Friday, November 20, 2009

Lama Chökyi Nyima

Lotsawa School: How did you first learn Tibetan?


Lama Chökyi Nyima: I was in college in Vancouver and was taking a combined major in Asian Studies and Comparative Religion. I had fallen into the habit of using my free periods and lunch hours to go into the library and look through grammars and dictionaries of Asian languages, from Arabic through to Japanese. I would just start playing with them. I found it completely fascinating and satisfying, even on that dilettante-ish level of just learning the rudiments of the script.



Then I came across The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Govinda, which was probably one of only about three books on Tibetan Buddhism available in English at the time. In that he has an essay talking about the structure of the Tibetan language, and I was so fascinated by how intricate and arcane it seemed that I wanted to learn more. He mentioned Jäschke’s grammar and, not realizing what a long shot it was, I went down to the Vancouver public library, and I actually found a copy in the rare book collection. Because it was considered a rare book they wouldn’t let me check it out. So I had to go down to the library and sit there taking notes. I went down time and again, and spent hours going over that book and teaching myself the script. This was before I had even met any Tibetan lamas. I actually got to the point where I was becoming moderately familiar with the alphabet and even some of the combinations of prefixes and suffixes.



I was starting to get the hang of it when a friend of mine told me that there was a “really far out old Tibetan lama” who was visiting Vancouver. Actually I had seen a poster for Kalu Rinpoche’s visit. This was in 1970. I think it was the winter of ’70/71, so I had just turned 18. There was a vegetarian New Age restaurant I used to eat at all the time, and I went in once and found a tiny photograph about the size of a large postage stamp with a little bit of cardboard and a tiny bit of writing. It said, ‘The Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet is visiting Vancouver and teachings are being given at such and such an address.’ I kept thinking to myself that I should go and one day my friend and his girlfriend went for a private audience. In those days anyone could walk in at any time. He gave them little malas and blessed them. They came away totally floating—“Oh, what a wonderful wise old man, you should go see him” they said. I was living outside the city, and I didn’t have a car so it was hard for me to get in, but I had a friend drop me off one night at the house they were renting as Rinpoche’s centre. He had been in the city for months teaching every day, and I had missed it all, but I did see him twice before he left. One of the things I remember him saying was that people—especially if they were young enough and interested enough—should learn Tibetan, because there was going to be a lot of need for translators in the future.



Looking back, of all the lamas who have taught in the West, Kalu Rinpoche has left more of a legacy of students training in Tibetan, to some degree, and has produced more translators, I think, than any other lama. Other lamas have told me this too. Among Kalu Rinpoche’s students, there are a lot of translators or, at least, people who can hold their own with Tibetan, who can read a book, and have some facility with the language. And that is because he really pushed it.



So before I even thought of taking refuge, before I knew what taking refuge was, I was going to my first Tibetan class. The Tibetan lama that he left in charge was teaching and of course there were sixty or seventy people at the first class, and thirty at the second class, and fifteen at the third, and by the end of the first year there was just another friend and myself. We went a couple of times a week and he would teach us the basic grammar. He wasn’t a very good teacher of Tibetan, in the same way I probably wouldn’t be a very good teacher of English. It’s one thing to know a language; it’s another to know how to teach it. But I owe him an enormous debt. And also Ken McLeod, who was Kalu Rinpoche’s main translator into English at that point, was left behind to help run the centre with his wife Ingrid. They were both far more proficient than any of us in Tibetan. Ken is very bright and he was very quick to learn and he was always comparatively light years ahead of us and so he was another mentor. The lama would do the ‘nuts and bolts,’ and Ken would help us actually work with a text and show us where we were weak in terms of figuring out the connections between ideas and the flow of things and so forth. So with all that I started to gain a little bit of proficiency. This would have been when I was in my late teens or early twenties.



Then about four years after he had first come, Kalu Rinpoche came back to Vancouver, at the same time as the Sixteenth Karmapa came, so I got to meet both of them at once. I had seen Rinpoche across a crowded room before, but I hadn’t actually met him. By that time I had gained enough proficiency in Tibetan and had already taken refuge, finished my ngöndro practice, and was really on track to doing a three-year retreat. There were three things Kalu Rinpoche used to push: learning Tibetan, taking ordination and doing a three-year retreat. Those were his real three ‘career track’ messages to anyone who would listen, and so I did all three: I learned Tibetan, I asked him for vows, and I asked him for permission to do the retreat. That was in 1974. I started earning money to do the retreat, but at the same time I had such a passion for the language that I was always studying Tibetan. I couldn’t keep away from it. I had a mandate from somewhere to keep studying and reading and devouring stuff indiscriminately.



