Spotting a Fake Chinese Sūtra

There is an apocryphal Buddhist sūtra in Chinese entitled the Buddha Teaches the Sūtra on Cause and Effect in the Three Times 佛說三世因果經. The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas has their translation of it here.

It is a curious specimen being attributed to the famous translator Kumārajīva (344–413), though this is most certainly false. Normally when we want to spot a sūtra in Chinese of questionable origins we would look at ancient catalogs of texts to see where it appears or look at the language of the text itself and see how it compares to known works of the same translator (the famous Brahma Net Sūtra 梵網經 is also attributed to Kumārajīva, but does not actually reflect his style of writing and this was recognized even in ancient times).

In the case of the sūtra above, this is unnecessary because one thing is a dead giveaway: the term cha fan 茶飯 (tea and rice, meaning food and drink). Consider the following line:


What are the causes for having food and clothing? In a past life having provided tea and rice to the poor.
Tea started being consumed as a beverage around the mid-Tang dynasty (around the 8th century), being first popularized by Lu Yu 陸羽 (733-804) with his Tea Classic 茶經, but prior to that tea was used for medicinal purposes only, and there is seldom mention of it in earlier periods (it was originally cultivated in remote Sichuan). Obviously an ancient Indian text would not make reference to tea because tea was introduced into India by the British. Moreover, the expression "tea and rice" here really means "food and drink".

Kumārajīva in the early fifth century predictably did not use such an expression, and also this exact term cha fan 茶飯 appears in the Chinese Buddhist canon (CBETA) only starting in the Song dynasty (960-1279) in vernacular Chan texts (records of past Chan patriarchs). Also does not register any such term in its entire database of ancient non-Buddhist texts.

One curious thing about Buddhism in China is that historically a lot of Chinese crafted scriptures became quite popular and widespread. The most prominent example of this is the Brahma Net Sūtra with its ten major and forty-eight minor bodhisattva precepts which became standard in East Asia (the scholarly consensus it that the text originated in China though some still suggest otherwise). There is also the Sūtra for Benevolent Kings 仁王經, which became part of the state apparatus in China and Japan as it was used to summon protective beings to protect the country (see my blog article Buddhist Sorcery and Astrology in East Asia). The Chan school also made great use of the Sūtra in Forty-Two Sections 四十二章經 and the Sūtra of the Buddha's Bequethed Teachings 佛遺教經, both of which are said to be Chinese creations though borrowing heavily from Indian materials.

Foreigners in Tang Law

The Tang law codes are provided and discussed in a key text called the Tanglü Shuyi 唐律疏議, compiled in 652. It provides a penal code based largely on earlier legal codes and the Chinese classics, altogether comprising 502 articles. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is described as having been quite cosmopolitan and international even in its early years. Looking through the laws for references to aliens, there are both accommodations made as well as restrictions. For example, article 48 provides extraterritorial arrangements for foreigners:


In cases of aliens of the same type who commit crimes against each other, defer to the laws of their native culture for both. In cases where they are of different types and commit crimes against each other, determine things via the law codes.
Commentary: “Alien” refers to barbarian countries where they have separately established hierarchies, each with their own customs and differing penal law codes. If they are of the same type and commit crimes against each other, inquiry must be made as to the system of their native country, and judgment made on them based on their customary laws. If they are of different types and commit crimes against each other – for example, being of Ko[gu]ryo and Paekche – the punishment will be determined via their respective national law codes.

One notable thing here is the mention of the two Korean kingdoms Koguryo and Paekche, both of which were conquered and subjugated by the Tang-Silla alliance in the 660s. Later on in Tang literature the peoples of the Korean peninsula along with their expats living elsewhere in China proper were generally thought of as being only subjects of Silla.

In contrast to this, article 88 displays a degree of xenophobia. Tang subjects are severely restricted from interacting with aliens at the border.


