When the Buddhist writer and philosopher, Stephen Batchelor, published Verses From the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime I met him to discuss his new poetic translation of a seminal text by Nagarjuna that explores the seemingly mysterious subject of emptiness or sunyata
Vishvapani: In your recent book Verses From the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime (Riverhead, 2000), you seem to be fascinated by the figure of Nagarjuna himself. How has your view of Nagarjuna evolved?
Stephen Batchelor: I was first introduced to Nagarjuna as the revered founder of Madhyamika philosophy and a seminal figure in the foundation of the Mahayana. But I was also aware that Nagarjuna has assumed a mythic identity. He is said, for instance, to have retrieved the Perfection of Wisdom Discourses from nagas or serpents living in the depths of the sea. I found that those two dimensions never quite gelled. So I started work on this book with field research in the Kathmandu valley. I tracked down a shrine from where Nagarjuna is believed to have descended to the naga realms. I also discovered a hill called Nagarjuna, ancient texts, and a statue of him in the millet fields. That gave me a sense of Nagarjuna’s immediacy. When I started work on the text I saw that beneath its complex surface is a real historical person who has been covered by many layers of orthodoxy. I sought to let go of the orthodox reading of the verses (in which I was trained) and to be open to that animating voice.
V: In the Introduction you discuss Nagarjuna’s influence on the spiritual lives of great Buddhist figures, such as the Zen master Dogen and the Tibetan Tsongkhapa. Why did you emphasise those connections rather than his influence on Buddhist thought or the development of its schools?
SB: The teaching of the Buddha comes alive most vividly to me when I can hear it articulated in a distinctive voice. There are long stretches of Buddhist history where people perpetuate the vision of a great teacher. Then there are key points, usually at times of transition, when voices emerge that re-express the Dharma. Those seminal figures have their precursor in Nagarjuna. He was the first person after the Buddha to re-articulate the tradition in his own voice. That is why he has lived on.
Imagine that for 500 or 600 years you just had the suttas, Abhidharma scholasticism, and some proto-philosophy. Then suddenly Nagarjuna came along and said, ‘This is what it is about.’ And he did so brilliantly, very concisely. That meant moving from the historical epoch of Gautama into the post-Gautama age. You can’t say that Nagarjuna represents the early schools, or that he is promoting the Mahayana. He hovers between the two periods. Nagarjuna was the starting point of the age when the Dharma was articulated in compelling individual voices other than that of the Buddha. This to me is what is characterises the later Buddhist schools, rather than their doctrines or philosophy.
V: Is that a novel way of seeing Nagarjuna’s place in Buddhist history?
SB: I suppose so. The earlier schools, now represented by the Theravada, have no place for Nagarjuna, while the Mahayana schools all co-opted him and place him at the start of their lineages. But the curious thing is that hardly anyone reads the verses any more. But why not, if it is such a key text? My answer is that the verses sit uncomfortably with any orthodoxy. They present a vision that is suspicious of any attempt to pin down what the Buddha was saying within a systematic set of definitions. Nagarjuna does not just state his views; he articulates the very freedom with which Buddhism is essentially concerned. In that sense his is an anarchic voice.
V: Is it fair to say that you view Nagarjuna as a poet rather than as a philosopher?
SB: If you go with tradition, you will assume that Nagarjuna is a philosopher rather than a poet. But I began to notice quite early on that how I translated the text depended on how I framed it. Either way you construct an image of Nagarjuna. But if you read the translations that see him as a philosopher, they do not come across as particularly good philosophy. They are not convincing or engaging, and I find it hard to connect such readings with the man who had such a revolutionary effect on the Buddhist tradition. Nagarjuna uses a different kind of language from that of Madhyamika philosophy that subsequently took his work as its basis.
