Review: The Dhammapada by Eknath Easwaran
A Beloved Classic of Buddhist Writing
One of the best known and most beloved of the Buddhist scriptures, The Dhammapada is a collection of the sayings of the Buddha. According to tradition, each of the verses contained within the text were spoken by the Buddha, surviving through the centuries to find their way into the hands of modern readers.
Translated by Max Muller, the verses cover a range of topics from Thought and Pleasure to Old Age, Happiness, and The Way. They are both simple and profound, guideposts to living an enlightened life and incisive shards of wisdom that cut through our passivity to the reality of spiritual enlightenment.
This edition of The Dhammapada is part of the Essential Wisdom Library, a series that seeks to bring spiritual wisdom, both old and new, to modern readers.
This translation of essential Buddhist teachings credited to Eknath Easwaran is much more complicated than his presentation of The Bhagavad Gita. The editorial style would be appreciated if the end notes of each chapter weren't so confusing.
This 2022 version is translated by F. Max Muller who referenced a list of previous scholars, none of them were Pali speakers originally. They were renowned Sanskrit teachers and knew dialects including Pali, but there is much too much open to context and interpretation. One referenced author is Childers, the author of the first Pali Dictionary published in 1875. The preface explains all of these scholars who came before: Weber (German), Hu (French), Fausböll (Danish).
Muller believes the Dhammapada is considered an "easy" resource for people looking for Buddhist teachings. Yet, even Muller points out that the Dhammapada is both easy and very difficult. Muller takes a considerable amount of pages explaining who difficult the translation can be. If you're that type of scholar, pages about the etymology and dissection of one word is probably appealing. However, if you're a student looking for ways to understand the laws of Buddhism, this might not be the first book you want to reach for.
Muller says: "To find terms exactly corresponding to the varied terminology of Buddhism is simply impossible."
It's like that children's game Telephone. You form a circle or a line of students. The teacher whispers something, even one word, into the first student's ear. That student has to pass the message alone to the next and so on. By the end, the secret message is never accurate. It's never even close!
When an English translation doesn't even come from Pali, but rather is from a Chinese or German or French translation, it's bound to be quite dissimilar to the original story. Muller has a fantastic example of this in one chapter in particular where he believes the source material used puns. Puns and metaphors can be debated infinitely. Does "forest" mean an actual grove of trees or does it mean the "collection of desires" a person can harbor? Even the usage of the word/title "Buddha" refers to anyone who has arrived at complete knowledge, according to Muller.
A word that might be considered simple to translate is not. For example "naga" which means snake is also used in this text to mean elephant. Checking the learnsanskrit.cc dictionary, "naga" does mean cobra whereas "nagadanta" means elephant tusk.
This usage of "naga" is not even presented in the chapter notes as a debate about which animal the original text meant. Instead, Muller pulls from the other resources and says: "The elephant is with the Buddhists the emblem of endurance and self-restraint. Thus Buddha himself is called Naga, 'the Elephant' (Lal. Vist. p. 553), or Mahanaga, 'the great Elephant' (Lal. Vist. p. 553)...
The notes on "elephant" continue. And I'll make an important linguistic note here that my toolbar for writing doesn't even have a tab for special characters so I can't properly write the words with their accents as Sanskrit should be written. This is yet another 2022 instance of how we are losing languages.
Do I think there are important ethical and moral lessons in The Dhammapada? Yes, mostly. Do I think they came from Guatama Siddhartha, The Buddha? I doubt all of it did. Like the Christian Bible, other people wrote lessons down long after oral history was the way to learn. For a fun and cheery look into how many times the Buddha is misquoted on the internet in memes, take a look at "I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha!" by Bodhipaksa.
Rating: 3 Stars