Master Your Senses
For many people their first encounter with Pali Scripture is through the Dhammapada - a collection of sayings of the Buddha. In many ways it is like a Buddhist equivalent of the 'Sermon on the Mount,' in that each one is a collection of teachings that probably were never given together historically, but as a collection they form a good and accessible introduction to the teachings. Originally part of the Khuddaka Nikāya it now has a life of its own and many of us have owned and loved small booklet versions of it.
There are many English translations out there, ranging from the accurate to the 'poetic,' and one I would recommend if you don't already have one is the freely available translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita - not least because of the excellent introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
In his book "Teachings of the Buddha" Jack Kornfield offers the following as a quote from the Dhammapada:
Master your senses,
What you taste and smell,
What you see, what you hear.
In all things be a master
Of what you do and say and think.
Are you quiet?
Quieten your body.
Quieten your mind.
By your own efforts
Waken yourself, watch yourself,
And live joyfully.
Follow the truth of the way.
Reflect upon it.
Make it your own.
It will always sustain you.
Now this is a beautiful and inspiring set of verses. Sadly, however it can't really be presented as an accurate translation from the Dhamapadda - the verses are a few scattered verses that Kornfield has selected from Thomas Byrom's version, which is more of a poetic retelling than a true translation.
Despite it's flaws I do find the selection useful. I was first introduced to this set of verses many years ago as a passage for meditation and contemplation, and I have used it in this way many times and found it valuable. So I was interested this week to go down the rabbit-hole of 'where exactly did the version I was using come from?'
This proved to be a little more difficult than I hoped, due to the fact that Byrom's version is poetic but loose, and Kornfield jumps around a bit in his selection, but I finally managed to get a 'parallel' translation that is closer to the Pali original. I used the (always excellent) translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, found the corresponding verses and re-ordered them to match:
Restraint with the eye is good,
good is restraint with the ear.
Restraint with the nose is good,
good is restraint with the tongue.
Restraint with the body is good,
good is restraint with speech.
Restraint with the heart is good,
good is restraint everywhere.
A monk everywhere restrained
is released from all suffering & stress.
Calmed in body,
calmed in speech,
well-centered & calm,
having disgorged the baits of the world,
a monk is called
You yourself should reprove yourself,
As a self-guarded monk
with guarded self,
mindful, you dwell at ease.
Dhamma his dwelling,
Dhamma his delight,
a monk pondering Dhamma,
calling Dhamma to mind,
does not fall away
from true Dhamma.
So does all this matter? Am I just being a little anal? Reading the two versions above you might gravitate to one over the other, and you may find value from either or both. Personally I find it important to be clear about what we have - a poetic retelling is fine as long as it is presented as just that, and we are aware we may be receiving ideas from the author that are not in the original. If I want to get close to the original teachings then I shouldn't look for that in the poetic readings. I will probably continue to use Kornfield's selection as a base for contemplation, but with this awareness. What is also clear however is that there are depths and subtleties in the more accurate translation that are simply missed in the poem.
What do you think? I know this is a touchy subject for some and that there is currently ongoing controversy around some recent publications, and I really don't want to be stirring that pot. But sometimes we accept a pithy quote or a beautiful poem without question when we should be looking deeper. What I can say is that when I do look deeper and get closer to the original teaching I always find that the profundity and beauty of the teachings always surpasses any beauty of prose.
I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation where we use the Kornfield selection as a base for contemplation. You are welcome to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.
The Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield, selected from the Dhammapada translated by Thomas Byrom
"Bhikkhuvagga: Monks" (Dhp XXV), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.25.than.html . Verses used: C25, vv 360-361, 378, 379, 364