QUERY> 琉璃: lapis lazuli, beryl, or something else?

Bryan Lowe's picture

Dear Colleagues,

I’m currently working on an early ninth-century Japanese text, which references Yakushi's (Bhaiṣajyaguru) 琉璃 Pure Land. I had for a long time translated 琉璃 as lapis lazuli, but I’ve been cautioned by several people that this is incorrect and instead should be beryl, which apparently (and I’m outside of my linguistic comfort zone here) has etymological roots with vaidūrya. Beryl over lapis lazuli seems to be the standard these days from what I can tell.

But as I’ve read more, it seems that it is more complex than this. Yu Xin’s recent piece shows how it is not at all this straightforward and the term 琉璃 , at least in Chinese, can mean a whole host of things.


Moreover, Raoul Birnbaum’s classic book on Bhaiṣajyaguru makes an extended case that lapis lazuli is appropriate, pointing to features such as its presence in Badakhshan and the descriptions used in Chinese texts and appearing in Chinese artwork.

I've also looked at Shōsōin objects in their online database (https://shosoin.kunaicho.go.jp/search-result?per=30&type=treasures&keyword=瑠璃). But this reveals a whole host of objects currently labeled as ruri, which seem to be mostly or all glass. Interestingly, these include all sorts of colors labeled 黄瑠璃, 藍色瑠璃, 浅緑瑠璃, 緑瑠璃, 白瑠璃 (which is almost clear), and others. The ones that are just plain old 瑠璃 are a deep blue and seem to be glass with the color from cobalt. But it's also not clear to me when those names were given and the names could be late. Documents from the 8th-c. on the treasures seem to mention a 瑠璃念珠 and a 碧瑠璃念珠, but those don't seem to be extant (I believe). 

This leads me to two questions:

1) Is there a more recent consensus on how to translate the name of Bhaiṣajyaguru’s Pure Land in canonical sources. Is lapis lazuli preferred to beryl in this case?

2) Do we know how people in early Heian Japan might have understood the term?

My translation will presumably follow the answer to #2, but I’m also curious about #1 (it could make a good footnote at the very least, and I suspect the broader community of scholars could benefit from others' expertise).


Bryan Lowe

Assistant Professor

Princeton University

Categories: Query

Hi Bryan,
I also came across Yu Xin’s recent piece, which contributes to complicate the issue, and suggest that when archeological and evidence are put together there is no single substance that fits all situations and time periods.
In any case, I am currently helping copy-edit a contemporary commentary on the sutra that you mention, whose long title (藥師琉璃光如來本願功德經) I have translated as "the Sutra on the Merits of the Original Vows by the Healing Master, Tathagata of Aquamarine Radiance" while I chose to render the shorter title (藥師經) as "Sutra of the Healing Master."
The choice of aquamarine for liúlí 琉璃 (corresponding to vaiḍūrya in Sanskrit) comes from the emphasis on its translucent character, which suggests that beryl and lapis lazuli should be excluded.
Thus, I can only offer a suggestion for question 1), although it results from my analysis and does not constitute a "consensus."
For question 2), I can only defer to other experts, maybe those who are more familiar with material culture.

Michel Mohr, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Hello Bryan!

Long time no see. A 琉璃-related issue was briefly dealt with a few years ago in this very forum:


I think a few interesting points were mentioned back then.
The bottom line, though, I think is exactly what Michel remarks: "there is no single substance that fits all situations and [all] time periods." I would add to that: "and all cultural areas."
In the context of East Asia in general and of Japan in particular, though, I am more inclined to something like "beryl" because what it came to designate there (both China and Japan at least) in everyday usage was colored glass. It has to be something translucent and shimmery, not opaque like lapis lazuli. This is also what I take to be Yu Xin's implicit position. Please see also my post on the previous thread.
"Beryl," however problematic, is nice in that it is a cognate of 琉璃, via Prakrit and Greek (see my previous post).
I published recently on the history of the Bhaiṣajyaguru-sūtra, and in particular on the role that Khotan seems to have had in its transmission, in case you are interested:

Made in China? Sourcing the Old Khotanese Bhaiṣajyaguruvaiḍūryaprabhasūtra
Journal of the American Oriental Society
Vol. 139, No. 1 (January-March 2019), pp. 67-90 (24 pages)

I hope we will hear more regarding the issue of consensus.



