Q&A | Publishing Translations from the Tengyur

We are delighted to have recently announced the publication of our very first translation from the Tengyur: a commentary on the Long Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. We work on the research and translation of texts for years and spend hundreds of hours developing the technology to transform translations of individual texts into a dynamic and interactive collection, freely available for all.

Thus, this publication represents not only the culmination of years of work by many members of our Translation team, but a significant milestone for the organization. And so we we asked our editors what this means for our work going forward.

Shao Fan and Ren Qing Ban Jue (仁青班覺), Drying of handprinted canonical texts, photograph.

Q. What is the difference between the Kangyur and Tengyur?
A. Together, both comprise the huge body of Buddhist literature that was translated into Tibetan as Buddhism was being adopted in Tibet in the eighth to thirteenth centuries. The Kangyur contains the scriptures proper, works considered to represent the Buddha’s own teachings, while the Tengyur contains the treatises of the great Indian Buddhist scholars who commented on and explained the scriptures and compiled systems of doctrinal theory and practice. The Tengyur, in some 200 volumes, is about twice the size of the Kangyur.
Q. Why is 84000 only now beginning to publish translations of Tengyur texts?
A. The Kangyur texts are the real raw material of the huge range of Buddhist views, beliefs, and practices. But over the last many centuries in Tibet, the Kangyur texts have mainly been explored and studied through the commentaries and treatises that organize and systematize them—both those written by Indian scholars in the Tengyur and those written later by Tibetans. In the West, too, as Buddhism and its study takes root in other cultures world wide, it seemed important to begin with the Kangyur and make its relatively unexplored, primary texts—the raw material—accessible in English and eventually other modern languages. So, to start with, 84000 decided to concentrate its resources mainly on the Kangyur as the first phase of the project of translating the canon.

Q. Does this mean that the translation of the Kangyur is now nearly complete?
A. No, there are still many Kangyur texts to be translated. However, 84000 has already published about one quarter of the Kangyur by pages; has completed another quarter of draft translations now being finalized before publication; and has commissioned a third quarter whose translation is already in progress. Only the last quarter has not yet been started.


Q. How is 84000 choosing which Tengyur texts to work on first?
A. Many of the Kangyur texts remaining to be translated or finalized are quite difficult, and to translate and interpret them well it is essential for us to consult commentaries in the Tengyur. While we are reading, consulting, and studying those commentaries anyway as part of the work on translating a Kangyur “root” scripture, it makes sense to produce a translation of the commentary, too, so that we can share its explanations with our readers. These Tengyur commentaries are the ones we have been working on, or plan to work on in the near future even before the translation of the whole Kangyur is complete. Indeed, they will help us complete the translation of the Kangyur.
Q. Isn’t it difficult to choose, since all the Kangyur texts have commentaries in the Tengyur?
A. No, by no means all the Kangyur texts have Tengyur commentaries. The higher tantra texts in the Kangyur are the ones for which there are the most commentaries in the Tengyur, and these are the texts most difficult to interpret—and therefore those for which the commentaries are the most essential. The sūtras, by comparison, tend to be easier to understand, and there are relatively few Tengyur commentaries that directly interpret them directly, although there are many treatises that systematize the doctrines they teach. One particular category of sūtras, the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, stand out in being extensively covered by Tengyur commentaries. For the vinaya texts the Tengyur commentaries are helpful, but the Kangyur vinaya works are detailed enough to stand on their own. It is therefore a selection of the important tantra and prajñāpāramitā commentaries on which 84000 is concentrating to start with.
Q. Haven’t many of the important Tengyur texts already been translated into English?
A. It’s true that Western scholars have, generally speaking, been more interested in the Tengyur texts than the scriptures in the Kangyur. Some of the important Tengyur treatises have been fully translated and are readily available as published works, so for 84000 to translate them again would not be the best use of our limited resources at present. We can refer readers to them in introductions and bibliographies. Nevertheless there is still a very large majority of Tengyur texts that have not been fully translated, and many that remain very little studied. 

Q. So which of the Tengyur texts are 84000’s earliest priority?

A. 84000 is concentrating particularly on the word-by-word commentaries that are most directly applicable to the parallel translation of Kangyur texts and will be the greatest help to readers in understanding them.

Our first Tengyur text to be published, as a commentary on the three long Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, is very much of that kind. It has not only been very helpful in our work translating those sūtras, but will be an excellent guide for readers who wish to study these difficult texts in detail.

Most of the other Tengyur translations now in progress are of tantra commentaries, while a few sūtra commentaries including another prajñāpāramitā work are in the pipeline.

Q. Will the 84000 Reading Room allow Kangyur root texts and their Tengyur commentaries to be read together?

A. Yes, this is one advantage of online, electronic publishing that we have been very excited to exploit to the full. As with all of our publications, the texts can be read with the Tibetan source text in bilingual view. But as well as in bilingual view, the translations of these commentaries can also be read, either in continuous sync with the translated root text, or if the reader prefers using hyperlinked cross-references between the two translations and their source texts. In cases where a single commentary refers to more than one root text, or where one root text has more than one commentary, all the linked texts can be read in sync.

The process is intuitive and most readers will quickly discover how to set up their preferred configuration, but we are producing a guide as well.

Related Reading

Facts and figures about Kangyur and Tengyur

Posted: 28 Feb 2023