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Pha Dampa Sangye and the Alphabet Goddess

A preliminary study of the sources of the Zhije tradition

Sarah Harding

Dampa Sangye

Dampa Sangye on www.HimalayanArt.org

Presented by Sarah Harding at the 2016 meeting of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) in Bergen, Norway:

I did not master all of Indian tantra or positively connect the lovely Mātkā alphabet goddess with Dampa Sangye, except for circumstantial evidence. Even the 25 texts in volume 13 of the Treasury of Precious Instructions (gDam ngag mdzod) that I have been tasked to translate for the Tsadra Foundation remain at the end of this long road. But with much snooping I have tried to examine some of the sources of the Zhije (Zhi byed) tradition, particularly the two “tantras,” and their influence in the actual rituals and practices of the tradition.

First a very brief background of this complex tradition, called Zhije or “Pacification,” that traces back to the South Indian Dampa Sangye. I will call him by his most commonly used name, but you may be more familiar with Pha Dampa Sangye, used by most western scholars. The anecdotal story of the “father” appellation of pha can be found in Machik’s Complete Explanation, where mother Lapdrön’s son decides that he is like a father to him, and thus the balance of Ma-chik and Pha-Dampa, probably lending itself also to the popular and unsupported belief that he was Machik’s consort. Dampa’s Indian names were Kamalaśrī and Kamalaśīla, which Tibetans took to be the same person as Shantarakśita’s famous disciple of the 8th century. And he was also identified with the Chinese Cha’an patriarch Bodhidharma (5th–6th centuries), giving him a lifespan of over 500 years.

Also in the realm of legend is the story of his reanimation of a corpse of a dark-skinned Indian siddha (Dampa Nagchug) who had reanimated and run off in Dampa’s beautiful body after Dampa had entered the corpse of a dead elephant to remove it from a village, leaving him stuck with what was considered an unattractive form, and gaining him the name of Black Dampa or Indian Dampa. His visits to Tibet numbered anywhere from three to seven, with five being the most common. Jamgön Kongtrul’s summary from the Treasury of Knowledge reports the exact starting and ending locations of all five journeys, which is affirming.[1] However, he may have “sojourned” there only three times. Kongtrul also states:

On all those occasions [Dampa Sangye] would intuit the exact character and faculties of each individual and liberate them through a few appropriate instructions. Thus there is no single primary source or systematic tradition that one could ascribe to them all. Nevertheless, [we could say] that he principally based himself in the source texts Ālikāli Great River Tantra, Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, and others. The methods he used, consistent with his own life example, were the three [levels of] vows as the support, ascetic exertion (dka’ thub kyi srang) as the path, and activities for the welfare of others as the fruition. Multitudes of beings possessed of the [right] karma—as numerous as the stars in the sky— were liberated in the state of buddha.

Kongtrul’s understanding here of the great variety of teachings associated with Dampa as skillful pedagogy I find more felicitous than the views of one western scholar who derided it for lacking a cohesive system.[2]

Nevertheless, what remains of a wide-ranging tradition makes it difficult to summarize. The bare minimum is the breakdown of teachings into three main lineages (brgyud) or transmissions (bka’ babs): early, middle, and later, with some other miscellaneous lineages. “The first of these is when Dampa explained to the Kashmiri Jñānaguhya the Cycles of Three Lamps of Pacification.”[3] These can be found in the Tengyur under the name Kamalaśīla. They are described as containing, respectively, the teachings of the vinaya, abhidharma, and sūtra, but also, mysteriously, “the semantic meaning of the fifty-five” sounds,” which is not at all evident in those texts. Also in the Tengyur, incidentally, are Dampa’s collections of dohās from the Indian mahāsiddhas, which had a huge influence in Tibet.[4]

The Middle Transmission is divided into three, known as the Ma, So, and Kam systems, based on the principle recipient’s place names. In summary, he gave rMa Chos kyi Shes rab the teachings of awakening mind, the discourses, scattered teachings, and oral instructions. The second system conferred to So chung dGe ‘dun bar was the instructions of the fifty-four male and female adepts, called “Instructions on the Naked Perception of Awareness.” And the third system given to Kam Ye shes rgyal mtshan is called “the Guide to the Essential Meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom.” Lochen Dharmaśrī, in his commentary, mentions that originally this system would have been the preliminaries to the Kam system practice, suggesting that there was once a more cohesive system in the past. But, he says, “now, the lineages of the guides other than this one have not lasted except as reading transmissions.”[5] This may be true for other doctrines as well. One can easily see that the very preliminary nature of the teachings that remain from this system could hardly touch the perfection of wisdom doctrine.

The Last Transmission is considered the main teaching of Zhije and was transmitted to the Bodhisttava Kunga (Byang chub sems dpa’ Kun dga’), who was acknowledged by Dampa as his primary disciple. Dharmaśri describes:

 

From the instructions to the four direction yogins in the last transmission, which is the main teaching of Pacification, this is the system of Guru Bodhisattva Kunga. The teaching consists of instructions on the perfection of wisdom that are consistent with Secret Mantra. The root is conferred to the mindstream and the essential meaning is introduced. After you are adorned with methods of numerous, great interdependent connections, all the Buddhist teachings are practiced at one time on one seat. This is the esoteric instruction called the Practice Cycle of the Immaculate Drop. [6]

 

Within this transmission, there are three guides: “The White Guide concentrates solely on mind training on the path, the Red Guide [concerns] the practice of five or three paths, and the Black Guide produces realization of the types of letters.”[7] It is interesting that only the Red Guide is elaborated in the literature. It contains an unusual instruction of a five-fold spiritual path: mind training, austerities, subsequent cognition, equalizing taste, and non-action. They are equated with the five Mahāyāna paths, but bear so little resemblance to the normative explanations that the correlation may be ex post facto. Indeed, Kongtrul affirms that “This path did not occur previously in India and Tibet, but is the special teaching of Dampa Rinpoche.”[8] I will return to the intriguing Black Guide later.

What peaked my curiosity occurred during the conferral by Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche of the relevant transmissions of the tradition from Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions in Kathmandu, November 2014. Large portions of the empowerment involved the Sanskrit alphabet, with master and recipients repeating it again and again—forwards, backwards, by columns, by rows, every fifth letter, just the vowels, just the consonants, and other seemingly random combinations. The monks at Benchen Gonpa were incredibly adept in getting it all up on the big screens as fast as the Rinpoche could read.

Nothing in the Zhije histories had alerted me to this pervasive use of syllabary. Except—and how did I miss the one obvious hint everywhere alluded to—that the source text of Zhije is something called Ālikāli Inconceivable Secret Great River Tantra, where āli-kāli refers to the vowels and consonants of Sanskrit! The other source mentioned, called Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, has been previously misidentified by me and everyone else. That was easy to do, since there are dozens of texts with similar titles—nine just in the first volume of the Zhije collection from the recently printed 13 Dingri Langkor Volumes. However, based on positive identification of quotations attributed to “Mahāmudrā Symbol” in other Zhije texts, I have located it in the collected works of Bodong Chokle Namgyal, volume 92, and in no other place. The full title is Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, the Secret in the Hearts of All Ḍākinīs.[9] I will mainly be looking for the influences of those two tantras in the Zhije praxis .

I had little success locating another two of sources of the four named by Gö Lotsawa in the Deb gter ngon po (p. 1134): a general sutra called Total River Play (Chu klung mngon par rol pa’i mdo)[10]; a particular sutra which is Heart of Wisdom; a general tantra called Illuminating the Pitaka (sde snod gsal byed); and the particular tantra called Great River Tantra (chu klung chen po).

Some interesting remarks in Jamgön Kongtrul’s Record of Teachings Received[11] (gSan yig, p. 769) would be worth pursuing:

In the general table of contents of Pacification, [it states that] from the five great dharma series that came from the precious Lamps, in the third one—Stainless, along with the Subtle Drop (dri med phra tig dang bcas pa)—there is a series of six dharmas of experience. Of those, the sixth is about the result of maturation concerning the outer, inner, and secret instructions of ālikāli. The outer [instruction] contains the three [subjects] of divination, astrology, and auspicious connections. Of those, the latter is mainly from the old books: the history of ālikāli. The root of the outer cycle is the vajra diamond substance (pha lam rdzas kyi rdo rje), the root of ālikāli; the auspicious connections of ālikāli (“known as the eighty white auspiciously connected substances”) along with the outer, inner, secret, and suchness; the instructions of the aural lineage of ālikāli; and the cycle of mantras from the five cycles of auspicious connection (“the connection of mantras [for] raining hail”).

Those will prove to be very interesting if ever located. To return to the two tantra sources that I did examine: In discussion of whether the teachings that were passed to Kunga in the last transmission should be considered as sutra or tantra, Gö Lotsawa in the Deb gter ngon po concludes that they are sutra “because it is like the explanation of the doors of the 42-syllable dhāraṇī in the Perfection of Wisdom sutra itself.[12] (But Kongtrul disagrees, holding the middle transmission as sutra and the last as mantra[13]).

In the Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines, we find the 42-syllable a ra pa cha na alphabet, so-called because it is first five syllables of the Kharoṣṭhi script of Ghandāra[14] and possibly the earliest use of dhāraṇī. Each syllable or phoneme is used to indicate a phrase beginning with that syllable that embodies an idea relevant to the perfection of wisdom, and hence the designation of dhāraṇī as a door or entrance:

And again, Subhuti, the dhāraṇī-doors are the great vehicle of the Bodhisattva, the great being. Which are they? The sameness of all letters and syllables, the sameness of all spoken words, the syllable-doors, the syllable-entrances. What then are the syllable-doors, the syllable entrances?

