Laughing at Swallowing a Flaming Iron Ball

by Bob Schwartz

Dhammapada - Juan Mascaro

This morning I laughed at a few translated lines from a great and serious spiritual classic. The Dhammapada is a brief (423 verses in 26 chapters) collection of the sayings of the Buddha. For over two thousand years, there may have been no more succinct summary of the heart of Buddhism.

As with the Bible, there are many translations of the Dhammapada from Pali into English, each with its own character. I keep a number of different translations handy, and given that chapters are short, it is possible to easily compare.

I was reading Chapter 25, called variously The Monk, The Practitioner, The Seeker, The Bhikku. In the very loose and poetic translation by Thomas Byrom, the chapter begins:

Master your senses,
What you taste and smell,
What you see, what you hear.

In all things be a master
Of what you do and say and think.
Be free.

You are a seeker.
Delight in the mastery
Of your hands and your feet,
Of your words and your thoughts.

It is at verse 371 that I got my laugh. There the worthy translation by Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya reads:

Do not allow your heart to whirl in the pleasures of senses.
Do not swallow a flaming iron ball and then,
As you burn, cry out, “Oh, that hurts!”

I can’t explain, exactly, what is funny about that last line. It just is. Compared to the other translations of what you might say swallowing this hot iron ball (“This is woe!”, “This is pain!”, “This is suffering!”, “No more!”), “Oh, that hurts!” just tickled me.

Note: Some other translations of the Dhammapada worth looking at:

Juan Mascaro (The first I ever read, excellent, and an awesome bargain as an ebook: $.95 v. $6.38 for the paperback.)

Gil Fronsdal

Glenn Wallis

John Ross Carter

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