Sutta Translations for the Modern Times

Hello everyone,

The following opinions expessed may be controversial, so I hope we can all stay equananimous.

I really enjoy reading the Suttas as my primary way of instruction in how to practice. I remember stumbling onto accesstoinsight.org as a teenager and finding it so different and powerful. I revere and treasure the Suttas and I will always* have a deep respect for them and look to them for guidance.

But.

I think that some (not most) of the material we find in the Suttas was added on later to mythologize, dramatize, proselytize, revere, etc. I also think that the Buddha was not omniscient, and he was a pragmatist: teaching the Dhamma according to the current understanding of the world at the time.

Some of you may now suspect you know where I am going with this, so I want to interject at this point: I am not a secular Buddhist. It seems clear to me that rebirth is a consistent enough teaching throughout the Suttas that I imagine the Buddha did actually teach this. Similarly, I consider it likely that the Buddha did teach of other heavenly and hellish realms. I’m less certain, and undecided, about some things, like the psychic powers. But I’m fairly certain that the Buddha did not, for example, possess the 32 marks of the great man. And I am also fairly certain that, as in DN3, the Buddha did not feel the need to use his psychic powers to show his (apparantly, incredibly strange) penis to an old man and a teenage boy.

So I had the following idea, and I was wondering if others would be interested: what if we created translations of the suttas which represented our best guess as to what discussions and events “actually happened” that inspired said sutta? We would remove strange events like the above and translate into an easily readable and unstilted style. For example, here are some of the tweaks which could be made:

  1. Remove references to strange things like the 32 marks of a great man that look like they were added on to mythologize the Buddha. Another example would be the thunder god which followed the Buddha around and would split the head of anyone who did not answer the Buddha’s questions.

  2. Keep the general teachings about different realms and deities intact, but look at individual specific stories of these realms/deities with a grain of salt.

  3. Reframe some of the teachings to be more in line with current scientific understanding. Evidently, people in the time of the Buddha understood physical matter to be composed of four primary elements. We now know that this is not the case. The instructions for meditation on the four elements can be easily recast though and retain the exact same soteriological goal:
    “Maintain mindfulness of physical matter. Understood that it is just matter subject to the three characteristics. Maintain mindfulness of physical matter internally. How might you do this? Look at this body as having solids, liquids, and gases. Understand that these are just solids, liquids, and gases; i.e., solids, liquids, and gases are inconstant, not a self, and not satisfactory. Look at some of the physical properties this matter may have: temperature, mass, velocity, etc. Again, understand that these are just physical properties.”

  4. As another example of the above, it seems people at the time understood sensory consciousness to arise at the organ. We now know that a brain is required. So we can tweak this, but still retain the primary message: "perceptions are subject to the three characteristics and arise in dependence on other things. There must be a working eye, nervous system, and visual cortex. There must be visual consciousness. When external form, light, a working eye, nervous system, visual cortex, and visual consciousness come into contact, there is a visual perception. More generally, external form (or matter) comes into contact with a sensory organ, which comes into contact with a nervous system, which comes into contact with a brain, which comes into contact with a type of consciousness. "

  5. The Buddha in the Suttas sometimes, to me, seems to be unnecessarily harsh and full of himself. False humility should not be encouraged, and sometimes harsh speech is necessary. But some of this looks like it was added to make the Buddha appear perfect and his interlocutor stupid in comparison.

Now, obviously a project like the above is always going to be somewhat arbitrary and reflect the biases of its author. And there is a real danger here: we will just project our own unenlightened viewpoint and biases, picking and choosing only what is comfortable to us. But just because it is somewhat arbitrary does not mean it is completely arbitrary. And are biases are going to be there anyway; a project like this would be freely bringing them out into the open. We would not claim that we are representing the “true words of the Buddha.” We would freely admit up front: these are our biases, and based on these biases here is how we have tweaked the teachings, and here is what our best guess is for what the fundamental message is.

So, what do others think of something like this?

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I keep equanimous so I only speak for myself: I would not do something like what you are suggesting. The reason (for me) is: Even if such “tweaking the teachings” somehow successfully promotes polite discussion, doing such thing will still create obstacles such as disputes, doubts, grasping, division for me and also for other people.

So you can see, there, you got the first bias from me. I am quite sure within 10 people, you will get more than 10 biases.

