“To Engage, or Not to Engage”— Meditations on Buddhist Activism; and Kongtrul’s “Praise to Padampa Sangye”


As a Buddhist living under the fledgling Trump administration, my social media feeds have been inundated with threads debating the role of Buddhism in social engagement, activism, and dissent. So instead of participating in each individual thread, this lazy liar would rather just dedicate an entire blog post to the topic.

In particular, this post is in conversation with articles like these:



Buddhism(s): A Note on Lineage

Before diving into this volatile topic, it is important to first establish that we’re all on the same page and working with the same lexicon. Buddhism is by no means a monolithic entity (at least from the perspective of relative truth). Although I can infer how different forms of Buddhism might all lead to the same destination, there are obvious differences based on vocabulary, geography, history, context, and pedagogy.

This article is written from the perspective of a Vajrayana practitioner. However, I DO NOT claim to speak on behalf of Vajrayana, let alone on behalf of Buddhism in general. I only include this information because I will employ various theological concepts that may have different interpretations or definitions in other schools of Buddhism.

Introduction: Engaged Buddhism in the West

As a graduate student TA (teaching assistant) in the University of California system, I am currently assisting with an upper-division course named “Human Rights 131: Genocide.” Twice each week, my 100+ undergraduate students and I engage with images, descriptions, and accounts of indescribable suffering. Often times, this transmission of trauma serves to, among other things, remind us of the severity of the topics with which we are academically engaged, which sharpens our academic analysis in turn.

In a similar way, the topic of engaged Buddhism requires the same degree of rigor and precision—precisely because we are discussing the very same things discussed in HMR131, namely: suffering, the threat of suffering, and the fear of suffering. Therefore, I am not writing this post as an “objective observer” or “academic outsider”; rather, I am writing from within. From the perspective of relative truth, I can never claim to know every facet of human suffering; but I can say that I see you, gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer Buddhists. I see you, feminist Buddhists. I see you, Buddhists working against ecological destruction. I see you, Buddhists fighting for animal rights, indigenous rights, community rights, etc. I see you, Buddhists worried not just about the rise of Trump, but about the rise of xenophobia, racism, and fascism around the globe.

Not only do I see you, but I feel you. In many cases, I am you, even.

That being said, I cannot subscribe to the increasingly popular belief that Buddhism in the West needs to become “politically engaged”—not because I disagree with political activism, but because I do not submit to the categories that separate the “secular,” or “political,” from the “religious.” This is a nuanced point that deserves some clarification.

(Note: What follows is written almost exclusively from the perspective of relative truth.)

European Enlightenment-era Categories vs. Bodhisattva Conduct

The ontological partitioning of the “secular,” or the “political,” from the “religious” has a socio-historically contextual genesis. Following the Protestant Reformation in Europe, Enlightenment-era intellectuals began to hypothesize ways of organizing people and governments around ideals like “liberty” and “freedom” while seeking to distance these notions from any religious connotation. With memories of Church-driven atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition still lingering in their minds centuries later, Enlightenment-era intellectuals began to imagine a new, “secular,” ethical paradigm centered on the notion of humanity, not on the notion of God, the Church, or religiosity. It was in this philosophical milieu that Western nations like the United States ratified constitutions that separated “Church” from “State,” while simultaneously guaranteeing “freedom” and “liberty” based on one’s humanity alone (unless one was poor, or dark-skinned, or a woman, etc.—but that’s for another post).

Now, fast-forward to the present. I contend that this ontological separation of “political” and “religious,” born out of the Protestant Reformation and the European Enlightenment, is central to the debate in the West over “Engaged Buddhism.” For this reason, I find it inherently unskillful to apply the political-religious dichotomy to Buddhism, precisely because Buddhism is a pedagogical apparatus that utilizes its own set of categories, dichotomies, and expedient techniques to address human suffering.

Patrul Rinpoche states that the Bodhisattva walking the path will develop “confident faith,” which is the “total trust in the Three Jewels alone that comes from the knowledge that they are the only unfailing refuge, always and in all circumstances, whether we are happy, sad, in pain, ill, living, or dead” (2011: 172). In this way, Bodhisattva conduct is politically engaged by its very nature, precisely because those individuals performing it are inherently political beings, conducting themselves in a way specifically designed to ameliorate the suffering of self and other. Therefore, it is redundant to call for a politically “Engaged Buddhism,” because such calls fail to acknowledge the all-encompassing nature of Refuge and the inherently-political nature of Bodhisattva conduct. More troubling still, such calls also fail to recognize the interdependence of all phenomena—a doctrine central to Buddhism.