The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (ādy-anutpannatvād). RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas).[15]

And so forth, through that alphabet. Thus it could be seen as a mnemonic device, to help in memorizing the alphabet itself and those concepts. My favorite example using instead the Sanskrit alphabet in a similar way is in the old Lalitavistara Sutra (Ch. 10), where the bodhisattva Śākyamuni attends his first day of school. Here’s what happened:

Through the bodhisattva’s power, the schoolmaster taught the children:

When he said the letter a, out came the statement: ”Every composite phenomenon is impermanent (anityaḥ sarvasaṁskāraḥ). When he said the letter ā, out came the statement: “Beneficial to self and others” (ātmaparahita). When he said the letter i, out came the statement: “The vast development of the senses (indriyavaipulya).[16]

And so forth. In this way, “32,000 children gave rise to thoughts aimed at unexcelled, perfect and complete awakening.”

We are, of course, all familiar with this technique in English:

A you’re adorable, B you’re so beautiful, C you’re so cute and full of charm.

Or, from the 18th century:

A was an apple-pie; B bit it, C cut it, D dealt it…(and so on).

By the way, the title of that one—which could rival any Sanskrit or Tibetan title—is: “The Tragical Death of A, Apple Pye Who was Cut in Pieces and Eaten by Twenty-Five Gentlemen with whom All Little People Ought to be Very Well Acquainted.” Compare that to the 32,000 children who engendered bodhichitta.

Alphabet practices are found in tantras, such as the early Mahāvairocana Tantra[17] with its placement of the alphabet around the letter a which “itself abides as the inherent nature of the array of various forms. It also reveals by its own nature that all phenomena are unborn..” etc. And the ritual of the mantra of the hundred letters based on the letter aṃ “the hundred-door essence” rather than a. The mnemonic correspondence seems not be a factor here, where each syllable has taken on its own inherent profound meaning and correspondences that don’t indicate a Sanskrit word. Rather, that sound is itself an entryway into an absolute truth. Unfortunately, those inherent syllable meanings vary widely from text to text and page to page.

Later tantras show alphabet and syllable usages as well, such as Chakrasaṃvara with its placement of letters on the practitioner cum deity and the encrypted use of the alphabet in a “mantra puzzle” to discover the secret essence mantras.[18] Now, of course, it is no big surprise to find a lot of mantras in the Secret Mantra vehicle. I don’t intend to try to explain the tremendous power that was invested in sounds and letters. Mostly, however, mantras are words that carry lexical meaning, and my interest here is in the non-lexical syllables.

The two source tantras of Zhije are chock full of sounds, syllables, dhāraṇī, and mantra. The Ālikāli Tantra is presented in 24 chapters in the form of questions and answers between Vajrapāṇi and the Buddha. The 24th chapter and an interlinear note reveal that Dampa Sangye reconstituted three somewhat disparate sections of this “tantra” that were previously divided according to the following story: After the Buddha entrusts the tantra to various protectors he departs for Kushinigar.

Then the assembly went off to the king’s palace and divided the tantra into three parts. The first in eight chapters were written on leaves of a wishfulfilling tree, then encased it in a precious crystal vase. The gods summoned it and it rests inside a gandhola on the peak of Supreme Mountain. The middle section of eight chapters was written on the inner bark of a wishfulfilling tree and encased in a precious silver amulet box. The demigods and yakṣas summoned it and it rests in a copper house of blazing weapons midway up Supreme Mountain. The last section of eight chapters was written on blue water silk and encased in a golden box. The nāgas summoned it and it rests in the storehouse of the nāga at the base of Supreme Mountain. Later these three treasure teachings that were divided were brought together into one and written on the skin of a demoness (srin mo) and put into the skin bag of a white lioness. It rests in the endless knot of the secret treasury in the charnel ground of glorious Uḍḍiyāna.

The tantra may have been composed by Dampa himself, which is especially suggested by the use of the term “treasure teachings” (gter bka’). Yet it is consistent with other tantras in its contents. It answers such questions as “What is the Book” (glegs bam): the codex or volume that is used to confer the empowerments of Zhije, rather than the usual mandala or vase. The Buddha answers in verses such as:

In the teaching of the victorious sugatas of the three times

the sounds of great earth, water, fire, wind, and space,

[as] plants, forests, earth, stone, mountains, cliffs,

and all sentient beings, are saying the sounds of the teaching. (Ch. 4, p. 25)

And answering “What is the essence?”:

All phenomena are Ālikāli.

If the wise do not know that fact

they are obscured as to meaning and enter the path of the womb.

One must know that method and wisdom are not two.

And: “If all phenomena are ālikāli, what is the essence?”

Essence is wisdom in the shape of the letter a.

Intrinsic nature unimpeded appearing in the form of oṃ.

The characteristic is nonduality, the perception door of dhāraṇī.

 

From the perception door of wisdom a and oṃ

the emanation of unimpeded methods arise as kāli.

The guru of this emanated fifty

turns infinite unimaginable dharma wheels.

Repeating aloud the meaning of text, you retain it.

The drawing is the ālikāli of form.

Then the ālikāli of amazing substance

and the ālikāli of realized meaning

and the ālikāli of illustrative words

and the ālikāli of concordant examples.

These five I have explained as the secret essence. (Ch. 5, p.27)

 

Then the Buddha goes on to explain each of those. In chapter 6, first the Buddha pronounces the Sanskrit alphabet straight through and then other buddhas intone the various sets of letters from it:

Then tathāgatas in the east say ka ca ṭa ta pa ya śa / i ī ṛi;

tathāgatas in the south say kha cha ṭha tha pha ra ṣa / e ai ṛī;

tathāgatas in the west say ga ja ḍa da ba kṣa / a ā / aṃ aḥ /

tathāgatas in the north say nga ña ṇa na ma va ha / ḷi u ū /

tathāgatas in between say gha jha ḍha dha bha la sa / lī o au /

tathāgatas above say gu ru hya bad at / e vaṃ ma ya /

tathāgatas below say sa ca na si ka ra / maṃ kha la vo / (p. 32)

 

And in Chapter 7 we find:

The root of all phenomena is one’s own mind.

The nature of mind is power from concepts

Concepts depend on channels and winds.

The entity of channels and winds abides in the form of letters.

Therefore all phenomena are the clear form of letters.

The fifty come from a.

It is explained as the seed of all phenomena. (p.35)

In response to this question of the letters’ essence, the Buddha says, “I am the essence,” but continues with correspondences such as: ka kha ga nga are wind letters, blue, are ten, abiding in the lungs and so forth for each set. Other sets of syllables purify the afflictions, and so on endlessly, back and forth between non-lexical phonemes and regular lexical mantras that bestow power and efficacy. All this is interspersed with explanations of practices that are indeed reflected in the Zhije corpus.

Now the Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, the Secret in the Hearts of All Ḍākinīs contains in its 21 chapters similar teachings but in quite a different manner. For one thing, it is spoken not by the Buddha or Vajradhara, but the Bhagavatī, mistress of the realm, surrounded by goddesses and ḍākinīs. She appears but doesn’t, and says “a a a” without saying anything. And the interlocutor is none other than a certain “Kamalaśrī,” (Dampa Sangye) who relates the story in first person. The Sanskrit alphabet makes its first appearance in chapter three “from the vajra Body, Speech, and Mind of the emanated goddess.” This gives rise to the yab-yum in union and the mantras of empowerment, producing a stream of bodhicitta that matures all beings. Many mantras ensue, some familiar from the Ālikāli Tantra, as well as the distinctive five-fold path of Zhije. Three whole chapters (7–9) are given over to the explanation of the suchness of letters (yi ge’i de kho na nyid). And there is also an apparent “mantra puzzle” here, but I just can’t figure it out! It is tenuous to identify the mantras with those in the Ālikāli Tantra since the Tibetan phonetics for the Sanskrit of this text in particular seem quite corrupt. But, alas, this is a problem with most Tibetan phonetic reproductions where Devanāgarī is unavailable. And if the Sanskrit syllables really are doors to the vast absolute truth, this is extremely worrisome if not disastrous for the Tibetan practices based on alphabet and mantra!

The last chapter and the colophon, however, are surprisingly clear, giving an exact date, writing medium, and location. Spoken in a Pig Year, this would be 1107, if Dampa did die in 1117.[19] The tantra was “given to the ḍākinī herself where it remains as the secret treasure of the heart.” The colophon mentions Dampa’s monastery of Dingri Langkor by name, and that it was translated by “the Indian Khenpo Kamalaśrī and Tibetan translator Zhwa ma Ton pa seng ge gyal po,” who was known as Zhama Lotsāwa, Dampa’s regular translator.

Though these two tantras may well be apocryphal, the material in both is generally concordant with Buddhist tantra, yet specific to the Zhije practices. However, the specificity involves the doctrines that appear in the practice and commentarial tradition, particularly the five-fold path mentioned above, and not particularly in the syllable or mantra usage. Why is that? I propose that over time the magic of sound was less compelling to Tibetans than it had been to Indian tantrikas, and may have also generated some anxiety due to the problems of transliteration and pronunciation. The many lineages of Zhije have therefore privileged meditations such as mahāmudrā or tantric visualizations. Indicative of this, when Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo was extracting “the essence” of the Ālikāli Tantra for inclusion in Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions, he chose only three chapters[20] which had minimal mantra and no non-lexical syllabary.

