A Conversation on the Origins of Scriptures… and Thereafter
With Huang Jing Rui
This historic endeavor is a result of the collective vision and aspirations of seven Tibetan masters and more than 50 of the world’s foremost translators, who convened at the seminal Translating the Words of the Buddha Conference held in Deer Park Institute in Bir, India, in 2009.
The goal is to make all 70,000 pages of the Kangyur (words of the Buddha) available within 25 years, and all 161,800 pages of the Tengyur (treatises on the words of the Buddha) available within a hundred years. Since the project started in January 2010, under the leadership of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and his working committee, 84000 has been moving steadily toward their vision. The latest translations can now be read or downloaded for free at the online reading room (read.84000.co)
Teo Kiat Sing interviews Huang Jing Rui, executive director of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha for Eastern Horizon on this ambitious and important project.
KS: What were the words of the Buddha?
JR: The Buddha did not merely sit under a tree to proclaim things. Instead, he travelled barefooted in India for 45 years after his enlightenment, and responded to the needs of whomever came to him – including ordinary lay people, the old and young, Kings, Queens, ministers, businessmen, even prostitutes and misbehaving monks. They had problems of country, war, aggression, family life, wealth management, sickness and death etc. Through conversations, the Buddha guided them to develop the wisdom and insights needed to deal with their situations.
We tend to imagine that the words of the Buddha are difficult to understand. But when we actually read the scriptural records of his words, we are often surprised by how down-to-earth the Buddha was. We begin to relate to the Buddha as a real living person who once lived and walked on earth. We discover him to be a very witty teacher; very caring and compassionate – not soft and gentle all the time however, but skillful and patient in using different methods to help his disciples realize their mistakes and see their own potential.
Even a random glance at a list of the scriptural titles – many are along the lines of “Questions of an Old Lady”, “Advice to the King”, “The Sūtra on Reliance upon a Virtuous Spiritual Friend” etc. – show that the Buddha’s words are not abstract theories. Rather, he taught what was practical and applicable. And the scriptures remain so, even until today.
KS: So we find the words of the Buddha in scriptures?
JR: According to the tradition, after the Buddha attained parinirvāṇa, the disciples convened at the First Buddhist Council to gather and authenticate his teachings from the perfect memories of students who had attained Arhatship. These collections of teachings, initially in Middle Indic, or the language of Magadha, were said to be passed down from one generation of monks to the next by means of oral transmission. They were committed to writing, over several centuries, in the languages of Sanskrit and Pali.
As the teachings spread, the collections were translated into other languages. We can see evidences in the many currently-still-thriving Buddhist traditions, such as in Korea, Bhutan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma. Besides the Pali canon that was pretty much retained in Pali but transcribed into the written scripts of the Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese etc, there were two massive movements to translate the Sanskrit texts – such as in China, beginning as early as the 1st century CE but in full activity from the 4th to 10th centuries, and in Tibet from the 7th to 13th centuries, with a particularly prolific, state-sponsored period in the 8th and 9th. As a result, besides the Pali canon, there are two other largely complete collections of the teachings of the Buddha and the commentarial treatises, generally referred to as the Chinese Tripiṭaka, 漢文大 藏經 or the Chinese Buddhist canon; and the Tibetan Kangyur and Tengyur, 藏文大藏經 or Tibetan Buddhist canon.
Later on, sociopolitical upheavals caused most of the Buddhist Sanskrit literature to be lost or destroyed. Today, we can only claim three surviving collections of the words of the Buddha that are still intact – the Pali canon, the Chinese Tripiṭaka and the Tibetan Kangyur and Tengyur. Certain scriptures can be found in all three collections, but there are many other scriptures that only figure in one or two of the other collections.
Many scholars and masters emphasized the need to consider all these canons as a whole to get a full picture of the Buddha’s teachings. A fascinating point is that the Tibetan language, although not itself of the Indo-European family of languages, was considerably adapted and enriched with rigorous translations of Sanskrit terms, idiom and syntactic structures, specifically for the purpose of translating Buddhist scriptures. As a result, the Tibetan texts are often close reflections of the original Buddhist Sanskrit texts, and recent academic attempts to retranslate Tibetan texts into Sanskrit are accepted as reasonably accurate.
