Resensie: Die Dhammapada

Die Dhammapada

Die Dhammapada is vir die eerste keer vertaal in Afrikaans, deur Prof. Kobus Krüger en is nou gepubliseer en beskikbaar om gratis afgelaai te word by: doi.org/10.4102/aosis.2017.dwd42

Hier volg die inleidende aanbieding wat Prof. Kobus Krüger gelewer het by hierdie geskiedkundige geleentheid, by die Universiteit van Pretoria. Die boek word as 'n belangrike akademiese werk gesien.

AOSIS – University of Pretoria, 29 November 2017

A.   Introduction

Professor Johan Buitendag, thank you for your kind words. Your vision and leadership at the present time of new beginnings are keenly observed and appreciated. Professor Andries van Aarde, thank for your broad and inclusive approach to the field of religion and theology, and your care during the publication process of this book. It gives me great joy to imagine that the translation and interpretation of this ancient Buddhist scripture may contribute to the envisaged new epoch of the Faculty of Theology and Religion dawning at the University of Pretoria. Dr Pierre de Villiers, thank you for publishing this book. Working with you and your competent and friendly staff was truly a life-enriching experience. Your role in collaboration with UP (as we could witness this morning) in raising the standard of academic publications in South Africa deserves the respect it enjoys.

As I speak, I see the circle of 'noble friends' (the Pali term is kalyāṇa-mitta) who gathered at our home one morning a week for seven years to study the old text. We welcomed many visitors and participants for shorter periods. However, may I mention by name those who took part for several years, in some cases all seven. In the order that they sat around the table (and I see them as I speak): Sherral and Johan Herholdt, Willie en Gerda Potgieter, Helen Terre Blanche, Hildegard Behrens, Johan Kleynhans, Johannes de Villiers, Piet Muller, Pieter Erasmus, and my wife Christina. Thank you for an unforgettable reading experience and your great contribution to the understanding of the old document.

The growth of the ideas behind and around the translation and interpretation go back many years. Along that long way I enjoyed the understanding and support of my family and friends and colleagues, often extending over decades. You know how highly I treasure you.

B.   A sample from the Dhammapada

The Dhammapada is a collection of 423 verses, written down on palm leaves in the first century BCE, but in essence going back to the words of the Buddha spoken roughly the 6th century BCE.

Allow me to start by reading a verse from it (verse 387) to convey a sense of the sound:

divā tapati ādicco, rattiṃ ābhāti candimā,
sannaddho khattiyo tapati, jhāyī tapati brāhmano,
atha sabbam ahorattiṃ Buddho tapati tejasā.

My Afrikaans version is:

bedags skyn die son
snags glim die maan
bewapen blink die kryger
mediterend gloei die edel mens
maar immer dag en nag skitter die Verligte.

This is quintessential Buddhism: the grandeur of nature (exemplified by sun and moon) is impressive to the human observer, and even more so the mesmerizing glamour of human social status and power; but both pale in the presence of a noble human being (brāhmano), meditating quietly; and reaching beyond the glories of nature and conventional human society is the subtle splendour of the solitary figure of enlightened human person, beyond even the gods.

C.   Why into Afrikaans, and how?

There are several reasons why I translated this ancient treasure into Afrikaans.

(1) Afrikaans belongs to the same linguistic family tree as the classical European languages Greek and Latin, and the classical Indian Sanskrit and Pali. Exploring the relationship of grammatical structure and texture and vocabulary in meaning and sound (eg. the clearly related words: Pali 'pitar', English 'father' and Afrikaans 'vader') was enormous joy.

(2) In a wider sense, Afrikaans finds itself in a state of serious crisis, shocked into realising the fundamental truths of the evanescence of all things, the depths of human error and the suffering as result of that. Those are basic themes addressed in Theravada scriptures, and they speak to the present Afrikaans cultural situation. What, from the classic Theravada perspective, could it mean to speak Afrikaans, be Afrikaans speaking, in present day South Africa?

(3) Since its birth in South Africa Afrikaans was essentially a bridge for communication, connecting indigenous African culture (particularly Khoi-San), European culture (through Dutch, German and French) and Eastern (Malaysian, Muslim) culture. Extending this bridge of communication and understanding to the Indian sub-continent, discovering and forging new connections into a new landscape, seems to me to be in line with the original and inherent logic of Afrikaans. It is a still quite young, developing vehicle of communication. The Dhammapada provided a magnificent opportunity and challenge to explore new cultural and religious territory, thereby enriching the scope and depth of Afrikaans for the benefit of the country and our continent as a whole.

