Inadequately translated texts can be misleading

Much of our dharma practice is about engaging with our heart, being present for our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions. We also need to engage the mind, the intellect, and my intention for us, in this session, is that we engage our intellect.

I’m going to start with some words from the Christian Bible, Matthew 26:41: ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’. The story goes that many years ago, a programmer got a computer to translate this from English to Russian, and back again to English. The result was ‘the vodka is good but the meat is rotten’. Like some of the stories in the Christian Bible, of course, this may be apocryphal.

I’m going to be offering a few thoughts today on the practice of translating Asian texts, and how we discern that inadequately translated texts are misleading us, as dharma practitioners, in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

Why is this a concern? Haven’t dharma practitioners have been saying, and doing, more or less the same thing for 2,500 years? Actually no, they haven’t. Look how different dharma practices are in Sri Lanka and Korea. Compare the starkness of zen with the richness of Tibetan buddhism. As westerners, our question surely is this: is one way of practising more beneficial to me than another? Let’s sit with that question, for now.

Human experience in a primary, existential sense is no different today from what it was 2,500 years ago, when Siddhattha Gotama was alive. Then as now, we humans confront our vulnerability and mortality, and the contingencies that govern our lives. As Gotama’s teachings spread from country to country, from culture to culture, they changed, adapting to the societies and cultures in which they landed.

By focusing on a return to the earliest known texts, what is known as the Pali canon, we are trying to discover what Gotama’s distinctive vision was before it evolved into the orthodoxy of institutional religion. Or, perhaps, institutional religions in the plural.

Doing this will help us explore how such a vision might address the questions and existential crises of our culture, what we term the 21st century of our era.

To bring relevance and meaning to our lives, I suggest we are seeking to develop forms of dharma practice, community and thought, that harmonise with our culture, and its more progressive values, such as inclusiveness, egalitarianism and democratic self-rule.

Not everyone feels the need to do this, this I acknowledge. Most westerners, it’s fair to say, adopt (and sometimes adapt) one or more of the longstanding Asian forms of practice, with their associated beliefs and organisational culture. These often include discriminatory gender relations, hierarchy, dogma and concepts of authority which don’t sit well with many in today’s world.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, had it not been for this religification of Gotama’s ideas, it is highly likely these teachings would not have survived, and we would not be sitting here today. We owe a debt of gratitude to the religious institutions and communities that preserved Gotama’s teachings. It’s now up to us to ensure they are relevant to us.

What Gotama taught was first memorised and then written down some 400 years after his death, a long way from where he lived in the north of India. They were written down in Sri Lanka, using the local script, Sinhala. In the year 2015, take a moment to consider the year 1615. What was happening that year? How many people were living in what we call New Zealand?

Has anyone here today read any of Shakespeare’s plays? How easy were they to understand? In the year 1615, the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays had yet to be published.

Over a 400 year period, the way language is used changes, often dramatically.

The teachings of the Buddha were first written down in Pali, a mid-Indo-Aryan prakrit. A prakrit is a vernacular, a spoken language, in contrast to a sanskrit which is a literary language that has developed out of a refined way of speaking. Pali is to Sanskrit, perhaps, as Cockney is to BBC English.

Just as we don’t speak Shakespearian English, Mr Gotama did not speak Pali.

The Pali canon, in particular the third part called the Vinaya, I suggest, is in many ways the dharma equivalent of the King James Bible. It was produced by a group of professional monastics who were looking to codify their practice, to cement their relationships with the communities that fed, clothed, and supported them.

It’s a huge document, and the English version has around 20,000 pages in 40 volumes. When were these texts first translated into English? This work was started in the mid 19th century.

For a long time, Europeans could not distinguish between the Hindu religion and what they later gave the name ‘Buddhism’. Buddh-ism is not a term used in Asia, by the way. In Asia, people talk about the dharma, by which they mean the Buddha’s teachings.

