My own renditions of some suttas


Thanks for that link, I am going to test that out when I get a chance!

Not sure if I want to go the route of adding the pali in parentheses (I guess its just an aesthetic thing for me, feels wrong somehow), however, perhaps the “terms” page could be removed and instead, each sutta could have a section on the bottom of the page listing key terms.

This is a common format in English textbooks here in the USA for teaching students new vocabulary through readings.

Also, does anyone want to comment on “lucid composure” as a translation of samadhi? I’m still very unsure of what to use for this term, this is what im working with so far.

That’s a good question. I guess its two or three sets of people:

Younger students of the Dhamma, anyone in middle school - high school etc.

ESL students.

People who are not either of the above, but just want a plain language / non-repetitive version because of style preferences (this is me).

I guess I’m kind of juggling between the first two and the third set of persons. Because the third set of persons does not have as many restrictions as the first two, they could understand more obscure and rare words if they were added.


I think about people who are literary readers rather than academic readers.

Literary English uses shorter sentences today and avoids repetition and “wordiness” like the plague. It can get complex when describing things, but not when tackling complex logic. Someone outside of the academic world or new to Buddhism would find the literal translations difficult to slog through.


Yes, this is part of my motivation.

I mean, I think its part of the reason why most Western Buddhists read modern dharma books by modern teachers and articles instead of reading the suttas. They are just much more readable for them.

That’s how I initially felt until, over time, I realized the depth of the suttas.


I’ve often seen samādhis translated as “concentrations.”


In reverence for the root gnosis of the heart, the dharmakāya;
for the ever present good law of the heart, the lotus terrace;
for the inborn adornment of the trikāya, the thirty-seven sages dwelling in the heart;
for that which is removed from seed and fruit, the upright key to the universal gate;
for all boundless concentrations, the sea of virtue, the root perfection;
I prostrate, bowing to the hearts of all Buddhas.

(胎藏金剛菩提心義略問答鈔, Treatise on the teaching of the gnostic heart of the womb and the diamond, T2397.1.470c5-8)


I think concentration works fine, myself. But I’m influenced by the glosses I’ve seen in later texts that define it as mind fixed on a single subject. Immersion is implied in the word to me. Someone who is concentrating on something isn’t aware of other things around them.


How can someone who hasn’t experienced internal states like samadhi understand it well enough to read it and understand it? I guess it’s not about full understanding but as an appropriate guide to future progress.


Honestly, I’m leaning towards leaving it untranslated at the moment.

The thing with “concentration” and so on is that its makes it easy for people to think they understand what it is, while leaving it untranslated or using a less familiar term makes a reader go “hmm, i don’t know what this really means, let me read more or find out”.

At least its how I see it. Of course, I loathe leaving something untranslated, but I guess its ok if there’s only like two or three untranslated terms.


It’s a technical term, so regardless you’ll need to explain it if you want the text to the accessible to readers unfamiliar with it. Footnotes, glossaries, commentaries, references to canonical glosses, and introductions are all ways to do that. There isn’t an English word that’s the same concept, so we have to create one with words that are similar or leave it transliterated.


Just remember, leaving words untranslated doesn’t solve the problem. It leaves the reader at the mercy of whatever knowledge they happen to get on the subject—via facebook, wikipedia, some random Dhamma talk, or whatever. Or footnotes—if you trust them (I don’t). And on top of that is the overpowering weight of culture and tradition, which read words in their own ways, which we are often not even aware of. Virtually anyone who speaks a vaguely Indic language, or who comes from a culture where Buddhist terms are used in normal language, will immediately assume they know what it means, and impose that meaning on the text. And that is almost guaranteed to be wrong.

Footnotes are a safety net for translators. Try walking without one—it’s exhilarating.


I think in the past footnotes made me feel like an instructor lecturing the reader, settling too far into the interpreter’s seat. These days I’ve backed off that habit and use them only to communicate things like cross-references or background that the text clearly assumes we know.

At some point, I want to experiment with textual studies that explore possible meanings rather than definite ones. That is, rescue the scriptures from being treated as technical documents and bring them to life more.


Right my feeling exactly.

There’s a role for interpretation, obviously, but footnotes are a poor vehicle for it.

One reason I have soured on the idea of notes is that I have edited thousands of them, and have come to dislike the constant nagging of the translator.

sounds awesome. What kind of thing were you thinking of?


Ajahns Brahm and Brahmali don’t like ‘concentration, I keep hearing in their recorded Dhamma talks, because the word is easily associated with concentrating on solving a maths problem. This involves effort that can easily lead to anxiety and stress. Their preference for ‘stillness’ makes perfect sense to me. Stillness doesn’t imply no effort but it involves relaxation rather than stress. An occasional ‘mental stillness’ might be appropriate in context.


