The Snake: Translating Ancient Verses
Note: This post is shorter than it looks. Skip the large section of Notes if you wish.
The challenge posed by an ancient verse like “The Snake” is that, even for its original audience, a great deal is left unsaid. Even if you lived in a time when you and everyone around you knew that you can’t find a flower on a fig plant — even if you were deeply familiar with all the ordinary references — the particular meaning that the Buddha gives to so many words he uses would make this one little group of seventeen stanzas worthy of long study in order that all of it could be understood. The first verse’s “anger” is correctly enough taken at face value (while anger can be used to good end, it generally gets used at a cost, and there are other, better tools to use instead) and if we understand “passion” as in the same category we are off to a solid start. But by the time we reach the end of the sutta, the mention of the absence of things born of distress can be seen as too vague, as well as things born of craving, and what is “the root of unskillfulness”, anyway? If his audience isn’t already deeply familiar with the Buddha’s teaching, and how he defines things, the meaning will be lost — to the people of his own time as well as to us.
Clearly, something needs to be done to make the suttas both more readable and easier to understand, especially given how dependent study of Buddhism is on the peculiar definitions of particular words.
Lately, here in the SBA forum, in the thread called “words, words, words”, we have been talking about making suttas more readable. That’s why in this post I start by providing a reasonably faithful translation of “The Snake”, the first sutta in the small — and believed to be quite old — collection called the Sutta Nipata.
For the interested (or dedicated) I offer extensive notes on why I made different choices on key words than other translators did — but it’s not necessary to read all that.
Finally, I offer at the end, an attempt to take the more literal translation here at the top, and smooth it into something a little more like modern English. My question for you is: do I take too many liberties? Or too few? Do you prefer the close-to-literal or the more liberal? Or would something else be better? Because I am considering working on more translations, your insights, dear reader, will help shape the final works.
1. The monk who removes anger that has arisen like spreading snake poison [stopped] by medicine abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
2. The monk who completely destroys passion like a lotus pulled out, root and flower, abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
3. The monk who completely destroys craving as if having dried up a rapidly flowing river abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
4. The monk who completely destroys self-measurement, like a great flood does a very weak bamboo bridge abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
5. The monk who has understood that there is no essence in becomings, like seeking the flower of the fig tree abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
6. The monk who has within no ill-temper, having overcome the customary "becoming or non-becoming" abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
7. That monk whose convictions, having been eradicated within, thoroughly, leaving no remainder, abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
8. The monk who neither aspires too high nor lags behind, overcoming all this conceptual proliferation abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
9. The monk who neither aspires too high nor lags behind, having become aware that "All is deceptive" in the world abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
10. The monk who neither aspires too high nor lags behind, "All is deceptive," without greed, abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
11. The monk who neither aspires too high nor lags behind, "All is deceptive," without passion, abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
12. The monk who neither aspires too high nor lags behind, "All is deceptive," without ill-will, abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
13. The monk who neither aspires too high nor lags behind, "All is deceptive," without delusion, abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
14. The monk who has no underlying tendencies because the root of unskillfulness has been destroyed abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
15. The monk in whom there is nothing born of distress supporting his arrival Here abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
16. The monk in whom there is nothing born of craving, to be made the cause of binding to becoming abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
17. The monk who, having abandoned the five hindrances, is free of trouble, has crossed over doubt, is free of the dart abandons "Here and Beyond" as a snake its worn out, old skin.
=== NOTES (feel free to skip this whole section or just read bits) ===
“The Snake” is the opening sutta (“talk” or “sermon”) from the Sutta Nipata (“Sn”), one of the smaller collections in the Pali Canon. The Sn is thought to be quite old. The first few suttas in a collection are considered to be in a particularly esteemed position for any of a variety of reasons: perhaps because they express central points very efficiently, or beautifully, or because they were quite popular. Since this one is in first place, we can assume that it was in some way important, and it seems it still is, because we find it now rendered by several1 of our English translators.
All seventeen verses of “The Snake” speak of the consequences of appropriate behavior and thought in a variety of terms and metaphors, all ending with a refrain comparing the results to a snake shedding its old, worn-out skin, so that we can perhaps perceive of the framework of the poem addressing how our new way of “seeing and being” changes how we touch the world — and perhaps even how we are seen — in a way that causes us never to look back at our old “skin” the way a snake never has a use for its old skin, either.
