpal bzaṅ po in his name indicates that he belonged to the Vinaya ordination line introduced in Tibet in the early thirteenth century by the Kāśmīri scholar Śākyaśrībhadra (whose alms bowl was said to be preserved in Thar pa gliṅ).

Thar pa Lotsā ba is known as a teacher of Bu ston Rin chen grub (1290-1364), a renowned collector and editor of the canonical texts of Buddhism in Tibetan translation assembled in an early manuscript bKa' 'gyur and also of Śāstra (bstan bcos) or commentarial works contained in the bsTan 'gyur. (A recent article by L. van der Kuijp sheds welcome light on the circle of persons with whom Bu ston was connected.)

This constellation of translators and texts raises a number of complex questions relating to the history, context and contents of the 'Jātakanidāna' that are of considerable interest for the history of Buddhism in general and for cultural relations between Tibet and the island now known as Sri Lanka in particular. One question is how it happened that the translation of this post-canonical text came to be included in the bKa' 'gyur along with a set of canonical texts also translated from Pāli. A related question is whether the Pāli work we now have was actually the text translated by Ānandaśrī and Thar pa Lo tsā ba, or whether there once existed a version in Sanskrit that might have been the basis for their translation into Tibetan; this alternative does not appear to be the case, however, and it is the Pāli work that is now thought to have been the Indian-language text translated into Tibetan.

This was a relatively rare but not unparalleled occurrence. The bKa' 'gyur in fact includes the set of Pāli 'Mahāsūtras' just mentioned (and recently studied by Peter Skilling) whose translation is also attributed to Ānandaśrī and Thar pa Lo tsā ba. Still, unlike the post-canonical Gleṅ gźi, the latter works are all technically classifiable as 'Buddha word' and so find their proper place in the bKa' 'gyur canon. Possibly the Gleṅ gźi was attracted into the bKa' 'gyur because it was considered a part of the block of these other Pāli works. (Another example of the inclusion of a commentary in the bKa' 'gyur is the Vimalaprabhā, the basic commentary on the Kālacakra, which found a place in both the sDe dge bKa' 'gyur and bsTan 'gyur.) Be this as it may, no author-colophon is found in the Tibetan translation of the Gleṅ gźi, and its translator-colophon attributes the text to no specific person. The introductory formula (nidāna) found in the Gleṅ gźi is, moreover, that of a sūtra. And the contents of the work seems not to conflict with recognized criteria of authenticity for 'Buddha word' (such as the mahāpadeśas).

For Bu ston — and very likely for his teacher Thar pa Lo tsā ba — it was the availability of an Indian-language text and its transmission through reliable masters that vouched for the genuineness of a text. At the same time this openness of the Tibetan canon to new material as it gradually became available did not inexorably lead to doctrinal contamination or to syncretism: Tibetan scholars regularly sought to establish precisely the specific religious or philosophical tradition to which a text belongs. It could then be judged authentic and considered authoritative. The incorporation of the Gleṅ gźi along with the block of 'Mahāsūtras' might have been facilitated, at least in part, by the fact that Thar pa Lo tsā ba was a teacher of Bu ston, the compiler and editor of the bKa' 'gyur and thus himself a kind of guarantor for the genuineness of a text. However, in his survey of the contents of the bKa' 'gyur in his Chos 'byuṅ, Bu ston has written that the status of this set of Sūtras and the Gleṅ gźi 'recently' translated by Ānandaśrī and Thar pa Lo tsā ba and their doctrinal (theg pa che chuṅ) affiliation require examination (dpyad par bya) (see S. Nishioka's ed. of Bu ston's dKar chag, Part i [Tokyo, 1980] p. 76, nos. 367-380).

Thar pa Lo tsā ba was also the translator of bsTan 'gyur works on the Sanskrit language according to the Cāndra system, on medicine, on the arts and crafts (śilpa), and on Tantra; and he was the reviser of Ye śes sde's early translation of a commentary on Asaṅga's Abhidharmasamuccaya. His monastery of Thar pa gliṅ is described in the translator-colophon of the Gleṅ gźi as the seat of translators (skad gñis smra ba rnams kyi gdan sa).

The inclusion among the scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism of works that transcend narrow parochialism and a sectarian particularism that would set the Theravāda tradition of India and Sri Lanka against the Mahāyāna predominant in Tibet shows that the bKa' 'gyur was not a 'closed canon' of scriptures open exclusively to one single orthodoxy. It was a collection in which the inclusion of a text was determined, as and when it became accessible to Tibetan scholars, on the basis of criteria such as the availablity of the work in the 'language of India', being relevant to and in keeping with the contents of the Buddhist scriptures, and being guaranteed by a reliable line of transmission through recognized Buddhist masters. Such works could thus be regarded as being of universal significance and value — perhaps even as being 'cosmopolitan' (to use a description of Buddhism employed by the Leiden indologist J. Ph. Vogel in an address he gave to an assembly at his university published in 1931).

Dr Gaffney's project consists in an edition and translation of the Tibetan text and its comparison with the presumed Pāli original. In his edition of the sKyes pa rabs kyi gleṅ gźi Dr Gaffney does not seek to identify a textual archetype, let alone to deliver an Urtext just as it left the hands of its translators at some time around 1300. It is a variorum edition registering in its critical apparatus textual variants taken from five older bKa' 'gyurs and from the modern lHa sa bKa' 'gyur of 1934, which belongs to the Them spaṅs ma textual tradition but sometimes follows a reading of the sDe dge print that belongs to the Tshal pa branch of the Tibetan canonical tradition. The significance of the lHa sa bKa' 'gyur lies, inter alia, in showing what early twentieth century Tibetan scholarship has made of the textual traditions which it inherited; it should not automatically be left out of account simply because it is a recent eclectic text at the end of a long line of textual witnesses. It is helpful to have these variants set out conveniently before our eyes.

Dr Gaffney draws attention to noteworthy terms and concepts in the canonical Pāli Buddhavaṃsa found also in his Jātaka text (which quotes the Buddhavaṃsa), such as buddhabīja and buddhaṅkura (and also the pāramīs including the paññāpāramī) —, terms that parallel or perhaps prefigure concepts associated especially with Mahāyāna (including perhaps even the buddhagarbha / tathāgatagarbha concept).

His work investigates a hitherto little explored area in Pāli and Tibetan studies and offers fresh insights into several significant facets of the history of Buddhism in South Asia and Tibet. It contributes, too, to dispelling a widely spread view that postulates a deep chasm dividing a 'Northern' from a 'Southern' Buddhism. His study is to be warmly welcomed.


D. Seyfort Ruegg, July 2020

To top