Sunday, May 29, 2011

more bad translation: dukkha

Like many curious kids, I had a lot of almanacs: books of facts, and questions, and answers. My favorites were How Do They Do That? and How Did They Do That?, but there was also the World Almanac for Kids, which I think was my first introduction to Buddhism. Here's a paraphrase of what books like this will tell you about Buddhism:
Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths:
  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Desire/attachment is the cause of suffering.
  3. Nirvana/Enlightenment is the letting go of all attachments.
  4. The Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana.
The Eightfold Path is:
  1. Right View.
  2. Right Resolve.
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration
That's all familiar, right? There's some doctrines you can believe. There's some rules you can follow. It's just like Christianity/Islam/Judaism/Zoroastrianism, right?

That presentation doesn't make any sense. Look at it. Life obviously involves suffering, but it's pretty strong to say that life is suffering. There are a fair number of genuinely content people in the world. Even if you're not persistently content in general, we all experience times of genuine happiness and joy and peace. They're a part of our human experience.

Also, if the Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana, why is it after Nirvana in the list?

Also, I'm kind of attached to Anna and J and my family and friends and teachers and aikido. Am I screwed on the whole "enlightenment" thing?

The reason the presentation above doesn't make sense is that it's crap. That's also why it falls apart under questioning.

There's a lot to be said about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. You can read the Buddha's first teaching, which is pretty polished and accessible as the Pali Canon goes, and discover that he presents the Eightfold Path both first and last: both the means and the result of awakening to the nature of human life. For now, we'll stick to the First Noble Truth, and that word "suffering." Let's skip the English and change Thanissaro's translation to have the original Pali:
"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."
The "five aggregates" are a way of categorizing our felt experience: thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and consciousness. This does sort of ignore happiness and joy, but we don't really have problems with happiness and joy, do we? Most of us can handle being happy fairly well. We need help with the things we're unhappy about, and with the fact that happiness is a transient state.

I think it's pretty clear what dukkha covers, and "suffering" isn't it. Thanissaro uses "stress," which is pretty good. When I'm talking to people for whom Buddhist language is meaningless, I use "angst," which more closely resembles my experience of it. "Distress," "dis-ease," and "discomfort" also show up in translations. The etymology of dukkha means "wheel out of balance," which I find helpful. Our feelings of annoyance, irritation, heartbreak, anger, sadness, stress, disappointment, longing, dissatisfaction: all dukkha.

I often wonder about the experience of the first few generations of translators that led them into such error. Having grown up after the successive cultural chaos of the World Wars and its offspring of Dadaism, twelve-tone music, hippies, and especially postmodernism--I am essentially, if you will, of a post-postmodernist generation--it's a natural thing for me to look for a translator's biases, and baffling that the biases I find should be so overwhelming, so transforming of the original intent of the text. Patrick Kearney writes, of their choice of the word "enlightenment":
I have never been able to find any Pâli or Sanskrit word which corresponds to the English word "enlightenment." This word was selected some time late last century by English translators as a label for the goal of Buddhist practice because of its resonance with the 18th century ideal of the Enlightenment. The European Enlightenment was a movement which idealised progress, science and reason - the "light" in "Enlightenment" refers to the light of reason. In Victorian Britain, sympathetic English scholars wanted to present Buddhism in as favourable a light as possible, and they did so by portraying the Buddha as the perfect Victorian gentleman. He was presented as rejecting the priestly mumbo-jumbo of the brahmins (who for the Victorian English corresponded to the Roman Catholic clergy) in favour of a religion of reason and morality (Almond: 70-4). The only thing that spoiled this picture was undeniable evidence in the Buddhist texts that the Buddha taught and practiced some kind of bizarre self-hypnosis or cultivation of trance states - what we today call meditation. The word "enlightenment" referred to a state of enlightened reason attained by the Buddha which, however, existed only in the imagination of Victorian scholars. Unfortunately the word has stuck, and with it the confusion.
I take it as a reminder that we can mean well, and still screw up pretty royally. =)

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