THE LINGUISTIC MYSTICS OF TIBET

In SACRED WORLD by Lowell Cook9 Comments

Locchāva is the Sanskrit word for translator, literally meaning “the eyes of the world.” When used in Tibetan as the honorific title lotsawa, it connotes a translator who possess realization; someone who is able to genuinely reproduce the words, intent, and voice of the buddha himself, which is none other than the sound of awakening. Under the guidance of Indian and Central Asian paṇḍitas, countless lotsawas were able to transmit the speech and realization of the Buddha, the Awakened One, into the Tibetan language where we still access it today.

Studying the Tibetan language intensively for the past four years, I often wondered what philosophies of language the lotsawas of old might have held. As with philosophy in general, philosophy of language is extremely varied and intricate, not to mention intellectually captivating. Surely these great linguistic mystics would have contemplated the depths of language as an object of knowledge. There are countless schools of thought that one can encounter in seminars on translation theory: from the German romantics who idealized language as transcendent and divine to the modern theories of the indeterminacy of language and the impossibility of translation. In this light, one can easily imagine the great Tibetan translators debating amongst themselves about what constitutes language and what it means to translate.

Thinking that there must be something explicitly dealing with these translators’ theories of language, I scoured collections of texts for any treatise that might provides a glimpse into the linguistic thought of the great lotsawas. The introduction to the Mahāvyutpatti and the preface to the guidelines for the Mongolian translation of the great Kanjur provide concrete advice to translation, such as how to render foreign names and so forth. However, I was unable to uncover any manifesto on what language itself meant for these translators. The lotsawas appeared to be silent on this.

A year passed. And maybe another year too before I realized that their silence is their answer. In their silence the lotsawas avoid elevating language to a special position. Language is, like any other phenomenon, devoid of a static and unchanging nature. Language only exists insofar as it is defined by the other phenomenon with which it interacts. In other words, language exists solely in relation to non-language; it cannot exist alone. This truth can and should be equally applied to the entire multitude of phenomena within the realm of conception.

Thus, the lotsawas did not grant a privileged category to language, but understood it as being another relative phenomenon operating in our conventional world. Like that, it became clear to me that the great lotsawas understood language by extension of Buddhist philosophy at large. The philosophy of language for the lotsawas was dependent origination.

Sanskrit: Pratītyasamutpāda
Tibetan: rTen cing ’brel bar ’byung ba
Chinese: yuánqǐ
English: Dependent origination

The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary defines this central term of Buddhist ontology as “The relationship of results occurring based on many causes and conditions in convergence or their non-occurrence when there is no reference to a reciprocal relationship. For instance, ”it continues in simpler terms,“ from a seed there are sprouts and from birth there is old age and death. With reference to a mountain over there, there is the mountain over here.”

This seemingly simple concept is able to describe the mode in which all phenomena exist, that is, not as isolated, autonomous entities but as interweaving networks of mutually-dependent relationships. In other words, we cannot conceive of any given phenomenon without its larger context. Darkness can only be described in terms of light. A description of pleasant tastes is only intelligible due to the experience of unpleasant taste, and so forth.

When we apply dependent origination to language, it reminds us that meaning is not contained within words or inherent to language. Instead, meaning is formed from vast and complex webs of conditions and circumstance, the time, place, background, and disposition of the writer, reader, or speaker to name but a few. This is certainly not news to our modern language theorist friends who are so fond of deconstructing language. Language is learned, it is socially constructed. Past habits are passed down to you from you parents, from your ancestors, via language and become your habits. Thus, meaning is always in a state of flux and being constantly redefined.

This completely rewrites the simplistic notion of translation being a relocation of an identical meaning from one language into another. Here we have arrived at the incommensurability of language and the impossibility of translation. But let us not dwell in this tragically impossible state too long. In terms of Buddhist soteriological concerns, dependent origination has profound implications: suffering requires particular causes and conditions in order to occur. Hence, by removing said causes of suffering, the experience of suffering can be eliminated. Similarly, it is the fact that language is dependently originated that allows for the possibility of the Buddha’s word to be translated.

