Some books, when you hold them in your hand, seem to amount to far more than just books. Such is certainly the case with Wisdom’s recent publication of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.
Bhikkhu Bodhi has done a masterful job of completing and updating Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s unfinished English translation of the ancient Pali text Majjhima Nikaya, which was discovered after his death in 1960. He has put together a package of study aids and explanatory commentary that nestles in the reader’s hand like a multifaceted gem.
The beauty of this book is not just what it is, but what you can do with it. It is not as much a book to be read as a book to be studied, reread, cross-examined, and wandered through by a myriad of rambling paths. It is a book to be kept close at hand for a lifetime—like the teacher and beneficial friend it will surely become for those with a deep interest in dhamma.
The Majjhima Nikaya text is one of the cornerstones of the Pali Canon, preserving the teachings of the historical Buddha in the Theravada tradition of South and Southeast Asia. In the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction, it “is replete with drama and narrative. . . contains some of the profoundest discourses in the Canon, disclosing the Buddha’s radical insights into the nature of existence. . . .” It is a window opening not only upon the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama Buddha, but upon life in the vibrant but long-lost world of India in the sixth and fifth century BCE.
For those of us accustomed to switching between the three volumes of the Pali Text Society (PTS) translation of this text by I. B. Horner (The Middle Length Sayings), just having all 152 discourses in a single volume is wonderful enough. A detailed table of contents, PTS references on every page, a short summary of each discourse, and a robust glossary of Pali/English terms make the task of navigating through this remarkable but complex collection of ancient wisdom a joyous adventure rather than the perplexing puzzle it can sometimes be.
The introduction sets the stage well by acquainting the reader with the text and the setting in which it was produced and by outlining some of the major ideas of early Buddhism. Each section nicely sums up basic teachings and guides the reader to some of the principal places in the text where core teachings are offered. The introduction thus not only introduces the translation, but serves well as a basic general introduction to Buddhism itself.
The footnotes provided by Bhikkhu Bodhi seem to strike the perfect balance between clarifying the Buddha’s idiom for newcomers and identifying the translator’s strategy for the specialist. The interpretations of the classical commentary are offered where helpful, and it seems that a note is provided just where the reader would want one. The two hundred pages of notes themselves offer a tremendously helpful commentary—not too much, not too little—that you will find yourself turning to again and again for guidance.
A comprehensive subject index makes it easy to find what you are looking for: on technical subjects like the aggregates, bases, elements or formations; on great themes like impermanence, non-self, suffering or lovingkindness; on the Buddha (with twenty-four subcategories) or the Tathagata (with nearly a dozen); or on some subject that catches a passing fancy, such as anger, beauty, celibacy, ghosts, gods, health, insanity, or suicide (how about “eel-wriggling” or “elephant-treasure”?).
An index of proper names helps you find your favorite characters: Angulimala, the thief with a necklace of thumbs; or Mahaprajapati, step-mother of the Buddha; or Rahula, his son; or perhaps Mara, the lord of evil. Maybe you want to see which discourses were spoken at Vulture Peak, or in the Buddha’s home town of Kapilavatthu, or to Sakka, king of the gods. Knowing that feminine names end in long vowels might help one quickly focus on all the stories in which a woman is the main subject.
My favorite is the index of similes. Where was the simile of the raft, again? Or the one of the poisoned arrow, the chariot, the file of blind men, or the blind turtle? What dhamma point is illustrated by a cat awaiting a mouse, an elephant at play, a dog circling a post, or a jackal awaiting fish? How about the man in love, or the most beautiful woman, or meditation like fire, like air, or like earth?
Ms. Horner’s forty-year-old translation of this text is very good—accurate, readable, and well-documented. Why then is a new translation so important? It is not that one can point to a host of specific passages in which her translation was somehow “off” and the new translation has “set it right.” It is rather that the entire work is cast in the style of the translator, and the translation of Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi reads more smoothly overall to the modern audience. Here is an example of the different styles, taking one of the verses first uttered by the Buddha after attaining his enlightenment (according to the Discourse of the Noble Search):
I. B. Horner (1954):
This that through many toils I’ve won—
Enough! why should I make it known?
By folk with lust and hate consumed
This dhamma is not understood.
Leading on against the stream,
Deep, subtle, difficult to see, delicate,
Unseen ’twill be by passion’s slaves
Cloaked in the murk of ignorance.
Enough with teaching the Dhamma
That even I found hard to reach;
For it will never be perceived
By those who live in lust and hate.
Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness
Will never discern this abstruse Dhamma
Which goes against the worldly stream,
Subtle, deep, and difficult to see.
As is perhaps apparent, both translations are accurate, and they are clearly translating the same passage. Both follow closely the eight-syllables-per-line meter of the original, and many phrases are virtually identical. Yet there is a simple clarity in the new version that seems to help its meaning jump out at the reader. This is the case throughout the volume. And since the Dhamma itself is so abstruse and difficult to see, we need the translation to be as luminous and transparent as possible.
The Pali language may not have changed in over two thousand years, but English changes before our very eyes. The Majjhima Nikaya should probably be translated again in another forty years just to keep this essential ancient text up to date with modern usage and understanding. But meanwhile we have a book for our generation that will, I think, long endure as a classic of scholarship and render the teachings of the historical Buddha accessible to any who have eyes to see and the interest to look.