“Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightning, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?”

Sanjiv Desai passed this one on to me today. I’d never seen it before, although it seems it’s everywhere…

“Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightening, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?”

I thought that one might come from Thomas Byrom’s kinda-made-up “translation” of the Dhammapada, or from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book.” It turns out it’s a bit of both.

Byrom has:

Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
You too shall pass away.
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

This is meant to be a translation of verses 5 and 6 of the Dhammapada, which in Buddharakkhita’s quite literal translation is:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

Byrom’s version is actually pretty accurate by his standards. A lot of the time he just wrote his own poetry, more or less ignoring what the Pali text actually says.

Jack Kornfield, in his Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (page 19), turned Byrom’s loose translation into:

“Life is as fleeting as a rainbow, a flash of lightning, a star at dawn. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?”

Then in “A Lamp in the Darkness,” Jack altered this further to:

“Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightening (sic), like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?”

The imagery almost certainly comes from another text altogether: the Mahayana Diamond Sutra.

So you should view this fleeting world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

So it’s an interesting conglomeration, this one! It embodies things the Buddha said (and even though the Diamond Sutra was composed long after the Buddha’s death, the concluding verse is similar to some things he’s recorded in the Pali scriptures as having taught).

For example this:

“Just as a dewdrop on the tip of a blade of grass quickly vanishes with the rising of the sun and does not stay long, in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a dewdrop.”

Or this:

Form is like a glob of foam;
feeling, a bubble;
perception, a mirage;
fabrications, a banana tree;
consciousness, a magic trick —
this has been taught
by the Kinsman of the Sun.
However you observe them,
appropriately examine them,
they’re empty, void
to whoever sees them
appropriately.

But despite these similarities, “Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightening, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?” is definitely not a direct quotation.

8 thoughts on ““Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightning, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?””

  1. Wow. Even noteworthy authors who have dedicated their lives to the promotion of Buddha’s teachings have taken poetic liberties! I guess it could be said that what they have come up with is at least harmonious with his teachings.

    1. Jack’s taken a lot of poetic liberties. I love his teachings, but you sometimes have to take his “quotes” from the Buddha with a grain of salt.

      1. I think that when he quotes people and texts, he generally focuses on the “essence” of the text, not literal translations. Though this could definitely be misleading to those expecting a direct quotation. I think it’s mostly a personal belief as to whether it’s important to use exact quotes, or to pass on ideas and messages, as is seen in many oral traditions and societies.

  2. Jack frequently played loose with meanings if they didn’t suit his purposes. A good example of this is his (and Kabat-Zinn‘s) translation of sati/smriti as ‘attention’ instead of ‘remember’.

    Attention is active / perceptive (from the head). Remember is passive / receptive (from the body). The original intent was a deep remembering (genetic / ancestor memory which the modern Western human animal has been trained to think is supernatural woo woo.

    Two privileged, Western, ‘talking head’, pathologically-alienated, disembodied Western dudes couldn’t comprehend ‘remember’ and didn’t want to – so they just changed the meaning because they could.

    In doing so, they appropriated, gutted and made Western Dharma impotent and contraindicated for the Western mind while making many millions selling what was explicitly forbidden to sell in the ancient mnemotechnical tradition they looted and turned into something that it was carefully designed to protect.

    1. Hi, Jeff.

      The screenshot you see is from the Journal of the Pali Text Society, dated 1884. As you’ll see, the author settles on “mindfulness” (meaning conscious attention) as a translation for “sati.”

      Leaving your harsh characterizations aside, in blaming Jack Kornfield for coining this usage you’re off by almost a century.

      I’d be interested to hear what support you find in the early scriptures for your contention that sati is a kind of “deep remembering (genetic / ancestor memory.”

      1. Thanks for your reply.

        “I’d be interested to hear what support you find in the early scriptures for your contention that sati is a kind of “deep remembering (genetic / ancestor memory.”

        I find it unlikely that you’re unaware that the ‘attention’ translation is a very modern interpretation that originated from Western scholastics, but in the unlikely case that you’re not aware of this, here in the 21st century that (successful) Western effort to recontextualize Dharma to make the very modern Western invention of ‘Buddhism’ more consistent with capitalism and its goals, can easily be found online in abundance. It is useful to include .edu in your search queries to filter out faith-based sites.

