Thursday 29 November 2012

Buddhism and the Silence of the Internet

The culture of communication is changing: this makes it difficult to measure any kind of cultural change through the lens of any given medium.  In an earlier article, I commented that one of the problems with counting the number of Buddhists in America through a telephone survey is that the culture of the telephone itself has changed in the last 20 years (who will answer an unknown number in the middle of the work-day, etc.).  However, the simple fact that I'm here dealing with is the decline of the discussion of Buddhism in English.  In some ways, the numbers speak for themselves, and in some ways they require quite a lot of talking to.
Jeffrey Kotyk recently drew attention to the sheer decline in the use of the word "Theravada" itself through Google's own statistics; you can compare that chart to what seems to be declining interest in Zen Buddhism, and other key terms (see his article, here).  Although interesting, staring at that chart (below) raises many questions about what type of change the Google Ngram statistic really measures (in relation to changes in the publishing industry specifically, and the culture of communication generally).  By contrast, the more colorful chart above is very simple: it shows the decline in the number of messages sent to an online discussion forum (namely, "Pali: The Pali Collective").
There was a generalized complaint about declining activity from the "Progressive Buddhism" blog a few months ago, too: "…so many of the 'names and faces' of 2007,8,9 and 10 are gone or have simply shifted interest…".  That complaint is evidently applicable to "The Pali Collective" and many other online discussion groups I've recently glanced over; when I look back at the archives of messages from 2007, I can see the names of a few Pali scholars whom I know/knew and respect, who are evidently no longer active in the forum.  However, "The Pali Collective" is still a relative success story: a large number of groups that I looked up have completely ceased to exist.  Others, like the (declaredly) academic forum moderated by Richard Hayes have gone silent, but have not formally shut down.  Circa 10 years ago, that forum was an extremely noisy place.
The Dhammadutas group (as shown above) declined into silence, and was then taken over by Spam.  Clicking through the archives, 2009 seemed to be the last year of real (human-to-human) communication on the forum, but it had already been in decline for some time.
By far the most active discussion forum shown in any of these charts is "Dhammastudygroup", but we nevertheless must observe a decline over the last several years (the level of activity is now roughly half of what it was at its peak).
This discussion forum for Black Buddhists seems to have been a convivial gathering around 2006, but declined soon thereafter, and now has not had a single message posted in 2012.
The broadly inclusive forum named "Sangha" has now declined to a tiny fraction of its former level of activity.  Although I'm showing a (roughly) 10 year period for each of these forums, I would note that "Sangha" was actually founded in 1998.  As such, this is probably one of the longest-running (continuous) discussion forums for Buddhism (in English), although it is not as old as the (now-moribund) forum overseen by Richard Hayes that I mentioned before ("Buddha-L").

I have seen many, many other examples of decline (and, frankly, I do not know of any real exceptions to the rule).  I've presented charts based on Yahoo groups specifically, because they display their own statistics in a manner that is easier to read than Google groups and other competitors (glance over the grid of numbers, e.g., at the bottom of the Buddhadasa group… also in stark decline).

Are we looking at a change in the culture of communication, or are we looking at an indirect indication of a real cultural change?  Before I started a blog of my own (à bas le ciel) I did look through a long list of possible websites that I could have (instead) become a contributor to.  There were no good options.  Although I do still have three articles in peer review, in the last few years I've surveyed my publishing options on paper, again and again; the choices that exist (for an author) are similarly bleak, and many of the publications are in an ongoing state of decline.

Is the growth of my own blog now an exception to the rule?  Although I'm surprised at my own growing number of readers, I also see this small-scale success in the context of the collapse of other modes of publication that should have (or could have) been available to me.  19th century journals really did contain "notices" written as casually as these blog-articles (often more casual still) and a forum of that kind (on paper) is now severely lacking for anyone in the field.  As I mentioned in recent articles, we no longer have the type of "scholarly pamphlet" that the Buddhist Studies Review and the Pali Buddhist Review used to be (as recently as the 1990s).  In looking over the charts above, however, we seem to be witnessing the shrinking of the internet (as a forum for Buddhism in English) especially since 2006.  If you've been actively searching for blogs or new publications on Theravāda Buddhism lately (and, perhaps, this is how some of you discovered my writing in the first place) you will have noticed: I don't have much competition.  As time goes on, I seem to have less and less competition, not more.

