I have mentioned a number of times how much the Daily Dharma emails I get from Tricycle Magazine have helped me. One of the first posts in this blog described how a Daily Dharma quote from Philip Simmons helped me to see my writing as an unfinished house so that I became unstuck from writing a book to begin writing this blog. Other posts have mentioned Daily Dharmas that guided me through critical moments during Laura’s illness, from my role as a caregiver to how to walk through a world of hurt. So, you can imagine how surprised I was that this morning’s Daily Dharma seemed positively unhelpful (“Positively” is used ironically in light of what follows.)
Today’s Daily Dharma is titled “A Positive Attitude,” and consists of a quote from an online translation of Santideva’s manual on becoming a bodhisattva that I had not seen before. The passage goes:
Just as a flash of lightening on a dark, cloudy night,
For an instant, brightly illuminates all;
So, in this world, through the might of the Buddhas,
A positive attitude rarely and briefly appears.
Some of you may remember my description of Laura’s definitively un-positive counter-discourse about her illness, and my regard for the critiques of “positive thinking” by Barbara Ehrenreich and Gayle Sulik. You can understand, then, why my antennae went up to see the phrase “positive attitude.”
This phrase did not appear in the translations that I have of Santideva. But I didn’t post a critical comment on Tricycle. The Daily Dharma actually excerpted from a longer passage from the journal of a young man who had recently died of brain cancer. After his diagnosis, he had written to Tricycle to ask if they would be interested in publishing some of his writing about his spiritual journey and his situation. Before the magazine could get back to him, he died.
In his journal Asher Lipson ponders how he has used the time he had up to this point and how he will use the time remaining to him to benefit others. I strongly recommend that you follow the link in the preceding paragraph to read this perceptive piece for yourself. Since I did not want to distract from or disrespect Asher’s insight and his recent death, I put my comment on the Daily Dharma in this way:
Asher’s writing truly deserves Shantideva’s praise for the awakening mind, from which the second passage in his piece is taken. More than a “positive attitude,” he gives us “the mind of the world [which] might for a moment turn to acts of merit,” as Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton translate this passage. The Padmakara Translation Group renders this line as “Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.”
I was still bothered by this translation that made an 8th Century Indian monk sound like Dale Carnegie. Because the translation is online, I was able to do a search of its use of the word “positive.” What I found is that the translator, Alexander Berzin, uses the phrase “positive force” frequently where other translators use the word “merit.” He also talks about “positive practice” where others say “meritorious acts.” And sometimes he just uses “positive” where others say “good” or “happy” or “pure.” I must admit that I really like his phrase “positive force” to describe how wholesome or skillful actions energize more wholesome and helpful actions and results. As someone who grew up in a religious tradition infamous of selling indulgences, I always wince when my Sri Lankan friends tell me that I have earned “great merits” for helping them. On a more theoretical level, the word “merit” in a religious context carries the baggage of the Christian concept of grace. There are aspects of the concept of grace that appeal to me, but grace is not part of Santideva’s theological framework. (I’ll save a comparison of grace with kamma for another post.)
So, in the context of the rest of his translation and in order to avoid associations with Dale Carnegie and the Pink Ribbon cheering squad, I think Berzin would have represented Santideva’s thought more accurately if he had used “positive force” instead of “positive attitude.”