“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/



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

  1. The tradition of Santa Clause came to my mind when you brought the beautiful example of a loving mother intended on saving her children, directing them outside by useful means, something she knew would draw them out of danger, into safety…

    Although I am not so familiar and informed about the original origins of the Santa story-telling tradition, I can see that the practice of telling this story that a fat man, dressed in ornate clothes, intent on bringing various gifts and granting wishes to those that have been “good”, could have a similar intention, despite being a lie or fabrication. It’s an example of a story that I’ve grappled with and wondered if it is a bad tradition because it somewhat involves deceiving children through the generations, however I recognize there are good intentions behind it and if done thoughtfully and with care, can be a great thing…

    I love these writings and reflections you are sharing and I am sending this to my brother, because him and I are discussing themes of language and the issues that are raised by word usage, and the confusions that result!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Senge Drayang,
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Recently I found myself twice trying to explain in a very rudimentary way the basic ontology of mantra and of the seed syllables that make up mantras. With your careful approach to the topic of the use-value of dualistic form, particularly when it comes to language, I think it could be of great benefit if you published a piece on the ontology of seed syllables.
    In my beginner’s understanding and practice of Vajrayana, Sanskrit mantra and seed syllable are closest to being “untranslatable.” Much like the mantra of the Prajnaparamita, the syllables can perhaps be loosely translated, but the value of the mantra is in its connection to the absolute. And correct me if I’m wrong, but while they CAN be translated, often times in practice they simply aren’t.
    In light of this binary — that of the translated and the untranslated — perhaps you can dive in and apply your Prajnaparamitaic approach to address the nature of seed syllables. If you know of published material (in English) that you think already does this, feel free to send it along!
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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