Dr. Fumi Yao on Translating the Vinaya

During the auspicious lunar month of Saga Dawa, 84000 published “The Chapter on Medicines,” which, at nearly 800 pages long, is the sixth chapter of the Vinayavastu, “The Chapters on Monastic Discipline.” We sat down recently with Dr. Fumi Yao, the courageous translator of this important text, to learn more about how she came to specialize in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, what she has learned about the differences and similarities across various traditions’ Vinaya literature, and how broad the notion of “medicine” may have been in ancient India.


Dr. Fumi Yao is Lecturer in the Department of Buddhist Studies, Komazawa University, Tokyo. She received her doctorate from the University of Tokyo in 2011 and conducted her post-doctoral studies at the University of Tokyo, Hanazono University, McMaster University, and the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study. Her research has been concerned with sūtras embedded in monastic law codes, stories about nuns’ ordination, and a Sanskrit manuscript of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in the Schøyen Collection and the Private Collection, Virginia.


84000: Thank you for taking the time to join us. The Vinaya texts are works within the Kangyur that focus primarily on the monastic rules and their origins, but also contain a wealth of historical, biographical, and cultural material. How did you come to specialize in the Vinaya?

Fumi Yao: When I started my Masters’ degree, I was at a loss about how to choose a thesis topic. Though I had been vaguely interested in āgama/nikāya literature—that is, non-Mahāyāna sūtras—I did not know what to do with it. At that time a friend of mine was undertaking a PhD and told me that within the Vinaya texts of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school there are a large number of parallels with the āgama sūtras, many of which are otherwise lost. It seemed that passages from the Vinaya correspond not just to a mere few short phrases or verses, but in some cases to a whole āgama sūtra. My friend suggested that I work on such parallels, and I jumped at that idea.

So then my MA thesis looked the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya—which constitutes the Vinaya part of the Kangyur and which is also partially extant in Sanskrit and Chinese—and developed a provisional listing of sūtra parallels contained within it. I then also became interested in the editorial relationships between the Vinayapiṭaka and Sūtrapiṭaka, for example, which borrowed passages from the other, and how, etc.

For my PhD project, I continued with this topic of sūtras in the Vinaya, this time restricting myself to “The Chapter on Medicines” because the entire Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya would have been too huge to take as the basis of a study. My reason for choosing this particular chapter was that it seemed to include one of the greatest numbers of sūtra parallels, and I eventually counted forty such parallel passages! Since then, I have been working on some other parts of this Vinaya and I am still trying to find sūtras within it.


84000: This section of the Kangyur corresponds approximately to the Vinayapiṭaka of the Pāli and Chinese Tripiṭakas. Since it was largely due to divergences in the details of monastic code that early Buddhist groups differentiated into various schools, the Vinaya literature of each school is quite different. How do these divergences in monastic code affect the narrative elements of the various traditions’ Vinaya literature? Is there greater similarity across the stories?

Fumi Yao: It is still quite unclear how the various Buddhist schools developed, and it is difficult to say how the divergences in monastic code affect the narrative elements. The level of similarity differs according to stories. In some cases, all or most of the extant Vinayas narrate stories with similar plots, though with some differences in proper names and other details. In the case of other stories, the differences between the extant Vinayas are so large that one might even doubt that any comparison between them is possible.

Generally speaking, narrative elements of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya are significantly richer than those of the Vinayas of other traditions, which is why this Vinaya is the lengthiest of them all. But it is not clear to me whether such characteristics have anything to do with the monastic rules of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school.

In one section of this Vinaya that I attempted to compare with its counterparts in the Vinayas of other traditions, I found that points about the rules were surprisingly few and that narrative elements were abundant. There are so many things we have not figured out about the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and Vinaya literature in general.


84000: The text we are referring to today, is the recently published, The Chapter on Medicines. This is the sixth chapter of the Vinayavastu—a single large text containing seventeen “chapters” or topics, each delineating a specific aspect of monastic life. I believe you had already translated this into Japanese?

