Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Four Vows Controversy (Zen)

Mara Shaeffer, Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly, Kast, Ron, Don, Richard,
Roshi Jeff Albrizze and his wife Amanda have a secret to reveal on or about Doomsday 2012.
What an amazing announcement. Highly impressed doesn't even begin to cover it. Congratulations! I am seriously considering trying to reincarnate this December just so I can have the coolest Hoodoo parents ever! But I guess I'll wait and give some other chap a chance to enter this realm. Looking forward to the baby shower! -Kast
The Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) has a paper on the four vows comparing different translations, including some of the original language.
Wikipedia also has an excellent article as well on the topic “Bodhisattva vow.”
My final opinion as to what should be chanted has changed every day for the last few days. So I must continue to reflect and research. But I like what I have so far. Zen Master Red Pine made some interesting comments on how he translates his material, when he recently spoke at ZCLA. Combining the meaning with the rhythm and poetry of the words is a big challenge.
The Controversy Continues
Bodhidharma in Zen legend
"I didn't think we had a choice. I like Jeff's ideas but I want to remain within the Yokoji Zen Mountain Center/ZCLA orthodoxy." -Ron
    "For the first vow, I even like this version even more: 'Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to free them.' Free them from my judgments and self righteousness. For desires, do we really want to end our desire for happiness? Or do we want to bring happiness to others? Which desires do we want to want to end and which keep?" -Don

    Sisyphus according to Greek legend
    "I wasn't aware that all these different centers used different versions of the four vows. Seeing them all (Thank you, Mara!) gives me a different perspective on this issue than I would have had otherwise. At ZCSD we didn't chant any version of the four vows.
    "I think of the ZCLA four vows, when I say them, as being sort of an articulation or embodiment of the absurd human condition, in the sense of 'the absurd' being the difference between what one intends (truly, with all one's heart) and what is actually possible. I see them as Sisyphean vows. I'm also used to saying them with the cadence, etc. that we do now and am not all that enthusiastic about having to learn a new way of saying an old, familiar chant.

    "But it's fine with me if PasaDharma members who feel strongly about the four vows want to chant a different version of them.
    "How about chanting them in Japanese? I'd be fine with that, too. There's something to be said for experiencing the act of chanting (hearing, feeling, forming/creating the sounds, etc.) without being distracted by the content of the chant." -Richard
    The Perfect Wording?
    As American Buddhists we already change the original words of the Bodhisattva vows from the Zen traditions of China, Japan, and Korea by translating them into modern English. The benefits of understanding -- Martin Luther would agree -- far outweigh what is lost in translation.
    Perhaps we should compare translations and find the one that best preserves the meaning of the original wording. That would include their koan/ riddle quality of vowing to attain the apparently  unattainable.
    Wikipedia has a chart of the original wording used in five languages. ZCLA has notes on the four great vows with the original words and how nine different Zen groups translate them to help us come to a satisfactory interpretation.
    1. Masses [of] creatures, without-bounds, [I/we] vow to save (paramita) [them all].”
    None of the translations account for the “without-bounds” state referred to in the original vow which is harming the masses. The translation for “save” comes from the word paramita (a "perfection" developed for the sake of becoming a buddha), meaning “to take over to the other shore.” Using the word “serve” for “save” changes the meaning slightly. Serving people is different from saving them. One can serve people in many different ways, and that may lead to saving them from their “without-bounds” state. “Save” seems like a better pick in words for the original paramita, especially when confronting the without-bounds culture we live in today. “I vow to free them” seems almost as good. The ZCLA site suggests the word “enlighten,” which is perhaps the most specific understanding of the word paramita in the Buddhist context and the only thing that is real salvation. “Enlighten” includes the meanings of both “save” and “free” (liberate). This seems to capture that meaning best: 
    • “Numberless beings are without bounds, I vow to enlighten them.”
    2. “Anxiety, hate, [deluded-desires] (kleshas) inexhaustible, [I/we] vow to break (cut off) [them all].”
    “Anxiety, hate, and deluded-desires]” refers to the word klesha(s), which are “mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions (karma).” The three root kleshas are “greed, hate, and delusion” (or “attachment, aversion, and ignorance”), which lead to many other destructive mental states. The words “delusions,” “desires,” “passions,” “obstacles” come close to the original meaning of the word kleshas. Choosing just one of them leaves out a lot, with the remainder being lost in translation. The Diamond Sangha’s choice of wording seems to be the most comprehensive and closest to the original meaning, without resorting to a long list of the different kleshas. The word “sever,” as in “sever ties,” means “to cut off” and fits better with the rhythm of the chant. As much as we would like to “cut off” a particularly troublesome klesha forever, the best we can often hope for is to sever ties to it. It may yet linger waiting for a chance to arise again:
    • “Though greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to sever them.” 
    3. “Dharma gates beyond-measure [I/we] vow to learn [them all].”
    Using the word “practice” for “learn” does not imply any sense of attempted accomplishment. “Penetration” implies a beginning level of understanding. “Understanding” indicates a higher level of development beyond just trying to actually practicing. Isn’t this what we should be aiming for? The Diamond Sangha’s translation captures the koan possibilities of the vow best, since, if the Dharma is literally fathomless, understanding is impossible.
    • “Though the Dharma is vast and fathomless, I vow to understand it.”
    4. “Buddha Way, nothing-higher, [I/we] vow to accomplish [it]”
    “Embody” is a great translation for the word “to become, attain, turn into” (bhavana). Spirit (ephemeral intention) becomes flesh (solid materiality). The Diamond Sangha translation catches the koan-like quality best with attaining the unobtainable.” We realize that the vows are unattainable, but we vow to attain them anyway. Does their adding “fully” to the end make it more meaningful? It is hard to be sure. It throws off the rhythm of the chant a little and takes the punch out of “embody.” 
    • “Though Buddha’s way is beyond attainment, I vow to embody it.”
    The life of an American Buddhist practicing, or trying to practice, in the West
    So what are we left with?
    1. “Though numberless beings are without bounds, I vow to enlighten them.”
    2. “Though greed, hatred, and delusion arise endlessly, I vow to sever them.”
    3. “Though the Dharma is vast and fathomless, I vow to understand it.”
    4. Though the Buddha’s way is beyond attainment, I vow to embody it.”
    What does everyone think? The rhythm and simplicity of the old vows may fall to the wayside, one might appreciate the depth the Diamond Sangha has added with their translations.
    In our fundamental or Theravada Buddhist tradition, we have five essential vows in the Five Precepts:
    1. I vow to abstain from killing.
    2. I vow to abstain from stealing.
    3. I vow to abstain from sexual irresponsibility.
    4. I vow to abstain from deceiving.
    5. I vow to abstain from intoxication occasioning heedlessness.
    Without our vows, whatever they may be, we join the “masses of creatures without-bounds.” Of course, as with any translation, ultimately the Buddha was right in extolling the virtues of noble silence. The Sufi poet Rumi famously agreed:
    “Silence is the language of God -- 
    All else is poor translation.”

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