Fronsdal, Gil. The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic With Annotations. Foreword by Jack Kornfield. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 2006. Paperback, xxx + 152 pp.
As with Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, there are numerous English renderings of the Dhamma-Pada, the first having been published in 1855. Few of these translations, however, deserve the name. Often they are simply paraphrases or paraphrases of paraphrases.
Gil Frondsdal, who has a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Stanford University and teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, has created a translation that is both sound from a scholarly point of view and a delight to read—a felicitous combination of textual fidelity and literary skill. Any translation from a foreign language is at the same time a translation from a foreign cultural context. Where Fronsdal has had to choose between clumsy literalism and poetic immediacy, he has explained his choice in footnotes.
The 422 verses of this small Pali text, which is an all-time favorite in the Buddhist world, capture the spirit of the Dharma and can, if you will let them, elicit in you a resonance of wisdom and understanding.
Originally intended for a monastic audience, the Dhamma-Pada is just as relevant for a lay readership and our own era. As Fronsdal explains, one simply has to make the effort of interpreting the insights and stipulations of the text into one’s own language and circumstance. This is particularly the case with statements about renunciation, which often include an element of world rejection. The many verses dedicated to the cultivation of joy make it clear that we are not asked to become world-negating misanthropes. On the contrary, full and correct engagement of the Buddha’s Dharma involves empathy and compassion. The idea is to transcend, not merely deny the world, which would be pathological. Renunciation is primarily a matter of letting go of one’s attachments, be they worldly or religious. Genuine renunciation is anchored in skilled mindfulness.
As one stanza (200) puts it:
Ah, so happily we live,
We who have no attachments.
We shall feast on joy,
As do the Radiant Gods.
The Pali text has:
susukham vata jivama yesam no natthi kincanam
pitibhakkha bhavissama deva abhassara yatha.
This literally means:
“We for whom there is nothing [to be gained] live very happily. / We shall become partakers (bhakkha) of delight (piti) like the radiant deities.”
While the Pali original is melodious and powerful, a literal translation of this verse tends to squash both beauty and power. Fronsdal’s poetic rendering preserves the essential message and delivers it in a form that is still potent and can touch our heart.
Sadly, this and apparently most or all other books by Shambhala are not printed on recycled paper. Acid-free paper is no longer a sufficient standard.
Copyright ©2007 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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