The act of translating is always a challenge, and if you have a chance to compare several versions by different translators, you’ll likely notice each of us has a different slant. The job of a translator is to try to convey the meaning of the words, but this has to start with developing an understanding of what those words mean, and — human beings that we are — we bring different experiences and ideas to bear on what we see. The words mean different things to different people — heck, what the Buddha taught means different things to different people! — so it is no surprise that we come up with different answers as to what is being said. It’s a very Buddhist experience, doing this translating, in that it gives a very vivid, living example of working with “the emptiness” of, well, not exactly of words, but of our clinging to one certain meaning of each word. The words as originally composed will have been intended to convey a certain meaning; it’s not that they are empty of any meaning. The problem lies not in any sense that they lack content (they aren’t that kind of empty), but that it is hard for us to be certain of what was intended.
The more I translate the oldest Buddhist texts, though, the more I come to suspect that the Buddha enjoyed the multiplicity of meanings words had, and played with them. This must have worked well enough for him in his time, because he seems to have used layered meanings a lot. Unfortunately, the flexibility of the words means that by our time, those shifting and layered meanings can get confusing, especially if we tend to lock onto one interpretation.
In an attempt to illuminate the differences between my translation, here, and that of others, I offer, below, a little insight into why I chose certain words.
The first three verses address anger, passion, and craving, with three different similes for each. The choice of simile, no doubt, is expressive of the emotion being described. Anger is a spreading poison; passion is a beautiful flower but needs to be treated like a weed; craving has the strength of a fast-moving river. The word translated as “passion” here is rāga and because its first meaning is “color, hue” I believe it makes reference to the kind of passion that makes one’s face change color, not to, for example, the passion that drives one to stand up and fight for the rights of the downtrodden. Though even that would depend on how “attached” one gets to the outcome of one’s efforts.
Most translations of the refrain translate the word orapāraṃ2, that I translate as “Here and Beyond”, as “this shore and the farther one”3, which is a very poetic rendering, but vague, and it might complicate what’s being said by tying into the sutta that contains a simile of a raft4.
Nyanaponika Thera uses what seems to me to be closer to the meaning of the compound; he has “the here and beyond”, and H. Saddhatissa approaches what I believe is the actual meaning of the words by saying that the monk who practices in this way “gives up the Cycle of Existence.” But even when we take the most accurate translation of the words, or the underlying meaning of “Here and Beyond” being “this (inferior) world and the beyond” as possibly a reference to cyclic rebirth, it’s easy to stop right there and look no further, and thereby miss what is likely to be the deepest meaning of what it is that’s being shed like a snake skin.
In his talks, the Buddha does not limit the meaning to one way of understanding what he is saying5, but often speaks on at least two levels. Thus, the simplest (first) explanation of what is being said, and one that is undoubtedly valid, is that in behaving and thinking in the appropriate ways listed, a monk sheds the prospect of living in this world and the next. He will no longer live in “this world” at least in the sense that he will think of “this world” as being “the way people generally think of this world”. He no longer sees it the same way regular folk see it. He has given up what’s “here” which would include most of the ways people measure what’s good in the world — wealth and power, social status, attachments to family, and so on — because he’s become a recluse. As for “the beyond”, assuming there is such a thing as cyclic existence in which one who lives in “this world” moves on to a “next world” after death, the liberated monk will not continue on in that cyclic existence6.
But it is equally possible to read the sutta in a deeper way. Starting from the view of “here” as in the simplest understanding, the deeper meaning is the pretty much the same, that the monk has given up all ideas of “this world” as it is perceived by regular folk. Not only does he not “live in the world” the way other people do — thus he has given up “the Here” — but going further and deeper, he has let go of ideas of there being any certain “next (or ‘higher’) world” that one might go to after death — so he has given up “the Beyond” more in the sense of clinging to ideas about it. He chooses to shed his attachment to the concepts, and this will change his surface, revealing “a new snake”, someone deeper and more mature.
The word māna that I translate as “self measurement” is usually rendered as “conceit”, which is certainly brought on by self-measuremeant. The Pali word does literally mean measurement, and I believe it takes on its relationship to the self through the use of measurements of the Sacrificer in rituals having the power to equate objects built according to his size to “be” him, so that they get burned up in his stead. This makes “the measurement of a man” a way of measuring the atman, “the self/soul” that moves from one life to the next. That said, the value of seeing māna as self-measurement is that many of us believe we don’t measure up at all, whereas conceit is about over-valuing oneself; “self-measurement” covers both directions. We can, of course, also interpret “conceit” as being more about “the conceit that we have a self at all”, but that does not seem to me to be what is referred to in a verse that describes what needs to be swept away as like a weak bamboo bridge — the conceit of self is, for most of us, far stronger than that.
The fifth verse has a wonderful image that describes what it’s like to go looking for something that’s not there at all, since it’s likely that everyone in his day will have known that figs do not have flowers that can be found by walking around looking for them in the bushes (botanists tell us that the fig “flowers” are found inside the fruit — but they aren’t really flowers at all). The missing fig flower is compared to “becomings” — bhavesu, which is a plural of bhava, and that ties this verse to the next, and to the sixteenth.
