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The Words of the Buddha in the Palm of Your Hands

How an idea sparked off the greatest Buddhist project in modern history

 Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in Bodhgaya (Photo: Khyentse Foundation)
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in Bodhgaya (Photo: Khyentse Foundation)

THE peepal tree is about 15 metres high. A tangle of branches dense with leaves stretches away from its thick, gnarly trunk, extending over an ancient balustrade where its larger limbs are supported by steel poles. It is said that it was here under a peepal tree that Prince Siddhartha meditated until he attained enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago and became known as the Buddha – the awakened one.

The atonal harmonies of the Buddhist ensemble seated under the peepal tree, known as the Bodhi Tree, filled the space – at once awe-inspiring and transcendent. 

It is the second last day of the Dzongsar Moenlam, a 10-day recital event led by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, held every two years under the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, India. There are more than 1,000 attendees from around the world, including monks from the Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Institute in Bir, India, which organises the event.

Sutra resounding’ is next on the menu today. At which point, the attendees take out and read the latest translated sutra (or texts) from the Kangyur in English. Kangyur is the collection of the Buddha’s original teachings known as the sutras written in classical Tibetan.

The translation is the product of 84000, a global non-profit enterprise led by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche with the explicit aim to translate both Kangyur and its treatises (Tengyur) into modern languages, starting from English, and making them freely available to anyone who is interested to read it.  

That the reading was taking place under the Bodhi Tree where Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment was not lost on the gathering, many of who were laying their hands on the sutra for the first time and reading it in the language they could understand for the first time. Emotions quickly soared and there were people who cried as they read it.

“At first when we started to translate the Kangyur into English, we thought that there might not be that many people who’d be interested to read it,” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s voice boomed from the speaker in Tibetan, which was interpreted in Chinese via the speaker, and in English via an FM radio transmitter. “But we were pleasantly surprised to find that people from as many as 42 countries were reading it in our online reading room. Even from places like Saudi Arabia and war-torn nations like Syria. This is something we should all rejoice and be happy about.”

The motivation

For Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, personal doubts about the appeal of the translated Kangyur in English could hardly have been the main concern when he began laying the foundational work for what could become, according to many observers, one of the most consequential cultural projects in the annals of Buddhism – translating the Kangyur and Tengyur into English. Far from it, it was, by all accounts, the persistent misgivings about how good the translation would be, many of which flew about as feedback from the Buddhist world. A few had written it off as a task too monumental.

A similar project of this weight took place in Tibet in the 8th century, more than 1,000 years ago, when King Trisong Duetsen launched the translation of the Buddha’s teachings from Sanskrit to Tibetan. It set in motion one of the greatest cultural exchanges the world had ever known at the time, or since. It resulted in the hundreds of devoted Tibetans making long and perilous journey on foot from the Himalayas to the plains of India to receive the Buddha’s teachings, to study a new language. The expedition took many months and many died on the way from fatigue and illness. 

But the project pressed on undiminished for many years, long after King Trisong Duetsen passed away right till the end of the reign of his grandson, King Ngadag Tri Ralpachen, capping more than a century of translation work that became the Kangyur and Tengyur as we know it today. It was the “greatest planned and sustained cultural exchanges in early world history”, writes Prof. Peter Skilling, the renowned Buddhist scholar and historian. The project cemented the survival of Buddhism in Tibet and beyond. 

To Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, translating the Kangyur and Tengyur had become an existential issue for Buddhism. The ancient Sanskrit texts from which the Kangyur and Tengyur were translated had almost vanished from the country of its origin India, the birthplace of Buddhism, having been destroyed, or lost, during the nation’s political upheavals in the 12th and 13th centuries. The number of Tibetan Buddhist scholars who could read and understand classical Tibetan was dwindling fast. Together, it raised the extraordinary specter that the Buddha’s words could remain locked within the Kangyur and with it the chance of the survival of Buddhism – if nothing was done about it.

“By translating and making available the Tibetan Buddhist texts to modern people, a vast swath of Buddhist civilization and culture may be saved from annihilation,” said Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in 2009 during a high profile meeting of translators and Buddhist masters in Bir.

Translating the Kangyur and Tengyur into modern languages and making them widely available would also deter unscrupulous entities from “deceptive misconstructions” of the Buddha’s words. 

“The trend today is for teachers, priests, scholars, politicians and fanatics to obscure the original meaning of important texts by interpreting them to suit their own personal agendas,” said Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in 2011 during a translation seminar in Sarnath, India. “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 and their amplification in the shastras of the great Indian masters.”

There were perils on other fronts too. The Buddhist world was aware that parts of the Kangyur were already being translated by foreign entities whether one liked it or not. And there was nothing the custodians of the Buddhadharma such as the masters could do to stop it. Western academicians and intellectuals, many of them non-Buddhists, routinely set out to translate the sutras from the Kangyur out of their own curiosity, or for wealth or education. To be sure, five percent of the Kangyur had been already translated when 84000 began in 2009. 

“If those people have translated the sutras well, it’s great,” said Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche during the Dzongsar Moenlam in Bodhgaya in 2016. 84000 had entered its seventh year by then. “However, if there are errors in the words and meaning of their translations, the real losers will be none other than us Buddhists.” He pointed out that if the Buddhists did not do the job, someone else was going to do it.

