Vasubandhu: The myriad worlds are created by karma


Here’s a translation of Vasubandhu from his Abhidharmakosha:


ལས = the first las means karma

ལས = the second las is an ablative particle connecting the text on the left with the text on the right. An initial translation of this las particle could be “from”.

འཇིག་རྟེན = ‘jik rten, a compound word. The Sanskrit term is loka or world. The Tibetan translation embeds the impermanent and suffering nature of the world. ‘jik འཇིག meaning break, destroy, decay and rten རྟེན meaning support thus decaying support, disintegrating support or transient world. The transient world by it’s nature is impermanent.

སྣ་ཚོགས = sna tshogs meaning variegated, myriad, multitude, manifold.

སྐྱེས = skyes, a verb meaning to arise, be born, be produced.

So some possible translations are:
The world is created by karma.
Samsara is created by karma.
The myriad worlds are created by karma.

However this afternoon an expert in Tibetan translation told me that these translations are incorrect. So please see the discussion after the quote from Kent Sandvik’s blog:

Kent Sandvik in his excellent blog says:

This is the first line in the fourth chapter of this root text (the Abhidharmakosha), dealing with Buddhist cosmology, how the mind works, karma, what are mental afflictions, and so on. The third chapter presented how the world looks like, so this is the punch line in the opening lines of chapter four dealing with karma. In other words, all those myriad worlds described in chapter three are due to karma sentient beings experience.

So as I noted an expert Tibetan translator told me that the translations I have are wrong. So his translation is: “The variety of the world (་འཇིག་རྟེན་སྣ་ཚོགས) arose) (སྐྱེས) from action (ལས་ལས).

I asked how this differs semantically from “Samsara is created by karma.” His response was:

… lokavaicitryam (འཇིག་རྟེན་སྣ་ཚོགས) means “variety of the world” i.e. all the differences that make up different rebirths, high and low. This is not an issue of interpretation, this what the verse actually means. སྐྱེས་ is the past tense. So it is referring to all the different realms of existence discussed in the third chapter.

The third chapter of the Abhidharmakosa is about Buddhist cosmology mostly from a realm perspective. So we have a Formless Realm, a Form Realm and a Desire Realm and all the sentient beings that live in those realms.. And all the different realms of existence constitute samsara. So I changed the verb to past tense and asked why could it not read “Samsara was created by karma” or “The various realms of rebirth were created from karma” or “The variety of the world arose from karma”? As these are all semantically equivalent. His response so far has been that nonetheless the translation is incorrect.

I have only just begun to learn Classical Tibetan and I will expect to be corrected by this person a lot. He is a genuine translation expert and I have learned immeasurably from him. Nonetheless we have to have reasons why translations are correct or incorrect. Otherwise we are left with a serious epistemological problem noted in the Tibetan Buddhist world by Gendun Chopel , དགེ་འདུན་ཆོས་འཕེལ.

So stay tuned for further developments. For now I have punted with “The myriad appearances in Samsara arose due to karma.”

4 responses »

  1. So my expert friend responded: “If Vasubandhu had wanted to say samsara he would have done so.” Additionally he pointed out that Never Returners are reborn in a heaven that is part of the Three Realms of Samsara but most people would not consider them to be in Samsara. Also the commentary indicates that “variety of the world” is the intended meaning and the proper rendering. Also loka is not Samsara per se.

    Okay, good reasons. However Never Returners are still suffering subtly so that in fact do dwell in Samsara. The other reasons are excellent as well but I’m learning Tibetan to understand what I am reading and not to parse the meaning for Geshe-like precision. Close enough is close enough … for now.

    • སྣ་ཚོགས་ means variety, variegated, manifold. ་འཇིག་རྟེན་ means decaying support, the transient world, or, from Conze (probably) “the floating phenomenological world”. “Appearances” seems to be implied as those things that have arisen. The display of the variety of the world, the decaying world of samsara, was due to action (karma).

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