PS1: According to http://www.geologyin.com/2017/05/the-different-beryl-varieties-with.html both emeralds and aquamarines are varieties of beryls, which come in almost every color but are all beautifully translucent.

PS2: The generally accepted etymology of English 'beryl' is Greek βηρύλλος bērúllos, in turn from a form closer to Ardhamāgadhī veruḷiya than to Pāli veḷuriya and [written] Gāndhārī veḍur[i]ya, which we have now in the Bhadrakalpikasūtra scroll in the Schøyen collection (https://gandhari.org/a_manuscript.php?catid=CKM0128: XV 15v1, attested precisely in the form Veḍur[i]yaprabha given as the name of the birthplace of a buddha). Sanskrit vaiḍūrya is in all likelihood derived from the Prakrit forms. The Prakrit forms are then the source of Early Middle Chinese (Pulleyblank) [毘]琉璃 *[bji]luwli, then truncated to 琉璃 *luwli.  

Dear All,

Thank you for your help with my translation question. I received a number of comments off list, as well as some references. I thought it might be useful to summarize these in one place for the benefit of others. In addition to those who responded publicly, I would especially like to thank Eric Huntington, Adeana McNicholl, Sam Morse, Janine Nicol, Dessi Vendova, and others who have asked to remain anonymous.

To start with a summary, it seems that in the Indic context, there are strong reasons to translate the term as beryl, though I’m still not entirely convinced that this is always the case there and does not seem to be the case for East Asia. It should be noted that aquamarine, which Michel proposed, is, of course, a form of beryl, but it has advantages in being a more specific form that does fit some of the particularly East Asian connotations, especially with regards to color.

So why beryl in South Asia? One reason given is etymological, as Diego discussed. It should be noted that there is some debate about this as described by Master and others. It’s beyond my expertise, but the etymological claims seem reasonable but somewhat contested.

Next is the issue of translucency, which several people brought up and is a feature that appears in a number of canonical descriptions including most crucially those related to the Medicine Buddha. This quality would seem to point to beryl, but I think it’s worth noting that certain forms of lapis lazuli and lazurite crystals can be semitranslucent, as Sam and other informed me (also see the GIA’s description, which confirms its semitranslucence: https://www.gia.edu/lapis-lazuli-description-v1 ). A lot of the philological scholarship states that lapis lazuli is opaque, but this really seems to be a mistake that needs to be revised. Beryl is, of course, more likely to be translucent, but we are now speaking about matter of degree rather than absolutes. For this reason, I don’t think the references to the translucency of the material in primary sources can entirely rule out lapis lazuli/lazurite.

Another issue is color. Master argues that the variety of color mentioned in Indic sources is evidence of beryl, as beryl can cover a range of colors. At the same time, as I’ll not below, it does seem to become strongly associated with blue in other contexts (most importantly for me: Japan). Interestingly, according to Biswas, the color of beryl is a result of impurity, which technically I suppose makes the line in the Yaoshi liuliguang benyuan jing that the body is like liuli in being both clear inside and out and pure lacking defilement impossible. Of course, I wouldn’t expect such a scientific understanding from our authors.

Taking all of that together, I think the evidence is still seems somewhat inconclusive, but beryl does seem like the most accurate choice for most Indic materials.

But in East Asia, it seems to be a different story from what I can tell. Dessi pointed out to me that the meaning in South Asia might be more narrow than that of China, where it refers to a whole range of objects (as confirmed in the Yu Xin piece). Winder and others discuss how lapis lazuli was considered an exceptionally rare substance in China and that rarity was a key feature of how liuli was understood (more on that below). But as Yu Xin writes, it also seems to have often been used to refer to any colored, translucent gem and also was used to refer to glass objects.

