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Buddhadharma : Summer 2005
buddhadharma| 5 |summer 2005 I’vE BEEn THInKInG about Buddhism as an act of transla- tion. I don’t mean the translation of texts from one language to another that people like Red Pine do so well. I’m thinking more of the symbolic act of bringing instructions and customs and a path of knowledge from one culture to another. It seems to me that translation in this sense always strives for some sort of pure conveyance from the original culture, yet always ends up with a hybrid. It is natural to want to introduce something serviceable and relatively normal to your own culture – let’s say something equivalent to a horse. But if it started out as a horse in China, when it arrives in America or Australia you might have something more like a giraffe, a creature with definite surreal or even Dada elements. To complicate the picture further, Asian Buddhism is still pretty much medieval, but Asia isn’t. The East Asian repertoire of Buddhist images runs to rock gardens, beings with a thousand arms, monks being whacked with sticks, and a samurai, martial arts fantasy. The modern Asia of Shanghai’s hallucinogenic spires and Japanese schoolgirls using instant messaging to travel in waves across Tokyo doesn’t completely fit with old-fashioned Buddhism. The fact that Buddhism is somewhat anachronistic even in Asia increases the surreal elements of our task of translation. So the act of translation becomes stranger the deeper you look. Here’s an example: if you don’t handle money in the for- ests of Thailand, it’s no big deal. It’s not even hard. People are used to feeding you as long as you signal who you are by wear- ing robes. But if you won’t handle money in a modern culture, you put those who help you to endless inconvenience. Someone has to book your airline tickets, carry your credit card, buy your latte, give a few bucks to the homeless guy on the corner for you, and so on. And if you are a man and won’t touch a woman, even to shake hands, well, that is more than an inconvenience in north American culture, it’s an insult. When you shift cultures, you lose control of the meanings and some of them are turned around – there’s no such thing as a literal translation. One consequence of understanding this position is that those of us who live in the modern Western world are the ones who now have to translate Buddhism into this context. For me, this means we have to find and follow our own vision. To do this we will be in conversation with our Asian ancestors, and yet it will be our vision, not theirs. We might say that when we make the vision ours, we are most true to them and to their intent to make the path of enlightenment native wherever it went. Following our own vision doesn’t mean making Buddhism up. It might mean taking the original instructions for exactly what they are – instructions. We can try them out, test them, and see what effect they have on consciousness, and then compare back to the old records and test them again. If it’s true that you can be a buddha, then it’s got to be true here and now, as you are reading this magazine, and as your cell phone starts to vibrate and it’s your kid who is at school and needs a ride. You are going to have to be a buddha in your context. Buddhism has always been an empirical path to the extent that it is meant to be practical – it is supposed to work. This might mean different things to different people. To me it means that Buddhism is really about discovering freedom and relieving suffering through transformation. That’s what I wanted when I set off to explore the way. There’s something about love in there too. If we want to grow Buddhism in our own culture, adaptation is going to be more necessary than specification. We are not going to be able to follow minutely detailed, preset instructions as if we were importing an assembly line. With an assembly line, you need to control every small process. For adaptation we want minimum specs, because any attempt to translate with great fidelity and in detail will prevent adaptation. Minimum specs can be very precise; they just have to be few and we have to try to guess which ones are crucial. For me, the core of the Buddhist technology is koans, and that’s where I do my experimenting. Minimum specs are some- thing like these: Work with a koan day and night. Don’t think it’s not with you. notice what changes occur in you when you are in the field of the koan. Sitting meditation will probably help as long as it’s alive. Compare your comments on koans with the old masters’ comments on koans. Compare the enlighten- ment you experience with the results they found. Do a course correction and continue. Talk about the process a lot with oth- ers who are passionate about it. Repeat the previous steps as necessary. Try this with other koans. Minimum specs put the responsibility for transformation on the person who is practic- ing Buddhism – you. So to have a giraffe of our own and to work with it and be- come its friend, we will find ourselves in conversation with the ancestors and also with our own, particular, modern lives. I’m pretty sure that this is what the ancestors of Buddhism wanted for us. commentary minimum SpecS for your Giraffe By John tarrant