Light Shines On A Historic Conference

Steven Goodman, co-director of Asian and Comparative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies, takes you along for the wild ride from a participant’s point of view.

Steven Goodman, co-director of Asian and Comparative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies, takes you along for the wild ride from a participant’s point of view.

It’s been two months since the conclusion of a most amazing conference on Translating the Words of the Buddha, hosted at Deer Park Institute in Bir. Here’s what stands out for me—some impressions to give a bit of the flavor of what it was like to be part of these historic events.

On the plane from San Francisco to Chicago, I remember wondering, after all the planning that went into this conference— “What will happen there? Why are we doing this? Why does it feel at once ordinary (I’ve been to India and to conferences many times) and extraordinary? Why are so many Khenpos, Rinpoches, and translators flying long distances at such an inconvenient time? What do we imagine will happen?”

On the second leg of the trip—Chicago to New Delhi—I jotted some notes for a talk I was to give in New Delhi, as part of a panel discussion on “What the Panditas and Yogis brought to Tibet,” which was sponsored by Siddhartha’s Intent India and Khyentse Foundation.

I thought about how the scholastic and practice traditions of Nalanda were brought to Tibet and, over several hundred years, translated into the mother tongue of that new nation, thereby assuring the survival of many precious lineages that did not survive the harsh ravages of time in India.

This grand adventure of cultural translation, I thought, was a heroic and visionary endeavor perhaps never to be rivaled. And as the plane touched down in India, I thought, “Well maybe, just maybe, something equally visionary is about to happen at this conference in Deer Park Institute.”

As I disembarked, with only carry-on for these two weeks, I happily anticipated meeting many folks—some old friends, and many new ones—from the translating and publishing worlds. Just then a fellow who had kindly lent me his New York Times on the flight asked me, “Are you also going to this Translation Conference?”  David Kittelstrom of Wisdom Publishers had been on the same flight.

We were met at the airport by the Wizard of Logistics Pema Wangchuk and his worthy assistant Atisha, who arranged transport to our hotel.

The next morning I was jet lagged, but happy to be in India again. I’d traveled there in 2006 to visit “in the footsteps of the Buddha,” and had walked through the remains of Nalanda University. They say that this massive complex once housed thousands of students and scholars. Remember Shantideva? Naropa?

Soon I met up with Gene Smith, founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, who would be my roommate in Bir, John Dunne from Emory University, and Jake Dalton holder of the Khyentse Chair of Tibetan Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley. We were ushered over to the India International Centre for 5 o’clock tea, introductory remarks by Suresh Jindal and Naresh Mathur, and then a lively discussion about the intellectual (panditas) and spiritual (yogis) traditions of India and their transmission to the Land of Snow. After a bit of Q & A we were treated to a lovely meal and then headed back to the hotel.

Next morning we awoke early and headed out for a special meeting with H.H. the 17th Karmapa, who graciously encouraged us in our endeavors to translate the words of the Buddha and spoke about why such work should be conducted with a spirit of harmonious collaboration.

Then, like a fast-paced movie, we were ushered into several buses for the 14-hour journey north to Bir, in Kangra District, Himachal Pradesh, in northwest India. This was the first time I was able to talk with fellow translators. In the still jet-lagged swirl, we stopped along the way for meals and breaks, and, dreamlike, got back on the bus. And talked, and talked, and talked.

Finally arriving at the gates of Deer Park Institute, we were greeted by Deer Park Commander-in-Chief Prashant Varma, the Conference Mad Hatter Tashi Colman, and all the many attentive volunteers who made sure we got settled into our rooms. The level of attention to detail was impressive: ear plugs (with instructions!) to help us sleep through the nights of barking contests between The Dogs of Bir. And then, suddenly, there was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who said (with mock or real surprise—one never knows), “Oh, welcome, and you know, it usually only takes about four hours bus ride from Delhi to Bir!”

Next morning we gathered for breakfast in the crisp air and grand mountain vistas of the Himachal. Fresh fruit, cereal, eggs, western and India style treats, and—count them—three kinds of sugar. (Someone had done their research on how to keep a translator happy—keep the glucose flowing!)