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Yes, I am not sure if this is a surmountable obstacle. It might be too difficult to get a large enough group to agree on what to leave in, what to “tweak”, and how to tweak it. So it would have to be a solo project by one author, and then it would just be that: the opinions of one person. (On the other hand, others might find this author’s perspective useful.)

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In a way, something like this was attempted around 100 years ago, and still read:

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Ummm… a word to the wise.

Don’t call them “Translations”. Please. Learn from the case of Matty Weingast!

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Well, they could be considered translations, but redacted or censored. The editor is deciding what part of the original text the reader should or shouldn’t see.

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There are already various books and collections that are selective about which suttas they contain. As I recall Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Wings to Awakening concentrates on liberating teachings. Bhikkhu Bodhi has a collection The Buddha’s teachings on social and communal harmony and In the Buddha’s Words is a nice collection that puts the various categories of sutta in context: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon Linked to SuttaCentral.net – Reading Faithfully

Personally, I’d rather try to approach the text on their own terms, not trying to shoehorn them into a scientific world view. Story telling is an important communication form in may cultures, particularly ancient indigenous ones.

Some material that has helped me with that was Bhante Sujatos talks:

And Rita Gross, who taught both history and Tibetan Buddhism:

[quote]Historical consciousness and traditional Buddhist narratives

I will discuss how the mythic account can be interpreted symbolically and will argue that symbols should not be considered as less important or real than facts. Only those who buy completely into the model of scientific materialism provided by the European enlightenment would not understand that in religions, symbols are as meaningful as facts.
[/quote]

There is a nice series of talks here: Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners Dharma Seed - Rita Gross's Dharma Talks at Common Ground Meditation Center

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You can’t change religious texts, but you can select from them. In fact we all must do so. So as others have said, if you want to do this, make a selection.

The deeper problem, IMHO, is that your foundational principle is to not upset anybody by encountering things that are weird or thorny or inexplicable. But all those things are the spice in the soup. “Chicken soup for the Buddhist soul” is completely unappetizing to me, not just because I’m vegetarian, but because it sounds bland as hell.

The real problem with Buddhism is not that it has 2,500 year old scriptures that sometimes seem odd, it’s that, as one woman said to me recently in Jakarta, “Everything is so boring.” Less pandering, more challenging!

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I think my primary motivation would be to have the most accurate description of reality possible when it comes to the process of liberation. This might naturally upset (certain) people less, because those people find passages which seem to contradict our current understanding of reality to be upsetting.

Yes, good point. The same likely applies to me too; on my initial encounter with Buddhism, I would have likely been much less interested in reading the type of selection I have proposed.

Okay! :smiley:

The idea I have proposed would be different: not a collection of suttas, but the entirety of the suttas, with the suttas themselves slightly modified.

Personally, I’d rather try to approach the text on their own terms, not trying to shoehorn them into a scientific world view. Story telling is an important communication form in may cultures, particularly ancient indigenous ones.

Well, everyone shoehorns what they read into a world view - that’s what a world view is! Believing that “story telling is an important communication form in many cultures, particularly ancient indigenous ones” is a worldview with which to shoehorn our reading of the texts!

Thank you for the links.

Ah - thank you for alerting me to this. Of course, it would be very important to be extremely upfront that these are not literal translations.

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Secular Buddhists tend to also mythologize the mundane Buddha teachings & then reject them. Most Western Buddhists do not even understand the basics of Refuge, which is why they engage in all sorts of political correctness about trying to work out what they believe. If one asks the run-of-the-mill Western Buddhist to define from the Suttas what the Triple Refuge is; they generally cannot. If the Triple Refuge is actually understood, these personal issues/conflicts do not arise.

Okay, well that’s a wholesome motivation. I think if you made a careful selection along these lines it could be really useful.

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Thomas Jefferson did just this with the New Testament.

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A Buddhist counterpart to the Jefferson Bible might be Dr Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma – a work immensely popular among Dalit Buddhists, though seemingly almost unread by anyone else.

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I read it looong ago, I can’t remember much about it.

But we have a fantastic local community of Ambedkar Buddhists. And the Ambedkarites are doing great things in Pali studies at Mumbai Uni.

https://mu.ac.in/department-of-pali

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I like your idea, and internally I suspect we are all doing that anyway. We reorganise the teachings into a core set of principles, and we ignore or put aside things that we have difficulty with or think are not relevant.

