In the beginning was the Dao…

A modern Chinese translation of the Book of John begins:

“In the beginning was the Dao…”

That’s certainly nice – we love to imagine that all religions point to the same Truth. I’m sure it gives Chinese Christians a feeling of understanding where logos might leave them unsure and uninspired, but it’s also good example of the distortion of translation. It’s a modern version of the “matching concepts” style of Buddhist translation that was popular in third and fourth century China and that seems pretty popular in these first centuries of Buddhism in the West as well.

It made a lot of sense for the Chinese, first discovering the Buddhist teachings and unsure how to make sense of them, to apply their own framework, their own understanding of the world. Indeed, if the material was to be translated at all, how else could they do it? Just as I’ve said of our own era of translation, as soon as the Dharma is uttered in a new language, it inevitably takes up the framework and history and biases of that language. It’s naïve to imagine that could be avoided.

Still, there is a subtlety or a grossness to this effort, and the first centuries of Chinese translation included some fairly cavalier methods. Deliberately “matching” Indian Buddhist concepts with their indigenous Chinese “equivalents,” they came up with some interesting, intriguing, and thoroughly misleading interpretations.

They translated Buddha, for example (surprise!) as Dao. (Does that means Buddha = logos?) Nirvana became wu-wei, non action.

Completely accessible, and completely distorting.

We may not be as blatant – we don’t translate Buddha as Jesus (at least not in print) – but how about “Enlightenment” for bodhi? That’s a good example of a word just overflowing with non-Buddhist connotations that has somehow become the standard way to convey this Buddhist concept.

But the point for me isn’t so much a nitpicky, academic translation beef, or an insistence that we need to find new words to translate the Dharma. I just see in the “matching concepts” system an invitation to notice yet again how we are coloring the Buddhadharma with our biases. When read our prior understandings and existing frameworks into the Dharma, we are losing the opportunity to be challenged by it, to be turned by it. The Dharma just affirms “science” or “postmodernity” or “psychology” or whatever we already know, and it doesn’t press us, doesn’t give us some of that whole grain annoyance. Since we don’t like religion, Zen isn’t religion. Since we love science, Buddhism is science. Since psychology is true, meditation is psychology.

By the fifth century the Chinese understanding of the Buddhadharma had developed to the extent that they could drop the “matching concepts” approach and search for either transliterations or more neutral Chinese words that could carry some of the Indian nuance without obliterating it under prior connotations. They were still of course “distorting” – wonderfully distorting! – the Indian Buddhist teachings, but not with such reckless intentionality. When they really started to do their best to understand the teachings in their own terms, then the more subtle Chinese reworking of the Dharma could begin. This accidental reworking was much more interesting, rich, and useful than the older, simplistic Buddhism = Daoism formula. The flowering of Chinese Buddhism occurred not because they were trying to remake Buddhism, but just because in their wholehearted effort to understand it, something new naturally emerged.

That’s the approach I’d like support as we “Westernize” and “modernize” the Dharma. That is, how about we sincerely try to understand it on its own terms, and then notice at the end of the day that what we have is inevitably and incontrovertibly “Western” – but not because we’ve tried to make it so. It can and does happen naturally through our genuine engagement with the tradition.

I feel a kind of scramble in myself and others in our Western Buddhist community to “update” the Dharma, to recast it in various popular, “accessible” ways. It’s ultimately necessary to do so, of course. But I at least feel drawn to the slow cook, the inadvertent transformation, and I have confidence that it will yield something more helpful, more rich, and more interesting than the forward-thinking stretch to make this stuff sound like it’s just a new take on things we already know.


11 thoughts on “In the beginning was the Dao…

  1. True stuff. And, I think it can be fairly argued the Sincization of Buddhism created the place where Zen could emerge. Dao didn’t simply replace Dharma (or, Buddha), or create a Buddhism that rings comfortable to Chinese ears. While it did those things, it also profoundly enriched the terms. The Buddhadharma is itself a living thing, more than what the Buddha taught, more than what his admirers chose to edit into sutras and systematize as abhidharma, more than Nagarjuna’s reinterpetation, more than India, more than China, and, as it comes here to the West, more than the West. I think you’re calling us to be careful. And that seems wise counsel. But, also, something wonderful has happened and is happening. I think…

  2. Jiryu,

    This is sounding more interesting. A simple playing with words is probably doomed but maybe there are other ways. Maybe in china the original transfer was a matter of wordplay and then maybe later transfers into language were based on personal experience and thus nuances could be captured, not from translation but through reference to the source from which the words came.

