“Lying Lamas” — Reconciling Hagiography and Historicity


Shri Singha: Was he Indian or Chinese? Or does it even matter? Source: HAR

Some readers will recall that as a doctoral student, my research explores hagiographic representations and interpretations of non-monastic tantric specialists (and their sometimes transgressive and antinomian behaviors) across Indo-Tibetan Buddhist time and space. To date, one can loosely identify two major themes within much (but certainly not all) of the extent scholarship on tantric Buddhist hagiography: questions about historicity, and questions about semiotic representation. As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, semiotic studies that question have immense value, but only when recognized to be half of any given literary event (the moment when words on a page are articulated and abstracted into “meaning” in a human being’s mind). The other half of the equation—which has received considerably less focus, and to which I hope to draw greater attention—is the reader.

Being that many (most?) readers of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography are also Vajrayana practitioners, an apparent conundrum arises when any given hagiographical narrative, whether articulated in a sacred text or by ones beloved Lama, seems to be contradicted by historical, scholarly analysis. However, the primary objective of this post is to demonstrate that this opposition dissolves upon closer inspection, particularly when contemplated in conjunction with important Buddhist concepts like thab, (Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs, Skt. upaya, “skillful means”),  tendrel (Tib. རྟེན་འབྲེལ་, Wyl. rten ‘brel, Skt. pratityasamutpada, “dependent arising”), and the Union of Two Truths.

China, Śri Singha, and Keyboard Warriors

Being fundamental to my methodological approach to the academic study of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography, the ideas articulated in this post have been marinating in my mind for some time now. However, the impetus for finally putting them to pixelated-paper was an equally pixelated event that occurred recently on a popular social media website. A dear friend and Nyingmapa Vajra-brother of mine posted an image of himself sitting below a breathtaking, life-size mural of the mahasiddha Shri Singha—one of the “founding fathers” of the Nyingmapa Dzogchen lineage. Citing recent scholarship on the topic (also see: Powers 2012: 397-8), this friend stated in the caption to the image that Shri Singha was likely an Indian mahasiddha from the Indo-Himalayan region presently known as Kinnaur.


Life-size mural of Shri Singha in the Zangdok Palri Mandala in Tso Pema, India. Source: Ankit Sinha

This seemingly innocuous post became a battleground of belligerence when a commenter became enflamed by the fact that the association of Shri Singha with India appeared to contradict the traditional narrative that the mahasiddha came from China, as stated by that commenter’s Lama and many other well known Tibetan masters. According to the commenter, their Lama “is Dzogchen” (direct quote, my emphasis), and therefore no mortal scholar could ever present any evidence that could possibly falsify or warrant reevaluation of the traditional narrative that Shri Singha was Chinese. And because the commenter’s Lama “is Dzogchen,” the commenter deemed it impossible that their Lama could ever be wrong about the details of a Dzogchen lineage master’s life story—especially regarding a lineage master as important as Shri Singha. Despite my friend’s attempt to share relevant (academic and religious) sources on the topic, offense was taken and the commenter ultimately blocked my friend’s social media account.

However, this digital falling-out between two devoted members of the Buddhist sangha is quite tragic because, as we will see, offense need not be taken. What may at first appear to be irreconcilable, mutually exclusive contradictions between hagiography (traditional narratives) and historicity (the verifiability or falsifiability of a given historical event or claim using scholarly methodology) are actually two equally valid epistemic systems when assessed by their respective value systems. Furthermore, for those of us—like my friend mentioned above—who are both scholars and practitioners, I will argue that it is possible for us to subscribe to both narratives, simultaneously.

So then, what are the value systems that underlie these two approaches to biographical narrative?

Historicity and Falsification

(NOTE: Much of this section repeats some of the points made preciously in the two-part series on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory [ here and here ], re: academic knowledge production, upaya, and the Union of Two Truths.)

As I have pointed out in the articles linked above, academic knowledge production is based upon a two-point, or “one axis” spectrum of truth (supported <—> unsupported). The classical model of the scientific method (which is here, admittedly, totally over-simplified, but which suffices for our current discussion) goes something like this: 1. Develop hypothesis. 2. Develop experiments that empirically test this hypothesis. 3. Analyze results. 4. If results support hypothesis, continue with more experimentation with same hypothesis; if results do not support the hypothesis, adapt the hypothesis and continue with more experimentation.

