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The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic by Gil Fronsdal

The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations translated by Gil Fronsdal.  Shambhala 2006, 152 pages.

The first two pages of the preface to Gil Fronsdal’s translation say it all: Fronsdal lays out the challenges a translator of an ancient text faces.  He talks about the Dhammapada’s history in English, about how “a translation mirrors the viewpoint of the translator” (pp. xi-xii)–something Easwaran never did.  Most pointedly, he notes that “Hindu concepts appear in English translations done in India” (p. xii)–or by a Hindu, I might add.  (Hint: think Easwaran.)  He goes on to say (p. xii) “In this translation, I have tried to put aside my own interpretations and preferences, insofar as possible, in favor of accuracy.”  I believe he has done exactly this.

Fronsdal’s introduction (the preface discusses the translation issues) is not so far-ranging as Easwaran’s, and certainly not as lengthy, but I found it more insightful and refreshingly accurate.  (Readers of my review of Easwaran’s Dhammapada will understand my relief.)  For example, I thought he hit the nail on the head with this pointed remark (p. xx):

The Dhammapada originated in a time, culture, and spiritual tradition very different from what is familiar to most Western readers today.  We might be alerted to this difference if we compare the beginning of the Dhammapada with the opening lines of the Bible, which emphasize God’s role as Creator and, by extension, our reliance on God’s power.  In contrast, the first two verses of the Dhammapada emphasize the power of the human mind in shaping our lives, and the importance and effectiveness of a person’s own actions and choices…  Ethical and mental purity [he goes on to say]…cannot be achieved through the intervention of others: “By oneself alone is one purified” (verse 165).

How different this is from Easwaran’s constant–and fatuous–comparisons to Jesus and, even, Albert Einstein.

The remainder of Fronsdal’s introduction looks at its contrasting emotional moods–“energy and peace”–its themes, and the effects reading it have had on him.  Fronsdal again demonstrates his penetration of basic Buddhist teachings when he writes on page xxix “[I]t is not the world that is negated in the Dhammapada, but rather attachment to the world (as in verse 171).”  In the margin of my copy I scribbled Yes!

In other words, Fronsdal gets it–which is not so surprising when you consider the man has trained in both the Soto Zen and Theravadan traditions, has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Stanford, and is a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.  In other words, he has every qualification needed to interpret the Buddha’s teaching, qualifications Easwaran seemed to have but in fact was sorely lacking.  Anyway, on to the text proper.

Despite my above praise, Fronsdal does make some interpretations I thought odd, though this is not to say I didn’t understand his reasoning.  For example, the title of the Dhammapada’s first chapter, usually rendered as “Twin Verses” or “Paired Verses,” Fronsdal names “Dichotomies.”  Fortunately, he explains this and other such choices–which he (much to his credit) acknowledges as controversial–in detailed end notes signified by asterisks.  (This was another problem I had with Easwaran’s text–I could not tell which verses his end notes pertained to unless I went to the back of the book.)  This is much appreciated; one important characteristic of any good translator is candor and clarity as to what sort of interpretive choices s/he makes and why.  Fronsdal maintains high standards in this regard; he explains his choices in detail in the end notes, and having done so the reader can then appreciate that while some of his word choices are unorthodox, they are not without merit or insight.  I realize not every reader will be interested in such linguistic and terminological details, but they need to be discussed somewhere if the translator is to maintain legitimacy.

As for the reading experience of Fronsdal’s Dhammapada: it has the spare, poetic feel I am familiar with from other translations of Pali Buddhist texts.  Also, as previously noted, he does seem to fulfill the aspiration he stated in the preface–that of producing a relatively literal translation, one reflecting its original time and place as opposed to the layers of (mis)interpretation that later commentators and cultures have often imposed on the text.  As a result, Fronsdal’s translation feels definitively like a Buddhist text, one that should be instructive to any newcomers to the Buddha’s Dhamma.  I hope they will leave it wanting more.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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