The Buddhist Literary Heritage Project is immense, ambitious, and important—but it’s difficult for some people to get their minds around it. Translating the entire Buddhist canon will take an enormous amount of energy, and some people have asked us simply: “Why” Here we’ve attempted to address questions about the project by using the words of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
My lama is part of a living tradition. Why do we need to dredge up the past by translating old sutras?
DJKR: The living traditions of Dharma that still exist today—for example, in Japan, China, Thailand, and Burma—have only survived because they had the foresight to translate the original sacred Buddhist texts into their own languages. Also, those in the Tibetan community who are still able to understand and communicate in classical Tibetan are rare. In about 100 years there will be almost no Tibetans who can read the words of Kangyur and Tengyur and understand their meaning, and very soon it will be too late to do anything about it.
The Dalai Lama: I often tell young Tibetans that if they cannot easily understand Tibetan, then they should read English translations. Now even my own brother uses both texts. He reads the Tibetan, and sometimes when it’s a little difficult to understand the meaning of certain terminology, then he reads the English. He compares the two, and finds it very useful.
Why do we need all this text? I have enough practices to do already.
DJKR: Every religion has an original book—Christians have the Bible, Moslems have the Koran, and Buddhists have the Tripitaka. These 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—and definitely not what’s to be found in the Tibetan commentaries… 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. This happens in all religions, including Buddhism, and when such problems arise, our beacon of truth can only be the words of Buddha.
I’ll never read this. Who will? It seems to be just for the sake of academics.
DJKR: Very few Tibetans read or study the Kangyur nowadays, and many wonder if it’s worth the effort to translate, especially considering the great resources that would be involved. Among Tibetans, the Kangyur is used as a merit-making object. Monasteries buy a copy and then shelve it. The text is read when offerings are made, but little effort is invested in understanding the meaning of each word. Offering is a powerful way of making merit, but using Kangyur solely for this purpose is neither to be admired nor emulated. In fact it’s a big mistake. Chinese, Thai, and Burmese Buddhists still read and contemplate the sutras, but Tibetans rarely do. My concern is that if we decide not to translate these texts, this Tibetan mistake will be both reinforced and perpetuated. And as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche noted, translating the Kangyur “is crucial to establishing a genuine lineage of western Buddhism.”
One reason for prioritizing translation work is that we must continue to make available sacred Buddhist texts for non-Tibetans who wish to study and practice the Buddhadharma. But this is not the only reason for us to put all our energy into producing well-translated texts. The Buddhist heritage and culture that permeated Tibetan life for more than 1000 years have all but disappeared in India, its country of origin. The great lotsawas who translated Buddhist texts into Tibetan effectively rescued the Buddhadharma from premature extinction. So what was virtually lost in India can now be found in Tibet, and it’s becoming available again in India. As inauspicious as it may sound, when we look at the current situation in Tibet, and the waning interest of Tibetans themselves in their own language and culture, it’s clear the same near extinction could happen again.
Why translate from the Tibetan when the true original was in Sanskrit?
DJKR: The first translation of the Buddhist literary heritage from Sanskrit into Tibetan began in the eighth century and required seven generations of effort by teams of Indian and Tibetan translators under the sponsorship of the Tibetan Dharma kings. Their efforts rescued this precious world heritage from the forces that later annihilated Buddhism in India and nearly eradicated the Sanskrit language. During the political turmoil of the 1960s, Tibetans again rescued these precious texts, carrying them to safety in India, where Gene Smith and the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center tracked them down, preserved and published them, and posted them on the Internet. Many of these texts are easily available online today, but they are locked away in the Tibetan language, awaiting translators to share their meaning with the world. Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche called the Kangyur, which the translators aspire to translate within 25 years, “the most precious of all the scriptures” because they are accepted by all Buddhist schools.
If you have questions about the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project, please send them to us or post a comment below and we will ask Rinpoche and/or translation team members to address them and post the answers.