Buddhahood According to the Avatamsaka Sutra
Wisdom Publications: Boston, 1993.
172 pp., $12.50 (paper).
In his translation of and commentary on the chapter from the Avatamsaka Sutra entitled Manifestation of the Tathagata, Cheng Chien Bhikshu focuses on explaining and elaborating the meaning of buddhahood according to ancient Chinese Huayen scholarship. A young Yugoslavian monk, Cheng Chien undertook this project out of a firm belief that practice is inspired by an awakening of faith in the three refuges, and taking refuge in the Buddha is only possible if one understands precisely what buddhahood is. And Cheng Chien's efforts to close the gap between a difficult, abstract concept and clear understanding in his readable introductory essay are fruitful. For the nonspecialist, however, the translation itself is less helpful. Cheng Chien says he departs from Thomas Cleary's "rather free style" (see Cleary's The Flower Ornament Scripture, 1993) and "tendency to translate every term into English." Instead, Cheng Chien prefers to leave some unfamiliar terms intact to preserve their precise meaning. As one might expect, Cheng Chien's language is far less lyrical than Cleary's. While the first sentence in the Cleary book reads:
Then, from the circle of white hair between his brows, the Buddha emitted a great beam of light called manifestation of the realizer of Thusness, accompanied by countless trillions of light beams. That light illumined all the worlds in the whole cosmos, circling ten times to the right, revealing the immeasurable powers of the enlightened, awakening countless beings, shaking all worlds, extinguishing the suffering of all states of misery, eclipsing the abodes of all demons...
Cheng Chien's version opens:
At that time [in the Universal light hall,] from the white curl between his eyebrows, the World-Honored One issued a great light called "manifestation of the Tathagata," which was attended by innumerable hundreds of thousands of billions (nayuta) of asankhyas of lights.
Unfortunately, once the reader plows through the appropriate footnotes (83 and 84), checks the glossary, and refers back to the introduction, this magnificent light becomes somewhat dimmed.