In celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and final passing of the Buddha during Saga Dawa this year, we have published “The Play In Full” in the online reading room.
Watch this interview of Catherine Dalton, who worked on this text together with a team of translators from the Dharmachakra Translation Committee.
I’m Catherine Dalton, and I am a translator, and also a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to coming to Berkeley, about two years ago, I was living for ten years in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I worked as a teacher and a translator, and also I was a student at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, which is actually a center for Buddhist Studies at Kathmandu University. I work as a translator for the Dharmachakra Translation Committee, which is a translation committee directed by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. As part of that committee, I have been involved in a number of translation projects over the years.
Together with another member of the Dharmachakra Translation Committee, a friend of mine, Ryan Damron, I have been involved in developing and implementing a translator training program. This has been going on the past two summers. It’s located in Northern California, at Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s center, Rangjung Yeshe Gomde. The idea for that project and why I feel it’s related to the 84000 project is that we are trying to help train young translators who are particularly interested, specifically in working on 84000 project. So when we are in the classroom setting, we actually work with them on some active projects that we’re translating for 84000, with the hopes that they could gain the specific types of skills that are necessary for working on these particular texts, the Kangyur texts. That would be helpful in the future for 84000, so my involvement has been in those capacities really.
“The Play in Full”, or in Sanskrit it’s called the “Lalitavistara”, the “rgya cher rol pa’i mdo” in Tibetan. This sutra basically is the story of the Buddha’s life. So the title “The Play in Full”, well, basically we can break it down into two parts: “The Play”, “In Full.”
“The Play” refers to the aspect of the Buddha’s life as it is portrayed in a mahayana sutric context. And in the Mahayana the understanding of the Buddha’s life is such that it is a type of play or display of his activity. The sutra recounts the time of the Buddha’s awakening, the initial parts of his life up until his awakening as Shakyamuni Buddha, and those events, those acts are seen in the Mahayana context, not as being just ordinary karmic activities as such, but more as being kind of the play or display of the wisdom of this bodhisattva who is about to awaken to perfect buddhahood.
And “in full”, that aspect of the title “vistara”, or “rgya cher ba”, vast aspect, basically we can understand it in two ways. On one hand, it is the full account, in the sense that it’s quite extensive, it’s quite detailed, it tells a lot of detail about what Shakyamuni Buddha did as a bodhisattva before the moment in which he awakened to perfect Buddhahood. But we can also understand this aspect of “vastness” or “fullness”, “The Play in Full”, in the context of the Mahayana perspective on awakening. So from that perspective, the play, the display of Buddha’s life in full, is a more full account, a more complete account of actually what awakening is from a Mahayana perspective.
The shortest summary of the text is just to tell you that it’s about the life of the Buddha, in particular, his awakening. But to expand on that a little bit more, the sutra, the framework for the sutra is the Buddha is actually giving a discourse to a group of gods and bodhisattvas. And they asked him can you please tell this, can you please teach us these discourses, these sort of vast discourses called Lalitavistara, which recounts the story of the bodhisattva on his journey to awakening, the last bits of his journey to awakening. And the Buddha is silent, and by his silence, he agrees to, he indicates that he agrees to tell this account. So the most of the sutra is actually the Buddha recounting his own life story as the bodhisattva, and then his awakening.
So that story begins in the last bit of his previous life, actually, as a bodhisattva where he was born in the heavenly realms, and he was living in the heavenly realms, and he is reminded of the commitment that he has made towards perfect awakening, so he chooses to depart from the heavenly realms and to take birth in the world, and the story recounts his descent into the womb of his mother Queen Mayadevi, and he resides in her womb in a beautiful palace like a temple, and he remains in Samadhi in her womb.
And then the text describes his birth. Immediately upon his birth, he announces that this will be his last life as a non, not a perfectly awakened being, and he is going to be awakened. The story continues discussing his infancy, in which he is taken to a temple, and the gods of the temple actually, the stone images stand up to greet him.
