Forum: Milestones and Dilemmas

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Sarah Harding, and T. Griffith Foulk reflect on the state of Buddhist translation and the challenges and opportunities ahead.

By Lion’s Roar

Buddhist manuscript known as a kammavaca, from the Pali Vinaya, mid-late nineteenth century, Burma

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.

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 non-speaking, 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!

–Robert Thurman


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.

In the Rinzai Zen tradition, the Record of Linji (Rinzai) and many of the recorded discourses of famous figures in the Chan lineage have been translated, as have some collections of monastic codes. In the Soto school, Dogen’s Shobogenzo (written in classical Japanese) has been translated in its entirety several times, though not especially well.

Buddhadharma: You mentioned that translation wasn’t highly valued early on in the United States. What were some of the underlying reasons for that?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: When I first encountered American Buddhism, after I had already been a monk for several years, I discovered that there was a strong anti-textual and anti-intellectual bias among followers of the Vipassana tradition. The message seemed to be that we get enough of book learning in college and university, so when we take up Buddhism, we’re going to plunge ourselves into meditation and put all of the books, words, and concepts aside. Instead, people wanted to contact the dharma through direct experience.

Griffith Foulk: That same idea was rife among Zen practitioners in the West and may have carried over to Vipassana. Thankfully, we’ve been slowly digging ourselves out of that mind-set.

Sarah Harding: That attitude is still prevalent, though. I teach at Naropa University, and even students often come with that idea, although they’re usually divested of it by the end of their studies. But there is a persistent belief that practice means we should not be thinking but rather focused solely on meditation. The whole idea that meditation is the central practice of Buddhism is a misconception.

Buddhadharma: It’s obviously a popular point of view in the West, and it must make the job for translators that much harder. After all, you’re devoting years of your life to translating works that many practitioners may not see any point in reading.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Well, over the decades there has been a significant shift in perspective among American Buddhists. Now many people are reading the Nikayas and studying them, although with the development of online dharma discussion and chat groups they can get caught up in quite hostile exchanges of opinion, quoting the texts either too freely or with a fundamentalist attitude.

Sarah Harding: Everyone and their cousin is a dharma teacher these days, and if there aren’t primary materials available, the teachings will come completely unhinged from any tradition at all. People may not want to hear that, but making those resources available, at the very least, is becoming all the more important.

Griffith Foulk: My experience of Zen practice in the United States and Europe is that these days people are hungry for good translations. The project I’m involved in, the Soto Zen Text Project, will publish heavily annotated scholarly translations of Dogen and Keizan. I’ve found that practitioners at Zen centers are very grateful to get their hands on such texts. So things have changed.

Buddhadharma: As you’re doing that kind of work, though, who are you imagining as your real audience?

Griffith Foulk: I imagine graduate students, scholars, and serious practitioners who really want to engage the tradition but don’t have the language training.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: When I began to study Pali, I did not intend to become a scholar or a translator. I simply wanted to understand the texts in their original language to ensure that my view and practice would be in conformity with the teachings that came down from the Buddha. I made my first translations simply for myself so I could look at the teachings in my own native language. Now, when I translate, I bear in mind a similar type of reader—not academic scholars but those who wish to guide their view and practice by the dharma and who aren’t prepared to learn the original language of the texts.

Sarah Harding: For me, it depends on the book in question. Some texts I would consider extremely helpful for practitioners; others I wouldn’t expect them to read, but I think dharma teachers should be obliged to go into the more difficult ideas that are found in primary texts.

Buddhadharma: Is that how we bridge the gap between scholars and practitioners, then—by putting the responsibility on those who are empowered as teachers? Should they be the ones primarily engaging these texts, or can we expect ordinary practitioners to also take a more studied approach to dharma?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There can be a problem if practitioners read texts on their own without the guidance of a teacher. I consider it essential for those who are going to become dharma teachers—even if they’re not completely fluent in the original language—to at least be trained in the texts so they’ll acquire a solid, deep, and systematic understanding of the teachings. Otherwise, I’d say there is too great a temptation to bend the dharma to fit into the underlying premises of the contemporary Western worldview. We have, for example, what’s called secular Buddhism, wherein certain dimensions of the original teachings such as karma, rebirth, and dependent origination in its classical three-life interpretation—shared by all the early Buddhist doctrinal systems—are dismissed as merely part of the Indian cultural worldview. The dharma is subjected to a materialist reductionism derived from a scientific understanding of the world.

