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The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Wisdom Publications 1995, 1412 pages.

Note: I was notified by a reviewer on Amazon that there have been two revisions, quite substantial, since this edition.  The most recent is from 2005 and is apparently much improved.  It is, however (I am finding), difficult to get!  My review below applies only to the original 1995 edition.

For my review of this translation I decided to take a different tack.  Since I am not a Pali scholar I am not qualified to critique Bhikkhu Bodhi’s (or Ven. Ñanamoli’s) translation, so I thought I would turn to someone who is–namely, L.S. Cousins of the University of Manchester writing in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics (Vol. 4, 1997).  For anyone wanting to go further than my summary of his major points, you can find his review here.

Cousins criticizes the title, specifically the word “new,” since most of the translation was done by Ñanamoli in the 1950s, not by Bhikkhu Bodhi in the 1990s.  Indeed, in Cousin’s view, Bodhi’s contribution is fairly cosmetic in the sense of making the text more readable, and of lending more flexibility to certain Pali terms.  In this sense he commends BB by making the text  approachable to modern readers who are not themselves scholars.  This is, however, about the only good thing he has to say of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s work.

Other significant points are:

  • A lack of clarity as to which source text is being used.  BB claims it is the PTS edition, but Cousins doubts this as the text often follows earlier Sinhalese editions that Ñanamoli likely had available.
  • No use of recent scholarship.
  • Many old mistakes are perpetuated, and even some inaccuracies that Ñanamoli had removed are reinstated.
  • Cousins deplores the large scale cutting of repetition, pointing out that when the original–with the full repetitions–is chanted aloud, it has a certain, meditative effect on the mind; this is lost in the edited, written version.  (I have to disagree with Cousins here: since most people in the West will approach the Suttas through the written word, my feeling is translators need to make the originals digestible in that form.)
  • Lastly, he notes BB’s uncritical acceptance of the commentarial tradition, something I have harped on in previous posts.

Now for some words from our sponsor…

As regards the introduction, like Walshe’s for his Digha Nikaya translation (see my review here), Bodhi’s is necessarily fairly basic, but does go further.  For example, his discussion of certain critical terms such as dhamma, sankhara, namarupa, etc, is more informative.  I always read introductions, but not everyone does–my wife, for instance, will not even read a two page author’s preface.  For someone in a rush (though I’m not sure how one would rush through a one thousand plus page book) and who is already well informed on these matters, the introduction is dispensable.  Someone more beginning, though, would do well to read it carefully.

On the Majjhima Nikaya specifically: This is the second of the five nikayas (“collections”) that make up the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Discourses”).  In accordance with its title, the 152 suttas (“discourses”) here are not generally as lengthy as those in the Digha Nikaya, though they are often more substantive.  The entire teaching, in some way or another, is touched on here, and some of the most important of the Buddha’s discourses are included in this collection.  It is repetitious, however, even with the generous editing of repetitive passages.  There really is no way around this, though, and readers need to be patient.  Not every discourse is a treasure; some are nearly verbatim reruns of previous ones.  However, a benefit of this (if one is charitable) is that important issues are more likely to sink in deep; that is, you can begin to get a sense for where the real emphases are in the Buddha’s Teaching.

While it is important to be grateful to Bhikkhu Bodhi for his many years of labor on this and other works of translations, I am left scratching my head over why no able team of scholars has ever been put together in the way that Biblical translation teams are.  Why is it always a lone translator trying to capture a literature that is many times more voluminous than the Bible?  Certainly there are other monks, scholars and interested individuals who could add their talents to the project of translating Buddhist scriptures.  It is high time that we stop relying upon the understanding and insight of individuals–always limited, however learned they may be–for our access to these vital documents.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


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