Or, when later commentators present the teachings that were passed to Bodhisattva Kunga, they expound only on the Red Guide, and yet the Black Guide (nag khrid) is where the alphabet teachings are found. Have those been lost? I have so far only found a few scraps regarding this practice, and then in a seemingly negative light. For example, in a question and answer session with Bodhisattva Kunga in one text, a disciple asks about the Black Guide and the stains that will arise from it. The short and remarkable answer is:

What the Black Guide does is illuminate (gsal ‘debs) the letters of forgetfulness tokens (brjed rdo’i yi ge) as imprints on white paper, as it’s called. [When] the instructions of the hearing (“earhole”; snyan khungs) lineage (rgyud for brgyud) have been written down as letter drawings (ris su song) it is a shame (lod). It is like the king degenerating into a commoner. [21]

The possible downfalls of the practice are numerous, including getting hung up on the letters because, of course, “there are no letters for the genuine meaning.” And “Fixating on the excellence of understanding the progression of words (tshig ‘dros), [one] does not look elsewhere, and that is a stain.” And so forth.

However, in the story of the lineage holder rGyal ba ten ne, the Black Guide was divided and granted to him in four separate cycles: the transmission (bka’ babs); the Stainless (dri med); the aural lineage (snyan brgyud); and the dohas of mahāmudrā.[22] If that’s generally the case, then in fact the Black Guide is all over the place and so pervasive that I missed it.

In conclusion, it has been very challenging to find the syllable practice in what’s left of the Zhije tradition, except in the empowerment conferral itself. No wonder it was a surprise as I was mumbling my way through coded phonemes of the empowerment.

POSTSCRIPT

After delivering this paper at the IATS conference in Bergen, an attendee very graciously offered some information of the kind I was desperately seeking in my research. It particularly concerned an observed and still current Vedic ritual in which the meanings to be conveyed to disciples are disallowed as script in any form other than alphabetic syllables for the purpose of recollection. I was referred to the work of William Sax at U. of Heidelberg and also of Frits Staal, in books such as his Ritual and Mantras: Words Without Meaning, and Discovering the Vedas Origins, Mantras, Rituals, and Insights. A paragraph from a review of the latter by Annette van der Hoek illustrates how very illuminating this information would have been:

“Part three explains, in quite some linguistic detail, that the syntactic structure of a mantra is, interestingly, often closer to birdsong than it is to natural language. this is demonstrated, for instance, in the use of sheer indefinite repetition – a,a,a,a,a –which is not a part of our everyday sentence construction and in the use of sequences – bha, bhu, bhi, bho – that again natural language wouldn’t feature except for maybe in a child’s play with words.”[23]

 

NOTES

[1] “He came to Tibet five times. The first time he journeyed to Tsari via Drintang-la. He set foot in all areas of Do-Kham, predicting the spread of the doctrine there. The second time he came from Kasmir and arrived in Ngari, where he accepted as disciples Zhangzhung Lingkawa and Bönpo Trotsang Druklha. On the third visit he came from Nepal to Tsang and gave instructions to Yarlung Mara Serpo and Kyotön Sönam Lama [Machik’s guru]. On the fourth he arrived at Nyal [near Arunashal Pradesh border] via Sha-uk Tak and purified the obscurations of his mother (yum). In Central Tibet he benefited Ma [Chökyi Sherab], So [-chung Gendun Bar], and Kam [Yeshe Gyaltsen]. On the fifth visit he first went to China, where he stayed for twelve years before returning to Dingri [until his death 1117—20 yrs).”

[2] Ronald M. Davidson, Tibetan Renaissance, p. 248: “The curiosity of Zhiché is not its multiple lineages but the fact that there seems go be no core teaching associated with the term Zhiché…”

[3] Zhi byed sgron ma skor gsum, here listed as sPyod pa’i sgron ma, Lam gyi sgron ma, and Thugs kyi sgron ma. But nine cycles (Zhi byed sgron ma skor dgu’i chos skor) are mentioned and listed in RHPS (488) and in BA (905-6) and even by Kongtrul himself in TOK 1:541. These can all be found in the Tengyur (Toh. 2315-2330), where they are attributed to Kamalaśila.

[4] See Kurtis Schaeffer’s Dreaming the Great Brahmin.

[5] Minling Lochen Dharmaśrī (1654–1717), Distilled Elixir: A Unified Collection of the Guidebooks of the Early, Middle, and Later Pacification. Zhi byed snga phyi bar gsum gyi khrid yig rnams phyogs gcig tu bsebs pa bdud rtsi’i nying khu by in DNZ vol. 13 (pa), p. 348.

[6] Dharmaśrī, Distilled Elixir, DNZ vol. 13 (pa), p. 352.

[7] Ibid. p. 354; and Jamgön Kongtrul, Treasury of Knowledge, Book Eight, Part Four Esoteric Instructions, trans. Sarah Harding, p.270.

[8] Kongtrul, ibid., p. 273.

[9] mKha’ ‘gro ma thams cad kyi thugs kyi gsang ba phyag chen brda’i rgyud in Bo dong Phyogs las rnam rgyal, De nyid ‘dus pa, the Collected Works published as Encyclopedia Tibetica, vol. 92, pp. 111–160.

[10] Possible Chu klung sna tshogs rol pa’i mdo, the Nānānadū sutra or Chu klung ba tsha’i mdo/Mūlanadī brought by Tönmi Sambhoṭa?

[11] Tashi Chöpel (bKra shis chos ’phel). Record of Teachings Received. ’Jam mgon kong sprul yon tan rgya mtshos dam pa’i chos rin po che mdo sngags rig gnas dang bcas pa ji ltar thos shing de dag gang las brgyud pa’i yi ge dgos ’dod kun ’byung nor bu’i bang mdzod. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2008

[12] Gö Lotsāwa: p 1134: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i mdo nyid nas yi ge bzhi bcu rtsa gnyis kyi gzung kyi sgo bshad pa dang ‘gra ba’i phyir ro/

[13] “The middle transmission is the definitive meaning according mainly to the sutras. The last is for the most part in accordance with the mantra.” (Kongtrul, Treasury of Knowledge, vol. 3, p.542, my translation.)

[14] Richard Solomon, “New Evidence for a Gāndhārī Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2, 1990; Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men, 2003, pp. 291–2, note 549. See also Jayarava, Visible Mantra: Visualizing and Writing Buddhist Mantras, 2011.

[15] Edward Conze’s translation in The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, p. 160.

[16] 84,000 online translation, “The Play in Full” accessed 05/30/16 http://read.84000.co/browser/released/UT22084/046/UT22084-046-001.pdf

[17] See Stephen Hodge, (trans.) The Mahā-Vairocana-abhisaṃbodhi Tantra with Buddhaguhya’s Commentary, pp. 216-232. (ch. 10). Said to be revealed around 640 CE.

[18] David Gray, The Cakrasaṃvara Tantra, p. 133.

[19] The Tshig mdzod chen mo (pp. 3218–19) states that “some say” Pha Dampa Sangs rgyas died in the fire fowl year of 1117. But it also gives his departure date to China as 1101 and returned to Dingri in 1113 for the last time. Most accounts agree that he spent 12 years in China. That would only give him four years at Dingri until his supposed death, with no intervening Pig Year, which wouldn’t be until 1119. The dating remains to be clarified.

[20] Chapters 10 on the five paths, 17 on the empowerment and pledges, and 23 on view, meditation, conduct, and results. From his colophon: Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Essence of Precious Segments of the Inconceivable Secret Tantra Section, the Source Text of the Holy Dharma Pacification of Suffering. Dam chos sdug bsngal zhi byed kyi gzhung gsang ba bsam gyis mi khyab pa’i rgyud sde’i dum bu rin po che’i snying po. DNZ, vol. 13, p. 15.

[21] bDud rtsi zhun ma’i gdams pa, DV, ga, p. 97. Nag khrid bgyi ba brjed rdo’i yi ge’i gsal ‘debs / dkar shog la btabs pa la zer ba yin te / snyan khungs [b]rgyud pa’i gdams ngag yi ge’i ris su son bas lod de / rgyal po rmangs su babs pa lta bu yin / rgyal po rmangs (dmangs) su babs pa lta bu yin / Much thanks to Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche for clarifying this passage. Personal interview, 06/04/16.

[22] Zhi byed bdud rtsi’i thigs pa’i gzhung yan lag lnga’i sgo nas rgyas par bshad pa, DV, vol. ga, p. 778.

[23] “‘Meaningless’ mantras and birdsong?: discovering the Vedas” The Newsletter, No. 53, Spring 2010: iias.asia/sites/default/files/IIAS_NL53_35.pdf

 

Did Machik Lapdrön Really Teach Chöd? A Survey of the Early Sources
by Sarah Harding

This provocative title is a result of a persistent question in the back of my mind for several years while I was researching and translating the early gcod texts from Jamgön Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions (gDams ngag rin chen gter mdzod), the next ambitious project of the Tsadra Foundation. As I patiently went through the marvelous teachings in each text, I kept wondering when I would find the actual instructions on gCod (“chöd”), or “Severance,” that I was so familiar with from translating Machik’s Complete Explanation and from my own three-year retreat practice. The following is a short survey of these texts and my findings therein, which suggest that there is no clear attribution of the body-offering practice, and certainly not in the elaborate form that we find today.

gCod is primarily known, now quite famously, as a visualization practice in which one separates one’s consciousness from the physical body, and then turns around to cut up the remaining corpse and prepare it for distribution to gods, demons, and spirits of all kinds. The ritual offering may involve going to specific places where such spirits might be found, such as isolated, frightening, or haunted places. It is immediately obvious that several terrifying psychological experiences are invoked: fear of the unseen spirit world, of wilderness, and of the maiming and dismemberment of one’s body. It is thus widely recognized as a practice of “facing your fears” and overcoming them.

gCod was developed, also famously, by the woman Machik Lapdrön in the late eleventh century, during the time in Tibet when many other lineages were forming. Although technically gcod is known as a subsidiary of the zhi byed or Pacification teachings of Dampa Sangye, clearly Machik is the single mother of this baby. In the records of Machik’s brief encounters with Dampa Sangye, and in the only Indian gcod source text (gzhung) by Āryadeva the Brahmin, there is little about this specific practice. It therefore seems to be solely a result of Machik’s own realizations, and so is famous as an original Buddhist teaching indigenous to Tibet that uniquely spread to India in a reverse trajectory from all other doctrines.

