Getting translations in perspective

I’d like to sound a note of warning to seekers who depend on Buddhist translations from the Pali. I crave your patience, if not indulgence for the length of the blog, which eventually gets to the point about translations of Pali texts. The following example was brought to my attention by my dear friend and colleague, Winton Higgins.

At Blue Gum Sangha we’re working through Glenn Wallis’s great little book, ‘Basic Teachings of the Buddha’ and we’ve come to sutta 11, which he names the ‘Destination’ of the Buddhist practice and the path leading to the destination. I’ll quote in full his lovely translation, as he presents it. The Buddha is speaking:

“I will teach the destination and the path leading to the destination. Listen to what I say. What is the destination? The eradication of infatuation, the eradication of hostility, and the eradication of delusion are what is called the destination. And what is the path leading to the destination? Present-moment-awareness directed to the body. This awareness is what is called the path leading to the destination.
In this way, I have taught to you the destination and the path leading to the destination. That which should be done out of compassion by a caring teacher who desires the welfare of his students, I have done for you.
There are secluded places. Meditate, do not be negligent! Don’t have regrets later! This is my instruction to you.”

This is great stuff, especially if, like myself, you have strong faith in mindfulness of the body. The trouble is, the picture is not so simple when we look at this passage in the context from which it has been taken.

This sutta comes from the Samyutta Nikaya, from a section called, ‘Connected Discourses on the Unconditioned,’ and it’s the last passage (or sutta) from 15 (as I count them in Bodhi’s translation). Each section has the same kind of structure, which is (using Wallis’ translation) something like:

“I will teach X and the path leading to X. Listen to what I say. What is X? The eradication of infatuation, the eradication of hostility, and the eradication of delusion (are/is) what is called X. And what is the path leading to X? Y. This is what is called the path leading to X.
In this way, I have taught to you X and the path leading to X. That which should be done out of compassion by a caring teacher who desires the welfare of his students, I have done for you.
There are secluded places. Meditate, do not be negligent! Don’t have regrets later! This is my instruction to you.”

Each of the suttas (except #14) has this same structure, as in Wallis’ translation of the 15th sutta.

So what are the topics in the other fourteen suttas translated by Bodhi, about which the Buddha says, “That which should be done out of compassion by a caring teacher who desires the welfare of his students, I have done for you.” In what follows, I notice that they seem to lead naturally one onto the next. The first 12 present the ‘X’ of our model as the ‘unconditioned’ and they present a dozen versions of the ‘Y’ that leads to the unconditioned.

They are, in order:
1. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? Mindfulness directed to the body.
2. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? Serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana).
3. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? Concentration with thought and examination; concentration with examination only; concentration without thought and examination.
4. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? Emptiness concentration; signless concentration; and undirected [c.mcl: purposeless] concentration.
5. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? The four establishments of mindfulness. [c.mcl: That is – Body; vedana (feeling-tones positive, negative and neither); mind-states; and dhammas [c.mcl: the dynamics of reality leading to freedom.]
6. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? Thee four right strivings. [c.mcl: maintain wholesome things already arisen; cultivate the future wholesome; drop unwholesome things already arisen; avoid future unwholesome things.
7. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? The four bases for spiritual power. [c.mcl: from here on in, it’s getting too complex for this blog entry, so I’ll leave the rest unexplained.]
8. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? The five spiritual faculties.
9.I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? The five powers.
10.I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? The seven factors of enlightenment.
11. I will teach you the unconditioned and the path to the unconditioned. What’s that path? The noble eightfold path.
12. This passage, or sutta, goes through all the foregoing again: serenity; insight; concentration; four establishments of mindfulness; four right strivings; four bases for spiritual powers; five spiritual faculties; the five powers; seven factors of enlightenment; the noble eightfold path, “maturing in release.”

Again, notice that there is a development from 1 to 12, each going deeper in practice.

13. Then there is a shift. The ‘X’ becomes ‘the uninclined’: “I will teach you the uninclined and the path to the uninclined.” No longer the unconditioned, but the uninclined. What’s the uninclined and the path leading to it? Of course, it’s the same end of infatuation, hostility and delusion; and the text indicates that we should apply all of the forgoing twelve points (the ‘Y’ points) anew to the ‘uninclined.’

14. And then another shift in ‘X’: “I will teach you the taintless and the path to the taintless.” However, for some reason, the Pali doesn’t suggest the application of the first twelve approaches. Here, instead, the Buddha lists many inspiring synonyms for the taintless, nirvana. There’s a change in the pattern of the text. Perhaps in a separate blog entry I’ll list all the synonyms.

15. And lastly, the subject of this entry, and the passage that Wallis presents: “I will teach you the destination and the path to the destination.” Here, the Pali indicates that we need to apply to this sutta about the ‘destination’ all of those first twelve points! (It does this with the equivalent of the English ‘etc’. (Pali: pe) The destination (‘X’) is to be understood in terms of the path, mindfulness of the body (‘Y’), as defined by all twelve points, not just in terms of ‘mindfulness of the body’.

So, what’s the point of all this? It seems to me that the Buddha is saying, “Practice that begins with ‘mindfulness of the body,’ and proceeds on the basis of mindfulness of the body, includes all these – points 1-12 – as the path.” And, he’s saying by detailing all those points, that practice is, naturally enough, developmental, of course.

However, Wallis in his generally helpful little book, ‘Basic teachings of the Buddha,’ makes no mention of those other ‘paths’ (the ‘Y’s which are mentioned in the Pali sutta context); he only quotes “mindfulness of the body” as the path in this chapter of his book and in his subsequent commentary.

Personally, I think that is a possible approach, and it’s the subject of this blog, isn’t it? However, it’s a good approach only if we include the qualification that serious mindfulness of the body implies so much more than a physical body (that is, all the other points in the ‘Connected Discourses on the Unconditioned.)’ That is, we should indicate that ‘mindfulness of the body’ is naturally going to lead to, all the other more-than-body conditions – the states of concentration (jhanas), the mindfuless of dhammas, exceptional mind-powers, the noble eightfold path, and the rest. The body is a cognitive body (and/or a mind-made body) and a site for cultivation of the heart-mind to an extraordinary depth of subtle self-realisation.

Wallis makes clear in his commentary that he is trying to distance himself from approaches that “state the goal in terms of some dissolution into or union with some Absolute.” (p.136) He also says, “More psychologically or epistemologically-oriented traditions – that is, those traditions that emphasis an understanding of the mind and the importance of particular knowledge – tend to state the goal in terms of liberation from a limited self or release from the constraints of ignorance.” In distancing himself from this, he holds up, in this chapter, instead, ‘mindfulness of the body’ as the destination of the practice.

There’s a danger here of over-simplification, and we need to be careful of a kind of reductionism. Perhaps here the translator could have said some more about the context of this passage, for our guidance?

It’s a difficult thing for us, that we depend on translations for ‘the word of the Buddha,’ however, the good side to this is that it means we always have to come back to where it matters – our experiencing – to continue the quest for, and our development into, the kind of intuitive understanding of life that the Buddha indicated.

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