It’s not every day that our weekly newsletter raises hackles. But there’s always the exception. On July 5th the the newsletter ran the following quote, drawn from the Anguttara Nikaya, or the “numbered discourses,” of the Pali canon:
The brightly shining mind is never absent but is colored by the thoughts and emotions that people put upon it.
A few days later, friend, author, and contributing editor Stephen Batchelor wrote me the following:
Your July 5th newsletter contains a text that is attributed to the Anguttara Nikaya. At best it is a paraphrase….this is [Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s] literal translation:
Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.
I suppose I shouldn’t get too picky about these things, but this kind of sloppy scholarship is likely to perpetuate misunderstandings. There are a number of problems: (i) the passage is atypical of material in the Pali canon, (ii) its meaning is disputed in the early tradition, and (iii) it appears that it is being used to justify Mahayana ideas that are largely alien to the suttas in the Nikayas.
Stephen then points to Than Geoff, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu is more familiarly known, whose summary “of these difficulties offers a reasonable interpretation of the [selection’s] meaning.”
The offending quote was taken from The Buddha Speaks: A Book of Guidance from the Buddhist Scriptures, edited by Anne Bancroft (Shambhala 2010). Beliefnet quotes it more fully, I’ve discovered, and gives a more complete flavor of the translation’s bias:
The brightly shining mind is never absent but is colored by the thoughts and emotions that people put upon it. If you were to see the luminous freedom of this mind, you would cultivate it before any other, keeping it free of all attachments.
The translation that appears in Bancroft’s book suggests that the mind is separate and self-existing, independent of what it perceives. If this is hinted at in the Pali original (and, as Stephen points out, this has been much debated), there’s no mistaking it in the “Mahayana-friendly” rendering.
In her book Bancroft explains her methodology, or at least her reasoning, behind the choices she made in editing “the orginal” (presumably she refers to the Pali Text Society’s translations, which she mentions in her intro, although this is not entirely clear):
The extracts in this book have been carefully edited to keep to the original text as closely as possible while at the same time using appropriate modern words and phrases instead of outdated ones. In this way the Buddha can speak to us as he spoke ito the inhabitants of north India two and a half millennia ago.
Since Bancroft does not cite her source texts it is difficult to know how she edited them. My impression is that hers is more of a “rendering” than a translation and that it is heavily influenced by similar such renderings and translations.
As I post this I should note that Stephen’s own latest work, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, is the subject of a review posted yesterday by James Ishmael Ford at his blog Monkey Mind. As I have a few times, Ford gets the title wrong (it’s “Confession,” not “Confessions,” as Stephen has reminded me and others numerous times) but on the whole Ford’s review honest and well considered, like much of what he writes. There is one piece of it, though, that I’ve heard before, and it’s something I’ve never asked Stephen to respond to. Perhaps he will. Here it is:
Near the end of the book Stephen notes his admiration for the Anglican theologian Don Cupitt, of Sea of Faith fame, and someone I also admire. He goes a bit farther and says “I have a greater affinity with Don Cupitt than with any living Buddhist thinker.” My sense of Cupitt (I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, so I return to the more formal use in such things as a book review, of the Reverend Cupitt’s family name) beyond his rigorous thinking is a certain aridity in his actual religion. I find this in Stephen, as well…
It would be interesting if Ford could comment further on what he refers to as an “aridity” to Stephen’s “actual religion.” Like I said, I’ve heard it before and wonder what’s at the bottom of it. I sometimes hear Tibetans speak of how someone’s Buddhism can lack juice—the teachings become dry when they’re purely theoretical—but perhaps what some would consider dry Stephen considers practical and grounded.
If you’re a Tricycle Commuinty Sustaining Member, take a look at Stephen’s 4-part retreat “Buddhism for This One and Only Life” or visit his website for his writings and publications and make up your own mind. Supporting and Sustaining Members can also read Stephen’s interview with Don Cupitt here.