The Concept of ”Names” from ”Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn” by Chunyang Zhou
The highest goal of Buddhism is undoubtedly Nirvāṇa. The Buddha has teached nothing else but the thought about Nirvāṇa involving its necessity, its possibility and the methods to it. Although most of laymen were perhaps only concerned about their puṇyas, the famous Buddhist masters spared no effort to explore the true meanings of the state of liberation. Almost every tradition of Buddhism has made its contributions to the interpretation of Nirvāṇa. In the history of Chinese Buddhist thought, the first work which centers in the understanding of Nirvāṇa is ”Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn” – “Nirvāṇa is nameless”. This work has special significance to the development of East Asian Buddhism. On the one hand, it carried forward the tradition of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, but on the other hand, it has borrowed many expressions and ideas from Chinese native traditions. This style exerted a far-reaching impact on later age. In later Chinese works, it was frequently quoted by Buddhists as an authority. However, it has not been given the full weight it deserves for a long time due to doubt on its authorship. Only in recent years gained it more attention of researchers, especially from Chinese-speaking world.
1 What is Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn
Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn was written before the middle of the fifth century. The title “Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn”(Chinese：涅槃無名論) means “Treatise on (the theory) ’Nirvāṇa is nameless”’ or “Treatise on the Namelessness of Nirvāṇa”. In previous studies is it translated as “Nirvāṇa is unnameable”, “Nirvāṇa is Nameless”, or “Nirvāṇa is without Conceptualzation” in English. It is a treatise on the topic “Nirvāṇa and its names”. In its nineteen chapters have the relationships between Nirvāṇa and its conceptualization been discussed in depth in a succinct but also very elegant writing style. In addition, this work includes a foreword stating the motif of it:
- One day, I was privileged to read your letter to Yiáosūng, Duke of Ānchéng, answering his question why asaṃskṛta is the final principle. (You write:) “Greed is the reasons why the beings must wander through many births and deaths. When greed has ended in their heart this wandering ceases. Then their souls withdraw into Silence and become (unassailable) like Empty Space. This is called nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa-how could it contain a nameable thing?”... Your conceptions are deep and penetrating, the theory abstruse, the wording concise. ... I am afraid that those who take words in their literal sense cannot fully understand you. ... In this I shall follow Confucius who did not aim at writting a brilliant piece of literature when he composed the “Ten Wings” of the I, but only intended to bring to light the inner meaning (of the Basic Text). So I composed the treatise On the Unnameability of Nirvāṇa, containing nine objections and ten explanations.
2 Debates about Authorship
Traditionally is it included in Zhàolùn (Chinese: 肇論) – “Treatises of [Sēng]zhào”. Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn was listed as one of the four treatises of this book and thereby attributed to Sengzhao since the fifth Century. Sengzhao (Sēngzhào 僧肇), one of the most important Buddhist thinkers in ancient China, is a key figure in the sinization of Indian Buddhism and the formation of the philosophical system of Chinese Buddhism. He lives from 374 to 414 C.E. In his youth he was poor, but already deeply versed in the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. He converted to Buddhism after he had read Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra (維摩詰經). Later he became a disciple of the famous Translator Kumārajīva and was called “The best Chinese Interpreter of Emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā)” by Kumārajīva. As Kumārajīva was engaged in translating the Sanskrit scriptures into Chinese, Sengzhao “’held the brush’, i.e. he composed the Chinese text after it had been explained by Kumārajīva, and also took notes of the master’s comments”. Of course, he is better known for his own works: especially Zhào Lùn. As Jeffrey Dippmann wrote:
- His work may be the only extensive compilation of early Chinese Mādhyamika treatises available, although no Mādhyamika “school”is likely to have existed in China until Jizang (549-623 CE) projected such a lineage back to the time of Sengzhao.