Recently Asked Questions 01

[Question:] Learn Pali or meditate?

The Thai word for "protein" is โปรตีน. [Tipco]
[Answer:] They're not mutually-exclusive.

Your question is something like asking, "Should I read the ingredients, or just eat this thing?"  The two options are only mutually-exclusive if you assume that the ingredients are so bad that you wouldn't want to eat the thing once you know what it is made of.

Anyone would advise you to read the ingredients first, but the religious mentality seems to tend the other way: many people seem to embrace the thrill of biting in deeply without knowing what they're biting into (they want hallowed ignorance, to be blunt).

If you're looking for that kind of mystical experience (i.e., hallowed ignorance) you'd be well advised to convert to almost any religion imaginable other than Buddhism.  The people who don't know Pali also don't know what they're buying: many of them are (in effect) "ripped off" by meditation salesmen, and the rip-off can continue for decades.

As a useful warning, I'd advise you to read the one example I've illustrated of the mistranslation (and misunderstanding) of "breathing meditation", and also to take a look at some of the writing of disillusioned former followers of "Transcendental Meditation":

It seems to have taken 30 years for "Transcendental Meditation" to produce well-informed critiques from insiders of this kind.  I suppose the clock is ticking for various Theravāda meditation groups to do the same.

[To see my answers to a number of recently-asked questions (sent in by readers), go to; you can also click on the blue bar at the top of the question-and-answer box in any of the articles to access the same list of answers.]


Wednesday 28 November 2012

Female Monks vs. Thailand

The news item here is only five minutes long (the second half of the tape is an unrelated story).  Although it may be difficult to endure the narrator's mispronunciation of each and every Pali word mentioned, I'd encourage you to make the effort to endure it.*

* ("I continue to meet Western PhD candidates who cannot pronounce 'Theravāda' correctly. I would imagine that if no-one in their PhD program has informed them that θɛrəvɑdə is wrong, their thesis examiner may owe them a refund."

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 06, When Primary Sources Aren't Primary Enough

[Contemporary Taiwan; source/photographer unknown]
Someone could start a blog dedicated to discussing controversies in Buddhist studies from over 100 years ago.  Sometimes, I feel like I'm the one who did.  However, today's subject is merely 98 years old --and yet it still is news.

The 1914 thesis of L.A. Waddell is both interesting in itself, and interesting for the incidental issues it raises in passing.  It raises questions about how we know (and how we think we know) anything about Buddhist philosophy.

The 14th suttanta of the Dīgha Nikāya is apparently named the Mahāpadāna Sutta: if you look it up (on paper, or digitally) that's likely to be the name you'll see.  If you check the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, that's the name listed for that suttanta, and there's no explanatory note suggesting that it might be otherwise.

Back in 1914, this man Waddell suggested that it could be otherwise, employing evidence that wasn't really new at the time, and yet still seems new today: "…the texts used for the preparation of the Pali Text Society's edition of this book do not warrant the use of "[Mahā-]apadāna" decidedly, as adopted by the editors.  […] [Of the four manuscripts consulted to establish the title] two (S.t. and K., i.e., Singhalese and Kambojan) read 'Mahāpadāna", but an equal number read 'Mahāpadhāna', [emphasis original] namely MSS. S.ed. and B.m., i.e., [another] Sinhalese and [also a] Burmese manuscript…". (p. 668)

The reader may be forgiven if they now ask, "Well, so what?  What's the difference between -d- and -dh- (ဒ vs. ဓ) in this one word, in this one title?"  As we will see in a minute, if we run roughshod over these sorts of differences, our understanding of whole words and sentences is soon enough quite shoddy.

