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Archive for the tag “Gil Fronsdal”

On reading Buddhist books

I’m now on to my second book about the paramis (Skt paramitas) and I’ve come to a conclusion: what people read, what sells, and what has lasting value can be divided into four types of literature or writing.  These are…

Wait!  First, I want to preface my pending revelation with a rather obvious statement: This is just my opinion.  Nobody should get offended or think I’m talking down to them.  I am a certain type of person and as such have certain preferences and standards.  What works for me is not what’s going to work for everyone–if I have gained one iota of wisdom in my nearly half century of living, this much at least I can be sure of.  Now, back to the revelation.

Taichung_Baojue_Buddhist_Temple3

Read my books!

The four types of Buddhist literature are:

Popular: This type of book sells surprisingly well and is always twice as long as it needs to be.  For better or worse, a lot of people who aren’t even Buddhist read this stuff and feel good about themselves on account of reading it.  As a result, you definitely know who the authors of these books are so I won’t bother telling you their names.

Now, here’s how you can tell a Buddhist book is a “popular” book.

  1. If you do an Amazon search for “Buddhism” it probably comes up near the top of the list.
  2. The author was once a monk or nun but realized at some point that writing books was a more lucrative endeavor.
  3. The author is now a media personality and has founded one or more organizations.
  4. The author quotes indiscriminately from all the different Buddhist schools–as well as from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist, secular, and scientific writers, maybe even popular songs.
  5. The word “being” is used at least once every other page of every book the author writes.
  6. Quotes from other people and books are never given more attribution than the fact they were said/written by so-and-so.  In other words, the source text is rarely cited, and chapter and verse are never offered.
  7. Quotes from the Buddha, especially, sound like someone talking at your office–with an amazingly modern diction and vocabulary for a guy who died two and a half millennia ago.  Again, chapter and verse are nowhere to be seen.
  8. The historical veracity of the Mahayana and Vajrayana accounts of the Buddha’s words and biography are never doubted.
  9. The ultimate truth and unity of all religions is not questioned.
  10. Mother Theresa and/or Martin Luther King will be mentioned at least once and their sublime virtues discussed in passing
  11. Everyone is naturally, originally, uniquely, perfectly Good–if only they knew it.
  12. The writer’s grandmother was invariably the wisest and most awesome of hidden sages.
  13. There are no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography, and indexes are optional.
  14. The titles of these books are often derived from well known sayings, songs, or folksy expressions, etc.

Scholarly/practical: The authors of these sorts of books often have significant contemplative experience under their belts, with academic training to boot, though some are purely academic in their background and just happened to have broken into the public consciousness.  While not usually as popular or well known as the writers of “popular” books, their work can sell well.  Authors I would put in this category include Walpola Rahula (What the Buddha Taught), Gil Fronsdal (translator of the Dhammapada), Bhikkhu Bodhi, Daniel Goleman, and Henepola Gunaratna (Mindfulness In Plain English).  Their works are typically characterized by the following:

Gil Fronsdal

  1. 80-90% less fluff language than is found in the works of popular writers; instead, their language is typically crisp and intelligent though not dry or opaque.
  2. Uncommon and unique insights–no garden variety “wisdom” here.
  3. Almost always include indexes, as well as–frequently–bibliographies and endnotes.
  4. They actually provide citations for quotes and don’t rephrase the quotes to make them sound like 21st century utterances.
  5. Fewer stories from regular life, though these are still included.  Instead, many more stories and examples from original sources.
  6. You probably won’t learn anything about their grandmother, cat, or best friend.
  7. They are mindful of the differences between Buddhist schools and, except on rare occasions, don’t feel the need to invite comparisons with other religions and philosophies.
  8. You are more likely to remember one of these books a year later than you are a popular book.
  9. You are more likely to keep one of these books with the intention of rereading or consulting it in the future than you are a popular work, which will probably turn yellow on your shelf, assuming you don’t first charitably donate it to your local library or regift it to a wayward relative.
  10. You will probably want to underline, highlight or otherwise mark up one of these books.
  11. The authors of these books are less prolific than popular writers.  So the book in your hand will probably be one of only two or three (max) widely known works by him or her.  Popular writers, on the other hand, are constantly coming out with new and improved versions of the Dharma they wrote about last year.