Indeed, language is ultimately arbitrary in that it is nothing but empty sounds and empty symbols. However, on the relative level, it is useful when these sounds are designated with particular referents and agreed-upon meanings. This general consensus, an aspect of our shared karma, is what gives language its ability to function on the relative plane. Yet, when we hold to language as being the thing itself instead of empty sounds and symbols, the “fuck you” spat at you to be an actual bullet or a “love you” texted to you to be a real elixir, then that is where we begin to suffer. Yet the opposite is also true. In terms of Buddhist literature, words can be the proverbial finger pointing towards the moon of our buddha nature; they can be a catalyst for awakening. This is why the physical scriptures are venerated.

It now seems very clear to me why the lotsawas did not wish to dwell excessively on language. Language is inherently dualistic and therefore any obsession with it can only lead to suffering. Misapprehension of language only perpetuates our confused, dualistic perception of reality and thereby leads us away from the realization the single taste of reality. Contrary to this, when language is infused with skillful means, it becomes a vehicle for liberation. This is the case with the large corpus of Buddhist literature. Now, the only question left more us now is if this generation will be able to follow the altruistic intentions of past lotsawas and act as caretakers of the Buddha’s words in the 21st century.

About the Author
Lowell Cook

Lowell Cook

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Lowell Cook is a big fan of Padmasambhava. He writes, translate, and
occasionally disappears to Amdo.

Featured image of gold calligraphy on lapis colored handmade parchment: courtesy of Khadi, showing paper from Norbu Tensin’s Jungshi Paper Company, Bhutan.

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  1. Joe Lamport

    Great piece Lowell. I read somewhere a great quote from Chogyam Trungpa about how translation is core to faith and to some extent I think that’s true of all spiritual practice but particularly so of Buddhism. The role of the translator seems to be central in the history of Buddhism – as faith propagates it needs to be renewed refreshed and reinvented along the caravan routes.

    Properly understood translation (whether of spiritual texts or poetry) does not simply refer to language translation – matching a word from one language to another. It involves plumbing the depths into interior space where language loses much of its coherence and clarity. This calls for something much more than a good dictionary or strong command of a language or two. It entails a leap of faith. And as Lindsay says, it is not something to be left to the language specialists. Translation is an art or spiritual practice in which all of us may (and in my opinion should) equally partake.

    This quote from John Donne captures the idea quite beautifully. We are all of us endlessly translating, consciously or otherwise, in and out of our personal idiom into a more universal frame of reference.

    “God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war,
    some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all.”

    John Donne, Meditation 17

  2. Concentrating too much on literal meaning of the words especially concerning with so called spiritually, may lead one to stray. The true purport of words can be known/understood by only those who have known the truth/reality because such people are concerned with energy associated with or the words not the literal meaning of the words. In other words they are capable of reading between the words. Till one knows the truth one is bound not to get true purport of the words. Words are simply pointers interpretations of which are bound to be different depending upon the conditioning of the interpreters.

    But anyway this is very good write up for which author must be appreciated.

  3. It was fascinating to learn that the emphasis on translating Sanskrit terms to Tibetan was to if possible always use a Tibetan word or word combination rather than using the Sanskrit term.

    1. Lowell Cook

      No I don’t read Sanskrit well enough but would love to learn more!

  4. Translation was done in the context of practice and study of Buddhism. It was not merely a technical or intellectual exercise. It was the case that along grammar and language translators were more than familiar with the underlying philosophy and actual practical application of what was translated. In the best cases native tibetan translator practitioners collaborated with native Indian, kashimiri, bengali, etc. native practitioners to ensure that the estructure and the words were there but also more importantly the meaning. There is difficulty when translating certain terms into a new language particulalet with words such as dharmakaya or Dharma because we either do not have equivalents or the equivalents are used in a different context. Buddhism is not merely a philosophy nor merely a practice, then there is terminology that cannot be translated similarly as might apply to the view or to the path. Also certain words are used in one context and mean something very different when the same words are used in another context. Primarily Buddhism is not a written tradition although there thousands of texts, it is an oral tradition. The texts need to be explained and interpreted and not designed to be read as a stand alone document as we would do with a math treatise or a physics book. There is saying that books are the silver key and the oral explanation is the golden key. We need to keep alive the literary tradition and the practice and explanations as well. Not an easy task at all…

  5. Read this today, perhaps it helps…
    THE ETERNAL VICTORY BANNER

    The Timeless Moment of Union with the Consort

    18
    Unthought sameness, pure being,
    like the moon’s reflection in water, cannot be grasped;
    in the all-good display of Samantabhadra
    it is revealed as the ulterior vowels and consonants.

