What Is Birth?

March 15th, 2011

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“And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, & acquisition of [sense] spheres of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth. [MN 141.11 translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

On a sleepless night, not long ago, I went out to visit my old friends at Buddhism Without Boundaries and came across a topic called “Learning Pali” in which one poster asked why the person who started the thread would learn Pali. The suggestion was that in order to do a better translation than those we already have, one would have to understand Pali better than the scholars themselves.

I puzzled over the objection I felt for a while, turning various possibilities over: What if the scholar was great with grammar but had no grace or style in English, but the one seeking a “better translation” wrote beautifully and concisely? And is the assumption that when one does a translation, there’s no peeking at anyone else’s versions allowed, so that our newcomer couldn’t try to locate problems in the new translation by looking at the expert’s old translations? And how do we ever come up with a great new translator if we are too intimidated by scholarship to even start down that road?

But it turns out that my strongest argument for having a go at it is that it may just be that the translations we look at are made with one specific understanding of what the words should be saying in mind, and there is a possibility that this isn’t accurate. The only way we can ever know if this is so is to do what the Buddha suggests we do — go for direct experience: take a closer look.

With any language — never mind one from more than two millennia ago — there is lots of wiggle room, lots of flexibility in word meanings, so we aren’t likely to get to absolute certainty on any particular point, but there is really very little to gain (except preservation of the status quo) from not even taking the time to look.

Because a particular set of phrases gets brought up repeatedly by the people I encounter in conversations about “what the Buddha taught” — and because I could almost interpret the existing translations in terms of my understanding, but not quite — I decided to have a closer look at the Pali that underlay the words.

It turns out it was worth doing.

The translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu that appears above is somewhat different than the one I worked with, which is the one by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha:

And what, friends, is birth? The birth of beings into the various orders of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation [in a womb], generation, the manifestation of the aggregates, obtaining the bases for contact — this is called birth.

It was that “precipitation [in a womb]” that pushed at my awareness, a catalyst to inspire me to have a closer look. What, I wondered, was in the Pali that suggested that this was specifically a birth in a womb? That and the “obtaining the bases for contact” nailed the meaning as a physical birth.

On closer inspection (for details please see these images of my look at the experts’ translation and then my work on an independent translation) I found that there was nothing particularly suggestive of the “precipitation” beingĀ  “in a womb”, and the “bases” (ayatana) said nothing of “contact” and had more of the sense of “sphere” (as in “made in the mind, not in the body”) that is captured in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation up top (but even he could not resist throwing “[sense]” in there though it is not evident in the Pali).

But that wasn’t all. When I took a good look at number and case it seemed to me that the usual translations of those “various beings in their various groups” was out of synch with the Pali — and I found that what was being translated as “beings” (satta) could equally well be translated as “attached or clinging to”. I tried to match up singulars and plurals, genitives, locatives, accusatives in various ways until they fell together, pretty much of their own accord, and a different sense of what was being said emerged.

Now I will grant that, first up, I am lousy with grammar. I have to keep a cheat sheet on what these forms even mean, and I look at it every time I try to work out how a word is supposed to fit in a sentence; and second, that the meaning I found in the way the words fit together is going to have been shaped by my understanding of what is being said — but that is what translators do: they lean on the overall structure of their understanding in order to shape a translation that makes sense in context. And just because we do translate through the filter of our own conception of what’s being said does not mean that the answer we come up with is wrong. Given any two disparate translations, at least one of them will be wrong — maybe both of them — but one may be more accurate than the other, too.

The Bhikkhus Nanamoli, Bodhi, and Thanissaro may be entirely right in their translation — even if they bent the grammar in the Pali to come up with their translation, they might still be right about the meaning. Or maybe they didn’t bend the grammar at all, and as a newcomer to Pali I have missed something important (which is part of the reason I put this up here — so that if I did and you noticed it, you can show me my mistake(s) so that I may learn something new).

But my translation is also consistent with what the Buddha taught, and with the Pali grammar (as I understand it to be), so maybe it’s more accurate. I’d love to hear what you think.

At any rate, here is my final (for now) version:

And what, brothers, is birth? Whatever that process is which attaches a collection into “a being”, coming together into birth, coming into appearance as the manifestation of “a being” from the aggregates, arrival in one’s own sense-based world — this, brothers, is called birth.

This translation is all about what is created from the aggregates — there’s nothing controversial in it at all — it just says the same stuff the Buddha always says about the way we create what we think of as ourselves. And even though “sense” (like “contact”) isn’t explicit in the Pali, I do agree with Thanissaro Bhikkhu that this definition of birth is tapping into ayatana‘s association with that which we create from the experience of our senses, and because that seems to be what it is making reference to, I added “one’s own” to make it clear that this is the world/sphere in our mind, not the physical world of material form where physical contact creates sensation.

In the end there is this: a variety of Theravadan translations in which the question of birth is answered by descriptions of literal birth, all three (see also Piyadassi’s version) more or less in agreement; and a translation in which the answer is that we are talking about birth of (for lack of a better word) “a being” out of the aggregates — which can also be seen as a sort of two-way definition, not just “What is birth” but also the Buddha saying that when he refers to “a being” he’s talking about what is birthed by the coming together of the aggregates.

And there’s a question: If there are three translations in agreement, and one that says something different, does that necessarily mean the majority has got it right?

Why learn Pali? Because, through the exercise of the skills, we may learn more than just Pali.

2 Responses to “What Is Birth?”

  1. jan ford says:

    There are a number of factors that go into such considerations

    how many support a particular version is one
    whether one is from an earlier copy of the original is another
    who the author is and what tradition they might represent
    how accurate the translations might have been
    and whether the texts might have been altered
    were changes in the text intentional or unintentional?
    once a mistake was made it could have been embedded in the belief system more firmly in fact than the original
    whether or not there were internal consistencies within the text
    and so on

  2. […] As noted elsewhere (i.e. on my own blog) I have serious doubts about our modern translations of the definition of “birth” in […]

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