Friday, November 18, 2011

International Conference on Tibetan Language

The Third International Conference on Tibetan Language will be held at Columbia University in New York City from December 9–14, 2011. Building on the first two conferences held in India in 1987 and  in Italy in 1992, this conference will assess current challenges and opportunities for Tibetan language development, as well as its future prospects.

This conference, convened at the initiative of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, is jointly organized by Trace Foundation, Shang Shung Institute, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, and the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.

In the 20 years since the last conference in Italy there have been many changes in the situation of Tibetan language. The role and future prospects for Tibetan language in today’s global society remain unclear, and there is an urgent need for reflection on the issues that must be addressed, and what steps might be taken.

The Third International Conference on Tibetan Language will provide a platform for scholars from around the world to assess these and other challenges, to forge partnerships, and develop strategies to secure the place of Tibetan language in the 21st century. Consisting of 11 panels, the conference will offer a unique holistic look at the current state of the language.


We just received the following message about a new association called Esukhia, which offers online tuition in Tibetan:
Our association is a nonprofit organization created to help preserve and promote Buddha’s teaching. The first step in bringing Buddhism to the West is to translate and to study it. Many students go to India or Nepal to learn Tibetan, but have difficulties continuing their studies when they get back home. Other students wish to learn Tibetan but don’t have the time or the means to go to Asia. Therefore Esukhia created online Tibetan language courses to address their needs. 
Although Esukhia is not the first organization to attempt teaching Tibetan in this way, we have found that the main complaint of students is that their teachers are not trained in how to teach Tibetan to westerners—that they do not use a textbook or provide experiential exercises for the students, etc. For this reason, we have set up an office in Dharamsala and enlisted Tibetans who have studied their language at a university level or otherwise have relevant experience teaching Tibetan to westerners to create a Tibetan language teaching method: the TTFL (Teaching Tibetan as a Foreign Language), which is based on the world famous TEFL used to teach English to non-native speakers. To assist them, we have professional trainers versed in the TEFL method to instruct our teachers in linguistic pedagogy. Courses are conducted with one student and one teacher to ensure that every student’s learning needs are met on a personal level. We are also creating a preparatory course for students who wish later to attend Tibetan classes at the International Buddhist Academy in Boudha, Nepal. 
For our textbook we have selected Nicolas Tournadre’s A Manual of Standard Tibetan, which we find to be the best available Tibetan textbook. To make the material more accessible, we have supplemented all lessons with dialogues and new vocabulary. Each new vocabulary word is paired with a picture. The use of pictures avoids the use of English translation, facilitating students’ ability to think in Tibetan and allowing non-English speakers to use the materials as well. After their scheduled online classes, students can use the Chamillo e-learning platform to do some exercises.
They have a temporary website at, and are working on a new one. 

Setting the Wheels in Motion

HH the Dalai Lama joins final day of conference
Only a short distance from the glorious Dhamek stupa, marking the scene of Buddha’s first ever teaching, Sarnath’s Central University of Tibetan Studies provided an auspicious backdrop for the latest major conference on Tibetan Buddhist translation. The four-day event, organized jointly by the Central University and Columbia University’s American Institute of Buddhist Studies, focused on the Tengyur, the collection of ‘translated treatises’ (or shastras in Sanskrit) composed by the learned and accomplished masters of India and compiled in Tibet as the counterpart to the Kangyur, the ‘translated Word of the Buddha’. With the participation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the Ganden Tripa and many other Tibetan lamas, as well as leading scholars and translators from around the world, this gathering marked another important milestone on the road towards the eventual goal of
translating the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon into English and other languages.

As indicated by its rather grandiose title—International Conference on Tengyur Translation in the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda—special emphasis was placed on the tradition of Nalanda University, one of the world’s most ancient seats of learning, which once boasted as many as 10,000 students. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote in his letter of support to the conference:

The Buddhist culture that flourished in Tibet can rightly be seen to derive from the pure tradition of Nalanda, which comprises the most complete presentation of the Buddhist teachings. As for me personally, I consider myself a practitioner of the Nalanda tradition of wisdom. Masters of Nalanda such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Arya Asanga, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, and Shantideva wrote the scriptures that we Tibetan Buddhists study and practise. They are all my gurus. When I read their books and reflect upon their names, I feel a connection with them.
The works of these Nalanda masters are presently preserved in the collection of their writings that in Tibetan translation we call the Tengyur. It took teams of Indian masters and great Tibetan translators over four centuries to accomplish the historic task of translating them into Tibetan. Most of these books were later lost in their Sanskrit originals, and relatively few were translated into Chinese. Therefore, the Tengyur is truly one of Tibet’s most precious treasures, a mine of understanding that we have preserved in Tibet for the benefit of the whole world.