Griffith Foulk: I have to confess to being an intellectual snob. Although I’ve dedicated all of this time and energy to translation, I actually think that to understand the East Asian Buddhist tradition, you’d better be able to read the texts in Chinese and Japanese. We tolerate, and in fact celebrate, really fine teachers in Zen centers who can’t read texts in the original language of their area of study, but it would be unthinkable in the world of scholarship to give a Ph.D. to someone who doesn’t possess that basic knowledge. That said, Zen teachers don’t want a Ph.D. and don’t really need it, and as long as they’re willing to try to educate themselves through reading good translations and secondary scholarship, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In China, Buddhism was introduced by foreign monks and missionaries but it never really took root until everything was translated, written, and taught in Chinese by people who no longer knew any Sanskrit or Pali. Buddhism became a vibrant religious tradition in China based solely on the Chinese language. I would hope that someday the same thing will happen in the West with English and other non-original languages.

Buddhadharma: Bhikkhu Bodhi, you seem to be saying that the teacher needs to interpret these texts for students, and Griffith, you’re suggesting that people need to actually be able to read teachings in the original language. Since neither of those scenarios are really reflected in Western Buddhist culture, should we be feeling pessimistic about our understanding of Buddhism?

Sarah Harding: I agree with Griffith, though I don’t think most people are going to learn those original languages. That’s why as translators we have a responsibility to make the source material available. There’s no such thing as a literal translation, but I think it should be incumbent upon teachers who don’t learn the language to study a transparent translation.

Buddhism has always been known to be primarily experiential—people are trying to communicate experiences. But even communicating experience in one’s own language is a kind of translation; I don’t know that my words are having the same meaning to you as they are to me. That can get problematic if teachers think that their personal experience is “it.” Sometimes even translators fall into that trap—they feel they have a deep understanding of a text and change the language to convey their personal experience. It’s a slippery slope, so all the more reason to have something in translation that’s recognizable to check back on.

Buddhadharma: We’ve touched briefly on some of the works that have been translated in the different traditions, such as the Nikayas and the Shobogenzo. Are there other works that should be pointed out as translation milestones?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: One thing to mention, although it’s not quite in the field of translation, is the compiling of dictionaries to aid translators. When we pick up dictionaries, we tend to overlook the enormous self-sacrifice of those who compiled them. They might have been people like ourselves who would have much preferred translating texts from original languages into English, but for the sake of other translators, they went through the very laborious process of compiling dictionaries.

Sarah Harding: That’s absolutely true—it’s a boring job and someone has to do it. Most of my translating life, I’ve had to rely on nineteenth-century dictionaries, which I’ve been extremely grateful for. Now there are online dictionaries available, but they are composed of multiple translations thrown together rather than carefully compiled scholarship. They can be very helpful, but much more work needs to be done.

Griffith Foulk: Starting in the early twentieth century, the Japanese took it upon themselves to produce reference works dealing with the entire Chinese Buddhist tradition, so they have some fantastic Chinese–Japanese dictionaries. But recently I’ve found that all dictionaries, as great as they are, are being put to shame by digital search of the Buddhist canon. The references can be found so easily, I almost feel guilty. Now it’s possible to see terms in multiple contexts and to understand things that the dictionary compilers never did.

For example, I’m translating Dogen, whose writings are commentaries on Chinese texts. While he occasionally cites by name the text he’s commenting on, many times he doesn’t. There are no quotation marks, but a translator should be able to look at a passage and know that it comes from this or that Chinese Buddhist text. When scholars don’t understand that those aren’t his words, don’t see those invisible quotation marks, they try to run sentences together that don’t work at all grammatically. If you were to take an English sentence with a couple of quotes and take the quotation marks off, you’d get gibberish. Such gibberish is often interpreted as “the profound insight of the Zen master.” But digital search is this miraculous tool that now makes 99.9 percent of Dogen completely intelligible because you can find what he’s quoting. It’s been revolutionary in that respect.

Buddhadharma: How else has technology, and the Internet in particular, changed the way that translation is approached?

Sarah Harding: Technology has changed translation tremendously, just in terms of time and the ability to look something up quickly without flipping through giant pages of text. Online sources for the Tibetan language have been lagging, but they’re beginning to catch up. Very recently the Kangyur has become searchable online, but it’s still not that easy to navigate. What’s really lacking is any kind of database on the indigenous materials. Tibetan is a living language; idiomatic expressions range over several thousand years, and there’s no way to check on the use of a term or even to find it in context because those things haven’t been digitized. When they are, it will be amazing.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: The Vipassana Research Institute in India, the organization established by the late S.N. Goenka, transcribed the Sixth Council edition of the Pali canon and all of its commentaries, which are available electronically now. You can download and change the script into your own language—if you want to read it in Sinhalese characters you can do so, or in Thai characters, Burmese characters, Roman characters, or in Devanagri. If you want to determine the meaning of a word or expression, you can enter it into the search box and in a split second find all its occurrences in the different strata of texts: canonical, commentaries, subcommentaries, and a few additional works. This facilitates clearer understanding of the term and demonstrates its range of applications.

