Wisdom editor David Kittelstrom went to India last month to attend the Translating the Words of the Buddha conference sponsored by the Khyentse Foundation. The conference brought together mostly Tibetan-to-English translators from around the world and set as a hundred-year goal the translation of the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon and seminal Tibetan commentaries into all major languages. Translators hammered out the training, tools, and policies that need to be created to achieve this goal in the best way, and they charged the Khyentse Foundation with the task of setting up a non-denominational body to raise funds and ensure that vision becomes a reality. Below is David’s report on the conference.
Though not a translator myself, I was privileged to attend the invitation-only conference entitled Translating the Words of the Buddha held March 16–20 in Bir, India, at Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s Deer Park center. Participants were well pampered and shielded from the chaos often attendant on traveling in India; we encountered nothing like the hardships faced by the translators and pandits who helped usher the Indian Buddhist tradition across the Himalayas to Tibet a thousand or so years earlier. The conference was book-ended by audiences with His Holiness the Karmapa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Of the approximately four dozen participants, several were Tibetan lamas, and during discussions, they were not granted a privileged status. Each, however, was allotted time to address the conference individually, as were some Western presenters, including Robert Thurman, Peter Skilling (by video), Jeffrey Hopkins (by video), and Matthieu Ricard. While the non-Tibetan participants came from a broad spectrum of lineages and backgrounds, both academic and practitioner, the Tibetan lamas present were largely heirs of the great Rimé lama, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, such as Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche, Tulku Pema Wangyal, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche (by video). The lone Geluk-trained lama present was Doboom Tulku, the director of Tibet House in New Delhi.
Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche evoked a sense of precariousness and urgency when opening the conference, noting how much wisdom and scholarly knowledge had already been lost to time since the Tibetans first fled their native land: “Those in the Tibetan community still able to speak and understand classical Tibetan are extremely rare. At the rate at which the language is disappearing, fifty years from now there will be almost no Tibetans who can read the [canonical Buddhist texts] and understand their meaning.”
The goal of the conference was clear from the start—to develop a plan to translate the Tibetan canon: the Kangyur (the words of the Buddha) and the Tengyur (the classical, mostly Indian treatises), starting with the former. According to Dzongsar Khyenste,
If you were to ask someone naïve, like myself, what I think should be translated—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.
Rinpoche also candidly noted and lamented that Tibetans have often promoted the works of their own teachers over the teachings of the Buddha, focusing more on propagating individual lineages than on the Buddhadharma as a whole, and he noted as well the practice of using the Kangyur merely as a tool for collecting merit and not as an object of study and contemplation. Larry Mermelstein of the Nalanda Translation Committee noted that if Tibetan lamas began teaching the sutras, the project of translating them would happen naturally.
The first two days were dedicated to hammering out pithy hundred-year, twenty-five-year, and five-year goals. The longest-term goal was to translate the entirety of the Kangyur, Tengyur, and seminal indigenous Tibetan commentaries into all major languages and make them universally available. The medium goal was to translate the entire Kangyur into English. The near-term goal was to get the tools and training framework for such a massive endeavor in place and get a number of representative translations under way.
The day after the conference ended, we were bused two hours up the road to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At seventy-three, he is vigorous and penetrating, commanding but utterly without pretension. His opinion was that the Tengyur should take precedence—those are the texts that form the basis of the study curriculum, and besides, the Kangyur could be misinterpreted without the clarifications of the later treatises. He also said that translators do not need to have an oral transmission but only a suitable motivation, and that translations should rely on Sanskrit when that is available. As an aside, he noted that even his own brother reads English translations when trying to make sense of classical Tibetan texts, and how translating the canon will help Tibetans preserve their own culture as well.
Some commitments to translate particular texts, especially perfection of wisdom sutras, were offered by individual participants during the conference, and messages came in from the president of Taiwan and the prime minister of Bhutan hailing the conference and its goals. Much still remains to be hammered out, however, in what the translation project, tentatively titled the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project, will look like. What will the governing body look like? Will it, for instance, achieve its stated goal to involve all the Tibetan Buddhist constituencies? And how will the translations be published and made available (a question close to my own heart)? Is the goal, for instance, merely to ensure that all the works get published somewhere, or is it to bring them all out under the same imprint? These two big questions were broached but not resolved.
Whatever the answer to these pressing questions—and my skepticism around them is likely greater than it was for most of the others present—the conference undoubtedly advanced the commitment among those present to the virtues of collaboration. The conference signaled a shift in approach from the lone translator toiling away alongside a stack of dictionaries to a linked-up community of translators sharing resources and helping guide one another to a superior and more consensual presentation of Tibetan texts in the major languages of the modern world.
You can view David’s photos of the proceedings at http://www.flickr.com/photos/21107770@N02/sets/72157615909919555/