Lotsawa School: What did you find most difficult about learning Tibetan?



Lama Chökyi Nyima: At that point, it was the lack of any resource material. You had Jäschke’s grammar, which is useless; you had Hahn’s grammar, which is even more useless because all the examples are taken from the New Testament; then there was Mr. Lhalungpa’s grammar of colloquial Tibetan, but it is all Lhasa dialect and not particularly geared towards a practitioner learning Dharma Tibetan and how to read books. I never really found the language baffling. My first wife knew six languages with some degree of facility—classical Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German and Russian—but she could not learn Tibetan to save her life. She said it was like hitting a brick wall. There was something about the way of thinking in the language. I remember one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students asking him, “What do I need to learn Tibetan?” and he said, “A new mind”. You have to learn to think in a different way, and I didn’t have problems doing that.



For me, the difficulties presented by the Tibetan language have been fairly surmountable. They haven’t been major obstacles, but back then the problem was having no resources to rely on. I would go to the teacher with a grammatical question and he could not answer it. He knew what was correct and incorrect, but he couldn’t tell me the reason why something was wrong. I was left to figure it out for myself.



By the time I went into three-year retreat in France in 1976, I was reading sadhanas and prayers, and I could hack my way through some simple commentaries on the practices that we were going to be doing in the retreat. We were all trying to improve our language skills, because everything was going to be in Tibetan. So I thought, “Well, what better way to prepare than by reading some of the books we’ll be using in retreat?” I remember trying to work with a Chöd commentary by Jamgön Kongtrul– it’s a short dmigs rim [ed.—step-by-step guide to visualization] for the Zurmang Chöd—and there was such a thrill or frisson of feeling that I could actually put together a few sentences and understand what the visualization was supposed to be. That was the level I went into retreat with, rudimentary reading and almost non-existent speaking. Any misconception I had that I could make myself understood in Tibetan was immediately destroyed any time I tried to speak to Kalu Rinpoche. I would say a sentence to him and each time he would look at his nephew, Gyaltsen, and said, “Eh? What’s he saying?” Then Gyaltsen would say what sounded to me like exactly what I had just said, but Rinpoche would understand. So there was that frustrating period of time when I thought I was making sense and I obviously wasn’t. Part of it seemed to me as though he was not ready to hear Tibetan coming out of my mouth. He looked at this round-eyed kid in front of him and thought, “No, he can not be speaking Tibetan, so I’d better check with Gyaltsen.” And part of it was probably that my accent was horrible and because of my choice of vocabulary. I realize now I would choose literary words which you don’t use in a colloquial context.



In the retreat everything was in Tibetan, so by the time I came out I was fairly comfortable with books, or at least a lot of books, which were more practice-oriented and therefore not as challenging as something more philosophical. Then Kalu Rinpoche took me around Europe and then to India for over a year to translate for him. That’s where my skills really improved very quickly. I was put in a situation where most of the people I saw during the day were Tibetans or Bhutanese, who spoke virtually no English. Nowadays the problem is that more and more of them are speaking some level of English and they’re keen to learn more. So you go there to learn Tibetan and you end up teaching them English! The old model of “go and live with the Tibetans” isn’t working any more.



So I spent a year and a bit in India and travelled with Kalu Rinpoche for almost two years after that, and that’s when I really started to develop oral fluency. For me the most significant determining factor for keeping up with Tibetan is my obsession with it. Every once in a while I teach something through David Curtis’ Tibetan Language Institute and people ask me how I learned Tibetan. I say, “Far better than doing five hours every Sunday is to do fifteen minutes every day.” You learn more if it is regular attention to the process. I had no trouble doing that because I was obsessed—in a very benign and helpful way. I was completely obsessed with learning the language, and learning more and more, and I still am. I don’t believe a day goes by when I don’t look at something in Tibetan, and usually something that pushes the limits for me, in terms of learning new terminology, new phrasing, new idioms. I am just fortunate that way. I had an inclination that I just followed and indulged.



Lotsawa School: What were the greatest challenges in the beginning?