Anyone trespassing past the border garrisons will suffer indentured servitude for two years. As for anyone covertly trading with aliens, if they acquire goods worth one chi of silk, it will be two and a half years of indentured servitude. An additional degree [of punishment] will be applied if it be worth three pi. Labor and exile will be applied if it be worth fifteen pi.
Commentary: Border garrisons are between China and the barbarians. Anyone trespassing beyond these garrisons will be subject to two years indentured service. If they trespass with horses, see the above article appropriate to one year of indentured service. With other livestock also reduce the sentence by two degrees to ninety lashes with a cane. The crime of trespassing is only major with border garrisons. If people [and their] livestock covertly pass through a gate, each will be [judged] the same as the other border-related crimes. Covertly trading with aliens refers to business interactions, or taking a barbarian's goods and giving them to barbarians. Calculate the value of the goods: one chi worth means indentured servitude for two and a half years. Apply an additional degree if it be three pi worth. Labor and exile will be applied if it be fifteen pi worth.

【疏】議曰:越度緣邊關塞,將禁兵器私與化外人者,絞。共為婚姻者,流二千里。其化外人越度入境,與化內交易,得罪並與化內人越度、交易同,仍奏聽敕。出入國境,非公使者不合,故但云「 越度」,不言「私度」。若私度交易,得罪皆同。未入者,謂禁兵器未入,減死三等,得徒二年半。未成者,謂婚姻未成,減流三等,得徒二年。因使者,謂因公使入蕃,蕃人因使入國。私有交易者,謂市買博易,各計贓,準盜論,罪止流三千里。若私與禁兵器及為婚姻,律無別文,得罪並同「越度」、「私與禁兵器」、「共為婚姻」之罪。

Anyone covertly providing contraband arms will suffer death by strangulation. Anyone marrying [with aliens] will be exiled two-thousand li. If they have not proceeded [past the border] or successfully [married], then reduce each sentence three degrees. If while on official state business there is covert trading, judgment is decided according to [the procedures for] theft.
Commentary: Those who trespass past the border garrisons and covertly provide contraband arms to aliens will suffer death by strangulation. Those who marry will be exiled two-thousand li. Those aliens trespassing into our borders past the garrisons and those engaging in trade here will be guilty of the same crimes as locals trespassing or engaging in trade. They may still petition for imperial permission. It is inappropriate to come and go over the border unless on diplomatic business, hence it just states “trespassing”. It does not state “covert crossing”. In the case of covert crossing and trading, they are guilty of the same crimes. “If they have not yer proceeded [past the border]” is where the contraband weapons have not yet been exported. Reduce by three degrees the death sentence. They will be subject to indentured servitude for two and a half years. “Not yet successfully [married]” refers to the act of marriage not being completed. Reduce by three degree the sentence of exile. They will be subject to indentured servitude for two years. Official state business refers those diplomats on official state business entering barbarian territories and those barbarians on official state business entering our country. “Covert trading” refers to trade in the market and business. For each case calculate the earnings and make judgement based on [the procedures for] theft. The crime will result in up to an exile of three-thousand li. In cases of covertly providing contraband arms and marriage where the law has no other articles, the crime incurred will be the same as those crimes for “trespassing”, “covertly providing contraband arms” and “marriage”.


Furthermore see the additional stipulation: “If barbarians wed Han women as wives or consorts, they may not return with them to barbarian territories.”


Furthermore see the procedure for host-guest relations: “When barbarian guests come to court nobody is to mingle with the guests on the road. The guest is also not to be permitted to speak with people. If provincial and district officials have no business, they also must not meet with the guest.” This where within the country ministers and commoners must not have contact with guests. The same above law applies to covert marriage. As such if barbarian comes to court and is permitted to reside they may marry wives and consorts. If they return to barbarian territories with them, then the punishment will be decided as a violation of an imperial decree.

The law codes of the early Tang were rather strict and the punishments severe, which perhaps reveals an anxiety about social disorder and a need for strong state control. The preceding Sui dynasty (581-618) had only lasted two emperors, and the previous period had been one of centuries long civil war, foreign invasions and social disorder since the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, particularly in the Tang heartland of the north.

