The Emperor’s Preface to the Sacred Teachings 雁塔 聖教序 翻譯 英譯 Translation - Vincent's Calligraphy

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A partial model of Chu Suiliang's "The Emperor’s Preface to the Sacred Teachings"
節臨 褚遂良 雁塔聖教序
35  X  137cm
Click to Enlarge. In reserve, not available in Shop.
A partial model of Chu Suiliang's "The Emperor’s Preface to the Sacred Teachings"
(節臨 褚遂良 雁塔聖教序)
35 X 137cm  in Standard Script (書)

Historical Information
The calligraphy work "The Emperor’s Preface to the Sacred Teachings" was written by Tang Dynasty Calligrapher Chu Suiliang (褚遂良 596-658AD) in 653AD with his renowned standard script style at the age of 58, five years before his death, at the behest of Emperor Gaozong of Tang (唐高宗, 628-683AD) in celebration of Monk Xuanzang (釋玄奘, 602-664AD) completion of translating Buddhist scriptures from India(1,2,3). There are two parts to the preface: the first is the original personal comments composed by Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗, 598-649AD) regarding the Monk Xuanzang's translations (大唐三藏聖教序), and the second part is the subsequent additional further comments composed by Emperor Gaozong of Tang (大唐皇帝述三藏聖教記).  The entire preface was inscribed by Wan Wenshao (萬文韶, ?-?AD) onto two stone steles(碑) with the first containing Emperor Taizong's words while the second carrying Emperor Gaozong's comments(4).  The stone steles were installed in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (大雁塔) which is currently located in southern Xi'an, Shaanxi province, China.

The original stone steles can still be observed inside the Pagoda today.  The work is usually considered to be one of the representative works of Chu Suiliang's standard script style which had a large impact on subsequent generations of calligraphers. The two stone steles consist of 1463 traditional Chinese characters.  The modelling by me above is only the first paragraph of the first stone stele.

Text interpretation
Indeed, we have heard that since the Earth and the Sky take physical forms, they can be observed and touched so as to carry and support all life;
and as the four seasons do not take any physical shape, they cannot be seen and be touched, yet they can germinate all life and objects with their invisible chills and warmth.
Consequently, even an unwise and average person can easily observe and investigate some of the visible elements found in the Earth and the Sky;
and those who are extremely wise may not be able to truly understand the underlying workings of the invisible forces of Ying and Yang that drive the Universe.
Yet, although the Earth and the Sky carry and act by the invisible Ying and Yang, they are still recognizable by commoners as the Earth and the Sky take physical forms;
while the Ying and Yang that reside within the Earth and the Sky remain difficult to be investigated and realized as Ying and Yang take no definite physical shape or form.
Hence, we can then conclude that physical phenomena can be investigated without ambiguity even by those who are not wise ;
while the hidden underlying mechanisms that are not evident can still be puzzling even for those who are intelligent.
Moreover, the Way of the Buddha emphasizes on the concept of nothingness and rides on the principle of an unobservable force that allows us to transcend and approach Nirvana;
it can also relieve and liberate all living beings, as well as overseeing the governing of all matter and the Universe;
there is no ceiling to its infinite might, and there is nothing that can suppress its awesome powers.
It encompasses as large as the entire Universe and governs objects as small as a miniscule particle.   
It has no end and no beginning, so it is not lost nor forgotten despite turmoils throughout the ages;
sometimes it appears to be hidden, at other times it appears to be visible; it takes in many forms to deliver its many blessings to all things from past to present.
The Way of the Buddha is so mysteriously ingenious that even those who follow and practice it do not know it’s boundaries;
it transmits and passes on like endless streams of water that are clear and tranquil, so even those who cherish and fond of it cannot pinpoint its exact actual origin.
Hence, if those who are ordinary and foolish, and those who are juvenile and without talents,
were to encounter the true meaning of the Way of the Buddha, could anyone among them not be puzzled?
(translated by KS Vincent Poon, Feb 5, 2017)
Personal Comments
a. Impact of Buddhism on traditional Chinese culture
The influence of Buddhism on traditional Chinese culture cannot be understated; many philosophical concepts found in Buddhism have been frequently incorporated into classical Chinese literary works (such as Dream of the Red Chambers, 紅樓夢, a novel written with Buddhist concepts merging with Taoist 道敎 ideas), and many artworks, like the one discussed here, are often created to express great awe for Buddhist philosophies.  Indeed, many traditional Chinese intellects find Buddhism appealing perhaps largely because Buddhist philosophies focus on investigating the nature of life and its surroundings through rigorous reasoning, as well as its compatibility with Chinese Taoist philosophies 道家 (see part b. Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity below).  In particular, the Law of Causality and the concept of Karma (因/業) and nothingness "空" resonated with many traditional Chinese intellects (5)

b. Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity
The Similarities - pathways to reconciliation
There are obvious striking differences among Buddhism, Taoism 道家 (specifically, Taoist philosophy not Taoist religion 道教; although Taoist religion is founded upon Taoist philosophy) and Christianity, notably Christianity is monotheistic (a religion that is based on the belief of one God), while Buddhism and Taoism reserve judgement regarding the existence of a supreme omnipotent being that governs all.  