The -dh- spelling (padhāna, equating to Sanskrit pradhāna) Waddell proposes for the title entails a completely different word from the -d- spelling (apadāna, equating to Sanskrit avadāna, and, in the case of this particular title, the presence or absence of the first vowel (a) is masked by the prefixed mahā-).  Waddell proceeds to point out (p. 670) that we have even more interesting questions surrounding the use of this word padhāna elsewhere that have been "run roughshod" over, in the translation of Buddhist texts.

In the dictionary produced by R.C. Childers (1872–5) this word padhāna is understood as meaning "exertion".  Waddell quotes for us the instructive example of the line chabbassāni mahā-padhānaŋ padahitvā, translated by Childers as, "having spent six years in strenuous efforts".  If you clicked on the link to the range of meaning for the Sanskrit pradhāna, you may well have noticed that it has a long list of meanings, but "exertion" isn't one of them.

Waddell proceeds (p. 671) to state bluntly that this is entirely wrong in his view: padhāna has been mixed up with an etymologically unrelated padhana (and it is the latter only that should have this meaning related to striving and exertion).  Right or wrong, this analysis has been ignored by the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (as mentioned above), and also by the PTS Dictionary (that offers more-or-less the same definition as Childers: "exertion, energetic effort, striving, concentration of mind").  The possible existence of a separate word (or etymology) with a short a (padhana) is not mentioned in the PTS Dictionary.

Waddell then tries to reconstruct the meaning of padhāna with the same sort of methods that people regard uneasily in the work of K.R. Norman: he offers comparative reference to philosphical usage in historically-subsequent sources in Sanskrit (some Hindu, some Buddhist).  However, he is not entirely without evidence from within the Pali corpus of texts: does it really make sense to read padhāna as "exertion" in compound words such as padhāna-bhumi, padhāna-ghara or padhānaniyangaŋ? (p. 672)

R.C. Childers… nobody's perfect.
The coincidence of Pali padhāna with Sanskrit pradhāna doesn't mean that the two would have exactly the same meaning in any specifically Buddhist context (and the Sanskrit use of the word itself has a wide range of meanings for us to consider, in contrast to the PTS Dictionary); however, the connection is enough to make "exertion" seem dubious.  In the Hindu context, pradhāna is an "epithet for the Supreme Brahmanical god" (p. 673) and can have a number of other meanings in specific philosophical contexts.  Any number of meanings might make sense for its Buddhist application, but it seems difficult to imagine how "exertion" came to be presumed as the default for every instance within the canon (aside from the direct influence of the pioneering efforts of R.C. Childers to scrape together a dictionary from a box of manuscripts, and a bunch of conversations with Buddhist monks).

Whether or not you agree with Waddell's analysis, we have here already a set of reminders of just how tenuous our connection to primary sources may be: the correct spelling of the title of one suttanta (in the PTS edition) looks like it was decided by a coin toss between two spellings (equally represented in four sources) and a whole series of concepts (tied into the religion, philosophy and meditation of Buddhism) seem to predicated on a dubious reading of the same word that he suggests may have been overlooked in that title (pradhāna).  Waddell could be wrong, but, if so, the significance of the warning wouldn't change much: our assumptions about these texts are tenuous, and real difficulties can be obscured by the seeming-certainty of dictionary definitions.  Small but important distinctions can also disappear in under the hands of European editors (d vs. dh, and a vs. ā) --and, thus, primary sources start to become secondary, as they reflect the active interest (and revisions) of a modern author.