This precious treasure, then, that is the Tengyur, includes among its approximately 4,000 texts works covering such topics as meditation, psychology, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, grammar, medicine and the arts, many of them direct commentaries on the words of the Buddha found in the sutras and tantras. In fact, as several speakers noted, tantric commentaries account for the largest section within the collection. Although some of the texts have already been translated over the course of the last century or so, perhaps only around a tenth has appeared so far in English. (As an aside, we should note that while this might imply that the canon is closed, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that the Tibetan collection itself should be updated and expanded to include additional works previously available only in Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit or other languages.)

One of the most interesting and informative sections of the conference featured reports on the current status of translation of canonical texts into various languages, including Sanskrit, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Nepalese, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Hebrew. The invited experts from around the world presented a varied picture, but it was clear that there is plenty of work still to be done in most languages, and a lot to be learned from the efforts of past scholars.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in discussion with Prof Robert Thurman

As reported in a previous issue of View, the conference organized by the Khyentse Foundation in Bir in 2008 resulted in the creation of an organization called 84000 (originally the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project), with the goal of translating the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon, including the Tengyur, over the next hundred years. Representatives of 84000, including its interim president, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, were present in Sarnath to report on the progress of the project. And the news is really quite astounding: with eleven translations already completed, more than thirty others under way, and a second round of applications in process.

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche addresses the conference
In Sarnath, however, the focus was on issues that might arise in the process of translation of so many classical texts and the potential impact and significance of such a project. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said several times that the environment in which these treatises were composed makes them especially relevant to the modern world, more so perhaps than many later Tibetan compositions or even the actual sutras of the Buddha. Scholars at Nalanda, Vikramashila and the other great monastic universities, he has said, were involved in dialogue and debate with scholars from other traditions, and their careful use of logical reasoning is well suited to a sceptical and predominantly secular age.

Speaking on the first day of the conference, Dr. Tom Yarnall of Columbia University pointed out that if translation work were to be done by scholars familiar with western philosophy and psychology and other disciplines, the works of masters like Nagarjuna and Asanga could enrich these subjects as they are taught in modern universities. At the moment, he observed, study of Nagarjuna’s texts is mostly confined to religious studies departments and does not feature at all in the philosophy curriculum. Similarly, the writings of Asanga and other masters of the Mind Only tradition remain unknown to most students of psychology, in spite of what they could offer to the study of consciousness.

One of these lotsawas is not like the others
Although a revival of the ‘spirit of Nalanda’, as it might be termed, need not necessarily be tied to a particular location—not even Nalanda itself—many speakers noted how the university in Sarnath could play a critical role. With typically contagious enthusiasm, Professor Robert Thurman—who first received the instruction to translate the Tengyur from his guru Geshe Wangyal several decades ago—shared his vision for the university’s future as a hub of translation activity, with lamas, geshes and khenpos all working alongside specialist Sanskrit scholars and translators from around the world to produce simultaneous translations in multiple languages.

The setting, format and list of participants made this a slightly more academic affair than some previous translation conferences, but there was also a sense of urgency and practicality. In the panels and in smaller groups, discussion focused on three main topics: 1) terminology and resources; 2) translations standards and training; and 3) institution-building and fundraising. There were some lively speeches and entertaining presentations, notably from Dr. Christian Wedemeyer on the history of the Tengyur collection and Dr. Tom Yarnall on the history of Nalanda University. It was also wonderful to hear directly from Jay Garfield and Luis Gomez, both of whom have written thought-provoking articles on the subject of translation in the past.

Prof Robert Thurman greets HH the Dalai Lama
On the final day, the conference welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was briefed on the major topics from previous days, and, in response, stressed the importance of cooperation and collaboration. He too suggested that Sarnath could become a major centre of translation work. A major goal of making the Tengyur available in other languages, he said in answer to a question, should be to share the information it contains about mind and the emotions, and this scientific knowledge must be accessible by all who are interested, regardless of their religious background.

The texts of the Tengyur are an important part of India’s literary heritage, but they are also much more than that. Quite apart from their value to Buddhist practitioners, were they to be translated, genuinely and skilfully, and then—in the spirit of Nalanda—taught, studied and debated in our universities and other centres of learning, they could have a significant impact on many areas of modern life, but especially how we view and work with the mind. Should this happen, Sarnath, scene of the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, would, in time, also be remembered as the place where the wheels of this momentous project were first set in motion.

