It is now more than ten years since Ngawang Zangpo put out a call to translators in a thought-provoking appendix (“Buddhism and Poetry”) in Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. “Where are the wordsmiths?” he asked—echoing Trungpa’s famous though perhaps apocryphal “Where are the poets?”—and it is unclear how much of a response he received.
Zangpo argued that while existing translations of famous works, such as Shantideva’s classic Bodhicaryavatara, may be accurate, they do not necessarily qualify as what he called “candidates for memorization.” The predominant style of translation, he suggested, might favour a form of “academic solemnity” that could even be “antithetical to the Buddhist spirit and tradition.” While this is itself debatable, I think we would all welcome some attempts to employ metre and rhyme in Buddhist translations, if only to prove, as Edward Conze suggested, that they are misguided.* In this spirit, and partly in response to Zangpo’s challenge, I have been tinkering for some years with my own translation of the Bodhisattva Vow verses from chapters two (v.26) and three (vv. 23-28 & 34) of Bodhicaryavatara—a section of Shantideva’s text that Zangpo himself highlighted as being worthy of a mnemonic makeover in English. The result is an apprentice wordsmith's experiment, a somewhat liberal version, which, if not exactly memorable, is hopefully still memorizable:
Till I’m enlightened, fully awake,
Refuge, in the Buddhas, I take.
Dharma, bodhisattva assembly—
May they too be my sanctuary!
Just as the sugatas of former ages,
Aroused bodhichitta, and, in stages,
Established themselves through practice,
In the training of the bodhisattvas.
I too, for others’ benefit and good,
Pledge now to attain buddhahood!
Likewise, do I vow to train,
And bodhisattva discipline maintain!
There’s purpose to this life of mine,
Now I’m born into the Buddhas’ line!
First I gained a human life, so rare,
Now I’ve become the Buddhas’ heir!
From this day on, come what may,
I shall not waver, nor ever stray,
But act as befits this noble kin—
Never to stain it, through thick and thin!
For, like a person who, though blind,
Still a priceless jewel might find,
So now, somehow, auspiciously,
Bodhichitta has been born in me!
Now, protectors, be my witness!
As I invite all to perfect bliss;
And meanwhile to temporary joys—
May gods, asuras and others rejoice!
*In his introduction to Buddhist Scriptures (pp.15-16), Conze wrote “…rhyme, unlike the Indian shloka, or the Greek and Latin hexameter, is not a suitable medium for didactic poetry of high quality. Pope’s Essay on Man is almost the only example we can point to, and it is a warning example.”
- Conze, Edward. Buddhist Scriptures. London: Penguin. 1959
- Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca: Snow Lion. 2002