BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

And here again ...

eeeotdtbctn1I very rarely re-read books intentionally, but the Dhammapada seems to be one of those books that ends up, in one form or another, finding its way into my reading pile every 2-3 years. Of course, I'm not really “re-reading” it, as I'm not going back to the same edition, and there is a great deal of difference given the background of the translator/interpreter, as well as when the book was produced. If you're interested, I have reviews of F. Max Müller's translation (which was a Dover reprint of a book that was over a century old, notably featuring the unfortunate replacement of now-familiar terms Dharma and Sangha with the harsher “law” and “church”), and Juan Mascaro's translation and excellent interpretive essay (itself probably influenced by its 1973 vintage).

Actually, Mascaro's book is a good bridge to the subject of this review, Eknath Easwaran's Essence of the Dhammapada: The Buddha's Call to Nirvana, as the present volume is more of a long “interpretive essay” than a translation. If the author's name rings a bell, it's because I reviewed his Essence of the Bhagavad Gita a couple of years back. Like that book, this one came into my hands via the “Early Reviewers” program at … so was not something that I particularly went in search of, but was quite happy to have obtained.

Eknath Easwaran has quite an interesting bio, having earned degrees in India in English and Law, and served as a Professor of English at his alma mater, the University of Nagpur, one of the top educational institutions there. At age 49 he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and moved to the USA, settling in at UC-Berkeley, where he started Meditation classes in 1960. Over the next several years he started the Blue Mountain Center, and the publishing operation, Nilgiri Press, which is responsible for this volume. He has published dozens of books over the decades, and, prior to his passing in 1999, he organized an on-going effort to get all of his unfinished volumes out to the public, of which these “Essence of” titles are examples.

It is arguable, that an figure such as Eknath Easwaran is ideal for bringing the Indian classics to a modern audience. Not only did he emerge from the cultural context from which they arose, but he spent most of his years directly working with the English language, and teaching meditation and associated practices.

I suppose that some might be unhappy that Essence of the Dhammapada is not so much a direct translation of the teachings of the Buddha, but the insight, language, and perspective (very clear about the modern world) he brings to the material is exceptional.
Over and over again, the Buddha tells us we can all make the journey to nirvana – not by colossal steps, not instantaneously, but little by little, every day, both during meditation and during our daily routine – at work, in the store, in the kitchen, at school, in the home. It's done slowly, gently, by taming the whims and caprices of the mind.
The concept of “taming the caprices of the mind” is a central theme here. The author speaks a lot about the challenges he experienced in learning to meditate, and, having taught these methods for decades, he knows where people get stuck, and how the mind tries to have its own way (another nice quote on the subject: “Vigilance where the mind is concerned is one of the Buddha's favorite subjects.”).

Now, I'm not suggesting that this ignores the basic text … bits and pieces of it are woven through the narrative … but the author uses these more as thematic jumping-off points for discussing the underlying meaning than as a item-for-item walk-through. For example, he references this verse:
Be like a well-trained horse, swift and spirited, and go beyond sorrow through faith, meditation, and energetic practice of the dharma. [144]
… when he is discussing key challenges in subduing the mind:
Even if we accept that the mind can be trained, it's not going to be easy … rather than riding on a swift steed to nirvana, to use the Buddha's image, we find we have a monkey mind as a companion on our journey … a famous Sanskrit verse says this is a monkey that is drunk, stung by a scorpion, and possessed by a ghost – all at the same time.
The Essence of the Dhammapada operates on several different levels. On one hand, it is an exposition of the key elements of the Buddha's teachings, but geared to a modern Western audience. It is also something of a spiritual autobiography, as the author dips into his history and experiences, to help guide, warn, and encourage the reader. And, there is a good deal of “philosophy” as well, using set-ups like: When asked if the world is real, the Buddha says no. When asked if the world is unreal, the Buddha says no. Then what is the world? The Buddha says: “It is in between.” to move into a section discussing the concepts of the 2nd Century Mahayana teacher Nagarjuna.

I very much enjoyed reading The Essence of the Dhammapada, although it took me a very long time to get through it (this is the sort of book that one is likely need time to “process” as one works though it, instead of plowing through at top reading speed!). As one would expect from this being in the “Early Reviewers” program, it is quite new, having just come out a few months back, so it will likely be obtainable via the brick & mortar book mongers who carry religion/philosophy titles out there … lacking one of those ever-more-rare sources, the on-line big boys have it. An additional thing to recommend this is its very reasonable cover price, which makes it quite painless to pick up. I liked this a lot, and am thankful that Eknath Easwaran arranged for its posthumous publication.

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