07/6/14

A Compassionate Buddha?


Buddhist storyThere’s a story in Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the Dhammapada (Penguin Classics, 2010, commentary on verse 6, p 115-116) that caught my eye recently, and it made me wonder what the moral or ethical precept was buried in it.

And it makes me question what it says about the supposed compassion of the Buddha and his attitude towards animals.*

I have not found online the story exactly as Ms. Roebuck tells it**, but I have found many variations on it. It even has its own holiday: Madhu Purnima. In essence the story goes like this:

The Buddha is at the Kosambi monastery where 500 monks get into a doctrinal dispute (i.e. pissing match over minutiae) he cannot resolve for them. So he gives up and heads to the forest to find peace (first stumbling block: where’s the fabled patience?).

Meanwhile, an elephant (often described as a bull elephant), tired of living among the herd, joins him. There the elephant takes care of the Buddha, bringing him water and protecting him from predators.

A monkey joins them and brings the Buddha some honeycomb, which the Buddha accepts. The monkey is so delighted, he swings from branch to branch wildly, but in his excitement, falls to his death. He’s reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, so that’s supposed to be okay.

No indication that the Buddha felt any compassion for the animal, let alone any remorse for being the cause of its death. Personally, I’m not sure the trade-off between life and death is worth it, but maybe I’m just too attached to living. Or maybe I’m just a teensy bit too skeptical about rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, gods and so on (a la Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs).

Meanwhile, the monks come to the forest and beg the Buddha to return, which he does, leaving the elephant in the forest. Roebuck says it was “at the point where the animal might have been in danger from human beings if he had followed him.” Other texts say the elephant followed him to the edge of the city.

Again, no indication of gratitude for the elephant’s service. No thanks, no fond wave of the hand, no blessing.

The elephant dies of a “broken heart” from being abandoned. The Buddha in the tale shows no compassion or remorse. The elephant pops up in Tavatimsa heaven too, though. I suppose that’s okay.

Or is it?

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07/3/14

Reading the Dhammapada


BuddhaOne of the most inspirational, moving books in my library is the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, originally from the Pali canon. I’ve had a version of the Dhammapada in my library since the late 1960s, and read it through many times. It’s good to reread it often.

My first copy I recall was Irving Babbit’s edition, published by New Directions press in 1965. It may still be hiding on a bookshelf upstairs for all I know.

It’s one of my desert island books. You know: one of the list of 10 books you’d want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

Over the years, my favourite version has been the Still Point Dhammapada by Geri Larkin, guiding teacher at the Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit. (Her Buddhist name is P’arang.) I like it because it’s not simply a translation but a witty and wise commentary that clears away the clouds and makes it a very personal work. Larkin helps guide the reader towards the basic tenets of everyday Buddhism, rather than simply offer the words for us to contemplate.

The Dhammapada is not a literary narrative like the canonical gospels. It is more like the verses in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. (Gnostic only because it was found in company of Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi library; it doesn’t profess Gnostic beliefs, however). I also keep it with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as a book I can pick up and read at random for a shot of wisdom.

One version of the Dhammapada on my shelf is the classic Max Muller translation from 1870; popularly reprinted as a copyright-free edition. Another is an older Penguin Classics version from the 1980s. I have a couple of odd versions printed in India and Southeast Asia by Buddhist teachers, somewhere in a box.

There is a more recent Penguin edition, translated by Valerie Roebuck (2010) but I don’t have it yet (on order though).

I’ve never paid that much attention to the translation until recently. It’s tough for Westerners to appreciate whether a translation is good or bad because so few of us can read the original Pali – that falls into the realm of scholars. They may be technically adept but often not poets or even practicing Buddhists. And many of the online translations are by scholars and Buddhists for whom English is a second language. In both cases, the renderings can leave the reader feeling like something’s missing.

This weekend, while in Toronto (and scouring what few remaining bookshops I could find), I came across a new translation by Glenn Wallis (Modern Library, New York, 2007). It’s supplemented by a good reading guide with commentary and notes to help explain the translation, the original language, the various terms and symbols.

Where Larkin makes her version a personal, intimate guide, all about daily life and being in the moment, Wallis spreads a wider net, bringing in much more Buddhist practice and belief in a more scholarly manner. Both are worthwhile approaches and both authors are practicing Buddhists. Wallis is also a professor and a member of the Buddhist punk band, Ruin, which adds another facet when considering his translation.

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