Fumi Yao: Yes, in 2013 I published a Japanese translation of “The Chapter on Medicines.” The first part of my PhD had been the study of this chapter’s forty sūtra parallels, as I mentioned before, and the second part of my PhD included a Japanese translation of the text, which formed the basis of this 2013 publication. In 2011, I defended my PhD dissertation, and soon after Professor Shayne Clarke encouraged me to join 84000’s efforts to translate the Tibetan Buddhist Canon into English, by applying to translate this text into English as well.

Having translated it into Japanese was certainly a help, but translating the text into English was still a great challenge for me. The Tibetan and Japanese languages—though unrelated—have many similar characteristics such as the order and functions of words, whereas English is quite different, so this translation was more difficult for me. However, shortly before I undertook the English translation, by chance I had also begun to study a Sanskrit manuscript of “The Chapter on Medicines”—not the one usually referred to as the only extant Sanskrit manuscript of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, but another one that only came to be known to scholars much later. This new manuscript helped me solve many problems that in my earlier Japanese translation I had had to leave unresolved, such as Sanskrit terms and proper names that could not be reconstructed from the Tibetan text. So it was indeed a great experience to take on this work, and through doing it I have come to understand the text better.


84000: The current pandemic has people everywhere talking about medicines, bioethics, and various approaches to understanding the human body. Did you come across anything particularly interesting or surprising to you in the text about how historically people in the Buddha’s time thought about sickness and medicine?

 Fumi Yao: Yes, I did. One thing I found interesting was that the meaning of the term we usually translate as “medicine” (bhaiṣajya in Sanskrit or sman in Tibetan) covers a much broader range of things than what we might ordinarily regard as “medicine” today. In the first section of “The Chapter of Medicines,” four categories of bhaiṣajya are listed. The first category includes boiled rice and meat as well as other kinds of food, and the third category includes butter oil, honey, etc. It seems that ancient Indian Buddhists did not make such a clear distinction as we do today between things we categorize as food and things we categorize as medicine. Also, there are many rules in this text that despite its title seem to have nothing to do with sickness—rules such as forbidding the eating of elephant meat.


84000: 84000’s vision to translate and make freely available the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, is a big one. In Japan, are there readily available canonical texts for general, educated readers to reference?

Fumi Yao: Both the Pāli Canon and Chinese Buddhist Canon were translated, in their entirety, into classical Japanese and published in the early 20th century. These are still of great use for researchers, but not quite as accessible for general readers today—the grammar is old, and the vocabulary is based on traditional Chinese translations.

As for modern Japanese language translations, the four nikāyas of the Pāli Suttapiṭaka are now available, and for general, educated readers there are a good number of translations of individual texts including Mahāyāna sūtras, Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyana treatises, Pāli suttas, etc. These are all published as books in print, and I suppose few canonical Buddhist texts that have been translated into Japanese are freely available online.


84000: As an academic, how do you see the future of Buddhist studies generally?

 Fumi Yao: I am afraid it is beyond my limited expertise to talk about the future of Buddhist Studies generally. What I can say is that by looking at the development of modern Buddhist studies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define Buddhism as a single, homogenous tradition due to our increasing knowledge of the variety and multiplicity of Buddhist teachings and practices across regions and time periods.

Taking Buddhist monasticism as an example, canonical Vinaya texts do not necessarily give us a full picture of how Buddhist monastic life has unfolded throughout history. Rather, recent research has made it clear that there is a massive amount of both textual and non-textual material that exists outside of the Vinaya texts, which can help us better understand how Buddhist monasticism was practiced in different places and times.


Last month, on the annual Celebration of the Buddha’s Teachings known in the Tibetan tradition as Chökor Düchen, Ven. Konchog Norbu—who served as copyeditor for this nearly 800-page text—shared with us some stories from the text and some insights from his work on it. To watch a recording of Ven. Konchog’s talk: 

 To begin reading “The Chapter on Medicines” please visit 84000’s online Reading Room.


Posted: 11 Aug 2021