The realization that gave birth to Machik’s gcod is said to have occurred during her recitation of a prājñāpāramitā text, which she regularly performed as part of her job as a household chaplain. Specifically, it was while reading “the chapter on māra.” Many suggestions have been offered as to which section that would be, but in any case none of them throw light on the subject. The fact that it is mentioned at all, however, is very provocative. Māra, of course, is the antithesis of Buddha, and has been personified perhaps in the same way as enlightenment is personified as a buddha. Māra represents obstruction of the spiritual path or spiritual death (from Skt. mṛ-, “to die”) in all its forms. Besides the Buddha’s antagonist, a variety of māras were eventually classified into two sets of four, but there are many more examples in the texts I have translated here. It is tempting to imagine Machik’s inspiration as a profound encounter with the dark side, eventually resulting in the overcoming of that duality through the integration of the prājñāpāramitā teachings.

There is no shortage of reference to māras throughout the texts on gcod and their sources, and no question that the primary goal of these teachings is to deal with them, whether conceived of as demons or adverse circumstances or ego or as ultimate evil and ignorance. Simply put, the term used to describe that process is “chöd.” But it comes in two homonymic interchangeable spellings: gcod, which means “to cut” or “sever” and spyod, which means “behavior” or “action.” I have seen either used in alternate editions of the same text. Spyod and spyod yul instantly conjure up the bodhisattva’s conduct in the prājñāpāramitā literature, as in the recurring phrase:  “In this way one should train in performing the activity of the profound perfection of wisdom.” gCod as severance also has its Buddhist antecedents. The classic definition in gcod source material comes from Āryadeva’s Grand Poem, Esoteric Instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom:

Since it severs the root of mind itself,

and severs the five toxic emotions,

extremes of view, meditational formations,

conduct anxiety, and hopes and fears;

since it severs all inflation,

it is called “severance” by semantic explanation.

It is clear that the specific practice of cutting up the body is not alluded to in this definition, as well as all others that I encountered. In fact, it may just be an unfortunate parallel of usage that the process of resolution and integration of problems uses the same term as does the ordinary function of an axe or kitchen knife, or dragon glass, for that matter. We can think of the common term thag gcod pa (“decide, put an end to, determine, handle, deal with, treat”) to get more of a sense of this term, recalling also the interchangeability with spyod pa as “conduct and behavior.” What to do when things get tough? Act with determination.

Similarly, the term yul (“object”) in the longer name for this practice bdud kyi gcod yul (“the devil/evil that is the object to sever”) is used in the most abstract way and is attested in the Abidharma by Kongtrul and others. Consider the first verse in Machik Lapdrön’s source text, the bKa’ tshom chen mo (“Great Bundle”):

The root devilry is one’s own mind.

The devil lays hold through clinging and attachment

in the cognition of whatever objects appear.

Grasping mind as an object is corruption.

Or again, from the same text, referring to a more refined state of practice:

The conceit of a view free of elaboration,

the conceit of a meditation in equipoise,

the conceit of conduct without thoughts,

all conceits on the path of practice,

if engaged in as objects for even a moment,

obstruct the path and are the devil’s work.

The vast majority of the instructions in these early texts are on the practice and theory of prājñāpāramitā, as clearly indicated by their titles. These instructions are often reminiscent of mahāmudrā, and in fact later took on the epithet Severance Mahāmudrā (gcod yul phyag rgya chen po). For instance, from Machik’s Great Bundle:

Everything is self-occurring mind,

so a meditator does not meditate.

Whatever self-arising sensations occur,

rest serene, clear, and radiant.

Even the earliest source text by Āryadeva the Brahmin employs such mahāmudrā signature phrases as “clear light,” (‘od gsal) and “mental non-engagement” (yid la mi byed pa), while the commentary on those passages cites scripture such as Maitreya’s Highest Continuum and other sources usually associated with the third turning. There is constant reiteration of this basic instruction to rest relaxed without doing anything. One of the more famous sayings attributed to Machik, often used as a reference to the gcod practice, is not particularly giving an instruction to sever and offer the body, but is more of a straightforward prājñāpāramitā or mahāmudrā instruction:

Rest the body in the way of a corpse.

Rest in the way of being ownerless.

Rest the mind in the way of the sky.

As a candle unmoved by the wind,

rest in the way of clarity with no thought.

As an ocean unmoved by the wind,

rest in a way serenely limpid.

So where are the references to the practice of casting out the body as food that has made this practice so sensational? A quick survey of the ten early texts (two source texts plus Machik’s eight) making up 134 folia, turns up sixteen references to the catch phrase “separating the mind from the body,” all but one of which merely give mention to the term. This in itself, however, does not constitute the body-offering practice per se. Separating out the consciousness and “blending it with space” (byings rig bsre ba or ‘dre pa) or the much later nomenclature “opening the door to the sky” (nam mkha’ sgo byed) became signature gcod practices. Jamgön Kongtrul asserts that this is the main practice and relegates the body offering to post-meditation (rjes thob) or a branch (yan lag). The number of references to the actual body dismemberment is very rare, and, as I will suggest, limited to the texts of dubious origin. I will briefly survey the texts in the order they are found in the Treasury.

The verse text by Āryadeva the Brahmin, Esoteric Instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom, which is the only source text said to be of Indian origin, mentions the body offering only once, in the context of a classic graded path suitable for the three kinds of individuals:

Those with superior meditative experience

rest in the nondual meaning of it all.

The average practitioners focus on that and meditate.

The inferior offer their body aggregate as food.

The Great Bundle is taken as the earliest and most basic text attributed to Machik. As the story goes, she responded to three Indian inquisitors with an explanation of this composition and proved to them that that her teachings were indeed Buddha Word (hence bka’ in the title). It contains only one reference to a body offering:

Awareness carries the corpse of one’s body;

cast it out in an unattached way

in haunted grounds and other frightful places.

The third text classified as a source text by Jamgön Kongtrul is called Heart Essence of Profound Meaning.” That name came to indicate a whole cycle of teachings, but this source text is signed (not here, but in another edition) by Jamyang Gönpo (b. 1208?). In most records of the lineage, his name appears right after that of Machik’s son Gyalwa Döndrup, making him the earliest commentator on Machik’s teachings that I have yet encountered, nearly a century earlier than the third Karmapa (1284-1339), who is often given that credit. In this text, again, there is only one passage indicating the body-offering practice:

Free the mind of self-fixation by relinquishing the body aggregate as food.

Scatter the master of self-fixation by separating body and mind.

Liberate fear on its own ground by inspecting the fearful one.

Tossing away fixation on the body as self, obstacles will arise as glory.

We then come to an interesting text in the Treasury attributed to Machik called Precious Treasure Trove to Enhance the Original Source, A Hair’s Tip of Wisdom: A Source Text of Severance, Esoteric Instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom. It is evident that this is not a text by Machik, but a commentary on what may have been her teachings, which can be reconstructed by extracting the quoted segments. Using a methodology of searching citations in other gcod histories, specifically a huge auto commentary on the aforementioned Heart Essence by Jamyang Gönpo and Jamgön Kongtrul’s Treasury of Knowledge, I have determined that when something called kha thor (“scattered”) is referenced, it is in fact the quoted segments of this text (with one exception that I could not find there). This was an exciting discovery and solved a long standing mystery, and also corroborated my analysis of this text as a commentary, although it doesn’t solve its authorship. That being said, however, there is not a single mention of casting out the body as food. The entire commentary, including the words apparently spoken by Machik, concern the perfection of wisdom.

Then there are two or three or more “bundles” attributed to Machik. Another Bundle (Yang tshom) is in verse form of a dialogue with her son Gyalwa Döndrup. The longer title is Another Bundle of Twenty-Five Instructions as Answers to Questions, although not surprisingly there are actually twenty-eight questions in this version. Tacked on to that and unmentioned in any source or catalogue is a set of eighteen more questions with very cryptic verse answers, called Vajra Play (rDo rje rol pa). Then from an altogether different collection of ancient gcod texts found at Limi monastery in Nepal, there is a text called, again, “Bundle of Precepts” (bKa’ tshom). The colophon titles it “Thirty-five Questions and Answers on the Bundle of Precepts, the Quintessence of the Mother’s Super Secret Heart-Mind.” While this text bears no resemblance to Machik’s Great Bundle of Precepts (bKa’ tshom chen mo), it is strikingly similar to Another Bundle. Of the thirty-five questions (and this time the number is correct!), twenty-six of them appear in Another Bundle. There is some suggestion in the colophon that this bundle may have been gathered by, again, Jamyang Gönpo. What all of this indicates to me is that there were more than one set of notes circulating as records of Machik’s dialogues, and that Jamgön Kongtrul ended up with this particular set for his Treasury, while his contemporary, Kamnyön Dharma Senge, apparently had access to another one, judging from the citations found in his Religious History of Pacification and Severance.

To return to my point, there are but two brief mentions in Another Bundle concerning body offerings. The first is in a list of things to explain the term “unbearable” in response to the question “What is the meaning of “trampling upon the unbearable?” (mi phod brdzi ba), a phrase describing Severance. It says, “casting out the body to demons is unbearable (‘dre la lus skyur mi phod). The second instance is in response to the question “What should one do when sick?” and the answer is: “Chop up your body and offer it as feast.” (lus po gtubs la tshogs su ‘bul. Note the use of gtubs rather than gcod).

