Interview with the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

In March 2009, 50 of the world's leading Dharma translators gathered at Deer Park Institute in Bir, India.


Khyentse Foundation Translators’ Conference, Bir, India
by Stephanie Lai, March 17, 2009

Stephanie Lai: Rinpoche, what were the reasons that brought you to this conference?—

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche asked me to come here and participate in the conference, and I was very happy to serve his vision, but I was not expecting to chair the conference. I don’t know why he asked me, but my guess is that Rinpoche’s sacred outlook is great.

SL: What particular role do you see translation playing in the propagation of the dharma in the future? Why is translation so important?

DPR: I think translation plays a very important role in propagating dharma in any country. For example, if you look at Tibet or China, only after many great scriptures and commentaries were translated did dharma really take root in their cultures. Therefore, in the modern West, translation is very important if dharma is going to take root, especially the words of the Buddha and the Kangyur, the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The Pali Buddhist canon has already been translated. The Chinese Buddhist canon is on its way to being translated into English. And now the Tibetan Buddhist canon, which has many tantras and maybe some sutras that are not in the other two canons, is being translated. Once we have that in Western languages, then we can really claim to have established a Western Buddhist school or lineage. Like we have the Tibetan Buddhist school, the Chinese Buddhist school, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean. In a similar way, then, we can have a Western Buddhist school with the four lineage transmissions there.

SL: That is what you stated in your letter, that basically for us to have a genuine Western Buddhism, our own dharma, we have to have everything translated.

DPR: Yes, I see that as a crucial thing. At the same time, a translation will not be perfect the first time. That’s why I’m suggesting to the translators to see if there is a way that their translations can be proofed later on, by other translators in the next generation, to see if there is a way we can negotiate with the intellectual property and copyright law structures, if there is room so that we can improve someone else’s translation. Of course with some control of quality and so on. Then, it will be much easier. We don’t have to repeat work on the same text, to translate it again three more times.

SL: We understand that only a very small percentage of the main important Buddhist texts have been translated from their original languages. What do you think will be the impact of making more texts widely available through translation?

DPR: I think one of the greatest impacts of making these original texts available in different target languages is that the teachers and students who speak these languages will have the authoritative texts to check and refer to and also will have more background information on Buddhist philosophy, sociology, history, or any kind of topic that they want to study or discuss. There will be more background for their research. And for practitioners, it’s a great resource for getting more tantric instructions, not only from their lama, but also from great Indian masters and then, ultimately, from the Buddha himself. Reading the words of the Buddha brings the most joy for any Buddhist follower.

…the Buddha discusses how a lay bodhisattva king can rule his country, and there are ten topics he discusses; each wheel is a topic. One of the wheels I mentioned this morning is the wheel concerning military science, and other wheels would be commerce, agriculture, and so on.

SL: So, on that note, do you think it’s possible to translate those ancient texts and the words of the Buddha so that they are truly relevant to us modern people?

DPR: I think, by their nature, lots of the teachings of the Buddha are already relevant for any culture, any person, any time. They are what I call “evergreen”; they are not seasonal. Also, the Buddha’s teachings are primarily in the form of discourse: discussions between the Buddha and a disciple, or between two disciples, where the Buddha was present. The Buddha would make certain remarks or observations and answer questions, and so the teaching itself would have a quality of dialogue. I think this is very different from what we usually think of as Buddhist teachings, which are more like a lecture or sermona one-way address from someone who wrote a book or received some profound teachings from a high authority. So you don’t have to think about it yourself. You become passive in many ways. But from the original Buddhist teachings, we can see that, as a listener of the Buddha’s teachings, you are actively involved in participating in these teachings. You are actively scrutinizing, investigating, and getting deeper into the thoughts of the Buddha. It’s really amazing, such a style of teaching, when you look at it. It’s different from the Tibetan philosophical teachings, which are mostly written as commentary. Many books published today are like transcripts of talks, which are different from discourses. I like the original style because it’s more like a discussion, and it breaks the ice between teacher and student.

SL: This morning, you talked about the Vinaya and the Ten Wheels. Can you elaborate on why you brought up those two texts?

DPR: The first text that I brought up this morning is called the Ten Wheels Sutra; I think it was originally translated from Chinese to Tibetan. It’s a sutra of discourse mainly left by a bodhisattva called Ksitigarbha. In that sutra, the Buddha discusses how a lay bodhisattva king can rule his country, and there are ten topics he discusses; each wheel is a topic. One of the wheels I mentioned this morning is the wheel concerning military science, and other wheels would be commerce, agriculture, and so on. I think this is important because we have lots of teachings on mind, mind’s nature, emotions; we are kind of overloaded now on these topics. But we have no teachings on a Buddhist view of politics, right? We have lots of questions about the military, for example. As Buddhists, what view should we have towards the military? You know, we can’t escape that. Every country we live in, that country has a military. And some of us, unfortunately, live in countries where they exercise military power so much…and I pay my taxes to support that. I need to have a view about how to work with these issues, and so this sutra is really amazing in that way. The Buddha talks about what is a Buddhist view of the military, what is the use of it, how should we support it, the need for such a thing, and so on.