It is crucial to this system that the hypothesis be falsifiable—that is, it must be something that can be supported by evidence or otherwise disproven (falsified) with evidence. In a caricaturized debate between atheists and theists, atheists might say to theists, “You cannot prove god exists.” Meanwhile, theists might say to atheists, “Yes, but you cannot prove god doesn’t exist.” This illustrates this issue of falsifiability. For something to be a valid academic argument, it must be able to be tested and either supported or falsified by evidence. Falsification is an apt term for scholarly endeavors because the scientific method cannot ever definitively prove anything to be true—it can only ever definitively prove something to be untrue. For instance, in my terribly simplified model of scholarly inquiry outlined above, if one’s hypothesis is supported by empirical evidence, there are always more experiments that can be done to potentially falsify the hypothesis. However, if the empirical evidence does not support the hypothesis, then it can be definitively stated that the hypothesis is not true, and therefore needs to be revised to account for the conflicting evidence.

(For further discussion on academic knowledge production, with appropriate caveats given to emergent disciplines and experimental methodologies that challenge the regime of falsification, see my two posts on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory linked above, or click here and here).

Therefore, the value of academic scholarship is measured by its “truthfulness” (I use this word “truth” very loosely). Here I intend “truthfulness” to signify the degree to which something is verifiable or falsifiable using empirical analysis. This might seem readily obvious to some readers, but it is imperative that this distinction be made, because hagiographical narratives and teachings in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism utilize a different value system.

Hagiography and Upaya

Truthfulness is a slippery slope in Mahayana Buddhist epistemology because the latter works on a four-point, or “two axis” system of truth, articulating between “true” and “false” on the X axis, and between “relative (or conventional)” and “ultimate” on the Y axis (this is, of course, viewing ultimate truth from the perspective of relative truth, because distinguishing between relative and ultimate is a dualistic binary which is necessarily relativistic). Therefore, a dualistic conceptual distinction between this and that (like all words, for instance) can be “true” on the relative level, while simultaneously dissolving into the non-dual ground on the ultimate level. However, to further complicate the matter, Mahayana philosophy values both relative and ultimate truth as being in a state of unified equilibrium. This question of “truthfulness” becomes quite complex in Mahayana and Vajrayana contexts. Thus, it is not the only value system upon which the validity of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings are emically judged. So then what is the value system governing these Buddhists teachings? In short: upaya (Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs, “skillful means”).

In order to help myself understand upaya, I have developed my own modern rendition of a well-known sutric parable. Imagine there is a mother and a daughter inside a house, and the mother realized that the house is on fire. The daughter, however is so engrossed in playing with her toys that when the mother says, “Honey, the house is on fire! We must


Wall painting of Shri Singha inside Dudjom Orgyen Choling in Boudhanath, Nepal.

go!” the child does nothing, continuing to play with her toys. The child has never seen a house burn down, she has never encountered the pain of heat and burns, and she has very little grasp of mortality, so she has no frame of reference with which to understand her mother’s urgency. The Mother frantically continues appealing to the daughter, begging her to get up and leave the house, but the daughter simply continues playing. Then, the Mother gets a skillful idea. She says, “Oh what’s that? I think I hear the ice cream truck outside!” The daughter certainly has a frame of reference with which to understand the urgency required to catch the ice-cream truck, lest it passes by leaving her empty-handed and ice-creamless. Thus, the Mother and daughter quickly run out of the (still burning) house. Once outside, the daughter realizes there is no ice cream truck, but now, from her new vantage point, she can see that the house is being consumed by flames, she can see it collapse, and she is now in a position to better understand that which she could not have understood before.

The skillful “lie” told by the mother is upaya. Recognizing that her daughter lacked the perspective to understand the urgency of the scenario, the Mother had to use skillful means to first elicit a non-conceptual transformation in her daughter (getting her to physically get up and leave the house) that would subsequently allow the daughter to realize a much broader perspective post-transformation. In other words, it is only after this transformation that the daughter is able to see the much larger picture—a much larger and graver picture than she was able to grasp while still in the house. With the privilege of a new perspective, the daughter could then appreciate the insignificance of dualistic categories like “lies” and “truth” in the face of the much larger implications at stake (like being burned alive).

In this example, the Mother is the Lama, the daughter is the Lama’s disciple, and the skillful “lie” about the ice cream truck represents the Buddhist teachings. To be clear, I am not here to say that all Buddhist teachings are lies, per se. Rather, I am arguing that whether they are lies or not is totally irrelevant to the value system upon which the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings are based. These teachings are intended to skillfully catalyze non-conceptual transformations in students that ameliorates the student’s suffering and bring the student ever closer to enlightenment, and therefore liberation (ie. escaping the “burning house” of suffering).

