Translating Suchness

In the immeasurable expanse of nature in process,
In faith and trust and wonderment we give ourselves to this suchness,
This seamless mystery of birthing and dying.

A few months back, I received an e-mail from people in Brazil who are translating some of my writings into Portuguese. They were having difficulty with the word ‘suchness’, which is not uncommon even for people fluent in English. They wondered if I had any suggestions. The following post is an edited version of my response.

Words we use in dharma exploration need to be employed with a light touch. After all, words are tools of communion, ways by which we creatures link with each other, bringing forth a sense of community, communing in and with a larger world. They are attempts to point out, or to invoke, subtleties of healing and integrated living experience. The richness – the depth and breadth of our collaborative experiencing – is what is important, not the sound, or squiggle on a page we use to draw our attention, or someone else’s attention, to a particular thing or event. With this in mind it would be wise to approach words or phrases with respect and precision and, in a loose and possibly even playful way, giving them full rein to reverberate throughout the myriad domains and levels of our lives.

The meaning of a word has only partly to do with definitions found in dictionaries. Our visceral sense of meaning rests in an abundance of experience co-emerging on the heels of puffs of air and densities of vibration arising in the collision of sound waves and flesh; a transient assemblage of feelings, sensations, memories, and associations – a shifting body/brain/mind/community in action. Meaning depends on context. It depends on cultural assumptions, physiological functionings and ecological situations and circumstances.

To understand what I mean by ‘suchness’ let’s briefly consider its origins. We can trace it back to the Buddhist word ‘tathā’ which is part of ‘tathāgata’. Tathā means thus or such. Ga, from gaté refers to movement; coming, going, being – or even, travelling. Ta is a suffix ending indicating ‘ness’.

In ancient scriptures, the Buddha, recognising that the fullness of his own being was ‘immeasurable’, ‘inscrutable’ and ‘hard to fathom’, often referred to himself as ‘the tathāgata’; one who is a dynamic process; a coming-going-being of reality – such as it is. Speaking this way he avoided using the pronoun ‘I’ which had limited meaning in the minds of his listeners. Over time, Buddhist philosophers began to identify the essential quality of tathāgata as tathāta which became translated into English as ‘suchness’. The Oxford English Dictionary has many definitions for the word ‘such’. One way it is used is to indicate, “something as having a specified or implied quality to an intense degree; so great, splendid, marvellous” – such a wonderful fellow! In Buddhist usage, the words tathāta or tathāgata – ‘suchness’ – refers to ‘reality as it actually is’, ‘such as it is’, ‘magnificent and splendid as it is’ – reality – a dynamic all inclusive continuously gestating systemic wholeness in the act of knowing itself. Suchness is buddha nature in action.

In writing, I often specify suchness by using the phrase ‘this suchness’. By ‘this’, I indicate that I’m not referring to a generic abstract quality called suchness, but to the totality of beingness that is birthing this particular present moment – this suchness.

If you were sitting beside a cat and someone asked you “what is a cat?” you might point to the cat and say “thus is a cat”, or “such is a cat”. In doing so, you don’t just mean the shape of the cat is the cat, or the smell is the cat, or the physiology is the cat, or the word ‘cat’ is the cat, or the cattish behaviour is the cat. Differentiating the cat from its environment, you don’t mean that the floor is not the cat, or the surrounding air, or flowers and nearby garden is not the cat. Also, you don’t mean the neural matrix of your brain or a pattern on your retina is cat, yet without these, for you, no cat would appear. This uniquely magnificent and splendid moment of cat-ness involves a collaborative functioning of all of these aspects, and more.

Classical prajñāpāramitā writing,1 often appears to define a thing by saying what it is not. This is easy to do. A cat is obviously not a banana. But it’s harder to say what the cat actually is in its entirety. To even begin to approach what something is, we need to nurture a continuously open mind of precise and playful curiosity and question. Aspiring to jolt readers into states of bright non-clinging awareness, the language of prajñāpāramitā texts is often negative in expression, for example, the famous statement, “there is no form, no feeling, no perception . . . and no four noble truths”, found in “The Heart Sutra”. Some philosopher/yogis recognised that although saying what a thing was not, was a logically accurate way of speaking, it could still be very misleading if it failed to sustain our curiosity about what that ‘thing’ is. It risked turning the ‘not’ – the absence – into yet another thing, a thing called ’emptiness’ or un-pin-downableness, which then easily became another object of certainty and so ongoing vibrant question fades into a complacency of non-enquiry.

‘Suchness’ is an English attempt to point out with one word the rich possibilities of the Sanskrit, tathāta or tathāgatagārbha – this gestating womb of suchness, primordial buddha nature, absolute truth, the true nature of being, the total field of all events and meanings. It’s the intermeshing totality of activities that we are. Look around you – your emerging experience – this suchness – this seamless mystery of birthing and dying.

English translations of Buddhist texts have already replaced tathāta and associated words, with the English neologism ‘suchness’. In these efforts to translate my writings into Portuguese, it might be better to leave suchness as ‘suchness’, rather than trying to replace this English word with a single Portuguese word. Instead it might be more useful to illustrate what we mean by suchness and then gradually, as more people speaking Portuguese become familiar with the term, a word or simple phrase might collectively emerge that can invoke this immense continuously creative domain of living experience.

In the immeasurable expanse of nature-in-process,
In faith and trust and wonderment,
We give ourselves to this suchness,
This seamless mystery of birthing and dying.

Spacious, loving, with feet solid in the earth,
We nurture the hints at blessedness,
The myriad faces and masks of luminous knowing.

Moving in and as this flow of compassion and deepening enquiry,
we engage with all beings in ways that support
the integrity, the stability and the beauty of the entire field of life and living.

1. “Prajñāpāramitā writing” refers to a large collection of Buddhist texts that address the perfecting, or perfection, of wisdom which itself is closely associated with a correct realization of śūnyāta or ’emptiness’ – the basic space of phenomena, the un-pin-downable immeasurable spacious openness of inter-being/inter-knowing.