One last bundle is called The Essential Bundle (Nying tshom). Although it is attributed to Machik, it appears to be a summary of the other bundles, with a structural outline, scriptural citations, and even quotes from Machik, respectfully referred to as “Lady Mother” (ma jo mo). This assessment is further supported by the fact that it seems never to be cited in texts such as The Treasury of Knowledge, and is not mentioned in Kongtrul’s Record of Teachings Received, nor in Kunga Namgyal’s short list of ten Indian dharmas. In any case, again there are only two references here: (1) if afraid:Immediately hand over the body to those gods and demons without concern” and (2) “Those of inferior scope give over the body to the dangerous obstructers and rest in non-action within the state of mental non-recollection.”

Finally we have another set of three texts that I’ve called “Appendices” (Le lag), attributed to Machik. Here they are neatly divided into The Eight Common Appendices, The Eight Uncommon Appendices, and The Eight Special Appendices. However, in other supporting material when quotations are extracted from the “Appendices,” it is inevitably from the first set only, The Common Appendices. Moreover, in the aforementioned set of gcod texts from Limi monastery, there are just two sets of appendices, called “The Thirteen Appendices” and “The Eight Appendices.” The latter corresponds loosely to the Eight Common Appendices in the Treasury. The Thirteen correspond neither to the Uncommon nor Special Appendices. I therefore only feel comfortable confirming the Common Appendices (of the three sets) as part of original teachings by Machik.

The Eight Common Appendices mention the body offering practice twice: once simply stating, “The body is a corpse, cast it out as food” (lus ni ro yin gzan du bskyur), and then again reiterating the threefold gradation of practice:

[Recite] “unspeakable, unthinkable, inexpressible,”

or else rest in the separation of body and awareness,

or else cast out the body as food

and rest within the state of evenness.

The Eight Uncommon Appendices is a very interesting text, albeit of doubtful origin. The eight sections are less arbitrary and present a progressive analysis of important elements in the practice. They are: (1) the meaning of the name, (2) the vital points, (3) practices applied to faculties, (4) clearing away obstructions, (5) deviations, (6) containing inattention (7) how to practice when sick, and (8) enhancement. The biggest surprise in this text is in the seventh appendix, which concerns various healing ceremonies, the nature of which is not found in any of the other texts, and involves such items as leper brains and widow’s underwear. However there is a basic principle here, that of dealing with the most difficult circumstances by facing them directly and employing a kind of “like heals like” practice. Thus substances normally considered unclean may be used to cure disease resulting from contamination. Or, as in modern homeopathy theory, the text offers a prescription to “pacify the heat of feverish illness in fire and resolve cold illness in water.” In some ways this could be taken as the essence of gcod practice, though it might be more difficult to identify Buddhist elements here. Of the five references to giving away the body, whether one’s own or the patient’s, two of them are in this section. For example: “To treat sriu, take [the affected] to a haunted place and completely give over the flesh and blood to the harm doers. The mind will be blessed in emptiness.”

The last text of all those attributed to Machik Lapdrön is The Eight Special Appendices, and if the attribution is true, then this is where my theory falls apart. But of course I am somewhat skeptical. Stylistically it is very different from the ancient source texts, being comprised of eight sections outlining a progressive practice from beginning to end, much like a practice manual (khrid yig). The eight main headings are (1) the entry: going for refuge and arousing the aspiration, (2) the blessing: separating body and mind, (3) the meditation: without recollecting, mentally doing nothing, (4) the practice: casting out the body as food, (5) the view: not straying into the devils’ sphere of influence, (6) pacifying incidental obstacles of body and mind, (7) the sacred oaths of severance, and (8) the results of practice. The first four of these have further subcategories that contain not only descriptions, but also actual liturgy to be recited in the practice. And as the contents make clear, there is a whole section devoted to casting out the body as food, though not in the specific detail found in later works, such as Kongtrul’s Garden of Delight. In any case, this is the only text in the group where one can recognize the implementation of the practice of gcod as we have come to know it. And after the seemingly shamanic-type healing described in The Uncommon Appendices, it brings it all back into the Buddhist context with statements such as:

Casting out the body as food is the perfection of generosity, giving it away for the sake of sentient beings is morality, giving it away without hatred is patience, giving it away again and again is diligence, giving it away without distraction is meditative stability, and resting afterwards in the abiding nature of emptiness is the perfection of wisdom.

The refuge visualization includes not only Machik herself but also her son Gyalwa Döndrup and grandson or grandnephew Tönyön Samdrup, which would seem to indicate that it is at least second if not third generation after Machik herself. More research needs to be done and hopefully more will come to light as I continue with the translations in the volumes on Severance and Pacification in The Treasury of Precious Instructions.

The question I proposed: “Is there enough material here to warrant attributing the body offering practice to Machik?” has led to much speculation. I would have to say that so far I have not seen much evidence linking Machik with the culinary detail of the spectacular charnel ground practices we call “Chöd.” Yet this is not much different than any investigation of the sources of a full-blown tradition. Did Virupa teach lam ‘bras? Did Niguma teach Six Yogas? The ḍākinī’s warm breath cools down and the trail is lost, leaving us chilling in a nice cool spot. Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements mix and mingle and we drink, hoping for a good brew to warm us.

Did Machik Lapdrön Really Teach Chöd? A Survey of the Early Sources
Presented by Sarah Harding at AAR 2013, Baltimore, MD

Attached here is a listing of early gcod texts from the gdams ngag mdzod – Sarah Harding

A private screening of a new movie about the great scholar and collector of Tibetan texts, E. Gene Smith, will be shown in Boulder on December 15th, 2011.

You are invited to a special preview of the upcoming documentary,
Digital Dharma, the story of E. Gene Smith, founder of the Tibetan
Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC) and a pioneer in Tibetan Studies who
dedicated his life to finding, preserving and disseminating the rich
literary heritage of Tibet. Next week will mark one year since the
death of E. Gene Smith. An evening of remembrance on December 15th
will include a preview screening of Digital Dharma, the feature-length
HD documentary about Gene’s life’s work. www.digitaldharma.com.

This sneak peek of the film will be hosted for hundreds of worldwide
fans of the film’s central character via the virtual environment
platform of vcopious™, a Philadelphia-based global virtual environment
technology provider. The live event will be streamed from The 8th
Floor, a gallery and screening room in New York City. The local Rocky
Mountain showing will be at:

University of Colorado, Boulder Campus
ATLS 1B31 (on 18th Ave if you’re coming from Broadway)
Thursday December 15, 2011
4-6 pm

Map: http://www.colorado.edu/campusmap/map.html?bldg=ATLSLocal
Contact: Nicole Willock, University of Denver postdoctoral fellow
(nwillock@gmail.com)

Convened by Michael Sheehy and Jeff Wallman of TBRC, “Gene Smith: His Life and Work” was the first panel I attended at IABS 2011 Congress.

Michael Sheehy gave a formal presentation entitled “Banned Books, Sealed Printeries and Neglected Dkar chag” that described some fascinating research on the history of Takten Damchö Phuntsok Ling Monastery (where Tāranātha passed on) and its printery. He recounted three separate attempts to rescue the woodblocks of Jonang texts from the Phuntsok Ling printery by three different Tibetan lamas over several centuries following Tāranātha’s death. It is not until the efforts of Losal Tenkyong (blo gsal bstan skyong), a Zhwa lu Tulku who was close to Jamgon Kongtrul, that the printery doors were unlocked and a dkar chag of the texts found there was created.

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Dr. Art Engle gave a presentation on his work at the recent Tsadra Foundation Fellows and Grantees Conference entitled “Observations on Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi.” During his talk he discussed the translation of rigs pa as “application” instead of “reason” in the context of “The Four Applications” (Wyl: rigs pa bzhi; Tib: རིགས་པ་བཞི་ ; Skt: catasro yuktayaḥ). Here he provides us with his notes, translations, and the associated text citations:

 

The Four Applications

[Note: The following passage is an excerpt from Ārya Asaṅga’s The Listener’s Stage (S: Śrāvakabhūmiḥ, T: Nyan thos kyi sa). It forms part of a larger discussion on what are referred to as thirteen “requisites” (S: sambhāraḥ, T: tshogs) for attaining freedom from attachment. The two activities of listening to and reflecting upon the true Dharma taken together represent the tenth of these qualities. Asaṅga’s description of the four applications (S: catasro yuktayaḥ, T: rigs pa bzhi) appears in his explanation of the second of two methods for engaging in the practice of reflection. It is here that we find Asaṅga stating that the term yukti is synonymous with yoga (T: sbyor ba) and upāya (T: thabs), any of which could be rendered in this context as an “application,” a “means,” or an “expedient.” It is for this reason that I have translated the term as “application,” rather than the more commonly seen rendering “reason.” The Sanskrit of the text that appears below is not well edited and contains a number of corruptions; nevertheless, it is helpful in the effort of attempting to render an accurate English translation. Another important primary source for the four applications is a passage that appears in Chapter Ten of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra.]