It talks about his youth, he goes to school. He already knows more than the smartest of his teachers and his tutors. The text speaks about his great capacity in the arts, basically, of the day, in sport, archery and so on. He marries, he lives in great luxury in his father’s palace. He then as I’m sure many of us have heard this story, the bodhisattva at that time actually while he is living in luxury, he sees a sick person, he sees an old person, he sees a corpse and he sees a religious mendicant.
And these sights inspire him to renounce his life, his worldly life, so he actually leaves the palace and goes out to practice and to with the intent of awakening. And he studies with some teachers. He’s not satisfied with what they teach him. he practices extreme austerities actually, and finally realizes at a certain point that these austerities are really not going to get him there. So he finally takes a meal and goes to the seat of awakening.
The sutra is quite interesting, quite lovely, and all of these activities of the bodhisattva’s life, are framed within the context of this is what bodhisattvas do when they are about to awaken to Buddhahood. So he goes to the seat of awakening because that’s where all the buddhas have awakened in the past. So very much the whole story is perfumed with this Mahayana perspective on the world, it’s a Mahayana worldview. And so the bodhisattva goes finally to the seat of awakening. He sits to practice. Mara the demon comes and does his best to distract the bodhisattva to prevent him from awakening. He fails, and the bodhisattva awakens to perfect Buddhahood.
He awakens and all of the gods come to praise him. He spends seven weeks without teaching, wandering in the forest. Eventually, the gods Brahma and Indra come to him and ask him to teach, and he responds to this request, knowing that it would be best to teach to his, he had some companions, five companions previously when he was practicing austerities, and he goes and find these companions in Deer Park, at Sarnath, near Benares. And then he teaches, he preaches to them the first sermon, that’s his first teachings, on the Four Truths of the Noble Ones. That actually is the conclusion of the story.
Interestingly, the story does not encompass the entirety of his life, in the way that we might think of an account of someone’s life would go all the way until their death. This account begins in the previous life of a bodhisattva, his descent into the womb. It continues only until his first teaching, and then it breaks off, the narrative concludes with the Buddha having told this story himself to his disciples, the gods and his human disciples, and then he tells them that they should practice, basically, in this way.
My role in this translation was as part of a team of translators, all part of the Dharmachakra Translation Group, there are actually six of us who are working on the actual translation of the text from Tibetan into English. Others we also had a Sanskrit consultant work on the text with us as well. So my role was to translate a segment of the text into English, a few chapters, which included, in my case, the chapter describing the birth of the Buddha, which was especially lovely.
We needed such a big team, because otherwise it would have taken a lot longer to complete this translation. So in order to actually make it available in a reasonable amount of time. The text, as we have discussed already, is very long. So working in a team, we are able to split up the text and to each translator’s segment of the text, and then all those segments were passed on to the main translator who was kind of coordinating the whole project, and who then pulled all those individual segments together and checked them against the Tibetan, and did some editing as well.
We communicated primarily by email because we are all over the globe. I started this project when I was living in Kathmandu, and then I moved to California. The main translator who was coordinating the text lives in Denmark. And others of us live various places in the U.S. Someone else spent some time in Austria. Another translator was in Brazil part of the time. So really we were all over the globe.
And part of the coordinating that took place was just coordinating our vocabulary for the text. Part of the requirement for working on translations for 84000 is to compile a glossary. And the way that we did that actually was just using googledoc, so that we could all work together, and we could all add whenever we came across a word that needed to enter the glossary. We would put it up, and then we would be checking always, to see if someone else had encountered that word before. In that way, we were able to be consistent with our vocabulary.
And when it happened, which it did happen of course, that one person had translated a word one way, and somebody else wanted to translate it a different way, then we would initiate an email conversation, and we actually had a lot of discussion over email about the terminology of the text that we were working on. And for me that is actually an important part of the process. That’s why I like working as part a group. It just so happens that I like the other members of the team that I’ve worked with very much. They are friends and fellow practitioners, and so that is of course a pleasant part of working together. But I learnt so much actually, working with other translators, in terms of ways of translating words, in terms of the way of understanding a particular text. It’s really, I think, a great benefit to be able to work with a group of translators.
