Simple or True?

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto


Recently, I attended a special lecture at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. The lecture was good, but it was presented in Japanese with an English translation. The translation was also good, but I came to see that there are things that cannot be translated. Concepts need to be explained and a literal translation is often insufficient in communicating the essence of a concept to a different culture and thought system. The translator did the best possible job given the time constraints and all, but the subject matter could not be fully communicated in the spirit of the speaker’s intent.

This is something that has been a point of interest for me in looking at history, especially in the history of Buddhism for many years. There are sutras that were translated into Chinese by different translators. Why is it that some became popular and others became secondary resources in trying to understand the original content? One example of this is the Amida Sutra that is chanted here for some services. Why do we use Kumarajiva’s translation and not others? The simple answer is that it is easier to understand and creates a sense of familiarity that is not found in others. Kumarajiva (334 -413 C.E.) was an educator and not just a translator so his selection of words and areas of deviation from the original communicates important aspects of the teaching and is not a simple translation of words.

This is an important point to remember in looking towards the future in translating terms as well. In looking at translations from Sanskrit and Pali into Chinese, different translators used different translations or terms to convey the meaning of the original. Some of the terms selected were very good and have been used for centuries. Others were not very good and were soon forgotten. Many more were good at communicating a single aspect of a concept, but did nothing to communicate the true depth of what that particular concept was trying to convey. This can be seen as one of the reasons so many transliterations (imitating the pronunciation of a word rather than translating the meaning) and seemingly confusing expressions were selected. Those were used to encourage discussion and dialogue so that one could come to see the depth of a teaching.

The expression, Namo Amida Butsu (take refuge in Amida Buddha, the buddha of immeasurable life and unimpeded light) can be seen as such an example. Shinran Shonin selected this as being the central object of our devotion and the expression of our gratitude in having received liberation through the compassionate vow of Amida Buddha. This is basically a transliteration and when translated into Chinese would be ki myo mu ryo ju nyo rai and ki myo mu ge ko nyo rai because of the dual meaning of Amida as Amitayus, the Buddha of immeasurable life and Amitabha, the Buddha of unimpeded light. Though he does use the translations at times, he seems to stress the transliteration more because with the translations one can miss the significance of the totality of the dynamics of the term.

First of all, light is a symbol of wisdom and life is a symbol of compassion. So, refuge is to be taken in the Buddha of infinite wisdom and compassion. We can take this expression of Namo Amida Butsu as having at least three levels of meaning. “I take refuge in Amida Buddha,” is one level. Another is that it is Amida’s call to us to, “come take refuge in me, Amida Buddha.” We can consider the recitation during service as Amida borrowing our voices to get us and others to hear that call. The third level would be when that call is heard and the act is realized. I often use the process of realizing we are lost and how we react to explain this. One usually does not realize that he or she is lost until they hear the call of a parent calling out to them. The realization that comes leads us to seek out that parent calling us. Then there is that feeling of relief and joy when we are safely embraced by that parent.

It would be virtually impossible to communicate this dynamic in a simple translation and more explanation and detail would be required. There is even more in the dynamic than in the simple explanation above and to focus on a single aspect of this would create a situation where so much is being missed or neglected. Some people have been translating Namo Amida Butsu as “thank you Buddha,” this is simple and easy to understand. It may not be wrong, but it bothers me that it is so incomplete that the depth and real beauty that the term holds becomes lost.

Do we want simple, easy translations or do we want to be able to realize the truth in our teachings?

© March 23, 2018