Also, explicitly enough, the article reveals the tension that surrounds the (white, western, English-language, 20th century) revalorization of the canon: Waddell is willing to get to grips with the plain fact that (as he says) "the compilers of this Pāli canonical book did not regard the Buddha as a mere man." (p. 674, emphasis in the original)  Already, in 1914, Waddell was dealing with an articulated agenda (amongst his contemporaries) to discount supernatural material in the Buddhist canon as if it were confined to later "accretions" (i.e., to assert that they are not found in the most ancient part of the Pali canon, where European rationalism was expected to be vindicated, etc.).  Of course, it would be convenient for anyone with a bias opposite to Waddell's to be able to treat the various compound words including padhāna as having something to do with exertion ("hard work") rather than something analogous to the concept of [Sk.] pradhāna in either Hindu polytheism or in Sāṃkhya cosmology.

We now have our attention drawn to three very different words, that look very similar in Romanized transliteration, and that some sources (editions, translations and dictionaries) may not be willing to admit exist as three separate words at all: apadāna, padhāna, and padhana.

There's nothing conclusive about Waddell's analysis of the issue: it reads like the start of a conversation that is still very worthwhile, circa 100 years later.  Part of the problem (today) is that people regard dictionary definitions as conclusive (and as having great finality) simply because they are published in the form of a dictionary entry (with all the connotations of the word "definitive" haunting the reader).  Dictionary entries, too, should be regarded as a single moment in a still-ongoing conversation.

"…the future of the 'Anthropology of Buddhism' will be dharma-tourism decorated with quotations from Foucault."  E. Mazard, 2009.  [Photo by Darren Donahue]

I have no idea, incidentally, if K.R. Norman or anyone else has since written an article investigating this specific issue; I asked one colleague before posting this short notice if he had heard of any recent publications on the matter ("recent" meaning "from the last 50 years", perhaps).  Posting informal articles of this kind is about the only method I have to find out (from others) if they know of more progress on an obscure issue of this kind.

Of course, it shouldn't be obscure: the word padhāna appears hundreds of times in the core canon, often in the midst of long compound words that evidently had a more precise meaning in the minds of their ancient authors than they do in the minds of their modern readers today.  It isn't a trivial matter at all, and there's no reason to assume that this word had the same meaning in various contexts (and in various compound words) throughout the canon.

Even if we only shift our understanding of the word by a few degrees, it would change our translation of (e.g.) the debate between Buddhists and Jains preserved in the Devadaha suttanta (MN no. 101).  What exactly should we assume about the meaning of this word, in a context that involves both Buddhist and Jain doctrines?  Should we totally disregard the denotations and connotations that the word has in Hindu and Sanskrit sources in such a context?  Does the translation "exertion" really make sense here at all?  That seems to be a conversation worth having.

Padhāna appears conjoined with samādhi in many phrases that modern readers care about, under the heading of "meditation"; it also appears in passages that make modern readers uncomfortable, under the heading of the "supernatural powers" that monks are supposed to acquire.  It is easy for a translator to run roughshod over its meaning in translating long compound words like chanda-samādhi-padhāna-saṅkhāra-samannāgataŋ (found, e.g., in MN no. 77, and elsewhere).  Given that this phrase is used in explaining the acquisition of "supernatural powers" (iddhi) it wouldn't be surprising if the word meant something more than just "hard work" --but, conversely, insisting on the Childers/PTS translation only might be convenient for a translator trying to make the passage seem more mundane.

A Bibliography of Just One Entry:
L.A. Waddell.  1914.  "The So-Called 'Mahapadana' Suttanta and the Date of the Pali Canon".  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Jul., 1914, p. 661-680.

Monday 19 November 2012

FAQ (How to Ask Me Questions)

The blog now has a large number of readers (and, surprisingly, older articles that are long and substantive continue to receive new readers in steady numbers, presumably because the links to them are being circulated by e-mail), but those readers rarely send in questions.  Meanwhile, the small number of people who do write to me (with no prior introduction) tend to open their message by saying, "I'm sure that you get a huge pile of questions by e-mail, but…".