My training in Tibetan Buddhist study, the study of Tibetan Buddhism, was done in a pretty traditional context, in a monastery in Nepal, according to the traditional style of study. And the traditional style of studying Tibetan in a shedra context, a monastic college context that was sort of reformulated to fit a non-monastic group of students. But the traditional course of study, primarily, is the commentarial tradition. We study commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings. And so, I actually hadn’t spent a lot of time reading the words of the Buddha. I had read in academic contexts a number of sutras and translation, but I would say the majority of my studies of Tibetan Buddhist texts had been shastric texts, commentarial texts. And so, for me to have the opportunity, not just this project of course, but other translation projects I worked on for 84000, to just really spend the time reading sutra, it’s…they’re beautiful, I love, it turns out that I love to read sutras. I didn’t know that! I love it!
I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work with the Dharmachakra Translation Group, and I get so much out of it personally, and I feel like as a group of translators, we actually support each other in ways that are very helpful. I feel more confident about putting my own translations out there when I know that they have been reviewed by my peers who are quite skilled translators. And I love having the opportunity to review the translation work that other translators and their group have done. I get a lot out of reading their translations, I hope that they get some benefit out of reading mine. Just being able to discuss, to learn from one another.
One thing about this translation, this particular text, is that we have a Sanskrit edition that was made based on Sanskrit manuscripts. So having access to the Sanskrit is, I would say, both the joy and difficulty. When I came across difficult passages in the text, I was able to look at the Sanskrit, which, it does add difficulty, because when you are working with two different languages, that just adds another layer of complication. But it also, in a lot of instances, adds clarity. So that was, it’s wonderful, I mean it’s great to have Sanskrit.
But also one thing was kind of interesting to me actually is that sometimes when a passage was difficult in Tibetan, then I would think: “Oh, great! I can look at the Tibetan and Sanskrit, and that would clarify the passage.” But often what happens is the reason it is difficult in Tibetan is because it was difficult in Sanskrit, and that difficulty was rendered by the translators who translated the text into Tibetan, so it doesn’t always end out that it really clarifies things. But it was pleasant, but also challenging to have the opportunity to work with the Sanskrit. I looked at some passages myself, and then we also had a member of our team who looked at the entire translation, compared it against the Sanskrit, and his comments also were very helpful.
I have been an oral interpreter of Tibetan for ten years. And I’ve been working on written translations for, I guess, maybe eight of those years.
I think, to be honest, what I find most inspiring, are my teachers, actually. I guess I see translation as a part of practice. As a Buddhist practitioner, I think translation is a part of my practice. And so, in my practice, I look to the example of my teachers. And they are able to give a tremendous amount to their students and to the wider community in which they participate. And I feel that having the opportunity to work as a translator allows me to make a small contribution, a small offering to the community of Buddhist practitioners. What I find inspiring, I guess, is seeing my teachers just give with so much energy and vigor and love and compassion, and that inspires me to try and give as much as I can. Of course I can’t give in the way that they can, but I do find real inspiration in their, their being, their person, who they are, what they do, how they live in the world. Because I work as part of the Dharmachakra Translation Group, which is headed by my teacher, I feel that I am so incredibly lucky that in some sense I feel like my work is also an offering to my teacher. Every time I work on a translation I think about that, actually, and how precious, how incredibly precious it is to be able to do that.
My parents are both social workers and so they, I feel like their jobs were always also part of a contribution that they were making to the larger community. In some sense that working in education, and I think as a translator, it is like that in some sense, that I have the opportunity to do something that I love to do.
I guess it’s just my own curiosity about these texts. I love studying about the Buddhist tradition. I just think it’s really fun. And I’m curious, I’m always curious how different buddhists over time in history, different places, and different times have formulated the teachings in different ways that are able to inspire and to benefit different people, that are able to help more beings awaken. And so, I enjoy reading buddhist texts. And I enjoy translating them, because it makes me read them more carefully, because it makes me read them more attentively, because I personally get so much out of working on these types of translations.
But primarily I think the motivation, really, is my teachers, the model of my teachers and having the opportunity to do something that they have told me as valuable, and that I personally feel is valuable. That that’s what keeps me going when it’s difficult, when there’s a passage that I just can’t figure out what it’s saying, and that’s what really in the end inspires me.