Setting the Wheels in Motion

Tengyur ConferenceOnly 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.

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.

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.

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.

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