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.