27 May 2006

Studying the Dharma

The Scholar by Domenico Feti (b. ca. 1589, Roma, d. 1623, Venezia)Today I want to look at some aspects of the study of the Dharma. This is one of my main practices, and one of my favourite acitivities. Study as a practice has both great benefits and great pitfalls. Studying texts tends to be seen as a poor substitute for 'real practice', but I want to try to show that this is poorly informed.

Buddhism is very much a heterodox tradition, full of contradictions and different approaches. Without an historical perspective on the development of Buddhism it is difficult to make sense of these contradictions. So for instance I can't take seriously the statements of successive Buddhist sects which suggest that all other sects teachings are merely provisional and that this new teaching is the "True Teaching of the Buddha". I think of this as not taking the tradition on its own terms. In terms of outlook I am in the Mahayana camp, informed by the Vajrayana, but in terms of how I actually practice I am what has been called, rather rudely, a Hinayanist. If I bought into the various Mahayana or Vajrayana critiques of early Buddhist practices then I would probably feel a bit insecure. But I do not accept those critiques because having looked at the Mahayana critique, for instance, I can see that it is aimed at a caricature, and that later Buddhist writers had no idea about how the early Buddhists actually practiced. Similarly with the Vajrayana's claim that their teachings were delivered by the Buddha himself, but only to disciples of superior ability, it seems clear that this cannot have been the case. Later Buddhism was the product of interaction with other religious traditions both within and without India. In India this was the norm - traditions heavily influenced each other, cults were assimilated (as they were by the Greek and Romans), and especially after about 800 BCE exploration was encouraged.

So here we are in the present with all these stories, practices, and cultural presentations of the Buddha's Dharma. One approach in the West has been to adopt a sectarian appraoch - to take on Zen, or Tibetan, or Theravadin, Buddhism holisbolis. On the other hand some people try to look critically at the traditions and to take what seems useful, and to adapt it to the present time and place. This seems to me to be the best approach. Otherwise we loose sight of the way the presentation of the Dharma has, sometimes radically, changed over the centuries and mistake one particular form of it as being superior to the others when it may simply be different. My inclination is not to accept any practice as being superior to any other practice. So when a Tibetan Lama tells me that the instructions for painting thangkas were given by Shakyamuni Buddha and cannot be deviated from, I have to weigh that against archeological evidence that images of the Buddha were not made for several centuries post-parinibbana, and evidence from the books that I have that Tibetan images of the Buddha vary dramatically across time, place and tradition.

When it comes to texts in translation we are in even more difficult territory. I got interested in this area when comparing Stephen Bachelors's translation of the Bodhicaryavatara from the Tibetan version, with Marion Matics' translation from the Sanskrit. Although the general drift of the two was similar, the details vary considerably. We tend to see a text as a static document - both Judeo-christian culture and the various Buddhist traditions encourage this view of texts. But Buddhist texts were usually living, growing documents. The Pali texts were not written down for several centuries and show signs of having been edited even before that time. Pali was not the language of the Buddha, and so they have gone through at least one translation, and manuscripts with significant differences, not to mention copyists errors exist. The Mahayana texts frequently exist in several different versions and there seems to have been a tendency to incorporate more and more material into them, and to restruct the verses and chapters according to schemes unknown.

This situation led me to learn a little Pali and to start to delve into the Pali texts. I realised for instance that there exists no completely satisfactory of the Karaniya Metta Sutta - there is no one translation which manages to convey all the subtleties which lurk in the Pali words, and even the two dozen or so that I have collectively fail to convey certain aspects. Umberto Eco has referred to translation as "a negotiation". It is a compromise between many competing goals. Lately I have been working with translations of Kukai texts. Kukai wrote in an elaborate form of ancient Chinese, but is frequently translated into English from Japanese translations of the original Chinese. In a small number of cases I have two or more translations which I can compare. One translator has gone out of his way to convey the meaning of the texts, and another seems to have stuck to the literal meaning of the words, but is idiosyncratic in his choice of English equivalents. Another seems to find an easy middle way between these two approaches; and yet I am sure that in at least one case his choice of English words is motivated by trying to prove a particular aspect of the thesis which underlies his book, and this skews the meaning towards one that I feel sure was not intended by Kukai. I recommend Yoshito Hakeda's translations if anyone is interested.

So in studying Buddhism we are faced with some major challenges. Buddhists traditions are sectarian and literalist. We face great uncertainty: for instance the margin of error for dates are frequently given in centuries - the birth of the Buddha being a case in point. Texts were once living documents that changed over time and place, were edited by sectarians, and are often only known to us via multiple translations, all of which leaves the 'meaning' very fuzzy. But this is just like life isn't it? What we assume to be essential and permanent turns out not to be so. Through studying with this kind of critical eye we are confronted with the nature of reality, and by immersing ourselves in study we can begin to see things as they really are.
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