Lama Chökyi Nyima: I think everyone has an easier time with written Tibetan because it stays still, it sits there on the page and doesn’t change, whereas the first thing you encounter when you are an oral interpreter is dialect. I was fortunate in a way because almost everyone I was dealing with was a Khampa of some sort. I was exposed fairly early on to Dezhung Rinpoche’s Gapa dialect and Kalu Rinpoche’s Horpa dialect. Not only was Kalu Rinpoche a Horpa, but he had false teeth that didn’t fit well. So his accent was extremely tricky at times, but I think it stood me in good stead. For example, he would pronounce the words for water (chu), dog (khyi) and dharma (chos) in exactly the same way. They were all ‘chi’. So context was all important.



I made mistakes a lot of the time in the early days and there were times when I had to ask him to repeat himself, or I would turn to Gyaltsen and say, “What did he just say?” So the hardest part from the oral point of view was dialect and the fact that Tibetans are unable to drop their dialects. That is fair enough, it’s the same with English-speaking people. People from Britain can’t speak like an American and vice versa. People from the Deep South here can’t lose the drawl just because it is inconvenient. You just have to learn to roll with it. It plagues me to this day, but not as badly. My first introduction to Golokpas was in the ‘90s, and fortunately the first few had fairly mild accents, but when I met Khenpo Jikpun I couldn’t understand him. It’s not easy even now. I listened to him on tape just the other day and I knew the gist of what he was saying but so much of it seems to be superfluous dialect ‘grunts and whistles’ that don’t really serve any grammatical purpose, other than to indicate that you’re from Golok. So you have to learn to filter those out and that was hard for me to learn right away.



You have to learn to filter out those dialect words or quirks. It’s a bit like ‘Valley speak’ of “you know” and “like”. When you hold a conversation with a lot of younger people in America you have to filter out half of what they say, because it is superfluous, it makes no difference to the meaning, it is just a verbal tick. Most Tibetans have that too to some extent, so you have to be patient.



I think the problem that a lot of people have when they first start is that they try to be as accurate and as true to the teachings as they can, and they don’t realize the teacher is making that enormously hard for them without meaning to, just by virtue of how he or she is speaking. A lot of that has nothing to do with the message, and you have to learn to give yourself the slack to eliminate a lot of what they are saying. Or they’ll repeat themselves, often because they want to make sure you as the translator get it. The audience doesn’t need to hear it three times over. Actually the audience does need to hear it three times over, but they don’t think they do because they’ll get bored. So you have to allow yourself that judicious role of editor, like a film editor cutting out raw stock and dropping it on the floor. It’s kind of ironic because people are usually accused of taking far longer to say in English what the teacher said in Tibetan, but it’s also the case that with some teachers I would end up leaving so much on the cutting room floor and try to get to the core of what they’re saying. That’s something you only learn the hard way. You get up in front of an audience and waste a lot of time figuring out where that line falls. And it is different from teacher to teacher and it’s different from subject to subject. Sometimes a teacher will be perfectly clear on one subject and be all over the map on another. It’s really a hard call.



I remember a group of us involved in Tibetan translation were talking with Trungpa Rinpoche back in the 1970s in Vancouver. I always remember he said [mimicking his voice], “You want to be kind of a window. You don’t want to be a door; you want to be a window.” He said you should be as transparent as possible, but on the other hand you don’t want to make it too easy. Somebody asked him about interpolating a lot of useful information when you translate, so that people will be able to understand something the teacher said that was very terse. He kind of twinkled and said, “You don’t want to make it too easy.”



You have to find that line between putting in too much of your own presence and ego—for want of a better word—and at the same time doing it so literally the message never gets through. So it’s not a clear call. I don’t have any hard and fast rules; I don’t even have any snappy guidelines, except that you have to be an ‘intelligent window.’ You have to be as transparent as you can be.



Lotsawa School: What have been your most memorable positive and negative experiences translating?



Lama Chökyi Nyima: I don’t think I can isolate the single most positive or negative experience for oral translation. The single most positive experience for books is getting them finished. I mean there is a joy that comes from just exploring the book, but the real sense of satisfaction comes when you are holding the printed version in your hand.



For oral translation there have been a few times when, without having any sense of personal ego involved, I could do no wrong. I was ‘on’, so to speak. The teacher was connecting with the audience and I was the reason he or she was connecting.