Therefore, I am not calling for Buddhists to shun political activism; I wholeheartedly applaud Buddhists on all ends of the spectrum who work towards the alleviation of global suffering by engaging in political causes about which they feel strongly. However, I am taking issue with those in the West who argue that any Buddhist who chooses not to march in the streets is a narrow-sited bigot who exploits their own privilege.

Just because Buddhism has been classified a “religion” does not mean that the repercussions of its enactment are limited to the “religious sphere.” As we have already discussed, the dichotomy between “political” and “religious” is purely an ontological one, with its own unique socio-historical trajectory. Rather, following the doctrine of interdependence, even if a Buddhist spent their entire life in solitary retreat, their actions can still be seen as a form of political engagement aimed at alleviating all suffering.

(Note: There is another argument to be made here about ultimate truth and the illusion of separateness, but it would be unskillful to digress into that discussion here… for many reasons.)

Padampa Sangye as an Example

In Vajrayana, we often talk about meditation, conduct, and view. In the West, there tends to be a common idea that Buddhism is something you “do.” That is, when most people think of Buddhism, the act of meditation is what usually comes to mind. In this way, Buddhism in the West is often conceived of as (something like) 90% meditation and 10% conduct (the latter 10% being vegetarianism and/or nonviolent conduct, etc.).  Western Buddhists talk about their “practice” as being synonymous with their very “Buddhist-ness,” almost as if to imply that if they were to stop meditating for a few days, their “Buddhist-ness” might diminish slightly. While I would never argue that meditation is unimportant, I do think this “action-oriented” notion of Buddhism is derived from and serves to reinforce this idea of the “religious” sphere being somehow separate from other spheres of life. If Buddhism is only seen as something we do in the shrine room, then it naturally follows that those concerned about recent political events would call for a Buddhism that goes beyond the shrine room. However, Buddhism already is something that goes beyond the shrine room, as evidenced by the life-stories of countless realized masters. In other words, the call for an “Engaged Buddhism” is a symptom of the West’s larger misconceptions about what Buddhism is and what it seeks to address.

While meditation and conduct are certainly things that one does, what about view? What do we do with examples like that of the great Indo-Tibetan Buddhist master and consummate “holy madman,” Padampa Sangye, who held the view to be the apex of “Buddhist-ness,” and who even directed some of his disciples to toss aside their religious texts, to abandon their hopes and fears, to renounce their attachment to food and clothing, and to adopt the non-dual conduct of the yogi (Tib. བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་, Wyl. brtul zhugs spyod pa; which is intended, among other things, to enhance ones stability in the view)? This question is packed with manifold valences, many of which only your Guru can adequately articulate; but for the purposes of this post, I’d like to consider this question vis-à-vis the notion of “Engaged Buddhism.”

By shifting Buddhism from something one “does” to a way of seeing and being in the world, all activities become “practice.” Even engaging in the transgressive and antinomian “yogic” conduct of so-called “holy madmen” and “madwomen,” like Dampa Sangye, Machig Labdron, Tsangnyon Heruka, Thangtong Gyalpo, and others, becomes an opportunity to maintain the view.

Why uphold the view? To benefit beings. How does it benefit beings? By the interdependence of all phenomena. If all experiences, including those of suffering, are mediated by mind, then focusing on our mind is among the most direct ways of confronting suffering—even that which is framed as political in nature. By upholding the Vajrayana view, one is engaging in a mechanism designed specifically to benefit beings and diminish suffering. This has inherently political implications. Ultimately, I am not arguing against Buddhists taking up political activism; rather, I am arguing against the idea that Buddhists are obligated to take up political activism. I am arguing that such ideas are misguided because Buddhist practice, based on its all-encompassing nature, is politically engaged by default and elicits results that have inherently political consequences.

I remember once asking one of my Gurus, who happens to be the lineage holder of Padampa Sangye’s very own Pacification lineage (Tib. ཞི་བྱེད་, Wyl. zhi byed), “What can I do to most affectively benefit beings?” His response came in two words, “practice dharma.”

Final Thoughts, re: Corporate Mindfulness and Authentic Teachers

While I disagree with many in the Buddhist communities of the West who demand an “Engaged Buddhism,” I do think that part of their frustration is justified, if slightly misdirected.