Madhyamaka is largely a dogmatic system and Nagarjuna’s Verses are not reducible to it. For example, Tsongkhapa’s commentary on Nagarjuna’s text often resorts to convoluted interpretations to make it fit with orthodox teaching. Tsongkhapa was trying to create a systematic overview of the traditions he had inherited in order to lay the foundations of a Buddhist state. But I am not at all sure that Nagarjuna’s work would be supportive of such a project. However, I would be as reluctant to call Nagarjuna a proto-Romantic poet as to call him a proto-Wittgenstein. There is a stronger case for seeing Nagarjuna as a practitioner, someone concerned with attaining nirvana.
Nagarjuna explicitly states that his aim is ‘easing fixations’. He says nothing about refuting intellectual opponents. He sees these fixations as locked into the way we think, and he exposes their ambiguities and contradictions through the play of his language. In that way he gives voice to emptiness. This is why I think a poetic rendition is more appropriate
V: Does seeing Nagarjuna as a philosopher actually distort his message?
SB: Books on Madhyamaka philosophy always say that Nagarjuna’s main point was to refute the existence of svabhava (self-existence). But in the text he sometimes says there is no svabhava, sometimes that there is svabhava. At one point Nagarjuna says ‘Empty, not empty? They are both just ciphers.’ He is as suspicious of the term ‘empty’ as he is of ‘not empty’, and he is cautious in setting up a metaphysics of emptiness. There are points when he moves in that direction, but as soon as he starts settling in a position he pulls back. What he does say is that ‘those who believe in emptiness are incurable’. That is ironic, given subsequent Buddhist history when people have spent a lot of energy believing in emptiness. Statements like that support my approach.
V: How did you approach the translation given this desire to free the author’s voice?
SB: First I did a very exact translation of the Tibetan text and then I took that as the first draft of a poem. With each chapter I thought, ‘This one isn’t going to work, this will disprove my theory.’ And in the end I reluctantly relegated three chapters to an appendix as they were not open to that reading. But the others all worked extraordinarily well.
V: To what extent is this a translation, and to what extent an interpretation of Nagarjuna’s text?
SB: You could argue that I found in Nagarjuna what I wanted to hear. I was always conscious of the tension between my need not to do violence to the text, and the fact that I bring to it desires, preferences and biases. But that is inevitable for any translator. You may bring the biases of the western academy or the Gelug tradition, but there is no value-free reading of the text. I ended up with a sequence of poems of enormous consistency. Where does that consistency come from? From me? Well, partly, yes. But I don’t think I could have done that without something consistent as a basis. It’s not my poetry. It is Nagarjuna’s text as read by Stephen Batchelor, but not a convenient translation that simply leaves out the bits that disagree with my views.
V: How confident can you be in your procedure, given that the text you were translating was already a Tibetan translation, not the original Sanskrit?
SB: That is a weakness and I will certainly be criticised for it; but there is an argument for valuing the Tibetan on the grounds that, unlike Sanskrit, it is a living language. I can hear the cadences of the Tibetan as they would have been pronounced by my teacher, Geshe Rabten. Also I was working with English versions of the Sanskrit, and I can read the romanised Sanskrit to the point of recognising the key terms.
V: What guided you in making your version?
SB: A classic text is able to speak across generations and cultures, and to address new situations in startling ways. Poetry also has that capacity. So when I moved from literal translation into poetry I had to shift my sense of what is authoritative. In the first instance, the written text is the authority, but as I moved into poetry the authority shifted to what one might call the poetic muse. One is then on shaky ground from an academic perspective, trusting something that might be considered highly subjective. But one hopes that the muse may transcend the limitations of ‘Stephen Batchelor’. So I walked around my office speaking the verses, and wrote dozens of versions until I felt my poems were truthful not only to the text but also to the integrity of the poetic voice I was uncovering.
V: Robert Thurman believes we need poetic translations of the Buddhist sutras in place of the often turgid texts we currently have. Is your interpretive approach a model for future translators?
SB: A qualified yes. I acknowledge my own shortcoming in not knowing Sanskrit, but at least I was working from a text that goes back to the seventh century, and is part of living tradition. Most of my time was spent doing a boring literal translation from a classical language. I was not turning someone else’s English translation into my own more poetic translation, as some others have done. One must be careful with such work not to rely on third-hand sources.
