Translations of the "Sutra of Golden light" into Mongolian languages Natalia S. Yakhontova

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I’m not a specialist in Buddhism and not going to speak on the contents of the Sutra but only on the history of its translations (part 1) and some other text

connected in some way to it (part 2).

Before I proceed I’d like to thank the curator of the collection of the Tibetan manuscripts at our Institute Alexander Zorin for his assistance in finding Tibetan texts.

All papers concerning Suvarnaprobhasottamasutra begin alike:

Being one of the pricipal works of Mahayana Buddhism the Sutra of Golden Light (Sanskrit - Arya Suvarna prabhasottama indra-raja-nama-mahayana-sutra) was translated in many languages (Chinese, Uigur, Tibetan, Japanese) and in Mongolian and Oirat (West Mongol).

Mongolian and Oirat translations are the last ones in the chain of translations from original Sanskrit texts in the course of Buddhist advance to other countries.

The first acquaitance with Buddhism was at the time of Chinggis-khan (mid. XIII century). During Yuan period (till its fall in 1368) many works were translated into Mongolian from Tibetan and Uigur, the latter being typical only for this period.

At that time first Sanscrit loan words appeared in Mongolian and they had Uigur traces in their forms (such words as bodisatu-a ‘bodhisattva’, ayaγq-a tegimlig ‘reverend’, adistid ‘blessing’ and others). But none of the works of that period lived to see later times.

One reasons for that is that then comes a “dark” period in Mongolian history with internicine wars between Genggis-khan’s descendants and consecutive cultural decline.

Buddhism came back to Mongolia (this time not to leave it) in the end of XVI century. Altan Khan (he was a Tumet), one of several powerful rules at that time, invited a buddhist priest from Tibet to educate and preach in Mongolia.

It was Sodnam-gyamco, the third Dalai Lama, but he was the first to receive the title “Dalai Lama” (dalai is “ocean” in Mongolian, gyamco is “ocean” in Tibetan). This title was granted by Altan Khan in 1578. Two first Dalai lamas were called so post factum. By the way, the fourth Dalai Lama was Altan Khan’s great grand-son – Yondongyamco (he died at the age of 27).

His reincarnation to become the famous fifth Dalai Lama Agvan Lubsangyamco was a Mongolian child as well.

A Mongol was “found” because the Gelug seeked support from the Oirat (West Mongolian) khan – Gushi Khan who came with his army.

It helped to proclaim the fifth Dalai Lama the ruler of Tibet (1640) and Ghushi Khan was nominated the King of Tibet.

He and his descendants stayed in Tibet till 1720 when they were replaced by the Manchu.

But let’s get back to the subject and to Mongolia.

In 17th century there was another powerful khan in Mongolia – Ligden Khan (he was a Chakhar) who is more important to the topic than just boasting of Altan Khan’s or Ghushi Khan’s part in the history of Tibet.

Ligden Khan was the first Mongolian khan who had Kanjur translated into Mongolian. 35 scholars headed by prominent Gunga-Odser translated the whole Kanjur in one year (1628-1629), which made 2000 pages per person.

Their speed can be explained by the fact that in many cases they just edited translations that had already been made before.

The only complete copy of this handwritten Kanjur is kept at the library of the Oriental faculty at St.Petersburg University.

The printed edition of Mongolian Kanjur was made in 1718-1720 in Beijing under the Manchu (outside Mongolia its copy is only in Paris).

The printed version is different from the handwritten one in some ways.

But the Sutra of Golden Light was included in both Kanjurs, which is natural because it was in Tibetan Kangyur as well – the original for the Mongolian translations.

Tibetan translations of the Sutra were made from Sanscrit and Chinese.

It’s time to say that there are three versions of the Sutra in Tibetan: a short one (21 chapter), medium (29) and long (31).

All the three can be found in Tibetan Kagyur and Mongolian Kanjur.

The short one is known in Sanscrit and it was translated by Prof. Emmeric into English. Two other Sanscrit texts have been lost.

The long one was translated into Tibetan from Chinese (the I-tsing’s translation) and the other two from Sanscrit, but only in the medium one the names of the translators are given.

