Among my subscriptions for food for thought is the “Daily Words of the Buddha” from the Pariyatti organization. Most of their daily quotes are from the Dhammapada, which I have mentioned before.
One of the lessons I’ve gleaned from these daily passages is how many times the Buddha seems to appeal to the idea of retributive justice: do the right thing and you’ll get rewarded; do the wrong thing and you will be punished. Retributive justice, of course, is at the center of the drama of the Book of Job. The adversary śātān tells YHWH that Job only loves and respects him because YHWH rewards Job for good behavior. Job’s trials begin when YHWH agrees to let śātān test Job. In his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain, the American philosopher Owen Flanagan claims that Buddhism lacks a concept of justice. If he had studied the Dhammapada or the doctrine of kamma (karma in Sanskrit), I don’t think he would have made that claim without more nuance and more substantiation. As for myself, I’m still working out how much this theme of retributive justice is an artifact of translation and how much the Buddha’s teaching really has in common with this Western concept.
The problem of translation raised its head in this morning’s “Daily Words of the Buddha for June 27, 2014,” taken from Chapter 23 of the Dhammapada, verse 333 (if you’re counting cumulatively from the first verse in the book, or verse 14 in the chapter).
Good is virtue until life’s end,
good is faith that is steadfast,
good is the acquisition of wisdom,
and good is the avoidance of evil.
As I read these lines, I tried to focus on the behaviors recommended. Then I happened to look up at the Pali text, which I usually don’t pay attention to. I was struck to note that the word Acharya Buddharakkhita repeatedly translates as “good” is sukha.
We have seen sukha before, the opposite of dukkha, the right-sized axle hole as opposed to the one that fits poorly. If sukha means “good,” does it follow that dukkha means “bad”? Whether you call it suffering or stress, the Buddha never applied the moral categories good and bad to this fundamental characteristic of our lives. In fact the Pali word usually associated with moral goodness is the one translated as “virtue” in this passage.
The problem is, of course, the ambiguity of the English word “good.” It doesn’t always mean doing the right thing, but the context listing recommended activities certainly conveys that impression. That’s the wrong impression of what the Buddha says here. In fact, this is another passage where he seems to be saying that good things will follow if you behave correctly.
Sukha refers to those good consequences. Therefore, Ananda Maitreya conveys the sense of sukha more accurately in his rendition of this passage.
It is pleasant to reach old age as a morally good being.
It is pleasant to be of unshakable faith.
It is pleasant to achieve insight.
It is pleasant to abstain from evil.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates sukha here as “a blessing.” I like that, too.
In closing, if you consult online Pali dictionaries or glossaries of Buddhist terms, you will not find sukha translated as “good,” but rather as “pleasure, ease, satisfaction, happiness, joy, bliss.” Sukha doesn’t mean what we ought to do so much as what we enjoy doing.