Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"The Dhammapada" (tr. Glenn Wallis): Book Review

Diligence repeats; negligence looms. If "anthology" derives from "a gathering of flowers," than this "verse text" of four hundred blooms from the core teachings attributed to the Buddha must be not only taken up by an admiring reader. Its teachings of and about dharma, as "the way" to liberation from delusion, have to be distilled. As skilled compiler and translator Glenn Wallis urges in his appended "Guide to Reading the Text," the imperative phrasing demands that the verses undergo "a delicate alchemical task" by a reader turned practitioner, one who extracts the essence and scent and pith of the flowers, lest they wither and leave the reader but a passive beholder of their petals and nectar.

Wallis, as in a companion volume of earlier Pali texts comprising "Basic Teachings of the Buddha" (2007; see my review), nudges the reader to become an agent for change, to engage with these mnemonic prescriptions so as to find renewal and to develop skillful means of making their inspirations into perspiration, to transform an inert text--however lovely on the page and in his version-- into real energy. He applies reader-response theory deftly to carry out his editorial mission, and this enlivens his book's utility. His sharp notes guide one to become an agent for change, by understanding verses relating to suttas, the teaching-narratives gathered by the Buddha's followers.

These form, in the Dhammapada, thematic chapters arranged around metaphors or repetitive patterns. While "Basic Teachings" in its repeated, sonorous, prose sometimes felt--no fault of its own by its orally based origins--at odds with our more terse modern Western manner of inculcation--the repeating phrases of these briefer verses do not jar as much with our sensibilities. As in lyrics, their flow sounds easier upon the ear than the eye, often. Wallis comments how an "ethical polarity" arises, between optimal and destructive choices. Meanings hover within between quatrains, usually, so the tension between doing the right thing or the wrong suspends between one verse and the next. This draws the reader along, and the translation's efficient pace and graceful delivery underlies insistence.

I reviewed Valerie J. Roebuck's 2010 Penguin translation, appearing after Wallis' 2004 edition. She does not cite Wallis, as far as I can tell, but these two accessible editions compliment each other. Wallis prefers the suttas preceding the preparation of the Dhammapada for his overviews and notes. Roebuck's equally extensive appendices paraphrase each verse's "story" and offer glosses of key terms. Comparing two verses at random, you can judge both translators' choices in straightforward tones. Roebuck, a fellow practitioner-scholar, leans in my hearing towards a more terse, didactic, austere manner, perhaps reflecting her English training, vs. Wallis' confident, American delivery.

#6 Roebuck: Others do not understand/ That we must control ourselves here:/ But for those who do understand this--/ Through it, their quarrels cease.

Wallis: Some do not understand/ That we are perishing here./ Those who understand this/ bring to rest their quarrels.

#85 Roebuck: Few among humans are those folk/ Who cross to the other shore:/ These other people/ Just run along the bank.

Wallis: Few are those among the people/ who cross to the other shore./ The rest of humanity just runs about/ on the bank right here in front of us.

The choice remains; perhaps both editions will enable you to leave "childish" things behind, as Wallis renders what Roebuck does those clutched by "fools," and to mature by putting these verses to use. (Amazon US 2-25-12)

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