However, the attribution to Sengzhao of Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn was challenged by the Chinese scholar Yongtong Tang in his Buddhism History in Ancient Chinese Dynasties of Han, Wei, Jin (Chinese: 汉魏两晋南北朝佛教史) published in 1938. He opined that this treatise seems not to be written by Sengzhao. But he believed that it was written at the beginning of Sòng dynasty (420-479), that is to say, no more than thirty years later than previously thought. His view has so greatly influenced later researchers that many of them excluded this work from their studies of Zhàolùn. But with the development of research, Tang’s arguments were being doubted by more and more scholars. The Japanese scholar Enichi Ōchō refuted those arguments and the arguments of two other scholars who have similar opinions point by point in 197213. His view has been shared by more and more researchers. Many recent studies showed that most of the arguments of the skeptics are inconclusive although they told us, there are some ambiguous issues in this treatise. Hence, I will respect the traditional authorship of Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn and consider it as a work of Sengzhao.
3 Structure of Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn
This Text appears in the form of a dialogue between two obviously fictitious characters, named Wúmíng and Yǒumíng. Wúmíng means “Without Names” while Yǒumíng means “With Names”. They play the two sides in the dispute about “Names”, which means there the two names of Nirvāṇa – the “incomplete Nirvāṇa” (Sanskrit: sopādhiśeṣanirvāṇa) and the “complete Nirvāṇa” (Sanskrit: nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa). Both are provided by Indian Sūtras. The question now is how to understand the Expressions of those categories. The latter defends his view that the “Names” exist. But the former emphasizes that they don’t exist and the ultimate Nirvāṇa is behind the conceptualization, while he refutes the view of “Being” of the “Names” from the former. Both appear alternately in this work. And each chapter is a speech of one side. That is to say, in the whole treatise, Yǒumíng has spoken nine times, and Wúmíng ten times. This treatise comprises an introduction by Wúmíng and nine rounds of the debate between Yǒumíng and Wúmíng. The winner of this dispute is understandably Wúmíng, obviously the spokesperson of the Author himself.
4 the concept of Names
Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn is a treatise that allows of many possible interpretations from different perspectives. In this paper, I shall discuss its concept of the Chinese Míng (名) – the Names resp. the Conceptualizations. This term alone is interesting for the study of Chinese Buddhism. Because it has double terminological background. On the one hand, Míng is one of the most important philosophical categories of ancient China. We find almost in every school of thought its interpretations. For example: the Tao Te Ching (Dàodé Jīng) of Laozi opens with the famous saying: “A Way that can be told, is not the eternal way; a Name (míng) that can be named (míng), is not the eternal Name.” Confucius takes the “Rectification of Names (míng)” as one of the central tasks of his ideal politic. In the 5th century A.D., there was already a wealth of ideas about Names. On the other hand, Míng was used to translate the Indian term nāman in Chinese Buddhist texts. Nāman suggests the Buddhist category nāmarūpa. In the Indian Buddhist tradition, nāman and nāmarūpa were associated with Selflessness and Non-eternalness. Compared with the Chinese native míng, they have obviously more negative senses. Sengzhao, who was well grounded in Daoism, followed Kumārajīva to translate the Mahāyāna texts and devoted himself to interpreting the meanings of those, has apparently integrated the meaning of the Chinese míng and the meaning of the Indian nāman into the Míng used in Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn.
Now let me give a brief summary of main points of its concept of Names. These points are as follows:
- 1. The Names are unreal. The so-called sopādhiśeṣanirvāṇa and nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa are merely other names for “(Coming)-out and Staying” (which mean “Being engaged in Public Affairs” and “Staying away from Public Affairs”, Chinese 出處) used to adapt appearances. Nirvāṇa is “silent and empty”, “it is impossible to attain through forms and names”;
- 2. The truth of Nirvāṇa is outside the confines of “Having and Not Having”, that is to say, outside the “Nirvāṇa which has residual” (incomplete Nirvāṇa) and the “Nirvāṇa which has no residual”(complete Nirvāṇa). It transcends the languages and shapes. Nirvāṇa should be recognized as neither having residual nor having no residual;
- 3. Admittedly, everything falls under the categories “Having and Not Having” or “Being and Not Being” – but only in the sense of temporary truth. The way of Nirvāṇa, however, is an ultimate truth which is unnameable. In this way, the Indian theory of two-fold truth was employed to harmonize logical contradictions;
- 4. The cognitive Method should be “Identification” (Chinese 齊觀Qíguān, “Viewing as equal”). The subject and the objects of cognition, the “Things” and the ego, the universe and the individual, should be considered as ”the same”. Hence the differences of Names no longer exist.