Scholarly: These books are easily spotted.  They usually come from university presses and you have to dig for them on Amazon.  Their authors are invariably professors, scholars, and other learned sorts–or were: maybe now they are living out a hermit-like retirement.  While some of these authors are good writers, they don’t hesitate knocking you over the head with Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and/or Korean technical terms, and their sentences can take on a cerebral knottiness that requires multiple reads.  (Note: Tibetan terms in these books are invariably rendered in English via the unpronounceable Wylie system.)  Furthermore:

The_art_scholar_by_amartinsdebarros

Too short a life and too many books!

  1. Diacritic marks and the italicization of technical terms are inevitable.
  2. Endnotes can run for dozens of pages.
  3. There is often a bibliography of works from the original language (Sanskrit, Chinese, etc).
  4. You have never heard of the author apart from the book in your hands.
  5. He or she may or may not be Buddhist.  If the author is Buddhist, he or she has not informed any professional colleagues about this fact.
  6. The author probably doesn’t meditate because that would (allegedly) impair his or her objectivity.
  7. The book may never break out of hardback and will be three times more expensive than a regular book of the same size and make.
  8. The topic of the book will be about a particular doctrine of a particular school in a particular century that ended long before you or anyone you know ever breathed.
  9. You will feel very intelligent while reading the book, but afterwards you will wonder what you should do with all that knowledge.
  10. You will probably keep the book, but will be afraid to open it again.
  11. No more than one–maybe two–people will have reviewed the book on Amazon.
  12. The reviewers’ comments will indicate they are much smarter and better read than you are.
daniel-ingram

The laughing arahat

Hardcore: These are the polar opposite of “popular” works, though they can, in fact, actually be popular.  Their authors are not typically interested in scholarship or “good works,” rather in the practice and achievement of exalted states of mind—jhanas, nyanas, nirvana, even siddhis.  Writers of this genre are typically very self-assured, speak with the confidence of “direct knowledge,” and are not generally terribly concerned with philosophical subtleties.  While they are sometimes quite orthodox in their thinking (simply accepting whatever theory is at hand), there is a tendency for some of them to challenge orthodox notions if tradition conflicts with their experience.  Moreover, these works:

  • Are long on practice and short on theory
  • Disdain fluff
  • Are grounded in meditative achievement
  • Are rarely published by big houses, but can yet attain “underground” or “cult” status
  • Don’t care how flowery or literary their prose is
  • Don’t tell lots of stories
  • Are often psychologically technical
  • Don’t quote original sources much but if they do are as likely to cite commentaries as suttas/sutras
  • Will make you feel like you’ve not done enough
  • Will inspire you to get up earlier, sit longer, and eat less

Examples of these books are some of Goenka’s material, Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma (originally Living Buddhist Masters, a book that had a significant impact on me when I first read it–the rest of Kornfield’s material is decidedly popular), books by some Burmese teachers (e.g. Webu SayadawMahasi Sayadaw and U Pandita) and Thai forest masters (e.g. Ajahn Chah) and, last but not least, that icon of the “hardcore dharma” movement,  Daniel Ingram (pictured above), author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

I have read many examples of all four.  Popular books occasionally contain gems scattered among the endless deserts of vapid prose.  This, and the inevitable language of optimistic self-improvement they employ (hence the fluffy verbiage), is what keeps you reading them–they tell you you’re extraordinary, that you possess Buddha-nature (if only you could see it!), and you want to believe, so you read and read and read and read.  If you’re a beginner, these are naturally the sorts of books you’ll start with, but if you don’t get beyond them you’re probably doomed to never learn anything you couldn’t have gleaned from the pages of Reader’s Digest.

Most of the best reading you’ll do will be by scholar-practitioners and hardcore dharma nuts.  People in both these groups really have something to say.  They are not looking for the next big seller; they know what meditation is about; they don’t have an organization to run (or if they do its supported by donors); and the scholar-practitioners especially are familiar with the original texts and the histories and can discuss them intelligently and practically.  Read as many of these (scholar-practitioner and hardcore) books as you can, but when particular issues become problematic for you or whet your interest, don’t be afraid of good scholars and their tomes, however weighty.  Some examples of excellent scholars and their work would be Steve Collins’ Selfless Persons, books by Richard Gombrich and Paul Williams, David Loy (Nonduality and others) and Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach among others.

Happy reading!

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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