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Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime

by Nagarjuna, Stephen Batchelor

Buy the book: Nagarjuna. Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime

Release Date: 10 July, 2001

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Nagarjuna. Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime

Struggling alternative MMK translation

There is little doubt that Nagarjuna gave humanity a masterpiece with the MMK which is evident in the attention that this text has received over the centuries.

Moreover as a vertebra in the backbone of the student-centric disclosure of emptiness, MMK is indeed an essential read for those of us who tread the fascinating and beautiful road to insight.

The MMK is not about Philosophy or Sanskrit but of sharing a direct, living experience of emptiness through the medium of writing; using language and concept to reveal a non-conceptual experience of emptiness. In my mind this would be the only way of 'translating' a text such as the MMK. A good re-presentation of the MMK must be memorable and life-changing. Self-grasping must be left with nothing to hold onto and be clearly revealed as the unskilful, foolish enemy that it is.

I feel that with this book, Batchelor is attempting to offer an alternative experience of MMK to those that are currently presented by the linguists and philosophers who have chosen MMK as belonging to their respective domains. His arguments are at their strongest when he resists ownership of the text by intellectualising academics. For this alone he gets a star. For his provocative alternative rewriting of the MMK, (helping us remember that there are alternative approaches to translation) he gets one more star.

Batchelor wishes to share with us the spontaneity of the verse form without getting lost in a rarified explication of his own understandings of the intellectual import of the verses, which is indeed a lofty and noble goal, but the question arises over whether or not Batchelor is up to the challenge; I believe that he is not.

In this battle of academic ownership, Batchelor ends up forgetting the purpose of the text; his rendition is not student-centric, does little to help reveal the experience of insight and is not particularly memorable.

Instead, what we read is Batchelor. The text shows a lot of Batchelor- his life, his views and his interests ring out on nearly every page. In this he doesn't differ from most other translators, but my expectations were higher regarding both text and translator. Moreover I feel that he ends up conveying himself as an expert - as does several of his contemporaries (Berzin springs to mind) which is deeply unfortunate as self-aggrandisement is not a part of the path to emptiness and should not form a component of any translation of the MMK.

Batchelor also attempts to syncretise different traditions which more often than not is akin to shoving a stick into a hornets nest. It isn't even skilful as it implies that there is some Platonic 'truth' in the form of a common ground; this of course really weakens the purpose of the MMK altogether.

Why not just get on with the basic job of soteriesis?

In my opinion Batchelor fails again on the poetic front. He does not manage to convey any spirit or experience through verse in the MMK. I am at a loss to find either rhythm or metre in his 'verses'. It looks to me that he translated the verses into prose, and then used word juggling and formatting to make his translation appear to be an attempt at free verse.

I humbly suggest to Batchelor to learn something of the infrastructure of the English tradition of poetry and poetic translation before attempting such a translation in the first place. I recommend he read e.g Hobsbaum (ASIN 041508797X) chapter 7 for a good idea of what free verse can be. Even better would be to learn and develop experience with blank verse (i.e. unrhymed iambic pentameter) - a good choice for translating nine syllable Tibetan quatrains.

If he wishes to translate texts such as the MMK into verse he must also remind himself of the purpose of verse in India and Tibet- to help the reader memorise and recite the text, rather than for any sense of beauty or revelation. I feel that there is a pragmatic and legitimate purpose in following the import of the Indians and that a useful versification of the MMK is possible, but I believe it would require much more experience with writing verse in English than Batchelor reveals here.

He must always remember the purpose of the MMK to be student-centred, soteriological and memorable; not poetic, philosophical, academic or as an excuse to talk about personal experiences or views.

He must also apply a strong vigilance to his authorship to leave the reader to struggle with the reader rather than with the author.

My position rests that the book is an entertaining but complementary read of MMK, not a final read.
Try reading it alongside e.g. Garfield's philosophical MMK (ASIN 0195093364).

Better still, leave them both on the electronic bookshelf and read the Dalai Lama e.g - "The Key of Madhyamika" (e.g. ASIN 1556431929) for a simple, practical and powerful introduction to emptiness.

Alternatively- purchase the final volume of the Lam Rim Chenmo (Vol 3: ASIN 1559391669) - The Dalai Lama's own recommendation for revealing emptiness most skilfully.

From Amazon.com

Nagarjuna's MMK

If you're interested in Nagarjuna, and his Mulamadhyamakakarika
then pick up a copy of "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way";
which is a translation by Jay L. Garfield, and stay away from this
highly subjective abridgement of the MMK.

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