The master

It is said that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche stumbled upon the idea of 84000 during a lunch meeting with the Tibetan Buddhist master Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche in Katmandu in a restaurant. By all accounts, it rolled out of a routine exchange of pleasantries between the two Buddhist masters. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is the founder of the Dharmachakra Translation group, an offshoot of his Buddhist school Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal. 

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche happened to ask Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche what his institute was doing that year. The latter responded that they were translating some odd Tibetan Buddhist texts here and there like Buddhist practice manuals into English. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche lamented that they had not been able to translate anything from the Kangyur and that it would be great if at least a “couple of texts” could be done so.

By Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s own account, shared during the 84000 seminar in Bodhgaya in 2013, that’s when Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said: “Hey! That’s a good idea! It would be great if the Kangyur would be translated.” Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche: “I agreed, but remarked that this would not be easy.” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche responded: “You think about it. You have many students and translators. If you are interested we could talk more about how to do this.”

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is known for getting things done. Especially if that thing happened to be in the service of disseminating Buddha’s teachings. Those who know him point out that one of his most unique characteristics, and according to a khenpo there are quite a few of them, is his dogged and distinctively ingenious ways in making things happen “to ensure that the teachings of the Buddha continues to live and benefit countless beings”. 

His movies, for instance, are executed in the service of the Buddhadharma. They represent not only an artistic expression of his teachings, but also a means to amplify his leverage as a Buddhist teacher in the modern world. He is also known for his indefatigable spirit toward preserving and promoting the Buddhadharma, travelling endlessly from one country to another to teach while at the same time, somehow, finding time to write books and make movies. It is said that he sleeps for only about three hours a day. 

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche is believed to be the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, who was one of the five emanations of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo was a 19th century non-sectarian master who promoted the Rime (non-sectarian) movement among the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He was believed to be the “combined” emanation of Tibetan King Trisong Duetsen and the Indian master Vimalamitra, who were both emanations of Manjusri. In the 8th century, King Trisong Duetsen invited Shantaraksita, Guru Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra to Tibet to establish Buddhism in the country.

By March 2009, however, after a series of talks that culminated in the meeting of more than 50 translators, academicians, and Tibetan Buddhist masters from around the world at Bir, India, the seed for 84000 was planted and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s vision to translate Kangyur and Tengyur took off the ground. The project had also, by then, gained official endorsements from Dalai Lama and many other Tibetan Buddhist masters of different lineages, including the Karmapa.

The matter of translation

“Unless the translations are of a high quality it will be a question of whether this project is going to be a service or an embarrassment to the Buddhadharma,” said Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche during the 84000 seminar in Bodhgaya in 2013, adding that while the idea of translating Kangyur and Tengyur into modern language was “beneficial”, it was also “very risky”.

His was not a lone voice. The perils of consequential mistranslations were raised by other masters too. The last thing they said they wanted was a Westerner’s projection on the cultural and spiritual heritage of Buddhism.

Mindful of such concerns and with modern technology on their side, 84000 led by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche went to great lengths to assemble the finest team of translators and collaborators for the job, according to those close to the project. The aim, they said, was to get as close to the meaning in the texts as possible and to communicate those as clearly as possible to the readers.

As of today, the project has 43 translation teams spread across the globe, comprising of more than 220 individual translators and editors from Europe, USA, India, Nepal, China, and Japan. The team includes experts in Tibetan canonical texts, Buddhist Sanskrit, and those “extremely” versed in both English and classical Tibetan. Many experts such as the celebrated Buddhist scholar and translator, Prof. Peter Skilling, also contribute to the project as editorial consultants and external reviewers. The project has also brought in several Western universities to ensure it does not become an all-inclusive-Buddhists-only translation work.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche acknowledges that there could be no such things as purely faithful or accurate translation as languages don’t work that way. “Generally speaking, it’s difficult to translate a religious teaching from one language to another,” said Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche during the 2018 Dzongsar Moenlam in Bodhgaya. “So it need not be mentioned how difficult it is to translate something like Kangyur and Tengyur where the meanings are very deep and profound.” He added: “So, although we are translating the words of the Buddha from classical Tibetan into modern languages such as English, we have never said that our translations would be perfect.”

84000

84000 is today nine years old, having morphed from a group under the Khyentse Foundation umbrella into an independent, global establishment with a non-profit status under the US law. It has translated, or has in translation, more than 40 percent of the Kangyur. According to Jing Rui Huang, 84000’s executive director, the project is “on track” to complete the entire Kangyur by 2035 after which the work on Tengyur will begin for the next 75 years. The translated texts or the sutras can be read online in the reading room of 84000’s website, free of charge. It can also be downloaded in various digital formats.

Inspired by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and his vision, and propelled by the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of the project and also to accumulate “immeasurable” merits, many sponsors and well-wishers have also given 84000 a resounding backing. According to 84000, the project has attracted 108 founding sponsors and thousands of page sponsors and also entire sutra sponsors. Asian nations make up more than 60 percent of the donors. 

Individual donors can either sponsor a page or the entire sutra. 84000 say many donate what they can. Some donate once, others once every month or year. The cost of translating one page of Kangyur and Tengyur texts is US$250 each, which goes into sustaining the translation teams. The complete Kangyur text is 70,000 pages and Tengyur about 161,800 pages long.

Contributed by  Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The writer is a former editor of Kuensel

He can be reached at kw2229@gmail.com

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