This is not a free translation, only loosely staying in touch with the old text and in fact intended to be a literary achievement of my own. My translation strategy was therefore conservative, staying close to the original, yet making the inevitable and necessary compromises to communicate across vast gulfs of time, place and culture. This is not a poetic translation either, but one staying close to spoken language, yet with a sense of sound and rhythm. This, I trusted, would be in line with the spirit of the old verses. Pali poetry is a complex field, comparable to Greek poetry of the time, yet differing in one essential dimension. The Pali poets of old were not breastfed on Mount Parnassus, claiming divine inspiration, and they were not famous, their foreheads adorned with wreaths of laurel. These unknown poets wanted to be nothing more than anonymous monks, carrying the message of non-permanence and non-substance and absolute emptiness, and its moral implications of non-greed and non-hatred and non-violence, taught by their teacher.

Allow me to introduce another verse (363). In the following portrait of a good monk by another, aesthetically accomplished one, it is said:

Soet is die taal
van 'n monnik wat beheers in spraak
nederig en met insig praat
en die boodskap en sy strekking so verhelder.

This really amounts to a self-portrait of the poet-monk speaking here. All the emphasis is on the quiet inner quality of the communicator, the restraint, moderation, humility, clarity in his speech, his full comprehension of what is at stake and of the profound and far-reaching implications of his words.

The translated verses are accompanied by interpretive commentary and at times quite lengthy excursions in a style that I term tendentional interpretation. Here I move quite freely. The best way to indigenize a foreign plant would not be to uproot a fully-grown plant from its home soil and then stick it into the ground in another environment, but to take a handful of seeds, look at them, weigh them in your hand, feel their texture, smell them, then sow them in the new environment, in soil you know and understand, and watch and tend them as they grow. That is what I attempted to do with the original Pali word seeds and conceptual seeds, trusting that they could grow into 'Afrikaans Theravada', so to speak. Yet it was emphatically not done in a propagandistic style; the path of truth leads towards and peters out in silence.

In the Dhammapada book I do not engage in historical criticism in a strict sense. What was historical fact, anecdote or mytho-poetic fiction around the Buddha is not really relevant to the argument. Nor do I engage in textual criticism, the history of Theravada canon formation or the history of Buddhist philosophy in any detail. However, the book does attempt to do justice to the text in its distant historical context, taking care not to conflate it with the present; in addition, I attempted to understand its conscious, deliberate intentional structure; and to discover the wider, implied metaphysical-mystical tendentional drift underlying the text, perhaps not articulated explicitly, and its relevance for today.

D.   Autobiographical digression

Why bother with this ancient, distant Buddhist text? The style of translation and interpretation of this text has my own experience as background, so I might say something about that. I started moving in this direction in the late 1960's-early 1970's when morally and intellectually and practically the writing on the wall, as far as apartheid was concerned, was clear for all to see. Seeing through that political system was the easy part and I got over that quickly. The more difficult part was how to relate to, what to do with the church, the specific tradition and the religion as a whole that seemed to somehow have made that possible. That took much longer. Was domination and power perhaps subtly ingrained in the structure of theism as such, in the case of Christianity going back to ancient patriarchal Semitic patterns of thought and social structure, and taking final shape in the Roman Empire, in competition with that Empire, adopting some features from that Empire and eventually outlasting that Empire? If so, was there a way out, perhaps leading to an open beyond? I was caught up in a process of tumbling dominoes, leaving no absolutistic claim to truth and power standing. However, the outcome was not angry materialistic atheism or something similar, but a discovery of the mystical depth present in all religion like a deeply hidden, yet clear pool. In the middle 1970's I encountered Buddhism and Taoism, which seemed worth exploring. It became a journey of rich discovery.

So I gradually came to a position where, firstly, I entered the schools of the most profoundly thinking and most inclusively loving spirits of humankind as a whole. I would not blindly submit to and follow any, but enter into a receptive yet also testing, weighing relationship with at least some of them as far as they were historically accessible and as far as it was possible for me. Secondly, I became interested in such great teachings in all their stages and forms, such as poetry, stories, and systematic doctrines including, yes, even scholasticism with its passion for intellectual precision and comprehensiveness. But I turned away from attitudes and formulas claiming to capture absolute truth finally, and sensed that the most profound understanding has experience of unsound at the utter limit of human capability, beyond all words, concepts and schemes. Thirdly, I turned away from conformist compliance to the demands of any power oriented religious institution, preferring the free company of noble friends, outside all camps.