So, I've now set up a Formspring interface, so that readers can send in questions more easily (and as anonymously as you'd like).  The culture of anonymity is a strange thing; I have received anonymous questions that turned out to be from a Sanskritist whom I've known for more than 10 years.  Meanwhile, Cambodians are a small minority of my readers, but (so far) they've written the majority of my fan-mail (raising the question, is my blog any more flattering to Cambodia than it is to Laos or Sri Lanka?).

You can type the question into the form, above, or you can access the same service via  Of course, sending e-mail directly still works.

If I get any really interesting questions (or if I happen to have any especially interesting answers) I'll write them up as articles on the blog.  Conversely, questions of no general interest won't appear on either website (e.g., requests for recommended reading are more likely to be replied to directly, etc.).

As you may imagine, one of the most frequent questions I receive is advice on getting a Buddhist tattoo.  I have the impression that most people don't really want the answer they get in reply, and would have been happier making it up themselves (as lamented by Victor Mair).  I haven't yet received a "before and after" photo from anyone who took my advice (nor from anyone who disregarded my advice, I suppose) before getting a tattoo.

 [Wrong on so many levels: a garbled rendering of 母_物贵… incoherent in any language]

Sunday 18 November 2012

Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 04

• Vocabulari de la llengua catalana + xinesa + anglesa + francesa, part 04
• 第04詞彙—加泰羅尼亞語+中文+法語+英語
• 第04词汇—加泰罗尼亚语+中文+法语+英语
• Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 04
• Vocabulaire Langue Catalane + Chinoise + Français + Anglais Partie 04

If you're interested in Lao (老撾語) or Pali (巴利文) you'll find that the numbers at the top of these vocabulary-list-graphics can be co-ordinated with the other series (e.g., here is number 3 from the series with Lao and Pali, corresponding to number 3, above, with Chinese and Catalan).

Monday 12 November 2012

Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 03

• Vocabulari de la llengua catalana + xinesa + anglesa + francesa, part 03
• 第03詞彙—加泰羅尼亞語+中文+法語+英語
• 第03词汇—加泰罗尼亚语+中文+法语+英语
• Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 03
• Vocabulaire Langue Catalane + Chinoise + Français + Anglais Partie 03

Thursday 8 November 2012

Gay Marriage, Buddhist Conversion and Attrition

The author of Le Coran et la Chair is (understandably) getting a lot of press coverage for his recent marriage: apparently he had the first homosexual marriage conducted with Islamic rites.

Interestingly, the guy isn't just a Muslim, but he's also an ex-Buddhist:

"Despite his break with Islam, the young man still yearned for faith, and turned to Buddhism. 'But I realised that misogyny and homophobia were the same everywhere,' he told FRANCE 24, and gradually Islam re-conquered him."

Although my first reaction is to insist that no, they're not the same everywhere, this is also an occasion to pause and reflect on the fact that Buddhism has a high rate of conversion, it also has an extremely high rate of attrition.  I mentioned this in my two short articles on the (exceedingly small) number of Buddhists in the U.S.A. and in Canada.

Homophobia isn't the same everywhere: there's a border between Thailand and Malaysia, and the status of homosexuals is starkly different on the two sides side of that border.  The difference between Theravāda Buddhism and Islam is accountable for a large part of that difference (I dare not say all of it) --and Malays themselves will hasten to tell you that they practice a relatively relaxed form of Islam.

Conversely, even if we were willing to consider Sri Lanka as relatively homophobic (within the range of Theravāda nations) it is still much more accepting than the most liberal of Islamic nations (and many Sinhalese will complain that they've inherited the homophobic aspects of their current culture from non-Buddhist sources, including, of course, the missionary Christianity of several successive European empires).

Thailand today is a destination for homosexuals who are (for one reason or another) dissatisfied with their lives in neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia, and other majority-Muslim states --despite various forms of open racism that make their lives difficult as non-Thais in Thailand.  I haven't seen statistics for the phenomenon, but I have seen the phenomenon itself (I assume that someone doing research on sexuality in Southeast Asia has statistics on this?).  I don't know if this pattern will repeat itself in Myanmar/Burma in future.

