Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another one bites the dust

How many times have you heard that the Chinese character for crisis consists of the combination of the characters for danger and opportunity? Well, I came across this link recently. It effectively blows apart this particular folk etymology.
Folk etymologies play a significant role in Buddhism, particularly in the Tibetan tradition. The written Tibetan language was essentially created in 8th century for the purpose of translating Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. Written Tibetan is a direct import of an 8th century Bengalese alphabet, as you can see from the display of alphabets over the centuries in one of the Calcutta museums. 
More significantly, Tibetan Buddhist vocabulary was based on the folk etymologies of Buddhist technical terms in Sanskrit. This development endowed Tibetan with a power to express Buddhist ideas comparable to the power of a high-level programming language to express complex computer commands in succinct form. At the same time, Tibetan technical terms were completely divorced from the true etymological roots of the Sanskrit terms.
A good example is the word bhagavan, usually translated as lord. The original Sanskrit is derived from the root bhaga, which is also the root of the word vagina. The root means source, womb, matrix, etc. However, in Tibetan, the three syllables are given the symbolic meanings of conquer, possess, and transcend, conquering the reactive emotions, possessing the qualities of awakening, and transcending ordinary experience. No doubt this was the how the word was explained to the compilers of the first Tibetan dictionaries.
Of course, this development creates wonderful complications for present-day translators: do you rely on the original Sanskrit meaning(s) or the Tibetan symbolic meanings?


Greg said...


This is an important issue to raise, one that I find myself delving into more and more. Precision in language can be an effective guide to understanding or a detour into misappropriating intended meaning. The case of bhaga is an interesting example.

At this point of vajrayana's assimilation into the west, it is becoming clear that reliance on Indian texts and meanings are increasing important as we ferret out the intentions of the great scholars and siddhas.

It is evident that many meanings and texts were sanitized. In the competition for limited resources and sponsorship, the precision of language can easily be subjected to spin making it palatable for a benefactor. In a monastic community bhaga is a not so subtle example of such a leap.

Sanskrit is a beautiful spiritual language given that combinations of root words can evoke multiple layers of meanings. The relation of a Victor birthed from the womb of Mother Prajnaparamita, source, matrix and so forth was not lost upon the educated readers of Sanskrit and very much plays into esoteric rather than exoteric meanings. Indeed, dharmadayo not withstanding, the very nature of this esoteric buddhadharma business can be gleaned therein. Conquer, possess, transcend hardly matches up.

This raises a larger issue, in my opinion, that extends beyond singular word translations. I will raise this case in point. Maitreya, as composed in Tibetan texts is sambhogakaya, mahabodhisattva, next samyakbuddha and transmitter of sutra to Asanga. Indian texts however referred to him as Maitreyanatha, Asanga's guru. If we trace these sutras into Tibet [Atisha?] it may be that in translation, authority as to their authenticity is derived not from the fact of Asanga's human teacher, but from Asanga's engagement with buddha realms. The sutras are not diminished in any way, yet one must ask, to what degree are we served in a collective western sensibility by medieval Tibetan paradigms and quest for sponsorships, as precise language for current teaching? It is an opened ended question.

Going to the source materials from India as inspiration for innovative language is a very good idea and in the process much of the polemics of Tibetan texts can be clarified.


gmailer said...

What do you think of David Brazier's proposal that the use of "nirodha" in the third noble truth actually means "containment" rather than "cessation"?

Greg said...

In the context of the Third Ennobling Truth, a translation of 'nirodha' as containment seems misplaced and certainly not very elegant, indeed neither is 'cessation'. 'Ni' bringing the meaning of 'without' or negating 'rodha' wall, prison, obstacle, impediment can be rendered 'being free of impedance'.

Conversely we can find in other early definitions, 'without arisings', which within the context of dependent origination brings another quality of meaning.

'Containment', needs a container and that strikes me as an odd translation of the mode of being that is free of containers.

Maybe Ken has a comment.

Alex Coventry said...

Thanks for the comment, Greg.

jtk said...

Translation, when it becomes wanting, reveals ourselves to ourselves. We see how we have been thinking, what we have privileged and left out, what we have twisted and used, relied upon and believed, what we have chosen. A return to the "original" to make discovery of what was precisely meant in another place and time, another social and linguistic context (within which translations of thought and experience into language occured) is a futile exercise (if its intent is to discover anything absolutely). The way we read and translate ancient texts provides material we may use to reflect upon our own minds.

Ken said...

My apologies. I have been remiss in checking the blog for comments. Thank you all for your interest.

Anything, pursued too far, becomes a double-edged sword, undercutting precisely what one is trying to do. Yes, we need to take into account as much as we can ascertain about original usage, but we can never know exactly how it was. Equally, we need to take into account how it is being used or will be use now, but to rely solely on that results in the loss of context, meaning, and often depth and precision.

As for nirodha, I am not qualified to make any assessment. I know a bit of Tibetan, but not Sanskrit, except for a sprinkling of words I've encountered through various readings.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I'm actually doing a paper on eroticism in Indian poetry and have found a few sources describing "bhaga" translated as "vagina" or "womb". What sources did you use? Could you send me a link?