Especially in the last decade, there has been a growing trend of what I call “Corporate Mindfulness.” Corporate Mindfulness is the strategic appropriation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation practices by capitalist entities for the sole purpose of maximizing employee efficiency and profit margins, as discussed here, here, and here. What makes Corporate Mindfulness dangerous is not that it is being adopted by “big bad capitalists,” but that in the process of appropriation, mindfulness practices is stripped from its context. Mindfulness is one tool in the entire repertoire of Bodhisattva conduct, which is intended to bring benefit to self and others by diminishing the allegiance to the illusory notion of self. But when mindfulness practice becomes divorced from this context, and is employed as a tool to maximize profits, it can result in victim blaming and the unhealthy internalization of trauma. When businesses teach Corporate Mindfulness, they are essentially telling their employees, “Your stress if your fault. It is not systemic. It is all in your head. If you’re feeling stressed out at work, then you’re not ‘sitting with your mind’ well enough. If you would just ‘sit with your mind’ you will become a better employee. You’ll climb the social ladder. You’ll become more successful.” The aim of corporate mindfulness is NOT the alleviation of suffering; it is profit maximization and ego-centric success.

Unfortunately, this stripped down, de-contextualized, misappropriated, form of mindfulness, which seeks to maximizing efficiency and financial prosperity instead of addressing suffering and diminishing ego, is becoming increasingly popular outside of the private sector. In fact, an increasing number of so-called “Meditation teachers” are teaching this form of mindfulness at yoga studios, on college campuses, at self-help seminars, in youtube videos, and elsewhere. By decontextualizing mindfulness and re-packaging it as a panacea for all sorts of post-modern woes, it becomes something dangerous, even insidious. At best, it risks inflating the egos and desires it was originally designed to assassinate; at worst, it may immensely exacerbate suffering from trauma or violence.

For this reason, it is imperative to seek out an authentic teacher who has the realization and capacity to teach techniques like mindfulness in the correct context and in such a way that can actually bring benefit.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.


“Hero’s Music” And Expression of Praise to Pa Dampa Sangye

འཕགས་པའི་ཡུལ་དུ་སྐུ་འཁྲུངས་ཤིང་། ཕྱོགས་མེད་གནས་སུ་བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་གྲུབ། །རྒྱ་བོད་གཉིས་སུ་འགྲོ་དོན་མཛད༑ །དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཞབས་ལ་འདུད།
I supplicate at the feet of Dampa Sangye—[who] took birth in the noble land, [who] maintined in the unbiased practice of observance1, and [who] engaged in the benefit of beings in both India and Tibet.

།སྦྱངས་པའི་ཡོན་ཏན་དཔག་ཏུ་མེད། །གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ཕོ་མོ་ལྔ་བཅུ་བཞིའི། །བྱིན་རླབས་གདམས་པའི་བདུད་རྩི་གསོལ། །སྐྱེས་མཆོག་མི་ཡི་སེང་གེར་འདུད།
Homage to the Lion of Men, the eminent being—[who] consumed the nectar of blessed instruction from fifty-four male and female siddhas of immearuable ascetic virtue.

།བདེ་གཤེགས་གནམ་གྱི་སྐར་མ་ཙམ། །ཞལ་གཟིགས་རྗེས་སུ་གནང་བ་བསྩལ། །མདོ་རྒྱུད་གཉིས་ལ་རང་དབང་ཐོབ། །འཇིགས་མེད་སྤྱོད་འཆང་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to the upholder of fearless conduct—[who] was permitted to look upon the faces of as many Buddhas as there are stars in the sky, [who] achieved mastery over both sutra and tantra.

།བདུད་བཞི་སྐྱེ་མེད་དབྱིངས་སུ་གཅོད། །ཐུག་ཕྲད་ཤེས་པ་རང་སར་གྲོལ། །འཁོར་འདས་གཉིས་ཀྱི་འཁྲུལ་པ་ཞིག །དཔའ་བོ་ཆེན་པོ་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to the great daka2—[who] severed the four maras into unborn space, [who] liberated all mental phenomena on their own ground [by recognizing] the mistake in separating samsara and nirvana.

།རྟོགས་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་མཁའ་དང་མཉམ། །བྱིན་རླབས་གཟི་བརྗིད་ཉི་བཞིན་འབར། །དོན་བརྒྱུད་ཆུ་ཀླུང་བྱེ་བའི་ཕུགས། །གྲུབ་པའི་སྤྱི་མེས་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to the accomplished forefather—[whose] realized wisdom is equal to space, [whose] blessings burn with the radiance of the sun, [and whose] transmission lineages extend like ten million rivers.