The other sutra I was talking about is the Vinaya, which is a whole collection, or one of the baskets, of the Buddha’s teachings. I find it very amazing because it is the Buddha’s view of organizational structure. The Vinaya is directly dealing with Buddhist communities during the time of the Buddha and how he organized them. How was a temple, for example, organized? What was the hierarchy like? And what were the functions? How should the head of a certain area be chosen? The Buddha introduced a voting system, yes, in the Vinaya, the Buddha introduced a voting system and he said only those who are above 20 can vote. And so there’s a lot of wisdom in there, which we’re missing right now. That’s why when we start a new Buddhist organization, let’s say in the West, or in Taiwan, we struggle to create some kind of structure by looking at business models and different things, but actually if you look at the Vinaya, there’s a whole structure there, which can contribute a lot to the art of organization. This is the art of the Buddhist view of society, sangha, community. It’s really amazing. The Buddha lays out so many details, including how to work with conflicts and so on. This whole area is part of the “Three Wheels” introduced by the Buddha: the Wheel of Study, the Wheel of Meditation, and the Wheel of Action—but it is missing most of the time in Buddhist teachings, especially Tibetan Buddhist teachings. We don’t talk too much about the Wheel of Action, which is organization and social service.

SL: What are the main obstacles the translators will face in their work?

DPR: The first obstacle is resources. Resources, like funding, are always a problem. From the old days of Tibet until now in the modern West, there has always been a resources issue. The second challenge is tools. For Tibetan translators now, we have some good dictionaries, but still we can improve on that front. We can create better tools for them to make translation easier, digital libraries and so on. And the third main challenge we face today is time. Time. Our modern mantra is no time. We have limited time to do anything, and translators face the same problem of having very limited time between their family duties, their own practices, translating work, and engaging in all the other activities that are necessary for life.

SL: Do you see any ways to solve these problems?

DPR: I think there have been great improvements over the years. We have more resources now, not a whole lot, but it’s improving a little bit. We have more tools, like the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center [TBRC], and as a result of Gene Smith’s work there, we have many more texts available. And there are more online digital dictionaries, more tools. But still, on this front, in terms of our dictionaries and companion dictionaries, we still have a lot to do.

SL: What do you see as the outcome of this conference within these five days?—

DPR: In general, I think it’s going very well. From the very beginning, we had Khyentse Rinpoche’s vision and the Khyentse Foundation’s vision; however, when we started the conference, I don’t think we were expecting to have real concrete action that would take place immediately. But now I think there will be a great outcome from this conference: we can already see translators, scholars and lamas participating and enjoying the conference. We have a very active group here, and everyone is really passionate to contribute. I am really happy and I appreciate that. I think it will fulfill the wishes of all the translators and the scholars and Khyentse Rinpoche. Of course, we can’t do everything, but we will, I think, have made a very good beginning.

SL: Do you feel there is some significance in having this conference here at the Deer Park Institute in Bir?

DPR: It’s really a wonderful place, and it’s one of the main seats for Khyentse Rinpoche. With the Khyentse Foundation hosting the conference for the first time, I think it’s very significant to be here at Bir. It’s very auspicious.

SL: Finally, what text would you personally most like to see translated next?

DPR: The text that I would like to see translated next is the Ten Wheels Sutra. I think it will be very beneficial for Buddhists, and it will be quite new, because it’s not on the usual topics, like Buddha nature or kleshas. This sutra is talking about social issues and questions. It will add something that we need, rather than continuing with these similar texts that we already have translated a thousand times.

SL: What has been the impact of that particular sutra in countries where it has already been translated?

DPR: I cannot talk from the translated sutra point of view, but the original Ten Wheels Sutra had a great impact in Indian empires and on the Indian emperors, who were the main patrons of Buddhist teachings in India. It had a great impact on their view, on their government, politics, and so on. But, this sutra didn’t have much impact in places like Tibet, unfortunately, where the commentaries were more widely read than the sutras.

This interview is posted here with the permission of the Dzongchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Stephanie Lai.
Stephanie Lai, who is a student of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, conducted several interviews during the translation conference. She lives in Bir, India with her husband Pawo Choyning Dorji.
Thank you to Stephen Seely for bringing this interview to our attention. Thank you to Cindy Shelton and Blaze Mason of Nalandabodhi for editing the original transcript under the supervision of the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

The Translation Conference at Deer Park

In March 2009, 50 of the world’s leading Dharma translators gathered at Deer Park Institute in Bir, India for a conference convened by Khyentse Rinpoche and chaired by the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. The gathering discussed a 100-year vision to translate and make universally accessible the entire Buddhist literary heritage, including the Kangyur, the 108-volume Buddhist canon which contains the words of the Buddha. The gathering also agreed upon five and 25-year plans to accomplish what they agree is a monumental collaborative task.