As part of my new job, I recently wrote a rather glowing book review for the latest Spirit Rock newsletter that I thought I should put up on my blog since it is otherwise only available in print form. As an added bonus, if you click on the title above, it will take you to a web page of MP3 talks by Gil Fronsdal, including two talks he gave about "The Dhammapada" that I listened to as research for my book review. Gil is a wonderful teacher with a very mellow, slightly dry manner that seems to come directly out of his Finnish roots.
Here's the article I wrote:
"The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations"
Translated by Gil Fronsdal, with a Foreword by Jack Kornfield
Published by Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Boston, Massachusetts, 2005
By Walt Opie 1/2/2006
Towards the end of a five-day retreat I attended this fall at Spirit Rock, the walking meditation room beneath the upper Retreat Hall was temporarily converted into a Buddhist bookstore. Being a bibliophile, I got excited and hurried down the steps to do some “shopping meditation” (as Jack Kornfield likes to call it). I wanted to be mindful about this though, so I made a conscious decision to only buy one book, forcing myself to choose wisely.
Not long after my browsing began, I reached up and pulled down a copy of Gil Fronsdal’s new translation of “The Dhammapada,” with an encouraging Foreword by Jack himself. It seemed perfect—a book of direct teachings from the Buddha, something I could refer back to again and again for years to come as I learned more about the practice of meditation and the teachings of the dharma. It hooked me in just the first few lines:
“All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.”
Furthermore, as Fronsdal explains in the Preface, although there are officially over 50 translations in English available of “The Dhammapada,” many of these are really adaptations of previous English translations, not direct renderings from the original Pali language. This practice cannot help but dilute the text in any number of ways. Being a Buddhist scholar with knowledge of Sanskrit (which is closely related to Pali), Fronsdal took it upon himself to start fresh from the primary source. In this way he has given us a very literal yet modern version of these teachings of the Buddha that is easy to comprehend while still managing to convey a flavor of the way it might have been received well over 2,000 years ago.
I found Fronsdal’s translation of this ancient classic to be very clean, simple and concise—as if a trusted friend had taken it upon himself to render the most faithful work of translation he could possibly muster. As I read it, I felt the Buddha’s words were in good hands. I also liked how he explained his choices both in the Preface and in his Notes at the end of the book. An example of this was his confession up front that one of his more debatable decisions was the translation of dhamma as “experience” in the first verse (quoted above). As he stated, dhamma can also mean “religious teachings, religious truth, justice, and virtue.”
To me, perhaps his most controversial decision was to translate a much-beloved verse of “The Dhammapada” differently than we are accustomed to hearing it. Instead of saying, as is often quoted, “Hatred never ceases by hatred; by love alone is it healed,” Fronsdal chose to say, “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end.” Somehow “non-hate” is not quite as memorable or moving as the use of the word “love” (although I like its close relation to “nonviolence”). Fronsdal explains in his endnotes, “To translate avera as ‘love’ probably does not do justice to the original,” but he also reveals that avera typically does refer “to the absence of hate, as well as the presence of patience and loving-kindness.” I am reminded of how The Dalai Lama sometimes refers to the Chinese government as “our friends the enemy.”
Overall, I think this new rendering of “The Dhammapada” is an instant classic, something to be cherished as a gift from a virtuous teacher and scholar, offering all who read it an opportunity to be “freed by right understanding.”