Buddhist Romanticism: Sublime vs Sutta: Sublime

[Please pardon any misreadings of this Pali amateur]

A group of us are reading and discussing Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “Buddhist Romanticism”. The word “sublime” is used by translators of the Suttas as well as by those espousing “Romantic” philosophy.

The Oxford English dictionary defines sublime as “Of very great excellence or beauty. Producing an overwhelming sense of awe or other high emotion through being vast or grand.” How does this compare to the Romantic and Sutta usages of “sublime”? It seems that in the Romantic sense, the awesomeness can be terrible as well as beautiful.

From Majjhima Nikāya 79, for example, we have the Pali text using the words “paramo vaṇṇo”:
“Katamo pana so paramo vaṇṇo yasmā vaṇṇā añño vaṇṇo uttaritaro vā paṇītataro vānatthī”ti? “Yasmā, bhante, vaṇṇā añño vaṇṇo uttaritaro vā paṇītataro vā natthi so paramovaṇṇo”ti.

If I am correct, this is translated by Nanamoli/Bodhi as “But, Udayin, what is that splendor which is unsurpassed by any other splendor higher or more sublime?” “Venerable sir, that splendor is the perfect splendor which is unsurpassed by any other splendor higher or more sublime.”

Ref the SuttaCentral enties for pāramī and vaṇṇa.

It may be that using “sublime” in such cases is a little much. The word usually rendered as “sublime” is paṇīta. This is used in the case of Nibbana, where “sublime” seems suitable. But it’s also used frequently to describe more mundane things such as food, where something like “excellent” or “refined” would be better.

Given that the exalted sense comes from context, whereas “sublime” is used pretty much only in an exalted sense, perhaps we should prefer a more mundane rendering. Maybe “excellent” would do.

Note too that it’s not always necessary to explicitly render each term, as they are simply synonyms.

In the context that you quote, I render it as:

The ultimate splendor is the splendor compared to which no other splendor is finer.

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