 

cintanā katamā | yathāpīhaikatyas tān eva yathā śrutān dharmān ekākī rahogataḥ | ṣaḍ acintyāni sthānāni tad yathā, (1) ātmacintāṁ, (2) sattvacintāṁ, (3) lokacintāṁ, (4) satvā(ttvā)nāṁ karmavipākacintāṁ, (5) dhyāyināṁ dhyāyiviṣayaṁ (6) buddhānāṁ buddhaviṣayaṁ varjayitvā (viśodhayitvā ?) svalakṣaṇataḥ | sāmānyalakṣaṇataś ca cintayati |

SEMS PA GANG ZHE NA, ‘DI LTAR ‘DI NA LA LA GCIG PU DBEN PAR SONG STE, BSAM GYIS MI KHYAB PA’I GNAS DRUG PO ‘DI LTA STE, BDAG LA SEMS PA DANG, SEMS CAN LA SEMS PA DANG, ‘JIG RTEN PA LA SEMS PA DANG, SEMS CAN RNAMS KYI LAS KYI RNAM PAR SMIN PA LA SEMS PA DANG, BSAM GTAN PA RNAMS KYI BSAM GTAN GYI YUL DANG, SANGS RGYAS RNAMS KYI SANGS RGYAS KYI YUL RNAM PAR SBYANGS NAS, JI LTAR THOS PA’I CHOS DE DAG NYID RANG GI MTSAN NYID DANG, SPYI’I MTSAN NYID KYI SGO NAS SEMS PAR BYED PA YIN NO, ,

What is reflection (S: cintanā, T: sems pa)?
It is [described] as follows: Here a person goes alone to a solitary place and, after having cultivated the six inconceivable topics—that is, reflection upon the self, reflection upon beings, reflection upon the world, reflection upon the ripening of beings’ deeds, the objects of meditation that pertain to those who practice meditation, and the objects of a Buddha that are possessed by Buddhas—he [or she] reflects upon the individual and general characteristics of those teachings [that have been heard] in the same manner that he [or she] heard them.

 

sā punaḥ cintā dvividhā gaṇanākārāsahagaṇanāyogena dharmeṇa | tulanākārama(rā), yuktyā guṇadoṣaparīkṣaṇākārā [ca][|] sa cet skandhapratisaṁyuktāṁ deśanāṁ cintayati | sa ced anyatamānyatamāṁ pūrvvaniviṣṭāṁ deśanāṁ cintayaty ābhyāṁ cintayati |

SEMS PA DE YANG RNAM PA GNYIS TE, BGRANG BA’I RNAM PAS CHOS RNAMS LA BGRANG BA’I TSUL GYIS SEMS PAR BYED PA DANG, GZHAL BA’I RNAM PAS RIG PAS YON TAN DANG SKYON NYE BAR BRTAG PA’I TSUL GYIS SEMS PAR BYED PA YIN NO, ,GAL TE PHUNG PO DANG LDAN PA BSTAN PA LA SEMS PAR BYED DAM, GAL TE DE LAS GZHAN PA SNGAR BSTAN PA GANG YANG RUNG BA BSTAN PA LA SEMS PAR BYED NA YANG RNAM PA DE GNYIS KYIS SEMS PAR BYED PA YIN TE,

Moreover, this reflection is of two types: (1) [reflection] upon teachings using a method that is a form of counting and (2) [reflection upon teaching] by means of a form of deliberation that consists of examining the good and bad qualities [of a particular topic]. If [someone] reflects upon a teaching that relates to the aggregates, or reflects upon any other teaching that was previously given, he [or she] reflects upon it using [either of] these two [methods].

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The Challenge of translation – Faithful yes, but not a slave

 

While no one disputes that a translation must be truthful, the definition of truthfulness and the ways in which translators have striven to achieve it have varied over the centuries. Word-for-word translation has given way to translation of meaning with the translated text reading as naturally in the TL as the original did in the SL. Reconciling truthfulness and beauty is one of the most important challenges faced by translators.

 

*****

 

Much has been said and written about the notion of faithfulness (or fidelity) in translation, even the sexist comment that a translation is like a woman : if is faithful it is not beautiful and if it is beautiful it is not faithful, as if being both faithful and beautiful were mutually exclusive

Obviously, like everything else, “faithfulness” depends on how you define it – a principle of loyalty or honesty or a matter of exactness and accuracy ; or  both ; or much more that that ) – and also it depends on what you relate it to – word or meaning ; the source language or the target language ; the source text or the target text ; the author or the reader.

Faithfulness will also depend on the different choices you make and the strategies you use in different translating situations (oral or written), with different texts (literary or technical ; philosophy, poetry, logics, etc…). And accordingly, it raises different types of difficulties. Usually technical translators are envious of literary translators because they do not have technical problems to solve, and literary translators are envious of technical translators because they only have technical questions to deal with. We Dharma translators, are not envious of anybody else, because we have both : the technical problems and all the rest…

Without getting into theoretical issues about linguistic theories in translation, I would like to relate this notion of faithfulness to my personal experience as a Dharma translator and  specially to one model of translation strategy developed by Lederer (2001) at the ESIT school of translators in Paris that I find interesting and useful.  So, as this exploration of the extent of faithfulness,  has mainly given me the opportunity to reconsider my ideas about translation and my involvement in translating Dharma I am afraid that apart from being a very self-centered talk, the rest might be very familiar to you and overrun.

 

*****

 

 

In the early eighties, when the director of a FPMT center in France asked me to translate orally, from English to French, the teachings of the resident gueshé on Shiné and Lhaktong, I thought he was pulling my leg. First, I did not know who Shiné and Lhaktong were and did not think that just knowing a foreign language suddenly qualified someone to be a translator or worse an interpreter. On top of that How can you translate something you do not understand ? The reason that apparently made me a translator was that I understood English and had a degree in linguistics from a Canadian university. But speaking a language and translating a Buddhist senior monk talk about meditation and philosophy are for me two different things : in one case, you think you know what you are talking about, while in the other you know you don’t.

But curiosity and temptation were stronger than I thought, so I finally went up to meet Gueshé la in his room and find out more about the subject.

After hearing all my excuses about my incompetence, Gueshé La just smiled at me and said : ” Oh don’t be so shy just say the same thing in your own language ! ”

Saying the same thing in my own language ! That was exactly what I thought I could not do, as my knowledge of the thing itself was rather a non-thing and definitely not functional.

 

But as you cannot resist a wise and compassionate person, a few days later, after some more encouragement by Gueshé la, convincing me that there was not any body else around who could do it, I was sitting on the hot cushion, scared as a newborn lamb, trying to convey as faithfully as I could, that is almost word by word, whatever Gueshé la was saying. Sorry, whatever the English translator was saying, as I did not know Tibetan then. This was my first experience of translating Dharma : translating a Tibetan translator translating the words of a Tibetan scholar speaking about a subject I knew nothing about. This is how Dharma teachings were introduced in France when at this time when there were no direct Tibetan-French translators available. Taking any one who came close to accomplishing the function of a merely labeled translator. In that case ME.

Everybody knows the famous expression (traduttore, traditore) : that interpreters are traitors.  And in that case we were two traitors. Although some might argue that two traitors are probably better than just one, as betraying the traitor could be one step closer to truth !?! Anyway, we both joined our efforts as best we could, trying to translate every word like a dictionary would. Isn’t a dictionary the best tool for translating ? This is when I proudly started to consider myself as being just a tool at the service of Dharma and others. A Dharma translating machine so to speak.
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“As for the Blessing of Vajravārāhī, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?

by Sarah Harding

In the beginning, my work translating the Pakmo Namshe[1] by the 2nd Pawo Rinpoche Tsuklak Trengwa (dPa’ bo gtsug lag Phreng ba, 1504-1566) presented several surprises. I had always believed that this was a commentary about the secret practice of Vajravārāhı based on the sādhana by the Sixth Karmapa Tongwa Dönden (mThong ba don ldan, 1416-1453) that we had all practiced in three-year retreat. I had certainly used it as such. But as soon as I came across the actual words of the sādhana within the text, it was clearly not that. Tsuklak Trengwa gives the title of the sādhana as simply dPal rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i gsang ba’i grub thab, or Srı Vajrayoginı Guhya Sādhana, authored by Nāropa and translated by Marpa. Well that’s easy, I thought, because there’s a three-folia verse text in the Peking Tengyur by Nāropa, or rather Mahā Nāḍapāda, with just that Sanskrit name.[2] Great—only that was not it. Then I actually opened and looked at every single text attributed to Nāropa in the Tengyur, and could not find a match. Then for weeks there were random feverish searches on TBRC under every conceivable word, like “yoginī,” “secret,” “vajra,” “pig,” and so on. Finally one fine day brought up the Miscellaneous Works (gsung thor bu) of the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (Dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193), and there I found it among several other secret Vajrayoginī practices, 29 folios and with no author, under the title dPal rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma’i gsang bsgrub [rdo?] rje btsun mo lhan skyes.[3] That was what I call a researcher’s moment of glory. It’s been all down hill from there.

The second big surprise was the nature of the text. I was looking forward to translating Pakmo Namshe because I understood it to be a practice commentary. Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa even says, “It is this sādhana exactly as presented by the bhagavatī herself that will be expounded here.” But after the first fifty pages I realized that it’s really a rebuttal, a giant polemic in defense of Kagyu practices. I’ve since found that many if not most Kagyu commentaries on Vajrayoginī written during this period, the 15th-16th centuries, are similarly on the defensive. At first I thought that if I could make it through the history section, just fourteen folios, then finally there would be the Dharma. But that naiveté was again shattered when a few pages into the so-called “actual instructions,” even in the section on the location in which to practice, (Mountain peaks and charnel grounds/ Lone tree trunks and empty caves/ Hermitages and isolated places,… ) the narrative bends around to start sections with that red warning flag of “mkhas pa kha chig gis,” and somehow launches into another tirade. The one most shocking for me was the quote early on that is the title of this paper, “As for the blessing of Vajravārāhı, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” I mean, what? There’s been great controversy about mahāmudrā and maybe some suspicious creative innovations by lineage masters, such as evidenced by the accusations leveled at Gampopa. But Marpa? And he doesn’t even have the blessing? As I figure it, we’re screwed. So I decided to jump right in to the fray and try to figure out what’s going on here. Truly it is a can of worms, and I barely got the lid off. In order to make some use of the considerable time and energy that I already spent on Pakmo Namshe, although my work on it has now been set aside, I will present excerpts primarily from my translation of that, and some from other researches, especially Sakya Paṇḍita, Gorampa, Padma Karpo, Tashi Namgyal, and Lowo Khenchen. I’ll also make available a polished translation of the history section. What follows is basically a travelogue of my confusions, or my ‘khrul pa’i thob yig.