Sarah Harding: I should also mention the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center, which for years has been scanning and organizing every text it could find. Although the texts are not searchable because they’re scanned rather than digitized, the work is of tremendous value. Every Tibetan Buddhist scholar relies on the TBRC. Being able to search for titles and get outlines completely opened up the field in terms of discovering what texts were available beyond one’s own bookshelf.

Buddhadharma: We’ve discussed how the Internet and technology have helped overcome certain translation challenges. What are some of the other key challenges facing translations today?

Griffith Foulk: I would say people capable of doing the work. There aren’t a lot of them, and although the field of Buddhist studies is holding its own, I don’t know that we’re producing many new scholars who are able to do high-level translation.

Sarah Harding: In a way, it comes down to funding; it’s not a job market that anyone is training people for.

Griffith Foulk: Translating and digitizing the canon is considered a huge merit-making endeavor in Korea, Japan, and China. That’s the motivation for East Asian Buddhists. It’s not a business model, but it works.

Buddhadharma: Is this a critical moment for Buddhist translation? It’s been said, especially in regard to Tibetan translation, that there is concern that certain texts might be lost for good unless action is taken soon. Are we at a critical juncture in this work?

Sarah Harding: In Tibetan Buddhism, there has always been a sense of urgency because of the invasion of Tibet and the loss of so many texts. Also, the Tibetan translation of a Sanskrit text may in many cases be the only translation left of that text.
Every generation of Tibetan scholars and monks has been writing prolifically, so there is always a challenge in choosing which texts are most important and most urgent to translate into English. And more and more texts that were believed to be lost are being found all the time. So I don’t see this as a pivotal moment; it’s more like the effort of slowly climbing up a huge mountain slope.

Interestingly, it turns out that a lot of Chinese have been publishing Tibetan works as well, so they’re contributing to some preservation at this point. Translating something into English is not the only way to preserve it—that’s a culture-centric idea.

Griffith Foulk: I have some concern that we’re building digital canons; they’re so easy to access that they’ve become almost the only thing people look at. There is a danger that what isn’t input digitally will fall by the wayside and be ignored.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There are older Pali texts preserved in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts kept in temple cupboards across Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. In these tropical countries, the manuscripts tend to decay every hundred years or so. Now that they’re no longer being copied, what’s coming to pass is that the electronic edition becomes the single authoritative version of a text; variant readings preserved in these palm-leaf manuscripts will likely be lost.

Griffith Foulk: Then, when everything exists on the cloud, civilization will pull the plug on the whole thing and it will go poof! It is a bit of a fear; we are relying enormously on our data-storage devices and on our electrical grid. There’s something to be said for paper—it tends to last a long time.

Buddhadharma: The work of translators is obviously about more than just language; ultimately it’s about transmission—transmitting teachings and lineage. What are your reflections on the transmission of Buddhism to the West?

Sarah Harding: At this point, many decades after the first trickle of translations that arrived with D.T. Suzuki and others, there is a good foundation of material for an authentic transmission, but not everyone takes advantage of that. American culture is so quick to commodify something like dharma. For example, the term mindfulness has become very popular, and in 80 or 90 percent of the contexts in which it’s used, it really has nothing to do with Buddhism. I don’t have anything against that; it’s a perfectly fine tool for people to use. I just wish they wouldn’t call it Buddhism, because it’s lacking so many of the essential ingredients. So there are some very good transmissions that are at least attempting to get the full picture of what Buddhism is, both in theory and practice, and then there’s this kind of effluence from that out into the greater culture. But maybe I’m too attached to some idea I have. I mean, let’s face it—we’ll never really know for sure what the Buddha taught.

Buddhadharma: Griffith, what are your thoughts about transmission in the West today?

Griffith Foulk: The Chinese didn’t really start to develop their own indigenous forms of Buddhism until three hundred to five hundred years after they were exposed to it. Everything is speeded up now with communications and globalization, but we’re still in the infancy of the spread of Buddhism to the West, and I don’t know if the infant is going to survive or not. I hope it does. But the misconceptions and commodification all happened with Buddhism in China too. It was grossly misread, misunderstood, taken in terms of indigenous traditions like Taoism and Confucianism.