They are Indians – Jinamitra and Shalendrabodhi and a Tibetan – Ye-shes-sde who translated a good number of other canonical works into Tibetan.

There is no evidence of the short version translators.

Separate editions (blockprints) and manuscripts of the Tibetan translation of the Sutra were widely spread not only in Tibet but in Mongolia as well. Blockprints were made in China, Tibet and later in Buriatia but only the medium version existed by its own outside the Kagyur.

The circulation of the Mongolian translations of the Sutra in Mongolia is very much the same as that of the Tibetan in Tibet.

I’ve mentioned two Mongolian Kanjurs (a handwritten and a blockprint) both including three versions of the Sutra.

Besides that separate copies of the Sutra were widespread.

As in Tibet it was the medium version which was copied repeatedly and existed as a separate text .

In the collection of our Institute there are 15 items (not taking in accout exact copies) of the Sutra both blockprints and manuscripts. Among them 5 blockprints that were printed in Beijing.

The most interesting is a Beijing blockprint of typical bodhi type (call number K 20) which is not only a comparatively early one (1659) but also the largest in size (59x20,5 cm). Photo.

Another Beijing blockprint was issued in 1721 (call number D 60) which is quite different in pattern – it consists of 6 Chinese style volumes. Photo

Buriat blockprints (19th century) were often made following Chinese pattern i.e. they engraved boards for their blockprints copying existing Chinese editions.

Exactly in this way a Buriat blockprint (call number C 423) was made. Four photoes pages 1a 1b, 8b, 225a The first page shows a handwritten permission to print the text given by Khambo Lama Galsan Gomboyev.

The last page shows four dharmapalas – guardians of the Law and it seems to me that the Buriat ones look more like the Buriats than the Chinese, don’t they?

There are two different Buriat editions of the Sutra in the collection of the Institute and they are represented in many copies (up to 30 for one of them).

There is also a number of manuscripts some of them having been copied from blockprints judging from the information in their colophones. Some of them are nicely decorated. (Photo)

One colophone (a kind of afterword to the text) is of special interest for it gives the name of the translator – Sharav Senge and states that he translated from Tibetan using an Uigur copy of Sutra as well.

This translator is well-known since he translated two more sutras - Pancaraksha and Lalitavestara in 14th century.

All above mentioned printed and manuscript texts of the medium Sutra show no (or very slight) difference from each other originating from Sherab Senge’s translation or, to be more precise, a re-edited Sherab Senge’s translation made in 16-17th centuries when the translation of Kanjur was prepared.

All the texts mentioned above are the medium version texts.

Stll in the Institute’s collection there is one blockprint of the short version which is the only text of short version outside Kanjur.

It is identical to the Kanjur translation and was printed in South Mongolia (Chakhar).

However it was the short version that was widely spread among the Oirats (the West Mongols).

Whenever one speaks about the Oirats they can’t avoid mentioning a prominent scholar and clergyman Zaya Pandita (mid. 17th century).

Among nearly 200 works which he wrote or translated into Oirat using so called “clear script” is the Sutra namely its short version.

His translation is totally different from the Mongolian ones. The main distinctive characteristic of his way of translating was following the Tibetan text precisely.

He translated (naturally!) the words, even those which were not traditionally translated (e.g. proper names) and it caused ambiguity because some names in the Sutra are as long as a sentence.

As for auxiliaries they were quite often translated according to the Tibetan grammar rules, which, I must say, didn’t help much in reading the Oirat text.

For justice’ sake I should say that this way of rendering the translation was typical not only to the Oirat texts but to a good number of Mongolian texts of that period.

So the Suvarnaprabhasottama sutra was very popular in the Mongolian World that was really World during some historical periods.

The second part of the paper gives some more evidence to this fact.

Part 2.

Apart from its numerous copies the Sutra’s popularity caused another fenomenon – other texts (in Tibetan and Mongolian) claimed to be its essence or its part. Pseudosutras to a different extent. They are the following.

