Buddhism 6399, Pali 201: Double Entendres, Double Intentions? Or not…

img_2116Evam vadi: “Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not for assistance to any one besides yourselves.”

So said the Buddha on his death bed, in his final instructions to the sangha, the Buddhist community, his followers. There’s only one problem, or question, or issue, if you prefer: the Pali word dipa can mean ‘lamp’ or (drum roll here, please)–‘island’. In fact ‘island’ is probably the more frequent translation, given the prominence in Buddhism of that most famous of dipas—Sri Lanka…

(It does NOT mean ‘light’, not really, as often translated in the statement above, ‘light’ in the sense of that abstract quasi-dimensional entity which has a speed of 186,000mi/300,000km per second and serves as the upper limit of our human-ness, and therefore somewhat defining our status as physical, i.e. not totally spiritual, beings, in a material world, however sentient and well-intentioned)…

So which is it: lamp or island? Good question. Back-story: I stumbled on to this linguistic conundrum myself, as part of my Pali 101 language studies, but, upon further research, have since found that I wasn’t the first, nor the only. It seems that early Christian translators, full of the many Christian references to, and reliance upon, light, as a master metaphor, immediately latched on to the apparent similarity, and proceeded to write it up that way, assuming that it must be correct…

Or maybe they didn’t even consider the alternative? Some scholars say that the first sentence makes no sense any other way. I disagree. Is light, or even a lamp, a refuge? Hardly, but an island is. The third sentence, however, would seem to make more sense with the ‘lamp’ translation. Truth hardly seems like an island, but it seems much like light, or even a lamp, either way. Again: which is it?

Now the Buddha was not only a pretty clever dude, with a precise and unerring vision of reality, but he also had a sense of humor, a lesson Jesus could have used. At least one academic treatise even uses that humor as proof of Buddha’s authorship of his own words. After all, who would create humor for the Buddha out of thin air, just to falsify authorship for some political or other advantage? This would be analogous to the Biblical aside about Jesus’s failures of prophecy in his home town. You just can’t make sh*t like that up…

So I’m inclined to think that our clever leader actually meant both, as a nod to his traditional community to keep up their good work, BUT: don’t be too complacent, or too narrow, in approach or thought, or in the intended reach of the narrative. After all, a good old-fashioned double entendre exists not only to slide sexual references into otherwise polite company, but also for simple humor, AND to inject a novel thought or reference into an otherwise predictable narrative…

There’s more. For not only is there the Big Double Entendre of lamp vs. island, and the lesser DE of lamp vs. light, but there is also a prickly little question of the appropriate translation that yields that particular preposition rendered as ‘unto’. Pali didn’t really have prepositions, or very few, anyway. They had grammatical inflections, just like you studied in classical Latin. No? Russian, maybe? Or Bengali?

Anyway, in the original Indo-European languages, case endings determined the ultimate meaning of a noun, not explanatory particles, something rarely seen in modern English, only vestigial examples like I > me > my > mine > we > us > our, a mere glimpse of the way that EVERY noun used to be declined (please!), long before English began the long process of becoming a Chinese-like ‘analytic’ language, one reason foreigners are so accepting of it, if not the spelling…

So that particular form of the pronoun translated as ‘be a lamp unto yourselves’ can be—and sometimes IS—translated as ‘make a lamp of yourselves. Bottom line: my prowess in Pali is many years away from fruition, so just enough to ask questions without really being able to answer them. What difference does it make? It makes the difference between Theravada and Mahayana, that’s what, i.e. small wheel or big wheel, self-absorption or world-based action, saving myself or saving the world…

Because making a lamp OF yourself is the opposite of being a lamp UNTO yourselves, with the implication that making a lamp OF yourself would mean that it is shining UNTO the world. That’s what Mahayana does; Theravada is the self-absorbed one (not that there’s anything wrong with that, BUT the very un-Mahayana word ‘Hinayana’ definitely implies inferiority)…

So, did the Buddha himself plant the seeds for the splintering of Buddhism into some eighteen nikayas from the very get-go and eventually the three major divisions of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana with an on-again off-again relationship with Hinduism that foreshadows Christianity’s eventual Roman, Greek and Protestant sects and an uncertain relationship with Judaism? I think you could make the case for that. I think I just did…

p.s. Jesus may have been short on humor, BUT: he was very adept, too, and insightful with a phrase. You know that bit about ‘the meek will inherit the earth’? That’s not only a feel-good bone thrown to the hungry masses, but may in fact be very astute ‘evolutionary psychology’. They may in fact be the only ones capable of inheriting the earth. Best part: that may require an act of will, more than circumstance. I’m wondering: can secular Buddhism still have a sangha? Hmmm, stay tuned…

Advertisements