Therefore, the value of hagiographical narratives is not based on their truthfulness, as is the case in much of academia. Rather, their value is wholly contingent upon their ability to skillfully transform the student’s perceptions in order to minimize suffering, maximize compassion, and ultimately bring the student to liberation (so that they can then skillfully help other beings come to the same state of realization, of course). In this way, I do not feel it is necessary to be offended when other scholars challenge the veracity or historicity of various teachings or hagiographical narratives. Even if your Lama “is Dzogchen,” that does not mean everything she says must be inherently true in the relative, dualistic, academic sense. Rather, if your Lama “is Dzogchen,” then you can rest assured the value of her teachings—being totally divorced from relative conceptualities about “true” and “false,” “right” and “wrong,” “facts” and “lies”—has everything to do with whether or not they will skillfully bring you closer to enlightenment.

So, personally speaking, as a scholar-practitioner doing academic research into Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography, I am perfectly happy to accept that even though, for instance, my beloved Dudjom Rinpoche writes in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (1991: 497)) that Shri Singha was born in China, this may actually not be the case according to the epistemic systems that produce Western scholarship. Furthermore, the fact that Dudjom Rinpoche might be “wrong” (by academic standards) about Shri Singha’s birthplace in no way challenges my perception of Dudjom Rinpoche as being a modern Buddha, more kind than the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Nor does it mean that practitioners must abandon traditional narratives in favor of “academic” ones, precisely because, as this article attempts to article, traditional and academic approaches to historiography stem from different epistemic systems and are based upon different goals. To reiterate, all words and all conceptual knowledge, including all Dharma knowledge and concepts, are ultimately dualistic compartmentalizations that completely dissolve in the dharmadatu of ultimate truth. Therefore, I am fully content to accept that both narratives can exist in equilibrium without having to be reconciled, one over the other. For this reason, if it were not so tragic to see schisms in the sangha, I would laugh at the irony of Dzogchen students bickering over whose Lama is more correct about a mahasiddha’s birthplace.

About the Translation Below

The translation that I have prepared to accompany this essay is an excerpt from hagiography of the 11/12th C. Lord of Siddhas, Padampa Sangye. This excerpt states Padampa Sangye was none other than the great 8th C. Buddhist master Kamalasila. If this were the case, then by the time Dampa Rinpoche displayed his passing into parinirvana (death) in the early 12th century, he would have been over four hundred years old.

Empirically speaking, I have never seen a human being live to be four hundred years old, nor have I seen credible documentation of a human living such a long time. Therefore, barring some massive discovery of credible evidence, from an academic standpoint, it seems unlikely that Dampa Rinpoche lived to be four hundred years old. However, as a practitioner, this is all totally and completely beside the point.

While I am willing to accept on the relative level that Dampa Rinpoche probably did not live that long,, as a practitioner I am also perfectly content to follow my Lama’s words when he says that Dampa Rinpoche was Kamalasila. This is precisely because I have confident faith in my Lama’s upaya. Both narratives can co-exist when we recognize them to be based on totally different value systems, which are, in turn, based on two totally different intentions.


Vairotsana Lotsawa and Acarya Padampa Sangye. Source: HAR

Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section below!


An Excerpt from the Namthar of Padampa Sangye, entitled:
“The Sun Blazing with One Thousand Rays of Siddhis”

[pg. 35] Biographies further state that when Khenpo Bodhisattva’s body approached death, he prophesied that, “In the future, a time will come when corrupted philosophies will spread here in Tibet. At that time, you must invite my student, Pandita Kamalashila.”

When the Chinese Hashang disseminated perverse doctrines that obstructed virtuous practices of body, speech, and so forth, Kamalashila was invited from India as an antidote. He [then] wrote the trilogy on the Stages of Meditation, and disputed the false tenets by means of debate, annihilating them and causing the Buddha’s teachings to spread and flourish. Having done so, according to the beliefs of some disciples, he then demonstrated the process of passing away into Nirvana.

[pg. 36] In fact, he [actually] traveled back to India. When he later returned to Tibet, his name became Dampa. Regarding the presence [of this information] in quotes or teachings, nowhere can this be seen or heard in the authority of Dampa’s own words; however, in general, one finds that in the texts of the Zhije tradition, it is said that in India, Dampa Rinpoche was known as both Kamalashri and Kamalashila.

Additionally, when Lama Dorje Denpa [Buddha Shakyamuni] was facilitating a feast-gathering, he had a vision of the 84 mahasiddhas, and offered a verse of praise for each. In one of those verses he says:

Skilled in grammar, logic, scripture, philosophy, and oral instructions,

Awareness-Holder who has discovered the boon of immortality,

I pay homage to the Guru

Known as Kamalashila

If one considers the words of that verse, it is quite obvious and clear. According to the words of the Karmapas, it also appears that in India, Dampa was known as Kamalashila. Agreeing with all of this, the great scholar Patyashri further states that having returned to India, [Dampa Rinpoche] received, from male and female mahasiddha gurus, from various yidam deities, and from wisdom dakinis, the blessed transmissions and oral instructions on countless extraordinary Sutric and Tantric teachings—some that had been heard before and some that had never been heard.

