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Exposing translator bias in the Translation of the Pali Canon and other Asian literature

A comparative analysis of 23 translations of Dhammapada Verse 372

Last updated Novemebr 10, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

This author’s editorial efforts in regards to translations of the Pali canon have often been met with a high degree of criticism from people who are incensed that someone would consider making any alteration to those translations, as if the translation itself is the “blessed words of the Buddha.”  What these amateur critics do not know is there is no word-for-word comparison between ancient Pali and the present English language.  In fact every translation between any two languages, even contemporary Romance language, let alone a 2,600 year old dead liturgical language, and English often requires a great deal of interpretation to accomplish.

While this author honors and respects the translators who have given us the fruits of their labors in translating the Pali canon into English, for the most part the Pali-English dictionaries and translations of the canon that we have available to us were most probably rendered by scholars, few of whom (if any) actually engaged in the contemplative practices of Buddhism.  And, since the Buddha was a contemplative and he was speaking to contemplatives, then we should at the very least have skilled contemplatives, who are native speakers of the English language, as participants in the rendering of the Pali canon into our language.

Buddhism was first and foremost a contemplative tradition, and it was taught by a contemplative. Scholars who wish to produce a functional understanding of the words of Sidharta Gotama, the historic Buddha, really should either have a rigorous contemplative practice regimen in addition to their scholarship, or look to those native speakers of English who are contemplatives, when rendering a translation of the sutras/suttas into English.  The Nikayas in translation at present seem to have some serious failings in either an understanding of the subjective experiences of the contemplative, or there is a lack of understanding of the English language of cognition and gnosis, which has resulted in an English canon of Buddhist literature that is rather weak to say the least.

One of the na´ve errors made by many translators is assuming there is a single word in the English language that applies in all cases to a given Pali or Sanskrit term.  Translators must understand that within every word choice in translation there is a value judgment based upon interpretation.  And, there can be many interpretations acquired through translation.  It is the shades of meaning that pervade each word-choice in translation that can lead one in one direction, verses another.  If a translator has a bias for dry insight, for instance, then he or she is likely to make different choices in the shades of meaning in his/her translation than a moist ecstatic is going to make.  The same is true if the translator happens to be a follower of one of the devotional forms of Buddhism, such as Pure Land, or one of the intensely ritual forms such as the many Tibetan schools of Buddhism.

Every word for an abstract concept, such as ecstasy, has an arc of meaning that it scribes through the understanding of native speakers of that language.  The best a translator can hope to do is match the intended meaning of a word in one language with the intersecting arc of a word in translation.  This means it is very unlikely that any word in a language is going to have a static relationship with a language it is being translated into.  This is especially true of intangible concepts surrounding gnosis, such as ecstasy, which I have found is not well understood by most people in any language or culture, because so few have had the experience.  This would explain why in this culture ecstasy is thought to be an illicit street drug, not the consequence of a skillful executed contemplative life.

Unfortunately to make a change in the world of Pali and Sanskrit translation might require an accomplished mystic in the Buddhist tradition to then go out and get academic credentials to support his or her more precise translations.  But, the academic journey is not conducive to a contemplative life so we are not likely to ever acquire someone with both achievements, unless an individual first receives a Ph.D. in Asian or Buddhist studies, then engages in a rigorous meditation practice for10 or more years.

Since there is no word-for-word translation that is absolutely accurate under all uses of a term for abstract concepts between any two languages then a translator must be sensitive to the subtle shades of the intended context for every term because every word has shades of meaning, thus requiring interpretation in all translation.  This is especially true when a single word is used in a large document, like the Pali canon, where its meaning moves throughout the various shades of its meaning within its cultural context. 

As an example of how variable a single abstract concept can be let us look at the Pali term ‘nimitta’.  Unfortunately this word is almost always translated as “sign.”  Its meaning however is more like the characteristics of any given object or experience. Even though ‘sign’ and ‘characteristics’ have similar meaning, this contemplative finds the English term ‘characteristics’ to be closer to the mark to fill the needed translation in almost every case, but not all.’

In the suttas/sutras ‘nimitta’ is most often used for the characteristics of a sense object that makes it appealing to the ego.  However ’nimitta’ has also been used as the characteristics of absorption.  In this case the word would best be rendered as charism, than sign or characteristics, although the word ‘characteristics’ is certainly acceptable.

We must also realize that as much as we want to believe that we can penetrate the Pali canon to discover the meaning of the Buddha’s discourses, Pali is a dead language.  The context for it was 2,600 years ago, therefore the context and the shades of meaning are no doubt long lost as well.  We can only do our best at resurrecting that language from the dead through following the Noble Eightfold Path as best as we can and through that process hope that we gain the necessary insight (vipassana) that reveals to us the original meaning and intent that Sidharta is said to have had when he supposedly used that term. 

