Kieschnick on Lock and Linebarger, 'Chinese Buddhist Texts: An Introductory Reader'

Graham Lock, Gary S. Linebarger
John Kieschnick

Graham Lock, Gary S. Linebarger. Chinese Buddhist Texts: An Introductory Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. 188 pp. $35.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-138-95333-8; $136.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-95332-1.

Reviewed by John Kieschnick (Stanford University) Published on H-Buddhism (August, 2018) Commissioned by Rafal Stepien (University of Oxford)

Printable Version:

Like all other students of classical Chinese of my generation and earlier, I devoted countless, weary hours to the tedious task of counting strokes, deciphering radicals, learning the four-corner system, converting from one peculiar romanization system to another, scanning dictionary pages, and so on—all in the service of finding out the basic meaning and pronunciation of a given character or compound. It is only quite recently that the availability of classical Chinese texts in digital form and digital dictionaries have shaved minutes off each instance of looking up an unfamiliar character, catapulting today’s student months if not years ahead of me at a similar stage in my career. Textbooks and techniques for teaching modern Chinese are also much improved over what they were a few decades ago—students today are no longer required to muddle through the adventures of Gubo and Palanka in “New China.” And for classical Chinese, the recent publication of Paul W. Kroll’s A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden: Brill, 2015) finally replaces the famously inadequate Mathew’s Chinese-English Dictionary that beginners had wrestled with since 1931. (Kroll’s Student’s Dictionary is also available in digital format.)

Several introductions to classical Chinese for foreigners have appeared in recent years, most notably Michael A. Fuller’s An Introduction to Literary Chinese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) and Paul Rouzer’s A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), both of which are excellent. These works focus on the pre-Qin classical tradition, though Fuller includes as well some samples from Tang and Song poetry, and narrative and philosophical writings. Neither includes any works from the Buddhist canon.[1] The same is true for Wang Li’s 王力 four-volume introduction to classical Chinese, Gudai Hanyu 古代漢語 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju), first published in 1964 and subsequently the standard textbook generations of college students in China used when learning classical Chinese. Since 1983, Chinese students interested in Buddhism could turn to Huo Taohui’s 霍韜晦 Foxue 佛學 for a selection of introductory texts with notes and glossaries (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, multiple reprints). But abroad, teachers in graduate programs in Buddhist studies were left to devise their own sets of readings and glossaries, and students hoping to learn to read Buddhist texts on their own were left to their own devices.

Graham Lock and Gary S. Linebarger have now introduced the first textbook for Chinese Buddhist writings to be published by a major press, complete with a sampling of a variety of types of texts, glossaries, and explanations of difficult terms and grammar. Lock and Linebarger assume that the users of their book “will have had at least one year’s college-level study of Chinese and will know roughly one thousand of the most common characters in the language” (p. viii). But they go on to suggest that even those without this background could conceivably learn to read Buddhist texts by working with their textbook. This is not so different from authors of textbooks for literary Chinese. Rouzer and Fuller both assume students who pick up their textbooks have some knowledge of characters, though both argue that “literary Chinese” is a pan-East Asian textual tradition, and so do not insist on knowledge of modern Chinese with Mandarin pronunciation over other East Asian languages. Rouzer even supplies Japanese kanbun renderings of the texts along with Mandarin and Korean pronunciation indexes. The consensus, then, is that ideally one should first spend a year or two studying modern Chinese or Japanese concurrently with or closely followed by a year of study of literary Chinese before embarking on the study of Chinese Buddhist texts (more on that later). 