Judging from the language, I assume the 'barbarians' here primarily refers to the Tibetans. We need to bear in mind the Tibetans had attacked vassals of the Tang in 637 and 638. In 638 they camped on the border and demands for a royal princess were made. The Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo (Srong-btsan sGam-po) (d. 649) wed the Chinese princess Wencheng 文成公主 in 641. The Tang court had a perpetually uneasy relation with the Tibetans throughout its history and as such there was presumably much fear about border incidents as well as Tibetans acquiring Chinese arms and expertise. I would imagine one reason why Chinese subjects were forbidden from crossing the border was the fear that their advanced skills could be put to use by the hostile foreigners.

Centuries later the perception of strict officials was still present it seems. After the Japanese monk Ennin 圓仁 (794-864) arrived in China in 838, he was warned that the Tang officials were quite strict with their laws when he expressed his desire to remain behind in China without official permission while the diplomatic envoy he had accompanied returned to Japan.

The Tang was also noteworthy for its level of internal policing. Travelers required written permission to cross territories and they were constantly scrutinized, as was the case with Ennin who fortunately recorded many bureaucratic correspondences in his journal (see here).

For a good paper on early diplomacy and foreign policy in the Tang dynasty see "Ideas Concerning Diplomacy and Foreign Policy under the Tang Emperors Gaozu and Taizong" by Wang Zhenping in Asia Major (see here for the .pdf).

Four Poems by Ryōkan Taigu


Mañjuśrī rides a lion.
Samantabhadra straddles the elephant king.
Mañjughoṣa manifests a lotus throne.
Vimalakīrti lays in a bed.


Resting after begging for food in the city.
After much trouble I carry my sack and return.
Do I know where to return?
My home is on the edge of the white cloud.


At a farmhouse after the windy rain,
Chrysanthemums on the hedges, a few branches remain. 
The young wife strains cloudy wine,
A small child tugs on my robes.


When I think back to my youth,
Reading books in an empty hall,
Repeatedly adding oil to the lamp's flame.
I am still not weary of the length of winter nights.

- Ryōkan Taigu 良寛大愚 (1758-1831)

Rude Use of Personal Pronouns

Anyone who studies Japanese will know from the start that you only reluctantly use a second-person pronoun. To say "you", especially anata あなた, in Japanese is considered undesirable and in some contexts rude. In conversation Japanese people will tend to gesture in your direction or use your name rather than use the pronoun.

In Classical Chinese you see the same custom in effect. Personal pronouns are often avoided apart from Buddhist texts which tend to be literal translations of Indian works which had no such custom, or were intentionally using such language for effect. It is no coincidence that Japanese avoids pronouns, given the deep influence Chinese had on the language and culture.

This reluctance to use personal pronouns is explicitly stated by the monk Yijing 義淨 (635-713) in his travel account of India. He was quite an Indophile and moreover insisted that Chinese monks follow the Indian conventions for everything from robes to language. He states the following: 

《南海寄歸內法傳》卷3:「若有人問云。爾親教師其名何也。或問。汝誰弟子。或可自有事至須說師名者。皆應言我因事至說鄔波馱耶名。鄔波馱耶名某甲。西國南海稱我不是慢詞。設令道汝亦非輕稱。但欲別其彼此。全無倨傲之心。不並神州將為鄙惡。若其嫌者改我為今。斯乃咸是聖教。宜可行之。」(CBETA, T54, no. 2125, p. 220, b3-10)

If a man inquires, “What is the name of your upādhyāya?” or “Whose disciple are you?”, or when one is obliged to mention the name of one's teacher, one should say, “In the circumstances, I am obliged to tell you the name of my upādhyāya, whose name is so-and-so.” In India and on the islands of the South Seas, it is not haughty to use the word “I”. It is also not a rude form of address if one says “you”. It is simply meant to distinguish one person from another, without a mind of contempt towards others. This is not like in China, where it is considered despicable to use such pronouns. If one dislikes using the word “I”, one may say “this person” instead of “I”. These points were taught by the Buddha, and it is fitting to put them into practice.1
This explains why you can often read whole texts in Classical Chinese that never once refer to "you" or "I". It might initially seem like it is expected the reader will understand from context who is being referred to, but in reality the custom throughout much of Chinese history was simply to avoid using personal pronouns.

