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Posts Tagged ‘translation’

A while back, Bengali monksAshin Sopaka and I had some discussion about what the best English translation of ariyasavaka should be. We were each influenced by different experts. He preferred the translation “Noble Disciple,” while I preferred the translation “disciple of the Noble Ones.” It’s important to keep in mind that these translations are not mutually exclusive, but they are indeed different. Noble disciples comprise individuals who have achieved Noble attainments, while disciples of the Noble Ones have not necessarily reached that level. The latter translation is much broader than the first. As neither Ashin Sopaka nor I consider ourselves Pali authorities, the question was forwarded to the experts themselves…

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Dharma is BS

Several years ago I decided to sit in on Buddhism classes by Dr. Gregory Schopen. I heard legendary stories about his research and personality, so I had to check it out for myself.Gregory Schopen Those few weeks had a major effect on not just how I see Buddhism, but also on how I viewed academic research in general. One lecture in particular has stuck with me, and this was about “what the Buddha said.”

We Buddhists love to talk about what the Buddha said. Of course, none of us has ever heard the actual words he said. We usually don’t even quote the Pali or Sanskrit words that he’s claimed to have said. For those of us who don’t speak Sanskrit our Pali, we beg our readers to put their trust in our trust of the fellows who translate from the Pali or Sanskrit texts (and their editors). Sometimes we need to elaborate on the meaning of these translated texts, apparently the Buddha’s words don’t always speak for themselves.

Schopen applied this reasoning to Buddhist texts, and did so much more simply. And of course he uses the provocative abbreviation BS for what the Buddha Said.*

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It; The Shobogenzo

Recently, I have found myself doing something that I had hoped for but had never thought possible: reading the Shobogenzo and loving it.

Let me explain. I have a long standing difficulty with koans because they are commonly [and perhaps unfairly] characterized as having an alien logic all their own, designed to allow those who consider them to escape their wordly views which are immersed in duality and come to the realization of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that is and ever will be and thus gain all kinds of groovy zen powers…

*ahem*

I’m sure that much of this is true, but what I find unhelpful is English translations that play up grammatical ambiguities in Chinese and Japanese for overflowing obtuseness and maximum mysticality. While these problems are assuredly reduced by a good student-teacher relationship, a parable that cannot be understood doesn’t have a whole lot of value.

To explain: on one occasion I stopped inside a Tower Records which was going out of business and, while passing the vastly marked down book section, found a modest collection of Buddhist books. I picked up a translation of the Chinese Shobogenzo, a collection of koans collected by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Though this translation featured some ambiguity, the translator’s original commentary attempted to resolve these by layering on further flowery confusion. Consider this excerpt from the commentary on the much cited koan “Juzhi holds up one finger:”

“…Although the boy lost a finger, he gained his nostils. Don’t you see? The truth of Juzhi’s teachings is not to be found in the finger. This being the case, you tell me, if the truth is not in the finger, then where is it?”

I’m not sure, but this editor has decided not to include anything so silly as the answer in his commentary.

So such has been the case with me and koans, and my experience with the Shobogenzo. That is why Shasta Abbey’s Rev. Hubert Nearman’s translation of the Shobogenzo has been such a delight.

The Reverend’s translation is thoughtful, analytical, and helpful. When linguistic ambiguities are resolved, they are done so consistently, providing an overarching reading designed to develop understanding. The Reverend also takes care to tell you what it is he is resolving, so you can revisit those ambiguities on your own if you like.

It has been a great joy to read, and I hope to mention it more as I continue onward. I would recommend the translator’s introduction to anyone interested in truth and good writing from any walk of life with variable leanings towards the Dharma.

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Recently I had the opportunity to look over a manuscript of a collection of Buddhist parables that was going through the editing process. I was reading a plain spoken rendition of the Sutra to Vacchagotta on Fire, when something just didn’t seem right.

One thing I noticed is that the story from the manuscript I was reading used the Sanskrit rendering, Vacagotra, instead of the Pali which I am more used to. But that wasn’t it. There was something more.

The Buddha didn’t sound quite right.

It is a funny thing to think, because to even make that sort of assumption, one would have to have the borderline arrogant idea of what the Buddha should sound like. Yet I found that I did have certain expectations, and this translation of a loose and lucid retelling didn’t carry the same firm but compassionate nobility that I had become used to.

This string of wonderings made me realize that the Buddha has many voices folded into one in the Sutras. The Buddha is caring without being syrupy. He speaks with a seriousness that comes through even in his humor, when we laugh because something has been described so accurately, not because reason and expectations have been bent here and there. But more than anything, the Buddha is apt- he speaks what is beautiful, what is beneficial, at the right time with the right phrasing.

I’m not sure that I would have been able to notice these elements so much if I did not encounter a portion in which they were lacking. That voice, that cadence, is such a comfort to me that I feel it very much when it is not there, and it is a comfort to be able to know it.

What is the Buddha’s voice to you?

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