First published in View: The Rigpa Journal, July 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Outrageously Large Numbers

I have recently been reading the new translation of Mipham Rinpoche’s byang chub sems dpa’ chen po nye ba’i sras brgyad kyi rtogs brjod nor bu’i phreng ba by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso (A Garland of Jewels, Woodstock: KTD Publications, 2008). As the (Tibetan) name suggests, the text offers accounts of the lives and careers of the eight great bodhisattvas, also known as the ‘eight close sons’, compiled from canonical sources, mainly the sūtras. Not surprisingly perhaps, Mipham devotes considerably more space to Mañjuśrī than he does to the other bodhisattvas.

One of the things that struck me most about the book-which incidentally is very readable-was how the translator has dealt with the large numbers that often appear in the sūtras cited by Mipham Rinpoche. The Mahāyāna sūtras, as Yeshe Gyamtso tells us in his introduction, contain episodes “outrageous in their transgression of what we regard as laws of nature.” (p.x) One of the methods employed to convey this outrageous transcendence of mundane reality is the use of numbers so impossibly gargantuan as to border on the hyperbolical. In translating these figures into English, it is tempting to plump for vague expressions like “millions and millions” or “billions and billions” - and, in fact, this is precisely what Gyamtso does on p. 66, where he renders sangs rgyas kyi zhing bye ba khrag khrig brgya stong mang po simply as “billions and billions of buddha realms”.

Elsewhere though, he has adopted the terms of “the U.S. and…international scientific community” and so we encounter such potentially unfamiliar terms as quadrillion (1015), quintillion (1018), sextillion (1021), decillion (1033), tredecillion (1042), novemdecillion (1060), and vigintillion (1063). Gyamtso hasn’t given the Tibetan for these terms, and perhaps because the book is intended for a general readership, it doesn’t include a glossary of terms. Nevertheless, my curiosity getting the better of me, I went in search of the original, and I can offer here some of these numbers as they appear in the Tibetan and in Lama Gyamtso’s translation:
  • sum khri three myriad*
  • bye ba phrag bcu ten million
  • bye ba phrag ‘bum one hundred billion
  • bye ba stong phrag brgyad khri bzhi stong eighty-four trillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag brgyad cu rtsa bzhi eighty-four sextillion
  • bskal pa bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag du ma septillions of kalpas
  • grangs med pa brgya stong phrag bdun seven hundred thousand decillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig phrag ‘bum ‘phrag grangs ma mchis pa ten tredecillion
  • grangs med pa phrag gsum three novemdecillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag dpag tu med pa grangs med pa dag vigintillions
  • ‘krigs phrag bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag dpag tu med grangs med bsam gyis mi khyab pa innumerable vigintillions
  • grangs med pa stong phrag brgyad brgya eight hundred vigintillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum  phrag tshad med grangs med pa infinite sextillion decillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig brgya stong tshad med pa sextillion novemdecillion
*the original meaning of the Greek muriori, from which myriad derives, is 10,000

It’s interesting to observe that million, rather than the standard ten million, has been used for bye ba. The Mahāvyutpatti, in its list of 60 numbers from the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra (Tib. sdong po bkod pa), has bye ba as the equivalent of the Sanskrit koṭi, which is usually said to be the equivalent of ten million (one crore). Yet it is true that there is little unanimity or consistency on the use of these numbers beyond a certain point. Sa ya, which is the common Tibetan word for ‘million’, does not seem to appear frequently in the classical language.

One final note: this approach also offers translators the possibility of referring to bskal pa grangs med gsum, i.e., the time taken by Buddha Śākyamuni to accumulate merit and wisdom on the bodhisattva path, not as ‘three countless aeons’, which is the current expression of choice, but as three novemdecillion kalpas, or even three novemdecillion aeons. Let’s see if it catches on.

Methodology Guidelines from Padmakara Translation Group

In this season of lotsawa conferences, there is a lot of reflection and discussion about how lotsawas do their thing, all of it tying in quite neatly with the purpose of this site. In the spirit of this atmosphere of introspection, here is a set of guidelines laid out by the excellent Padmakara Translation Group on their burgeoning new site:
  • Starting by receiving transmission and explanation of the text from a qualified teacher
  • Careful, painstaking translation of the meaning, with extensive research and study where necessary
  • Submission of difficult points and doubts to competent teachers with a good knowledge of the text
  • Double-checking of the draft translation by at least one other translator
  • Careful editing and rewriting to produce a clear, readable style
  • Final text proof-read and approved by a person who knows the subject and has a good command of the final language
This is clearly the methodology of a group of translators–and highlights the advantages of working together, as well as the central role of the teacher(s). What also comes through from reading these points is the group’s well-known emphasis on the importance of fluent, readable translations, requiring translators and editors alike to have, as they put it, “a good command of the final language.” This latter point is worth reiterating because there seems to be a common misconception these days that anyone is capable of becoming a translator, and that little or no literary training in the target language is required, as if everyone is somehow gifted with fluency in their native tongue and the automatic ability to produce lucid prose.