།སྐྱེ་འཆི་མེད་པའི་བཙན་ས་ཟིན། །གནས་གསུམ་མཁའ་འགྲོའི་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་རྗེ། །དོན་ཆེན་གསང་བ་ཀུན་གྱི་བདག །སྐུ་བཞིའི་དབང་ཕྱུག་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to the sovereign of the four kayas—[who] seized the citadel beyond birth and death—the lord over the hosts of dakinis in the three realms, the master of the great meaning of all secrets.

།སྒྲིབ་པ་ཀུན་སྤངས་གཅེར་བུའི་ཚུལ། །ཆོས་ཉིད་དོན་སྟོན་ནག་པོ་ཆེ། །རྟེན་འབྲེལ་ཀུན་མཁྱེན་བལ་ཐུལ་གསོལ། །རང་བྱུང་རྣལ་འབྱོར་རྒྱལ་པོར་འདུད།
Homage to the self-arising yogin-king—[whose] naked conduct dispelled all defilements—the great black one [who] taught the meaning of reality, [who] wore the loincloth of interdependent omniscience.

།ཨཱ་ལི་ཀཱ་ལིའི་སྒྲ་དོན་རྟོགས། །བརྗོད་མེད་དོན་ལ་སྤོབས་པ་བརྙེས༑ །བརྗོད་པའི་ཆོས་སྒོར་མཚུངས་པ་མེད། །སྨྲ་པའི་སེང་གེ་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to the Lion of Speech—[who] realized the significance of the Alikali, [who] found confidence in its ineffable meaning, [who] is unequalled in the door of speech phenomena.

།བརྡ་དང་ཐབས་ཀྱིས་གསང་བ་འཆད། །འབྲེལ་ཚད་རྟོགས་གྲོལ་དུས་མཉམ་མཛད། །གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ལྔ་བརྒྱའི་གཙུག་གི་རྒྱན། །ཕ་གཅིག་དམ་པ་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to One-Father Dampa—[who] taught the secret by symbols and methods, [who] simultaneously realized and liberated all encounters, [who is] the crown jewel of five hundred siddhas.

།སྐྱེ་འགག་མེད་པའི་དགོངས་པ་རྟོགས། །སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཞི་བྱེད་ཆོས་འཁོར་བསྐོར། །སྡུག་བསྔལ་གསུམ་གྱི་འཆིང་བ་འགྲོལ། །འགྲོ་བའི་སྨན་པ་དེ་ལ་འདུད༏
Homage to the doctor of beings—[who] realized mind to be beyond birth and death, [who] turned the dharma wheel of the Pacification of Suffering3, [who] untied the bindings of the three sufferings.

།འབྱུང་བ་ལྔ་ལ་དབང་དུ་མཛད། །རྒྱ་བོད་ཀུན་ཏུ་ཞབས་ཀྱིས་བཅགས། །རྫུ་འཕྲུལ་རོལ་མོ་མཐའ་ཡས་བསྒྱུར། །འགྲན་གྱིས་ཟླ་མེད་དེ་ལ་འདུད།
Homage to he who is unrivaled in contest—[who gained] power over the five elements, [who] trekked all over India and Tibet on foot, producing miraculous melodies without limit.

ཁྱོད་སྐུ་རྗེ་བཙུན་སྨྲ་བའི་སེང་། །གསུང་དབྱངས་སྐྱེ་མེད་ནཱ་དའི་སྒྲ །ནམ་མཁའ་ལྟ་བུའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཐུགས། །རྟོགས་ངོར་རོ་མཉམ་སྣང་བས་འདུད།
To the form of the exalted Lion of Speech [whose] roar is the unborn melody, to the space-like wisdom mind, the face of realization, I pay homage with equal taste towards appearances.

།སྣང་ཚད་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཆེན་པོར་མཆོད། །འཁྲུལ་པ་བཅིང་གྲོལ་ཉིད་དུ་བཤགས། །ལམ་ལྔ་བགྲོད་མེད་རྗེས་ཡི་རང་། །སྟོང་ཉིད་རྟེན་འབྱུང་འཁོར་ལོ་སྐུལ། །རང་ཤར་ཟུང་འཇུག་རྟག་བརྟན་གསོལ། །ཤར་གྲོལ་བརྗོད་མེད་དབྱིངས་སུ་བསྔོ།
I offer all that appears as great primordial wisdom. I confess that I have mistaken bondage for liberation. I rejoice in the five paths that transcend progress. I exhort [you to turn] the wheel of emptiness and dependent-arising. I request that [we remain] in everlasting self-arisen union. I dedicate [so that] all that arises [may be] liberated in the ineffable expanse.

