A few years ago Vietnamese scholar Lê Mạnh Thát caused some excitement when he argued that an early Chinese Buddhist text, the Lục độ tập kinh/Liudu ji jing (六度集經), was originally written in Vietnamese. Most scholars of Chinese Buddhism today believe that this text is a translation of a work which was originally written in Sanskrit. However, Lê Mạnh Thát argued that it was originally written in Vietnamese.
The person who is credited with producing the Chinese version of the Liudu ji jing is Kang Senghui (Viet., Khương Tăng Hội). Kang Senghui was born in the Red River delta, and was reportedly the child of Sogdian merchants. He became a Buddhist monk, and eventually worked as a translator at the court of the Kingdom of Wu in Nanjing in the third century C.E.
Lê Mạnh Thát provides a couple of different types of evidence to support his claim that the Liudu ji jing was originally written in Vietnamese. First, he notes that the word order of some terms in the text follow Vietnamese usage. There are several places in the text, for instance, where the term, trung tâm/zhongxin (中心), appears. It is clear from the meaning of the text that this term is supposed to be “in one’s mind/heart,” but in classical Chinese to express this point the words should be in the opposite order, tâm trung/xinzhong (心中). Lê Mạnh Thát acknowledge that one can find examples of trung tâm/zhongxin being used to mean “in one’s mind/heart” in ancient works like the Classic of Poetry, but that this usage was no longer acceptable during the third century C.E. when Kang Senghui lived.
What Lê Mạnh Thát argues then is that the term trung tâm/zhongxin is a direct translation into Chinese of “trong lòng,” the Vietnamese expression for “in one’s heart.” In fact, it’s too direct in that Kang Senghui created an expression in Chinese which didn’t fit Chinese usage.
Finally, in the Liudu ji jing there is a story which mentions a women with 100 eggs, and Lê Mạnh Thát argues that this was inspired by the story of Âư Cơ and Lạc Long Quân.
So I’ve mentioned before about how Vietnamese scholars always talk about how “scientific” (khoa học) their scholarship is, and then I have noted how “un- khoa học” it really is. This is another perfect example.
To be “scientific” does not simply mean that one must provide evidence to back up one’s claim. Instead, it means that one must also test every other counter-argument/explanation that one can think of. In the case of Lê Mạnh Thát’s argument that the Liudu ji jing was originally written in Vietnamese, there are many counter-explanations which one could put forth.
1. If the usage of trung tâm/zhongxin (中心) was inappropriate by the third century, then that should have caused problems for readers. Chinese annotated their works extensively. Is the odd usage of this term pointed out in any extant version of the Liudu ji jing? If not, then that strikes me as a sign that this usage was not strange.
2. While it may be true that the term trung tâm/zhongxin (中心) was used in the Classic of Poetry and not extensively after that point, Lê Mạnh Thát’s evidence for this comes from a couple of comments in annotations to the Classic of Poetry and the Songs of Chu which were made by people whom we can refer to as Confucian scholars. This is not evidence that the term was no longer used in this way. Searching the Siku quanshu for this term, and examining its usage in the various texts where it appears would be one way to test to see if this term was really not used.
In addition to that, however, one must check to see if this was a Buddhist term. Chinese Buddhists had a vocabulary of their own. In a quick search of an online Buddhist dictionary, I found that it was used to refer to “one’s inner mind” and “one’s original nature.” I would want to research this more, but the sense of “one’s inner mind” would seem to fit the passages where it appears in the Liudu ji jing. Again, however, I would want to research this more.
3. While the term term trung tâm/zhongxin (中心) is used in the Liudu ji jing, it would obviously be important to check to see if it was used in other Buddhist texts. A quick search of a Buddhist text database reveals that it appears countless times. Is it used in these texts in the same manner as in the Liudu ji jing? One needs to go through all of these entries to find out.
4. In comparing the usage of the term tâm/zhongxin (中心) in the Liudu ji jing with the usage of the same term in other texts, one would also need to consider whether or not the usage of this term has changed over time. The Liudu ji jing was created in the early years of the transmission of Buddhism in China. One needs to know what was specific about the language of Buddhism at that time, because there definitely were peculiarities and this is a topic which many scholars have already examined.
5. One also needs to examine the rest of the language in the Liudu ji jing. In an article which examined how we can try to discover vernacular expressions in medieval Chinese Buddhist texts, Erik Zürcher, Seishi Karashima and Huanming Qin argued that the Liudu ji jing is a classic example of a text which does NOT demonstrate vernacular usage. They stated that “Here we find all the characteristics and trappings of standard wenyan [i.e., classical Chinese], such as the use of rare literary expressions, prosody, obsolete or even archaic particles and, occasionally, even Chinese-type parallelism.”
6. Finally, on the issue of the 100 eggs, here again one needs to look for counter-evidence. The Liudu ji jing is a collection of Jataka tales, that is, stories about the earlier lives of the Buddha before he was born as the Buddha. I’m not sure of this, but it appears that we do not know what exact text this was a translation of. Nonetheless, what one should do is to try to see if any of the stories in this text match stories in other Jataka collections and to see if this story of a woman and her 100 eggs can be traced back to an Indian story. Without doing this, one cannot make any claim either way concerning this information.
I’m sure that there are more issues which one would have to address to do this topic justice, but these six would keep someone busy for quite a while. They would also make an argument a lot more “khoa học.”