In many cases, it does not necessarily need to be a single color (as the various colored liuli/ruri objects in the Shōsōin attests), but it does seem to have especially strong connections to blue, which I suspect is why it is often translated as lapis lazuli in English. As I pointed out in my original post, those Shōsōin objects without a color labeled are all a deep blue.

Since I’m dealing with a ninth-century Japanese manuscript, I find the following evidence from a Japanese dictionary produced in the 930s to be especially helpful, which I came across after posting my question. The citation in this text, the Wamyō ruiju shō in ten scrolls, emphasizes that it is a blue colored jewellike object (瑠璃 野王案瑠璃〈流離二音 俗云留利〉青色而如玉者也). Here, it is clear that the main characteristic that defines the term is its color: blue (recognizing of course that 青 ranges from green to blue).

But these associations with blue appear in earlier sources as well. Miyajima Junko has pointed out a few examples. In the 起世經, we have the following description of the southern face of Mount Sumeru being made of heavenly blue liuli.


And in the Tang-dynasty 一切経音義, we have a definition of the term liuli, which defines it as a blue jewel and differentiates between the true liuli, which comes from abroad and is difficult to attain, and a provisional domestic version, which seems to be glass.
T2128.54.418c4 琉璃,青色宝也。有仮有真,真者難得,出外国。仮者即此国錬石作之,染為五色也

These dictionary examples seem to suggest that color not substance is the main distinguishing feature, which is a point that I feel cannot be ignored when translating this term in an East Asian context.

It’s also useful to note that as Sam pointed out to me lazurite is often ground and used in pigments and painting and as such was more wideley applied than beryl. I’d be curious if lazurite pigments are ever used in paintings of the Medicine Buddha in East Asia.

Given the temporal and geographic proximity of these dictionary references to my manuscript, I’m thinking of simply translating the realm as “Yakushi’s Blue Jewel Pure Land,” though this translation is perhaps more of a paraphrase than a translation of “ruri” and is still too specific for the dictionary definitions. Others have suggested I just leave the Japanese word “ruri” as is, but I’m genuinely reluctant to adopt this strategy for a number of pragmatic and philosophical reasons that would take us far afield.

There are also some methodological issues worth considering. Sam and others also raised the issue of whether we should assume that our authors even had an in-depth understanding of the differences between various gems and whether those would map onto our modern scientific categories. I think this is an important and underappreciated point. It’s not clear to me why we should assume such consistency; would monks and other authors of texts of texts really be able to distinguish all of the various substances? As translators, is it an imposition to use rigid modern classifications?

I also should confess that I wasn’t able to consult one source recommended to me by Janine due to the ongoing pandemic and library closures: Xinru Liu's Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges AD 1-600, which seems to have a detailed discussion of this topic that I hope to return to.

Finally, there’s the issue of other gems, which came up in some personal replies. It’s outside of my original question and beyond my expertise, but as Sam noted, 瑪瑙 also seems to pose problems since agate seems standard and DDB gives cornelian and agate, but Yu Xin translates it as emerald.

I really appreciate all of the advice and information. It’s been a lot of reading for a minor issue in my project (a sentence or two at most), but I’ve enjoyed learning about it and hope others will find utility despite my long-windedness. I’ve put an incomplete bibliography below my signature for anyone wanting to dig deeper.


Here’s a brief bibliography (not exhaustive):

Birnbaum, Raoul. 1979. The Healing Buddha. Boulder : Shambhala.

Biswas, ArunKumar. 1994. "Vaidūrya, Marakata and other beryl family gem minerals: etymology and traditions in ancient India." Indian Journal of History of Science 29.2: 139-154.

Liu, Xinru. 1988. Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges AD 1-600. Oxford University Press.

Master, Alfred. 1944. “Indo-Aryan and Dravidian.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 11 (2): 297–307.

Miyajima Junko. 2008. "Kan'yaku Butten ni okeru hon'yakugo no 'hari' seiritsu 漢訳仏典における翻訳語「頗梨」の成立." Higashi ajia bunka kōshō kenkyū 東アジア文化交渉研究 1:365–380.