There is one suggestion that chapters 8-13 are modified by another person or other persons. Anyway, chapters 1-7 seem to be the most consistent and unified part of this work. And the concept of Names is mainly discussed here. In order to present this treatise as objectively as possible, I give below a translation of selected passages from these chapters.
- Yǒumíng said: Which the Sūtras called “Incomplete Nirvāṇa” and “Complete Nirvāṇa” are called Wúwéi or Mièdù in Chinese. That which is Wúwéi is void and silent, and the extreme wonder of its subtlety is revealed through Yǒuwéi. That which is Mièdù is the absolute vanishing of suffering through transcendence of greed, existence illusion, and ignorance. It is the original source from which all images are reflected, and the invisible dwelling of the absolute Nameless. Yet, Nirvana is called incomplete and complete. They are other names for “(Coming)-out and Staying” used to adapt appearances. They are not real, but simply refer to its different manifestations.
- ... ...
- The incomplete and the complete are external appellations given to Nirvāṇa; they are fictitious names used to adapt appearances. Those who insist on names will be limited to names. Those who insist on the images of thing will be trapped by forms. This is because names are limited to titles, and forms are limited to either squareness or roundness. There is something which the forms of sqareness and roundness cannot represent; there is something which titles cannot convey. How can you say that names can describe the Nameless, and that forms can represent the Formless? ... it is true that it fulfills the teachings through expediency as well as as silence, and that it also reveals the real traces of both the concealment and unconcealment of the Buddha. However, it is not the profound achivement of the inexpressible wonder of silence; nor is it the subtle wonder of the Void achieved by the Perfect Man. Have you never heard the teaching of correct seeing? In the Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra we have: ”This is what I see: Buddha, who is free from beginning and free from ending. He is beyond the six senses and transcends the threefold world. He has no dwelling place, yet he dwells everywhere; he is neither created nor not-created. He cannot be recognized through consciousness, nor understood through the intellect. He is free from words and expressions, and is where the actions of the mind ceases. To see him in this way is correct seeing; other seeing cannot see Buddha.”
- The Fang-kuang Sūtra says: ”Buddha is similar to the Void, in which nothing departs, and nothing comes. He manifests himself according to conditions, without being determined by any particular place.” Thus, the wise in the world remains in quiescence and emptiness, clinging to nothing, and emulating nothing. He leads, but not prior to the demand. He responds, but not until conditions require. It is just like an echo sounding in a deep valley, or an image reflected in a bright mirror. When you face an echo or an image you do not know where it comes from; when you follow an echo or an image, you do not know where it goes. Evasively, it exists; elusively, it non-exists. The more it acts, the more it becomes quiescent. The more it hides, the more it is revealed. It emerges profundity and diminishes into invisibility. It transforms itself without permanence. To give it names is simply to reflect the emergence of things. The unconcealment of its traces is life; the concealment of its traces is death. To live means that something remains; to die means that nothing remains. Hence, the terms existence and non-existence originate from the Nameless, and the way of the Nameless can name everything. Thus, when the Perfect Man is in squareness, he follows the sqareness. When he is in roundness, he follows the roundness. When he is in heaven, he follows the nature of heaven. When he is with man, he follows the nature of man. The reason that he can fulfill so well the nature of heaven and the nature of man is that he is not limited to the capacities of either heaven or man. In fact, he is free from both heaven and man, and thus, he is able to fulfill the nature of heaven and the nature of man. When he governs the country, he responds without forced actions, and follows without imposing. Because he follows withous imposing, his influence is limitless. Because he responds without forced actions, nothing is greater than his actions. Because his actions are so great, they reverse to the Nameless. A Sūtra says: ”The path of Bodhi cannot be intentionally planned. It is high with nothing beyond it. It is vast with no boundaries. It is deep with nothing below it. Profound, it cannot be measured; great, it embraces heaven and earth; minute, it enters where there is no space. This is called Tao.” If this is true, it is clear that the way of Nirvana cannot be obtained through existence and non-existence. However, those who are confused see his spiritual transformation and call it existence; they see his vanishment and call it non-existence. This is to say that existence and non-existence are simply the region of illusory imagination. How can you describe the profundity of Tao and talk about the mind of the wise? I think that the Perfect Man, silent and still, without manifestations, indicates that concealment and unconcealment share the same source. To remain does not mean existence. To vanish does not mean non-existence. Why? Because Buddha says: ”No life is not my life. Although it is life, it is lifeless. No form is not my form. Although it is form, it is formless.” Because of this I know that to remain does not mean existence.
