An Interview with Founding Sponsor Ding Nai-Chu

The success of 84000 would not have been possible without the generous financial support provided by the 108 Founding Sponsors. Each donor pledged to contribute an amount between USD 50,000 to 250,000 within a period of five years, and it is with this initial fund that the project has taken flight. Ms. Ding Nai-Chu, one of the 108 Founding Sponsors, shares her motivation for donating below.

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1) Please briefly introduce yourself.

Ding Nai-Chu: I am Nai-Chu and to-date I have been studying the buddhadharma for approximately 42 years. I started studying Buddhism at 18, when I was in university studying philosophy. At the time, Buddhism was not popular in Taiwan and was even considered a very superstitious religion. But the university did offer a course on Eastern Buddhism, and it was only after I came in contact with Buddhism that I realized it was completely different from how we common folks normally conceive of it. I was deeply attracted to the buddhadharma as soon as I was exposed to it, so I wanted to gain a deeper understanding.

Karma led me to meet Lama Lin of the very first Buddhist center in Taiwan. Thus began my inextricable connection with the Vajrayana. Then, while I was studying in the United States, I met my first Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Gyatrul Rinpoche. After returning to Taiwan in 1985, I started inviting Gyatrul Rinpoche to give teachings in Taiwan. Gyatrul Rinpoche probably counts as the first or second Tibetan Buddhist teacher to ever give dharma teachings in Taiwan.

At the time, for us devotees or students in Taiwan, Buddhism was very foreign. What little we understood was very fragmented, basically only what had been passed down by a few Chinese masters who had studied in Tibet.

At that time, when Rinpoche came to Taiwan he would stay at my home. So back then, apart from Wutaishan Dharma Center in Xindian [in Taipei], the other dharma center was my house in Yangmingshan. At the time my living room had two main functions: as theatre rehearsal space, and as our dharma center for teachings whenever Rinpoche came.

From there, Gyatrul Rinpoche introduced Penor Rinpoche. After Penor Rinpoche’s arrival in Taiwan, I feel that Taiwanese Buddhist dharma centers began to flourish. The number of Vajrayana students also increased, and numerous accomplished masters of various sects came to propagate the dharma in Taiwan. Later, my karma with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche came about through Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche’s strong recommendation. When Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche first arrived in Taiwan, it was Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche who brought us all to welcome him at the airport.

After meeting Dzongsar [Khyentse] Rinpoche, because he was invited to lecture and give dharma teachings at universities, I had the opportunity to interpret for him. Every time I served as interpreter, I felt that I was the one who received the most inspiration. As an interpreter, I was very inspired and felt that these teachers were all incredible. When I was interpreting for him back then, I could already tell that he would become very influential in the future because he really knew how to communicate with young people. His incisive and astute style was very inspiring to all those who came in contact with him.

2) How did you come to know about 84000? When you first heard of this project of translating the words of the Buddha, what was your initial reaction?

Dzongsar [Khyentse] Rinpoche often challenges our traditional Buddhist notions. He has often remarked to me that he knows Taiwanese patrons really like to build temples, sponsor lots of Buddhist events, and so forth, so he considers it more important to think about how to preserve the scriptures. He has actually been saying this for a long time. He believes that Buddhist education is very important, even saying that we must change the way that we senior students think about accumulating merit—which is essentially just building temples and performing pujas.

When he said this to me, I understood completely. I said that actually I could understand why so many Taiwanese devotees like doing such things—in a way for them it is a method of accumulating their store of merit. The reason the buddhadharma has survived until today is because of all these efforts, whether it is sculpting Buddha statues, building temples, or preserving Buddhist scriptures. Back then Rinpoche was already expressing his wish to preserve the scriptures. He continually emphasized the importance [of this undertaking].

What I admire most about Dzongsar [Khyentse] Rinpoche is that he has been considering this issue not just for a short while, but for an extended period of time. I’m sure many students have heard him say that the reason the buddhadharma is destined to gradually decline is that Buddhism is truly very difficult to understand, because Buddhism is so vast and profound. Who in this day and age would be willing to devote that much time to the study of the Tripiṭaka [Three Baskets] scriptures, and the study of all the śāstras [commentaries], right?