Returning to the Source: Report on Translating the Words of the Buddha Conference

For five days in March, several lamas and many of the world’s leading Tibetan Buddhist translators came together at the splendid Deer Park Institute in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India for Translating the Words of the Buddha, an impeccably organized conference that was several years in the planning. The aim was to discuss the current state and future direction of Tibetan Buddhist translation, but as we arrived few of us had any idea what to expect.
From the very beginning however, it was clear that this would be an extraordinary event. For one thing, there was our spontaneous audience with the Gyalwang Karmapa while en route to Bir. Then, there was the unprecedented gathering of illustrious lamas and translators, including Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche, Tulku Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Doboom Tulku Rinpoche, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Ven. Matthieu Ricard, Robert Thurman and Gene Smith—so many luminaries, in fact, that some of us worried that an act of sabotage or a stray missile might set back the transmission of the Dharma to the West by several decades.

But, above all, there was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s defining and momentous keynote speech. Standing before the Institute’s magical Manjushri statue, modelled on one of the most sacred images in Tibet, he announced: “The stakes are high. It’s our generation who will shoulder the responsibility for ensuring that the Buddhadharma continues to flourish in the world. We need to make a thorough and effective plan for the future, and we must put it into action.”

Both Khyentse Rinpoche and the conference chairman, Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche, wasted no time in revealing what that plan would be. Rather than focus on the works of Tibetan masters—as we had all largely been doing up to that point—they suggested we must turn our collective attention and resources to the vast Tibetan Buddhist canon, comprised of the Kangyur, the ‘Words of the Buddha’, and the Tengyur, the commentaries (śāstra in Sanskrit) of the great Indian masters.

Khyentse Rinpoche told us frankly: “If I were given the chance to set our priorities, what would be the top of my list? Without doubt I would have to say that the teachings of the Buddha—the sutras—should take precedence over the shastras. Then, as the shastras written by Indian authors are more authoritative and carry more weight, I would say that they should be translated before those of the Tibetan authors.”

“Painful as it is for me to admit,” he continued, “Tibetans often promote the teachings of their own teachers far more than those of the Buddha… Today, as a result, our vision is quite narrow, and instead of dedicating our limited resources to translating the ‘Words of the Buddha’, we pour them into translating the teachings of individual lineage gurus, their biographies, their long-life prayers, and prayers for the propagation of the teachings of individual schools.”

Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche, in his speech, told us: “It would be quite ironic to claim to be a Buddhist but have no idea what the Buddha taught.” It is therefore crucial, he said, that western Buddhists have access to the words of the Buddha.

Later in the week, His Holiness the Dalai Lama also spoke to us of the importance of a return to the Buddha’s own words and especially the classical Indian commentaries. Candid as ever, he explained that the writings of the Indian masters contained in the Tengyur are indispensable aids to understanding the words of the Buddha, and more applicable to the modern world than the works of later Tibetan teachers. “Tibetan authors,” he said, “often took it for granted that their writings would be read by Buddhists, whereas the Indian masters never took that for granted, leading to a big difference in how their teachings were presented… Indian masters, like Nagarjuna, Dignaga and Dharmakirti, presented the Buddha’s teaching through reasoning and logic, which is why they are so relevant to today’s world, in which many people are sceptical about religion.”

Excitement was generated on the second day of the conference when we received a letter from Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche announcing that his Dharmachakra Translation Committee would appoint fifteen full-time translators to the project of translating the Tibetan canon. Then, in a second message, this time on video, he went on to say that his group would commit to translate the entire Tantra section of the Kangyur. This precipitated a unique wave of ‘bidding’, as other lamas made similar commitments on behalf of their groups and individual translators volunteered to work on particular texts. Buoyed and emboldened by all these pledges, which made the plan seem that much more realistic and achievable, we somehow set a goal of translating the entire Kangyur, and a substantial portion of the Tengyur and related Tibetan commentaries—amounting to perhaps as many as two hundred large volumes in total—within the next twenty-five years.

Outside the plenary sessions there were group discussions on issues like translator training, resources, funding and peer review. Many of these topics were also addressed informally, during mealtimes and especially on the long bus rides to and from Himachal Pradesh. There was obviously much to talk about and far too little time to cover it all adequately, but steps were taken towards establishing what Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche called “an ongoing conference… that never closes because all the attendees continue to consult and work together.”