I can remember one occasion in particular, which stands as a high point in my career as an interpreter. Kalu Rinpoche was invited in the early 1980s to go to Trungpa Rinpoche’s seminary, which was a three month program held every year. He would do hinayana the first month, mahayana the second month and vajrayana the third month. I don’t know at what point we came, but it was by invitation. We had dinner with Trungpa Rinpoche, which was quite a scene in itself with his butler wearing white gloves and serving the food from silver salvers. Then the next morning Kalu Rinpoche was asked to address the sangha. I remember it was on that occasion that Allen Ginsberg decided to play devil’s advocate, and said, “What is the dharmic or a-dharmic reason for Trungpa Rinpoche’s drinking? And, as his students, how should we relate to that?” Of course, a deathly silence fell over the room, and I think the vajra guards were ready to jump him and cut his tongue out, but I translated it for Kalu Rinpoche. Rinpoche sort of smiled and said, “Well, let me tell you first about Padampa Sangye. Padampa Sangye was a real boozer and a lot of his students had a problem with that, and one of them finally asked him why, if he was an enlightened master, he was always drunk. And Padampa said, ‘Ah, the Padampa may be impaired, but the döndampa (absolute) is not.’”



So often the things that die are the jokes. They’re the things that would make the talk happen, but they don’t work in English if you are doing too literal a job. In this case, it just fell into place, and the audience loved it. Then he was able to say, “Now having said that, I myself am concerned about Trungpa Rinpoche’s health. I have no concerns about the morals or ethics of him drinking. I am concerned about his health and I think you as his students should be too. And you could go to him and say, ‘Please sir, we have absolute faith in you as our teacher, but for the sake of all beings, please consider extending your life by cutting back on your drinking.’” He said once you’ve accepted someone as your vajrayana teacher, you can’t speak to them from a perspective of ‘I am right and you’re wrong. You’re making a mistake and doing something bad and I insist that you change.’



He was only able to get that message across so kindly because of the set-up with the joke. It was only a small talk that went on for about an hour, but during it I felt as if I was a conduit. My whole personal sense of “me” checked out somewhere, and I was just a conduit whose only job was to turn one language into another and it just flowed through. It’s happened in other circumstances too, but that certainly was one of the most positive experiences, if not the most positive. It’s when the juice is flowing, when you feel you are able to exercise your skill without any of your ‘stuff’ getting in the way. And I don’t know of any formula to make it happen. I am sure that something like practising or praying before going on stage would tend to facilitate that, but it doesn’t always work. It really has to just be in the moment, in the circumstances.



Contrariwise, I would say that the most negative experiences I have had fall into two categories. One is when you can’t really understand the teacher and you are dancing so fast just to keep a coherent flow of English coming out that it hurts. It is painful to be up there when you can’t really understand what the teacher is saying. And the other is the flip side of the positive one—when your ego is really in the way and you can’t do anything about it. It is all so clunky. You can tell that you are making things up. The teacher is not really saying that, you’re messing with it, you’re editing, you’re interpolating, and therefore you’re impeding.



When I have been in those situations I have once or twice had people catch me doing it. Sometimes they have said something right away, for example in an interview, when I have anticipated what the lama was going to say. I remember once somebody asking something to Kalu Rinpoche. Rinpoche said something to me, and basically I was fed up with this woman. I thought she was just being self-indulgent and needed to be told so. And so he said something of a mild nature, and I basically let her have it. I said something very pointed and she said, “Did he say that?” She caught me right on the spot and it was very embarrassing. But in all honesty I had to admit it, because you have a professional sense of ethics. You have to do that. You can’t pretend. I think it is very important that we not try to present ourselves as perfect. We do make mistakes. We are trying our best, and we do make mistakes. The moment you start pretending that the lama said something he or she didn’t, it’s a slippery slope to perdition. So it is one thing to genuinely make a mistake and think the teacher said something he or she didn’t, and it’s another thing to deliberately obfuscate because you’ve been caught in a bad decision. There were times when people came up to me after a talk and said, “Did Rinpoche really say all of that? Because it really sounded artificial and awkward.” So you are not always ‘on’.



