Notes and Comments on the Dhammapada (Translated by Radhakrishnan), Chapters 1 - 10
Spring 1993

I wrote this commentary in preparation for a tutorial with Professor Piatagorsky at SOAS. He was interested in my PhD proposal (which eventually became the book, Krishna, Whitman, Nietzsche, Sartre), and kindly arranged a few meetings to discuss the proposal. Although we did not take it further, the professor's comments were helpful and interesting. However he did not think that my approach to the Dhammapada, which consisted of a rather critical analysis of the metaphors used to convey the teachings, was particularly constructive.

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These commentaries are mainly concerned with the readability of the text, and with the use of metaphor. I have compared the translation by Radhakrishnan (1950) with Eknath Easwaran's (1986) and also Thomas Byrom's (1976). Easwaran avoids the use of 'he' and 'his' where either sex could be intended, as would be expected in a more recent translation. It may be fair comment to say generally that Radhakrishnan is a 'dry-eyed' translator, while Easwaran is more of the 'wet-eyed' school.

Chapter 1 - Twin verses
This chapter states many of the basic Buddhist ideas in paired verses that present each idea firstly in the double negative, and then in the positive (negative and positive in the moral sense).

Chapter 2 - Vigilance
Vigilance, or mindfulness, is presented as the way to conquer death.
vs. 28: '... gazes sorrowless onto the sorrowing crowd below' - there is a certain lack of sympathy in this statement, almost implying that the wise do not sorrow for those lacking in wisdom, which seems to go against the central strand of compassion in Buddhism. Also, there is the inevitable implication of superiority in metaphors relating to mountain tops.
vs. 31: 'The mendicant ... who looks with fear on thoughtlessness ...' - 'thoughtlessness' is perhaps a term that leads to ambiguity, bearing in mind the Zen Buddhist emphasis on no-mind. 'Thoughtlessness' is a useful term to the Westerner in its connotation of lack of attention, or unconscious pre-occupation, but it works against the less familiar notion (to the Westerner) of a silent mind where thought is absent in a positive sense. The term 'intrinsic loss of awareness', or just 'loss of awareness' (used extensively in Longchenpa's works) may be more useful. 'Loss of mindfulness', a term that I have seen elsewhere in Buddhist translations, suffers from the same problem as 'thoughtlessness', in that it counters the positive concept of an empty mind.

Chapter 3 - Thought
This chapter lays out the central notion of subduing or restraining thought as a path to a true perception of reality.
vs. 34: 'Even as a fish ..., this thought quivers all over in order to escape the dominion of Mara (the tempter or Death).' I don't think that this sentence is easily comprehensible. The fish thrashing about on shore as a metaphor for uncontrollable thought is useful, as is any object that moves uncontrollably, and is hard to catch. However the dominion from which it seeks escape is surely the meditator, not Mara (the tempter or Death), in that the meditator is attempting to subdue it (by exposing it, or taking it from its normal stream, i.e. by exercising the discipline of thought awareness).

Chapter 4 - Flowers
In this chapter flowers are used extensively as metaphors, often in contradictory ways.
vs. 44: 'Who shall find out the well-taught path of virtue even as a skilled person finds out the (right) flower?' Easwaran translates this as '... the garland-maker chooses the right flower.' which makes more sense. I understand that this metaphor is very old in Indian scriptures, and Radhakrishnan may be relying on an Eastern familiarity with the metaphor of the garland-maker to furnish the sense of the statement, but a Western reader may well have difficulty with it.

Chapter 5 - The Fool
This chapter outlines what is in store for those who do not look in fear on the loss of awareness. Easwaran prefers the term 'immature' for the term fool, as being firstly more compassionate, and secondly hinting at the ever-present possibility of maturation.
vs. 60: 'Long is the night to him who is awake, ...' This is an unfortunate parallel to draw on, considering the continued stress in Buddhism on wakefulness (Easwaran translates it the same). Byrom reduces the damage of this simile by translating it 'Long is the night to the watchman,' which transfers the discomfort of watchfulness from those who are awake (and who may have chosen to do so as part of their meditation practice) to the watchman who is merely paid to do so.
vs. 72: 'The knowledge that a fool acquires, far from being to his advantage, destroys his bright share of merit and cleaves his head.' (Easwaran: 'breaks his head.') It is not clear what is intended by 'cleaves (or breaks) his head'. Perhaps confusion?