།ཡེ་ཤེས་སྐུ་ལ་ཕྱོགས་རིས་མེད། །ཐུགས་རྗེའི་སྤྱན་ལ་ཉེ་རིང་མེད། །ཉམ་ཆུང་མོས་པའི་བུ་ལ་དགོངས༑ །རྟོགས་པའི་བྱིན་གྱིས་བདག་ལ་རློབས།
Bless me with the boundless wisdom body. Bless me with eyes of compassion which lack bias. Think of me, your child of weak faith. Bless me with the gift of realization.

།ཉམས་རྟོགས་རྒྱ་མཚོ་འཕྱུར་བ་དང་། །མཁའ་མཉམ་འགྲོ་སྒྲོལ་དངོས་གྲུབ་སྩོལ། །ལམ་ལྔའི་མངོན་རྟོག་མཐར་ཕྱིན་ནས། །རྡོ་རྗེ་ལྟ་བུའི་ཏིང་འཛིན་བརྙེས༑ །རྗེ་བཙུན་ཁྱོད་དང་མཉམ་པ་ཡི། །གོ་འཕང་དེ་རིང་བསྩལ་དུ་གསོལ།
Grant me a swelling ocean of experience and realization. Bestow upon me the siddhi which liberates beings equal to space. Having arrived at the furthest reaches of the five path’s realizations and achieved vajra-like samadhi, please bestown [upon me] the level of Jestün—equal to yourself.

།འདི་ནི་རྩི་སྟོད་དཔའ་རྒོད་ཀྱི་གངས་དཀར་པོའི་གཡས་ཟུར། ཕ་དམ་པས་ལྷ་འདྲེ་གདུག་པ་ཅན་རྣམས་དམ་ལ་བཞག་ཅིང་རྒྱུད་སྨིན་གྲོལ་དུ་མཛད་པའི་བྲག་དི་བ་གམ་དང་ཁད་ཉེ་བའི་སྤང་ལྗོངས་མཛེས་པའི་མཎྡལ་དུ་སྐྱིལ་མོ་ཀྲུང་གཅིག་ལ་ཐོལ་བྱུང་ཚིག་གི་རོལ་མོ་འཁྲོལ་བ་པོ་རང་བྱུང་བློ་གྲོས་མཐའ་ཡས་པའི་སྡེའོ།། །། ༈
Colophone: In a rocky crag on the edge of Tö’s imposing range of snow-capped mountains, where Padampa bound the pernicious gods and demons under oath and ripened his mindstream to liberation—in this mansion near a meadow, in this beautiful mandala, these verses were written in one sitting by Lodrö Thayé, [as] the melodious words spontaneously [came to mind].

གླང་སྐོར་གསལ་བ་སྒང་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས། །རྗེ་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས། །གསོལ་འདེབས་ཀྱི་བུ་ལ་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས། ཉམས་དང་བྱིན་རླབས་སུ་ཡལ་ལ་ལ།
Quintessential Supplication: I supplicate the heights of radiant Langkor4. I supplicate Lord Dampa Sangye. Bless your beseeching child.

[Everything] dissolves into experience and blessings.

Quintessential Japa: (mantra omitted)

སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་ནི་སྐྱེ་བ་ཐམས་ཅད་དུ། །བློ་ལྡན་རིགས་བཟང་ང་རྒྱལ་མེད་པ་དང་། །སྙིང་རྗེ་ཆེ་ཞིང་བླ་མ་ལ་གུས་ལྡན། །ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོའི་འབྲས་བུ་མྱུར་འཐོབ་ཤོག
Dedication: May all sentient beings achieve excellent rebirth in all lifetimes. Without pride and with devotion for the lama, may they swiftly achieve the fruition of Mahamudra.

བྱང་ཆུབ་མཆོག་གི་སེམས་ནི་བསྐྱེད་པར་བགྱི། སེམས་ཅན་ཐམས་ཅད་བདག་གིས་མགྲོན་དུ་གཉེར། །བྱང་ཆུབ་སྤྱོད་མཆོག་ཡིད་འོང་སྤྱད་པར་བགྱི། །འགྲོ་ལ་ཕན་ཕྱིར་སངས་རྒྱས་འགྲུབ་པར་ཤོག།། །།
Aspiration: I generate the mind of supreme enlightenment. I engage in the supreme Bodhisattva conduct in order to delight the guests—all sentient beings. May I attain buddhahood in order to benefit beings.

