Monday, June 8, 2009

Lost in translation? Buddhists need desire

Those who have gotten into Buddhist literature, either popular books and magazines or the more obscure stuff, or those who have worked in a group with an experienced teacher, have likely heard the story of the Void. This was an unfortunate term that was chosen in some early translations to refer to Shunyata, which is now more commonly referred to as "emptiness", as in "empty of an intrinsic form", or better, "active potential for expression". Of course, going from a rich and textured language like those spoken in East Asia to a much more linear and flat language like those spoken in the West isn't easy, and we can and must forgive the occasional clunker in word choice.

The same is true of desire, and it seems like efforts at reform are under way to replace this with a more suitable term like "craving". Craving has a kind of desperate and unhealthy connotation to it, whereas desire does not. Desire is simply the wish or orientation of the heart. A spacious pure heart, like the heart of a Buddha, will be selfless in orientation and desire, while a cramped and hardened heart will be the opposite. Selfish cravings come from a sense of isolation and incompleteness, reflecting a fundamental insecurity (from which both self-loathing and arrogance spring). This is unlike the positive motivation to improve the world and assist others, which is born from a sense of unity and inherent wholeness, reflecting a fundamental confidence (from which self-acceptance and humility spring). It seems better to say Buddhism seeks to transform the insecurity of a deluded being to the confidence of Bodhisattva, to change the nature of what we desire.

The same goes for passion. We need a word change here as well, since passion can be interpret as both the goal we pursue as well as the energy with which we pursue our desires. Do we not need such energy to follow the path of a Bodhisattva? Perhaps "rashness" or "lust" in addition to "attachment" are more accurate than "passion"? Doesn't that make more sense?


  1. Yeah, I think there are some issues with translation of texts for sure. I think we have to do our best to practice and experience our lives, and not cling too hard to any one version of a translated text. Buddha said so himself so often - don't believe what I say, try it out, experience it yourself - the teachings are a raft to cross the shore, etc.


  2. Hello Nathan. Welcome!

    Yes, I've seen some bitter battles over how to translate passages of sutras and sutra commentaries.

    But that's human nature.


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