    In recent years I’ve been looking at various road maps that exist in Zen and various Buddhist traditions and more interestingly outside of them and outside of science in the more esoteric literature. I’m interested in whether or not they describe the same things even if the signposts and imagery are different.

    I can look at something that claims to be a road-map and see if it can show me where I’ve been in it’s terms and see if it can make predictions or give me signposts for the future. If it can do this then the map has some validity even if it doesn’t match another map. A map is not the territory and yet if a map can be used for navigation it has merit. Sometimes one map works better than another simply because their is a landmark nearby which one highlights….

  3. Thanks for the great comments.
    James, just to be very clear, I think the Chinese contribution to the Dharma is an incredible gift, and I know ours too will be/is. It is the life of the Dharma. I don’t at all mean to study to look backwards for some static “real” beginning to measure ourselves against. The key for me is that at first, when the Chinese were consciously “trying” to adapt it, the result wasn’t so interesting – it was just too much like what they already had and knew. The real rich transformation, the real meeting of cultures/insights, happened after they let go of trying to adapt it, when they got more curious about what it was saying on its own terms. So I definitely think we want/need to transform the Dharma – and propose as a strategy to that end that we just say the Dharma back exactly as we think we heard it, and notice that in doing so a beautiful but inevitably transformed Dharma gets spoken. Like a fabulous game of telephone, where the players aren’t trying to distort or push the meaning in any funny or clever way, but that sincerely trying to be true to those before them they can’t help but to speak in their own voice something brand new…
    Additionally, I should note that I appreciate that each of us has our place in the continuum of cutting edge to old guard, and am writing more in clarification of my own path than in a desire to impose my own approach.

  4. I’m sorry, but this post contains a number of inaccuracies. Your overall narrative about the “distortion” of Buddhist teachings in China is based on out-of-date scholarship with a polemical agenda. This idea was largely promoted by nationalist Japanese scholars in the late Meiji period who believed that in Japanese Buddhism they had uncovered the pure essence of Buddhism which had been distorted by the Chinese, who they regarded as culturally inferior. This notion was reflected in Japanese scholarship, which Kenneth Chen made heavy use of when wrote his _Buddhism in China_, thus forever solidifying this myth in print. Yes, translation style changed in China and the Chinese developed better translation skills, but this has little to do with “matching concepts” – Victor Mair has recently written an article (in the volume _Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China_) challenging the traditional understanding of “geyi” = “matching concepts.” And, you might have seen some of the recent articles posted on various Buddhist websites about the significance of the recently discovered Gandharan manuscripts, which reveal that Buddhist texts were undergoing translation constantly and continuously, within South and Central Asia, before they even reached China and the rest of East Asia. You are quite wrong in your characterization of early Chinese translations as “completely distorting” and it would behoove you to do some more careful research before making such claims.

  5. Josh, I appreciate your comment but it seems misdirected. “Yes, the translation style changed in China and the Chinese developed better translation skills” – that is all I intended to be saying about geyi. I will read the Mair with interest, but surely he doesn’t imply that the Chinese moving on from a gross geyi approach was unrelated to the growing sophistication of their translation methods? I will, as you invite, do more study, but I maintain that geyi is a useful way to talk about an extreme approach to translation that I feel has some resonance with our own time. The Chinese moving on from that approach is I think an encouraging invitation to leave behind some of our own versions of Buddhism = what we already think. We will still be subject to that, of course – just as the Chinese always were – and we should welcome it, but it can be more or less subtle. I certainly didn’t intend to imply some static Indian “source” that sinification defiled, or to do anything but celebrate the East Asian transformation/distortion of whatever evolving sources it received. My point, again, is that the distortion got more interesting as the Chinese got more sophisticated in their handling of the material they received, an evolving sophistication that you seem to accept. The word “distortion” is maybe misleading or too playful – I mean no normative or value judgment in it, and in that sense I stand behind my statement that geyi is distortion. Even the most intense critics of the “sinification narrative” can’t deny that Chinese Buddhism looked unlike its Indian and Central Asian ancestors. And even if someone wanted to deny any distortion at all (which is what you imply in your last sentence?) – to argue that the early Chinese exactly captured the prior meaning of their materials – where would such a person stand to assess that? In their own readings of the Indian/Central Asian texts? Then as now, as Hondo says in his next post, there is some distortion and some continuity. I regret any absolute statements about the proportion of those two at any point in history – “complete distortion” is a rhetorical overstep. I do strongly feel, though, that this tension between discontinuity and continuity, and the movement between them, is very much worth noting and can be fruitfully approached through the concept of geyi.
    Thank you for holding me to account, and I look forward to deepening my understanding of early Chinese Buddhism.

