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
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
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
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
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.