The inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha) is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras, preserved and transmitted in both India and China over many centuries and actively quoted in treatises on the bodhisattva path. It is, nevertheless, one of the most neglected texts in Western treatments of Buddhism. The Ugra appears to be one of the earliest bodhisattva scriptures to come down to us, and as such it offers a particularly valuable window on the process by which the bodhisattva path came to be seen as a distinct vocational alternative within certain Indian Buddhist communities. The Bodhisattva Path is a study and translation of the Ugra that will fundamentally alter previous perceptions of the way in which Mahayana was viewed and practiced by its earliest adherents.
To achieve a better understanding of the universe of ideas, activities, and institutional structures within which early self proclaimed bodhisattvas lived, the author first considers the Ugra as a literary document, employing new methodological tools to examine the genre to which it belongs, the age of its extant versions, and their relationships to one another. She goes on to challenge the dominant notions that the Mahayana emerged as a “reform” of earlier Buddhism and offered lay people an “easier option.” On the contrary, the picture that emerges is of the early Mahayana as a more difficult and demanding vocation, initially limited to a small contingent of monastic males.
Combining a detailed critical study and translation of an important Buddhist scripture with a sweeping re-examination of the relationship between the Buddha and the practitioner of early Mahayana, The Bodhisattva Path will be compelling reading for scholars and practitioners alike and others interested in the history of Indian Buddhism and the formation of Mahayana.
Jan Nattier is associate professor of Buddhist studies at Indiana University.
The Ugrapariprcchasutra is a particularly important text for our understanding of the beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism. It originated in a monastic milieu prior to the open split between Sravakayana and Mahayana Buddhism. Though in the sutra the Buddha explains to Ugra, the interlocutor, the practices and path of the bodhisattva, it differs in many important aspects from the literature that informs our knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism. The sutra neither espouses Sunyata nor any philosophy commonly identified with Mahayana Buddhism; nor is it grounded in a particular cult, be it of the stupa, of the book or of celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; nor does it originate in a particular context apart from mainstream monasticism. Rather, the Ugra’s portrayal of the bodhisattva ideal is in perfect continuity with Srvakayana Buddhism. The Ugra upholds the ideal of the monastic, and, more particularly, of the solitary renounce who devotes his life to meditative practices pursued in isolation. The sutra does not challenge the sravaka’s aspiration as selfish and vain, as happens so famously in the Vimalakirtinirdeasutra; rather, it supplements it with the even loftier ideal of buddhahood, exhorting the bodhisattva to model his spiritual career on that of the Buddha.
It is not possible to discount the picture of emerging Mahayana Bud4hism afforded by the Ugra as peripheral. The sutra was translated into Chinese no fewer than six times between the second and fifth century, and hence it must have been of enormous importance during that period. However, due to the loss of the Sanskrit original and a bias in the study of Mahayana Buddhism towards particular texts, the Ugra has so far received scant academic attention. All the more important is the present study of the Ugrapariprcchasutra by Prof. Jan Nattier. For the first time, it makes the sutra available in a carefully annotated translation into a Western language. Nattier translates the Tibetan version of the Ugra, the longest and most recent recession of this text. She weaves into her translation deviations from the three extant Chinese translations as well as the Sanskrit fragments handed down as quotations in Santideva’s Siksasamuccaya. Thus, together with the two synoptic tables in Appendix I collating the different versions of the Ugra, Nattier’s translation makes this text accessible comprehensively. The presentation of the text is preceded by an extensive study of the sutra. First Nattier introduces the Ugra and discusses philological and methodological issues pertaining to the handling of the original sources. She then proceeds to place the sutra within its Buddhist context and offers a thoughtful analysis of its content. Finally, she looks at the Ugra in light of our received notion of what Mahayana Buddhism is and proceeds to question the validity of these notions.
Prof. Nattier’s work is an important contribution to the study of Mahayana Buddhism. A Few Good Men not only rescues a significant primary source, the Ugra, from oblivion, but it also offers a circumspect and penetrating analysis of this text. In the process, Nattier considers the current state of both Western and Japanese scholarship, addresses methodological issues and deals with the prevailing theories on the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. Thus this study accomplishes far more than the presentation of an important Mahayanasutra that has been much neglected to date. It sheds new light on the incipient phase of Mahayana Buddhism and hence is recommended reading for students of Buddhism.
This is the first book in the Buddhist Tradition Series that is no longer appearing under the able editorship of Prof. Wayman. After a long illness, he passed away in New York on September 22, 2004. This is neither the place to recall his significant and always stimulating contributions to different areas in the study of Buddhism, nor is it the occasion to dwell on the dedication with which he promoted the interests and work of a host of students during his long and distinguished career as academic teacher. Suffice it to say here, his death is a big loss to the academic community also because of his work in the field of publishing.
The Buddhist Tradition Series has been edited and accompanied by Professor Wayman since it began in 1987 with Hajime Nakamura’s bibliographic survey of Indian Buddhism. With the series Professor Wayman has strengthened the awareness of the Buddhist tradition in India by providing scholars and students with both modem studies in Western languages and classics of scholarship long out of print — all at reasonable costs. Professor Wayman proposed to include only such works that combined “both insight and scholarly excellence.” During all these years of service as editor, Professor Wayman took great care to balance the series’ program. The included works touch upon almost any aspect of the rich traditions of Buddhism and, at the same time, reflect different styles and developments in present-day scholarship. We gratefully acknowledge the high standards in the series maintained by our respected predecessor and will honour his example by proceeding in a like spirit.