Still a bit dazed, we collected our badges and formally filed into the Conference Hall, which houses a most impressive Manjushri statue, a replica of one hand-made by Sakya Pandita (referred to in the following days by Robert Thurman as “the gracious gentlemen there in front us”).

The proceedings began with introductory remarks by the Conference Chair Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, followed by letters sent by heads of the four major Tibetan Buddhist schools—H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama; H.H. Sakya Trizin; the late H.H. Mindroling Trichen (who had passed on a month earlier); and H.H. the 17th Karmapa.

Finally Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the sponsor of the conference, addressed the group. His tone was at once informal and incisive. What stood out for me then, and even more so now, in retrospect, were these words of his:

“Rather than limiting ourselves to examining and discussing all the short-term projects and issues we’re currently facing as individuals, I’d like us to take a much broader view. I’d like to suggest that over the next few days we start the process of mapping out exactly what needs to be done during our lifetimes and beyond in order to ensure the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist texts. Basically our agenda is to write the agenda for an ongoing translation conference, one that never closes, as all the attendees continue to consult and work together in pursuit of one goal.

“For decades now, individual lamas and translators like yourselves have been putting a great deal of effort into translating the dharma into many different languages, and you’ve been doing it in spite of the almost total lack of support that translation work receives, and always under a lot of pressure. It’s quite amazing what you’ve achieved. And you’ve almost always done it alone. This brings me a lot of encouragement. If you can do so much alone and without much support, it means we can do much better together and with a little more support.

“As we consider what will need to be done for the future of the Buddhadharma, it will become clear we have to aim much higher than merely translating the odd book here and there. In fact, I believe the only way for us to achieve the enormous task we face is by finding ways of working together—not only among translators, but also the sponsors, teachers, and students that are the ultimate beneficiaries of your work. Over the years, such collaborations have been quite rare, and it’s an aspiration of mine that we’ll work together far more closely in the future.”

For me personally, this aspiration set the tone for the five-day working sessions, ably and with good humor facilitated by Ivy Ang. Can you imagine trying to get Khenpos , Rinpoches, translators, publishers, and sponsors to speak their minds on the difficult issues of priorities, and at the conclusion come to agreement on short- and long-term goals? Well, perhaps the spirit of Manjushri (and Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani too) was guiding things a bit. With lively disagreements, and humor, and a bit of exhaustion we did fashion 5- and 25-year goals and a 100-year vision statement.

To help us decompress, unseen forces arranged diversions—an Indian-themed high tea, evening movies, and a lovely concert. And during afternoon breaks, various reporters—Bhutan Radio and Television and many others—button-holed some of us to ask about why and what and who and when.

And then, on the last afternoon of the proceedings, a scroll (well, actually a printout) was unfurled bearing the emailed greetings, best wishes, and thanks of more than 11,000 interested people from around the world.

And then, and then… as if that weren’t enough, the day after the conclusion of the formal conference, off we went to Dharamsala for a special meeting with H.H. the Dalai Lama. He encouraged us to work together and to consult Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese versions of the texts that we translate into English. And he reminded us that the words of the Buddha are the basis of the Dharma and ought to be made widely available.

So now, some two months later, it seems a bit like the Wild Adventure is over—and in fact the “real” work is just beginning.

You might ask, as I do: what next? Will the various dharma centers that sponsor translation work listen to their fellow Tibetans and heed the call to encourage the work of translating sutra and tantra and supporting shastra from Tibetan into English? Who will read the translations? Who still knows the difficult grammar and technical terms in the Kangyur and Tengyur? What have we gotten into—this visionary hubris of turning the translation wheel of the dharma?

There will always be questions, and there will always be naysayers—the project is too much—too ambitious, too broad, too long, and so on. One can only imagine those blogging naysayers running to file their reports after covering the “Shakyamuni Buddha Enlightenment.” Does he really think suffering can cease?

In the words of John Lennon: Imagine.