I was writing a response to the post on a translation of the first lines of the Dhammapada:
And thanks to all those who have posted multiple translations. From there we can see that almost all the translations are very similar. Looking more closely, I believe that there are a number of issues with older translations that, while minor on their own, contribute to making the reading of the lines more vague and less specific than they should be.
Let’s take it bit by bit.
One of the key terms is mano, usually rendered “mind”, and occasionally as “thought”. I’ve discussed this before, but let me repeat here. Mano, citta, and viññāṇa are more-or-less synonymous terms meaning “mind”. Nevertheless, they tend to be used in specific contexts.
- Mano tends to be active, it is used in the context of kamma, and often pertains to the second noble truth. It lies cloes to “intention”.
- Citta is very general, but when used in technical contexts often refers to samadhi, i.e. it pertains to the fourth noble truth.
- Viññāṇa in technical contexts pertains to the first noble truth.
These are just very general observations and there are many exceptions.
Now, clearly mano here has its normal active sense, as it is explicitly said to be a creative force. It’s not wrong to translate as “mind”, but it also opens up a less clear understanding of the passage, leaning potentially towards nominalism. So I render as “intention” for clarity.
If dhammā is rendered as “things”, then it sounds odd unless prefixed with “all”. The text doesn’t actually say “all” but it is not an unreasonable inference. There’s a closely related passage at AN 1.56 that emphasizes the universality: ye keci (whatever) … sabbe te (all those) …
Now, seṭṭha is a little tricky here. The normal meaning is “best”. But that seems to not really yield a good sense. Thus most translators follow the commentary in ascribing the meaning “chief” (adhipati). But to me this is also a little odd; the sense is allusive rather than repetitive and reinforcing in the normal style of the suttas. And elsewhere seṭṭha doesn’t really mean “chief”, or at least not in the sense of “dominator, ruler”, only in the sense of “most excellent”. No such sense is found in Sanskrit either.
If we look more closely at the commentary, it says that it means “chief” by analogy with a gang of bandits: the eldest among them is taken as the chief. This gives us a clue, I think, to the correct sense.
Throughout the suttas, we find seṭṭha used in the context of a god or divine being who is distinguished by the title seṭṭha, apparently in the sense of “the first, most senior, the progenitor”.
For example, in DN 20:14.9 Sakka is called the seṭṭha of the Vasu devas, and hence is known as “Vāsava”. Here we could translate seṭṭha as “first” or “progenitor”, or perhaps “premier”.
This sense is even stronger in the stock passage describing Brahmā, where we have the following series:
issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sajitā
Lord God, the Maker, the Author, the First (or Progenitor), the Begetter
Once you start noticing this sense you see it everywhere. Most of these cases I have hitherto translated as “best”, but I’ll revise them.
For example, the following was attributed to Brahmā Sanaṅkumāra:
Khattiyo seṭṭho janetasmiṁ
The aristocrat is the best of people
Which seems straightforward. But in the Buddhist origin myth, the khattiyas displaced the brahmins, being the first clan to appear.
Or take the cases where the Buddha claims to be the jeṭṭho seṭṭho lokassa as in AN 8.11:12.2 or more famously as the baby bodhisatta in MN 123:20.2 and DN 14:1.29.1:
aggohamasmi lokassa, jeṭṭhohamasmi lokassa, seṭṭhohamasmi lokassa
I am the foremost in the world! I am the eldest in the world! I am the first in the world!
All these passages yield a more specific and satisfying sense if we understand seṭṭha as “first”.
Returning to the Dhammapada, in this light it seems clear this should be the meaning here. The second line is not introducing a new concept, the idea that the “mind” dominates or rules over all things. Rather, it is reinforcing the sense of the opening line: mind (or intention) comes first.
Intention is the forerunner of all things;
intention comes first, they’re made by intention.
I wonder if we could use “will” here.
Will is the forerunner of all things;
will comes first, they’re made by will.