“Look within. Be still. Free from fear and attachment, know the sweet joy of the way.”

When this was first passed on to me I thought it was probably from Thomas Byrom’s version of the Dhammapada. He’s fond of short, declarative sentences (in this case “look within” and “be still”) and he tends to be poetic (“know the sweet joy of the way”). Unfortunately, his Dhammapada and the original text often bear little to no resemblance to each other.

And my guess was right. This is Byrom’s attempt at Dhammapada verse 205.

In Buddharakkhita’s translation this verse is:

Having savored the taste of solitude and peace (of Nibbana), pain-free and stainless he becomes, drinking deep the taste of the bliss of the Truth.

I’d put it a little differently (and I think more literally):

Having drunk the nectar of solitude and of tranquility,
[And] drinking the nectar of the joy of truth, he becomes free from sorrow, free from evil.

The verse starts with the phrase Pavivekarasaṃ pītvā, of which pitvā is a gerund, “having drunk.” “Pavivekarasaṃ” is an accusative noun, and it breaks down into paviveka (solitude) and rasa, which can mean taste, juice and a few related concepts. Since we talk of drinking a liquid and not drinking a taste, I thought that “nectar” worked better for rasa than Buddharakkhita’s “taste.” There is of course legitimate leeway in creating any translation, however.

Byrom, however, goes well beyond legitimate leeway. There is nothing corresponding to “look within” in this verse. And it opens by talking about what happens once we have drunk the nectar of solitude. Byrom renders this as an imperative, “Be still.” This is simply not what the passage is saying.

And although the Buddha does talk a lot about “attachment,” that concept is not mentioned in this verse. Byrom has simply thrown it in.

As usual he’s essentially just making it up as he goes along. He produces a sense that is emotionally much warmer than the actual Dhammapada. Contrast the intimacy of having someone tell you (presumably in a kind way) “Be still” with the much more distant and abstract “Having drunk the nectar of solitude.” Now Byrom’s version (like the publisher, Shambhala, I don’t call it a “translation”) is very popular because of its warmth and gentleness. But the fact is that the Dhammapada has, for the most part, a rather austere and ascetic tone, and to soften this is to distort the text.

Critiquing Byrom is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (admittedly I’ve never attempted that sport — I suspect it’s more difficult than it’s reputed to be). Virtually the whole of his rendering is a mistranslation, much of it much worse than this. Here at last he doesn’t introduce any non-Buddhist concepts, which he does elsewhere.

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