Ash Wednesday has always been profoundly deep-rooted in my being. Perhaps no other date on the Catholic calendar induces such a sense of somberness that millions (mostly non-practicing Catholics) are obsessed to go to church to get those ashes splayed across their foreheads. While that particular liturgical action no longer holds any stock for me, the solemn season of Lent that it ushers in does prove to have an enduring quality. If one were to search the archives here at Unborn Mind Zen, you would find many an auspicious-Buddhist series commencing during this period. This year will be no different as we will be offering an exegesis of the well-renowned, The Udāna. John D. Ireland in his excellent translation points-out its defining quality as an inspired utterance:
The Udána, or “Inspired Utterances of the Buddha,” belongs to the Sutta Piṭaka of the Páli Canon. It is the third book of the Minor Collection (Khuddaka Nikáya), found between the Dhammapada and the Itivuttaka. The Minor (or Lesser) collection, although it is actually quite bulky, is given this name because it is an assortment of miscellaneous texts most of which were not included in what are regarded as the four main collections (nikáya).
The Udána consists of eighty discourses, mostly short, divided into eight sections or chapters (vagga). The title “Udána” refers to the pronouncement, usually in verse, made at the end of each discourse and prefaced by the words: “Then, on realizing its significance, the Lord uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance” (atha kho bhagavá etam atthaí viditvá táyaí veláyaí imaí udánaí udánesi). Thus udána means an inspired or solemn utterance spontaneously evoked, literally “breathed forth” (udánesi), by the understanding or realization (viditvá) of the significance (etam atthaí) of the situation or event that occasioned it (táyaí veláyaí). [John D. Ireland,The Udána & The Itivuttaka, 1997, pg. 3]
One of the other translations we will be utilizing is an older one penned by F.L. Woodward in 1935. While his style is considered as very-dated in this day and age, elements of it shine through as surpassing all other renditions. He delineates Udāna as Versus of Uplift. Since he was closely allied with Mrs. Rhys Davids, who exclaimed that the verses were ‘cries of the soul, or cries or sighs of the heart, Woodward refined it as utterances that uplift the spirit, thus Versus of Uplift. He further breaks-down Udāna with the Upanishad understanding as one of the “vital airs” (prāna, apāna, samāna, vyāna, udāna), “which has its plexus in the throat, controls the other four, passes up and out at the crown of the head. This throat-plexus is probably the origin of the lump in the throat felt by some under strong emotion; in the (later) Anugītā, ch. V, the control of this centre, which governs the organs of speech, destroys samsara and leads to the Supreme Self.”
The other translations that we will be employing are ones by Peter Masefield, which is considered to be the most painstaking in terms of staying as close as possible to the original Pāli (yea, he even has a massive -1171 page two-volume commentary by Dhammapāla); another by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from 2012, and a most recent one (February 6, 2020 )–Udana (Exclamations of the Buddha) by Noble Silence. The unique structure of the Udāna is articulated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
The role of the Udāna within the context of the Pali Canon is to focus on the values and principles—“meaning” in the larger sense of the term—that underlie the Buddha’s teachings. This point can be seen clearly in how each udāna is organized. It begins with a narrative of an event or series of events, followed (with a few variations) by the formula: “Then, on realizing the significance, meaning (attha) of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed.” This, in turn, is followed by a spontaneous exclamation—a poem, a passage of prose, or a combination of the two—in which the Buddha expresses what that meaning or significance is. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Udāna: Exclamations, pg. 9)
I find it most compelling how the Udāna follows the Dhammapada, one of my favorites from the Pāli Canon. My own Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn can attest to that. Also, like many other scriptures covered here in these voluminous blog-series, the rendition portrayed here in this exegesis will be in Light of the Unborn. I’ve also recently been listening to an Audible recording of the John D. Ireland translation and I must say that, through the articulation of the well-spoken English, I’m falling in love with the Udāna.
Be with you again soon!