    The Perfection of Samantabhadra’s Display.
    The reality of pure mind is like space, and mind, unthinking and without constructs, is the sameness of pure being (dharmakaya). Within pure being actuality lacks any concrete name or form whatsoever—it is utterly insubstantial—so there is nothing to grasp and hold on to. Within the unoriginated pure being of Samantabhadra the magical illusion of creation is apparent and all of creation is Samantabhadra’s display. In as much as this display of reality is like the reflection of the moon in water it cannot be grasped. That is the reality of immediate phenomenal manifestation.

    The phantasmagoria of Samantabhadra’s display is a revelation of interior language. The vowels of this language represent its unborn, unstructured nature, the consonants gnosis which can never be crystallized. The intermingling of vowels and consonants in a moment of nondual experience of the totality is called union with the mudra or consort. The union of the reality of pure mind (the vowels) and gnosis (the consonants) is primordial and timeless—there is no method or technique to facilitate it. In the anuyoga of the previous verse, this union is to be recognized in the spaciousness of concepts as well as sensual pleasure.

    Thus the unity of language and the form of the magical display is revealed.

    19

    As the A, and the adorning TA,
    as the PA and its complex elaborations,
    in the field of experience of the finite world
    ulterior Buddha-speech emerges.

    Direct Transmission—Emanation in the Nature of Mind:
    Samantabhadra’s pure being (dharmakaya) in pure mind reality (dharmadhatu) is defined by the glyph A, which is pure potential, and the glyph TA, which is the potentiation. The glyph PA describes the entire elaborate miraculous emanation within pure being. The aggregates of this magical display are the subjective functions of mind (name and form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness). The eight forms of consciousness (five sensory and three mental) are secondary emanations that embrace the entire field of multifarious experience of the finite world. Within that field, the five sensual pleasures of the five emotions are the energy patterns of buddha past, present and future, and they are known as buddha-speech. Thus the uncreated pure mind reality of form, sound, smell and so on, is ulterior buddha-speech, just because it is uncreated.

    ‘Buddha-speech’ may be interpreted as vibration or as energy patterns, but in this description of the process of emanation within pure being, such energy constellations are formalized as alphabetic glyphs. The glyph PA is the first letter in the word ‘padma’, the embryonic sound, the generative organ. Out of PA arise the vowels and consonants each corresponding to an aspect of emanation—the five aggregates, the eight types of consciousness, the five emotions, the five sensual pleasures, etc.—and in the complexity of sensual, aesthetic and formless experience in the field of reality they spell the whole gamut of possible activity. Since the reality of sensual pleasure is unborn it is the ulterior voice of the buddha. Since reality is unborn the content of the moment is buddha-teaching.

    Aspects of emanation consist of the five aggregates (name and form, sensation, feeling, volition and consciousness), the eight types of consciousness (consciousness of the five external and three internal senses), the five emotions (desire, anger, pride, jealousy and fear), the five sensual pleasures (sight, sound, taste, touch, sensation), the five sense fields, etc.

    Thus union with the consort is described.

    Eye of the Storm
    Vairotsana’s Five Original Transmissions
    translation and commentary by Keith Dowman

  6. I am very interested in Lowell Cook’s ideas on ‘translation’ and very encouraged that there is even an MA course on translation!
    I have found it very difficult to initiate a discussion about translation as an ‘art’ within the Dharma groups to which I belong.
    I am not a translator and one of my arguments is that we all (practitioners) have a duty to ‘take part’ in translation. We speak the language into which Tibetan is translated and we should be able to influence translators in the end product ie: in the good use of our own language
    For example, one otherwise excellent translator is using the word ‘consecration’ in place of ‘blessing’.
    And what about the issue of whether to translate so-called technical terms like ‘Dharmakaya’ or ‘samsara’?
    One translated the former as…the something ‘being of beingness’ …horribly clumsy.
    I have not heard til now that the early lotsawas were ‘realised’. I have heard it said about the writers of texts and composers of the melodies.
    Linguistic philosophy holds that language changes and that ‘common usage’ is valid. Therefore you would expect translations to be altered over time. Also over time we will develop a consesus whether to retain terms like ‘ Dhamakaya’ –
    as these terms become adopted and their meaning understood through practise over time.

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