Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche at Tengyur Translation Conference

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was invited to speak during the “Tengyur Translation Conference: In the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda”, held on January 8-11, 2011, jointly organized by Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS) and American Institute of Buddhist Studies (AIBS).

“The Relationship between the Kangyur and Tengyur, and Reflections on the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project (BLHP)”

Presenter: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
Date: January 9, 2011
Venue: Central University of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, India

First of all, let me begin my appreciation and gratitude to Geshe Ngawang Samten and Professor Robert Thurman for giving me this opportunity to accumulate some merit by attending such an important convention. What a better place to discuss translating the words of Buddha into modern languages than here in Sarnath where Buddhism took its birth.

Before I begin, let me confess that I myself am not a translator.

Translating sacred Buddhists texts into modern languages has become more and more important, as Buddhism expands.

For decades now, a few individual lamas and translators have put a great deal of effort into translating dharma texts into various languages — in spite of the almost total lack of support translation work receives. And these achievements have been amazing. But if the Buddhadharma is to survive, we must all aim a little higher. However overwhelming, we need to translate the entire Words of the Buddha into as many modern languages as possible. And to achieve this, we need to find ways of working together; not only amongst translators, but also amongst sponsors, teachers, and of course students, who are the real beneficiaries.

For instance, I would really like to see Tibetan Lamas , scholars, Khenpos to really involve , be concerned to care with the project of translating the words of Buddha into non Tibetan language. I have to admit often many Tibetan lamas, myself included, are more worried of building giant Temples. It is important to know that if we do not get involved with this task, these yellow haired injis (Westerners) are not going to wait. They will go ahead and do all kinds of translations and it would be absolutely useless to complain afterwards. Another example is we have the responsibility to bring into the conscience of Indians of all walks of life. After all Buddha Dharma is probably the best Indian product that India has been exporting for 2500 years and it is still being exported. I know this great institute is the Legacy of the Late Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Kapila Vatsayan. But India can still do more to harness and revitalize this soft power, this system of thought that has won, and is still winning, the hearts and mind of all kinds of civilization.

The historical Tibetan dharma kings and patrons used their power and wealth to commission the translation of the entire Kangyur and Tengyur. If we wish to emulate their inspirational achievements today and translate the entire Words of the Buddha into modern languages, we need to gather the many streams of individual translators and translation groups, and work together in several ways.

We need to identify the technical challenges of translation.

How do we train future generations of translators? And how do we involve the guidance of the lineage lamas?

We need to set up financial and inter-institutional infrastructures to support this work. We need a clear and common vision of what we want to achieve, a century from today.

If we assess honestly exactly where we are now, we will see how urgent and precarious the situation has become. This may sound like an exaggeration, I may be entirely wrong ,but I do feel the survival of Tibetan Buddhism depends on whether or not we translate our transmission of the Words of the Buddha into modern languages.

The Buddhist heritage and culture that took root in Tibet from the 7th century onwards almost disappeared in India, the very country of origin where it had flourished since the Buddha’s time. That it survived at all was due to the great Lotsawas who rescued it from premature extinction by translating Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan. The living dharma traditions that still exist today — in Japan, China, Thailand and Burma — have only survived because they had the foresight to translate the original sacred Buddhist texts into their own languages.

Looking at the current political, geographical and cultural state of Tibet, and the waning enthusiasm amongst Tibetans for our own language and culture, it may be that the same kind of virtual obliteration of Tibetan Buddhist culture could happen again. As many of you know, it’s getting extremely rare in the Tibetan community itself to find people still able to speak and understand classical Tibetan. At the rate knowledge of the language is currently disappearing, there will be almost no Tibetans in Seventy years time who can read texts such as the Kangyur and Tengyur and understand their meaning. However, translation projects like these can spur interest among both Tibetans and non-Tibetans, leading first and foremost to the survival and continued transmission of the Buddhadharma in whatever languages, but also with an added bonus that the increased interest and research generated by such projects may well help reverse the decline in knowledge among the Tibetan community.