Separating the issues
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Prajñāpāramitā, Indian “gzhan stong pas,” and the beginning of Tibetan gzhan stong

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is an ongoing debate about whether the gzhan stong system was “invented” by Tibetans, in particular by Dol po pa, or whether there are Indian precursors of that view. I will discuss evidence for a number of typical gzhan stong positions in several Indian texts and early Tibetan works before Dol po pa.

The “Maitreya Chapter” in the prajñāpāramitā sūtras
What the Tibetan tradition commonly calls “The Chapter Requested by Maitreya” is found in chapter 83 of the Aṣṭadāśāsāhasrikāprajñāpāramitāsūtra, chapter 72 of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāprajñāpāramitāsūtra, and the revised version of the latter. Certain parts of this chapter differ in their diction from the prajñāpāramitā sūtras in that all phenomena are divided into three aspects, such as “imaginary form (parikalpitaṃ rūpaṃ),” “conceived form (vikalpitaṃ rūpaṃ),” and “dharmatā-form (dharmatārūpaṃ).” These three types of phenomena and their descriptions match the three natures (parikalpita, paratantra, and pariniṣpanna). Therefore, many scholars regard the “Maitreya Chapter” as a later addition.
In general, there are two models for the relationship between the three natures. The common model (1) in Indian Yogācāra texts is that pariniṣpanna is described as paratantra’s being empty of parikalpita. Model (2), found in most of the texts discussed below and virtually all Tibetan works on gzhan stong, means that pariniṣpanna itself is empty of both paratantra and parikalpita. In Tibetan gzhan stong texts, the contrast between these two models is usually highlighted as representing one of the major differences between the views of sems tsam and gzhan stong.

In the “Maitreya Chapter,” the Buddha uses model (1), but says that both imaginary form (mere conventional designations such as “form”) and conceived form (the conditioned entities to which these designations are applied) do not exist ultimately, while only the dharmadhātu exists ultimately. When the latter is directly observed through nonconceptual wisdom, those entities are not observed. When they are observed, it is only through conception (vikalpa). This description is quite a standard explanation of the three natures as also found in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra (Chapters VI and VII) and many Yogācāra texts.
The “Maitreya Chapter” also offers a distinction between these three kinds of form in terms of their being ultimately real or unreal, saying that imaginary form is nonsubstantial, conceived form is substantial (by virtue of conception’s substantiality, but not because it exists independently), and dharmatā-form is neither substantial nor nonsubstantial, but is the ultimate.

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Opening Chants

The International Conference on Tengyur Translation in the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda

The conference began on January 8th with chants offered in three languages: Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. Students at the Central University of Tibetan Studies are now able to study Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Hindi, as well as other modern languages. Recently awarded university status (2009), the institution was established in 1967 and is now directed by Geshe Ngawang Samten, who played a key role in the proceedings of this conference. The previous director, Samdong Rinpoche, was also present and gave a speech as the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The university was an excellent host for the conference, despite the pervasive cold, and I’m sure everyone especially appreciated all the students and staff who helped provide hot tea and crackers each day. The tech staff also had their hands full as many people chose to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Even with the power going out daily they kept things running rather smoothly.

Shrikant Bahulkar oversaw the opening ceremonies and participants heard welcoming words from Geshe Ngawang Samten, Tenzin Bob Thurman, HH Gaden Tri Rinpoche, and others. After the opening speeches, and tea to warm us up, we heard from Tom Yarnall, Christian Wedemeyer and Paul Hackett. The topic of this opening session was to be an overview of the Tengyur, it’s history, composition, and so forth. From Dr. Wedemeyer we heard more about the history and formation of the Tengyurs and from Dr. Hackett we heard details of the composition of the various Tengyurs. From Dr. Yarnall we received an interesting argument that basically presented the particular way in which it seemed the conference conveners were conceiving of their project to “Translate the Tengyur.”  The argument relied upon an interesting way of conceiving of Tibetan Buddhism and clearly described why the translation of the Tengyur is important and relevant to today’s scholars. What we heard was an introduction to one way of talking about the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as preserving the ancient Indian academic world of Nālandā, Vikramaśīlā, and so forth. Although I cannot repeat all of Yarnall’s discussion here, similar logic was presented on the official Tengyur Translation Website and it is worth repeating because it is interesting to note the kind of rhetoric used:

(1) That although the great Indian institutions such as Nālandā, Vikramaśīlā, and so on were ostensibly run by Buddhists, they were not only (or even primarily) Buddhist religious institutions; that they rather were multi-cultural, multi-tradition, cosmopolitan institutions, and hence true “universities” (as also argued by S. Dutt, L. Joshi, and others); (2) That as such, the many centuries of Buddhist arts/sciences developed in these institutions and recorded in the Sanskrit śāstras compiled therein took place in a vibrant, contentious, multi-tradition milieu in which each point had to be argued and defended; i.e., this was not a context such as Tibet (or other “Buddhist countries”) in which Buddhists were speaking virtually exclusively with other Buddhists, and thus could take for granted at least some common assumptions, perspectives, methodologies, and so on (rather, no premise or point could be taken for granted in the Indian context); (3) That therefore the Tengyur—as the repository of many of these śāstras (in Tibetan translation) which record the discourse that occurred in such a pluralistic environment very similar to our own contemporary, multi-cultural global environment—is uniquely important and relevant today (indeed, HH noted that in this way it may be even more relevant/accessible than many of the texts in the Kangyur); and (4) That therefore, the translation of the Tibetan Tengyur into modern languages and the publication of well-edited and annotated editions of these translations should be a prime priority for contemporary Buddhist scholars and institutions. (Taken from the official Tengyur Translation Website)

 

Dr. Yarnall (University of Columbia)

In his talk, Dr. Yarnall described the great academic institutions of ancient India in some detail, and linked their achievements with the texts preserved in the Tibetan Tengyur. He also presented a quote from the Dalai Lama in which he identifies himself as holding the tradition of Nālandā and not particularly that of the Mahāyāna or Varjayāna. Perhaps I am simply ignorant of this trend in the discourse, but I found it very interesting that the Dalai Lama and others who are scholars, students and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism were associating themselves so strongly with their idea(l) of Nālandā University. Every participant at the conference was given a new CUTS publication, a poem by the Dalai Lama praising the Seventeen Pandits of Nālandā, published in Tibetan, Chinese, English and Hindi. The overall effect of this, along with Dr. Thurmans interjections, was the sense that the real reason for translating the Tengyur is that it is supposed to be a faithful source for understanding the “scientific” tradition of Nālandā, which in turn is representative of an “authentic” Indian culture whose “inner sciences” pacified the barbarian lands of central and east Asia and will likewise pacify the West. Note also that the AIBS publication series is titled a “Treasury of Buddhist Sciences.” I personally rather like the idea of ancient liberal arts colleges producing texts on the inner and outer sciences of India and I like pushing the ideal of a modern pluralistic environment of scholarly debate. However, even disregarding the liberal use of the term “science,” I was left with the feeling that there is probably more to the story. I have not researched the actual evidence we have for reconstructing the scholastic culture of Nālandā, but perhaps someone reading this could post some more information about it online.

 

 

Dr. Wedemeyer (University of Chicago)

Dr. Wedemeyer provided a nuanced look at the idea of “the Tengyur.” He began with the now famous joke about the student who angrily told a theologian, “If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, It’s good enough for me!” Which might now be rendered in our context as, “If the Dege edition of the Kangyur and Tengyur were good enough for the Buddha, they’re good enough for me.” I doubt many scholars or translators have the exact same thinking with regard to the Tengyur or Kangyur, but a lack of understanding about the complexity of the development of these collections, and their content, seems to be widespread.

The many Tengyurs are collections of texts that developed over considerable amounts of time in various places in Tibet. The library at Nālandā did not have a “Tengyur” section. It is not until centuries after Nālandā’s heyday that we begin to see the creation of Kangyurs and Tengyurs in Tibet. Dr. Wedemeyer described the Tengyur more as a genre than a fixed set of scripture. In his opening remarks, Wedemeyer said, “The distinction between Kangyur and Tengyur is itself a relatively late construction, the two were probably not distinguished before the production of the circa 1310 Old Narthang Manuscript Kangyur. That is, the very existence of the Tengyur as a separate collection from that of the Kangyur is itself a human choice, one which we may chose to follow or not. Furthermore, it would seem that the idea… the concept of a collection of writings of Indian authors distinct from the revealed Sutras and Tantras appeared before anyone thought to physically prepare this collection separately from the (?) literature. The earliest records of a Tengyur found so far seems to be sometime after 1270 by o rgyan pa rin chen dpal, who notably speaks of Tengyurs in the plural. In the following century this mode of organizing Buddhist literature took off. We read of the textual transmission, the lung, of the Kangyur and Tengyur being given around Sakya in 1300. Later a Golden Tengyur was produced in Sakya in 1322-24. And most famously perhaps, Bu ston consecrated the Zhwa lu Tengyur in 1335….Very recently two Tengyur catalogs composed by the 3rd Karmapa have come to light, whose content and whose structure vary significantly from alternative redactions….Tengyurs were often both marked by local character, individualistic productions reflecting the tastes and allegiances of their authors, and open ended, works were added and subtracted at various times in their histories….As an aside, the Kalacakra was occasionally included in the Tengyur. Bu ston notes this in his Zhwa lu Tengyur catalog, but argues that its inclusion in the Tengyur is auspicious. And so one might regard as auspicious the inclusion of a translation of part of the Kalacakra by Vesna Wallace, which inaugurates the AIBS Tengyur publication series…