1. In the collection of our Institute there is a small Tibetan manuscript called Sutra of Golden Light (or in full The Holy Sutra of Praised Golden Light, Tib. ‘phags pa gser ‘od dam pa mdo sde bsngags pa bzhugs). Its English translation by A.Zorin was published in the materials of the symposium The Silk Road documents: the transmission of the Suvarnaprabhasottamasutra (Beijing, 2006).

The author of the translation was mislead by the title of this text and introduced it as the Outline of the Suvarnaprabhasa.

However it has nothing to do with the real Suvarnaprabhasa. Actually it is a different sutra from Kagyur.

Its Sanskrit name is arya suvarna sutra mahayana nama sutra (Tib. ‘phags pa gser gyi mdo shes bya ba theg pa chen po mdo, Mong. qutuγtu altan-u sudur neretü yeke kölgöni sudur) in English “Holy Mahayana Sutra called Golden Sutra”.

It is very short – its transliteration covers one European page.

It is about bodhicitta – thought of enlightenment. Venerable Ananda asks Bhagavan: what is the thought of enlightment like?

And Buddha answers that bodhicitta is like gold which doesn’t change its essense whatever a goldsmith does with this gold.

The name of the text was changed slightly but significally. Instead of Golden Sutra (which is its original name) it became Sutra of Golden Light either by mistake or which is more likely to make this text sound more important.


2. Another text is in Oirat. It is as short as the previous one and its title on the cover is in Oirat: xutuq-tu altan gereliyin zürken xurangγui orošiboi “The Dharani of Golden Light”.

According to Tibetan tradition which was borrowed to Mongolia the name of the text is repeated in the first lines of the text and at the end.

These names state more precisely that the text is from Suvarnaprabhasa or even that it is Suvarnaprabhasa itself for its Sanskrit name given alongside with Oirat just quotes the name of Suvarnaprabhasa in full (a bit corrupted but recognizable).

One of the given names in Oirat is - xutuq-tu dēdü altan gerel suduriyin ayimagiyin erketü xān kemēküyin zürken «Dharani called “The Holy Supreme Sutra of Golden Light – a Mighty Khan among Sutras”.

In this case the key word is “Dharani” because the eighth chapter of the medium Sutra is called “The Golden Dharani” and the Oirat text appeared to be extracted from the eighth chapter of the Sutra.

The eighth chapter of the medium version was shortened twice.

The picture shows how it was done. (Photo). One sentence was even cut in the middle and as the result the name of a bodhisattva became two times shorter.

The eighth chapter describes how to create a mandala to gain different benefits both spiritual and material.

According to the Oirat text the long tiring procedure became much shorter and easier but all the benefits including “whatever you want” were preserved. The very last phrase of the Oirat text added at the end (lacking in the 8th chapter of the Sutra) states that reciting of this text is equal to reading the Sutra.

This text on the one hand is from the Sutra but on the other hand it is shortened mechanically though claiming to be equal to it.

In addition I’d like to show you a page with a prayer or dharani from this text (the same as in the 8th chapter) in Tibetan.

We have several copies of it, which shows that it was popular among the Mongols (Photo). Beginning is “Homage to three treasures”, end “Dharani called “Mother of all the Buddhas of three times”.

3. Two more texts in Tibetan and Mongolian. One of them states that it is the 17 chapter from the Sutra and the other that it is its part without any other specification. Both of them are included in Sumbums (gzungs-‘dus) – collection of works for recitation but can be found as separate manuscripts.

The first which claimes to be the 17th chapter in reality has almost nothing to do with it. It is called “The 17th chapter from the Holy Sutra of Golden Light named “Dharani which protect and increase one’s propety and cattle”.

Whereas the title of 17th chapter is – “The chapter of the Great Goddes Shri who increases the propety”.

The only resemblance is the idea of increasing of property in the title, the fact that Goddess Shri is mentioned in the text and recommendation to read the Sutra.

Unfortunately I can’t give more detailed information on the second text so far. So “To be continued”.

To sum up I’d like to repeat that Suvarnaprabhasa was extremely popular in Mongolia and Tibet.

Moreover there are some other texts whose titles state that they are from the Sutra while they only have something to do with it at the best.