Up Close With A Translator: Julia Stenzel

On the first day of Losar (Tibetan New Year) this year, we published the “Ākāśagarbha Sūtra” in the online reading room. Along with the publishing of this translation, we invited two of the translators to share their thoughts on the sūtra, the translation process and the impact that 84000 and our donors have on spreading the Buddha’s words.

Watch Julia Stenzel captured on video, and then read what her co-translator, Christian Bernert, has to say.

More videos available on our Youtube and Vimeo channels.

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Can you summarize the Ākāśagarbha Sūtra?

The Ākāśagarbha Sūtra was named after the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha, in Tibetan: Namkhai Nyingpo, which we could translate as essence of space or matrix of space. But we chose not to translate it but leave his name in Sanskrit. The setting is that of Buddha Śākyamuni residing in the Khalatika mountains, which some people think are the Barabar mountains in Bodhgaya. And Buddha Śākyamuni is surrounded by his retinue, and Ākāśagarbha arrives. He doesn’t arrive like any ordinary person. At first, there is a bright light, which comes from the jewel that he is wearing on top of his head. And this light transforms the whole of the world into a pureland, kind of a paradise. And so he arrives, and the bodhisattva Maitreya asks Buddha Śākyamuni, “So who is this bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha?”

The answer of Buddha Śākyamuni then forms the major part of the sūtra. The Buddha explains the qualities and the powers of Ākāśagarbha; and most particularly, his power to help practitioners purify their wrongdoings, their negative deeds. He also explains how practitioners should pray to Ākāśagarbha, which kind of offerings and mantras they should offer in order to purify. And there’s one interesting detail, which is that the purification actually takes place in a dream. So we have to invite Ākāśagarbha to come in our dream, and there we will confess our wrongdoings, and there Ākāśagarbha will purify our wrong doings.

What are the main themes of The Ākāśagarbha Sūtra?

One of the prominent themes in the sūtra is mahāyāna ethics. And indeed the sūtra is known from other texts like the Bodhicaryāvatāra, The Way of the Bodhisattva, from Śāntideva. In this text, Śāntideva recommends bodhisattva practitioners to study the Ākāśagarbha Sūtra in order to know about ethics of the bodhisattva training. Also, Sakya Pandita and Jamgon Kongtrul, later Tibetan masters, mention the Ākāśagarbha Sūtra as a reference text. The interesting thing here is that ethics is discussed from the point of view of failure. Buddha Śākyamuni, in the sūtra, explains 23 cases in which the practitioner fails. And these 23 wrongdoings are categorised into wrongdoings of kings, of ministers, of śrāvakas, and of beginner bodhisattvas.

In Tibetan, these wrong doings are called tungwa, which literally means downfall. And downfall here refers to the fact that we are falling from the way to awakening, and we are falling into the lower realms, which means we will be without happiness and without the possibility of making spiritual progress.

So what are these downfalls? Actually in the text we translate them as transgressions, where some of them are the crimes that we would expect, like killing and stealing. But the bodhisattva transgressions are deeds like teaching emptiness to disciples that are not ready for hearing the teaching about emptiness, or trying to convince somebody that the mahāyāna path is not the right path to practice, or trying to deter somebody who wants to take the pratimoksha vows. So the interesting thing in reading the sūtra is that a lot of these downfalls are not expressed as abstract principles, but rather the Buddha gives us a narrative. For example, monks in a certain situation teaching on the emptiness. So we are told, for each downfall, a little narrative.

Tell us a bit about your translation process.

We translated the Ākāśagarbha Sūtra at the International Buddhist Academy in Kathmandu. This academy is a Sakya school founded by the Sakya master Khenchen Appey Rinpoche. These days it is directed by Khenpo Ngawang Jorden. And one special feature of the school is that it trains translators according to the model of the Pandita Lotsawa, with whom many Sanskrit sūtras were at the time translated into Tibetan. We have, on one hand, Tibetan scholars who have all studied a decade or more in monastic colleges, and have become experts in Buddhist philosophy; and the “lotsawa,” the translators in this case, are westerners, practitioners but also with academic background; who then will work together in the team, this pandita-lotsawa team, in order to produce translations. This is a bit of a presumptuous word, because we are all beginners. But anyway, that was our ideal.

In the case of the Ākāśagarbha Sūtra, we were a team of four. Two Tibetan scholars: Ngawang Tenzin and Jampa Tenzin; and two Western translators, Christian Bernert and myself. And we worked in such a way that we divided the text in half, and one half was translated by Ngawang Tenzin and Christian, and the other one by Jampa Tenzin and myself. And then we switched work and corrected the work of the other team. That was a time-consuming process, but it was necessary. For difficult passages, we asked Khenpo Ngawang Jorden, and he was of enormous help to clarify the difficult passages.

We did not need a Sanskrit expert because there is no extant Sanskrit original for this sūtra. And the Chinese version is so very different that we could not really do a comparative study. So then after the translation, of course we had proofreaders and editors. Ani Kunga Chodron, Pamela White, Vivian Paganuzzi, who all contributed greatly to the end result. We submitted our translation to the 84000 and then we received comments and corrections from the editors of the 84000, also enormously helpful. And we worked at the text and then submitted our final result. This was all, as I said, very long process, but it gave us the confidence that at the end the result would be acceptable.

Why do you translate?

When I was 21, I entered a Buddhist hermitage in France. I studied Buddhadharma and learnt meditation with the late mahamudra master Lama Gendun Rinpoche. The condition to enter his three year retreat at the time was to learn Tibetan. So I studied Tibetan on my own. And during the retreat, sometimes we recited many hours of Tibetan texts. And of course I was curious, I wanted to know what I was reciting. Our teacher Lama Gendun at that time said that right now you will all practice in Tibetan, but in the future, people will understand the texts from within. You will translate texts, and then one day practice in your own languages.

When I came to the International Buddhist Academy where we were then in the process of translating sūtras, we had a visit from the head of the Sakya school, Sakya Trizin. And he gave us an advice which took the weight off our shoulders. Because he said: “Don’t worry whether your translation will be perfect, because of course it will be not. In the beginning, translators make mistakes; but based on their work, in the future, other translators can improve.” So with this kind of attitude, we started the translations of, for example, the Ākāśagarbha Sūtra, but also other sūtras for the 84000.

And personally I have to say it is a work which is very rewarding, because it obliges me to reflect deeply on these particular dharma texts, and thereby I learn a lot about the Buddhadharma. There’s the exchange with experienced translators, like Tom Tillemans, John Canti, Gavin Kilty. They gave us enormous help by commenting, advising, correcting our work. So it is a very rewarding experience. And therefore I am very grateful that the 84000 exists, and I would like to thank all the supporters and donors for this project. Thank you.

Click here to read an email interview of Christian Bernert, who worked on the same sūtra.

Click here to read the “Ākāśagarbha Sūtra.”

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