Bhava has long been one of the harder terms in Buddhism to translate and understand, possibly because its origins in the Vedic7 worldviews have gone unnoticed. Bhava describes a transition from one state to another — as in “from Here to the Beyond”. Like a fig flower, if we go looking for evidence of this transition, we do not find it. But with its reference to no “essence” (sāraṃ — also meaning “pith”) what’s being discussed is not the transition itself, but what it is that is believed to transit from this life to the next; when we look for what moves from this life to the next, it is as impossible to find as a fig flower.
The phrase “having overcome the customary” is my translation of vītivatto8. Vīti means “going beyond” and vatto is defined in the Pali English Dictionary (PED) as “1. that which is done, which goes on or is customary, i. e. duty, service custom, function” and “2. observance, vow, virtue”. My understanding of “becoming” (bhava) and the terms it is paired with throughout the suttas (in this case abhava “non-becoming”) is that they are references to two different belief systems and sets of practices, which makes sense of vītivatto as “going beyond the customary religious duties and observances” and, in fact, the things that are the cause of those duties, including perception of the cosmic order. In this way it supports the refrain being not just about giving up being in this world and going to the next, but about clinging to views about the cosmic order, and what duties must be performed in order to obtain one’s preferred after-death outcome.
I see this verse’s “ill-temper” as putting weight on a lack of argumentativeness over belief-systems, in other words, tolerance generated by letting go of dogmatic certainty about what happens after death, and what we must do here and now to give us the best outcome in “the next world”. If that is the case, it matters little what the two opposing world-views were, since the take-away is in recognizing that any dogmatic beliefs that cause us to argue with others are a problem, and that will be true in any age — even ours — regardless of what the beliefs actually are.
I chose “conviction” to translate vitakkā, instead of the more usual “thought” because the –takkā means “doubt” and one understanding I’ve developed of the prefix vi– is that it sometimes means something like “beyond” — so “beyond doubt”. Or if not meaning, exactly, “beyond” then perhaps “higher than” or even simply “not the same as”. In some texts9 vitakkā is described as a sort of early thinking about concepts, and I suspect it is indicating the way we tend to believe our first impression of what things are, or what they mean. In that sense it is “thought” but not just any old thought. This means that the verse would not be telling us to totally eradicate all thinking “within” but just those thoughts that involve instant certainty.
The key term in this verse is papañca, which I translate in deference to Bhikkhu Ñaṇananda as “conceptual proliferation” (though that phrase is a bit unwieldy). The idea here is that we tend to get too caught up in our ideas — one leads to the next and the next — but if we can get that under control, we will be able to see what’s really going on, and thereby abandon “Here and Beyond”, whether that means to ending cyclic rebirth, or just no longer being concerned with whether there is such a thing or not. Ñaṇananda seems to suggest10, of this particular verse, that we can avoid conceptual proliferation through a middle ground between “lagging behind or aspiring too high” (nāccasārī na paccasārī‘). He says: “One might note how harmoniously the implications of ‘papañca‘ blend with the expression ‘nāccasārī na paccasārī‘, as well as with the refrain of the verses.” I am not entirely clear on what Ñaṇananda had in mind there, but perhaps the previous verse’s vitakkā represents a “lagging behind” in thinking — instant acceptance of one’s first thought without further consideration — whereas papañca is over-thinking, and both forms can lead to clinging to concepts of “Here and Beyond” (as well as other concepts).
Where I have “all is deceptive in the world”, Saddhatissa has “all in the world is unsubstantial” and Norman has “all this is unreal”. The key word here is another vi- prefixed term, vitatha, where tatha means “truth”11 and I will maintain my conviction that the vi- prefix is not quite the same as the a-/an- prefix (which is a definite “not” this, “not” that), but represents instead something vaguer, something formless, something not quite the opposite or absence of whatever is represented by the root word. So: not “un-truth” or “un-real” but seeming like it is truth, is real, when it is not: something deceptive.
Verses Ten to Thirteen
These four pattern themselves on the one just above, essentially saying that one who has come to know that “all is deceptive” either is or will become — there is no verb in there to tell us which — greedless, passionless, free of ill-will, and delusion. These four are usually found as three in the suttas, as the three certainties of our nature (dhammā) or the three roots of unwholesomeness (akusala-mūla), with “ill-will” and “delusion” always present, and “greed” and “passion” taking turns in the list because they are about equivalent, since both passion and greed are caused by excessive attachment.
Both Norman and Saddhatissa translate akusala here as “evil”, and it is certainly associated with negatives like “bad merit” but because I don’t see the Buddha as addressing Good and Evil in their sense of being inherent and real, I take the more modern “unskillfulness” (directing acts that lead to bad results) instead.
