Forum: Milestones and Dilemmas

Exploring Buddhist Translation Today

The Buddha, as recorded in the Pali canon and especially as expanded upon in the Mahayana sutras and tantras, was always surprising in his deeds. Upon complete enlightenment, he acknowledged being a buddha, awakened from the sleep of ignorance and perfect in his knowledge of reality, life, death, and nirvana. He at once assured us that such a liberating and blissful ultimate reality could not be translated into any language or captured by any conceptual scheme, law, or theory. While the “dharma jewel” holds us free from suffering, we cannot hold it under our conceptual control. Liberating knowledge can be experienced, but not translated.

Since then the numerous Buddhist texts have been memorized, collected, lost, rediscovered, translated into numerous languages, and compiled into various canons. And now this stream of translations has cascaded into the European languages: Sacred Books of the East, Pali Text Society, Biblioteca Buddhica, Numata Series, Snow Lion, Wisdom, Shambhala, and so on—today, a Niagara of illuminating books present the many facets of the dharma jewel.

The Tibetan word for a translator is lotsawa, from the Sanskrit lokacaksuh, which literally means “cosmic-eye,” “world-eye,” or perhaps “public eye.” The Sanskrit loka, like the Greek cosmos, can mean either “world” or “people.” The idea is that a translator looks out from the home culture into another culture to present that other culture’s vision of the world. The translator is thus a “public eye” for her or his people, and traditionally was highly honored in cultures taking up Buddhism, because the people in the home culture, such as Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, or Mongolia, believed that the new knowledge being received was of a higher order than what was already available. In effect, the “translator” elevated the home culture.

In our modern world, translators are usually not so highly honored, because we tend to assume that our own culture is the highest possible. Therefore, exploration of other cultures is considered a kind of archeology or anthropology, as they and their knowledge must surely be inferior to ours. But anyone who has truly benefitted from their contact with the dharma jewel perhaps would disagree, and one would hope, honor the lotsawas!

That didn’t stop him from communicating it anyway, at length, and with great subtlety, variety, and eloquence. As one great Chan master said, “After enlightenment, the Buddha never spoke a single word. Such a garrulous nonspeaking, it filled the Naga king’s cave with sutras!” To add to the expressive inexpressibility, when the Buddha addressed large audiences from all over the multinational subcontinent, every single person heard him clearly in their own native language, as if the Buddha were sitting right before her or him. No need for translators or jumbo auditorium screens!

Since then the numerous Buddhist texts have been memorized, collected, lost, rediscovered, translated into numerous languages, and compiled into various canons. And now this stream of translations has cascaded into the European languages: Sacred Books of the East, Pali Text Society, Biblioteca Buddhica, Numata Series, Snow Lion, Wisdom, Shambhala, and so on—today, a Niagara of illuminating books present the many facets of the dharma jewel.

The Tibetan word for a translator is lotsawa, from the Sanskrit lokacaksuh, which literally means “cosmic-eye,” “world-eye,” or perhaps “public eye.” The Sanskrit loka, like the Greek cosmos, can mean either “world” or “people.” The idea is that a translator looks out from the home culture into another culture to present that other culture’s vision of the world. The translator is thus a “public eye” for her or his people, and traditionally was highly honored in cultures taking up Buddhism, because the people in the home culture, such as Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, or Mongolia, believed that the new knowledge being received was of a higher order than what was already available. In effect, the “translator” elevated the home culture.

In our modern world, translators are usually not so highly honored, because we tend to assume that our own culture is the highest possible. Therefore, exploration of other cultures is considered a kind of archeology or anthropology, as they and their knowledge must surely be inferior to ours. But anyone who has truly benefitted from their contact with the dharma jewel perhaps would disagree, and one would hope, honor the lotsawas!

Buddhadharma: The landscape of American Buddhism has changed considerably in the last forty years, and Buddhist translators have played a significant role in that process. Forty years ago, Buddhist books in English were hard to find, and today there are probably more translations than most of us can read in one lifetime. In your respective traditions, what has that shift looked like?

Sarah Harding: Until about 2000, many translation efforts were random, often begun when a lama asked for a text in his lineage to be translated or when academics would find good PhD projects to undertake. Now a number of organizations are working in a more cohesive fashion. I work for the Tsadra Foundation, which has focused on some of the big anthologies of the nineteenth century. We started with one, now published, called The Treasury of Knowledge, which has ten volumes. We’re currently working on another anthology that will run a huge number of volumes and will probably only be published digitally. The project started by the Khyentse Foundation, 84,000, is translating the Kangyur, or canonical texts, and another group is working on the Tengyur, commentarial material sourced from India.

Bhikkhu Bodhi:By the late 1960s, when I first became a monk, translations of the four main Nikayas, the collections of early Buddhist teachings, were available from the Pali Text Society. But these translations were often written in a rather archaic style, as though the translators were trying to emulate the King James Version of the Bible. That made me realize there was a need for new translations, which then became my major project.

There is still a significant need for translation, particularly of the Pali commentaries and subcommentaries.

Buddhadharma: Griffith, what are your impressions of how far things have come in the world of Zen translation?

Griffith Foulk: American Buddhism came belatedly to the idea that we ought to be looking at original texts. I was first exposed to Zen Buddhist scholarship through the works of D.T. Suzuki. A number of people who became scholars of East Asian Buddhism, some of them also translators, started out as practitioners and wanted to be able to break through the secondary scholarship and get their hands on primary material. Although translation wasn’t considered very important at the outset, attitudes have changed a great deal.

The classical Chinese canon of East Asian Buddhism, encompassing China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, is vast. Really, there are at least twenty different editions of the Chinese canon. They include not just sutras but also the sayings of Chinese masters and commentarial literature, as well as letters and miscellaneous writings. There are old stories about Chinese Buddhist monks who had read the entire canon, but the idea that anyone could read it all is absurd. I doubt that all the material will ever be translated. Of the vast body of Buddhist literature in Chinese, I would say perhaps 1 to 2 percent has been translated into English.

Excerpted from the Fall 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.


Sarah Harding is currently working on textual translations and research as a fellow of the tsadra Foundation. Her recent publications include Creation and Completion and Machik’s Complete Explanation.

T. Griffith Foulk is coeditor-in-chief of the Soto Zen Text Project. He has published a number of monographs on textual, ritual, and institutional aspects of the history of Chinese and Japanese Zen buddhism.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is former president of the Buddhist Publication Society and the translator of numerous Pali texts, including the complete numerical, connected, and middle-length discourses of the buddha.

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