Nevertheless, they were still used to convey a tone of voice. Many Chan records are written more or less in colloquial form and we see the ready use of pronouns in them. Take for instance the following from the Wumen Guan (Jpn. Mumon Kan) 無門關:

《無門關》卷1:「祖曰。我今為汝說者。即非密也。汝若返照自己面目。密却在汝邊。」(CBETA, T48, no. 2005, p. 295, c29-p. 296, a2)

The patriach said, "I [Huineng] will now explain to you it is not a secret. If you conversely reflect in on your own face, the secret is beside you."

You see this sort of ample use of personal pronouns in Chan texts. While it was no problem for Buddhist translations of Sanskrit, I suspect for native literature like this it was a bit striking. However, in Chan literature we see other shocking elements like casual references to defecation and so forth, so shock value was just an element of the genre.

On the other hand, in a lot of non-Buddhist Classical Chinese works we need to be mindful that any use of personal pronouns is probably noteworthy and trying to convey something special to the reader.

1 See Buddhist Monastic Traditions of Southern Asia, BDK English Tripiṭaka 93-I, translated by Li Rongxi (Berkeley, CA: Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000), 100-101.

Beheading the Foreign Monks

In the mid-Tang there was a certain author named Zhang Zhuo 張鷟 (?658-730) who compiled a collection of short strange tales entitled the Chaoye Qianzai 朝野僉載. The extant parts of the work is available at Project Gutenberg here. It contains a lot of unusual stories which are highly educational with respect to the contemporary culture and beliefs at the time. Some are rather shocking like the following:


In the Jingyun period [710-712] there was continual rain for more than sixty days in the western capital. There was a foreign monk named Baoyan who said he possessed a magic practice that could stop the rain. He setup an altar and recited sūtras and dhāraṇīs. Butchering had been forbidden at the time. Baoyan used twenty sheep and two horses as a sacrifice. His prayers went on for more than fifty days and the rain became heavier. The foreign monk was consequently beheaded and the rain subsequently stopped.

Whether this really happened or not is up to debate. Nevertheless, what is interesting is the term huseng 胡僧 here, which means foreign or specifically Central Asia/Indian monk. It would have presumably been unusual for a Buddhist monk at the time to sacrifice animals, though quite possibly at the time said term referred generally to any religious professional from the west, many of whom would have been active in the cosmopolitan capital of Chang'an. There is another tale detailing the activities of an Indian monk in Wu Zetian's court:

周有婆羅門僧惠範,奸矯狐魅,挾邪作蠱,咨趄鼠黠,左道弄權。 則天以為聖僧,賞齎甚重。... 氣岸甚高,風神傲誕,內府珍寶,積在僧家。矯說祅祥,妄陳禍福。神武斬之,京師稱快。

In the Zhou [690-705] there was a Brahmin monk Huifan. He was crafty and bewitching, commanding evil and witchcraft. He hovered around, sly as a rat. With the left path he manipulated the court. Zetian believed he was a holy monk and richly rewarded him. ... He had a very high spirit and an arrogant air about him. He amassed treasures of the imperial storehouse in the monk's quarters. He would falsely tell of supernatural matters while absurdly speak of calamities and fortunes. The imperial guard beheaded him and the capital city was overjoyed.

Here poluomen seng 婆羅門 (Brahmin monk) differs from the huseng 胡僧 above, which again is curious. The character seng normally refers to orthodox Buddhist monks, though again the non-Buddhist colloquial sense of the word in this period seems to have meant any religious professional from the west. In the early 8th century we know that Indian and Central Asian priests of various backgrounds were active in China. The exotic forms of magic and astrology that they brought with them generated a lot of interest amongst the Chinese at the time.

Unfortunately some did not behave themselves so well and got beheaded, or so the strange tales tell us.

Meaning and Semantics in Literary Chinese

The language of Old Chinese, which roughly corresponds to the period of 600 BCE- 0 CE became the standard grammar and script for Literary Chinese. The great classical works of ancient China including the Analects of Confucius 論語 and Sun Tzu’s Art of War 兵法 were written using this language. As the spoken language changed, Old Chinese served as a kind of standard from which a strictly written form of Chinese organically evolved, thus preserving in much detail the grammar of Old Chinese. Literary Chinese went on to serve as the official written language outside of China in places such as Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

Before delving into grammar of the language itself, we first need to examine the written script which, in itself, conveys meaning in its own right.

