Engaging Ancient Spiritual Texts

Engaging Ancient Spiritual Texts July 15, 2023

David before Saul
Lucas van Leyden
c 1508

It is good to sing praise to you, my heart.
To give thanks for the blessings of life,
To notice love coursing through my body in the morning
And faithfulness through the night.
I hear our human voices as music,
And silence as melody.
I delight in your world;
You make my body sing with joy.
How great is your goodness.
How unfathomable your deep currents,
Not seen by eyes
Not grasped by mind
Everything united
Everything touching.
The mess of life
Shows everything connected
Everything the eternal dharma.
The wise heart flourishes like palm trees
Grows like the cedars of Lebanon
Planted in the deep dark soil of God,
Leaves relentlessly turning to the light
Bearing fruit into old age
Living the truth
Of perfect unity.
Psalm 92 (my paraphrase)
There’s been a fair amount of energy in my circles over the past couple of years regarding the authenticity of translations of spiritual texts. Coleman Barks‘ work with Rumi is the principal example. But there are many others. Fitzgerald‘s Omar Khayyam is another.
We need good translations of our essential texts.
And. As has been observed by those paying attention, all translation is an art of interpretation. There is an incredible divide within Christian scholarship, for instance. There are those who seek what is basically word for word translations. And there are those who use a more dynamic approach, attempting to capture the meaning as understood in some long ago culture and present it. The fact with these approaches is that at the end of the day they’re both exercises in interpretation. A word for word translation does not give the reader what the writer was saying, where the context of those words are actively being substituted by the reader’s world.
So, for those of us innocent of the original languages, but who want to dig into the teachings, we need multiple versions. It would be wise to seek the guidance of scholars, and read what they have to say about those texts as well as the actual translations.
I would add we need the guidance, as well, of people who’ve seen into the matter deeply. There might be overlap with scholarship, there might not. But if we’re digging deeply into the matters of the heart we need the guidance of those who have grown deep and wise living with these texts within the context of a lived spirituality. What are they saying? This can be terribly important when we’re looking for the heart of the matter.
And of course there’s having a primary spiritual discipline. I recommend something that has to do with deep silence, practices of presence.
There’s that.
But then there’s a bit more of those who’ve seen into the matter. And things they might do with texts. I recall being asked by an academic whose specialty was ancient Chinese texts, what my favorite version of the Dao de Jing was, and perhaps a devil got into me, perhaps I was trying to be honest, I said Stephen Mitchell’s. I believe Mitchell has something of an eye, he did do hard training as a Buddhist monastic for a time, and there are turns of expression, ways he uses language that I’ve found helpful. And as we all probably know, he barely reads any Chinese. And is not a scholar in any sense of Daoist literature and religion.
There is a growing literature of this sort. Back to Rumi. I believe the critical thing here is transparency. Words like “this paraphrase” are really important. It is important for people to be upfront with their qualifications to produce versions of texts, and sometimes that’s not done. There are a couple of translations of Buddhist texts on the market right now, which are not translations, but it isn’t clear they’re in fact creative paraphrases. And this is a problem.
However, with that really important caveat, those qualifications to give us a spiritual text based on an ancient text, closely or distantly, may not be limited to knowledge of original texts. I underscore the need to acknowledge what one’s intent is in the specific project. Two of my favorite versions of the Psalms are by Stephen Mitchell, one time Buddhist monk, and widely respected Zen teacher and priest Norman Fischer. Both are birthright Jews. Both are poets. The subtitle to Mitchell’s A Book of Psalms is “selected and adapted from the Hebrew.” I think that’s a fair statement this is not meant to be a scholarly project, but something different. While the cover and title page of Fischer’s version, Opening to You, reads “Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms,” the introduction is explicit in how he comes to his versions.
Then the reader can choose what they think will be helpful.
And. There’s one more thing I’d like to share. Many years ago I was reading, I no longer know precisely where, but I think Elaine Pagals, writing about gnostic Christians. She said there was a school among them that required someone to be able to write their own gospel before they would be initiated into the community.