At any rate, it seems that the author (Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed) made a well-informed rejection of Buddhism: he converted, and then converted back again.

In his interview with The Local, he comments, "Eventually, I realised there was a big hole in my life so I investigated buddhism, but discovered there are also buddhists who are homophobic."

Yep, we've got homophobes.  However, we also have a religion based on a belief in non-violence, impermanence, that there is no soul, that life is suffering, and so on.  Those might be reasons for some people to deal with homophobes in this religion, rather than dealing with the homophobes in other religions (that might both endorse the death-penalty, and consider homosexuality a death-penalty offense) --or the homophobes who have no religion at all.  Everywhere you go, it's a struggle; it's amazing that he has chosen to continue his struggle within a religion that is openly hostile toward him.
[The happy couple: rights to the photograph belong to The Local.]

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 05, Traditionalism and Translationism

I've only seen one critique of K.R. Norman in print, and the author was K.R. Norman himself.

As I have recently mentioned the paucity of criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations, a colleague reminded me that the scarcity of thought directed toward K.R.N.'s translations is no less dire.

In 2004, however, K.R.N. wrote a retrospective evaluation of his own translation of the Sutta-Nipāta (a collection of poems located in the KN, and usually given the confusing abbreviation of "Sn", not the same as "SN").  The article is unusual article for the genre, in that K.R.N. offers some evaluation of his own prior work, as well as reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the array of primary and secondary sources now available, including what could be called "his competition" (i.e., other translators who have worked on the same text in the years before and since).

"The aim of my [1984] translation [of the Sutta-Nipāta], as of those I have made of the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā (Elders' Verses I & II, London, 1969, 1971) was to produce a literal, almost word-for-word, translation which I hoped would, when considered alongside the original Pāli, adequately convey my understanding of the original speakers' words, i.e. to give the meaning of the text as it was intended by the original speakers, or as it was accepted by the first hearers.  This is not necessarily, therefore, the meaning it had for the later commentaries…" (p. 72)

If there ever were a crowd of Pali scholars gathered into one room, sharp gasps of astonishment might be heard in response to the last sentence there (although, as it happens, I completely agree with K.R.N. on this point myself).

In this 2004 essay, K.R.N. presents a shrewd argument: he demonstrates that several scholars claiming that they follow the interpretation of the commentaries do not, in fact, practice what they preach.  Instead, in the process of editing and translating, these same translators sometimes diverge from and contradict the commentaries (when they see the latter's interpretation to be wrong) and sometimes misrepresent the commentaries, as a way of misrepresenting themselves.  This pokes holes in the premise that the commentarial "layer" is entirely consistent with the (more ancient) primary source --and it also erodes the translators' claims to represent (in English) some kind of continuous religious tradition.

Although K.R.N. does not explicitly state this in his article (and, really, he should spell it out more clearly) the underlying contest here concerns the vague claim to "traditional authority" made by his rival translators.  K.R.N. quotes the the introduction to N.A. Jayawickrama's 2001 translation of the Sutta-Nipāta, where we are ominously told that any departure from the commentaries "can result in micchādiṭṭhi — heresy — from the orthodox point of view". (p. 70)  Jayawickrama's work is recent enough that it could have been influenced by (and built upon) the earlier work by K.R.N., but, in effect, Jayawickrama boasts that this is not the case, because he instead devotes himself to following the commentaries entirely, and eschewing any "…arbitrarily emended readings on the grounds of metre or parallel versions seen in versions posterior to Pali." (p. 70)  That may be as clear as mud, but what Jayawickrama is saying is that he's throwing away the conclusions of K.R.N. (as the merely "arbitrary" machinations of a secular academic!); he is also suggesting that you should trust his own translation because it is a more consistent expression of the commentarial tradition.