After a brief survey of Chinese Buddhist history, notes on the Chinese Buddhist canon, some comments on the language of Chinese Buddhist texts, and a list of key reference works (a scant thirteen pages in total), Lock and Linebarger begin immediately with a text, the Heart Sutra, given in full, followed by a glossary and explanatory notes. This choice to begin with a chunk of primary material rather than attempting to provide a systematic explanation of classical Chinese grammar together with exercises is in keeping with, for instance, Rouzer’s approach to teaching classical Chinese.[2] In addition to the Heart Sutra, Lock and Linebarger provide selections from the Āgamas, the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus, and the Discourse on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Action (Shishan ye dao jing 十善業道經, Sanskrit Sāgara-nāga-rāja-paripcchā), representing the Indian tradition. These are followed by texts composed in China, including, in chronological order, selections from a biography of Kumārajīva (from the Gaoseng zhuan 高僧傳), Zhiyi’s short meditation manual (Xiuxi zhiguan zuochan fayao 休習止觀坐禪法要), the Platform Sutra, Yongjia’s Song of Enlightenment (Yongjia zhengdao ge 永嘉證道歌), the Blue Cliff Record, Yuan Liaofan’s 袁了凡 Four Lessons (Sixun 四訓), and Zhugui’s 朱珪 Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Mohe banruoboluomiduo xin jing zhujie 摩訶般若波羅密多心經注解). These are well-known texts in China, representing a range of genres and periods.

After a brief introduction, each text is broken into extracts of, first, the text, then the text with pin-yin pronunciation and a word-for-word literal translation. For example, the opening line of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra is given as: “爾時, 世尊從三昧安詳而起, 告舍利弗 / ěrshí shìzūn cóng sānmèi ānxiáng ér qǐ gào shè lì fú / at-that-time world-honored-one from sāmādhi [sic] serene and rise tell Śāriputra” (p. 47).This is followed by a vocabulary list and notes explaining difficult terms or grammar. Later in the book, they gloss fewer standard words, encouraging the reader to begin to make use of dictionaries. At the end of each text, the authors suggest further readings and references. They do not provide a full, fluid translation of the passages, though they do recommend translations in their suggestions for further readings. 

One can quibble about the selections of further readings: there is a heavy emphasis on the publications of Hsuan Hua, but no reference to John McRae’s translation of the Platform Sūtra (Berkeley: BDK America, 2000) or that of Philip Yampolsky (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978). In the case of Liao Yuanfan’s extracts, it isn’t clear what edition of the text the authors are quoting. The reference section mentions some Chinese editions of texts, but not, for instance, Funayama Toru and Yoshikawa Tadao’s excellent Japanese translation and annotation of the Gaoseng zhuan (Kosōden [Tokyo: Iwanami, 2009]), the source of the biography of KumārajīvaAnd there are a few typographical slips: Hurvitz is repeatedly misspelled as Hurvitze, Gaoseng zhuan as Gaoshen zhuan, samādhi as sāmādhi, and Kumārajīva as Kumarajīva; and on page 115, 何不讀書 is confusingly given as 何書. But overall the material is admirably clear and accessible. Appendices list word-class categories (demonstratives, auxiliary verbs, etc.), a comprehensive vocabulary list, and the texts in simplified characters. In short, this is a cogent and useful introduction to reading Chinese Buddhist texts; I wish that it had been available when I first started to study this material.

I have compiled my own textbook for Buddhist Chinese writings, “A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings.”[3] While I have not published it with a press, I have made it available on my website for the past few years. I hope it is not out of place to make some comparisons here between my text and that of Lock and Linebarger to give readers a sense of which might be best for them. My text has grown in recent years, with the assistance of my graduate students. I divide the core text into three volumes: volume 1, “Foundations” (compiled with Simon Wiles), in which we begin with ten lessons introducing parts of speech and drawing on a single text, the Daben jing 大本經 (Pali Mahāpadāna-suttanta; Sanskrit Mahāvadāna-sūtra), followed by the sutra in its entirety; volume 2, “The Indian Tradition,” a selection of texts from the three baskets (a sutra, a few passages from abhidharma texts, and a passage from a vinaya text); and volume 3, “Buddhist Texts Composed in China,” which, in addition to a selection of texts, includes some technical instruction in converting dates, the various types of Chinese names, standards of citation, and so on. I have also compiled a series of supplements, including (with Adeana McNicholl) a Mahāyāna supplement that, along with vocabulary lists, also includes a volume of annotation that compares published translations of the texts glossed; an Esoteric supplement (compiled with contributions from a number of graduate students) that focuses on Esoteric (also known as Tantric) texts; and an epigraphy supplement (with Sinae Kim), with much more technical information for advanced students interested in inscriptions.