  6. “We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view”
    Bob Dylan
    When I have analogized occidental philosophy, psychology, myth, Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, I feel my general intention is to bring our/my attention to the many earnest fingers on the many feverish hands all pointing at the same moon. All the contenders as such are broken pieces of the whole… Their notions equally broken pieces of the description of the whole. In observing new broken pieces attempting to point at the moon, it seems to me a matter of process in terms of tradition… The tradition grows, makes mistakes and learns from them, branches off into subgroups at the result of various and sundry postulators… I also see that we are expansive enough by this point consciousness wise that we are able to relate to more than one description of the truth or more than one finger at a time as it were… We are becoming more and more global beings, more cosmopolitan whether we like it or not, and the notion that Nietzsche and Dogen may have had something in common idea or experience wise seems less and less remote and –in my belief–doesn’t discount either postulator or the tradition they emerged from. Translation is tough and always has been, especially since some of the material at least initially, had gone through at least four translations before entering the English lexicon… Pali, Sanskrit, whatever Chinese dialect, Japanese, English… The final product as like the original as the stitching on the backside of a piece of brocade…
    I appreciate your study of language as a reflectionof the deeper psychology of a culture. I find what happens in translation to be fascinating in what it reveals about culture and tradition alike.

  7. To follow up – Victor Mair’s article “What is Geyi, After All?,” in “Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China,” mentioned above by Josh, relies on philological analysis to challenge the nearly universally accepted ideas that geyi (which he calls “categorizing concepts”) revolved around Daoist (rather than generically non-Buddhist) comparisons, that it significantly impacted sutra translation, and that it lasted centuries and was central to the early Chinese approach to Dharma. In my post I do follow the standard interpretation in implying all of these things, and appreciate being pointed to this recent article.
    Mair writes: “Geyi was a short-lived phenomenon, as it was roundly repudiated by the very next generation of Chinese Buddhist teachers under the leadership of Dao’an (312–385). Thus, geyi lasted for no more than a generation and it was restricted to a very small group of persons who experimented with it unsuccessfully for a limited, specific purpose: to lessen the burden of Chinese Buddhists in dealing with numerical lists of concepts and terms.”
    At issue in the article, though, are questions of scope and scale which really don’t impact the broad point I am trying to make. Whether this interpretive methodology lasted a couple of centuries or a few decades, whether it impacted translation or merely exegesis, it does serve as a good example of one kind of approach to cross-cultural issues. And indeed that is the role Mair indicates it served in Chinese history; he writes: “The main reason we know about geyi at all is because the celebrated Eastern Jin monk Dao’an, rightly so, criticized it as ineffective.”
    That it perhaps has always been more polemical foil than established practice – just like the trope of the Chan heretic who sees inherent enlightenment as a justification for immorality and laxity – does not weaken its usefulness in illustrating this point.

  8. Hi Jiryu,

    Thank you for another stimulating post.

    Sometimes we let changes develop naturally with time. Sometimes, we see to be faithful to an ancient “original” … assuming that we can know what that was. Sometimes, we consciously and conscientiously discard the earlier versions and seek for something new and very radical by design. (I undertake a bit of each in my personal practice and the practice of our Sangha, depending on the circumstances).

    So long as the result is a wholesome and fruitful path, leading to understanding, release, Wisdom and Compassion … and does not throw the Buddha Baby out with the Bathwater … I think it is all good.

    Gassho, Jundo

  9. Pingback: Who Practices Zen? And Why? And to What End? | Sweeping Zen

  10. Pingback: Who Practices Zen? And Why? And to What End? | Sweeping Zen

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