The type of metrical and etymological analysis that clutters up K.R.N.'s work may seem "arbitrary" (as Jayawickrama complains), but it isn't; it is simply evidence presented in a form that's hard to understand.  Conversely, the choice to disregard an explanation of a word because it relies on metrics or etymology would really be arbitrary.

The commentaries do provide evidence (and K.R.N. also makes extensive use of that evidence) --but the type of evidence involved is just as imperfect, confusing, and susceptible to multiple interpretations as the original text being commented upon.

For example, K.R.N. details some specific instances wherein the translator omits to mention to their readers that the commentary offers more than one explanation; thus, the translator has (covertly) selected one of many options, to then refer to it as "the" commentarial interpretation.  In other cases, K.R.N. points out, the modern translators (falsely) claim that the commentaries are silent about something they are not silent about (but the translator wishes to contradict the commentary without appearing to do so).

There isn't a simple choice to be made between "traditionalism" and some competing "academic" approach.  Many translators invite their readers to imagine that there is such a choice (e.g., the controversy surrounding the "three lifetimes" interpretation of the 12 links, etc.) but this 2004 article by K.R.N. demonstrates that a translator saying "trust me, I follow the commentaries" doesn't have much more force than someone saying "trust me, I wear the robes of a Buddhist monk".

This is considered contentious (sometimes even religiously offensive) by the majority of people who care about Theravāda Buddhist texts.  I here refer to people who "care about" the texts, because, sadly, they're not the same people who actually read Pali: I have seen people explode at the suggestion that the authors of the commentaries were anything less than omniscient --however, in my own experience, people with this attitude do not actually read the primary sources for themselves.  Reading things (in their original language) tends to reveal the extent to which the words we have on paper are merely the work of human hands; in most cases, the authors have no affectation of infallibility, often enough expressing their doubts or offering more than one possibly-correct interpretation, and so on.

When a translator declares his devotion to the commentaries, it offers a false reassurance to the ordinary reader who can't scrutinize the source text.  This article by K.R.N. has many reminders of just how false this reassurance can be.  Certainly, an "ordinary reader" would be at a loss to explain the difference between H. Saddhatissa's (1985) translation of bhūnahu as "slanderous" and K.R.N.'s rendering "abortionist" (p. 81–2).  This is not a subtle difference of interpretation, and the commentary is vague enough for both sides to pretend it supports their case (although, frankly, it would be hard to K.R.N. to be wrong on this one --but he's the guy choosing the examples in this article).

[Yes, I've used this illustration before, and I may be tempted to use it again…]

The article also demonstrates many of the problems with Theravāda studies that make the whole field seem opaque and inaccessible even to the people who are most passionate about it: there's a strange reliance on innuendo and "inside knowledge" that's quite counterproductive (and, in some ways, typically British).  At one point, K.R.N. suggests, archly, that a brief note on a particular word by one of the translators he is surveying "may prove surprising to his readers". (p. 79)  The "surprise" in question requires a comparative knowledge not only of multiple translations, but also of the variations between multiple editions of the (untranslated) Pali; yet also, apparently, we need to know an essay published only in German (Hinüber, 1982–3, "Zum Perfekt im Pāli") in order to detect the problem --or, at least, we need to know K.R.N.'s opinion about it (perhaps stated in a footnote to his own translation).  Such a discovery wouldn't be "surprising" to any of the readers of the poem in question: it would be completely invisible.

The contention (alluded to above as "surprising") concerns a sequence of letters that shows up in the Sinhalese [BJT] edition as -tvā ajjha-, but in other editions as -tvājjha-.  K.R.N. reads the -jjha- as obscuring a lexical -ja-, and this is not surprising in itself (it is even less surprising if you've studied traditional grammar, such as Kaccāyana).  The insinuation is that "his readers" should be surprised that Jayawickrama has dared to disregard K.R.N.'s conclusion on this point.  The whole controversy is stated in such an involuted and unclear matter that it is difficult to share the presumption that the more recent translator intentionally disregarded the work of the earlier one, and I wonder how few people alive today can even follow the controversy as it was here restated in 2004.  K.R.N. is providing evidence, but it is presented in a form that's difficult to read, and difficult to even see the significance of.

