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This blog is devoted to the propagation of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a 750-year-old Buddhist tradition.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Translation (Part 1)

Reading a Buddhist sutra can be very different from what might be expected, especially if you were raised with the Christian Bible, or it may be your only experience with reading a religious text. The Bible is laid out as a narrative story (Creation to Revelations and End Times), except for several books that are about ancient Jewish ritual laws. A Buddhist sutra does not necessarily tell a "story" and many passages appear repetitive, or simply bizarre to the new reader. In some sutras, the Buddha manifests what we would describe as "supernatural" powers, and there are lots of otherworldly beings hanging about: devas, nagas, spirits, etc., who don't necessarily participate in a narrative "story." This can seem very confusing especially for someone who is curious about what the Buddhist "scriptures" say, to pick up and read and try to make sense of it. Even many Buddhists who do not read the sutras may find them hard to read! A person can open the Bible and read the story of Joshua and his wars or Moses and the wanderings of the Jews, or read in the New Testament and read about Jesus' life and ministry. In contrast, a person who picks up, for example, the Lotus Sutra or the Larger Pure Land Sutra may have no idea what is happening, and not know when or why such events are taking place. Therefore, some guidance is necessary if a person wants to seriously engage in reading the sutras, and importantly, to make sense of them and acquire wisdom from them.

First, let us look at the physical text itself. Only a few sutras and commentaries (shastras) exist in English translations, and as with any translations into one language from another language (in our case Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese to English) they can vary in style and quality. A translated sutra reflect the times they were written in and the author’s attempt to use English to translate some very difficult and different concepts. It’s not unusual to still find Buddhist sutras (especially early editions) translated such as “The Lord Buddha thus spake to his disciples…” This is not the translator’s trying to be obtuse, it is a reflection of what he thought would be the proper English usage. Until recently, only “King James” English was thought proper to use in Bibles and for “religious” language. Now there are dozens of Bible translations, most using contemporary English, but there are still people who belive only the King James translation is the accurate version. Unfortunately we do not have the luxury of having dozens of sutra translations to choose which is the most "readable", and unless we know the original language of the sutra, we cannot know ourselves how accurate or good it may be. We trust to the translator or translation committee that they are doing their best. However, we also have to be mindful that the translation, in an well-meaning attempt to be readable, does not sacrifice the meaning for the sake of "readability." We trust a sutra's translation usually in context of our own tradition.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pure Land Quote of the Week: Truth Dispels Our Evil Karma

"The evildoer in question has committed evils in a false and perverted frame of mind, whereas the ten repetitions of the Name arise when he hears the teaching of Truth from a good friend who consoles him by various skilful means. One is truthful and the other false. How can they be compared with each other? Suppose there is a room which has been dark for a thousand years. If light is cast into the room even for a short while, the room will instantly become bright. How could the darkness refuse to leave because it has been there for a thousand years?"

The above quote is from the Ojoronchu, or T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land. Vasubandhu and T'an-luan are two Masters of the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land lineage. The "teaching of Truth" is the teaching of the Nembutsu. When we are settled in Faith, or shinjin, we thoroughly understand Amida Buddha's salvific power, and regardless of our past karma, can be brought to Birth in the Pure Land and thus liberation. Different Pure Land Schools have debated on the number of repetitions one should make of the Nembutsu: ten times or just one time, or any combination. This was quite a vigorous and contentious debate back in the day! However, in Jodo Shinshu teaching, how many times we repeat Nembutsu is not important, as compared to the importance of awakening Faith (shinjin). Saying the Name without shinjin is just our own voice; saying the Nembutsu with shinjin is Amida's Voice and our voice as one.

The metaphor of the darkened room is ourselves as beings of evil karma who are "dark" because of the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance/stupidity. All human beings are like a darkened room! T'an-luan explains that the Name of Amida can be for us a way to bring light into the room. Once we embrace the Name, our inherent darkness has no choice but to dissipate. No matter our past negative karma, Amida Buddha is the light that can transform us - thus a meaning of the name of Amida (or Amitabha) is "Limitless Light." I truly appreciate this passage as it clearly and simply helps us to understand the working of Amida's Name, and provides hope for beings like ourselves who otherwise have no abilities, in these times, to comprehend the profundity of Buddha-Dharma.

The Ojoronchu exists in two English translations. One is the 1998 Inagaki translation, published by Nagata Bunshodo. The other is an unpublished dissertation by the late Buddhist scholar Roger Corless. I met Dr. Corless as a graduate student, and have a copy of this dissertation (I am not sure if it is available through dissertation Web sites or through interlibrary loan). The Corless translation differs slightly from Inagaki's as Dr. Inagaki is a Shinshu scholar, and Dr. Corless approached the text from a different perspective. Once I return from deployment, if anyone would like a copy, you can contact me.
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