Buddhadharma - In the lingua franca for longevity

By Kencho Wangdi, Kuensel Online, March 19, 2009

Bir, India -- Opening the conference in Bir, India, on ‘Translating the Words of the Buddha’, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche warned of “how urgent and precarious” the survival of Buddhist culture and civilisation had become and urged the world’s leading Buddhist translators, including publishers, gathered there, to rescue Buddha’s teachings “from premature extinction”.

<< Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

The survival of Buddha’s teachings could very well hinge on how well it is translated into modern languages, said Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoché in a speech made available to Kuensel via email.

Rinpoché said that Buddhist heritage and culture that originated from India and which spread and nurtured the Buddhist way of life for more than a thousand years has all but disappeared in that country, survived only by its translation into Choekyed.  By translating the classical Buddhist texts into modern languages, translators could save “a vast swathe of Buddhist civilisation and culture from global annihilation”, he said.

The main aim of the Bir conference – from March 16-20 and organised by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche with funding from the Khyentse Foundation - is to draw a long term plan to translate into English the entire Buddhist canon, including the 108-volume Kangyur - the direct teachings of Buddha. It is a daunting task but not impossible “if we all join forces”.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoché pointed out various fundamental misconceptions in the way Buddhism was perceived, followed and practised in some Buddhist cultures. “Personally, I find it hard to fathom the attitude of those Tibetan lamas, who expect those who want to study and practice the Buddhadharma, first to perfect the (classical) Tibetan language (Choekyed). I can see that, right now, it’s important for some people to learn (Choekyed), but how necessary will it really be in a hundred years’ time?”

In any case, said Rinpoché, those who can speak and understand Choekyed were “extremely rare” today. And, at the rate in which languages were disappearing these days, in about 50 years or so from now, there would hardly be anyone, who can read Kangyur or Tengyur, leave alone understand its meanings, said Rinpoché.

Rinpoché said that, among the Buddhist culture, the Kangyur is widely used as a “merit-making object”: monasteries will buy a copy only for it to be stacked in the shelves. “If offerings are made, the text will be read out loud, but little effort will be invested in understanding the meaning of each word.”

“While paying homage to the Word of the Buddha is a powerfully meritorious spiritual act, the Tibetan habit of using the Kangyur solely for this purpose is neither to be admired nor emulated: in fact, it’s a big mistake.”

Rinpoché added: “Every religion has an original holy book - for Christians, it’s the Bible, and for Moslems it’s the Koran. For Buddhists, our root holy books are the Sutras and they are of vital importance, because what Buddha taught us must always be the final word on any given subject, not what we find in the Shastras (ancient Hindu commentaries on Buddhism) - and definitely not what’s to be found in the Tibetan commentaries.”

Rinpoche said: “As Buddhadharma is taught more widely in the modern world, where attention to detail and authenticity are so valued, people are going to want to know what Buddha, himself, actually said. The trend today is for teachers, priests, scholars, politicians and fanatics to obscure the original meaning of important texts by interpreting them in a way that supports their own personal agendas - it’s happening in all religions, and sadly, Buddhism is no exception. When problems, created by such interpretations arise in the future, our beacon of truth can only be the Words of the Buddha.”

Rinpoche said that Buddhist cultures today preserved and propagated the work of their own lamas, and have forgotten the Buddha’s Sutras. Such cultures often promoted the teachings of their own teachers far more than those of the Buddha, he said, - “and I have no trouble understanding why Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes described as “Lamaism”.

“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 it into translating the teachings of individual lineage gurus, biographies, their long-life prayers, and prayers for the propagation of the teachings of individual schools.”

Rinpoché said translating Buddhist texts was difficult and the road ahead was long and arduous, and would take several generations before the Words of the Buddha were fully and effectively translated. In Tibet, it took seven generations of Tibetan Kings to achieve the results from Sanskrit to Choekyed. But the important thing, he said, was to start somewhere.

“What we must do, however, is lay the foundations, by devising a practical and far-sighted plan to ensure that, eventually, everything, that should be translated, will be - and we have to do it now.”