Now, as Buddhism in the West gets picked up, it’s mixing with psychology and self-help. We’re looking at ourselves in the mirror and calling it Buddhism. That happened a lot in East Asia, and something emerged out of it. It wasn’t Indian Buddhism anymore, but it wasn’t completely cut off from traditional roots either. The Chinese eventually did, for example, understand the doctrine of shunyata. It took them a really long time, but they finally got it. They understood, and it had a big impact on their culture.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Most of the Americans who embrace Buddhism are highly educated, either with college degrees or advanced university degrees, and because of that, many feel qualified to interpret the texts on their own, without relying on any transmission of what’s considered to be the authoritative interpretation. For this reason, we’re finding not just one broad dominant interpretation of the teachings, or even a fairly simple spectrum of interpretations with five or six main flavors, but rather thousands of different interpretations of Buddhist ideas. This could be a significant development, but I don’t know whether to evaluate it positively or negatively. On one hand, there is a lot of room for distorted subjective interpretations to intrude, culminating in wholesale misrepresentations of the teachings. But looked at more positively, we could say that people are now interpreting the dharma in terms of their own direct experience and their own personal concerns, so different flavors or potentials of the dharma are unfolding. We may have to wait decades, if not centuries, to see what the long-term consequences of that will be.

Griffith Foulk: The Tibetans were getting Buddhism from two sides, from India and China, and the West now is getting it from three. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But I wonder if that’s unprecedented historically.

Sarah Harding: It is more than three; there are all these subgroups. America has been given this remarkable opportunity where we can have Japanese roshis meeting Tibetan rinpoches and bhantes from Sri Lanka. America was already pluralistic, but now the influences are pluralistic; it’s a giant meeting ground.

Buddhadharma: Is that making the work of translators easier or harder?

Sarah Harding: Buddhism has diverged in so many ways that I think it makes it harder, actually.

Griffith Foulk: I don’t think it makes the work harder. To Zen practitioners, there’s nothing threatening, challenging, or undermining about translations from Tibet or from Pali. I welcome it all.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Having access to texts in several languages helps illuminate the text in the original language. I managed to pick up a little bit of Chinese; when I was translating the Anguttara Nikaya, I compared suttas in Pali with their counterparts in Chinese, and I found that if the Pali commentary didn’t illuminate a difficult word or phrase to my satisfaction, I could look to see how the Chinese translators had rendered that term, and sometimes it would help me understand the meaning of the term in the original Pali texts.

Sarah Harding: Tibetan Buddhism considers itself the pinnacle of all Buddhism, and when I’m translating something that says, Oh, those Theravada practitioners have no compassion, I’m acutely aware of my own pluralistic exposure and knowledge that that’s not true, so I have to make a decision about how to translate that. I can’t just stick with this completely myopic Tibetan view of the rest of the world that they never saw, so that’s a lot to take into consideration. You should see what the Tibetans say about women, you know? Am I going to really translate that?

Griffith Foulk: You raised an interesting question there about the role of a translator. The temptation is to fix mistakes when you see them. But the original has that mistake. What do we do?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: In my opinion, it’s the obligation of the translator to be completely faithful to the original text.

Griffith Foulk: I agree, but I add a footnote.

Sarah Harding: Yes, footnotes!

Buddhadharma: What would you say to practitioners about the work that you’re doing and how it impacts them, or how these translations could help them on their path?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I would say that if somebody is committed to following the Buddhist path within the context of having taken refuge in the three jewels—Buddha, dharma, and sangha—it’s of primary importance that they look to the dharma for guidance along the path. And looking to the dharma for guidance doesn’t mean that one just follows the advice of one’s teacher or simply takes up the practice of meditation outside of its proper context. To follow the path, one has to practice it within the context of the overarching Buddhist view of reality; to gain that overarching perspective, one doesn’t have to read the texts in their entirety but it’s important at least to go back to the older sources within one’s own tradition and get a clear conceptual understanding of the fundamental teachings.

Griffith Foulk: For me, translation was first a learning tool, not a teaching tool. I was trying to make sense out of a foreign tradition and I wanted to bracket my own understanding, to set it aside. I wanted to see what the tradition had to say, and learning those foreign languages and trying to make sense of them, of what I was reading, did always initially involve translation.

How do you know that you understand something? When you can say it in other words—that’s true in your own language as well as in others. Trying to translate drives you to understanding; it makes you study. So for me, translation has been a critical tool in my own pursuit of a Buddhist path.

Sarah Harding: My teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, said he wanted us all to learn Tibetan—not because he was Tibetan, but because reading the original would give us a much deeper understanding of dharma. I’ve found that to be true, so of course, I would encourage anybody to look into that approach. And in the case of Tibetan Buddhists, I would recommend not just sticking with Tibetan Buddhism but also looking at the earlier texts—the Pali canon and so forth—for two reasons: for your own education and verification of the dharma and for the inspiration of others’ experience.

Barring that—knowing not everybody is going to learn one of the Buddhist languages—I would say, read our translations. We are trying to make faithful translations, and I believe one does need the dharma as a guide. The market is an open one—you can hear every kind of idea out there. You have to make sure that what you are hearing or understanding is within the tradition.


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.

Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies in at Columbia University and president of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, which publishes translations of texts from the Tibetan Tengyur.

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Lion’s Roar

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