Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Recently Asked Questions 02

The t-shirt is actually for a rock band, not the religion…
[Question:] Do you have any recommendations for translations of the Sutta Pitaka?

[Answer:] Sadly and sincerely, my answer is no.  The translations that now exist (in English) only offer you a range of options varying from "professional fraud" to "pious fraud" (and some are a mixture of the two).

One of the few books that I do suggest people seek out and read is Richard Gombrich's first major publication, "Precept and Practice"; sadly, I can't really make this endorsement without mentioning that (by contrast) I don't recommend Gombrich's more recent work.  His later books are both badly misleading and badly misled.  I do actually like Gombrich as a person (and as a personality), but the only book of his that I can endorse is that first one, written when he still identified himself as an Anthropologist.

Incidentally, Gombrich was quite friendly and encouraging toward me for some time, until the moment that he saw that I'd written a single word of criticism against his published work.  After that, I never heard another word from him again.  Sadly, while Gombrich has invoked the philosophy of Karl Popper many times, he has been unable to practice his own precepts in this regard.

Why do I provide this answer in reply to a request for a translation of the Sutta Pitaka?  Well, if you read Gombrich's first book ("Precept and Practice") you don't get primary sources, but you do get to see an anthropological sketch of the religion in its cultural context, with contrasting statements about the philosophy set down in the ancient texts, and the reality of Buddhism in this world today.  Right now, if you can't read Pali, this is probably the best that you can do.  Anthropology doesn't have all the answers, but it has some of the right questions; by contrast, "Buddhist studies" is in a defensive, hyper-conformist state, and nobody can even ask the important questions (let alone discover new answers).

Buddhism in English is simply not at the same stage that (e.g.) the philosophy of Lucretius achieved (thanks to the work of hundreds of scholars, over hundreds of years, with massive institutional support).  You can't read about it in a reliable translation.  You can't just buy the t-shirt and put on the necklace.  The work simply hasn't been done to make it easy for you.  The fact that people like me find it impossible to do more of that work (and don't have institutional support anywhere: neither in Thailand nor in Taiwan, etc.) means that it won't happen in this generation.

Sorry, but that's the answer to your question.