(Updated. It’s the Diamond Sutra, not the Lotus Sutra. We regret the error.)

Stanford religious studies professor Paul Harrison is currently undertaking a re-translation of the Diamond Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most important texts and perhaps the oldest printed book in the world (868 CE). In Harrison’s well-researched opinion, the existing English editions misinterpret certain types of words.

For example:

Most existing translations feature negative statements saying things like “a bookcase is not a bookcase, therefore it’s called a bookcase,” to use an example from our own experience. According to Harrison though, this simple negation does not pay enough attention to the original Sanskrit. As he explains, it ignores another possible interpretation of two-term compounds (words such as bookcase or lighthouse which are comprised of two distinct words) in favor of a more convenient—but possibly incorrect—reading.

“The standard reading often ignores the fact that there are two terms in each compound which the text takes up, and that only the second term is negated, and it construes the negation as one of identity rather than of possession,” said Harrison, who has been teaching at Stanford’s Religious Studies department since 2007. “You’re left with a kind of negation which says AB is not AB—or not B, if the translator is being more careful—therefore it is AB.”

So what would Harrison do differently?

What makes more sense to Harrison is that a bookcase has no case—a case is not essential to a bookcase’s identity—and that is precisely why a bookcase is able to be what it is. To him, the distinction between “is not,” (what nearly all past translations have opted for) and “lacks”—what his translation says—makes all the difference. In his terms, one could say that AB lacks B, therefore it is AB.

You can read the rest of the article quoted above and watch a video interview with Professor Harrison on the The Human Experience at Stanford’s website.