« Leshan Giant Buddha« , built during the Tang dynasty (618–907)

At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.

A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.

Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.

« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i

There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.

Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.

The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.

« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:

1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.

2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».

3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.

4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».

5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii

Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.

There is a general lesson here.

There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.

For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.

Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?

If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?

Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.

But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.

The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).

But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.

This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.

Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.

I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.


iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)

iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat,‎ 1853 .

China Divine

Lizard Fossile

In the Fayan (« Master Words ») of Yang Xiong, written two thousand years ago, the chapter entitled « Questions about the divine » begins laconically:

« The question is about the divine.

– The heart.

– What do you mean by this?

– Immersing itself in the sky, it becomes heaven. Immersed in the earth, it becomes earth. Heaven and earth are divine clarity, unfathomable, and yet the heart plunges into them as if it were going to fathom them.”i

The divine is indefinable, unintelligible. However, the heart does not care. It tries to form an idea of it, by its impetuous and passionate way of searching for it. It knows that it has no chance of grasping it in its essence or in its existence, in heaven or on earth. Yet he does not hesitate, he throws himself into the bottomless abyss, as if he could reach the bottom.

The heart knows that it cannot reach a bottom that is bottomless. But it rushes into the abyss. It drowns in the immensity, and by guessing the immensity, it becomes immense. It immerses itself in the sky and grasps the sky in itself, it enters the earth and everything in it becomes earth, it jumps into mystery, and mysteriously metamorphoses into mystery.

Only by plunging into the abyss does it discover that it becomes an abyss, and that it has always been an abyss, that it is still an abyss, and will be even more so.

All knowledge of the divine begins with the as if it were possible to know this knowledge. The as if carries the faith of the heart forward or backward. The as if carries the heart beyond what it is and beyond what it knows.

Why does the heart bet on the as if?

Yang Xiong explains it in a commentary on the Tài Xuán Jīng (« The canon of the supreme mystery »):

« The heart hidden in the depths, beauty of the sacred root. Divination: the heart hidden in the depths, the divine is not elsewhere.”ii

Compact, unmistakable style.

In Chinese, « divine » is shen, 神. This ambiguous word also means soul, spirit, mystery, alive, and even God.

« Heart » is xīn 心. Three tears around a blade. Three moons on the mountain. Three gods near a tree.

Shen is xīn. Xīn is shen. The heart drowns in the divine. The divine drowns in the heart.

This idea is classical in Confucianism. It is found in the Mengzi, which quotes Confucius, and Yang Xiong takes it up again in this form:

« The divine in the heart of man! Summon it, it exists. Abandon it, it disappears.”iii

It is the idea, therefore, that the holy man makes the divine exist in the world through his action. He stands on the border between heaven and man. Participating in both worlds, he fills the gap between them.

Yet another image:

« The dragon is writhing in the mud. The lizard basks there. Lizard, lizard, how could you understand the dragon’s aspiration?

– Must the dragon have this desire to rise into the sky?

– When it’s time to rise, it rises. When it is time to dive, it dives. There is both rising and diving at the same time.”iv

When it comes to research, no time form basking in the sun. Or in the mud.

iYang Xiong. Master Words. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 2010, Ch.5, 1, p.39

iiIbid. p.39, Note 1

iiiIbid. Ch5, 3, p.40

ivIbid. Ch5, 5, p.40

Circumcised Ears

Rationalist, materialist minds generally consider the sacred texts of Egypt, China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Israel, Chaldea, as esoteric reveries, compiled by counterfeiters to mislead the common public.

For them, treasures such as the Book of the Dead, the texts of the Pyramids, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Zend Avesta, the Tao Te King, the Torah, the Gospels, the Apocalypse, are only vast mystifications, settling down over the centuries, across the continents.

They are the expression of tribal or clan practices, or a desire for temporal and spiritual power. The social illusion they encourage would be fostered by the staging of artificially composed « secrets » that leave a lasting impression on the minds of peoples, generation after generation.

But broader, more open minds, may see all these ancient testimonies, so diverse, but tainted by the same central intuition, as a whole, – coming from the human soul, and not as a collection of heterogeneous attempts, all of them unsuccessful.

History has recorded the failure of some of them, after a few millennia of local supremacy, and the apparent success of some others, for a time more sustainable, seemingly better placed in the universal march.

With a little hindsight and detachment, the total sum of these testimonies seems to be nestled in a common drive, a dark energy, a specific genius.

This drive, this energy, this genius, are not very easy to distinguish today, in a sceptical environment, where miracles are rare, crowds cold, passions exacerbated.

Not easy but not impossible.

One can always walk between the flowers of human thought, smelling their unique scent, sensitive to the continuous rise of sap in their flexible stems.

The word « esotericism » has become malignant. Whoever is interested is considered a marginal in rational society.

But this word also has several divergent, and even contradictory, meanings that may enlighten us, for that matter.

For example, the Jewish Kabbalah is intended to be a revelation or explanation of the « esoteric » meaning of Moses’ Books. It is even doubly esoteric.

It is esoteric in a first sense in so far as it opposes exotericism. In this sense, esotericism is a search for protection. There are ideas, secrets, that must not be disclosed to the crowd.

It would deeply distort its meaning, or project mud, contempt, lazzis, spit, hatred against them.

It is also esoteric in that it deepens the secret. The text is said to contain profound meanings, which only initiation, prepared under strict conditions, can reveal to hand-picked entrants after long trials. Esotericism is not there prudence or protection, but a conscious, characterized method, elite aspiration.

