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Context from Commentaries Essential for Translation

Posted: Mon Aug 08, 2016 8:37 pm
by Bhikkhu Pesala
This verse illustrates very well how important the Commentaries are when translating the Pali Texts. One could hardly do it at all without knowing the context.
Dhammapada v 97 wrote:Assaddho akataññū ca, sandhicchedo ca yo naro.
Hatāvakāso vantāso, sa ve uttamaporiso.
Asaddho: means one without faith, a non-believer or heretic.
Akataññū: means an ungrateful person, who does not know what has been done for his or her benefit.
Sandhicchedo: means one who breaks the walls between houses, i.e. a burglar.
Hatāvakāso: means someone who has ruined his life, such as a drunkard or gambler.
Vantāso: is a hungry ghost that eats vomit.
Uttamaporiso: means a conceited person who thinks himself superior to others.

If this verse is translated literally, then, it might be rendered like this:
“The ungrateful, faithless burglar, has ruined his life.
He eats what is vomited by others, yet thinks that he is superior.”
The Dhammapada Commentary relates the story of thirty forest monks who had gone forth with faith in the Blessed One, and came to visit him after their forest retreat to report on their progress. Venerable Sāriputta was present when they arrived.

Sāriputta was formerly a follower of Sañcaya Belaṭṭhiputta, who was an eel-wriggler, and one of the six heretics. Venerable Sāriputta had only recently joined the Saṅgha, and the thirty forest monks had doubts about his sincerity.

When the forest monks arrived, the Buddha asked Venerable Sāriputta whether he believed that the five controlling faculties led to liberation. He replied that he did not need to believe it or take it on faith in the Buddha.

The Buddha's verse was therefore very shocking to the thirty forest monks, and really challenged their faith. However, every word in the verse has a double meaning.
Asaddho: means one who is not credulous.
Akataññū: means one who knows the uncreated (nibbāna).
Sandhicchedo: means one who has cut off the connecting link to a fresh existence.
Hatāvakāso: means someone who has destroyed all future suffering
Vantāso: means one who has vomited all desires.
Uttamaporiso: means a superior person.

If translated correctly in light of this, the verse would be rendered very differently:
“The man who is not credulous, who knows the uncreate,
who has cut off rebirth, who has destroyed all results,
and expelled all desires, he is truly an excellent man.”
Other verses in the Dhammapada such as verses 294-295 would be equally hard to understand without the context given by the Commentaries.

Faith (saddhā) also has two meaning: trustful, well-placed confidence in the Triple Gem due to understanding their special virtues, and confidence based on personal experience of the Dhamma. When translating Pali terms, we always need to consider the context.