When I heard him say this, I could sense he was worried about the future. I really felt that the greatest difference between these accomplished masters who are endowed with wisdom and compassion and us is that we only see what is in front of us and have no far-reaching vision. We’re good if we can even see today and tomorrow. The things Rinpoche often mentions to me are all related to the future, concerning sentient beings of the future. He thinks about whether the buddhadharma can continue to survive even a hundred years. This is a source of great inspiration to me. It also made me think that the fact that I could encounter the buddhadharma in the 21st century is all due to the cumulative legacy of so many great masters of the past, regardless of whether it was sculpting Buddha statues, building temples, or preserving the scriptures.

We must of course preserve the Buddha’s scriptures because they represent the words of the Buddha, the wisdom of the Buddha. For us, therefore, enabling the continued preservation of the scriptures is of the utmost importance. The reason we are able to study the buddhadharma today is because those who came before us had sown the seeds. Because of this, in this present era, through certain causes and conditions, we are still able to come in contact with the buddhadharma. So I admire Dzongsar [Khyentse] Rinpoche from the depths of my heart.

People might think that 84000 is something that was only established in the past few years, but from what I recall, Rinpoche was already mentioning this more than 10 years ago. Even then, he had already foreseen the worrisome future of the buddhadharma. Later, Rinpoche announced this idea and held a conference in Bir, India. Rinpoche invited many, many erudite translators from all over the world, as well as many great Rinpoches. Everyone came together without any sectarianism, and I was very honored to sit in and witness [these meetings].

At the time I really felt and thought to myself: in a place as remote and undeveloped as Bir, with its inferior living conditions and many inconveniences—where the electricity could cut out anytime and so forth—in a place like this, we were holding such an important event that brought together so many people who had such a grand aspiration concerning the survival and preservation of the buddhadharma. To hold a conference like this in such a place was deeply moving to me. This feeling also included a sense of humility: how did it come to be that I deserved to bear witness to such a moment?

I really felt at the time how terribly difficult this was, really so difficult, for several reasons. It is a huge project to fully translate the Tripiṭaka into English and, in the future, not just into English but also hopefully into other languages. This requires simultaneously conducting comparisons between the Chinese and the Tibetan texts: for a fully complete canon, the texts that are in Tibetan and not in Chinese need to be translated into Chinese, and those extant in Chinese but not Tibetan also need to be translated. We all know that currently the Tripiṭaka in the Tibetan Buddhist canon is the most complete. I feel that such an undertaking truly cannot be completed within our lifetime. I can’t say, I really don’t know—but to someone like me, this is really amazing. It is so vast.

At the time I felt that it was not going to be easy. Of course funding is an issue, whether or not there is money to do so much. In my opinion, though, there is something that is even more difficult than this. I think [finding] translators is the greatest challenge—whether you can find enough good translators. You have to think about this: back in the day, whether in China or Tibet, what kinds of people were translating these things? What kind of merit, knowledge, and powers were these great translators equipped with? If they hadn’t possessed these things, how could they have dared to translate [the scriptures]? Other than funding, I was also thinking, wow, where are we going to find these people?

Those few days filled me with hope because everyone knew that it was not going to be easy, everyone knew that it would be a very difficult task, but I really felt the great power of the blessings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. The buddhadharma, having made it to this day and age, is still being studied with dedication by so many people, and in all parts of the world it is still possible to find those who are equipped with certain capabilities. The translators who were present also mentioned that the translations must be done by those who have actual practice experience and that the translations into English must be done by native speakers. Every project would have multiple supervisors. I remember people were already talking about how to delegate the work, which gave me a lot of hope.

I believe that this [task] can definitely be accomplished, even if it can’t be done in one generation, then in at least in two generations. Therefore, after the project gradually took form and started seeking 108 founding sponsors, I felt that it would be my honor to do whatever small part possible. So I contributed to the fund. Of course I hope that in my remaining years, I will be able to see the project grow. In the future, hundreds or thousands of years later, when those with superior faculties see these works, they will be able to reach attainment. If we are able to contribute in whatever small way, it is our imperative to do so.