We could certainly point to the body of English literature as an example of how language changes, even in a literate society, and in a rather short period of time.  Today the English language is so variable throughout its domain that few North Americans can understand the “English” of the English.  Now, if we look back at Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) English, his Elizabethan English is difficult for many North Americans to penetrate, and he was only writing 400 years ago. Chaucer (1340-1400), the author of “The Canterbury Tales,” was writing only 200 years earlier than Shakespeare, but his English is so radically different than our present day English that few native speakers of English can read it without translation.

Thus, who is to say what the shades of meaning were intended by Sidharta Gotama, when he is said to have uttered them 300 years before they were even written down?  Certainly a scholar, who rarely meditates if ever, could not be expected to penetrate the meaning of the writing of any mystic, such as Sidharta Gotama.  Only an accomplished contemplative, who through a rigorous contemplative practice regimen, can be expected to penetrate the meaning of the literature of the mystic. A contemplative, who has successfully penetrated the meaning of the teachings of a mystic, must have meditated until he or she has realized all of the subjective states (attainments) the mystic (in this case Sidharta Gotama) was talking about.  Only such a one can speak authoritatively on those attainments.

For the purpose of comparison this author has chosen the Dhammapada for discovering this variability in translation because it is the most commonly translated document within the Pali canon.  In fact the Dhammapada, which was rendered into Danish in 1855 is “the first Pali text ever critically edited in Europe” (Conze).  It was translated by the Danish pioneer of Pali Studies, Viggo Fausboll (1821-1908).  You will be happy to find an English translation of Fausboll’s Danish version on this list.

A classic example, of the variability in translation, can be revealed by examining the various translations of the Dhammapada.  The Dhammapada has probably been translated by more translators than any Pali text, therefore we have many examples of attempts to get at what the Buddha had to say in the many translations of this document.  In fact this author was able to find 20 different translations of the Dhammapada on the stacks of the library of the University of Arizona, where this essay was prepared.

Stanza 372 was chosen specifically because it is an often quoted stanza that is used to support a belief that Sidharta Gotama taught a practice strategy called “vipassana,” and that he proposed this practice strategy as a means of avoiding the ecstasies (jhanas). This is in fact an ancient conflict within the various vehicles and traditions of Buddhism, which has been summarized in the “wet verses dry” controversy.  The ‘wets’ propose that the cultivation of the ecstasies (jhanas) is essential to following the Noble Eightfold Path.  They argue ecstasy (jhana) was the Buddha’s very definition of the Eighth fold of the Noble Eightfold Path (DN 22.21).  The ‘drys’, on the other hand, claim ecstasy (jhana) is not needed. Unfortunately there is so little support for the dry premise within the Discourse of the Buddha that they tend to site stanza 372 from the Dhammapada in support of their claim. Thus much for the ‘drys’ hinges upon this one small stanza.

Let us simply take this single verse, 372, and examine how the four key Pali-to-English dictionaries render it. We will begin with the Pali first for comparison and follow it with a rough dictionary translation.

Dhammapada Verse 372, (Pali)
"Natthi jhanam apa˝˝assa
pa˝˝a natthi ajhayato
yamhi jhanan ca pa˝˝a ca
sa ve nibbanasantike." 
                                                      (Buddhadatta)

The four Pali-to-English dictionaries consulted for this project are the primary Pali-to-English dictionaries to have emerged in the last 150, or so, years of European scholarship of the Pali language. Using this highly scholarly venture perhaps we can penetrate the meaning of this Pali stanza and discover whether this stanza supports the claims of either the ‘wets’ or the ‘drys’, or both.  For this study this author used these four Pali-to-English dictionaries: The first ever published, Robert Childers’ (1838-1876) “A Dictionary of the Pali language,” first published in 1876; the second dictionary consulted was the Pali Text Society’s “Pali-English Dictionary” edited by T.W. Rhys Davids and William Stede and published in 1921; the third dictionary used in this study was Nyanatiloka’s “Buddhist Dictionary,” first published in 1946, the third edition edited by Nyanaponika and published 1970;  And finally, A.P. Buddhadatta’s (1887-1962) “Concise Pali-English Dictionary;” published in 1957.

What we get from the dictionaries in order of appearance of the term is as follows.  (Please note that in several cases the Pali term is rendered in only one or two of the dictionaries consulted):

Natthi -there is not (Childers)

 

Jhanam –(this word is derived from ‘jhana’), Meditation, contemplation, religious meditation or abstraction of mind, mystic or abstract meditation, ecstasy, trance (Childers).

 

Jhana (nt) from jhayati BSk. Dhyana, from meditation on objects and burning up anything adverse. Literally meditation. It is a technical term for a special religious experience. Reached in a certain order of mental states…It will be seen that there is no suggestion of trance, but rather of an enhanced vitality.  In the descriptions of the crises in the religious experiences of the Christian saints and mystics, expressions similar to those used in the jhanas are frequent (Rhys Davids).

 

Jhana- nt. Concentration of mind; meditation; a constituent of meditation (Buddhadatta).

 

Jhana –Absorption (trance, meditation), refers chiefly to the four meditative absorptions.  They are achieved through full ecstatic concentration (appana, s. samadhi), during which there is a complete, though temporary, suspension of fivefold sense-activity and of the five hindrances (s. nirvana).  The state of consciousness, however, is one of full alertness and lucidity (Nyanatiloka).

