Before jumping into some reflections on the conference, I wanted to begin with some comments on the history and framework of translation and transmission in the Tibetan context, and to weave together some of the cast of characters that created the conditions for this conference to arise. If this is not new to you, you can skip to part 2.
Concurrent with this translation and transmission of the scriptural dharma (lung gi chos, ལུང་གི་ཆོས་) was the transmission of the dharma of realization (toks pa’i chos, རྟོགས་པའི་ཆོས་), the authentic realization of the Buddha that was passed from (or acknowledged by) teacher to student in an unbroken lineage, down to the lineage masters of this time in Tibet. Scripture and realization are thus seen to move in unison as the combined essence of what constitutes the lineage transmission.
Much earlier, at the time of the historical Buddha, the Buddha appointed Kashyapa as his first successor, and the arhat Ananda succeeded him. Ananda was regarded as one of the foremost of the Buddha’s direct disciples because of his time spent as the attendant of the Buddha, which placed him in the unique position of having heard virtually all of the teachings the Buddha had given. Ananda was said to have had perfect recall, and based on his memory the teachings of the Buddha were preserved and transcribed. This exemplifies the authentic transmission of the “dharma of scripture” mentioned above, and points out the importance of the spoken resonance of the words of the dharma in holding the essence of this transmission, behind and beyond the words themselves.
Perhaps because he had spent all of his time attending the Buddha, Ananda did not attain the level of arhat until after the Buddha had passed. The time came when all of the disciples of the Buddha gathered to record the teachings, but Ananda, who was the authority on these teachings, was not considered to be in a position to recount them. Despite his perfect memory, he did not embody the realization of an arhat, and so it was not appropriate for him to teach other arhats. He went into retreat and soon thereafter attained the realization that qualified him to join the assembly and recount the teachings. This exemplifies the authentic transmission of the “dharma of realization” mentioned above, and points out that the ability to perfectly recount (or transcribe) the dharma of scripture is a necessary but not sufficient cause for the full depth and range of complete transmission. The dependence of transmitting scripture on the basis of realization is not generally so determined, and there are plenty of examples in which the oral or scriptural lineage occur without concomitant realization, but this story does illustrate that for Ananda (or anyone) to become a full lineage holder, both must be present.
Ananda was said to have been reborn as the great translator Vairochana of Ba Gor, one of the nine foremost translators at the time of Guru Rinpoche and King Trisong Deutson, and one of the main lineage holders of the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) teachings. Vairochana is something of a patron saint of translators, and the dharma of scripture has always been central to those connected to him. Perhaps the most famous incarnation of Vairochana was Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé, the 19th century Rime (nonsectarian) master renowned for his activities and realization. Between the efforts of Lodrö Thayé and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in the latter half of the 19th century, a vast amount of the dharma in Tibet was rescued from near extinction and a widespread cultural revival spread throughout eastern Tibet.
Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé spent much of his life in retreat at a hermitage called Tsadra Rinchen Drak above Palpung Monastery near Derge, Kham. It was here that he composed the majority of his famous “Five Great Treasuries,” vast treatises and compilations that aimed to encapsulate the entirety of the Buddhadharma. Tsadra also developed into the main retreat facility for the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, a function it holds to this day.
One of Jamgon Kongtrul’s principal incarnations, Kalu Rinpoche, also did retreat at Palpung Monastery, and eventually became the director of the retreats at Tsadra before he escaped the Chinese occupation and began his tireless work in bringing the dharma to the west and throughout the world.
When we move forward in this process, questions of authentic and legitimate lineage transmission, accurate translation, and meaningful adaptation to modern western needs repeatedly emerge. (For a scholarly look at these questions, see Mariana Restrepo’s thesis). For my own part, these questions are of the utmost importance for the future of Buddhism in the west.
With a similar inspiration, the Tsadra Foundation sponsored and organized the recent conference on the topic of “Translation and Transmission,” with an amazing lineup of translators, academics, practitioners, and scholars. Mariana and I were in attendance, along with Lama Jamdron, Lama Willa, and a number of old friends and dharma siblings.
A few months later I was headed into my second retreat and was accepted by the Tsadra foundation for an “Advanced Contemplative Scholarship” to cover the cost of the retreat. Since then I have been steadily reading the translations of the Treasury of Knowledge by Jamgön Kongtrül that have been sponsored by Tsadra, and eagerly await the publications of another of Kongtrul’s works, the 18 volume Treasury of Precious Instructions that the Tsadra team is currently translating. This pairing of support for contemplatives and scholars is the hallmark of Tsadra’s mission, and is something that made the recent conference such an amazing and rich experience.
There were excellent keynote speeches and panel discussions by many of the greatest scholars and translators of Tibetan in our time, and it was a unique experience (as far as conferences go) to witness and have these discussions in the context of the deep and long term practice of so many of the participants. The respect for and presence of this dedication to practice (in many forms) created a number of powerful connections between the worlds of the academy and Tibetan Buddhism itself and created a useful template to continue these conversations in the future.
What was most interesting to me, however, was the tacit subtext that ran though almost the entirety of the proceedings. There were many talks about what constitutes good, valid, authentic translation; about adaptation; about various types of texts and their requirements; about the problematic nature of translation itself; about the nature of transmission as a deceptive, receptive, and intentional experience; a somatic experience, a personal experience, a timeless yet constructed experience; but almost nothing was said about whether in the midst of all these translations and transmissions, the Dharma was fully, authentically, and sustainably being established outside of its Asian origins.
At this point I felt that the conference was just beginning. Was this just a spokesman of the tradition honoring one of the most traditional (she called herself a “fundamentalist” at one point) western teachers? Was it a master of the tradition acknowledging another accomplished teacher? Was it only my subjective projection that the most inspiring speakers besides Zenkar Rinpoche were women? What would happen if we put all such people in the same room, along with as many other officially recognized, self-proclaimed, controversial, western, Asian, and any other breed of holders of the lineage?
The mission of the Tsadra Foundation is to support both scholars and practitioners of the dharma. The recent conference was a fabulous first step in discussing the results of this sponsorship for the dharma in the west. It was, however, heavy on the translation and light on the transmission. I look forward to the organization of a conference in the future that focuses on the role of contemplatives in the transmission of the dharma, with panels and speakers discussing what it is to “pass (acknowledge, realize) a lineage,” what and where the authority for such a recognition resides, how this is being actualized by western teachers, along with an open-hearted sharing of doubts, obstacles, and inspirations that this process entails, complemented by scholarly presentations from the wealth of western academia and the Tibetan tradition itself.
This is asking a lot, not only because contemplatives are generally not interested in talking about such things or even leaving their hermitages, but also because of the tremendous amount of contentiousness that such a discussion is bound to elicit. It is asking people to share what is most intimate and sacred in themselves, and to potentially expose that which is most inauthentic and false. It would demand the transcendence of centuries of personal and organizational politicism that have characterized the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and which have followed its transmission into the west. But it would be to ask the most important questions in the context of a faith in the indestructible nature of wisdom and the unstoppable and innumerable ways and words and bodies in which that wisdom manifests to benefit beings.