As the days unfolded, there was a growing sense that we were witnessing history in the making, an impression that had little to do with the reporters and photographers, the team of bloggers offering instant updates on our progress via the internet, or the slightly incongruous Bhutanese television crew clad in their traditional robes and knee-length socks. By the close of proceedings, we had created something provisionally called the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project, with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, after repeated requests, agreeing to be its leader. We had finalized goals for the next five, twenty-five and one hundred years, and drawn up a long list of pledges from the various translators and groups involved. Messages of support had come from the president of Taiwan and the prime minister of Bhutan, and more than eleven thousand people had signed an online petition expressing their gratitude for our work. At the precise moment that we completed our conference resolutions, a clap of thunder resounded loudly overhead.

From start to finish, everything had gone auspiciously, and there were indications of greater collaboration among translators than ever before. In his closing remarks, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche told us that the conference had made the importance of translating the Kangyur and Tengyur more vivid and obvious. This itself, he said, had been a genuine accomplishment. In a manner befitting the heirs of the Rimé movement, the lamas had argued for a shifting of priorities, and we had all been convinced. The decision to host the conference in India now made perfect sense: we were, in every way, returning to the source of the Dharma.

This article was first published in View: The Rigpa Journal Summer 2009 edition, available here (in the US) and here (in Europe). Photos courtesy of the Deer Park Institute and Matthieu Ricard.

Three Essential Lexicons

Here’s one for fellow Tibeto-bibliophiles. Gene Smith of TBRC was recently asked for his pick of the ‘must have’  Tibetan dictionaries. These, I am told, were his ‘top three’:
1) brda dkrol gser gyi me long / btsan lha ngag dbang tshul khrims kyis rtsom sgrig byas pa. — pe cin : mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1997.   isbn 71050223377.  1063 p.
2) mdo sngags kyi gzhung chen mo’i tshig mdzod ris med mkhas pa’i zhal lung / rtsom sgrig pa sgom sde lha rams pa dge bshes thub bstan bsam grub. — delhi : shes rig par khang, 2005.  785 p. (W00EGS1016962)
3) chos rnam kun btus (gangs can rig brgya’i chos kyi rnam grangs mthong tshad kun las btus pa ngo mtshar ‘phrul gyi lde mig chen mo) / nor brang o rgyan gyis bsgrigs. — pe cin : krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2008. 3 v. 9787802530454.

Finding the Proper Register

“One of the major challenges facing a translator today is to find the proper register in English, neither too formal and stylized nor too breezy and colloquial—language that is fresh and urgent and passionate, and at the same time dignified.”
From Chana Bloch & Ariel Bloch, The Song of Songs

Gene Smith's Rules for Studying Tibetan Literature

The following points derived from Gene Smith’s Among Tibetan Texts by Kurtis Schaeffer were shared at Columbia University’s panel discussion on the future of Tibetan studies after Gene Smith.
  • Know the breadth and depth of Tibetan history
  • Read single works for depth
  • Read collected works for breadth
  • Collect all available works on a topic
  • List all unavailable works on that topic
  • Find those unavailable works
  • Make those works available
  • Collect, describe, and compare all editions of a given work
  • Know which edition you are reading and why
  • Know the material context of the text
  • Know the social context of the word
  • Know the author’s biography
  • Know the author’s teachers, students, friends’ and enemies’ biographies
  • Know the author’s collected works
  • Know the author’s teachers, students, friends, and enemies’ collected works
  • Do not trust the text to be that of the author
  • Trust the text to reveal something interesting about the context
  • Trust the work to reveal something interesting about the author
  • Rely on the context to discern what is interesting about the author
  • Study the breadth of Tibetan tradition
  • Study the depth of Tibetan history
  • Read single works with breadth
  • Read collected works with depth

The Famous Notebooks

During a recent visit to the offices of TBRC, I was fortunate enough to glimpse Gene Smith‘s famous ‘notebooks’, the painstakingly typewritten transcripts of texts and interviews, with their own particular system of colour coding, capitalization, underlining and marginalia. Many pages feature handwritten corrections and further notes added at a later date. Most of the books are leather-bound in green with titles on the spine. There appeared to be at least fifty in the office, but there might be others elsewhere. Jeff Wallman estimated that they represent about twenty years of work.

Following Zenkar Rinpoche’s call for them to be published, echoed by others, at the recent seminar at Columbia University, work will soon begin on scanning the books and using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology in order to preserve their contents and share them with other scholars. Let’s hope they can secure the necessary funding.

New blog

OK, so I managed to destroy the old site. I will now transfer material to this new site, updating it wherever necessary and omitting anything that has become obsolete. Watch this space!