In the case of the term ‘jhana’ it is often translated as ‘meditation’ or ‘concentration’, however Sidharta Gotama interpreted it as characterized by bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha) (DN 22.21), so for him this must have been some kind of subjective state that lay beyond the simple exercise of meditation and concentration.  In fact he said it was a desirable pleasure to be cultivated (MN 139), which was "Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa" a "pleasant abiding in the here and now" (MN 8).  With this kind of description I am inclined to agree with Rhys Davids, when he says “In the descriptions of the crises in the religious experiences of the Christian saints and mystics, expressions similar to those used in the jhanas are frequent.” Thus Childers maybe correct when he suggested ‘ecstasy’ as a translation for ‘jhana’.  And, since this writer’s contemplative practice has evolved to a very pleasant stage, then this seems like further support for the term ‘ecstasy’ as a more true and descriptive translation for ‘jhana’ than does either ‘meditation’ or ‘concentration’.

Apanno-is a compound word made up of ‘a’ and ‘panna.’ The Pali prefix ‘a’ is a negative, so without ‘Pa˝˝a’ or without wisdom or foolish (Childers).

 

Apanna –ignorant (Rhys Davids).

The Pali term ‘Apannassa’ is not mentioned in the four dictionaries, however related terms are.  It is a compound word made up of ‘a’ and ‘Pa˝˝a. Since the Pali prefix ‘a’ is a negative, then ‘Apannassa’ is without ‘Pa˝˝a’ or wisdom, which could be rendered as ‘foolish’ or ‘ignorant’ however since both panna and apa˝˝a are used in this stanza, then it would seem “without wisdom” is the implied use.

Pa˝˝a - wisdom; intellect, reason, through or by or with wisdom, wisely, wisdom obtained by thought, wisdom obtained by study, wisdom obtained by meditation (Childers).

 

Pa˝˝a (adj.) of wisdom, endowed with knowledge or insight, possessed of the highest cognition (Rhys Davids).

 

Pa˝˝a - wisdom; knowledge; insight.  The code of intellectual duties; practice for the attainment of highest knowledge (Buddhadatta).

 

Pa˝˝a –Understanding, knowledge, Wisdom, insight, comprises a very wide field.  The specific Buddhist knowledge or wisdom, however, as part of the Noble Eightfold Path to deliverance, is insight, i.e. That initiative knowledge which brings about the 4 stages of Holiness and the realization of Nibbana and which comprises penetration of Impermanence (anicca), Misery (dhukka) and Impersonality (anatta) of all forms of existence (Nyanatiloka).

The translations for ‘pa˝˝a’ suggest understanding, knowledge, wisdom, insight, intellect, reason. Childers says the Pali cannon mentions there are three kinds of ‘pa˝˝a’ or wisdom, which suggests the Pali language may not be sophisticated enough to distinguish between these three kinds, even though they do so intellectually: These three kinds of Pa˝˝a’ (wisdom) are: wisdom obtained by thought; wisdom obtained by study; and wisdom obtained by meditation. 

In our language we tend to call wisdom “obtained by thought” ‘reasoning’ or’ understanding’.  And, we tend to call wisdom “obtained by study ‘intellect’ or ‘knowledge’. Since meditative absorption, or ecstasy, is clearly mentioned in this stanza, not just the practice of meditation (sati), then it seems reasonable to reject both ‘reasoning’ and ‘intellect’ as possible choices in this translation.  We also know that there is a Pali term for ‘insight’, which is ‘vipassana’, thus it seems we can reject ‘insight’ as well as a possible choice in translation.  We can then conclude that ‘wisdom’ is probably the best choice.

Jhayati - is related to the term ‘jhana’ and means to shine, perceive, to meditate, contemplate, think upon, brood over, search for or hunt after (Rhys Davids).

 

Ajhayato -is not mentioned in the four dictionaries consulted, however it seems clearly to be another compound made up of the negative ‘a’ prefix this time with ‘Jhayati’ as its suffix, which is related again to the term ‘jhana’ thus it would seem to mean “without jhana or ecstasy.”

 

Yamhi -yo- Who, what, which, he who, whoever (Childers).

 

Yamhi -to be combined with (Rhys Davids)

 

Jhanan -this word is most certainly derived from jhana, but none of the dictionaries offered a specific meaning for it.

 

Ca –(copulative, or disjunctive particle), and, then, now (Buddhadatta).

 

Ca-and, but even (Childers).

 

Ca-what about? How is it? ever, whoever, what-ever (Rhys Davids).

 

Sa -one’s own, through one’s actions (Buddhadatta).

 

Sa -possessed of, having (Rhys Davids).

 

Ve –particle of affirmation, indeed, truly, surely. (Buddhadatta).

 

Ve -part, of affirmation, emphasizing the preceding word: indeed, truly; his own (Rhys Davids).