There are, however, intriguing similarities among the three, particularly in describing the characteristic of the ultimate "force" that drives all things in the Universe:

Buddhism's Law of Causality and Karma (因果/業力觀): The fundamental mechanisms of "cause and effect" that drive all things, including circumstances, phenomena and even human emotions and perceptions in the Universe.  The force driving the Law of Causality is invisible, has no origin, has no beginning and no end, and "is independent of being discovered". (See Footnote for more details and discussions)

Taoism's concept of Tao/Dao (道): The Great Path (Tao, 道) refers to the "Ultimate Truth", "Ways of the world" or "Natural Order of the Universe" in classical Chinese.  In Tao Te Ching (道德經) written by Laozi (老子), this Tao is so mysterious that words cannot describe it: if it is described, that description will fail to characterize the true nature of the unchanging Tao (道可道,非常道).  Hence, Tao is invisible, mysterious, with unknown origin and cannot be completely comprehended with reason.  Note that the invisible actions of Ying and Yang (陰陽, the so called "positive" and "negative" contrary forces) that drive Nature is part of the Tao.

Christianity’s concept of a single omnipotent God: God is the ultimate power behind all things visible or otherwise; "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end"(Revelation 22:13); "I am who I am"(Exodus 3:14); "one who knows all things, even that which the human mind could never know or finds incomprehensible"(6).  God, therefore, has no origin, and God's ways are invisible, "divine mysteries", and not completely comprehensible by reasoning of the human mind.

It is therefore evident that all three thoughts contend that the the ultimate "force" directing the Universe is invisible, has no origin and no end (or is the beginning and the end), and most importantly, cannot be comprehended completely with the human mind (or "independent of being discovered").  Indeed, Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗, 598-649AD), in this Emperor's Preface, drew similar parallels between Buddhism and traditional Chinese Taoism in realizing that both "the Way of Buddha"(佛道) and the "Ying and Yang" (陰陽, a traditional Chinese Taoist religious concept based on Taoism) are invisible and difficult to understand even for those who are intelligent.  His attempt to reconcile Buddhism and Taoist religions was most commendable as, during Emperor Taizong's times, Buddhists and Taoists were constantly at odds with each other (佛道之爭) (7,8). Furthermore, many others in traditional ancient China cleverly chose to focus on studying and recognizing similarities between Buddhism and other traditional Chinese beliefs, which resulted in rapid and wide integration of Buddhism into the traditional Chinese culture.

As a Catholic, I believe this is an important lesson to learn for Christian and Catholic missionaries who desire to transmit Christianity in China: rather than denouncing traditional Chinese beliefs and highlighting the differences between Christianity and Chinese traditions, they should focus on finding similarities and reconciliations.  The one illustrated above regarding the characteristics of the ultimate "force" driving the Universe is one excellent example as an opportunity to reconciliation.

Note that there are certainly many more fundamental concepts and ideas that are remarkably compatible between Chinese Buddhism and Christianity.  For instance, the concept of "Mercy"(can be found in both beliefs), the importance of "personal sacrifice and service"(the Bible taught us to serve others, while Buddhists admire the Kshitigarbha who vows he will not achieve Buddhahood until all lives are liberated and all hells are emptied - 地藏菩薩: 『眾生度盡, 方證菩提;地獄不空, 誓不成佛』), as well as the "Law of Causality" (a fundamental Buddhist concept as outlined above, whereas the Bible taught us something similar - "A man reaps what he sows"(Galatians 6:7)).