3) Some people feel that because at the present stage the project is only translating scriptures into English and not Chinese, the Chinese population cannot benefit from it. What is your opinion on this matter?

I think that saying so is unfair and also not right. Why? Because in Chinese we have many Tripiṭaka scriptures, it’s quite complete. We even have translations of the Tripiṭaka into modern Chinese. Right now English is the world’s lingua franca, so if we can translate the scriptures into the most widely used language and thereby make it more widely available that is what we should be hoping for. Especially because the English translations we see now—I’m sure many people will agree to this—it is because of the English writings of many great Rinpoches that the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism is flourishing overseas these days.

Many of these works are the personal realizations of these Rinpoches, written based upon certain practice texts. But no one has really translated the Tripiṭaka scriptures. Many of the translations we see today are thought to contain many errors, which has led to many misunderstandings. For example, the reason some people have had certain misunderstandings about Buddhism is due to the poorly translated Buddhist teachings that they read. It is because of this that they had some wrong beliefs about Buddhism. Some people, as I understand it, have grave misunderstandings about Buddhism based on poorly translated texts. So we believe that it is definitely necessary to translate the scriptures into a language that is more widespread and well known. Undeniably, English is now the most widely used common language, so I feel that this is certainly what must be done.

4) What do you think about putting completed translations of the scriptures onto the Online Reading Room?

I think it is truly wonderful to do so. We are living in a different era. In the past, of course, all of the scriptures were printed, initially carved on wooden blocks, and later printed on paper in mass. From an environmental perspective, to be able to read them online is much better. That’s how I see it. It would of course be wonderful if we could make it convenient for others to access the texts in future. I personally think it would be wonderful to do so.

5) What do you think of the growth of 84000 so far?

To my surprise, 84000 has grown even faster than we imagined. Some of the good translators I know—all of them are from abroad—have been translators all these years. It is because of 84000 that all of them suddenly feel that what they have learned all these years is finally being put to use, and for a greater purpose, too. In the past, everyone was serving as interpreters to certain Rinpoches; every teacher had his own interpreter. Now they can see their translation efforts make an even greater impact. Additionally, there will be more options available to help clarify our understanding of the texts: often someone will say, “I can’t understand the Chinese scriptures,” and I’ll recommend that they take a look at the English versions.

One of the reasons is that language must be in touch with the times. Of course it is not just Chinese that has weaknesses; English, too, has its weaknesses. But the translation of scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese happened a very long time ago, and much of the language used was only appropriate for the learned of those times. They could understand and comprehend it, but it can seem very distant to us of this modern era. So for many people who are studying Chinese scriptures, it’s almost like learning a new set of technical terms, a new technical language. If you just look at the scriptures on their own, many of the specialized terms are incomprehensible.

The strength of the English language is also its weakness. Because it doesn’t have that layer of historical burden, it uses modern terminology to explicate [the texts]. Yet this is precisely its weakness too—the more profound connotative meanings are lost in such simple and straightforward explanations. These are problems that one always encounters in the process of translating. I believe this is the reason that today it seems easier to understand the English scriptures than the Chinese ones.

(This interview was conducted in Mandarin, and then translated into English.)

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Ding Nai-Chu’s Biography
Ding Nai-Chu is one of the most prominent theatre producers in Taiwan and the Chinese speaking world. She has produced over 50 plays, including classics such as The Night We Became Xiangsheng Comedians, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, A Dream Like A Dream and The Village. Ding has produced three films—The Peach Blossom Land, The Red Lotus Society, and Finding Shangri-La—which have received numerous top awards at international festivals. She was founding Vice President of Super TV. A graduate of National Taiwan University majoring in Philosophy, Ding received her M.A. in Education from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently the managing director of Performance Workshop Theatre, and for years has been a renowned translator of Buddhist teachings.

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