The Pali term ‘nibbanasantike’ is not translated by the four dictionaries, but it seems to be a compound word made up of ‘nibbana’ and ‘Santiko’, please see below:

Nibbanam extinction, destruction, annihilation, annihilation of being, annihilation of human passion, Arahantship or final sanctification (Childers).

 

Nibbana (BSk nirvana) to blow, [the extinguishing of fire, which is the prevailing Buddhist concept of the term].  To exhaust the fuel of burning, to blow out a lamp, 2. health, in the sense of bodily well-being, such as the passing away of feverishness and restlessness, 3. The dying out in the heart of the threefold fire of raga, dosa, & moha: lust, ill-will, & stupidity (Buddhistic meaning). 4. the sense of spiritual well-being, of security, emancipation, victory and peace, salvation, bliss (Rhys Davids).

 

Nibbana –Skr. Nirvana; lit. ‘Extinction’ (nir + va, to cease blowing, to become extinquished); according to the commentaries; ‘Freedom from desire’ (nir + vana).  Nibbana constitutes the highest and ultimate goal of all Buddhist aspirations, i.e. absolute extinction of that life-affirming will manifested as Greed, Hatred, and Delusion, and convulsively clinging to existence; and therewith also the ultimate and absolute deliverance from all future rebirth, old age, disease, and death, from all suffering and misery. Cf. Paranibbana (Nyanatiloka).

 

Nibbana – cooling, extinction (of a fire), emancipation, the final bliss, destruction (Buddhadatta).

 

Santiko -adj. Vicinity, keeping near, in the presence of, towards (Childers)

 

Santika -vicinity, presence, in the presence of, towards, with, by or along with (Rhys Davids).

Oddly none of the four dictionaries offered a simple single word translation for ‘nibbana’ as if the English language had never considered the ideas behind nibbana prior to the arrival of Buddhism.  Of course this is untrue.  One need only read the rich literature of religious aspiration from the Gnostics to the present to reveal the idea of a “highest and ultimate goal of religious aspiration” that is often described as “extinction, annihilation, destruction, emancipation, a final bliss,“ which is often further described as a freedom from the “seven deadly sins,” which should be reasonably equivalent to the Buddhist concept of being free of the hindrances of “Greed, Hatred, and Delusion.”  That one word is often referred to as ‘enlightenment.’

When we look at the suffix of the compound Pali term ‘nibbanasantike’, which is Santike, we have “near to” or “in the presence of” (Childers/ Rhys Davids). Thus it seems reasonable to translate ‘nibbanasantike’ as either “in the presence of, or near to enlightenment.

We can now put all of this together as below:

"There is no ecstasy without wisdom,
There is no wisdom without ecstasy.
Whoever has both wisdom and ecstasy
Is truly close to enlightenment.”    
(provisional, Brooks)

Now, let us examine how this stanza is revealed by 23 different translators.  Let us see how true to the meaning of the stanza they remain. 

23 Translations of Dhammapada Verse 372

Bancroft, Anne
“If you do not meditate, how will you gain insight?
And if you have no insight, how will you concentrate?
But if you concentrate with insight,
You will come near Nirvana.”

Here Bancroft has chosen to translate the Pali term ‘jhana’ as both ‘meditate’ and ‘concentrate’.  Considering that jhana is defined in terms of bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha) in the Discourse of the Buddha (MN 22.21) then we can conclude this translation seems to want to diminish the importance of the ecstatic component of jhana.

This translator has also chosen to translate the Pali term ‘pa˝˝a’ as insight.  While the Pali-to-English dictionaries suggest ‘insight’ as an optional translation for ‘pa˝˝a’ the original Pali actually used pa˝˝a, which means more precisely ‘wisdom’ not ‘insight’ and if the Buddha wanted to use the term ‘insight’ he would most likely have used the term ‘vipassana’ not pa˝˝a.

In her third line this translator implies that it is possible to have wisdom without ecstasy (jhana).  While this contemplative is aware that this is a common belief among dry insight believers it does not seem to be a belief that Sidharta Gotama shared.  If we examine the Fruits of the Contemplative Life Sama˝˝aphala Sutta (DN 2)

Then we can see that Sidharta Gotama considered both absorption (jhana) and insight (vipassana) as “fruits” of the contemplative life, not practice strategies or “fruits” that are developed through separate practice strategies.

Through her diminishment of the subjective quality of jhana, which is ecstatic, and her choice of ‘insight’ for pa˝˝a, which is really best translated as ‘wisdom’ and finally her belief in multiple practice strategies, as evident in the dry insight dogma, then we can conclude that this translator has been most influenced by the ‘dry’ insight school.

Banerjee, Nikunja Vihari,
“There is no meditation without knowledge
and there is no knowledge without meditation
He who has both knowledge and meditation,
Is close to nirvana.”

