Letter from Lama Chönam
Early Dharma Translation in Tibet
I hope this letter finds you in good health, and I also hope that your work is flourishing. We are well and working steadily at the work we love. I am writing to you in regard to our common passion for the Buddhadharma. In our time, the precious teachings of our teacher, the glorious and victorious Sage of the Shakya clan, are spreading in fortunate lands throughout the world. In dependence upon the blessings transmitted through the lineage of teachers, the power of any virtue we may have previously accumulated, and the kindness of our benefactors, who with unadulterated altruism bring the conduct of the enlightened ones into their own hearts, we of the Light of Berotsana translation group have now been given the opportunity to accumulate merit through the work that has fallen to us. We will never forget the help and support you give and have given, directly and indirectly, out of respect for our efforts and for the tasks we have undertaken.
In keeping with your trust in us, we do not translate haphazardly, without reason or purpose, or without authoritative guidance. Not fancying ourselves to be learned and wary of arrogant inflation, when we translate the dharma that is included within Sutra and Mantra, we seek instruction from accomplished scholars for whom, through a lineage of transmission, the text has become meaningful.
Without pretending to know more than we know, we assess the meaning of a passage with the valid reasoning we ourselves can marshal. Furthermore, as our model and standard we take the kings, ministers, scholars, and adepts of the snowy land of Tibet who considered unadulterated altruism to be principal and, regarding hardship with contempt, translated and propagated the Buddha’s teachings. Rejoicing in their legacy, we approach the task of bringing the Buddha’s teachings into English in accordance with oral traditions, with a caution induced by recognizing the limits of our own knowledge, without considering our individual views to be supreme, and with the intention that our work further the teachings and serve as medicine for those who wander from lifetime to lifetime.
According to the historical literature and the oral traditions, the scholars, adepts, and translators who initially invited the excellent and precious dharma to Tibet were without exception people who were both learned and accomplished and whose minds were suffused with bodhichitta. It is necessary to study the legacy of the learned ones who have preceded us; therefore let us consider the experience of translators and scholars in the snowy lands of Tibet stretching over a period of one thousand three hundred years. The profound relationship between their labor and our own can orient and give courage to all of us, and in the hope of so doing I would like to tell a little bit of their story.
In the time of the Tibetan Dharma King Songtsen Gampo (d. 649/50), an initial body of codes governing the translation of texts was established in order to accomplish a variety of objectives; among them, so that translators such as Tönmi Sambhota would receive an appropriate education, so that words would be arranged in harmony with the treatises on grammar, and so that terminology would be employed in a consistent manner.
From that time forward, in the period of the royal dynasties, many translators did indeed appear. However, they did not flourish in the expansive and prolific manner of the exceptional translators of King Trisong Detsen’s (d. 800) era, for during Trisong Detsen’s reign the Sanskrit language and its literature were taught systematically and carefully to Tibetan youths blessed with sharp minds. Among them, Berotsana of Kar in Tsang Nyemo Ché; Kawa Peltsek of Penyül in Uru; and Jokro Lui Gyeltsen of Shang in Rulak grew particularly skilled in the Sanskrit language. Thus, when Shantarakshita, the great abbot and bodhisattva, and the master Padmakara taught dharma drawn from the profundity of Sutra and Mantra, they were able to translate those teachings directly into Tibetan at the center for translation within the Samyé monastic university.
Download the Tibetan version of Lama Chönam’s letter here in PDF format (may require Tibetan fonts).
All fortunate men and women
United in furthering the teachings and
Seeking the well-being of wanderers, listen:
With this work you accomplish purposes both near and far.
Through merit accumulated in millions of births,
This time you have met the dharma of the excellent ones.
Work hard and do so gladly:
The very ground of happiness rests in the palm of your hand.
Of good qualities, worldly and beyond,
I am entirely bereft, but the lama’s kindness
Has penetrated my heart just a bit; its power
Inspires me to encourage friends with karma like mine.
May the blessings of those who speak the truth
Quicken Light of Berotsana to pure and excellent intention.
May the work of this group
Benefit wanderers and ornament the world.
Strengthened by the lives of the great bodhisattvas
And never discouraged by adversity,
May this group accomplish great waves of activity
Beneficial to the teachings and wanderers.Lama Chonam