Monday, March 5, 2018

Lots in Translation: Problem Words

Immigrants and visitors from all over the world have come to our temple. Among our members are people from several countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Recently one of our members from Europe came to me about how some of the terms used in Buddhist texts disturbed her and I told her the problem is with the English translations.

In her case she looked up the English words in a dictionary of her language and found meanings far from what the Asian language Buddhist texts were describing. It made me wonder if that’s why some Shin groups in Europe and the east coast seem so harshly judgmental  - they rely on the English translations with very little help from those who know the Asian languages.

One of the problematic words found in translations of Buddhist texts is “attachment.” In one of my early blog posts (October 2011 “The word ‘love’ – the negative connotation in Buddhism”) is the point I make often in the intro and study classes. It’s fine to feel affection towards your family members and friends, like in “she’s very attached to her grandchildren.” What Buddhism warns us against is getting possessive and controlling – towards people, animals, water, spaces etc. I prefer to talk about “grabbiness” rather than use a word like “attachment” that in English has meanings and connotations that don’t relate to the Buddhist term. Too many people have been misled by “cut off attachments,” believing that Buddhism commands them to cut off ties with everyone except their guru and fellow disciples.

[My title says "lots" not "lost"] 
The word that particularly disturbed our European member is “defilements.” I explained to her as I often do in the study classes that in Buddhism, a “defilement” (a “sin”) is anything that gets in the way of your awareness of the interconnection and flow of life. Buddhists are not super-prudes who tsk-tsk people for drinking and dancing and swearing. It’s those looks and words of disapproval that are the defilements – creating barriers that separate us from others and blind us with deluded absolutes. A vegetarian can be full of defilement because he loudly attacks others for eating meat, while a meat-eating person who takes into account the dietary preferences of her friends when hosting a dinner is being respectful of the diverse circumstances of others. In Buddhism the person with the “dirty mind” is not the person thinking of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, but that person who thinks their gender, race and/or religion gives them the right to look down on other people as inadequate beings.

One word used frequently in Jodo Shinshu writings is bonno, usually translated as “blind passions.” In the sutra study group one person who’s studied Catholic theology knew that “passion” in its original use means “suffering.” Somehow in English the word came to mean “fervent desire” – maybe because the frustration of one’s romantic desire feels like suffering. It is misleading to think bonno means desires because there are all kinds of desires humans have that are ego-transcending rather then ego-enhancing. I have no idea how the “blind” part got included in the standard translation of bonno.

Looking at the Chinese characters for bonno (bon=to be irritated, no=to be miserable), I think it’s a word that sums up dukkha, the getting-stuck-ness that the Buddha pointed out as his first realization about himself. In English, an accurate translation would be “piss and moan.” Shinran sounds so much more human when he’s saying, “My being is full to the brim with pissing and moaning,” rather than “Beings are replete with blind passions.”

Lately my defilements and pissing-and-moaning have caused hurt feelings among the temple members. I’ve been too attached to the temple premises and procedures, acting as if I own the place and how it’s run. There’s a lot in life to piss and moan about but with the temple members who do so much to support our activities, I need to express more gratitude and refrain from pouring down complaints on them. It’s better that I do my bitching about the politicians in Chicago, in the state capital and in the federal government (as a private individual, of course, and not as a representative of the temple).

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