In this version, Banerjee, chooses ‘meditation’ to translate ‘jhana’ and ‘knowledge’ to translate ‘panna’.  While knowledge is one of the choices in the Pali dictionaries for translation of panna, it seems like a fairly unsuccessful choice.  The term knowledge implies that the path to enlightenment is an intellectual one, not a contemplative one.  We can thus conclude that this translator is probably not a contemplative but a simple scholar who does not understand the subtleties of the contemplative life.

Brahmavamso, Ajahn

“There is no jhana without wisdom
There is no wisdom without jhana
But for one with both jhana and wisdom
They are in the presence of Nibbana”

In his translation Brahmavamso has chosen not to translate the Pali terms ‘jhana’ or ‘Nibbana’.  It is certainly a safe choice however, his choice certainly does not contributed to an understanding of what these Pali terms mean in English.  His choice presumably assumes there is no adequate translation for them, but this contemplative disagrees and believes that his choice not to translate these terms only reveals either a lack of understanding of these Pali terms, and/or their English equivalents. 

Even though in his first and second lines he says, “There is no jhana without wisdom” in his third line he implies that it is possible to have one without the other.  While I favor his choice in the first two lines in suggesting that one comes with the other, it seems like his third line is inconsistent with his first and second lines.

In his fourth and last line, Brahmavamso, chooses to say one with both jhana and wisdom (panna) has actually arrived at enlightenment.  I believe his choice is as valid as any other translator’s, except that the line seems to indicate nearness, not complete success with attaining enlightenment (nibbana).  After all there are eight stages of absorption that lead to enlightenment (nibbana).  Thus this contemplative believes it is reasonable to say that the intended meaning of this line is to say the eight absorption states (jhanas) lead to, or bring one close to, enlightenment (nibbana).

Bryom, Thomas
"If you are not wise,
How can you steady the mind?
If you cannot quieten yourself,
What will you ever learn?
How will you become free?"

Thomas Bryom’s offering seems to fall so far from the mark that it was rather difficult to even find where in his 25th chapter he even rendered a translation of stanza 372.  However, this stanza plus one line seems to be the closest he got to the original.  As a poet, this author is all for poetic and personal interpretations that are inspired by Asian literature, however, to call his book a translation of the Dhammapada seems misleading.  It is a wonder that his translation got through the editors, and they even had a second printing!  It must have been the pretty pictures.

Buddhadatta, A.P.
"There is no concentration for him who lacks wisdom,
Nor is there wisdom for him who lacks concentration.
In whom are found both concentration and wisdom--
He, indeed, is in the presence of Nibbana."

In his translation, Buddhadatta, chose to translate the Pali term ‘jhana’ as ‘concentration’ it seems he does not favor the subjective quality of absorption or ecstasy that jhana has, but at least he also does not seem to subscribe to the dry insight school either, because he faithfully translated ‘pa˝˝a’ as wisdom.  He does, however, appear to believe wisdom and absorption are faculties that must be cultivated separately.  It therefore is possible to suggest that Buddhadatta was most probably a scholar not a contemplative.

Buddharakkhita, Acharya:
"There is no meditative concentration for him who lacks insight,
and no insight for him who lacks meditative concentration.
He in whom are found both meditative concentration and insight,
indeed, is close to Nibbana."

In this translation, Buddharakkhita, attempts to give us more in his translation of the Pali term ‘jhana’.  And, “meditative concentration” is certainly well within the suggested translations in the various dictionaries, however, this word combination seems to fail at revealing the subjective quality of jhana that either ecstasy or absorption seems better at revealing.

We can see also in the first line that this translator has chosen ‘insight’ as a translation for the Pali term ‘panna.’ This choice is indicative of the dry insight dogma, and along with his rejection of the subjective nature of jhana, and his third line implying wisdom and absorption do not come together hand-in-hand suggests that Buddharakkhita is most probably under the sway of the dry insight dogma.

Burma Pitaka Association:
"There can be no concentration in one who lacks wisdom;
there can be no wisdom in one who lacks concentration.
He who has concentration as well as wisdom
is, indeed, close to Nibbana."

Here the consortium “Burma Pitaka Association” has chosen “concentration” for a rendering of jhana.  Does that mean when we really concentrate on our homework we are going to get the kind of wisdom that leads to enlightenment?  Hardly.  They did however successfully render pa˝˝a as wisdom.  But, they imply in the first three stanzas that it is possible to develop one without the other.  Since Burma is the home of the most outspoken dry insight schools we can assume that the Burma Pitaka Association is a dry insight school.

Carter, John Ross and Palihawadana, Mahinda,
"There is no meditative absorption for one who lacks insight,
There is no insight for one who is not meditating.
In whom there is meditative absorption and insight,
Truly, he is in Nibbana’s presence."

Remarkably, Carter and Palihawadana are among the very few translators, who seem to recognize the subjective quality of jhana in their choice to translate it as “meditative absorption.”  They did however translate the Pali term ‘panna’ as insight, which reveals some dry insight influence.  They also imply that there are two practice paths in their word choices for the first three lines.  We can thus conclude that these translators may fall on the line between the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ camps.

Dharma Publishing “Staff”
“Without wisdom there is no meditation;
Without meditation there is no wisdom;
Whoever is endowed with both meditation and wisdom,
Abides very near to nirvana.”