[pg. 37] Having practiced at [various] holy sites, it is said that he benefited all the beings in the noble land of India by means of enlightened activity which tamed beings according to their needs, including generating countless magical emanations and so forth.

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

Tibetan Source

chos kyi seng ge & ganga pa gnyis kyis brtsams. “grub pa’i dbang phyug chen po rje btsun dam pa sangs rgyas kyi rnam par thar pa dngos grub ‘od stong ‘bar ba’i nyi ma.” Buddhist Digital Resource Center. Web.  ( https://www.tbrc.org/#!rid=W1KG14796 )

Sources and Bibliography

“Biographies: Sri Simha, the Lion of Dzogchen.” Dharma Fellowship. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.

DiValerio, David M. The Holy Madmen of Tibet. New York: Oxford UP, 2015.

Gyatso, Janet, and Jigs ‘Med Gling Pa. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary: A Translation and Study of Jigme Lingpa’s Dancing Moon in the Water and Dakki’s Grand Secret Talk. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Amy. The Social Life of Tibetan Biography: Textuality, Community, and Authority in the Lineage of Tokden Shakya Shri. Lanham: Lexington, 2014.

Jiigs Bral Ye Shes Rdo Rje, Bdud ‘joms, Gyurme Dorje, and Matthew Kapstein. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002. Print.

Powers, John, and David Templeman. Historical Dictionary of Tibet. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

Quintman, Andrew. The Yogin & the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.

Media Sources



“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/



“Lies” — Specters of a Buddhist Translation Theory; and Jigme Lingpa’s “A Moon Dancing on Water.”


Lies, Two Truths, and an Empty Translation Theory

I frequently chuckle to myself when I consider my fascination with translation. Why? Well, I guess it comes down to the “Two Truths.” On the one hand, I am directly aware of the ultimately empty nature of ‘signs’—linguistic or otherwise—and their conceptually abstracted ‘signifieds.’ On the other hand, many a Buddha have been reared on the nectar of dharmic discourse. To deny the relative benefit of linguistic communication is an extreme, not to mention a rejection of a powerful upaya (“skillful means,” a Buddhist pedagogical concept, more on this later).

To put it crudely (and, delightfully un-academically), I’ve found that much of the logic practiced-and-performed in Western Academia is on a two-point continuum. Owing much of its intellectual lineage (but certainly not all of it) to the pre- and post-Enlightenment notions of the “scientific method(s),” many disciplines in the Academy still operate on a very “black and white” binary of falsification. In this binary, only one extreme can be certain: the negative. A hypothesis can be definitively disproven, but—as many a Texas School Boardee has reminded us—science cannot definitely prove anything. Other emergent academic disciplines have chosen (artfully, in my opinion) to direct their attention at some of the liminal spaces between binaries. This has resulted in exciting new methodologies that often prefer to navigate polar tensions rather than incessantly seeking to reconcile or rectify them. However, I would argue that even these emergent methodologies are still based upon a two-point binary of logic or truth—or what Buddhists call “relative truth.”

However, the Great Vehicle presents what, from a relativistic perspective, could be called a four-point system of logic (or “truth”)—classically known as the “Two Truths.” The concept of “Two Truths” is fundamentally dependent upon the Buddhist notion of emptiness. So while the “Ultimate” or “Absolute Truth” teaches us that all things are empty of an inherent, eternal, essential identity—because all things are impermanent, the “Relative Truth” reminds us that from the unborn ground of emptiness, all myriad forms of sensory perceptions and conceptual formations spontaneously arise. In this way, words can be ultimately empty—or, what I playfully call “lies“—but have relative consequences.

But at the heart of Buddhist translation, there will always be a paradox. What is a Buddhist translator to do? Thankfully, the Buddhist hagiographical tradition gives us many exciting stories of venerated translators, or lotsawa (Tib. ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་, Skt. locchava). This gives fledgling translators, like myself, confidence because not only are we guided along a well trodden path, but we are also afforded the privilege of feeling supported and valued by our tradition. In the Academy, the former is also very true. However, regarding the latter, many academic discourses on translation theory, especially recents ones concerning the invisibility of the translator and the impossibility of translation, have revealed a perceived academic prejudice that allegedly regards translation as being not quite scholarship in- and of-itself. “After all, isn’t translation just re-writing something that’s already been written?”