This one is tough to translate gracefully while following closely, because the original construction is peculiar to the place and time in being inside out, with the result stated first, followed by the cause. In addition, the cause being stated is for a result that won’t happen! It says that if the monk experienced distress (the word is daratha but might in later talks have been dukkha) that distress would have resulted in his arrival “Here”, but now it won’t! — because there is nothing (no actions? no sense of self?) born of that distress to bring him back into “this world”.
Patterned in about the same way as the verse just above, this verse instead talks of the monk not experiencing anything born of craving, therefore he will not experience the result of being bound to “becoming”.
There isn’t much doubt about what’s being said in the last verse: a life free from the five hindrances12 is a better life.
=== END OF COPIOUS NOTES ===
Below you’ll find a softer rendering of the poem in which I try to get it to say what I think it is meant to say in language that is more comfortable for our time, meanwhile sneaking in the occasional helper-words that are not in the original (detoxify, excessive, seeking the essence of self, flowerless, ideas about life after death, unverified, a self, clear thinking).
1. Those who detoxify anger that has arisen as if it were spreading snake poison treated with an antidote leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
2. Those who completely destroy the lure of excessive passion as if pulling out a lotus, root and flower, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
3. Those who completely destroy craving as if drying up a rapidly flowing river leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
4. Those who completely destroy self-measurement, like a great flood that washes away a very weak bamboo bridge leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
5. Those who have understood that seeking the essence of the self is like seeking the bloom of the flowerless fig tree leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
6. Those who have within themselves no argumentativeness, having passed beyond customary ideas about life after death leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
7. Those who have thoroughly eradicated unverified convictions, leaving no remainder, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
8. Those who neither think too much nor consider too little, overcoming the tendency to build ideas from other ideas leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
9. Those who neither think too much nor consider too little, having become aware that "All is deceptive" in the world leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
10. Those who neither think too much nor consider too little, knowing that "All is deceptive," without greed, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
11. Those who neither think too much nor consider too little, knowing that "All is deceptive," without passion, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
12. Those who neither think too much nor consider too little, knowing that "All is deceptive," without ill-will, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
13. Those who neither think too much nor consider too little, knowing that "All is deceptive," without delusion, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
14. Those who have no more old habits of thinking because the root of ineptness has been destroyed leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
15. Those who have no support for a return to the usual life because they generate nothing born of distress, leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
16. Those who have nothing born of craving that would bind them to the creation of "a self" leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
17. Those who, having abandoned the five hindrances to clear thinking, have become free of trouble, have crossed over doubt, and are free of the dart leave behind the usual life and the next life the way a snake abandons its worn out, old skin.
- http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.01.than.html (Thanissaro)
- http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.01.nypo.html (Nyanaponika Thera)
- http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe10/sbe1033.htm (Anecdota Pâlica)
1 In this article, I’m working with translations by:
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.01.than.html
- Nyanaponika Thera: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.01.nypo.html
- as well as H. Saddhatisa in his book “The Sutta-Nipata (1985) and K.R. Norman, with alternatives by I.B. Horner and the Ven. Walpola Rahula, in the PTS book “The Rhinoceros Horn And Other Early Buddhist Poems) (1984, 2007)
2 The Pali English Dictionary (PED) has ora = below, inferior, posterior; the below, the near side, this world. paraṃ = beyond, to the other side.
3 Thanissaro: “the near shore & far”. K.R. Norman: “this shore and the far shore”. V. Fausböll: “this and the further shore”
4 MN 22
5 Which, ironically, may well be the point of the simile of the raft.
6 Though we may note that the suttas never tell us what happens, after death, to one who has become liberated.
7 Vedism evolved, much later, into what we call Hinduism.
8 H. Saddhatissa just translates it as “overcome”; Norman and Thanissaro as “gone beyond”; Nyanaponika as “transcending”.
9 For example, Ñaṇananda’s “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” describes vitakka as reasoning, and a precursor to both vicāra (“the discursive aspect of the intellect [that] has the finer sense of investigation and deliberation. It follows faithfully in the wake of vitakka and seeks to sustain it.”) and papañca (“…is a more comprehensive term hinting at the worldling’s imagination to break loose and run riot.”) See the next verse for more on papañca.
10 In “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” — an entire book on the subject of papañca.
11 The word vitatha is not used often, but when standing alone is common in the phrase, na hi tathāgatā vitathaṃ bhaṇantī which usually gets translated something like “For Tathagatas do not lie” — plural, even though it can be talking about the Buddha himself (possibly it was a popular phrase). It could as well mean that they “do not deceive.”
12 The five hindrances are: sensual desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt — all hindrances to mindfulness; therefore they feed ignorance.