The origins of Chinese characters can be found in pictographs written on various materials dating back into pre-history. These symbols usually depicted the message they conveyed, or tried to use combinations of symbols to convey more abstract ideas. These symbols were said to have been systematized by the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 in ancient times. The characters were later catalogued and their calligraphy forms fixed by the grand recorder Chou in the year 800 B.C.

Around this time characters were still being drawn with a pen-like instrument, but over time it was replaced with the brush, which came to make Chinese characters what we know them as today.

There a six categories of characters. The first character class is called imitative drafts, which are rough sketches representing the object.


The second category is indicative symbols. They are figures that suggest the meaning. These symbols often suggest an idea of motion.
action of the authority which exerts itself up and down

The third category is logical aggregates which are made up of two or more characters made simple, coming together as one. Their signification results from the meanings of the various parts.

占 fortune telling;>divination + >mouth; to consult fortune tellers.

The fourth category is phonetic complexes, which are made up of two or more simple characters. One character conveys meaning, while the other one holds no meaning but conveys the pronunciation. One should note that the pronunciation element is no longer absolute in the modern day as the phonology of Chinese morphemes has changed considerably.

楚 a woody land; >forest + phonetic ‘chu’1

The fifth category is the acceptation of the character in a meaning more extended, derived, generalized, metaphorical, analogous, adapted, figurative, etc.
a fishing net. By extension it can refer to a network, cobweb, reticulate design; to catch with a net, to catch in general, to gather, etc. All these meanings are an extension from a concrete object.

The sixth and final category refers to ‘mistake characters’ which are characters with false borrowings. Sometimes these came to exist because of scribal errors, or more commonly on account of assigning an existing character to an idea, place or person that at the time held no character.

The meanings of many characters over time have shifted and often differ greatly from their original meanings. Moreover, other languages which adopted Chinese characters came to assign different meanings to characters. An example would be the character 使 which in the Confucian Analects means, ‘to make someone do [something]’/ causative. In modern day Japanese, the character is a verb which means ‘to use’.

It should also be noted that readers of languages that use Chinese characters do not read nor come to directly understand the meaning of characters through their archaic semantic elements. While these semantics elements help as memory aid they are by no means absolute in conveying meaning. Each character represents a word. These characters are graphic representations of ideas which are further represented by a vocalized utterance associated with each particular symbol. In some ways, they are not that different from something like roman script, only that they are more immediately derived from their pictographic roots.

Literary Chinese is essentially a terse monosyllabic language following the general Subject-Verb-Object pattern. One character refers to one syllable, which refers to one word, though there are a few exceptions.

to depart/leave/go
芙蓉 lotus (the individual characters mean nothing on their own)

Literary Chinese uses two-word compounds. These compound words work as one single noun within the syntax of a sentence. It makes use of a process called reduplication. This is a process where repeating a word creates a meaning extended significantly beyond the meaning of the original word.

person 人人 all people
year 年年 year after year

Literary Chinese uses polar binomes where a pair of words (synonyms or opposites) came together to refer to a whole set of things as a single compound noun.

少長 young + old > people of all ages
動静 move + be still > all [one’s] activities
草木 grasses + trees > all vegetation

Pluralization of words is accomplished with affixation. These are suffixed or prefixed onto nouns, or any other word class that behaves as a noun within the syntax of a sentence.

Literary Chinese, like most languages, uses the topic-comment sentence. The topic is what you want to talk about, and the comment is what you want to say about it. Literary Chinese has two types of comments and two corresponding types of sentences: the nominal and the verbal. These are distinguished in that a nominal sentence has a noun phrase as its comment and a verbal sentence has a verb phrase as its comment.
The nominal sentence is essentially a statement of identity. For example:

A, B A is a type of B.