The Christians have the Bible, the Moslems the Koran; what do we Buddhists turn to, if not our sacred root texts in the sutras and Shastras? They are of vital importance, because what the Buddha taught must always be the primary reference on a question, not what we find in Tibetan Commentaries and definitely not in the books that is written today.

In a modern world where detail and authenticity are valued, students of the Buddhadharma will want to know what the Buddha himself actually said.

The trend today is for teachers, priests, scholars, politicians and fanatics to obscure the original meaning of important texts by interpreting them to suit their own personal agendas. It’s happening in all religions, and sadly, Buddhism is no exception. When problems created by such interpretations arise in the future, our beacon of truth can only be the Words of the Buddha, and their amplification in the shastras of the great Indian masters.

Although it’s true we have not been blessed with great dharma patrons like King Trison Deutsen, all is not lost, because modern technology is on our side. When the great Tibetan translator Vairochana wanted to find a specific manuscript, he had to walk from Tibet to India for several months. Today, thanks to both modern technology and projects like the TBRC of the late, great Gene Smith, it’s even possible to download Tibetan texts from somewhere as remote as Bir, where I live. Cooperation amongst those involved in the translation process could easily continue online. And we should not limit whom we bring into our conversations. Not only should we talk to other translators, we should also include all those who support the translation process — teachers, linguists, writers, and, of course, students. By opening up the lines of communications, we could start working out how we can help each other more efficiently.
As a Buddhist I strongly believe that translation work that we do must primarily benefit Dharma Students by which I mean someone who has devotion to Buddha and his teachings. Someone who wishes to put teachings into practices . The benefit of the translation work should not be limited to academic students whose only quest is to finish their thesis and who is stuck with the pride of approaching Buddhism objectively when it is just another subjectivity.

Although the current situation is an urgent one, we would be deceiving ourselves if we imagine this generation of translators will live to see publication of the complete works. In Tibet, it took several generations of Tibetan kings to accomplish the translation of the texts we have today, and some believe there are still sutras and shastras that have yet to be translated into Tibetan. The challenges of translating volumes of Tibetan texts the size of mountains is only one aspect of our work. There are other equally daunting tasks we should start thinking about: for example, the revision and updating of existing translations into more contemporary language. It’s an unnerving prospect, I know, but sacred texts must always be available in a form the present generation can understand.

The Buddhist Literary Heritage Project (BLHP) was conceived with a mission to translate the entire Tibetan Buddhist Canon, that is, the Kangyur and Tengyur, within a hundred years, first into English, and then into other modern languages. The first steps have been taken to identify some priority texts from the Kangyur, and in early 2010, some working editorial guidelines were set up. Based on these, in August 2010, we invited open grant applications, and a total of 21 translation applications were received from different translation groups. We are now in the process of evaluating, approving and commissioning the translation of the first 3000 pages of the Kangyur. The process is being evolved as we go, and nothing is set in stone, so we are totally open to revision and suggestion. It will be a continuing process, and even if we complete the entire translation, it would still be need revised and edited every few decades, to adjust the language and expression to suit the times. So this is an open source process, and in fact, it must continue as an open source process, if we are to keep the Kangyur and Tengyur perpetually accessible in centuries to come.

As a Tibetan, I am amazed when I read texts by great lotsawas, like Vairochana and Chokro Luyi Gyaltsen, and remember just how much I, personally, owe them. They endured unimaginable hardships to bring the Buddhadharma from India to Tibet. Without their courageous and visionary planning, compassionate determination, devotion and sheer hard work, I would never have been able to truly appreciate the Words of the Buddha in my own language. Translators of today are being given the opportunity to emulate those great beings — the translators, scholars, panditas and saints of the past — by taking on the task of translating and making available the Word of the Buddha to as many people in this world as possible, in their own languages, now and for centuries to come. It’s an honor and a challenge not to be missed.

Posted: 7 Mar 2011