February 4, 2015 full moon
A conversation with John Peacock
You can click the image below to view the video of the interview, or begin the written transcript below, which contains additional information.
Insight Journal: You recently taught a course using the Dhammapada as the main text. How did you incorporate a text like that which doesn’t have the explicit meditation instructions of a text like the Satipatthāna, for example?
John Peacock: The first thing to say about it is that the Dhammapada is an extremely well-known text. It’s the most translated of all Pāli texts, including some recent translations by American teachers, such as Gil Fronsdal. People know about it and they will dip into from time to time.
It’s a very famous text because it’s one of the very first texts that was translated into English at all, back in the nineteenth century. In fact, its first translation was into Latin, believe it or not, in 1855. So it’s got a very, very long history.
But as you rightly say, it’s mostly used for particular quotations like the house-builder quotation and the opening paragraph: "Mind is the forerunner of all things."
So I took this extremely well-known text, and said let’s have a look at it, and see how it can guide practice. How does it fit in with the things that the Buddha was doing, both doctrinally and practically? How does it relate to other texts? Particularly, how does it relate to the question you’re asking, what is its relationship to practice?
I often take some of these small texts and run courses on them, as a way to get us into the teaching without having to go in depth into one of the major tomes of early Buddhism such as the Nikayas. As you probably know, the subtitle for that course was "The Dhammapada as a Guide to Life."
Your comment about Satipatthāna is accurate in that it is one of the most practical of the Suttas; well, in many ways this text is about as good as it gets in relation to anything unequivocally practical.
There was no attempt to go through the whole of the Dhammapada in four days of teaching. I took people through some of its sections, and jumped around a bit. We took the whole of the first section, the Yamakas (The Pairs), in quite a lot of detail, particularly "The mind is the forerunner of all things" quotation and everything that unfolds from this statement. It is a way of unpacking the Buddha’s teachings, and giving people a little bit of background on early Indian culture.
IJ: Stephen Batchelor talks about having a conversation with the texts, which I find very helpful, given the inevitable limits of all the translations that we have. He suggests having a conversation with the texts, to actually go to those places that seem like contradictions and let that be a guide to enhancing your understanding–comparing translations, asking teachers, and so on.
JP: This is a very valid approach and one that I adopted with the Dhammapada. I actually had a table full of different versions of it, and often I would read three or four different translations and then comment on them from a philological perspective. Some would appear be saying the same thing, whilst others would bring out other nuances within the text. The problem is canonical languages, and particularly Pāli, are polysemic; they have many, many different meanings within them. Sometimes the Buddha is choosing one meaning, but other times he is actually letting a word fire on all cylinders of the different meanings, so that you are asked to hold all the different meanings in your head simultaneously. So inevitably you have to look at lots of different translations. So yes, have conversations with the texts. It’s one of the things that I was emphasizing to the students at BCBS. Have a go and see how it relates to anything you have understood with regard to the Buddha’s teaching and your life. In addition, relate it to other Dharma talks that you’ve heard. People who’ve been here, or at Spirit Rock often have a body of knowledge that they can bring to bear on these texts–which actually aren’t that impenetrable if you bring that body of knowledge to bear on them.
I think there always has to be that caveat that you’re not always going to get it right, and that these meanings that are coming to you are not necessarily the ones that are meant within the context of the Buddha’s teaching. I do, however, encourage people to try learning the languages, or at least gain a working knowledge of them. However, I realize that this is not always possible. But even to have a working knowledge, say, of something like the Pāli dictionary and the way it is organised, will allow you to look up the range of meanings a term may have and thus guide you in the ‘conversation’ you may be having with the text.
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