Why, one may ask, do we need yet another English translation of the Dhammapada? More than sixty have already been printed, let alone the many versions available on the Web. Yet a translation by someone who is also a Pali scholar, a practicing Buddhist and a gifted teacher is very rare. Gil Fronsdal excels in all categories, which makes his masterful work a welcome addition to anybody’s library, no matter how many other copies they may have.
A collection of 423 short verses on the Buddha’s doctrine, the Dhammapada is a text very familiar to the majority of devout Buddhists and is arguably the most popular and influential canonical text in the Buddhist world, holding a place on a par with the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita in their respective universes. It includes pithy and pragmatic sayings traditionally attributed to the Buddha, a considerable number of which reappear in other parts of the Pali Canon. In addition, several of the aphoristic verses of universal ethical wisdom have been linked by scholars with pre-Buddhist works that were a part of the Indian lore of the time. The Dhammapada has a long history of translation into other languages, beginning with the Fa-chü-ching, a Chinese version from 224 c.e.
The compound Pali word dhammapada could perhaps be translated as “way of the doctrine,” or “path of truth,” or even “dharma sayings”; the individual words of which it is composed have multivalent meanings. However one labels it, translated or not, the Dhammapada, as a selection of verses from various canonical discourses and other sources, reflects the basics of the Buddhist teachings on how to lead a good life. It is a text full of homespun universal moral truths that have parallels in the scriptures of other religions.
For example, verse 130:
“All tremble at violence;
Life is dear for all.
Seeing others as being like yourself,
Do not kill or cause others to kill.”
Compare this with the biblical verse Luke 6:31 (New International Version):
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
And also verse 252:
“It’s easy to see the faults of others
But hard to see one’s own.
One sifts out the faults of others like chaff
But conceals one’s own,
As a cheat conceals a bad throw of the dice.”
This has an obvious parallel with Matthew 7:3:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
However, even more than basic ethical training, the Dhammapada presents a concise summary of Buddhist doctrine and specifically teaches a path of liberation, a way for suffering humanity to free itself from the bonds of endless rebirths. It also offers profound teachings, as exemplified in the well-known opening verse:
“All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.”
Translations of the Dhammapada generally strive either toward a strict literal approach or a more poetic rendering. Fronsdal has aimed for the former, accuracy to the original text and an uncovering of its ancestral roots being his clearly stated goal; yet, though rarely poetic, his English version is for the most part simple and elegant. The verses are far more poetic in the original Pali than any translation into another language can ever hope to convey. Yet even in Pali, there is an uneven quality; many verses sing, others sound clunky.
Fronsdal offers a useful introduction that explains his approach to this work and some historical features about the Dhammapada genre of literature. He also provides excellent endnotes. In fact, one of the special features of this book is the judicious use of annotations, primarily to explicate Fronsdal’s translations of some of the more ambiguous Pali words or phrases and to point out to the reader other choices the author could have made. As he obviously intends this work as a practice guide, this feature is extremely useful to the reader. Here is an example in verse 110:
“Better than one hundred years lived
With an unsettled [mind],
Devoid of virtue,
Is one day lived
Virtuous and absorbed in meditation.”
Fronsdal helpfully notes: “Asamahito, here rendered as ‘unsettled,’ also may mean ‘unconcentrated,’ ‘uncomposed,’ or ‘uncentered.’”
Refreshing indeed is Fronsdal’s deliberate and consistent use of gender-neutral language—no mean feat when working within the patriarchal constraints of our native tongue and of the original Pali. Fronsdal achieves this by avoiding the masculine gender pronoun where possible, judiciously replacing it with whoever, a person, one and the like. And where this might become overly cumbersome, he simply alternates usage of he and she to nice effect, particularly in many of the paired verses. For example, he renders verses 3 and 4 as follows:
“‘He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!’
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.
‘She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!’
For those not carrying on like this,
Before mentioning a few minor quibbles, let me preface them with a quote from the text (verse 228):
“No person can be found
Who has been, is, or will be
Or only praised.”
The note to verse 45 makes the following somewhat misleading statement: “‘One in training’ (sekha) refers to someone still training to become an arahant, or fully awakened person,” thus implying that the term encompasses any practicing Buddhist not yet enlightened. However, though it is literally true that sekha means “one in training,” and its antonym asekha (“one not in training”) is an epithet used of arahants, strictly speaking, the Pali tradition holds a sekha to be any of the noble (ariya) sangha who have reached at least stream-entry but are still short of the final goal. I’m afraid the rest of us still come under the category of puthujjana (ordinary worldling).
Also, for this reviewer, a slightly jarring note occurs with the sequence of verses 212–216, which all have an identical pattern in the Pali and yet here are translated differently. The last line of the first of these is rendered “There is neither grief nor fear” compared with “There is no grief; and from where would come fear?” which is used in the four subsequent verses. The latter is a more literal rendering of the Pali line “natthi soko kuto bhayam,” but the former would appear to fit the whole verse more elegantly.
But these criticisms are minor compared to the strengths and powers of this new translation. Throughout the book, Fronsdal captures beautifully the direct earthiness of some of the verses, as illustrated in verse 41:
“All too soon this body
Will lie on the ground,
Cast aside, deprived of consciousness,
Like a useless scrap of wood.”
Having read this, one feels immediately compelled to drop all extraneous activity and not waste a precious minute of the life with which we are blessed.
In our modern age of nuclear proliferation, terrorism and ethnic violence, verse 5 resonates with poignant truth:
“Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.”
Many translations of the Dhammapada emphasize a world-negating message while downplaying the theme of joy that runs through the text. After all, the Buddhist path is ultimately one of sublime peace and liberation from suffering. At the end of his introduction, Fronsdal notes, “My hope is that my translation will enable other readers to be enriched by it as well, perhaps showing them something of the happiness toward which this religious classic is a guide.” Indeed, he may rest content that he has succeeded.