The negative experiences are of those two categories: you either can’t understand the teacher at all or you are making it up. You are in the way: you are not the transparent window, you are the thick, solid door that people are banging on trying to get at the teacher and they can’t. Both of those are very painful experiences. In my own case, by and large, I have always been trying to do my best job, but sometimes you are going through something personal, or you and the teacher are having a bad day, and it not only isn’t flowing, but you are really obstructing the process of transmission. And because people’s practice hinges on it, it becomes a crucial issue. If you were talking about baseball or the weather, it wouldn’t be a huge deal, but because you are imparting information that people are going to base perhaps a lifetime of practice on—it might be the only time they meet this teacher or it might be years before they get to check back with him or her—and they are going to go away and everyday they are going to sit down and get their sadhana books out and do whatever you said they should do, there is that responsibility. It is really like being a doctor or a shrink. It certainly is when you are the lama, but because the lama also needs a conduit, it also is when you are the translator. You need a real sense of professional ethics. When translators really think they know more than the teacher and the student and are either showing off or just not giving the job the care and attention it deserves, I think it’s deadly. I think they should be in another line of work. They should go and take up auto-mechanics.



Lotsawa School: Do you have any advice for people just beginning?



Lama Chökyi Nyima: For an oral interpreter, the ideal circumstances are at first to keep your ears open and your mouth shut, and try to put yourself in a situation where you are surrounded as much as possible by spoken Tibetan, which is not easy these days. It never was easy, but at least you could go to Asia and find those kinds of situations. Now that is getting harder and harder to do.



But more than anything, I think, regular exposure is the key, whether it’s studying written material to help you understand spoken Tibetan more and use it more, or whether it is just listening to tapes or live spoken Tibetan. That’s the single biggest factor: regular exposure. You know, they have this theory that the nadis shape themselves when you are growing up to conform to the language that you are learning and when you learn another language, what’s happening is that the tips of your nadis are being slightly re-programmed. I mentioned earlier that when people ask me what the most important factor is in learning Tibetan I say regular exposure. Fifteen or twenty minutes a day is far better than a few hours at the end of the week. If you cram at the weekend and do nothing the rest of the week you don’t get the same re-shaping or re-configuring of the nadis that you do when you hear it everyday. Beyond that, it is up to the individual. If people are learning Tibetan so that they can work with a specific teacher as that teacher’s translator then they don’t really need too much exposure to other dialects. But if they want either to be a professional interpreter who travels the globe doing gigs for various lamas or if they just want to be able to talk to lamas about practices or about books, then they really need to seek exposure to different dialects. Even though most Tibetans in exile seem to lose the rough edges on their dialects, it is still very useful.



Another thing to remember is that, as nerve-racking as it can be, by and large, you are preaching to the choir. People who come to hear a teacher are not particularly cynical or aggressive or out for blood, they are there to be entertained if nothing else, and edified, and so they are very receptive. It is always possible to step out of character and say to the audience, “I am still in training. Please be patient with me. I need to check this point with the teacher.”



I think often people don’t feel like they have that freedom, so they end up collapsing. They end up doing a meltdown in front of everybody and that’s really deadly, because any kind of flow of information is completely interrupted. If you just hit the pause button, and say “I am not quite getting this” and go back, then hopefully it resolves itself within a few minutes.



I just thought of another negative experience. It was the first time I ever translated for Kalu Rinpoche orally in a group. It was at Kagyu Ling in France right before our retreat and he was teaching on Chakme’s Aspiration Prayer for Sukhavati. If you are familiar with the prayer you know it is very misogynist. Chakmé was a monk and he was talking about monks. So Sukhavati only has monks in it, thank you very much, and none of these lower births. There was a whole group of Danish and German women that had come down with Ole Nydahl. I was already nervous and a little bit off because I couldn’t understand everything Rinpoche was saying. Lama Denis was translating into French, and he would translate first, so that I could listen to his French. which I understood far better than I understood the Tibetan, and then I would translate into English. But there were a couple of times when I simply did not get it and Lama Denis had to lean over and, in a stage-whisper, feed it to me in English. This did not help my credibility with the crowd or my sense of being at ease. But the thing that really rattled me was when Rinpoche said, “And the next line is: In Dewachen there are only monks, and no women.” When that came out in English, this phalanx of valkyries stood up in the back and went “No!” and shook their fists at him. Even he was a little non-plussed. I thought they were going to tear me limb from limb. I wanted to say: “Don’t shoot me, I am only the messenger.”



Very rarely someone might disagree with something the teacher says so violently that they pipe up and say, “That’s bullshit,” or “I don’t believe that,” or “How could you say that?” But that happens very rarely. People usually have better manners. But if it happens, you’ve got to deal with it.



Lotsawa School: The last question is about how you work: what your process is.