1 (Tib. བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་གྲུབ་, Wyl. brtul zhugs grub; alt. Wyl. brtul zhugs spyod pa.) Often translated as “yogic conduct” (which certainly gestures towards its poetic signification in Vajrayanic contexts, but is a bit of a stretch as a translation). Following DiValerio (2015) and others, I have chosen to translate it as “the practice of the observance” or “observance practice.”
2 (Tib. དཔའ་བོ་, Wyl. dpa bo) Sometimes translated as “hero” or “courageous one.” Can also refer to the male consort of a dakini. Related to Skt. daka, shura.
3 (Tib. །སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཞི་བྱེད་, Wyl. sdug bsngal zhi byed) “The Pacification of Suffering,” Padampa Sangye’s Zhije or “Pacification” school. In the various Vajrayanic imaginaries—and attested to in compendiums like the “gdams ngag mdzod”—Damp’s “Zhije” or “Pacification” school is often positioned alongside Machig Labdron’s “Chöd” or “Severance” school (Tib. གཅོད་ཡུལ་, Wyl. gcod yul). Many extent liturgies refer to them as the “father” and “mother” lineages of the same tradition. For more on the connection between Dampa Sangye and Machig Labdron, see Edou (Snow Lion: 1996), Harding (Snow Lion: 2003), Molk & Wangdu Rinpoche (Snow Lion: 2008).
4 (Tib. དིང་རི་གླང་སྐོར་, Wyl. ding ri glang skor) Dingri Langkor, located in the southern part of central Tibet, is generally known as the seat of Padampa Sangye, particularly during the so-called “later transmission” period. Much of the extent teachings of Dampa Rinpoche come from this period, including those given to Machig Labdron, catalyzing her “Severance” school.







Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Trans. Padmakara Translation Group. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.

“Lies” Pt. 2—Specters of a Buddhist Translation Theory; and “Homage to Prajnaparamita”


If you missed “Lies” Part 1, click here

Each year, my Root Guru conducts a New Year’s Vajrakilaya retreat according to the Dudjom Tersar’s Pudri Rekpung Vajrakilaya sadhana. As part of the practice, we mold a large, wrathful effigy from dough, and throughout the retreat, we ritually and symbolically feed our obstacles and obscurations to the effigy. The climax comes at the end of the retreat when we throw the effigy into a huge bonfire and then depart without looking back (at the burning effigy).


Lama Padma Gyatso (center), The Lion Lotsawa (right), and Chagdud Gonpa sangha reciting Heart Sutra during a dokpa ritual. [Photo Credit: John Swearingen]

In the course of this dokpa (Tib. ཟློག་པ་. Wyl. zlog pa) or “dispelling” ritual, we retreatants recite the famous Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom“) Heart Sutra after having cast the effigy into the flames. Lopez (1996: 223-224) has noted the connection between the recitation of the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra in dokpa rituals to a scene from the 8,000-stanza and 18,000-stanza versions of the Perfection of Wisdom, in which the Śakra’s recitation of the Perfection of Wisdom dispels the four-fold armies of Mara before they can besiege the Buddha.

As a chöd practitioner, I have a particularly close relationship Prajnaparamita—in her manifold dual and non-dual manifestation(s?). Indeed, it is said that noble Goddess Tara appeared in a vision to the founder of the Mother lineage of chöd, Machig Labdron, and proclaimed the latter to be a human emanation of boundless Prajnaparamita (Edou 1996: 28-29). Similarly, Prajanparamita in deified form sits atop the chöd lineage’s refuge tree, and the non-dual nature of mind, abstracted as the sign “Prajnaparamita,” is the innermost distillation of chöd practice.

With such a polyvalent breadth of significations, Prajnaparamita is indeed ineffable; but as a pedagogical mechanism, she signifies both a process of “perfecting” wisdom (the path of training), and the non-conceptual realization of the non-dual nature of mind, which is inherently “perfect” (the result of training). So then, if Prajnaparamita is the wisdom that transcends wisdom—being both the dualistic path and the non-dual destination of Bodhisattva training, then what are the implications on Western scholarship, which almost exclusively deals in dualistic wisdom?