- ... ...
- What is called “Having and Not Having” indeed includes all things and all principles. However, what they include is the temporary truth. In the Sūtra we have: “What is the real truth? It is the way of Nirvāṇa. What is the temporary truth? It is the things of ’Having and Not Having”’ Why is this so? That which is existence exists in non-existence. That which is nonexistence non-exists in existence. Therefore, non-existence is called existence. Not existence is called non-existence. Thus, existence is derived from nonexistence and non-existence is derived from existence. Apart from existence, there is no non-existence. Apart from non-existence, there is no existence. The truth mutual creation of existence and non-existence is similar to the mutual contrast of high and low. If there is high, there must be low. If there is low, there must be high. Hence, existence and non-existence, although different from each other, both exist. It is from this that words and images are formulated, and assertion and negation are produced. How can you say that this synthesizes the invisible ultimate and symbolizes the spiritual way?
5 Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn and Daoism
An important characteristic of Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn is that the Daoist terms and expressive style have been heavily used. It shows colours of Laozi and Zhuangzi from beginning to end. Especially the work of Laozi was quoted extensively. For example: In the second and the third chapter, the author has quoted the saying of Laozi: “The reason I have great illnesses is that I have body. If I have no body, which illnesses do I have?” In the thirteenth chapter, we find also quotation from Laozi: “Every day will hold more in practice of learning; Every day will loss more in practice of Dao.” Nevertheless, this work has not deviated from the Mahāyāna spirit. Its basic principles are still Buddhist. This style is decided by Sengzhao’s background. And it has exerted a far-reaching influence on later Chinese Buddhism. Since then, Chinese Buddhism gradually stepped into his own path. The native traditions were consciously or unconsciously integrated into Buddhist teaching. We can also find the influences of Sengzhao in the later Zen Buddhism. Nièpán Wúmíng Lùn accordingly became an important work that played special role in this process. Huìdá (Jìn dynasty), Yuánkāng (Táng dynasty), Zūnshì (Sòng dynasty), Jìngyuán (Sòng dynasty), Wéncái (Yuán dynasty) and Déqīng (Míng dynasty) have written commentaries on it.
- Chang, Chung-yuan (1974): Nirvana Is Nameless. Journal Of Chinese Philosophy, 1:247–274.
- Chiu, Min-Chieh = 邱敏捷(2003): The Questions about the Author of ”The Essence of Sastra” and ” The Namelessness of Nirvana” =〈宗本義〉與〈涅槃無名論〉的作者 問題. Journal of the Center for Buddhist Studies = 佛學研究中心學報, (8):43–71.
- Dippmann, Jeffrey (2004): The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/sengzhao/, chap. Sengzhao (Seng-Chao) (c. 378 — 413 CE).
- Liebenthal, Walter (1968): Chao lun: the treatises of Seng-chao. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.
- Ocho, Enichi = 橫超慧日(2002): Nehan mumeiron to sono haike =〈涅槃無名論〉及 其背景. 正觀: 佛學研究雜誌= Satyābhisamaya: A Buddhist Studies Quarterly, pp. 167–224.