Chapter 6 - The Wise
This chapter lays out the path to wisdom.
vs. 87 - 88: The break between the verses is a hindrance to readability. The 'homeless state' is probably not appropriate to be taken literally in the West; I am thinking of the terrible story of the homeless man who had to have his feet amputated this winter after suffering frostbite. The 'homeless state' can better be taken as a metaphor for a life of 'moderate poverty' as recommended by Nietzsche in 'Thus Spake Zarathustra', though it was of course meant literally in its original context.

Chapter 7 - The Saint
vs. 91: The use of 'thoughtful' (as has been done throughout) may lead to confusion.
vs. 92: '..., their path is difficult to understand like that (the flight) of birds through the sky.' This is a poor metaphor, or a poorly translated one. It is not difficult to understand the flight of birds through the sky: any observant watcher of birds can follow the mechanics of wing and muscle and air-current, leading to what reasonable people call an 'understanding'. Easwaran puts it this way '... it is hard to follow their path.' This is a more acceptable translation I think, in that it leaves the metaphor resting with other familiar ones about a 'trackless' progress of the enlightened ones: leaving no trace in the air, sand, or water. These metaphors are generally useful to indicate the unpredictability and also the lack of normal attachments to be found in the (true) saints. Radhakrishnan points out this metaphor in the Mahabharata, as the path being invisible.
vs. 94: 'Even the gods envy him ...' For a religion that does not believe in God, we are often presented with gods in Buddhism, presumably relics of earlier belief. I find it most interesting to consider how we are to interpret the idea of gods as minor deities who are envious of the Buddha. One often comes across the idea that man is the bridge to the ultimate, whereas the gods are souls in a temporary state of privilege that has to be relinquished in favour of ordinary mortality. I would dare to suggest that the earning of 'merit' which may result in birth as a god (or perhaps merely a mortal in favourable circumstances) could therefore work against the true seeker who would rather use the human circumstance as the intended vehicle for transcendence.
vs. 95: 'Such a man who is tolerant like the earth, like a threshold; ...' On first reading one is tripped up by the sentence construction which suggests that such a man is tolerant like the earth and tolerant like a threshold, which is nonsense: a threshold is not tolerant. It would scan better as 'Such a man who is tolerant like the earth, and is like a threshold; ...' Easwaran: 'Patient like the earth, they stand like a threshold, ...'
vs 98: 'Forests are delightful (to saints); ...' Easwaran suggests the converse, that saints make the forests holy. Either translation make sense, but Easwaran's meaning is more consistent with the previous verse ('That place is delightful where saints dwell, ...' Radhakrishnan). One could say that the sense of a saint making his surroundings holy is conveying a deeper truth about saints than that they delight in their surroundings; however the second meaning could also convey something useful: surroundings are always delightful to the saint because of his or her inner tranquillity.

Chapter 8 - The Thousands
This chapter stresses that a well-intended but mistaken religious observance, even if performed thousands of times, is worth less than a single truly meaningful act: the conquering of oneself.
vs. 100: I can't put my finger on it, but the sentence construction seems clumsy compared to Easwaran's.
vs. 104 - 105: Same comment as chapter 6 vs. 87-88. I can't see a reason for this clumsy splitting of a sentence.
vs 109: 'To him who constantly practices reverence and respects the aged ...' 'Aged' is surely a poor translation! I can think of many aged men (Deng Tsao Ping for one) for whom respect could not possibly bring merit (other than in the sense of respect to all sentient beings). Easwaran uses 'wise' instead of 'aged', which seems a better word.
vs 110 - 115: Clumsy sentence construction.

Chapter 9 - Evil Conduct
This chapter shows how you cannot escape the consequences of evil deeds.
vs. 124: This verse contains one of my favourite Buddhist metaphors: an uncut hand can handle poison. I think that is a useful counter to the Buddhist tendency to renunciation, a tendency to shun the market-place: Jesus spent his time with drunkards and prostitutes as a clear illustration of the need for holy men to be in the midst of life in the raw.

Chapter 10 - Punishment
This chapter reinforces the message of the previous one: in particular it stresses that happiness gained at another's expense is short-lived and the inevitable bringer of suffering.