“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


Photo Sources