Winder, Marianne. 2001. “Vaiḍūrya.” In Studies on Indian Medical History, 85–94. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Yu Xin. 2018. “Liuli in Buddhist Rituals and Art in Medieval China.” Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 1.2: 231–268; https://dx.doi.org/10.15239/hijbs.01.02.09

This is a wonderfully useful summary, thank you Bryan. I think it comes closest to shaping or informing consensus rather than finding what that (chimeric) consensus is. And this brings me to a related issue. May I humbly suggest that those who replied off-list consider doing so on-list in the future? In this case Bryan took the trouble to provide a complete overview with bibliography, but I was personally eager to see what other people's views were, and had it not been for that, I would not have known! 



Hi everyone,
First, let me apologize for the typos in my previous post. To the editors > Is there any way to fix this retrospectively? [Ed. Note: Unfortunately we are unable to edit posts once they have been published. Authors may issue corrective posts afterward.]

I also received a few interesting comments offline, pointing to fascinating routes of transmission beyond the simplified India-China version. It includes South-East Asia, and Cambodia in particular. Here is one of such resources:
Woodward, Hiram. 2011. Cambodian Images of Bhaisajyaguru. In Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past, eds. Emma C. Bunker, and Douglas Latchford, 497--502. Chicago: Art Media Resources.
One suggestion that has not been discussed yet is that of "cat's eye" for vaiḍūrya. This was suggested more than a century ago by Louis Finot in his Les lapidaires indiens (Paris, 1896, pp. xlv-xlvi). I am indebted to Hiram Woodward for this reference. The problem with this translation is that it sounds a bit odd when translating the Chinese sutra’s title (藥師琉璃光如來本願功德經). Here would be the two variants:
Sutra on the Merits of the Original Vows by the Healing Master, Tathagata of Aquamarine Radiance
Sutra on the Merits of the Original Vows by the Healing Master, Tathagata of Cat’s Eye Radiance

In any case, I am aware that aquamarine is one type of beryl, mostly the greenish-blue to blue variety. It seems to make sense in terms of its association with the Medicine Buddha, often depicted in blue. Here, possible links with Śiva (also called Blue throat or Nīlakaṇtha because he drank poison) and Kṛṣṇa (who also evokes black or deep blue) would be worth exploring.

Regarding the depiction of this substance in the Pāli Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi provides a convincing explanation:
“Just as a beryl gem—beautiful, of fine quality, eight-faceted, of excellent workmanship—when placed on a brocade cloth, shines and beams and radiates, so too the young devas in Susīma’s assembly... displayed diverse lustrous colours.”
Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, p. 160. He adds: This “eight-faceted beryl gem (Pāli veḷuriya)” is meant to evoke the Eightfold Path. Technically, it probably refers to chrysoberyl.

This nevertheless leaves us, as Bryan pointed out, with a dilemma regarding the new life it took in East Asia. Essentially, it seems linked to the fact that early Buddhist translators tried to match this substance with a gem known in their native language(s). Let me provide one example below, in a pretty obscure text (clarifications welcome).

Pre-Buddhist Textual Sources
The usage of the term liúlí 瑠璃 predates the transmission of Buddhism to China, as indicated by a passage in the Yantielun 鹽鐵論 (Debates on salt and iron), which consists of discussions on the state monopoly of these two items during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE–8 CE). The author is Huan Kuan 桓寬. See paragraph 3 of the second section titled “Ligeng 力耕” (Hold fast the plough):    
https://ctext.org/yan-tie-lun/li-geng?searchu=%E7%90%89%E7%92%83&searchmode=showall#result (accessed February 25, 2020).
This passage provides a list of three precious substances bìyù 璧玉 (round pieces of jade), coral (shānhú 珊瑚), and beryl (?) (liúli 琉璃) used by the Xiongnu 匈奴 people, all considered as their nation’s treasures (咸為國之寶).

Issues revolving around liúli 琉璃 are, indeed, conducive to wonderful forays into cross-cultural studies and comparative linguistics. Maybe this precious substance could warrant a panel in one of our field's conferences, once they resume?

     Michel Mohr, University of Hawaii at Manoa