The ‘BS’ in what the Buddha said

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I recently discovered another interesting Buddhist blog: “Dharma Folk.” A particularly good post there summarizes a lecture said to come from Gregory Schopen, a professor at UCLA:

As any translator is well aware, when you translate a text from another language, you are staking a claim on what was meant by these words. Every time there is an ambiguity, then you are the one the readers rely on to resolve this ambiguity. When you gloss over subtle meanings in the original text, you are implicitly saying that this nuance has no value.

We also should appreciate that for a few hundred years, the teachings of the Buddha were wholly and completely oral. That is, they were not written down. (The same is true of the Old Testament, of course, and famously true of the Iliad and the Odyssey). This is not to say that the teachings are unreliable, but only to remind us that it’s not as if we have a videotape of the actual words the Buddha spoke.

And even if we did — the meaning of words changes over time, even in their native language and original geographic location. An argument over the exact meaning of a term might be a fun intellectual activity, but we really can’t hope to time-travel back to 400 BCE, or thereabouts, and obtain the actual words spoken.

Breathe.

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3 responses

  1. The challenges of dharma translation make clear the need for practice. A translator who practices with a commitment similar to that which they bring to their translation work will have a greater chance of expressing the intent behind a complex teaching. (This is guesswork on my part, I can’t even translate my thoughts/feeling/impulses into English, most of the time.)

  2. We can only agree or disagree with Buddha’s teachings through our own practice, only our practice can verify them. Without practice Buddha’s words are just words.

    Important post, thank you!

  3. With a subject as illusive as ancient Indian Buddhism, there’s very little we know about it outside of the textual canons. Schopen, and others, who have carefully squeezed out bits of meaning from a few small words are pioneers attempting to provide context for the words which are written. Understanding the culture and history (if they are even separate) is an extremely important task for understanding how Buddhism developed over time. Without the context, we cannot possibly really “get at” the words. They are just a picture on a white-washed wall.