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The Hot Seat: Q & A

The "Mi" of Mi-le-fo

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September 10, 2004


A correspondent named Jim wrote:

I have a Chinese friend who showed me how to write Mi-Le-Fo in Chinese. I already knew that "Fo" means Buddha but I had to pull out my Chinese dictionary to find the other two. I now know that "Le" means "tight" or "Force" -- as that is the direct translation of the character Le in Mi- Le-Fo. My problem is that I can't find the correct character of "Mi" in my dictionary. Do you know what "Mi" translates into? 

This part is easy: Mi is "full, overflowing." It is "second tone," and looks like this in simplified characters, and this in traditional.

"Le" is, as you say, "stop, rein, force, coerce." But sometimes--rarely, it seems--it is written , meaning "happy." This makes much more sense to me; but "overflowing with coercion"? Doesn't sound right, does it? I am not only not a scholar of Chinese--I can't speak it at all! With this information, I have reached the limits of what a dictionary can tell me. But I have a regular reader (you know who you are, My Prince) who may be able to shed a little more light on the subject.  A guess: there has been a shift of meaning relating to the "le" character?

Meanwhile, here are some things I found in my search:

An article titled "Maitreya and Metrak," which traces the evolution of Mi-le mediated from Sanskrit via Central Asian languages. (Jim writes that he is a "student of Asian history," so I hope this article is scholarly enough!)

At Charles Muller's site:
You will need to enter "guest" (without quotes) under user name, and leave the password blank. (Read more about the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism  and access; also, see Muller's top page for his other excellent resources.) 

My pal Prince Roy (whose Chinese skills have been verified by the U.S. of A.) wrote...

my $.02 on Milefo. I don't have a strong background in classical Chinese and even less in canonical Chinese, so you are getting what you paid for:

Milefo 彌勒佛 is almost certainly a transliteration from Sanskrit, translated when the sutras made it to China however many thousands of years back, and in these cases almost never carries a literal meaning.

Why the change in some cases to le ? This probably has more to do with the sinocization of Buddhism. The Milefo evolved from the anemic, thin austere figure of Indian Mahayana tradition into the rotund and jovial manifestation that we see in China today. Since he is a generous, jolly fellow who also loves children, people started to use the character 'le'. That's the best I can do....


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