Language is very personal, I’ve come to realize as a translator. Words have connotations based on people’s experience and how others around them use words.

To me, reading a book and entering the narrative to the point of not being aware of reading individual words is to me a good example of concentration. If I’m thinking of other things and trying to read too, it’s frustrating, and I forget half of what I read, but that’s not concentration.

I once worked in an electronics company. My position was to sit with a pair of tweezers and place thousands of components into little pockets in a particular orientation. I was constantly moving one hand a few inches back and forth, and I was in my own world when I was concentrated on the task. There wasn’t any stress, except that the body would get stiff.

I also worked in a plastics factory operating mold presses. It involved the repetition of a series of steps over and over as efficiently as possible. Take plastic parts out, start machine, inspect parts, put parts into box, takes parts out … The body would get tired, but that wasn’t negative if you enjoy the exercise. The frustration was just the machine sometimes refused to play along smoothly. But the mind would just enter a kind of trance when you were completely concentrated. You couldn’t wander off on some inner narrative because then you’d lose the rhythm or fumble something.

None of those things is samadhi in a Buddhist sutra, but they aren’t negative to me either. Concentration is what liberated me from stress and frustration in those situations.


Well, one thought I’ve had was to create Chinese-English readers with Buddhist Sutras. There’s an old book I have called The Butterfly as Companion that does this in a marvelous way with the first few chapters of the Chuangzi.

Another idea is to package together translations of all the parallels of a given text, including the Pali to give readers a view of the variations that existed (or not).

I’m also thinking of created encyclopedia type pages on my blog site that pull together content based on topics.

Of course, these things are all very time intensive, and I don’t have any extra hours in my days.


Some years ago I did a seminar with a rabbi, and she said that in the toranic tradition they read each scripture in four ways. I’ve been using this as a framework for the suttas too, and it works really well.

  1. Literal
  2. Moral (i.e. the ought of it)
  3. Metaphorical (what it might mean applied in a creative way)
  4. Transcendant (i.e. see it within the 4 noble truths as pointing to Nibbana)

Each of these is typically the province of different people:

  1. Literal—linguists (properly) or fundamentalists (dysfunctionaly)
  2. Moral—religious teachers
  3. Metaphorical—artists
  4. Transcendent—sages or wisdom teachers

The hardest is the literal!

Often when people disagree on reading a sutta they are reading it from different perspectives, or misunderstanding the perspective that they have. For example, it’s common for people to read texts metaphorically but they think they are being literal. Whereas those who try to read literally reject any attempt at creativity and end up with a dead text.


Hi Bhante, I agree of course, there’s no perfect solution here. However, the issues you have pointed out here seem to be present whether or not one leaves a term untranslated.

The main qualm I have of leaving the term untranslated is not actually these issues you have raised (of course, they are real issues, but again, I think they are always there), but issues of style, aesthetics and psychology. People, especially those who are not of a certain disposition, can get easily put off by terms they do not recognize and that seem strange. So perhaps this is the best reason for translating the term anyways, even if all words one could use are pretty unsatisfactory.


So would you, rather than ‘fixing’ the meaning in the reader’s mind, indicate that there’s more meaning than can be ‘fed’ into a word?


Sorry I’m not sure what you mean can you elaborate ?


That’s a good way to look at it. As a creative writer at heart, I tend to want to look at scripture as literature. The EBTs don’t always lend themselves to that of course, avadanas and later Mahayana sutras are more clearly in that category. Butterfly as Companion used a similar approach with an overly-literal translation, glosses, and then commentary, though the author was working with a text that was literary and playful, so it was good material to work with.

Yes. Well, I think at the level of reality, every person creates a unique text when they read it, the same way we all see shades of color a little differently. It’s only obvious we when compare our experience of reading a text in close detail, such as when we start comparing notes on how we understand particular words or expressions. That’s also why dictionaries have been less and less useful to me as a translator. They provide a good baseline, but it’s the author who decided what their words mean.


True to a certain extent, but the real problem is fundamentalism. When people learn or use language, they know that words have different and loose meanings. But there is a strong tendency to see ancient words as being something fixed and authoritative, bearers of special, complex, or esoteric meanings only accessible to the “correct”. We imbue them with archaic authority, the wisdom of the fathers. This tendency, on its own quite natural, reaches an extreme in much of modern Theravada, where Pali words are barely thought of as language in the same sense as any other language.

The more we rely on opaque 2,500 year-old technical terms, telling our readers implicitly or explicitly that they are “untranslatable”, the more we feed into that narrative.