In addition to the advantage of a printed and bound book, which, I must admit, I still prefer to either reading on a screen or printing out and clipping together, Lock and Linebarger’s Chinese Buddhist Texts is, at 175 pages, more manageable and perhaps less daunting than my series of more technical textbooks (Lock and Linebarger is also available as an e-book). Unlike Lock and Linebarger, I opted to provide translations for the texts I introduce. The jury is out on whether it is preferable to include translations in textbooks like these. Are they a useful tool, or a too-tempting crutch? In the realm of classical Chinese textbooks, Rouzer and Fuller do not provide translations, while Mark Edward Lewis’s excellent (free!) online textbook, “Chinese Philosophical Texts,” does include translations.[4] I begin with exercises that illustrate classes of words in Chinese before starting with a full text, while Lock and Linebarger begin directly with the Heart Sutra. My textbook suggests that students primarily interested in reading Chinese translations of Indian texts can start right in without first spending a year on modern Chinese, while Lock and Linebarger assume their readers have at least some knowledge of Chinese. 

Which of these assumptions works best is anyone’s guess; I know of no formal, systematic study of techniques for learning classical Chinese, much less premodern Chinese Buddhist texts. Should textbooks provide a translation or not? Should a student begin with some grammar or dive right into a text? Is it practical to learn to read Buddhist texts in Chinese with no prior knowledge of Chinese? In their introduction, Lock and Linebarger recommend that their readers first read a passage out loud several times, then check glossary and notes when necessary for understanding, then copy out the text a half dozen times or more, then translate it, and then, ideally, learn it by heart. Is this sort of intense concentration on a few texts more effective than reading widely at greater speed? This too is an open question. While I remain uncertain about which of these techniques is the most effective, I am confident at least that when starting out, approaching Chinese Buddhist texts through textbooks that provide selections, vocabulary lists, and notes is much more efficient than trying to learn to read these texts without a textbook. And until the day when linguists have determined with scientific precision the quickest way to master the skills needed to read Chinese Buddhist writings—a day that may never come—students can dip in and out of multiple textbooks depending on their particular interests. And ultimately this—enthusiasm inspired by personal interest—is the most important element for learning any language, Buddhist Chinese included.


[1]. Rouzer is up front about the value of introducing the study of literary Chinese with a focus on the “common ground: classical prose of the ‘classical’ and early imperial (second century B.C.E. to second century C.E.) periods,” suggesting, reasonably, that Buddhist writings, like medical language, is “so far beyond other forms of literary Chinese as to make them good examples of self-contained ‘dialects’” that “would perhaps best be learned on their own.” Paul Rouzer, A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), xiii.

[2]. Rouzer writes: “Because of the complexity of the character-writing system, literary Chinese evolved a flexible and open-ended grammar with few rules and essentially no inflections. Understanding a passage depends not on the previous mastery of a grammatical system but on the ability to intuit the thrust of an argument or narrative as well as the knowledge of the past usage of particular characters.” Ibid., xii. Fuller, in contrast, begins with a series of grammatical exercises before turning to longer passages.

[3]. John Kieschnick, “A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings,” Stanford University, Religious Studies, August 7, 2018).

[4]. Mark Edward Lewis, “Chinese Philosophical Texts,” (accessed August 7, 2018).

Citation: John Kieschnick. Review of Lock, Graham; Linebarger, Gary S., Chinese Buddhist Texts: An Introductory Reader. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Much thanks to John Kieschnick for providing a thorough review of a book in a category that often goes overlooked.

Prof. Kieschnick has introduced as a lexicographical resource Paul Kroll's Student's Dictionary. I would like to add the suggestion, in terms of dictionary resources, that learners of Buddhist classical Chinese will probably find a far greater coverage of Buddhist-related terminology in the online Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, along with a fairly strong coverage of Confucian and Daoist terms in its companion CJKV-English Dictionary, both of which are still growing rapidly based on crowdsourcing from the field.

Best regards,



Thank you very much for this review, which I think is very fair. I completely agree that different kinds of students might prefer different kinds of approaches, and the more options that are available the better. May I also draw attention to the fact that we are currently building resources for users of the reader, including audio recordings of the text extracts, a forum for students and instructors, additional references and links, and draft translations. Unfortunately a link to these resources was not included in the published book. However they can be accessed on my website at

Thank you,

Graham Lock