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.
Tibetan: rTen cing ’brel bar ’byung ba
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.
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