There is one other (unstated but obvious) area of competition between K.R.N. and his "rival" translators.  Although K.R.N.'s argument about (or against) commentarial traditionalism is both shrewd and strong, he admits that Jayawickrama's "translation is clear and easy to read". (p. 84)  He also praises Saddhatissa's translation for containing many "splendid phrases". (p. 72)  K.R.N.'s own work, by contrast, is barely comprehensible to other specialists, and his lack of influence on later translators (including Jayawickrama) may reflect the difficulty that people have in following his writing (be it translation or explanation).  That's a type of rivalry that has nothing to do with commentarial authority, nor religious authority, nor even with the strength of philological evidence: if you can't express your conclusions in a way that others find convincing (or at least clearly comprehensible) then your work will fall silent.  In general, the paucity of criticism of K.R.N.'s translation may reflect this peculiar "silence" (despite the hardbound covers and institutional imprimatur that mark his work out on the library shelves).

Unlike Bhikkhu Bodhi, I don't have the impression that K.R.N. is widely read by Buddhist monks or laypeople, and his publications are rarely reacted to by the general public or --relatively speaking-- by other specialists.  I say "relatively speaking" because K.R.N. has, in fact, published a significant percentage of all of the new research on Theravāda Buddhism in the last 50 years --and yet I neither see much criticism of it, nor other reactions to it of any kind.

To the best of my knowledge, K.R.N.'s first language is English, and yet he manages to produce translations that are nearly incomprehensible, even to other native speakers of English.  This is a subject that deserves criticism elsewhere, partly because the process of that criticism might draw out the useful observations (embedded in K.R.N.'s research) into some form that would be more easily understood by specialists and non-specialists alike.  If (if!) the objective of translation is to render a text that can be understood without comparative reading of the primary source, we may say that the leading edge of K.R.N.'s research still leaves us very far away from that goal.

Vague claims of the same kind that K.R.N. has quoted from Jayawickrama's introduction can be found in many English books on Buddhism (from informal pamphlets to hardbound tomes) with the insinuation being that textual scholarship is inimical to "tradition".  There are very few advocates for the opposite point of view, i.e., that textual scholarship itself is the tradition.  Sometimes monks engage in textual scholarship; sometimes non-Buddhist laypeople (like K.R.N.) engage in textual scholarship; however, what transpires on both sides of that equation is the entire substance of the tradition --not something that detracts from it.

[A Bibliography of just one entry:]
K.R. Norman.  2004.  "On Translating the Sutta-Nipāta."  Buddhist Studies Review, Vol. 21, No. 1.

Monday 5 November 2012

Introducing Catalan to Thailand (and Thai to Catalonia)

The Thai term for Catalan (as an ethnicity) = ชาวมณฑลแคตาโลเนีย.  We have two proper nouns before the phonetics of แคตาโลเนีย, attempting to sound out "Catalonia".

This is better than what you get from the Chinese transcription.

In Chinese, the two useful syllables at the start of "Catalonia" (the only part people would bother to say) are "Jia Tai".  You get stuck with the same "Jia" that is used to transcribe the first part of "Canada" (加) followed by the same "Tai" that is used for the nation of Thailand (泰).

In full, the Chinese is Jiā tài luō ní yǎ (as you've already seen on the recent vocabulary lists) --but nobody will say all of that in a monosyllabic language.  I suppose somebody must have a few funny stories from trying to explain what "Jia Tai" means in the Chinese cultural (and political) context.  The Thai transcription doesn't have the same scope for comedy.

The guy in the video is Alif Silpachai and if you click through to his other contributions online, you'll see that most of them concern Tai (泰) languages other than Catalan.