        Even Wikipedia has a fairly decent section on this topic:

        ***

        Sati and smṛti

        Main article: Sati (Buddhism)

        The Buddhist term translated into English as “mindfulness” originates in the Pali term sati and in its Sanskrit counterpart smṛti. It is often translated as “bare attention”, but in the Buddhist tradition it has a broader meaning and application, and the meaning of these terms has been the topic of extensive debate and discussion.[74]

        According to Bryan Levman, “the word sati incorporates the meaning of ‘memory’ and ‘remembrance’ in much of its usage in both the suttas and the [traditional Buddhist] commentary, and … without the memory component, the notion of mindfulness cannot be properly understood or applied, as mindfulness requires memory for its effectiveness”.[75]

        According to Robert Sharf, smṛti originally meant “to remember”, “to recollect”, “to bear in mind”, as in the Vedic tradition of remembering the sacred texts. The term sati also means “to remember”. In the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta the term sati means to remember the dharmas, whereby the true nature of phenomena can be seen.[74] Sharf refers to the Milindapañha, which explained that the arising of sati calls to mind the wholesome dhammas such as the four foundations of mindfulness, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven awakening-factors, the noble eightfold path, and the attainment of insight.[76] According to Rupert Gethin, [sati] should be understood as what allows awareness of the full range and extent of dhammas; sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value. Applied to the satipaṭṭhānas, presumably what this means is that sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to “remember” that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure.”[77][note 5]

        Sharf further notes that this has little to do with “bare attention”, the popular contemporary interpretation of sati, “since it entails, among other things, the proper discrimination of the moral valence of phenomena as they arise.”[77]

        Georges Dreyfus has also expressed unease with the definition of mindfulness as “bare attention” or “nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness”, stressing that mindfulness in a Buddhist context also means “remembering”, which indicates that the function of mindfulness also includes the retention of information.[78][note 6] Robert H. Sharf notes that Buddhist practice is aimed at the attainment of “correct view”, not just “bare attention”.[web 10][note 7] Jay L. Garfield, quoting Shantideva and other sources, stresses that mindfulness is constituted by the union of two functions, calling to mind and vigilantly retaining in mind. He demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of morality—at least in the context of Buddhism, from which modern interpretations of mindfulness are stemming.[79]

        Translation

        The Pali-language scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843–1922) first translated sati in 1881 as English mindfulness in sammā-sati “Right Mindfulness; the active, watchful mind”.[80] Noting that Daniel John Gogerly (1845) initially rendered sammā-sati as “correct meditation”,[81] Davids explained:

        sati is literally ‘memory’ but is used with reference to the constantly repeated phrase ‘mindful and thoughtful’ (sato sampajâno); and means that activity of mind and constant presence of mind which is one of the duties most frequently inculcated on the good Buddhist.”[82]

        Alternative translations[edit]

        John D. Dunne asserts that the translation of sati and smṛti as mindfulness is confusing. A number of Buddhist scholars have started trying to establish “retention” as the preferred alternative.[83] Bhikkhu Bodhi also points to the meaning of sati as “memory”.[web 11][note 8] The terms sati/smṛti have been translated as:

        Attention (Jack Kornfield)
        Awareness
        Concentrated attention (Mahasi Sayadaw)
        Inspection (Herbert V. Günther)
        Mindful attention
        Mindfulness
        Recollecting mindfulness (Alexander Berzin)
        Recollection (Erik Pema Kunsang, Buddhadasa)
        Reflective awareness (Buddhadasa)
        Remindfulness (James H. Austin)[84]
        Self-recollection (Jack Kornfield)

        ***

        The Wikipedia entry for ‘smrti’ from Wikipedia:

        Etymology

        Smrti is a Sanskrit word, from the root Smara (स्मर), which means “remembrance, reminiscence, thinking of or upon, calling to mind”, or simply “memory”.[7]

        ***

        Kornfield and Kabat-Zinn were very well informed about this adharmic Western recontextualization in the 1800s and very purposefully chose to align with it (for above stated reasons) instead of the traditional meaning.

        “I’d be interested to hear what support you find in the early scriptures for your contention that sati is a kind of “deep remembering (genetic / ancestor memory).”

        I don’t need to offer further evidence for sati / smrti (there are countless etymology sites online). Re: genetic / ancestor memory, I suggest that you ask your traditional Asian Dharma teacher about this, assuming that you have one (and preferably the older, the better) or deeply familiarize yourself with the importance of genetic / ancestor memory, in nearly in all ancient mnemotechnical traditions dating into the mists of time, including Dharma ( which far predates the very recent Western invention of ‘Buddhism’).

        “Leaving your harsh characterizations aside … “

        Your characterization of my comment as “harsh” is an interesting story you told yourself that reflects your biases and tells us more about you and your sensitivities than it does about my unvarnished “characterization”. You projected your sensitivities onto my comment.

        Nice talking with you. Hit me up at Facebook if you’d like to continue this conversation.

        1. Hi, Jeff.

          Although you quoted my question twice (i.e. “I’d be interested to hear what support you find in the early scriptures for your contention that sati is a kind of “deep remembering (genetic / ancestor memory)”) you haven’t actually answered it. I’m assuming for now that you can’t point to any such scripture.

          As for traditional Asian Dharma teachers, my own teacher had plenty of them, all born in the 19th century, (“the older, the better”). I don’t recall any of them talking about your “genetic/ancestor memory.”

          And harsh speech is harsh speech whether you choose to deflect that into supposed “stories” I’m telling myself.

          I don’t do Facebook, and to be honest I don’t have any interest in continuing to have a discussion with you, but thanks for the invitation.

          All the best,
          Bodhipaksa

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