Prajnaparamita and Epistemic Production

As mentioned in my last post, Mahayana Buddhist epistemology—and, therefore, Prajnaparamita—is typified by the doctrine of “Two Truths“: relative truth and absolute truth. Absolute truth (as described from a relative position) is the unfabricated and interminable sphere of non-duality from which all consciousness and all conscious phenomena (or, “objects” of conciousness) arise. This is synonymous with (and refers to the non-conceptual realization of) what Buddhism refers to as “emptiness” (which I will not endeavor to explain further here). Conversely, relative truth is that which differentiates between “this” and “that,” and which seeks to define those characteristics which make “this” different from “that”—in other words, dualistic knowledge. In this way, almost all forms of academic research produces relative or dualistic truth, even those methodologies which claim to buck classical Cartesian dualism. An obvious example would be this very paragraph: since here I am attempting to define relative versus absolute truth, this necessarily falls into the relative category. Indeed, categories themselves are relative or dualistic by nature.

But to conclude that dualistic knowledge is somehow worthless would be an extreme, and most readers will remember that the Great Vehicle espouses the “middle way” the avoid all extremes (perhaps an allusion to the absolute, which is devoid of dualistic, polar extremes?). It is for this reason that translators have been esteemed figures at various points throughout Buddhist history despite their engagement with dualistic knowledge. The translator is the medium through which new speech communities encounter Dharmic teachings in their relative form (that is, in the form of words). And it is those teachings which, despite being dualistic by nature (as all words are), gesture towards the non-dual absolute. I should be careful here not to overstate the centrality of the translator; especially in the Vajrayana tradition, it is the guru or lama, not the translator, that is at the center of the proverbial mandala. However, while it is obvious (sometimes painfully so) that not all translators are gurus, the historical record reveals a great number of gurus and lamas who were also celebrated translators.

So if we can avoid the extreme conclusion that dualistic knowledge is inherently worthless, and if we can establish (from a relative perspective, at least) that translation in particular has both emic and etic value, then what might a Prajnaparamitaic theory of translation look like?

Prajnaparamita, Translation Theory, and Reader Response Theory

I recently read Quintman’s version of “The Life of Milarepa,” published by Penguin Classics (2010) and marketed as a  “classic” of world literature. However, while reading Quintman’s translation I could not help but ponder the innumerable ways that the translation might differ from the original Tibetan—which begs the question, when Penguin Classics calls the book a “classic,” which version is the classic? The English or the Tibetan? Because surely they’re not identical. While exploring these sorts of questions in her artful ode to untranslatability, entitled Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013), translator and translation studies scholar Emily Apter points out that the project of “World Literature” homogenizes and brutishly tramples over cultural, linguistic, and political nuance. Furthermore, she illustrates that at the root of the notion of “World Literature” is the problematic assumption that literature is a world commodity that can easily be geographically and linguistically exported and imported across borders (the same way that, for example, fruit exported from South America can be easily enjoyed by North Americans). However, anyone who has engaged in any degree of translation has been faced with the fact that ideas cannot as easily cross linguistic boundaries in the same way that commodities can cross geo-political borders.

Other translation theorists (see: Venuti 2012) have used metaphors like “translation as violence” and “translation as loss” to describe the fact that certain aspects of language are simply untranslatable, and thus get “lost” or “violently removed” in the course of translation. If these metaphors were Venn Diagrams, we might label the section where all the metaphors overlap as referencing the “impossibility of translation.” These theories all hinge on the notion that information is encoded in the linguistically-specific diction of a text, making it impossible to translate a text into a new languages without affecting its encoded information in some way. In general, this is an undeniable fact of translation.

However, in a puritanical sense (and admittedly, in an oversimplified, rhetorical sense), to push this line of reasoning to its terminus would be to conclude that no one is truly reading the Buddhadharma, with all its nuance and richness in-tact, unless they are reading it in the Sanskrit vernacular in which it was first spoken or written. As a Buddhist, this also feels like an extreme to be avoided on the “middle way.”

While it is undeniable that information is encoded in a text’s diction at the time of its genesis, this model of meaning-making leaves out at least half the equation: namely, the reader, who also projects meaning onto, and distills meaning from, a text at the time of reading it. Regardless of what meaning or information is encoded by a text’s author, it is the reader who is the ultimate meaning-making agent. And oftentimes, the meanings extrapolated by a texts readers, even those who read the text in its native language, are startling diverse to say the least (even to the point of sometimes directly contradicting the “intended” meaning encoded by the author[s]).

