The Dhammapada in Translation

It becomes clear once you read various translations of the same Buddhist scripture, whether it is the Dhammapada, other Sutras from the Pāli Canon, or passages that relate central doctrines such as those concerning the five skandhas as objects of clinging, there is not a consistent way of rendering in English crucial Buddhist concepts.  This is definitely to be expected given the subtlety and complexity of Buddhist concepts, the integral relationship between grasping these concepts and practice of the Buddha Way, and the fact that Buddhism in its myriad forms is still young in English speaking countries.

As a brief example, I recently begun looking into the five skandhas and how it comes up in my daily experience and in my practice.  As a first step, I turned to the Pāli Canon as well as modern texts that discuss the skandhas to get a better idea of what I was looking for.  Whereas many accounts agree on the terms used for the first and fifth skandha (‘form’ and ‘consciousness’ respectively), the terms used for the second through fourth vary widely.  With respect to the fourth, I found: ‘volitional formations’, ‘formulation’, ‘impulse’, and ‘mental formations’.  With respect to the second, some presentations used ‘perception’, while others used ‘thought’.  These terms vary dramatically in their meanings.  If I only look to one presentation, I may be led astray in working with the skandhas.  But looking at the various presentations together, it is no longer obvious what the skandhas are.  (And this doesn’t touch upon the fact that the word ‘consciousness’ has many different uses and whether any one of these uses matches those found in the Buddhist scriptures is an open question.)

This is all very exciting and confusing!  There is so much to discover as we continue this tradition that goes back to the Buddhas throughout the ages.  To celebrate this complex web of translations, I will regularly post different translations of the Dhammapada, focusing on one or two stanzas each time.  My hope is that looking at the various passages side-by-side will both allow us to get a better idea of what is being talked about and complicate our understanding of Buddhist scriptures.  In this space of ease and confusion, great vows can be made, the Way can be cultivated afresh, our practice can be kept alive!

Thank you for reading With(out) Bounds and partaking in this ongoing work of understanding the Buddha Way – in our minds, our bodies, and our hearts.

2 thoughts on “The Dhammapada in Translation”

  1. I’ve had exactly the same experience – formation or impulse? These imply different levels of intentionality, don’t they?

    Maybe with more practice, this will become clear. Or maybe it simply requires a better translation…

  2. Hello! Thank you for the comments! I think you are right on both counts – more practice of the Buddha Way and better translations, and letting both mutually inform each other.

    On the formation/impulse divide – this is tricky. My experience resonates more with the word ‘impulse’ – where this is like a drive, like my drive to explain my feelings as opposed to hold them in awareness. ‘Formation’ doesn’t have this oomph behind it.

    Back to living it!

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