In English language texts, terms like the Pali dhamma, which is dharma in Sanskrit, are left untranslated and have an initial capital letter. Four noble truths have a capital F, capital N, capital T and sangha has a capital s. There are no capital letters in Asian scripts.

Why did 19th century translators use initial capital letters? To give authority to the ideas contained within the texts. The people who started translating the Pali canon were Victorians, with all the beliefs of people living in that time and that place. They wanted to give these ancient texts the same authority the Christian Bible had at the time.

In 1989 in London, I started a translation agency. We took documents in English and translated them into the languages of Britain’s non-English speaking minorities, such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, Amharic, Tigrinya, Vietnamese, Chinese, Turkish and Greek.

Here’s a sentence that was translated into community languages. It wasn’t done by my company, I should add. ‘Haringey Council looks kindly on adoption and fostering by lesbians and gay men.’ When the pamphlet with this text in a dozen or so languages was being printed, the printer, who was from Pakistan, could read Urdu. He stopped the printing presses. In Urdu, the text read, ’Haringey Council looks kindly on adoption and fostering by pederasts and buggers.’ All the languages were retranslated and a better version printed. That was a close call.

In the Pali canon, we hear Gotama speaking words in current use but turning the meaning on their head. Fire, for example, played a big role in religious practices in northeastern India 2,500 years ago. Gotama used the term in a completely different way, speaking instead about the fire within us.

Nibbana is a Pali word with the same meaning as the Sanskrit nirvana. This is generally translated as enlightenment with a capital E. Does nirvana mean enlightenment? The root of the word is, believe it or not, the opposite – blowing out, extinguishing. Think of candles. Vedic religious practices are about losing oneself, losing one’s ego if you like, discovering what it means to be part of the universe, becoming one with a godhead. In this context the image of snuffing out a candle makes sense.

Gotama, though, developed a series of meditation practices to bring us back from our stories and our daydreams, back into this world, rather than take us away from it. Instead of extinguishing ourselves, we look intensely at ourselves at any given moment – our bodies, our senses, our feelings. We find ourselves, and doing so try to set apart fact from fiction. Paradoxically, as we discover ourselves, we somehow lose our sense of self importance. Awakening is perhaps a better translation.

Awakening to the present moment. It’s not a once and for all event, it’s a process. After his own awakening experience, the Buddha saw the tempter and devil like figure Mara approaching him. ‘I know you Mara,’ he is reported as saying, in this way robbing Mara of his power. What’s the message here? Gotama didn’t achieve a state of perfection in which he extinguished all bad feelings and thoughts; rather, I suggest that he had developed a greater sense of discernment. The pause we talk of on a Wednesday evening.

I’ve saved the best bit for last. Kenneth Norman is an academic who taught at the University of Cambridge with a focus on the mid-Indo-Aryan prakrits I spoke of earlier. He analysed what is known as the Buddha’s first discourse in which the Buddha supposedly announced ‘the four noble’ truths’ or ariya sacca is better understood as ‘truths of the noble one’, and according to another scholar, President of the Pali Text Society Rupert Gethin, the word ‘noble’ is a later addition.

Did ‘noble truths’ replace something else, or perhaps Gotama just spoke of the four? We simply don’t know yet. This, I would suggest, is another good reason to refer to these as the four tasks. The context makes it clear this is what they were – spiritual work to be undertaken.

What does this dissection of the Pali texts leave us with? There are four ideas, four propositions, in these early texts which do not appear in any other religious tradition. That they don’t appear elsewhere, and the completely different approach from other traditions from that time that have survived from that period suggests they may reliably be taken as ideas of Gotama himself. This is not to argue that everything else has been added later, or that it has been misinterpreted.

What are these four propositions? You will find them in a short excerpt from a talk by Stephen Batchelor that I’ve given the title ‘Buddhism in a nutshell’. I’ll leave you to read these on the bus home. It’s a discussion we can have another day, perhaps.

– this talk was given at the Simply Meditation Secular Mindfulness Saturday in Wellington on 28 February 2015

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