Doing no harm whatsoever,
Practice virtue perfectly;
Tame your mind completely–
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
-from the Vinaya. (Translated in Kathmandu by Ngawang Chodron , an American nun.)
Nepal, birthplace of the Buddha, has long been a focus for the transmission of Buddhist teachings, particularly of the traditions of the Newari Vajrayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. Since 1959, in the wake of the Tibetan diaspora, Nepal has been serving as well as a vital place to preserve and propagate the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, which have now been virtually eliminated from their own native land.
Although, particularly in the West, there seems to be a natural sympathy toward Tibetans in exile, there is also little real knowledge about the Tibetan Buddhist teachings which formed the vital centre of their culture. In part, this lack of knowledge is due to the infancy of any translating tradition done by actual practitioners. In Tibet, it took some 500 years for all the major texts and commentaries to be translated into Tibetan by practitioners who first made an arduous journey to India, learned Sanskrit, studied with Buddhist masters, and returned to Tibet to translate and transmit what they had learned.
In contrast, it has only been 30 years since Tibetan teachers came into exile, a relatively short period of contact between students and teachers. Ironically, it is the exile itself which has been responsible for creating the conditions for Western students and scholar-translators to be able to study with some seriousness Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, language and religion (which is not “lamaism”).
The first translations of Tibetan Buddhist teachings were done by well-meaning people such as Evans-Wentz, L.A. Waddell and others who were strongly influenced by Christian conceptions; words like “soul” — which are explicitly not Tibetan Buddhist (or even any other kind of Buddhist) slipped in and became erroneously conjoined to dharma texts. Such mis-translated ideas, based on a Christianised vocabulary mixed in with a kind of airhead mysticism (such as that in the notorious books of the Scot, “Lobsang Rampa”), fueled the pop culture version of “Tibetan Buddhism” which persist to this day. Hence, the Hollywood notion of “reincarnation” which involved belief that there is some “soul” which is reborn time after time; it must be a terrible shock to discover that within the Buddhist teachings there is an explicit denial of any soul — indeed, there is a denial of the true existence of any “self’, any “ego”, any “I” at all. In fact, it is precisely this fictive belief in “I” which is held responsible for the various sufferings of sentient beings. To quote Kamalasila, a great scholar who himself made the long trip to Tibet to assist in the first translations of dharma texts: “The cause for restlessness is the ego-centred mind. When on has the idea of “I”, there is no end to ego. Only Buddha said that this “I” is essenceless, no one else did. Thus there is no way other than his teachings to find peace of mind.”
Karma (Sanskrit; in Tibetan las) is another a word which has somehow sidled into Western vocabularies with a totally inaccurate meaning; its pop culture definition is of some ineluctable, predestined fate; we see characters in movies such as Shogun bemoaning their “karma” as if it had fallen upon them from above, unmerited, like when one is unhappily surprised by feeling a bird’s excrement dropping down onto one’s freshly-washed hair.
An accurate translation of las (pronounced “lay”) would be, simply, action; the wider implication being more apparent in the traditional phrase las-rgyu’ -bras, action/cause/effect, a shorthand meaning that all actions serve as the causes for inevitable results, just as in normal circumstances (save a trip to the moon), dropping a stone results in that stone’s falling to the ground. Thus, there is the notion that negative or positive actions will, sooner or later, bring about correspondingly negative or positive results, leading one to consider well the consequences of one’s actions.
Similarly, Tibetan Buddhist notions of mind are crucial, widely misunderstood, and extremely difficult to translate. The difference between sems and blo is something like the difference between discursive mind and the intellect — but not quite; rnam par rtok pa (literally: “to think in aspects — aspect-ly – as opposed to having complete understanding) refers to thoughts themselves. A clear distinction is made between thoughts, and the aware mind in which such thoughts occur (or, in the majority of cases, the unaware mind in which various thoughts occur.)
One can see that, to avoid misunderstanding, the accurate dissemination of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings is heavily dependent upon a sound foundation of textual and oral translation into Western languages, based on extensive study of the teachings with those who know them best — the distinguished exiled lamas of Tibet. Unless one has been taught that what translates into English as “emptiness” is an entirely different beast from some nihilistic nothingness, and, indeed, that the nihilistic point of view is specifically refuted in philosophical texts (as in the eternalist viewpoint), it’s all too easy to wander off on an entirely wrong track.
Kathmandu has for many years been serving as a centre for transmission of Tibetan dharma and, like the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, as a centre for translation from Tibetan into Western languages (primarily English and French). Here – mainly in Baudha — a would-be translator can study colloquial and classical Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist religion and philosophy, and can choose from a wide variety of schools, teachers, and teachings. Almost in spite of itself, because the education of translators has not been given much importance, Kathmandu has proven a fertile ground for training the first generation of Western practitioner-translators.
Translators, budding translators, and persons seriously interested in the practice of Buddhism flock to Nepal to study without the umbrella of institutions — and without their subsidies — purely from a love of the subject. With the computer revolution sweeping into Baudha around 1986, there has been a ten-fold surge in the publication of translations. There is a 1,000-page autobiography of Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol nearing publication, as is the biography of Thangtong Gyalpo, a 14th century-yogin-cum-bridge-building-engineer. A flurry of books, largely technical advice on meditation, has been brought out by Rangjung Yeshe publishers — and these all represent but the tip of the iceberg.
In terms of oral translation and the oral dissemination of teachings, there are “seasons” in the Kathmandu Valley when public teachings according to the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism are given and translated into Western languages; people from all around the world come to attend teachings — from Europe, Japan, Malaysia, America and Australia.
Just in the past six months, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, taught a group of about sixty person a philosophical text called “Making the Distinction Between Ordinary Phenomena and Phenomena as They Truly Are.” Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and his father, the renowned Dzogchen practitioner Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, taught a seminar on ‘The Four Seals of Existence” and on a short text on mind by Mipham Rinpoche to a group of a hundred. The initiations and teachings of the Sakya school called “Lamdre” were given for a month by Chogye Trichen Rinpoche to another hundred persons. These seminars were taught by the exile lamas in Tibetan; the transmission of the teachings was possible because of practitioner/translators — largely Nepal-trained or Nepal-based.
In addition, there are lamas such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche, and Chattel Rinpoche, who teach individuals according to their needs and capacities; contact with them depends upon locating a willing individual capable of translating what they teach. There are, moreover, newly arrived lamas from Tibet filtering into the Valley each year; it is very moving to hear translated teachings from lamas such as Yangthang Tulku, who underwent torture and imprisonment, about how to generate impartial compassion toward all sentient beings.
A key figure in the tradition of translation and dissemination is Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. Renowned both as a meditation practitioner and an expert in philosophy, he founded the Marpa Institute for Translation in 1986 to train a new generation of translators for the almost endless task of translating the massive amount of philosophical and religious literature into English and other languages. Named after a famous translator-yogin, the institute flourished until Nepali visas regulations were changed to prevent stays longer than three months. Since the courses lasted for six months each year, the Institute moved to Bodh Gaya in 1989 and to New Delhi in 1990. But Khenpo’s 100-odd would-be translators await their return to study in what is arguably the world’s most fertile ground for what they do.
Wilkinson is a student at the Marpa Institute of Translation.