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.

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