Monday, May 12, 2014

BUDDHACARITA 10.33: Translation Is a Losing Game

⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−¦¦−−⏑−¦−⏑⏑¦−⏑−−   Upajāti (Bālā)
yāvat-sva-vaṁśa-pratirūpa-rūpaṁ na te jarābhyety-abhibhūya bhūyaḥ |
tad-bhuṇkṣva bhikṣāśrama-kāma kāmān-kāle 'si kartā priya-dharma dharmam || 10.33

Therefore, before the beauty that befits your noble line

Is overpowered by the onset of ageing,

Enjoy desires, O desirer of the beggar's stage,

And in due time, O devotee of dharma, dharma you will practice.

The sense of today's verse being a poem – besides its strict adherence to the rules of the 11-syallable upajāti metre – is heightened by the euphonic repetition of rūpa, bhūya, kāma, and dharma.

A translation that tried harder to preserve this repetition might be:

Therefore, before the handsome form
that handsomely conforms to your noble line

Is overpowered, over again in your generation, by the onset of ageing,

Enjoy desires, O desirer of the beggar's stage,

And in due time, O devotee of dharma, dharma you will practice.

Such a translation would lose a lot of the original's elegance. Whereas in the translation I have gone for, though it has the merit of being shorter, the sense of repetition in the first two pādas is lost. One way or another, it seems inevitable for something to be lost in translation.

Over the weekend I watched a thought-provoking film on the Indian roots of Tibetan Buddhism in which the Dalai Lama described India as Tibet's guru. At the end of the film, DL concluded with admirable firmness that Tibet has been a reliable disciple to its Indian guru, by preserving the guru's teaching intact.

From the standpoint of this work, it would be hard to justify too much confidence in that direction. I rather think that the world is very lucky that the teaching of Indian teachers like Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna has been preserved in Sanskrit in their own words.

That is to say, I don't know how reliable a guide the Tibetan translation of Buddhacarita might or might not be. I know enough Chinese characters to know that the Chinese translation is not at all reliable. But how could any translation into any language by any translator catch not only the many levels of meaning which are buried in so many verses but also the sense of poetry in a verse like today's verse?

Judging from the aforesaid film, the consensus among Tibetan teachers seems to be that pratītya-samutpāda means something like “interdependent origination.” The point being that the ego is the major obstacle to enlightenment, but when I am able to realize how everything is interdependent on everything then my ego dissolves, and when my ego dissolves I am able to realize how everything is interdependent on everything.

This explanation of pratītya-samutpāda seems to owe as much to Freudian psychology as it does to the word pratītya, which does not originally mean “interdependent” – even if it is explained in later commentaries in a way that suggests interdependence. And “origination” fails to convey the ut- of samutpāda, which means up.

Samutpāda originally means “springing up” or “springing up together” or “integral/complete springing up.”

And pratītya seems originally to mean either “having gone towards” or “having gone back” or both.

And these meanings of pratītya-samutpāda make sense to me on the basis of everyday practice and experience here by the forest, both in the habitual presence and the temporary absence of whatever ignorance it is that the ignorant call “ego.”

Digging soil and pulling out weeds and attending to this blog, for example, are a kind of application of the mind in a forward direction, towards something (potatoes, understanding); while just sitting and letting my nervous system be washed out by the sounds of birdsong and the forest stream belong to what Dogen called “the backward step.” So that a good day here by the forest centres on the practice and experience of complete springing up, having gone forwards and having gone back.

Moreover, when we go back to the earliest Pali records of the enlightened Buddha's investigation of pratītya-samutpāda (Pali: paṭiccasamuppāda), the Pali text records the Buddha applying his mind anulomapaṭilomaṁ, “in regular order & reversed, forward & backward.”

It's nearly 30 years now since I first attempted in earnest to read Shobogenzo in Zen Master Dogen's original Japanese. When I realized then how much was being lost in translation, even when the translation was done by a Zen master, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

So in the film when various Tibetan teachers tell me not to take anything on trust, they are preaching to one who was long ago converted. Consequently, when they say that pratītya-samutpāda means “interdependent origination,” I don't necessarily believe them. I suspect that something might have got lost in translation.

At what my teacher used to call “the fourth phase,” I think pratītya-samutpāda might mean something more like “Complete Springing Up, having gone forward and backward.”

Last night, after writing the gist of the above yesterday, after writing it with probably more than a pinch of hubris, I slept badly. Woke up in the middle of the night, as I sometimes do, like the wrong kind of loser, a bad loser, in the grip of negative emotion. Some might call it a distorted ego, or a deficit of compassion. Dogen wrote of karma in three times.

If I entered into Dharma-combat with the Dalai Lama, I supppose that H.H. would be a very short-priced favourite to win.

Yes, karma in three times. That's why it would be all over in Round One. Just like Mike Tyson in his heyday, when a right to the body would distract his opponent's attention and a right uppercut would bring the contest to a sudden close.

Ah well, nothing for it but to keep on crawling slowly forward, going, on hands and knees towards I know not where; and backward, back and down onto two sitting bones which are part of the pelvis.

This much, at least, has not been lost in translation: that when a buddha is sitting in lotus, his or her pelvis belongs not to his or her legs but to his or her back. The pelvis, in short, is part of the back. Whether we realize it in practice or not, and many of us don't, the pelvis is originally part of the back. 

yāvat: ind before, ere
sva-vaṁśa-pratirūpa-rūpam (acc. sg.): beauty befitting your lineage ; handsome form conforming to your lineage
vaṁśa: the line of a pedigree or genealogy (from its resemblance to the succession of joints in a bamboo) , lineage , race , family , stock S3Br. &c &c (esp. a noble race , a dynasty of kings , a list of teachers &c)
pratirūpa: mfn. like , similar , corresponding , suitable , proper , fit ; n. the counterpart of any real form , an image , likeness , representation
rūpa: n. form, handsome form

na: not
te (gen. sg.): of you
jarā (nom. sg.): f. old age
abhyeti = 3rd pers. sg. abhi-√i: to come near
abhibhūya = abs. abhi- √ bhū: to overcome , overpower , predominate , conquer , surpass , overspread ; to attack, defeat
bhūyaḥ: ind. more, further on, again, anew

tad: ind. so, therefore
bhuṇkṣva = 2nd pers. sg. imperative bhuj: to enjoy, partake of
bhikṣāśrama-kāma (voc. sg.): O lover of the beggar's abode / the mendicant stage
āśrama: mn. a hermitage , the abode of ascetics , the cell of a hermit or of retired saints or sages ; a stage in the life of a Brahman (of which there are four corresponding to four different periods or conditions , viz. 1st , brahmacārin , " student of the veda " ; 2nd , gṛha-stha , " householder " ; 3rd , vānaprastha , " anchorite " ; and 4th , saṁnyāsin , " abandoner of all worldly concerns " , or sometimes bhikṣu , " religious beggar”).
kāmān (acc. pl.): m. desires, loves, pleasures

kāle: ind. (loc.) in due time , seasonably
asi = 2nd pers. sg. as: to be
kartā = 3rd pers. sg. periphrastic future kṛ: to do, make
priya-dharma (voc. sg.) m. O one who holds dharma dear
priya: mfn. fond of attached or devoted to (loc.) (in comp. , either ibc. e.g. priya-devana , " fond of playing " , or ifc. e.g. akṣa-priya , " fond of dice ")
dharmam (acc. sg.): m. dharma

今見行乞求 我願奉其土

1 comment:

Rich said...

Thanks, mike.