Lama Chökyi Nyima: I used to think that it was a smart idea to read through a work from start to finish before even touching it, but I have never done that. I tend to dive right in at the first page and start translating. If I am translating a written work, I just sit in front of the computer and have the book open in front of me and I just start to type something in. Then during the course of a text, I sometimes find myself having to read ahead through a section and get the gist of it. You obviously can’t just read a sentence, type a sentence, read a sentence, type a sentence; but it tends to be more like that for me than reading through the text entirely a few times to familiarize myself with the material first. Possibly I should try that, but at this point, I am sufficiently conversant with most topics that there aren’t enormous surprises for me.



Most people who are doing written work begin by reading a lot of books first anyway, before they sit down to actually try and translate. In fact, I would recommend that to people: that they not try and translate too early on. You might even set up a negative reinforcement thing in your mind where you make so many mistakes and have such a hard time that it puts you off the process.



For oral interpretation I take copious notes these days. I never did before but I had the advantage of working with Kalu Rinpoche, who used simple sentences and never spoke for more than a minute at a time. He usually spoke in a very predictable way. So once I was used to the topics he covered and how he covered them, I could just sort of sit back and almost go on auto-pilot. Other teachers are different. Sometimes they’ll throw you something completely out of left field. But I found that as I got older, partly because I was working with teachers who would go on for forty-five minutes without a break, and sometimes because I was just getting older and losing my memory, I had to start taking notes. I noticed that the percentage of stuff I was forgetting was increasing. As long as it is 10%, I figure that you are still doing an okay job, but when it starts to creep up and you are leaving out significant points, particularly if it is a point in a progressive argument that is really valuable to that argument, then you need to start taking notes. I developed a short-hand which is unique to me. Nobody else could read it, let alone use it. It is a combination of mathematical symbols like ‘therefore’ and ‘leads to’ and ‘equivalent to’ and ‘equals’ and so forth, and things like ‘B b’ for buddhas and bodhisattvas, ‘s-b’ for sentient beings, ‘phb’ for precious human birth. So whenever stock phrases come up, as they inevitably do in a language as formulaic as Tibetan, I already have my little list of abbreviations. I manage to get down all the main nouns and verbs and the flow of the argument, and any kind of consequential statements ‘because of this, therefore this’ and just get the flow of it. Then you come back with it right away and it’s fresh in your mind and the thing triggers. If I look at it the next day, it often doesn’t make very much sense, and I have to really think about how it all fit together, but in the moment it works. I don’t try to take anything verbatim. You can’t, they speak too quickly.



Lotsawa School: For your written translation, do you make use of much reference material?



Lama Chökyi Nyima: Oh gosh, yes. I use the tshig mdzod chen mo dictionary a lot. I realize that for people starting out a Tibetan-Tibetan dictionary is not that helpful, but inevitably it will become enormously helpful. I have a number of thosechos kyi rnam grangs dictionaries that have the twos and the threes and so forth, which I acquired in Tibet and elsewhere. And because a lot of the work I deal with is full of quotations from Indian sources and so forth, I have all the ACIP stuff in Wylie. I have all the gzhungs and make heavy use of that. And I have the 17 Tantras in Valby’s entry. I rely heavily on those and I have an extensive library too of hundreds of books and a fairly good mental map of where things are in those books. I don’t make any claim to have read most of the books, but when I buy a book, I’ll often flick through the index and the table of contents and get a sense of what it covers. So if I come upon something about Tibetan horsemanship in the 3rd century I have an idea where to look. I rely heavily on research materials. It’s not that it helps me figure out better how to translate that section in the text, but it gives me a cosy feeling of knowing there’s all that support structure. I find myself looking something up in the dictionary and I know perfectly well what it is going to say, but there is almost a reassuring feeling of confirming that I know what it is going to say. I am completely self-indulgent on that level, I use resource material like crazy.


This interview took place in a Japanese restaurant on 2nd Avenue, New York on April 24th 2004

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sangye Khandro

Lotsawa School: How did you learn Tibetan?

Sangye Khandro: I am still learning! But it all began in Dharamsala, India, when I had been a buddhist for about five years. I was studying in the Gelug tradition at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I went there in 1971 just searching for ‘the meaning of life’ and that kind of thing. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had just opened the library and he had one of his best geshes, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, teaching there with two qualified translators, Sharpa Tulku and Kamlung Tulku, who had trained in New Jersey. There was a course every day except on Sunday on buddhist philosophy from texts like BodhicharyavataraMadhyamakavatara, and the beginning of Lamrim Chenmo.