Since then I’ve taken on that as a supplemental discipline. My first attempt was the opening chapter of that Dao de Jing. The process of reading many versions, and oh my there are so many of that particular text, reading about it, reflecting on it, including it as a meditation, was powerful for me. Sadly, that version appears to be lost. It wasn’t captured in my blog, and probably was done before I began writing Monkey Mind.
Somewhat later I did this with the Heart Sutra. I’ve been chanting it for more than fifty years in several versions. While I cannot read Chinese or Sanskrit, (Docs at Mass General once ran tests, and I have a cognitive deficit that makes aspects of language acquisition difficult), I have a sense of that text.
When the Heart of Compassion walked through the gate of wisdom, she looked into the body of the world and of each of us, seeing that each of us and the world itself is boundless. And with this all suffering vanished.
Dear ones, all things are boundless; the boundless is nothing other than all things. Everything in itself is boundless; boundlessness is all things. This is true of our bodies, feelings, experiences, perceptions, and consciousness itself.
Dear ones, the stuff of the universe is boundless. It is not born; it does not die. It is not impure, nor is it pure. It neither increases nor diminishes. And so within boundlessness there are no sense organs, no objects to sense, and no field of experience; no ignorance and thus no ending of ignorance; no old age and death and thus no ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no causes of suffering; and thus no path to follow and no wisdom to attain.
Understanding this boundlessness, the pure-hearted one is free. Without entanglements the true person of the Way is not afraid.
This is the pure and unexcelled Way. All the sages of past, present, and future attain to this truth and find freedom. And so the truth of it becomes the great mantra, supreme and unexcelled; it removes all suffering.
Gone, gone, gone beyond. Completely gone beyond. Blessings and blessings!
My paraphrase, my version, has had something of a life of its own. I run across it here and there. I also notice it isn’t always listed as a paraphrase. All I can say in my defense is when I have control, that fact is acknowledged.
A while back I found myself visiting a Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleague who had suffered from a swarm of strokes, which affected his concentration and his ability to communicate. He had been a leading figure in the UU Christian community, an interesting minority in that world. I ended up reading the psalms to him. Weekly for more than a year, right up until his death.
I read multiple versions, the King James, the Tanakh, and a popular Christian devotional. It was here that I began to pay close attention to Stephen Mitchell and Norman Fischer’s versions. They’re both kind of amazing.
Since then I’ve attempted to create paraphrases for a few of them, myself. As a practice, as an attempt at clarification, as part of the larger project of living into the real. I led with my version of Psalm 92.
In two days I turn seventy-five. As I’ve been living into what that means for me, I turned to psalm 90. Here’s what I’ve found working with it.
Perhaps you’ll find it worth a read. And, maybe, inspiration for you to write your own gospel, or at least make some precious text a little more your own…

Beloved, we have existed within you for all of our days.

Before the earth was formed and the mountains arose, before stars and dreams, before any beginnings and all the endings, it is holy. You are holy. Even in the midst of our worst, you are there. And always you whisper a call to return.

A thousand years for you are no more than yesterday, like a watch in the night. You are found in the rising flood, and in the growing grass. And in our dreams.

We are like the grass growing in the morning which is cut down in the evening. We are consumed in the play of the cosmos, indifferent to our joy and pain, and so often we miss the harmony of the worlds.

Our secret sins, our separation from the world and you brings consequences. And our years are as a tale that has been told. We live seventy years, or if we are strong, eighty. But strength and sorrow, it is quickly cut away, and we fly into our many parts.

Who knows the power of the cosmos and the consequences of our choices?

So, Beloved, teach us the way, teach us to notice our passing days, and turn our hearts to wisdom. Meet us in our struggles, satisfy us with mercy. Allow us to rejoice and be glad all of our days.

Make us to find our way into the flow of causes and conditions, let the way of harmony open for us, and let us come into your glory.

As your children, let the beauty of the heaven be upon us and establish in our hands the work of the holy.


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