This project has had a long history. Its origins can be traced to my initial year as a graduate student at Harvard (1974-75), when I first discovered the pleasures of an in-depth investigation of a Mahayana sutra while writing a paper on the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita under the direction of Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi. The memory of that experience—including the surprise of finding things in the text which (according to standard textbook definitions of the Mahayana) should not be there, and the delight of making a first foray into reading a Sanskrit Buddhist text in the original—has never left me, and indeed virtually all of my work since then could be viewed as a continued attempt to wrestle with questions that arose during that first and very formative year.
A more proximate beginning of this project, however, occurred almost twenty years later, after I had accepted a teaching position at my alma mater, Indiana University. A fellow alumnus of lU’s Religious Studies program, Daniel 3. Boucher (then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania) shared an interest in the Chinese translator Dharmaraksa, and together we organized a reading group (subsequently expanded to include IU professors Stephen R. Bokenkamp and Robert F. Campany) to peruse the Buddhist translations of this pivotal figure. Our attention soon fell upon Dharmaraksa’s translation of the Ugrapariprccha-sutra, which had particular appeal due to the existence of two other Chinese translations (one earlier, one later) as well as a considerably later Tibetan version which we could call upon for comparison. This small but intrepid group spent countless hours huddled around my kitchen table wrestling with Dharmaraksa’s often inscrutable translation choices, efforts that were rewarded at the end of most sessions by a feast of grilled fish, Boucher’s signature guacamole, colossal salads (of which Campany’s version won particular acclaim), and—when fortune was especially kind—a sampling of Bokekamp’s tine home- brewed beer.
The group eventually disbanded when Boucher (now at Cornell) accepted a fellowship to study in Japan, and our research interests moved in disparate directions. Boucher (always the pace-car of our group when it came to explaining the Indic antecedents of Dharmaraksa’s peculiar locutions) went on to write a. Ph.D. dissertation on Dharmaraksa’s translation idiom, while Bokenkamp and Campany continued to produce important works on various aspects of Chinese religion during the Han and Six Dynasties periods. My own interests remained centered on the use of Chinese sources to understand Indian Buddhism, and the experience of reading portions of the Ugra with this stimulating group convinced me that this sutra could supply vital information on the rise of the Mahayana in India that had not yet been adequately mined by scholars. A complete translation of the Ugra, I was convinced, could bring this important text into the conversation.
A translation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1995-96), whose generous support I am happy to acknowledge here, made it possible to begin work on this project in earnest, and a first draft of the translation was produced at a tiny desk in Xiaguan, Yunnan, P.R.C., where my partner John McRae was doing research on the religion of the local Bai ethnic group. Since my spoken Chinese was quite minimal, distractions were few, and work on the Ugra proceeded with unanticipated efficiency.
Upon my return to the academic fray in North America in 1996 progress slowed considerably, but this was balanced by the opportunity to investigate a wide range of related primary and secondary sources, and above all by the valuable feedback provided by a number of colleagues. Daniel Boucher scrutinized every line of the initial drafts of the introductory chapters, providing critical comments (and additional bibliographical references) that have greatly enhanced the quality of this work. Paul Harrison did the same for the translation, improving the phrasing and saving me from a number of potential mishaps. Stephen Bokenkamp offered invaluable counsel on reading the early Chinese versions of the Ugra, while SASAKI Shizuka and Jonathan Silk directed me to important related publications by Japanese scholars. Others whose insights have contributed to the final product are Thanissaro Bhikkhu (who made some excellent stylistic suggestions and offered copious references to related Pali texts), David Haberman (who took me to task for my original characterization of Hindu bhakti and may be slightly happier with the version that appears here), and my colleagues David Brakke and Constance Furey, whose insights into the study of ancient and early modern Christianity, respectively, were extremely helpful in clarifying some of the methodological issues raised here. Gil Fronsdal, Peter Gregory, and two anonymous reviewers offered encouraging comments, and Robert Campany and KARASHIMA Seishi caught some of the last remaining typos and raised a number of issues for further thought. At the eleventh hour Glenn Zuber and Jason BeDuhn pitched in by offering precise references to Christian and Manichaean materials, respectively, while Ju-hyung Rhi knew immediately how to locate the image that now appears on the cover. Last—and very far from least—Gregory Schopen read through every line of the final draft, offering substantial comments and catching a number of gaffes that would surely have caused confusion to the reader and embarassment to the writer. To all of these colleagues and friends I am immensely grateful. Any errors that remain, of course, are the sole responsibility of the author.
I would also like to thank the many scholars—most of whom I have never met—whose work is quoted or commented on below. Even in those cases where I have offered critical assessments of their methodology or conclusions, I have benefited greatly from their pioneering work. This manuscript was originally submitted in 1999 to another press, where after being accepted for publication it languished through mid-2001. I then resubmitted it, at the invitation of series editor Luis 0. Gomez, to the University of Hawai’i Press, and I have never regretted that decision. Editor Pat Crosby, in particular, has been a delight to work with, and copy editor Stephanie Chun did a remarkable job with a difficult text. To them and the rest of the staff at the Press, my heartfelt thanks.
Above all I am grateful to my husband, John McRae, who has endured countless hours of speculations on the rise of the Mahayana, answered my seemingly endless questions on things Chinese, and read through the entire manuscript, putting a variety of infelicities out of their misery at an early stage. But more than this: his unflagging support and constant companionship mean more to me than I can possibly express.
My only regret is that my teacher, Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi, did not live to see the completion of this work. He would have been amused, I suspect, by the Ugra’s seemingly retrograde position on certain issues, and no doubt he would have pushed me to think more deeply on some of the topics discussed below. The field of Buddhist Studies is diminished by his loss. As a very small gesture of gratitude, this work is dedicated to his memory.
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