The Misconceptions - obstacles to reconciliations and roadblocks to deeper understanding of life
Sadly, however, such attempts in finding reconciliations and drawing parallels between Chinese Buddhism and Christianity had been met with great resistances historically due to political reasons, selfish gains or simply the many erroneous criticisms held by Christians to Chinese Buddhists and vice versa.  Here, I will outline two examples of such criticisms:  
I. One common criticism pose by many Christians to Buddhists is the Buddhist's concept of "nothingness ()"; many Christians argue that such concept is nonsense since it rejects the very real existence of the Universe created by God, but such view is an incorrect interpretation of the Buddhist concept of "nothingness(空)".  "Nothingness()" in Buddhism is merely used to describe that all things are always in an ever-changing state of flux () and so there is nothing in the conceivable world that is constant and non-changing (); hence, everything can be described to be in a state of "nothingness(空)". It does not certainly exclude existence, but rather exclude non-changing existence in our perceived world.  Surprisingly, this concept is consistent with Christianity's concept of "Vanity(虛)" - "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity"(Ecclesiastes 1:2), wherein the Bible asserted that all things in the Universe are ever-changing, hence, illusionary, with God as the only one that is constant, not-changing, and hence represented the "real" truth. Note that traditional Buddhist philosophies do reject a conceivable God that is non-changing (), but cannot and do not exclude the possibility of a non-changing God who is partially inconceivable, beyond our reasoning and comprehension.  Ultimately, Buddhist philosophies do not stress on discussing entities that are beyond human comprehension as Buddhism is based on and limited by human reasoning. If asked whether a God beyond reasoning exists, a traditional Buddhist philosopher would have answered in the line of "I don't know. Our Laws neither confirm nor exclude the possibility; so no comment."

II. One common criticism posed by many Buddhists to Christians is the notion of pre-determined fate: since God is all knowing, God already knows your destiny and so how can one have free will and be liberated?  The flaw in this question is the assumption that we humans are living in the "same frame of reference" of God; God certainly knows our fate, but we do not know since we humbly do not possess and cannot comprehend God's wide realm of abilities.  Hence, in our living frame of reference, it is absolutely possible that we do have free will, whereas in God's perspective (which we can never be able to fully grasp) we do not.  This is akin to travelling in a train with a constant velocity with all windows covered: a passenger inside will instinctively believe that the train is at rest, while a person outside the train (in a different frame of reference relative to the passenger) will clearly see the train is moving; both phenomena are not contradictory, according to Laws of Physics regarding frame of references. Indeed, in our human frame of reference, as outlined in Genesis, God does grant us free will to choose at the very beginning of human history (as God allowed and respected Adam and Eve's decision to eat from the Tree of Knowledge), and free will is absolutely central in Christianity and our salvation ( "God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him." - 9).  

When one humbly studies further into different religions and philosophies, one will likely realize there are more similarities than differences among different beliefs.  Furthermore, through this process, it is likely that one can enrich one's own set of beliefs by studying and learning from others that are of different opinions.  Indeed, as Jesus once said, "Seek and you will find"(Matthew 7:7); it is evident that seeking to understand the meaning and mechanisms of all things (or God's way or Buddha's way ..etc) in general requires an inquisitive mind, a mindset that is self-critical and the willingness to learn from others. Otherwise, self-righteousness, arrogance, along with believing without questioning will easily lead to superstition, which is detrimental to cultivating one's character and often drives one away from living a meaningful life.  

c) God's Paradox and the nature of God - a brief analysis
Since we are discussing the characteristics of the ultimate "force" behind the Universe, it is worthwhile to mention the age-old God's Paradox, which is often presented as one question:
"Could God create a stone so heavy that even He could not lift it?"
With the assumption of God being omnipotent, a paradox arises when one attempts to address this question as:
1. If God can create such a stone, then God cannot lift it.  As such, God is not omnipotent.
2. If God cannot create such a stone, then it proves God's ability is limited.  As such, God is not omnipotent.
Therefore, some argued, there is no entity that is omnipotent by this reasoning.  Other philosophers argued otherwise (10).

In light of our discussion above regarding the incomprehensible nature of God, the question "Could God create a stone so heavy that even He could not lift it?" is fundamentally flawed as, to make it valid, we have to also assume we can use our own reasoning and words to perfectly and entirely describe God's way and characteristics.  This assumption is invalid as we are not God, we do not possess God's abilities, and we certainly do not live in the same reference frame of God.  Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) argued similarly in contending that human semantics have limits in tackling this paradox, so the question itself demonstrates the limit of human semantics.  As such, the question neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, as human reasoning can only prove or disprove an entity within human reasoning limits, but not anything beyond those limits.

KS Vincent Poon Feb. 10, 2017
Buddhism's Law of Causality and Karma (因果/業力觀): The Law of Causality and the concept of Karma are fundamental tenets in Buddhism wherein they assert that manifestations of all matters, including personal experiences, are due to chains of causes (因) and circumstances (); when causes, including personal will and environmental elements, come together in certain circumstances (), they mature into "effects" or "consequences" or the "karmic fruit ()" that we observe and experience (11).  The underlying fundamental force driving the Law of Causality and Karma are invisible, has no origin, has no beginning and no end:

Samyutta Nikaya: "When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.... This natural law of this/that causality is independent of being discovered, just like the laws of physics. In particular, the Buddha applied this law of causality to determine the cause of dukkha." (12)

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