Bhikkhu Bodhi stands as one of the foremost and most prolific modern translators of the Pali canon. He has translated The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (the Samyutta Nikaya) and revised Bhikkhu Ñānamoli’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Length Sayings). Both are published by Wisdom Publications, as is the volume under review.
Bhikkhu Bodhi’s latest tour de force is this indispensible anthology — thematically arranged — of key teachings from each of the five sections, or nikayas, of the Pali discourses. The selected teachings are organized into ten themes such as The Human Condition, The Path to Liberation, and Shining the Light of Wisdom. This arrangement has the advantage of giving a more balanced view of the Buddha’s teaching than would be gained by randomly dipping into the Buddhist scriptures, due to the fact that Buddhist teachings for lay people tend to be under-represented in relation to those intended for monastics, and the fact that some important teachings, like flecks of gold on a stream bed, appear infrequently in the canonical texts.
The Pali teachings are vast in scope — the Pali Text Society’s translations would fill several shelves, for example — and moreover tend to be dry and repetitive. This anthology does an excellent job of making the Pali teachings more accessible by eliding much of the repetition that is characteristic of the orally-transmitted Pali tradition, and this volume is therefore remarkably readable. Bodhi, himself a westerner, has also done an excellent job of selecting those parts of the Pali teachings that are likely to have an appeal for Westerners and for Buddhists living in modern societies anywhere in the world. The anthology includes a greater proportion of teachings addressing the existential issues at the heart of the human condition, and a greater proportion of teachings that address social issues than are found in the canon as a whole.
A highlight of the book is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s insightful introduction and chapter introductions. These passages supply useful contextual, historical, philological, and even spiritual background to the teachings, and would make an interesting and substantial book in their own right.
Any anthology represents a subjective evaluation by the editor or translator. It could be argued, for example, that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s selection over-represents the scant social teachings in the Pali canon, or that teachings given in verse (such as the Dhammapada) are underrepresented. There is of course no way to take a small percentage of a vast body of teachings and to satisfy all readers that the texts selected are a truly representative sampling of those teaching. But this anthology most certainly works, due, it must be said, to the mastery that the translator has of his field. This collection may be subjectively made, but it is made with an unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge of its subject matter. Anyone seriously interested in gaining a better understanding of the full range of early Buddhist teachings should purchase this book.