In the academy, the recognition that a text’s meaning is negotiated not just by its author(s) but by its reader(s) as well is known as “reader reception theory” or “reader response theory” (RRT for short). We might conclude, then, that the middle way would prescribe a path somewhere between the extremes of “author-centric” (semiotic) and “reader-centric” (RRT) methodologies. But not so fast.

From the absolute Prajnaparamitaic perspective, even the words that make up the Buddhadharma are themselves “empty.” Ultimately, this means that there is no inherent meaning in a given word or symbol, and therefore there is no essential significance to be lost in the course of translation. But from a relative perspective, the doctrine of “interdependent origination” (Skt. pratityasamutpada, Tib. རྟེན་འབྲེལ་, Wyl. rten ‘brel) anticipates RRT, asserting that all phenomena (including meaning and signification) arise from a complex and contextually specific matrix of interrelated causes and conditions. Since no two readers come to a text with the same contextual positionality, the doctrine of interdependent origination would predict that no two readers would ever get the exact same information out of a text.

A Prajnaparamitaic Translation Theory and/as Upaya

Despite the non-dual nature of the absolute, Mahayana employs the doctrine of “skillful means” (Skt. upaya, Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs) to bridge the relative and the ultimate. Skillful means is like the finger pointing to the reflection of the moon on a lake in order to help one realize for themselves that there is in fact a moon in the sky—as long as one does not mistake the finger for the reflection, or the reflection for the real thing, of course. Put another way, skillful means is like a mother who, having realized her house is on fire, says to her oblivious daughter,”I think I hear the ice cream man outside,” in order to skillfully draw her daughter away from her toys and redirect her outside the burning building. Once outside, the fact that there was no ice cream man (what we would call a “lie”) is insignificant in the face of the real result—a result that could not have been fathomed until after having achieved it by means of upaya. In the same way, in the non-dual dharmadatu, all words (even those that comprise Dharmic texts) are empty, or what I playfully call “lies,” but that does not undermine their pedagogical use-value in the dualistic world.

In the same way that words can be recognizes as upaya in a Prajnaparamitaic translation theory, translation itself can act as upaya. Indeed, the very reason I first began learning Classical Tibetan and engaging in translation was as a support for my practice. It is not hard to imagine how translating Tibetan and Sanskrit dharma texts might help one’s practice. However, in order to truly be a Prajnaparamitaic translation theory, intention is critical. Ultimately, Prajnaparamita as a path is synonymous with the Bodhisattva path. Therefore, at its core, Prajnaparamitaic translation, in order for it to be so, must be performed with the intention of not just benefiting oneself, but with the intention of also benefiting others. (What it means to truly benefit others is a complex topic, especially from the Vajrayana point of view, so we’ll leave that for another post.)


We might enumerate some of the (relative, dualistic) characteristics of a Prajnaparamitaic translation theory as follows:

  1. Operates on a system of logic (known as the “Two Truths”) that transcends the binary, polarized form of logic found in most of Western Academia
  2. (On a relative level) Recognizes that meaning is encoded by both author and reader in a manner congruent with the doctrine of interdependent origination.
  3. (On an ultimate level) Recognizes that all words are empty, and so there is nothing to be “lost in translation” because there was essentially never anything there to begin with—or as I like to say, “words are lies.”
  4. (Despite the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena) Appreciates the use-value of relative truths when used skillfully to gesture towards the absolute
  5. (On a meta level) Regards translation itself as a powerful upaya on the Bodhisattva path, to be engaged in with the intention of benefiting all beings

What might be some other characteristics of a Prajnaparamitaic translation theory?
Post your ideas in the comments!


Homage to Prajnaparamita


Ineffable, inconceivable, inexplicable is Prajnaparamita.


Unborn and interminable, [her] very nature is like space.


Experienced discretely as knower and object of knowledge,


To the Mother of the Three Times’ victors, [I] prostrate.

ཏདྱ་ཐཱ། ཨོཾཽ་ག་ཏེ་ག་ཏེ་པཱ་ར་ག་ཏེ་པཱ་ར་སཾ་ག་ཏེ་བོ་དྷི་སྭཱ་ཧཱ།

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.Sources


Apter, Emily S. Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. London: Verso, 2013.

Edou, Jérôme. Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Boston: Snow Lion, 1996.

Heruka, Tsangnyon. The Life of Milarepa. Trans. Andrew Quintman. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996.

Venuti, Lawrence, ed. The Translation Studies Reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Photo Sources

John Swearingen – http://dharmaphotos.zenfolio.com/