Here is an old-timey H-Buddhism query, of the kind that does not seem to get asked so much anymore ever since replying to messages became more complicated that just replying to an email (I digress).
Does anyone have a decent interpretation of the Chinese Buddhist term abang 阿傍 (var. 阿旁 and some others too)? Anyone who has spent time reading Chinese Buddhist accounts of the netherworld will be familiar with this word I suspect. What it means is not in doubt: the guardian/jailors of hell/purgatory, usually depicted with bull heads (and the term 牛頭阿傍 is quite common too). But the question is from where the term comes and what it means literally.
Nearly a century ago (!) volume 1 of the Hobogirin (p.8-9) noted that the word “has the appearance of a transcription [from an Indic term] but the original is unknown.” I have looked in many (though not necessarily all) other modern dictionaries and reference works in various languages and none gets more specific than this. Nor have I yet encountered any modern scholar, when discussing/translating a text with this word, give any kind of explanation beyond noting what it points to.
Sparing you the full details of the notes I’ve accumulated about this word over the years, I’ll just also say, to begin, that despite the ubiquity of the word in Chinese accounts of Buddhist hell, and despite the clear presence of the referent (bull-headed hell guardians) in Indian Buddhist sources, the term 阿傍 itself (though again, not what the term points to) seems to be somewhere between rare and exceedingly rare in Chinese Buddhist literature unquestionably translated directly from Indic sources (The Hobogirin entry notes one instance in the Mahīśāsaka-vinaya, Wu fen lü 五分律, T.1421:22.184c18–22; that turns out to be perhaps the only indubitable case).
So maybe it’s not a transcription at all? Or…?
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