I recently bought a book called The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan. It's a pretty neat book about the way Buddhism has been transformed and "Westernized." The author also contends that this process of Westernization is not confined to Americans and Europeans who have misinterpreted Buddhism through their own cultural conditioning. It also includes Asians who have interpreted Buddhism according to their modern Westernized points of view. He cites DT Suzuki, Thich Naht Hahn, the 14th Dalai Lama and others as good examples of Asians who have Westernized Buddhism. He doesn't seem to think this is a bad thing. He feels that we Westerners tend to accept what we learn of Buddhism as being present in its most ancient sources. But he questions whether that's true.
I've said several times that I feel like Buddhism is sort of like advanced physics. Albert Einstein pioneered so much of advanced physics it might be considered appropriate to call it "Einsteinism." But if we did that we would not want to stop all of advanced physics at the point of Albert Einstein's death and say anything that came after is not legitimate.
Same with Buddhism. Buddha never claimed to be a prophet or messiah. So to say Buddhism stops with the death of the historical Buddha would be a grave misunderstanding of Buddhism. Westernization and modernization of Buddhism is inevitable and helpful.
McMahan cites a passage by Jay Garfield regarding translation. Garfield says:
"When we translate, we transform in all of the following ways: we replace terms and phrases with particular sets of resonances in their source language with terms and phrases with very different resonances in the target language; we disambiguate ambiguous terms, and introduce new ambiguities; we interpret, or fix particular interpretations of texts in virtue of the use of theoretically loaded expressions in our target language; we take a text that is to some extent esoteric and render it exoteric simply by freeing the target language reader to approach the text without a teacher; we shift the context in which a text is read and used."
I was going over the galleys of Nishijima Roshi's translation of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. It's due out in about a month. In the translation, Nishijima Roshi insists upon translating the Sanskrit word shunyata as "the balanced state."
Everybody knows that the word shunyata means "emptiness." This is the accepted translation of shunyata and has been for many years. Nishijima himself is well aware of this. But he also felt that the word "emptiness" in English really did not convey what Nagarjuna was talking about when he used the word shunyata.
McMahan talks about the way the Sanskrit word moksha is translated as "freedom." This is an accepted and approved way of translating the word. But moksha means, in McMahan's words, "liberation from rebirth in samsara as an embodied being, as well as liberation from destructive mental states (klesas), craving, hatred, and delusion and from the suffering (dukha) they produce."
On the other hand, the word "freedom" conveys to Western readers such things as, "individual freedom, creative freedom, freedom of choice, freedom from oppression, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom from neuroses, free to be me — let freedom ring" and so on. "Freedom" is a proper translation of moksha. But it means something very different from moksha.
"Balanced state" is an improper translation of shunyata. No doubt about it. But it may convey more of the meaning of shunyata than the word "emptiness" is able to. That was Nishijima's feeling anyway.
The translation is idiosyncratic. It does not match other English translations. But there are several more standard versions easily available to anyone who wants them. There is no reason for yet another one of those.
People worry themselves far too much about the Westernization and modernization of Buddhism. It's nice to have faithful versions of ancient texts. But we also have to be aware that even the most faithful versions we can produce are not faithful. Even if we read the texts in their original languages, we come from such a different place culturally we still won't be able to get what the people who wrote them meant exactly. Even the people who read those texts during the authors' lifetimes may not have fully understood what their writers meant.
Here are some helpful examples from the Nishijima text (slightly out of order from how they will appear in print):
Chaoter 4, Verse 8
vigrahe ya˙ parīhåram krte sunyatayå vadet
sarvam tasyåparihrtam samam sådhyena jåyate
* vigraha: m. keeping apart or asunder, isolation; division; independence. parīhåra: m. avoiding, shunning, caution; disrespect. kr: to do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare. sunyatayå: I. of sunyatå. sunyatå: f. emptiness, loneliness, desolateness; absence of mind, distraction. vadet: 3rd pers. opt. 1st conj. of vad. vad: P. Å. to speak, say, utter. parihrta: mfn. shunned, avoided; abandoned, quitted; taken, seized; n. what has been wrapped round or put on. sama: mfn. (connected with sa and with sama and samåna) any, every. sådhya: mfn. to be subdued or mastered or won or managed. jåyate: jan: to generate, beget, produce, create, cause.
[When one exists independently, one can keep one’s attentive attitude and can speak from the balanced state.
In actual situations although nothing is shunned, all things and phenomena can manifest themselves in the state of regulation.]
--- If a person can live in the state of being truly independent, that person naturally prefers to keep an attentive attitude and can speak of everything in a stable manner. We cannot shun anything. Our lives are such that we are obliged to accept everything that occurs, whether we like it or not. Yet if we can maintain this truly independent attitude, it is possible for us to accept our circumstances in a balanced and regulated way.
The real universe should manifest itself clearly. If it were impossible for the real universe to manifest itself clearly, then the real universe could never become clear at all. The reason that the real universe does not seem to manifest itself clearly, comes from the unbalanced situation of our autonomic nervous system.
I am not a medical doctor or neurologist. But as a Buddhist teacher I value the work of these scientists. Their findings and theories are often useful in helping to clarify Buddhist philosophy and make it comprehensible to today’s audiences by removing the air of mysticism that has surrounded these teachings for far too long. I have come to believe that what has been called satori or “enlightenment” by Buddhist masters of the past can be expressed in more contemporary terms as the balance of the autonomic nervous system.
One does not need to be a scientist or a physician in order to understand the basics of scientific theory or the basics of physiology. These days the basics of science and physiology are part of the common framework of human thought and understanding. Nor must one be a scientist of physician to use these terms. I am not trying to advance some new theory of science here. I am only using the theories science has already provided as a means of expressing Buddhist philosophy in more contemporary terms.
Science tells us that the human autonomic nervous system consists of two parts. These are called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. These two nervous systems, they say, work in opposition to one another. It is my belief that the workings of the sympathetic nervous system are the true basis for the philosophy we call materialism while the workings of the parasympathetic nervous system are the fundamental basis for the philosophy we call idealism or spirituality. When the sympathetic nervous system is in ascendancy we tend to feel materialistic. We become more involved with body than with mind. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stronger we feel spiritual. Our mind becomes clearer but we lose contact with our body.
The practice of zazen brings the two nervous systems into balance, allowing each one to function at equal strength. When this occurs there is what Master Dogen called “dropping off body and mind.”
We will return to this idea again and again throughout the commentary, and I hope it will become clearer as we go along. For now we can just note that if we were to use our contemporary terminology, Nagarjuna appears to me to be saying here that until the autonomic nervous becomes balanced, it is impossible for the real universe to become clear. ---