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Remembering a Genius: Professor Alexander Piatigorsky

Alexander Piatigorsky in a scene from Philosopher Escaped

Alexander Piatigorsky in a scene from Philosopher Escaped

I learned recently that Viktoria Lysenko, professor of Oriental philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, is compiling a book on the late great Alexander Piatigorsky (1929-2009), émigré philosopher and scholar of Buddhist and Indian thought. The book will be in Russian and will include some of his papers on topics including Early Buddhism and the Abhidharma, in addition to recollections from his former students. As someone who had the great good fortune to study with Piatigorsky in the late 1990s, if only as an undergraduate, I answered some questions for the project and thought I would also share some memories here.

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Dmu zhag(s)

03f53-brda-dkrol-gser-gyi-me-long-zhes-bya-ba-bzhugs-soOne of the translations published recently over on Lotsawa House twice includes the expression “heavenly lustre.” This curious phrase is a translation of the Tibetan dmu zhag[s], a term that occurs a number of times in Mipham’s writings, but is absent from most dictionaries. I say “most” because although it is not found in popular lexicons, it does appear in Erik Haarh’s The Zhang-zhung Language (p. 37), where he says it is the equivalent of mkha’ lding, and offers the translation, “the sky-soaring one, Garuda.”

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The Long-life Prayers of sMin gling gTer chen ‘Gyur med rdo rje

José Cabezón’s brief study of long-life prayers (or zhab brtan) in Tibet (“Firm Feet and Long Lives: The Zhabs brtan Literature of Tibetan Buddhism”), which appeared in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre in 1996, makes the claim that “the zhabs brtan [genre] seems to have developed almost exclusively within the dGe lugs school until very recent times.” In a note, he goes on to say that he “searched, in vain, for examples of zhabs brtan in the works of Taranatha (b.1575), ‘Brug pa Pad ma dkar po (1526-1592), Jaya Pandita (b.1642) and ‘Ju Mi pham rgya mtsho (1846-1914).” Well, with the benefit of the TBRC database, we can now say that plenty of zhabs brtan prayers do appear in the writings of sMin gling gter chen ‘Gyur med rdo rje (1646-1714), an important figure in the rNying ma school.

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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:

  • Start 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

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The Famous Notebooks

747fb-notebooks1During 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, capitalisation, 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.

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