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March 03, 2011


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Thank you for an elegant and common-sense critique of secular buddhism.

@Vaccha. While I respect your faith in your ability or your translators' abilities to interpret the Pali free of their own pre-conceptions, I wonder if it has occurred to you that the translators may not actually be able to get past what they think the Pali should be saying, so that the translation ends up distorting meaning in a direction that favors the common understanding of what folks think it should mean.

It's interesting that you mentioned "birth" as an example, since I was, just yesterday, looking at the Pali:

"yā tesaṃ tesaṃ sattānaṃ tamhi tamhi sattanikāye jāti sañjāti okkanti nibbatti abhinibbatti khandhānaṃ pātubhāvo āyatanānaṃ paṭilābho"

which gets translated as:

"The birth of beings into the various orders of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation [in a womb], generation, manifestation of the aggregates, obtaining the bases for contact — this is called birth"*

There are some discrepancies. Like there being no reason for [in the womb] being inserted (which is what sent me to the Pali) and that the second "beings" is singular not plural and smashed up against "the various order(s)" so the word translated as "orders" is probably singular too, and so it seems it may be making a reference to the birth of something that was a group into a being (as in the five khandha being organized into "a sense of self" aka "a being")... and so on.

* from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.009.ntbb.html

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama. It is a very ancient belief and I admire those who practice Buddhism because they have great faith and their life is full of discipline.

One of the things that fascinates me about a transcendence-denying reading of the teachings of the suttas is that it requires so many things that otherwise fit together very nicely to be interpreted as craftily encoded by the Buddha.

From the concept of world-transcendence to kamma, to rebirth, to pain, to old age, to disease and death (as included explicitly in the definition of dukkha) to dukkha overall to deathlessness, to the self, to self-refuge, Nibbana, Brahman...the list goes on and on of things that the secular Buddhist must say the Buddha didn't really mean to say in those terms at all. What he meant, they continually have to assert, is that when he uses these terms that resemble ideas from a mystical teaching, he has really just borrowed them as perhaps hyperbolic symbols of a wholly secular system of "salvation." Even liberation or salvation itself doesn't really mean liberation unless one is able to decode it and what one is liberated from correctly, it just means perception of conditionality and psychological adjustment to it as reality. In other words, to successfully decode the Buddhadhamma for the secularist, we almost only need to reverse the meaning. Liberation means knowing you are not really free, self refers to what is not self, Parinibbana means extinction, etc.

What is remarkable about this tremendous work of interpretation is that it is never found to be decoded as such by the Buddha himself in the suttas, and this is remarkable because the Buddha of the suttas is famously very good at explaining the detailed meaning of the terms he chooses to use. For example, if you want to see what he means by "birth," he tells us quite plainly that it means being born in the usual sense (whether from an egg or from a womb, etc), not an abstraction. And he says that this happens to the worldling after death. And if you want to know what he means by death in that kind of statement, he explains that too. And it's nothing so abstract...it means simply death in the usual sense that people die at the end of their life. And so on....So the secular decoding of the Buddha's teaching occurs wholly in the enlightened too-modern imagination of the secularist who, being too reasonable to believe in spooks, must, if they are to continue to be interested in Buddhism, be convinced that the Buddha was a secular agnostic.

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