But I agree with Thurman. Let’s drop the word poetic. We need translations in good literary English that are a pleasure to read. The huge gap of time and culture that separates us in the West from the Asian traditions makes it crucial to arrive at a voice that is not only true to the traditions but that speaks our language on every level.
Style communicates as much, perhaps even more, than getting the right sequence of words in a grammatically correct sentence. Unfortunately this is not happening much in the translation of Buddhist texts. What academics are doing is competent, but often not very inspiring. We should be producing translations that can be read for their literary merits by people who know nothing about Buddhism, and that speak across borders into the wider culture.
V: Do you see this as a way that Buddhism can influence western culture?
SB: Absolutely. Richard Rorty says ‘a talent for speaking differently rather than arguing well is the chief agent of cultural change’. Other translations seek to impress upon the reader the significance or veracity of Nagarjuna’s view by arguing his case in English. I am trying to give voice to Nagarjuna, to find a way of speaking differently. It is not so much the content, but the rhythms, the pulses, the word-plays, the surprising juxtapositions: communicating emptiness by somehow speaking from it.
V: I am struck by the freshness of the language in your translation. One key word is ‘ease’. How do you find the right word to translate such a term?
SB: ‘Ease’ translates the Sanskrit shanti. Usually it is rendered as ‘peace’, but the Tibetan word zhi ba is both a noun and a verb. In English we don’t have a simple way of doing that, so in the verb form we use ‘pacify’, or ‘appease’. But these terms mean something rather different. When I worked with the text as poetry I struggled to find the right word, one that didn’t jar. It suddenly struck me that ‘ease’ did the trick. You can ease something, and you can be at ease, or in a state of ease. ‘Ease’ is monosyllabic and matches the minimalist style I aspire to. All this arose because I was trying to use terms as people understand them in ordinary contexts.
V: You describe the result as a series of poems around the theme of emptiness, but is there a development through the book as a whole?
SB: I think there is. I had a hell of a struggle with the opening chapter, “Analysis of Conditions”. I felt it was a later addition included to show Nagarjuna’s position, but the writing is very awkward, so eventually I put it in the Appendix. Then suddenly the whole sequence of verses made sense as a whole. It opened with “Walking” – a highly immediate experience – then “Seeing,” “Body,” and “Space,” all of which are viewed from the perspective of emptiness.
Finally it moves on to “Buddha Nature,” “Awakening,” “Contingency,” “Opinion”. In the end I removed two further chapters from the main text and included them as appendices. So there is a progression from the concrete into a reflection on explicitly Buddhist notions, from generalised experience to a reflection on the teachings and primary values of Buddhism.
V: How has working on this text affected you over the past three years?
SB: It has been a liberating experience. It was a powerful way of engaging with an aspect of the Buddhist tradition of which I knew little. It freed me from views of emptiness I carried with me, and made me to look carefully and uncomfortably at elements of my own training. It opened up another way of being with those ideas, forcing me to reconsider my relation to the tradition and how that has unfolded. It has also been a significant exploration of the poetic, and language – the English Romantic tradition has opened up for me. So it has been a wonderful, exploratory process.
V: Might viewing the world as emptiness be an advanced teaching that is irrelevant to most people?
SB: To some extent that is true. But it’s wrong to think that the Verses are just about emptiness. Nagarjuna is articulating a sensibility that views the whole of experience from the perspective of emptiness. One of the most interesting chapters is on acts, or ethics, which is usually ignored, despite being one of the most powerful pieces in the book. To say that Nagarjuna is just concerned with emptiness is a way of containing him in a rarefied, philosophical zone. Considering emptiness as something advanced and special may simply be an acknowledgement that we are not good at understanding it, so we resort to jargon and metaphysics. Is that a way of hiding Nagarjuna away? My hunch is that anyone who is alive to the basic questions of life could be touched by Nagarjuna. I’ve no idea what people will make of it, but I am fascinated to see.
This interview was published in Dharma Life Magazine (no. 12, spring 2000)