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 prostrate—with 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.