E.   Theoretical space

May I now say something about the wider theoretical space surrounding this translation and interpretation.

Throughout this experimental, exploratory journey into the area where Buddhism and Christianity and other religions meet, a certain mental picture kept recurring. (Science is also part of this panorama, I add without arguing the point now.) Imagine an extraordinary high, majestic mountain peak. From that supreme height a few imagined travellers on 'hoër, kouer paaie' ('higher, colder paths', to quote Van Wyk Louw) oversee a wide, vast landscape, the panorama of the totality of what is, or as close to that as may be humanly possible. We can also imagine those great quiet ones without acrophobia at the summit peering ahead as far as the human eye can reach, sensing rather than seeing an absolute horizon ('gesigs-einder'), so distant that one cannot simply assume there must be and therefore there are camels on its other side, but so inaccessibly, uncrossably distant that the panorama simply peters out, blending with empty sky. And yet, imagine right in front of our imagined great visionary, so close he or she can touch it lovingly, a single lily in all its contingent humble splendour, lovable not in spite of its being here today and gone tomorrow, but because of that. Precious are the bird in the air and the lily in the field, the newly-born baby and the old person close to death, a language and culture as well as a religion and religious institution grown over time with its flowers in summer and its withered leaves in winter. Each being – including each religion – is unique and precious in its own right, but none is absolute; yet they are comparable, each and all together and mutually implicitly part of the one vast totality of the organic cosmic landscape, all arising from and disappearing on that subtle, all-relativizing yet all-encompassing horizon. All are subject to the basic cosmic law of appearance, growth, decay and disappearance, part of the vast landscape in the embrace of the empty and emptying horizon. That is what the Dhammapada is essentially about.

Let me use the analogy of a mountain again, in a slightly different sense. At the top are the great solitary ones, yes 'ones' (the Pali word is eko, which I translated as 'eenling', 'alleenling'), with true insight into the depth of things, with panoramic vision and universal love. I do not imagine any one of such beacons of light clamouring for absolute power and claiming exclusive truth. I imagine such great mystical ones to be clothed with quiet dignity and inner authority, communicating not triumphantly but selflessly, between their words and in their words silence.

Labouring up and down the steep slopes are those, such as religious intellectuals, who suspect the great panorama but perhaps not quite, who may not have seen it yet nor attained the ultimate vision and peace. And on the plateaus and in the lower valleys lie the precious villages where people are born, live and die like birds and lilies, yet seeking meaning in religions. In passing, to me the word 'mysticism' denotes the steeper peaks of individual insight and emotional experience. 'Spirituality' on the other hand I understand as the important but more communal dimension of village life, more 'popular' in a good sense of the word. The art of mystical mountaineering is to climb as high as possible, to see as wide and far as possible, and yet not to despise but respect every single flower or religion, because they are and have managed to survive; also, not to lose touch with village life in the valley, to knowingly take leave of it and precisely because of that to return to it in love and solidarity.

The exercise engaged in in this translation-interpretation is not a religious one in the sense of subscribing to or prescribing any one of the historical religions. It does not prescribe encapsulation in any closed, exclusive religious system; does not reduce any religion as a set of beliefs to any other religion (for example Christianity to Buddhism or Buddhism to Christianity), but respects and upholds real differences; does not mix and match various religions impressionalistically, but seeks an integral understanding; does not engage in religious tourism, either as guide or as tourist; does not merely compare religions, establishing similarities and differences and that is that, but seeks the meta-religious spacious emptiness beyond all, relativizing all yet allowing all to be and to flourish. I had the sense of a beautiful wilderness without any set routes. One may wander into that, filled with curiosity and fascination and a sense of adventure. One may find one's own way in accordance with the landscape and the availability of nourishment and one's inner sense of direction. Others have travelled through this landscape before us, and we can pick up their tracks and reconstruct and understand and follow their historical routes. So the book attempts to overcome religious apartheid. The Dhammapada beckons deeper into a meta-dimension where all religious systems eventually evaporate in silence and from where all arise.

In conclusion, one last, quintessentially Buddhist verse (6):

Party besef nie ons kom almal hier tot ʼn einde nie,
maar wie dit besef
se twiste kom tot ʼn einde.

That also applies to religions.


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