In their rather circuitous rout of translating the Dhammapada from the Pali to Tibetan, then into English, the Dharma Publishing “Staff” arrived at a translation that is not apparently under the sway of dry insight.  In their choice to translate the Pali term ‘jhana’ as ‘meditation’ seems to reduce the significance of jhana down to anyone who meditates, skillfully or not, and in their third line they reveal a belief that absorption and wisdom do not come hand-in-hand.

Fausb÷ll, V.:
"Without knowledge there is no meditation,
without meditation there is no knowledge:
he who has knowledge and meditation
is near unto Nirvana"

Here Fausb÷ll, the first European scholar to render a translation of the Dhammapada chose to render pa˝˝a as knowledge, but knowledge is the storing up of information, which never seemed to be the Buddha’s intention, so this author finds it a poor choice.  And, he also chose to render ‘jhana’ as meditation, again this is a weak choice of words.  As has already been said, absorption or ecstasy is really a more accurate rendering.

Kaviratna, Harischandra
"There is no perfect contemplation for him who is not wise,
and no wisdom for him who does not concentrate.
He in whom there is both perfect contemplation and wisdom
is, indeed, close to nirvana."

In this rendering Kaviratna has made a bold effort to render a unique and refreshing translation, however it does not seem anymore successful at getting the message across. “Perfect contemplation” does not seem to be a successful rendering of ecstasy or absorption, but one could certainly argue the point.  In his third line he does, however, imply that “perfect contemplation” can occur in the absence of wisdom.

Lal, P.,
“How can one without wisdom meditate?
How can one without meditation be wise?
Both together, meditation and wisdom, lead to Nirvana.”

Here Lal, has arrived at a rather unique and intriguing solution to translation with only three lines.  Bravo!  He has, however, neglected to recognize the ecstatic quality of the term ‘jhana’.

Muller, F. Max:
"Without knowledge there is no meditation,
Without meditation there is no knowledge:
He who has knowledge and meditation
Is near unto Nirvana."

Here Max Muller has rendered an identical translation to Fausb÷ll, can we assume he was either the student of Fausb÷ll or the source of Fausb÷ll’s work being translated into German, and perhaps English as well?

Radhakrishnan, S.
"There is no meditation for one who is without wisdom;
No wisdom for one without meditation.
He in whom there are meditation and wisdom,
he indeed is close to nirvana."

Here Radhakrishnan, has chosen a fairly common method of translation, where the subjective quality of absorption and ecstasy is ignored.  However, he does suggest that it takes wisdom to choose to engage in a contemplative life, and instead of implying there are two practice paths, he simply expresses in the third line that a contemplative life and the presence of wisdom are indicators of nibbana, which he neglected to translate.

Raja, Kunhan, C. Dr.
"There is no meditation for one who has no understanding;
there is no understanding for one who does not meditate.
He in whom there is both meditation and understanding,
he verily is in the vicinity of nirvana (Beautitude)."

Here Raja, has chosen to ignore the subjective qualities of absorption and ecstasy within jhana, and he has also reduced wisdom to mere understanding, as if the path to enlightenment was simply a subject like auto mechanics.  It is however refreshing to see Beautitude suggested for nirvana, even if he did place it within brackets.

Ramacandrudu, Pullela, Dr. Sri,
"There is no meditation for him who is without wisdom;
there is no wisdom for him who is without meditation.
Nearer to Nibbana is he, in whom meditation and wisdom meet."

While Ramacandrudu, chose to neglect the subjective qualities of jhana he did recognize that it takes wisdom to engage in a contemplative life.  And, he, he recognized that both meditation and wisdom are indicators of Nibbana, however he did neglect to translate the term ‘Nibbana’, as if English does not have an adequate concept.

Richards, John:
"There is no meditation without wisdom,
and there is no wisdom without meditation.
When a man has both meditation and wisdom,
he is indeed close to nirvana."

While it is possible to argue that meditation is the over arching concept that embraces ecstasy or absorption, it however lacks precision.  The word is ‘jhana’ and jhana means ecstasy or absorption.  Certainly plenty of unwise people engage in meditation that does not mean that they have arrived at skillful meditation, which is implied when the term jhana was used in the original Pali.

Sarada, Wergoda,
"No concentration wisdom lacks,
No wisdom concentration lacks
In whom are both these qualities
Near to Nibbana is that one."

Sarada’s rather terse choice reveals the interrelatedness of concentration and wisdom, however when the term concentration is used as a translation for ‘jhana’ one implies that jhana is simply a cognitive process, much like doing ones homework, which is simply directing one’s attention to any subject, whether that be chemistry or a meditation subject.  This however is not at all what jhana means.

Sparham, Gareth,
"Without stability there is no wisdom,
Without wisdom, no stability.
The ones who have stability
And wisdom are to be called ‘monks.’"

