Heide: What was your key motivation when you decided to study Tibetan and Sanskrit and which teacher encouraged you most?
Chris: When I met Dezhung Rinpoche in 1972 I knew with certainty that I wanted to learn from him. He did not speak any English, so the only way to learn from him was to learn Tibetan. I started going to the Tibetan classes at the University of Washington. In those days the knowledge of Tibetan was not considered very useful in the academic community and everyone serious about Buddhist studies was encouraged to learn Sanskrit. Dezhung Rinpoche had studied Sanskrit for three years in his youth, and encouraged me to learn it. For me, Sanskrit was something I needed to know as part of my desire to truly understand the Tibetan. I have prioritized Tibetan all my life. I know that the small background in Sanskrit that I have helps me to offer better translations of texts originally in Sanskrit but now lost. It was also Dezhung Rinpoche who encouraged me to translate and who introduced me to other great teachers. His story may be found in the book The Saint in Seattle by David Jackson.
Heide: You have translated so many ancient texts. Which of your works is closest to your heart, and which of your books published recently would you recommend to the LEVEKUNST art of life reader community?
Chris: I always think that the text I am working on right at this moment is the best of them all. I am translating two types of works these days: I translate the works of the Sakya Founders for a daily post on Facebook, gathering these translations up into published volumes, and I translate book length texts from the Nyingma Gyubum, Hundred Thousand Tantras of the Nyingma. A little bit of my heart is in all of them. Right now, my translations of the Great Perfection Tantras are getting a lot of attention. We often hear about the debate as to whether enlightenment is a gradual process or an instantaneous realization. It is in these Great Perfection Tantras that we can hear the voices of the holders of the instantaneous approach. Those who are interested in the early Indian connections between the Mahamudra transmission and the Great Perfection transmission will find The Tantra of Great Bliss to be particularly interesting. People who like instructions on practices will enjoy Beyond Secret, which contains Vairochana’s own instructions on the practices of the Great Perfection. Those who enjoy mythology, and wonder how the Great Perfection accommodates mythic literature, will enjoy The Gods and the Demons Are Not Two. Actually, each and every book has something great to be said about it.
Heide: Do you feel that a translation can reveal the entire meaning of a tantric text to the reader, or would certain levels of understanding remain to be reserved to the scholars with knowledge in Tibetan?
Chris: There are at least two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, any translation will only give us a single interpretation by a single translator at a specific time and place, and will therefore be very limited. On the other hand, the translation becomes a text in itself that its readers will take to be a real literary entity, a book in itself. So by its nature a translation is both limited and encompassing. Most of these tantras were translated from Indian languages into Tibetan, and the original language texts have been lost in time. We are translating translations, and it is likely that our own translations will in turn be translated into other languages in the future. It is true that scholars of Tibetan will have a better chance of getting the full range of meaning that is in the Tibetan, while it is also true that even those who know Tibetan very well may not get much out of these tantras. It will depend on their interest and experience. I try to include the Tibetan text with my tantra translations, so that readers who want to discuss the contents with lamas or learned Tibetans will have the text readily available.
Heide: As a conclusion, how should one combine studying these tantras you have translated with studying under the guidance of a learned and accomplished master and then thirdly the personal practice? How can these three components of spiritual development complement and inspire each other?
Chris: Many of the tantras I have translated speak out directly on the need to have a living teacher to learn from. At this time, only a few teachers are publically teaching the kind of Dharma that we find in these tantras. One reason for this is that this literature is only now becoming available to English readers. Many of the tantras also make very clear that we must empower ourselves to understand them, without depending on any other person or being. I personally believe that the best approach when we first pick up one of these books is to consider that we are reading fine literature that comes from another land that was long ago. If this literature speaks to our hearts, we will know that in our own experience. I also believe that qualified teachers will begin to speak on these topics as more and more students become familiar with the thinking behind instantaneous enlightenment. On the topic of personal practice, I believe that is something very much at the heart of the relationship between a guru and a student. Students who are so fortunate as to have a qualified teacher will be able to work out their practice concerns with that teacher. On the other hand, students who do not actually have access to any qualified teacher may well enjoy the passages in the Great Perfection Tantras that proclaim that there are no teachings, no writings, and no practices.
Christopher Wilkinson began his study of Tibetan and Sanskrit in 1972. He holds a B.A. degree in Asian Languages and Literature and another B.A. degree in Comparative Religion. His academic work includes three years as a Professor in English Literature in Sulawesi, five years as an Adjunct Professor the University of Calgary, and fifteen years as a research fellow in the US and France. He has published twelve books of quality translations of Tibetan literature into English, touching on every aspect of the transmission of Buddhism. His Great Perfection series includes six books that show us the earliest presentation of the Great Perfection. His Sakya Kongma Series includes six anthologies of translations of the original writings of the founders of the Sakya tradition in Tibet. A link to buy CW’s books.
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