The formation of the Tibetan Tengyurs is not a simple story and so the translation—or perhaps we should speak of the “creation” of a ” Western Tengyur,” for it most certainly will be a creative production—will not be a simple story. The formation of some of the texts in the Tengyur are not simply a matter of an author composing a text in “Sanskrit” and having it translated into Tibetan. Colophons have been modified, text added or removed. Some texts come from Chinese, Tibetan or other sources. It is not always obvious who composed the texts, or even who translated them. There are duplicates included in the collections in different sections and multiple different translations of texts are included as well. Medicine, poetry, logic, ethics—you might even find a text on basket weaving—all are included. The early redactors of the Tibetan canons were focused more on an attempt to be comprehensive, than an attempt to create an authoritative, exclusive bible of Buddhism. In fact, there are non-Buddhist materials included in the Tengyur. While some texts most certainly represent what we would likely judge to be the height of philosophical and religious thinking, others may be surprisingly obscure and obtuse. It seems that some people erroneously assume that the works of Candrakirti and Nagarjuna and other philosophers are proof enough that all of the Tengyur will be worth reading. I think many modern Buddhists will find this is not the case. This, in itself, is not a problem. It simply makes the translation of the entire Tengyur a complex affair.  The translation of all the texts collected in all the Tengyurs would be an amazing scholarly feat worth the effort, if only for the things translators and specialists would learn in the process. It would probably be one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of humanities scholarship and I hope that the many great scholars at the Tengyur Translation Conference are able to guide such a project towards completion.

Throughout the conference I think it was made clear that few people participating there had a simplistic view of the contents of the Tengyur. In his opening talk, Dr. Yarnall proposed that “multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches” should be used when translating the texts of the Tengyur in order to insure quality translations that preserve the spirit of the multicultural scholastic approach he believes was found at the historic Nālandā University. Furthermore, he suggested, translators should be trained in multicultural approaches and their translations should be aimed not merely at Buddhist practitioners, but at the world at large. This is a fascinating approach and I look forward to seeing how this may be made possible while translators work on these texts with geshes and khenpos and lamas who are steeped in their traditions. In fact, in this globalized era, such a project will certainly become an interesting example of multiculturalism and the process itself will have a great deal to teach us. Perhaps just as much, or more, than the translations themselves.

As I noted in a previous post, several presenters mentioned the idea of needing critical editions of texts for quality translations to be made. It seemed that most people leaned towards the idea that as many variant versions of a text from as many languages as possible were necessary in order to produce the kind of quality translations people wanted to see (or at least, that’s what people said out loud). However, as soon as someone with a practical head for budgets looks at the project of translating ALL the texts included in ALL the various Tengyurs, the thought of creating critical editions, or even referring to all the versions of a text during translation, may cause quite a bit of disquiet. Funding issues aside, the first problem is a lack of qualified translators who can work in Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan. Perhaps there can be new university programs designed to produce Tengyur text translators? Or perhaps, translators and scholars can take advantage of modern technology and use online programs to collaborate on translations, allowing specialists in each of the various canonical languages to contribute expertise to a particular translation. Perhaps the project can be taken slowly and the proper attention paid to detail. In the current climate, it seems more likely that many translations will be made using one Tibetan version of a text with modern Tibetan commentaries from a particular tradition used to elucidate the meaning. These translations will not be as much about translating the original Indian texts as they will be about transmitting a particular Tibetan tradition associated with said texts. Thus, these translations will produce new Tengyurs for a new age. These new Tengyurs will sprout like mushrooms wherever donors can be found and one day we will have a conference about how to collect all the “really authentic” ones into a big database and translate them. I, for one, shall continue to hope that quality shall win out over the quantity focused translation projects, but only time will tell.

 

Day One of the Tengyur Translation Conference in Atisha Hall, CUTS

See the other post from Marcus on the Tengyur Translation Conference here.

 

See the follow up to this blog post here.

Tengyur Translation Conference Banner

 

The crowd on the opening day of the conference in Atisha Hall

The “Tengyur Translation Conference: In the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda,” was held at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS, formerly CIHTS) in Sarnath, India, with the support and attendance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Scholars, teachers, translators and Tibetan Lamas from many traditions attended the four day affair in the unusually cold January weather, which made Atisha Hall a large refrigerator throughout the proceedings. Despite the need to speak at the podium wearing North Face jackets and scarves, participants gave some excellent presentations and many lively discussions marked this important scholarly venture. Jointly held by CUTS and AIBS (American Institute of Buddhist Studies, Columbia, New York), the conference was to be a meeting of some of the best minds in Buddhist studies on the project of translating the entire Tengyur section of the Tibetan Canon. Such a project presents many organizational, theoretical, philological and economic problems, some of which were touched upon by various presenters. In fact, a key purpose for the conference was the assessment and discussion of such issues amongst a learned body of scholars.

Dr. Robert Thurman

The conference came together in large part due to the efforts of Robert Thurman’s “crew” at AIBS and the University of Columbia, Annie Bien and Tom Yarnall, and on the CUTS side, Shrikant Bahulkar and Ven. Ngawang Samten. Hats off to all those seen and unseen who provided for all the participants and laid the ground for the conference.

Dr. Thurman made a point to note that this conference was really the third in a set of conferences he felt built on one another, the first being the translator conference in Boulder and the second the Khyentse Foundation conference in Bir. This and other comments may have led some participants to wonder about the relationship between the organizations involved in each of these conferences, organizations which are in fact quite distinct. Although the stated projects and goals of each conference were somewhat different, probably the most important thing that links each of these conferences is the opportunity they provide for an ongoing dialog among translators and scholars who work with Tibetan texts. This, I think, is the most important outcome of these conferences and I hope it can continue. Regardless of the various organizations, politics and attempts at institution building, the translators, scholars and scholar-practitioners who attend these conferences benefit greatly from the time they share together. Every person I asked about the conference responded as most do at the conferences I have attended over the past few years: The most important aspect of the conference is the time outside of the scheduled events where they meet with colleagues and discuss finer points or are introduced to new people and ideas. However ephemeral and unquantifiable, it appears that the unchaperoned times are the real reason to attend such a conference.

One of the more concrete outcomes of the conference was the reports that were made on the state of translating Buddhist texts into a whole host of languages. Participants arrived from many countries to discuss translations of primarily Tibetan texts into English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Nepali, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, and other European languages. It was an impressive list really and particularly interesting to hear about the efforts of Nepali and Hindi translators. There were a number of calls from the audience to place more focus on the importance of translating Buddhist texts into the modern languages of India, as this was where the Buddha’s teaching originated. Ngawang Samten noted that at the Central University of Tibetan Studies about 60 texts have been translated into Hindi so that key commentaries are available to Indian peoples. Although it was a little difficult to piece together a clear picture of the state of Tengyur text translation around the world, the picture painted seemed to indicate that quite a lot of work is currently underway. While some presenters described the long history of translation efforts into their mother tongues (German, French, English), others decried a sad state of affairs (Spanish, Hindi). Although there appears to be work happening around the world, compared to the mountain of texts that exist as a part of the several known Tengyur catalogs, the world’s Tibetan translators still have a long way to go. One important point that was made by quite a number of delegates at the conference was that the key factor in translating texts into their language was not seen to be money or support, but expertise and training. There simply are not enough well-trained translators capable of working on what are some of the most difficult texts in Buddhist literature. Translating Tengyur texts is not just a matter of gathering together a group of people who are excited about the project and who know a little Tibetan. Time and again scholars at the conference noted the importance of establishing schools or finding other ways to support the development of truly qualified translators. The lack of qualified translators is felt not only in Spanish or Hindi or Russian, but in every language. What to do about it is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed by any organizational body wanting to tackle such an ambitious project.

Betsy Napper, who gave some of the most practical advice, suggested that a training program could be developed in which the younger generation of translators worked on draft translations of texts and then handed off their work to elder translators. Before any actual translation work should be done, however, she suggested the project be taken on in a modular way, first developing online and bibliographic tools, then creating groups to develop critical editions of texts, and so forth.

Alexander Berzin also presented practical advice for tackling the immense project by discussing lessons learned developing his “Berzin Archives” website. Truly an amazing accomplishment, the large network of translators, transcribers, editors, proofreaders, and other specialists that Dr. Berzin has developed provides a constantly evolving archive of translations and teachings on Buddhism in many languages worldwide. Dr. Berzin was therefore able to give specific advice about the development of tools for managing work-flow, tools for managing translation in many disparate languages – such as a wiki that all translators could log into – interlinked glossaries that allow standardization of terminology, separate online glossaries for readers, and so on.

The Dalai Lama himself also offered some interesting advice: Collect all the texts from the Asian canons (Chinese, Korean, Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan) and make sure that the texts missing from one are included in another. Once a “complete” canon is available, then translate that into modern western languages.

It remains to be seen what advice will be taken to heart as various projects to translate the Kangyur and Tengyur develop around the world. Robert Thurman’s American Institute of Buddhist Studies was the driving force behind this conference and they have been working on the project of translating texts from the Tengyur for some time. Their mission statement, as reported by Dr. Thurman at the opening of the conference, is “To create and support the necessary institutional framework within which to produce critical, readable, contemporary translations of the 3,600+ classical source texts of the “liberating arts and sciences” of the Indo-Tibetan civilization.” This is truly a massive undertaking and one that will need the support of many scholars and translators world-wide if it is to even begin to make headway. It will be very interesting to see what comes out of this exciting project in the coming years.

A seat waits for His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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