As yet, only a pitiful 5% of the Tibetan collection has been translated into modern languages. As Tibetan masters and scholars with a specialist knowledge of the language of the canonical texts and the oral traditions of interpretation dwindle away in old age, we face a real risk that in the next 30 to 50 years, there will be no one left who can accurately interpret the words and thought of the Buddha as they are transmitted in classical Tibetan! If no rescue work is done, soon we will be left with 230,000 pages of texts, perhaps taking their places in the museums, alongside the Mayan inscriptions, honored and revered but with their wisdoms and secrets lost to us forever!
KS: But don’t we already have some sūtras available in English? Why do we need to translate everything?
JR: Imagine if one of your favorite teachers – who had really inspired you, had another volume of teachings in a language that you don’t understand. Would you leave it untranslated if you could help it? I have always loved the speech of my teacher, too; and as Buddhists, isn’t the Buddha our main teacher? I feel like the scriptures are the transcripts of the Buddha!
Personally, when I read these scriptures, I am always surprised at how much it can transform my mind. I am sure we all have come across some verses that strike us as particularly pertinent and inspiring.
Imagine how impoverished our lives would have been if those verses weren’t translated, and there was no way for us to penetrate its wisdom?
KS: Usually when we talk about “preserving”, we think of preserving physical objects, like Buddha statues, relics, and the texts themselves. But here, you seem to be talking about preserving the content of the scriptures?
JR: Yes! Scriptures are considered representations of the Buddha – the Buddha’s speech particularly. The Buddha had previously mentioned, “At the end of five hundred years My presence will be in the form of scriptures. Consider them as identical to me And show them due respect.”
Among the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind, it is his speech that is most tangible and within our reach. It is only via his speech that ordinary beings like us can learn to respect and appreciate the other Buddhist relics that represent his body and mind. For instance, we see the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the recent crisis in Mes Aynak by people who do not understand the significance of the Buddha and his teachings. While it is meritorious and important to erect physical representations of the Buddha, it is critical that we put in effort into making the scriptures available in languages that people can comprehend.
The words of the Buddha had been passed down to us though the kindness of past masters and translators; today it is in our hands to preserve and transmit them to the future generations.
KS: Which is what 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha is doing?
JR: Yes. Currently we have 140 translators all over the world working on 101 texts. The first ten completed scriptures are already up on the Internet – at 84000’s Reading Room (read.84000.co).
In the first three years, we focused on establishing an editorial policy and a support system to ensure excellent translation standards. We have adopted the same model as the ancient translators – a translator/ scholar (lotsawa-pandita) approach – which involves qualified Himalayan masters, working together with native translators of the target language.
Translating is a tricky process since it goes beyond words, and has to take the context of history, grammar and culture into consideration. Here’s a broad hypothetical example: a literal translation of “shaking one’s head” could be interpreted as an affirmation in one culture, but read as a negation in another culture.
There are such fine nuances and connotations to look out for. This is the reason we need very well trained masters and scholars to work together and approach the translation from many perspectives and directions.
A well-translated piece will convey accuracy, readability and fidelity.
In addition, 84000 is using technology to bring the words of the Buddha to the 2 billion Internet users in the world. The scriptures will no longer reside passively on bookshelves; rather, entire canons will be available at your fingertips: a click away on your laptop, iPads, iPhones and other gadgets.
Simultaneously, 84000 is also populating its cumulative glossary – an interactive list of principal terms, names, places in English, Sanskrit and Tibetan, with an explanation of its meanings and implications in the context of a text. The glossaries will be cross-linked so that a single click will bring out all instances of the term across the Kangyur and Tengyur. In this way, similarities and differences in the way it is translated or used will be clear.
These resources will appeal to Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists readers, academics, researchers, or simply curious people who are interested in history, cultures and languages.
This is the vision of 84000 – to preserve the wisdom legacy of the Buddha by translating them into modern languages, and to make the words of the Buddha available to everyone.
To find out more about 84000, please visit www.84000.co. EH