However, the danger is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. We might discard something, only to discover it was vitally important if only we had understood the context or read it properly.

For all I know, for example, the 32 marks of a great man may be deep allusions to physical changes that may happen upon enlightenment, and vital towards the enlightenment process. I am just joking of course, but it could be true.

Similarly, I don’t have any issues with the Buddha describing matter as composed of 4 primary elements, but I interpret them as abstract components rather than physical. For example, I substitute the words

  • earth = matter
  • fire = energy
  • air = attraction
  • water = repulsion

And then it sort of corresponds with our modern scientific understanding of basic physics. But that’s just me - I am not claiming what I am doing is right, it just helps with my understanding.

So, maybe rather than “translation” - what you could be offering is a “commentary” on the texts, ie. read them in the following order, and when the Buddha says X he probably means Y etc. That sort of commentary could be quite useful.

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Thank you Bhante for noticing! and Thank you Soren, for raising some points of disagreements for us to ponder too.

Just adding a bit on Dalit Buddhists…again my opinion…

I belong to that community, and we Dalit Buddhists are indebted to Dr. Ambedkar for re-introducing Buddhism, a kind of cultural break from the traditional beliefs, dogmas and ritual practices and especially a break free from the long – time orthodox divisive caste system. Clearly in the contemporary world, his pragmatic approach helped to uplift the communities to cut off these dreadful and illogical age-old system of discriminations. but happy that there was an opportunity; the empty space of their identity and spiritual disposition was taken by the Buddhism.

Having known the state of his people as being new comer or fresher in the world of Buddhists, Dr. Ambedkar wanted to lead the community carefully and safely into the new space with minimum and only essential for their understanding and enquiry. So further, very courageously presented his work on ‘The Buddha’ and ‘The Dhamma’.

What his book – ‘Buddha and his Dhamma’ does is, Dr Ambedkar leaves them in the space of necessary understanding (for. Eg. clarifying common concepts used in Hinduism and how need to be understood in Buddhism for e.g. Karma, morality etc) and much in the form of addressing the questions which arise with respect to new religion. Since, having been ignorant with scriptural authorities which gave them disrespectful identity, I think they may be (overly) cautious to take anything on face value or of anything that will trigger any sort of social inequality or bias. Seriously, nothing but a grain (only if really needed )of salt.

Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarly analysis provides the reader an opportunity to Buddha’s approach of dhammavicaya or manasikāra. I would say for understanding critical thinking and enquiry, followed by expansion of one’s views not only regarding the Doctrine and practice but also to the historical developments become crucial to comprehend the broader view of changes that have happened or made or adopted throughout history, this maybe relevant to those ‘New’ to Buddhism and not only to Dalit Buddhists.

Presently, Dalit Buddhists are coming in contact with recognizing the true value of Buddha’s teaching through Pāli or Vipassana meditation although there is a long way to go. There has not been enough of development as their religion beyond a social movement. Nonetheless, I need to also delve into this book.

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I think I do a bit of this everytime I have a go at another translation. But I don’t value my “best guesses”. In fact I imagine the Buddha would use one of his notable dressings down if he saw them, “Foolish woman, don’t think like that!” … Far more valuable I think is to rely of the community of scholars to find out as best we can what the Buddha’s words meant in the contexts in which he uttered them.

This sounds like a great idea, but I can’t see how “guessing” could promote it.

Let’s keep the suttas as they are and carry on seeking to understand the teachings as growing out of the contexts they were given in … when we can do this we may be ready to start contributing modern commentarires on how they apply to modern contexts … of course there are a number of people doing this already. :wink:

Thank you this link. Dr Ambedkar was the most extraordinarily able man. I knew about the importance of his conversions but didn’t know that he found time to produce this work. :slight_smile:

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Ambedkar was exceptionally productive – his collected writings and speeches comprise forty volumes in Hindi and seventeen in English, with about 500 pages per volume. Within this huge opus there were three works in particular that he singled out for his Buddhist followers to study. One is that mentioned already, The Buddha and his Dhamma. The others are both from volume III of the works:

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India

Buddha or Karl Marx?

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