Saturday, July 2, 2016

Line 7: beyond words

Send me energy to know whatever arises is beyond words.

Translation points:
This last line is the culmination of the prayer. Translated literally, using technical philosophical terms, it might read

Send me energy to realize that what appears and what becomes is dharmakaya (ཆོས་སྐུ). 

This, of course, is virtually unintelligible unless one is familiar with these terms.

Let’s take them one at a time.

As noted in a previous newsletter, I prefer to use the word know instead of realize forརྟོགས. For reasons that will be clear in shortly, we don’t need to add directlyKnow by itself is sufficient.

The next phrase, what appears and what becomes is a bit ambiguous in the Tibetan. It can mean everything that one experiences when confused and bewildered (i.e., samsara). Or it can mean everything that one experiences, that is, samsara and nirvana. One of the challenges of translation is what to do when the Tibetan is ambiguous. On the one hand, you could make the meaning as precise as possible in English. Such translations may be clear, but they also lose something, particularly in the context of prayer and poetry, when the ambiguity in the Tibetan allows a spectrum of meaning. Thus, whenever possible, I seek to translate in such a way that the English is ambiguous, too.

A further point here is how to translate compound words. Tibetan expresses abstract ideas in a couple of ways. One is to juxtapose two opposites, or two juxtapose words that have a similar or related meaning. For instance, temperature = heat-cold, distance = near-far and size = big-small. It is sometimes difficult to find the right English word for some of these pairs. Hope-fear is one example and many translators find it is easier (and better) to say no hope or fear rather than no concern. Another pair that is usually translated literally is samsara-nirvana, when it just refers to the totality of human experience. 

Most of the time, one has to resort to abstract nouns in English, and their use undermines the power and force of a translation. This is partially because abstract nouns in English tend to have Latinate roots (1066 and all that) rather than the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic roots, which is where the power in English lies. Verbs present even more of a problem. Taking-sending = trading or exchanging. Come-go = move. But what about expand-contract, increase-decrease, add-subtract, radiate-absorb? All these indicate certain kinds of change, but the Tibetan is able to express exactly what kind of change, where additional words would be needed in English.

Similar challenges arise with Tibetan words that are formed from two words with related meanings, as in the Three Jewels (དཀོན་མཆོག་), where the first word means rareand the second one excellent or supreme

Here we have appear (སྣང་) and become (སྲིད). Not exactly opposites, but the phrase does refer to a spectrum of experience. Note: it refers to what arises in experience, not what exists. Aside: such phrases as "see things as they really are" are commonly used (and I have been guilty of using them in the past) but they are fundamentally misleading. Buddhist thinking, and Buddhist practice, is not based on notions of what is (ontology) the way English is, but on how life is experienced. Thus, I arrived at the deceptively simple phrase what arises as a possible translation. 

And then we come to the big monster, dharmakaya. It’s an incredibly powerful and rich term, but it has no equivalent, or even near equivalent, in English? It refers directly to a description of awakening (buddha) that is widely used in both Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, namely, the three kayas or forms. It has several different levels of meaning and provides a powerful shorthand that refers to large bodies of philosophy and teaching. In essence, dharmakaya refers to the emptiness aspect of experience, nirmanakaya to the form aspect, and sambhogakaya to the quality of experience when the emptiness and form aspects are experienced at the same time. Many translators (Including yours truly) have come up with various philosophical terms in English, but nothing comes close to doing the term justice. As a consequence a number of translators feel it is better to leave the terms in Sanskrit. For academic translation and for technical texts, this is a good solution. However, I feel it doesn’t work for practice texts or poetry.

Dharmakaya points to an experience (and it is important to remember that all these philosophical terms originally arose to point to specific experiences), one in which words utterly fail. The experience may be one of depth, vastness, brilliance, emptiness, freedom, peace, ecstasy, bliss, oneness, etc., or, as is usually the case, a combination of any or all of these (and others). I would hesitate to say that it points to only one experience. Rather, I think, it points to a spectrum of experiences whose intensity and profundity make everything else pale in comparison. One is left in such awe and wonder that words fail completely. Inconceivable, inexpressible, non-conceptual, ineffable, unutterable, etc. -- all these words are simply saying that you cannot say anything about it. Thus, in order that the prayer read poetically, I decided to avoid technical terms and go straight to the point - this cannot be put into words.
The role of prayer
Again, in this regard, prayer plays an important role. The practice of prayer as an expression of devotion is ecstatic: it involves opening to deeper and deeper levels of our experience of being. That opening transforms energy, which becomes available for attention. The combination of heartfelt opening and higher levels of attention floods your whole system and can completely change how the way you experience life. This transformation was at the heart of an instruction I received many years ago: pray to your teacher until thinking (i.e., conceptualization) stops, and rest there.

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