Lion/Lyin’ Lotsawa and Translation and/as “Lies”

Because of the fundamental paradox at the heart of my relationship with words, I try to maintain a playful relationship with translation practice. Thankfully, there is a similar degree of humor reflected in the Vajrayanic translation tradition, especially in regards to the colophone—a small note at the end of a text mentioning its author and the circumstances of its genesis. Great masters often signed their work with self-deprecating or otherwise silly titles like “the madman,” “the beggar,” “the old grandpa,” “the bald,” etc. I cannot help but partake of the fun!

The name given to me by my Guru is Senge Drayang (Tib. སེང་གེ་སྒྲ་དབྱངས་, Wyl. seng ge sgra dbyangs). “Senge” means “lion” and Drayang means “melodious roar.” The Tibetan word dra (Tib. སྒྲ་, Wyl. sgra), here meaning “roar,” also means “word.” It is is the same dra that is found in the Tibetan word for “translation,” dragyur (Tib. སྒྲ་སྒྱུར་ , Wyl. sgra sgyur). This blog’s name (“The Lion Lotsawa”) is a play on my Tibetan name, Senge. But in the spirit of playful colophones, I often sign my work as “Lyin Lotsawa,” referring to the ultimate, empty, and nondual nature of all phenomena: even my own translation work.

To better articulate my point about translation and/as “lies,” I offer a translation of a song from Jigme Lingpa (Tib.་འཇིགས་མེད་གླིང་པ་, Wyl. ‘jigs med gling pa). Two hundred years after his mortal passing, Kunkhyen (“Omniscient”) Jigme Lingpa remains one of the most renowned Tibetan masters of Vajrayana, particularly to those of the Nyingma school like myself. He is best known for his revelation of Dzogchen teachings and practices collectively known as the Longchen Nyingthik (Tib. ཀློང་ཆེན་སྙིང་ཐིག་, Wyl. klong chen snying thig), or the “Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse.”

Jigme Lingpa’s “A Moon Dancing on Water”


Prostrations to the glorious primordial protector.

Unborn, unhindered, unelaborate by nature,

Inapprehensible, self-liberated, unfabricated luminosity—

To utterly pure, ordinary rigpa,

I prostratewith a conviction that does not descend into the three times.


Although Kuntuzangpo does not depend on even a speck of virtue,

By the merit of knowing his own unsullied nature,

He actualized enlightenment, while sentient beings in the three realms

Wander in samsara without even a grain of nonvirtue.


Therefore, I am aware that differentiating between samsara and nirvana,

Due to the magical display of awareness and ignorance, is a mistake.

Yet, I am also saddened that the deceptive sorcerer of habitual tendency

Continues to beguile [sentient beings].


Aside from the ground expanse, with its six distinguishing characteristics,

I realize that everything is a lie—a grand one.

However, for the sake of guiding faithful disciples,

Here I will illuminate my experience and realization:

A moon dancing on water.

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

Textual Source


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First post and སྣང་གྲགས་རིག་གསུམ་


On Translation Theory and Pure Vision

As a Buddhist, constructing a theory of translation is precarious task. Paradoxically, words are both the Dharma itself, and conceptual signifiers that are fundamentally incapable of dualistically encapsulating the Dharma. How to come to terms with this? Don’t take myself, or words, so seriously. (Plus, as a tantrika, I guess I sort of love [or hate?] paradoxes). More on this later (See: “Lies”).

So, to set things off with pure intention and pure view, I offer a translation of Terdak Lingpa’s (Tib.གཏེར་བདག་གླིང་པ་) famous last words.

Terdak Lingpa established the famous Mindroling Monastery in 1676 and was a speech emanation of Vairotsana Lotsawa.

Read more at http://mindrolling.org/.


Nang Drag Rig Sum

སྣང་གྲགས་རིག་གསུམ་ལྷ་སྔགས་ཆོས་སྐུའི་ངང། །

Sights, sounds, and awareness are deity, mantra, and the continuity of Dharmakaya,

སྐུ་དང་ཡེ་ཤེས་རོལ་པར་འབྱམས་ཀླས་པ ། ། (པས་) (པར་)

Unfolding infinitely as the play of form and wisdom.

ཟབ་གསང་རྣལ་འབྱོར་ཆེན་པོའི་ཉམས་ལེན་པ ། ། (ལ་)

(In) the practice of the profound and secret Mahayoga,

དབྱེར་མེད་ཐུགས་ཀྱི་ཐིག་ལེར་རོ་གཅིག་ཤོག། །

May (all) be unified as one taste at mind’s apogee.

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