There is yet another form of esotericism.

R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz defines it as follows: « Esoteric teaching is therefore only an « Evocation » and can only be that. Initiation does not reside in the text, whatever it may be, but in the culture of the Intelligence of the Heart. Then nothing is more « occult » or « secret », because the intention of the « Enlightened », the « Prophets » and the « Envoys from Heaven » is never to hide, on the contrary. »i


In this sense, esotericism has nothing in common with a desire for secrecy. On the contrary, it is a question of revealing and publishing what several minds can, through a common, sincere effort, discover about the nature of the Spirit.

The Spirit is discovered through the Spirit. It seems to be a flat tautology. But no. Matter is incapable of understanding the mind. The mind is probably better equipped, however, to understand matter. And if matter can merge with itself, only the spirit can take the measure of the infinite depth and understand the height of the Spirit without merging with it, undoubtedly relying on analogies with what it knows about itself.

Mind is, at the very least, a metaphor of Spirit, while matter is never a metaphor of Matter. The material, at most, is only an image, invisible to itself, drowned in the shadows, in its own immanence.

Jewish Kabbalah developed in the European Middle Ages, assuming obvious filiation links with the former Egyptian « Kabbalah », which also has links with the Brahmanic « Kabbalah ». I hasten to concede that the nature of the Jewish mission reflects its specificity in the Jewish Kabbalah. Nevertheless, the links of filiation with older “Kabbalahs” appear to be valuable subjects of reflection for the comparativist.


The various « Kabbalahs » of the world, developed in different climates, at times unrelated to each other, are esoteric according to the three meanings proposed above. The most interesting of these meanings is the last. It expresses in action the sincere Intelligence, the Intelligence of the heart, the intuition of the causes, the over-consciousness, the metamorphosis, the ex-stasis, the radial vision of the mythical nucleus, the intelligence of the beginnings and the perception of the ends.

Other metaphors are needed to express what needs to be expressed here.


Pharaonic Egypt is no more. But the Book of the Dead still speaks to a few living people. The end of ancient Egypt was only the end of a cycle, not the end of a world.

Osiris and Isis were taken out of their graves and put into museum display cases.

But Osiris, Isis, their son Horus, still produce strange scents, subtle emanations, for the poet, the traveller and the metaphysician.

There are always dreamers in the world to think of the birth of a Child God, a Child of the Spirit. The Spirit never ceases to be born. The fall of the Word into matter is a transparent metaphor.


Where does the thought that assails and fertilizes us come from? From a neural imbroglio? From a synaptic chaos?

The deep rotation of the worlds is not finished, other Egypts will still give birth, new Jerusalems too. In the future other countries and cities will appear, made not of land and streets, but of spirit.

The Spirit has not said his last word, for the Word is endless.

In the meantime, it is better to open one’s ears, and to have them circumcised, as once was said.


iR. Schwaller de Lubicz. Propos sur ésotérisme et symbole. Ed. Poche. 1990

Cultural blindness

Athanasius Kircher, Jesuit, encyclopedic scholar, one of the most brilliant minds of the 17th century in Europe, became interested in China, then newly fashionable. The Jesuits had been engaged since 1582 in the intellectual exploration of this civilization, with the initial mission of Matteo Ricci.

Kircher published his « Illustrated China » in Amsterdam in 1670. Among other things, he deals with ideographic writing, the principle of which is still obscure to him, according to all appearances, since he mistook the ideograms for hieroglyphics, observing « the similarity of the ancient Chinese characters with the hieroglyphics »and that « the first Chinese people who were descended from the Egyptians followed their ways of doing things for their writing. »

He proposed an astonishing classification of Chinese ideograms according to sixteen « forms », drawn from his rich imagination, and based on the supposed similarities of Chinese characters with natural forms.

Here are some excerpts describing these « forms ».

Form I: « You see here snakes wonderfully intertwined with each other, and which have various figures according to the diversity of the classes they mean. »

Form II: « The first form of the old letters is taken from the things of agriculture. »

Form III: « The 3rd form of the letters is composed of quantities of birds, called ‘Fum Hoam’, and is said to be the most beautiful of all those that the eyes can see: because it is made of several feathers, & several wings.

Form IV: « The form IVof the ancient characters (…) is taken from oysters and worms. »

Form V: « The form VII is composed of the roots of the herbs. »

Form VI: « The form VI is composed of the remains of birds. »

Form VII: « The form VII is made of turtles. »

Form VIII: « The form VIII – made of birds & peacocks. »

Form IX: « Made of grass & wings. »

Form X: « Their meaning is ‘quai ço xi ho ki ven’ or, said otherwise, Ço, author of some writings, composed these letters, not to forget what he knew. »

Form XI: « Take the figure of stars and plants. »

Form XII: « Letters of the edicts formerly used. »

Form XIII: « Yeu çau chi ey en tao. »

Form XIV: « Letters of rest, joy, science, talks, darkness and clarity. »

Form XV: « Composed of fish. »

Form XVI: « Does not have to be read: that is why we did not understand what it meant. »

Beyond the undeniable poetry of this disconnected, repetitive and fanciful catalog, one can only note the apparent, staggering, ignorance of one of the most agile European minds of these times with regard to a culture, that seemed then indeed difficult to access.

Such phenomena of blindness and intercultural misunderstanding, far from being outdated in our newly globalized world, can indeed be observed today.

At least, Athanasius Kircher then had a try, in good faith.