Scholar and Long-Time Practitioner Reflects on the Impact of 84000

Atisha Mathur was volunteering as a cook, brewing coffee in the kitchen at the Deer Park Institute, when Khyentse Foundation held a conference there in March 2009 that gave birth to 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha. Since then, he has completed 10 years of an intensive 16-year-long program in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (IBD), in Dharamsala, India, and is on track to complete a PhD in Buddhist Studies at L’Orientale, in Italy, with an emphasis on Madhyamaka.

Reflecting back, Atisha remembers being initially quite perplexed as to why 84000 was beginning with the translation of the Kangyur. As with most traditional monastic studies, there was no direct study of the sūtras during Atisha’s time at IBD. “The focus is on śastras from the Tengyur. Since the śastras are themselves explanations of the sūtras, sūtras do figure now and then but are not studied as the primary texts,” Atisha explains. “Because of this, I initially assumed it could have been more useful to have the Tengyur translated into English and couldn’t understand why the Kangyur was being worked upon first,” he said.

But last month, while talking to the 84000 team during Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s three-day teaching at Deer Park, Atisha said he realized why it makes so much sense to start with the Kangyur. Most importantly, he emphasized, “is that 84000’s work—translating the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon into English—is fundamental to ensuring the continuation of the living Dharma.”

While he studied at IBD, Atisha said the students were predominantly monks and nuns with a handful of lay people. But outside Tibet, the demographics are shifting, and the number of Tibetan scholars is declining. That trend reflects what Atisha sees as a more widespread shift in the study of the Buddhadharma away from being almost exclusively in Tibetan monasteries to include a more global and diverse community of scholars and practitioners. The trend also underscores the critical role of 84000 in ensuring that the roots of this tradition are authentically translated and freely available for study, practice, and consultation by the open and curious. Atisha added that “amongst this English speaking community, it will be important that people who take on the roles of teaching and preservation have access to the entire canon.”


Now a doctoral student at L’Orientale in Naples, Italy, Atisha would love to see more active teachings of the translated texts, both from the Kangyur and the Tengyur, directly in English. He believes that if the Tengyur had been translated first, it is unlikely that the Kangyur—which forms the base upon which all other Buddhist literature is founded—would have been translated afterward. “This would have been extremely unfortunate for the Dharma,” he said.

Atisha compared 84000’s work to the efforts made by Tibetans to translate the canon from Sanskrit into Tibetan: “Whether this was done with the foresight of a decline in Indian Buddhism or not, the canon exists today largely thanks to its translation in Tibetan,” he said. “A similar passage from the Tibetan to English would ensure that the tradition is kept alive, and flourishes.”


Posted: 13 Jun 2024