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The Dhammapada introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran

The Dhammapada introduced & translated by Eknath Easwaran.  Nilgiri Press 1985/2010, 275 pages.

The Dhammapada, the best known and most widely read of Buddhist scriptures, is like an appetizer.  By tasting it you can get a hint of the delights to come, though it will not fill you.  Ideally, it ought to make you want more–more knowledge, more understanding.  It should lead you on.  The trouble is, so many stop with it, assuming they’ve understood.

The Dhammapada is like that.  It is deceptively simple and so very easy to agree with.  Who, after all, regardless of creed, could take issue with the following?

Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddhas (183).

I once had a discussion with a man of the Baha’i faith who had read the Dhammapada and as a result came to the conclusion that Buddhism and Baha’ism taught one and the same thing.  The argument got rather heated, for while I said No he said Yes, for the notion that “all religions are one,” that all great spiritual persons are messengers of God, is a fundamental tenet of the Baha’i religion.  The Hindus, too, hold to this–never mind what the Buddha is recorded to have said on the subject.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to Eknath Easwaran’s translation.

Mr. Easwaran’s credentials–as noted in my previous post–are impeccable, so I ventured into his book with high expectations.  It starts off with an 85 page introduction and is padded throughout with commentary.  (Except for the introduction, all commentary is from the pen of Stephen Ruppenthal, who according to selfgrowth.com is an expert in the fields of Chinese and Sanskrit Buddhism.)  I certainly have no problem with commentary, provided of course it’s substantive and offers some insight into the text I might not otherwise have gotten.

Easwaran starts with some background history of India before the Buddha’s arrival on the scene.  What he broaches here is pretty rudimentary, but his many references to Jesus and then Einstein started to make me uncomfortable.  Why?  Well, it is a popular, New-Agey sort of thing to try to wrap up every great person in the same bag–never mind their disparate fields and backgrounds–as if they’re all in cahoots with each other, teaching the same thing.  Whether or not one believes this is actually the case is beside the point.  Dragging a twentieth century physicist and Biblical figures into a discussion of the Dhammapada does nothing to illuminate the text.  It would have been far more informative, for example, if the Dhammapada’s place in Buddhist literature, history and culture had been elaborated upon.  But even this much is never done.

More worrisome than Jesus and Einstein, though, was Easwaran’s insistence on using Sanskrit terminology in his discussion of the Buddha’s teaching.  Given that the Dhammpada is originally in Pali, I saw no reason that the Pali terminology could not have been used.  To me it bespoke an ideological bias or, even worse, a subtle, perhaps unconscious, condescension.

As I continued reading my alarm grew, for the number of factual inaccuracies began mounting up.  Following is a partial list:

  • The statement (on page 26) that the Buddha “stands squarely in the tradition of the Upanishads” is very misleading.  In fact, we are not certain which if any of the Upanishadic teachings he had direct contact with.  That some of the Upanishads had come into form prior to his time is certain; that some evolved after him is also certain.  Whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt the Buddha’s philosophical stance is at odds with that of the Upanishads and this, as much as anything else, is what has delimited Buddhism from what later became Hinduism.
  • Concerning the Buddha, Easwaran writes (on p. 27): “Meditation…he offers to teach to all…as a way to happiness, health, and fulfillment in selfless service.”  Um…no.  The Buddha constantly enjoined his disciples to seek out solitude, to shun attachments and burdensome affiliations in the pursuit of mental culture through meditation.  He most certainly was not a social activist.  This is Easwaran’s Gandhi-esque influence coming through.
  • “…he is loved today…by perhaps one quarter of the earth’s people” (p. 27).  If only this were true!  Latest estimates place Buddhists in the range of 350 million to a wildly optimistic one billion worldwide.  No matter where in that range you plant your flag, Easwaran’s estimate is a pipe dream.
  • On page 62, when the Buddha is nearing death, Easwaran sticks the following words into his mouth: “But, Ananda, you must know that I will never leave you.  How can I go anywhere?  This body is not me.  Unlimited by the body, unlimited by the mind, a Buddha is infinte and measurless, like the vast ocean or canopy of sky…”  If I wore dentures, I’m sure they would have fallen out at this point.  For in fact the Buddha said something very nearly the opposite.  In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the source text for the scene, he says “Ananda, have I not told you before: All those things that are dear and pleasant to us must suffer change, separation and alteration?  So how could this be pssible?  Whatever is born, become, compounded, is liable to decay–that it should not decay is impossible.”  T. S. Eliot’s words in “Burnt Norton” seem especially applicable to Easwaran:  “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”  From this point on I knew I was dealing with a translator who had a very definite–and very un-Buddhist–agenda.
  • “The Buddha’s dry description of the four dhyanas hides the fact that traversing them is a nearly impossible achievement” (p. 67).  Not true!  Though certainly difficult, the jhanas (dhyanas) are not beyond the attainment of the average person, given sufficient application, good health, and supporting circumstances.  Easwaran’s statement is nothing but sensationalistic.
  • His discussion of the first four meditative absorptions (jhanas) (pp.67 ff) is way off, both textually and in terms of how these states are actually experienced.  Most egregiously, on page 74, he seems to equate the experience of third jhana with bodhi, i.e. enlightenment, which it most certainly is not.  The Buddha time and again made clear the jhanas are conditioned states and that their attainment is not particular to his path.  Easwaran drives off a cliff when, still in the context of the third jhana, he evokes the Yogacarin “storehouse consciousness”  (ālayavijñāna) and Jung’s “collective unconscious”–all on the same page!  By this point in my reading I knew I was dealing with an incompetent.
  • It gets worse.  His discussion of karma (p. 76) is incoherent.  He equates the third jhana with mystical “oneness” (p. 77), and on page 78 says of fourth jhana “this is nirvana” (OMG!).  He invokes Mahayanist doctrines of intrinsic purity and true nature (pp. 79, 96 et al) and says (p. 80) that the Buddha “loved the world as a mother loves her only child.”  (Apparently he had not read the suttas.)  He repeats (p. 95) nonsense from the Milinda Panha concerning what is reborn (“neither the same nor another”) and alleges that “Pali is a vernacular descendant of Sanskrit” (p. 100).  This is patently false.  Here is Bhikkhu Bodhi on the nature of Pali’s origins:  “Scholars regard this language as a hybrid showing features of several Prakrit dialects used around the third century BCE, subjected to a partial process of Sanskritization. While the language is not identical with any the Buddha himself would have spoken, it belongs to the same broad linguistic family as those he might have used and originates from the same conceptual matrix” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 10).

I think you get the picture.  And this is just the introduction   In short, Easwaran has authored a cataclysm of errors and sentimentality.

A word on Ruppenthal’s contribution: he, too, gives birth to numerous doozies of distortion.  For example: p. 121 muddles a discussion of nirvana; his understanding (p. 130) of the anagami is totally wrong; the Buddha is alleged to have been Hindu (p. 138); chapter twelve on self wallows in ambiguity; I could go on and on.  In short, Ruppenthal’s commentary, like Easwaran’s introduction, is a toss.  If you know your stuff and read it, you’ll either laugh or cry.  If you don’t know your stuff, you’ll just be misled and come away with all sorts of deluded misunderstandings about what the Buddha really taught.

I’ve already written far more than I usually would for a book review and I haven’t even gotten to the translation proper.  Fortunately other reviewers on Amazon have already covered this aspect adequately well–see, e.g., Shigeki J. Sugiyama’s review.  Basically, if you compare Easwaran’s translation to those of others you will see he is amazingly free in his interpretations, to the point where fidelity of meaning is suffering like an old man with a case of the ague.  At points it hardly qualifies as translation.  And this is not surprising, for nowhere in the book does Esawaran actually talk about translation per se–what his standards were, his intentions, how reliant he was on the commentaries, which commentaries, etc.  In other words, this version of the Dhammapada is really the Dhammpada according to Easwaran.  It is not the Buddha’s; it is hardly Buddhist.  The only thing good I can say about it is that thanks to Easwaran’s natural literary talents the text is highly readable, even poetic.  Kudos to him on language and expression.

Okay.  I think I’ve railed enough.

My Amazon rating: 2 stars

Next up: Fronsdal’s translation

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2 thoughts on “The Dhammapada introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran

  1. TruthSlanger on said:

    It is humorous to see atheist Buddhists whining about a theistic Buddhist interpretation. You do realize that “most certainly” not all Buddhist are nihilists, right?

    • You are certainly right! Indeed, the B’s teaching is not nihilistic at all. You seem, however, to think atheism is of necessity atheistic. This would be false. You seem also to think “theistic Buddhism” is a sensible position or is in accord with Dhamma. It is not.

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