The choice of ‘stability’ for ‘jhana’ is most certainly refreshing and different, however Mr. Sparham certainly has not revealed the unique subjective qualities of absorption and ecstasy in that word choice.  And, finally he even disposes with enlightenment as the goal of the Noble Eightfold Path, and brings it down to mere monasticism.  These two choices probably are the most anemic of all the renderings so far examined here.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff):
"There's no jhana for one with no discernment,
no discernment for one with no jhana.
But one with both jhana & discernment:
he's on the verge of Unbinding."

Here the first word in the line ‘Natthi’ means the absence of something, according to the four Pali dictionaries, so Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation “no jhana” seems reasonable. However, his choice not to translate the Pali term ‘jhana,’ while he chose to translate all of the other Pali terms in this stanza, seems odd that he would do so. Many translators do choose to maintain some of the commonly known Pali terminology, such as dhamma, kamma, and nibbana.  Jhana, however, is not well understood, and so his choice to leave it un-translated seems like a copout.  Jhana is correctly translated as ‘absorption’ or ‘ecstasy.’

In this stanza Thanissaro also chose to translate the third Pali term ‘apannassa’ as “no discernment.”  While I enjoy Thanissaro’s willingness to broadly translate Pali, thus keeping his translations fresh, most translators render pa˝˝a, which is the derivative word for ‘apannassa,’ as wisdom, thus more commonly ‘apannassa’ would be rendered as “no wisdom” because the prefix ‘a’ means the negative condition, therefore “without wisdom” is probably a better rendering than “no discernment.”  One who has wisdom no doubt has discernment, but the word ‘discernment’ does not seem at all a synonym for wisdom, thus Thanissaro’s choice here leaves us lacking for meaning. 

The third line begins with ‘yamhi’ which means with or in addition to, so it seems Thanissaro has rendered the line successfully as, “But one with both jhana & discernment” with the exception of ‘discernment’ for wisdom.”  The fourth line “sa ve nibbanasantike” means “to be near or close to nibbana” and Thanissaro chose to render it as “on the verge of Unbinding."  Since nibbana literally means to stop rotation, then “unbinding” is a reasonable choice, however ‘enlightenment’ is the more common English translation for nibbana.  Why not use it?

U Pannadipa, Sayadaw:
"There is no concentration in him who lacks wisdom;
nor is there wisdom in him who lacks concentration.
In whom are found both concentration and wisdom,
... he indeed, is in the presence of Nibbana."

Here U Pannadipa has joined the Burma Pitaka Association in rendering almost an identical translation.  Could he be responsible for the Burma Pitaka Association’s translation, or perhaps he was the student of the translator, much like the possible relationship between Max Muller and Viggo Fausb÷ll.

Wagiswara, W.D.C

“There is no meditation apart from wisdom;
there is no wisdom apart from meditation;
Those in whom wisdom and meditation meet
 are not far from Nirvana.”

Here Wagiswara seems to recognize the intimate connection between meditation and wisdom, however in his choice of meditation as a translation for ‘jhana’ it seems he has left us lacking for meaning.

Brooks, Jeffrey S. (Jhanananda):
"There is no ecstasy without wisdom,
There is no wisdom without ecstasy.
Whoever is close to enlightenment
truly has both wisdom and ecstasy.”

Thus this contemplative has rendered what he believes is a more accurate rendering of Dhammapada Verse 372 as above.  Let us not be squeamish in our translations.  Jhana means absorption or ecstasy.  Pa˝˝a does not mean ‘insight’ it means wisdom.  And, since this contemplative has found that insight is the source of wisdom and that insight does not arrive without absorption (ecstasy), then he has concluded that one who is close to enlightenment most assuredly has arrived at wisdom, insight and ecstasy.  He has not found that either wisdom or insight can arise without ecstasy nor that ecstasy arises without insight or wisdom.  This also explains why the fourth line was moved into the third position.  If switching the third and fourth lines was not done, then the conclusion would have been that wisdom and ecstasy are optional instead of the two sides of the same “coin”, meaning one comes with the other.

Let us now summarize this effort.  Three of the four dictionaries consulted (Childers, Nyanatiloka and Rhys Davids) recognized the ecstatic quality of jhana, however only this author’s translation of this stanza took that significance into account.  Only three of the 23 translators used ‘insight’ to translate ‘pa˝˝a’ whereas 13 translated it as ‘wisdom.’  This effort suggests that translation is highly variable due to the subjective quality of translation.  This suggests also that if we were so fortunate to have 23 translations of the Pali Canon then we would have 23 remarkably different renderings of the Buddha’s words.  Hopefully at least one of those translations would fall close to the mark.

European scholarship of Buddhism and the Pali language has gone through several generations of development in its 150 years. Fausb÷ll, Max Muller, Childers and the Rhys Davids, as scholars who were not contemplatives nor Buddhists, represented that first generation of enquiry.

The Europeans who converted to Buddhism and took up monasticism, such as Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosa, Nyanatiloka, Nyanaponika, Bodhi and Thanissaro, represent the second generation of Buddhist enquiry, in which thankfully we have scholar-monks who actually engaged in the lifestyle and practice of traditional Buddhism, however, they apparently did not engage in the contemplative practice skillfully, because their translations do not tend to reveal the ecstatic component of Buddhism.