- Tang, Yongtong = 汤用彤(1997): Buddhism History in Ancient Chinese Dynasties of Han, Wei, Jin = 汉魏两晋南北朝佛教史. Peking University Press = 北京大学出版社.
- Thompson, John M. (2008): Understanding Prajñā: Sengzhao’s ”Wild Words” and the Search for Wisdom. Peter Lang, New York.
- Xu, Fancheng = 徐梵澄(1985): Three theses of Seng-zhao: A Translation from Chinese with Introduction and Notes by Hsu Fan-cheng = 肇论. 中国社会科学出版社.
- Ocho (2002) p. 168. ==> Ocho, Enichi = 橫超慧日(2002): Nehan mumeiron to sono haike =〈涅槃無名論〉及 其背景. 正觀: 佛學研究雜誌= Satyābhisamaya: A Buddhist Studies Quarterly, pp. 167–224.
- Liebenthal (1968). ==> Liebenthal, Walter (1968): Chao lun: the treatises of Seng-chao. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.
- Chang (1974) p. 247 ff. ==> Chang, Chung-yuan (1974): Nirvana Is Nameless. Journal Of Chinese Philosophy, 1:247–274.
- Dippmann (2004). ==> Dippmann, Jeffrey (2004): The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/sengzhao/, chap. Sengzhao (Seng-Chao) (c. 378 — 413 CE).
- The translations provided in this paper are based on the translations of Liebenthal and Chang (especially of Chang) to a great extent. See Liebenthal (1968) and Chang (1974).
- Exepting 大唐內典錄. See Tang (1997).
- Sengzhao is his monastic name. His family name is originally Zhang (張).
- Thompson (2008). ==> Thompson, John M. (2008): Understanding Prajñā: Sengzhao’s ”Wild Words” and the Search for Wisdom. Peter Lang, New York.
- Liebenthal (1968) p. 5. ==> Liebenthal, Walter (1968): Chao lun: the treatises of Seng-chao. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.
- Dippmann (2004). ==> Dippmann, Jeffrey (2004): The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/sengzhao/, chap. Sengzhao (Seng-Chao) (c. 378 — 413 CE).
- Tang (1997) p. 331. ==> Tang, Yongtong = 汤用彤(1997): Buddhism History in Ancient Chinese Dynasties of Han, Wei, Jin = 汉魏两晋南北朝佛教史. Peking University Press = 北京大学出版社.
- E.g. Xu (1985). ==> Xu, Fancheng = 徐梵澄(1985): Three theses of Seng-zhao: A Translation from Chinese with Introduction and Notes by Hsu Fan-cheng = 肇论. 中国社会科学出版社.
- 14E.g. Chiu (2003). ==> Chiu, Min-Chieh = 邱敏捷(2003): The Questions about the Author of ”The Essence of Sastra” and ” The Namelessness of Nirvana” =〈宗本義〉與〈涅槃無名論〉的作者 問題. Journal of the Center for Buddhist Studies = 佛學研究中心學報, (8):43–71.
- Such a structure reminds us of certain chapters of Zhuangzi, e.g. 秋水Qiūshuǐ.
- 《论语· 子路篇》：子路曰：“卫君待子而为政，子将奚先？”子曰：“必也正名乎！” 子路曰：“有是 哉，子之迂也！奚其正？”子曰：“野哉，由也！君子于其所不知，盖阙如也。名不正，则言不顺。言不 顺，则事不成。事不成，则礼乐不兴。礼乐不兴，则刑罚不中。刑罚不中，则民无所措手足。故君子名 之必可言也，言之必可行也。君子于其言，无所苟而已矣。”
- See Liebenthal (1968). ==> Liebenthal, Walter (1968): Chao lun: the treatises of Seng-chao. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.
- Laozi, chapter 13: 吾所以有大患者，為吾有身，即吾無身，吾由何患？
- Laozi, chapter 48: 為學日益，為道日損.