宋、小國也 Song is a small state. [Song, small state it is]
無父無君、是禽獸也 With no father and no ruler: this is a wild animal. [no father no ruler, this wild animal it is]

The verbal comment is a nominalized verb following the pattern verb + . Verbs serving as topics are nominalized, as all topics are nouns. When verbs serve as nominal comments, they refer to a general category of action that defines the identity of the topic. Modern English does not have this kind of structure. Observe the following sentence:

王之不王、不爲也 The King’s not ruling (correctly) is a matter of not trying. [King’s (王之) not ruling, not try it is.]

Note that the character (king) functions as a verb by virtue of the negation particle . All nouns following become verbs, though there are at times exceptions. In this sense the word 'king' becomes a verb meaning ‘kingly way/actions of a king’, and from the context of the sentence one can gather it means ‘not being kingly’. The later half is where we find the copula following the verb: to try , which is negated by .

One should also observe that quite frequently in Literary Chinese the tense is usually not explicitly mentioned. The reader is assumed to gather from the context of the sentences when in time the action took place.
However, in Literary Chinese, as in any language, one must create sequences of actions if one wants to tell a story or make an argument, and for this reason Literary Chinese uses coordinate verbs to mark the sequence of events. The first verb in a sentence is typically the antecedent condition. It influences how the second action occurs or if it occurs hypothetically or not at all. Observe:

宋 人 有 耕 者、 田 中 有 株、兔 走 觸 株 折 頸 而 死
Song Person Exits Plow AN2 Field Inside Exists Stump, Rabbit Run Strike Stump Broke Neck and/then Die

 Here is a transitive verb of 'existential predication': it says that its direct object exists. Whenhas a topic it generally indicates a general, though not precisely specific, time. “There exists in the people of Song one who plows” and “Within the field there is a stump.” Note that the direct object of all normal transitive verbs comes after the verb.

The later half of the sentence reads, “The rabbit ran, struck the stump, broke its neck [and as a result] died.” Theexplicitly indicates coordination between two verbs:

AB = A and [as a result] B.

A question arises as to how a native speaker of Old Chinese would have perceived the sentence. Is the narration in the present? The rabbit strikes the stump and dies. Or is it in the past? The rabbit struck the stump and died. It is not explicit which tense is being used. An English speaker might expect it to be in the past tense. Though there is the possibility that the notion of an exact tense did not exist in the narrative speech in Old Chinese.

Another interesting semantic feature of Literary Chinese is its use of the particle . It is a particle that points to the object, without explicitly naming it. It is the label that allows one to refer to a set of objects selected simply for their role as objects of verbs. Observe:

Li   Master Go Market
Master Li went to the market.

Li Master >object< Go Market It is
Where master Li went was the market.

In the first sentence we do not know where the emphasis is placed. In the second sentence the Verb-Object has been split, and the verb has been shifted into being the topic. Naturally, the comment about the topic follows: the market. Observe the following interrogative sentence:

何 也
Li Master >object< Go What/Where? It is
Where is it that Master Li went?

 This article has hardly touched the surface of Literary Chinese, but hopefully it has provided the reader with an idea of how fascinating both the grammar and script is. Indeed, the history of the language runs from ancient China until even the modern day. It holds many qualities which should be of interest to any person interested in linguistics.

Further Reading:

Fuller, Michael. An Introduction to Literary Chinese. Cambride: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Pulleyblank, Edwin G. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995.

Wieger, S.J. Chinese Characters: their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification. Trans. L. Davrout. New York: Paragon, 1965.


1 Note that the phonetic reading given is the modern Mandarin pinyin romanization. Reconstructed readings of Old Chinese are available but are still considered tentative in general. The pronunciation of characters is generally done using one’s mother language. For example, Cantonese speakers will read it using Cantonese, Japanese will use on-yomi (Sino-Japanese readings) and Mandarin speakers will use modern Mandarin.

2is an abstract noun with a bound form. It generally means the thing or action of the preceding statement.

Ryōkan - "Begging for Food" 乞食


Having begged for food at the crossroad,
I wander by the Hachiman Shrine.
The children come see me and we talk.
Now the stupid monk of last year has come again.

-Ryōkan 良寛 (1758–1831)