The third generation of European enquiry is revealed in the Asians who learned the European languages and acquired some level of scholarship sufficient to gain publication. Banerjee, Kaviratna, Raja and D.T. Sazuki represent that effort.  However, their translations tend to be no better than the Europeans who converted to Buddhist monasticism.

The fourth generation of Buddhist enquiry is represented by Brahmavamso and this author, who not only engaged in the lifestyle and contemplative practices, but they have revealed in their writing evidence to indicate that they have arrived at some level of attainment through skillful practice.  For Europeans to “arrive” at making the dhamma “their own” they must not only engage in the lifestyle, as well as the contemplative life, and do that skillfully, but they must also engage in penetrating the scholarship in Buddhism to search out the truth, while exposing the myths.  As is revealed in this simple analysis of a single stanza of the Dhammapada.  We cannot assume that just because someone has a Ph.D. in Asian studies or Buddhism, or that someone is an Asian monk, that they necessarily have arrived at clear understanding (vipassana) of the way of life (dhamma), or can articulate it effectively in any of the European languages.

May you be enlightened in this very lifetime,

Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

 

Sources:

Bancroft, Anne, The Dhammapada, Element, Massachusetts, 1997

Banerjee, Nikunja Vihari, The Dhammapada, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi, 1989

Brahmavamso, Ajahn, The Jhanas, Buddhist Fellowship, Singapore

Brooks, Jeffrey S. (Jhanananda), Great Western Vehicle website:

Bryom, Thomas, The Dhammapada, Wildwood House, London, 1976, 1979

Buddhadatta, A.P. (Ambalangoda Polvatte, (1887-1962), Dhammapadam: an anthology of sayings of the Buddha, The Colombo Apothecaries Co, Ltd, Colombo, Ceylon,

Buddhadatta, A.P. 1887-1962, Concise Pali-English Dictionary, U. Chandradasa De Silva of Ahangama, Colombo Apothecaries Co. Ltd. 1957

Buddhaghosa, Buddhist Legends, Pali Text Society, London, 1969 [c. 1921]

Carter, John Ross and Palihawadana, Mahinda,The Dhammapada, Oxford University Press,  New York,1987

Childers, Robert Caesar, 1838-1876, A Dictionary of the Pali language, Rinsen Book Co., 1976, Kyoto, reprint of 1875 ed. Trubner, London

Conze, Edward, Buddhist Scriptures, A Bibliography, Edited and revised by Lewis Lancaster, Garland Publishing, Inc. New York & London 1982

The Dhammapada, translated from the Pali to Tibetan by dGe’dun Chos-‘phel, then from Tibetan to English, Dharma Publishing, 1985

Fausb÷ll, V. (Viggo), 1821-1908, Tipitaka. Suttapitaka. Khuddakanik_aya. Dhammapada. English, Selections, Havniae, 1855; 2nd ed. London: Luzac, 1900.

Kaviratna, Harischandra, Tipitaka. Suttapitaka. Khuddakanik_aya. Dhammapada. English & Pali, Theosophical University Press, 1980, Pasadena, CA

Lal, P., The Dhammapada, translated from the Pali, Farrar, Straus & Groux, New York, 1967

Muller, F. Max: (1823-1900) PTS "Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 10, Oxford, the Clarendon Press [1881]

Neuman, Karl Eugene, Der Wahrheitspfad. Leipzig: Verlag von Veit, 1893; 2nd ed. Dhammapadam. Munich, 1921; 3rd ed.,1949.

Nyanatiloka edited by Nyanaponika, “Buddhist Dictionary,” third revision, Buddhist Meditation Centre, Singapore. 1991

Radhakrishnan, S. (Sarvepalli), 1888-1975, Tipitaka. Suttapitaka. Khuddakanik_aya. Dhammapada. English & Pali, Oxford University Press, 1996, c1950, Reader in Sanskrit, Osmania University, Hyderabad India, 1976

Raja, Kunhan, C. Dr., “Dhammapada Pali text in Devanagari with English Translation,” The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Madras 20, India, 1956, 1984

Rhys Davids, T.W., FBA, D. Sc., Ph.D.,L.L.D., D. Litt. And William Stede, Ph.D. editors, The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary, Published by the Pali Text Society’, By Luzac & Company 1966, London

Sarada, Wergoda, Treasury of Truth, Illustrated Dhammapada, Buddha Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 1993

Sparham, Gareth, The Tibetan Dhammapada, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, India 1983

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff):

Tin, Daw Mya, the Dhammapada, A reprint of Burma Pitaka Association Publication 1986, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi, 1990

Wagiswara, W.D.C and Saunders K.J., The Buddha’s “Way of Virtue” A translation of the Dhammapada from the Pali Text. John Murray, London, 1912, 1920, 1927

This document (updated 11-19-04) can be retrieved at this URL:

http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/translation.htm


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