My partner and I used to go just to sit and listen. We didn’t really know anything at the time. There was a group of about eight or nine young westerners, including people like Georges Dreyfus, Alan Wallace, Alex Berzin and all the ‘old timers’. Jeffrey Hopkins would show up from time to time, although he had been there earlier and was already in another league. That is how we began hearing, contemplating and meditating.

That went on for about five years. I lived in Hawaii at the time and I would come and go. Geshe Dhargyey was kind of my root teacher, but I was really frustrated because I could never speak with him directly and every time we went to see him, we’d have to get a translator in order to have a meaningful conversation or ask any questions. We were fortunate because there were the two translators and they were very kind, but still I figured out that if I was going to stay on this path, I really needed to learn the language. In those days none of the teachers really spoke English, and there were other teachers in the area whom I would go and sit with. So I just decided I should try to learn. I got a tutor named Losang Thonden, who has actually written several Tibetan grammar books. He became my private tutor and also I took some classes at the library. Mostly I would go to Lobsang-la’s and he would teach me. I was also really close to the monks at Nechung Monastery, and they would teach me too. I just became a student of the language and started using ‘street’ or conversational Tibetan, and I learned to read.

I learned to read by studying the U-chen script not by studying Wylie. I never really got into Wylie, which is why even now I am not very good at spelling. I just learned to read and learned terms, but I didn’t really hone in on the spelling factor. I have found that a lot of people have this amazing ability to spell, like Jules Levinson our colleague who studied Tibetan with Jeffrey Hopkins, as well as others who have studied with westerners who teach Tibetan using Wylie.

After going back and forth for a few more years, when I had a basic understanding of colloquial Tibetan and I could read classical Tibetan, I began to do translation work, just slowly. Initially I was working with Gyaltrul Rinpoche in Berkeley. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche founded a centre there, called Yeshe Nyingpo, and he asked Gyaltrul Rinpoche to be his representative, and since I was also Gyaltrul Rinpoche’s companion at the time, he asked me to stay there and help.

Rinpoche decided to teach Kunzang Lamé Shyalung and at that time we had no translation like Words of My Perfect Teacher, which we have now, but we still did it. There were weekend classes and only very few people came, but we would study all week just to prepare for the weekend, with the text out, looking up every single word, and trying to write down and figure out what each line was saying. During the talk Rinpoche would read very slowly and I would read what I had written and we would discuss it. It was through that kind of process that I was able slowly to learn.

Then Rinpoche invited other teachers to come and teach there, like Lama Gönpo Tseten. This was in about 1979 and suddenly there were some really great lamas coming to the West. They needed translators, and I was the only one to do it in that area, or at least the best one at the time. There were a few other people around who knew some Tibetan, but they had never even tried to translate. So I ended up, almost by default, being the one that had to do it. I can remember being really horrified at first. I was always shy about speaking in public, so it was really hard for me to be put in that position, and especially to have the responsibility of explaining what the teacher had just said to an audience of sincere people wanting to learn about such a profound spiritual path. But I was in that position time and time again; it was just karmic. It was not my aspiration to become a translator initially. I studied and learned Tibetan for personal reasons, I have to say, but it became an opportunity to share and help others and so of course I was happy about that too.

Chagdud Rinpoche came and I translated for him many times in the early years. Khenpo Palden Sherab came right about then and I did the translation. I am sure it was horrible, but you know I did something; I was just trying. Lama Ganga of the Kagyu lineage came and gave teachings in a private way and I translated. I always had the texts and studied, studied, studied. I was doing nothing else with my life. I had dedicated my life to Dharma and the language. I was very poor and barely getting by, but that’s all I wanted to do, so I just did it. And I did it all the time. I lived with Gyaltrul Rinpoche so I was constantly with Tibetan lamas. So that is how I learned.

Then in 1981, when His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche went to Hong Kong, he invited me to come and be his translator. Shenphen Rinpoche, his son, was acting as his translator, and of course he was much better than me, but he didn’t want to be the translator. So I had the great honour of translating for His Holiness for an entire month in Hong Kong, and that was a real turning point for me.

Lotsawa School: What were the audiences like? Did a lot of people attend those teachings?

Sangye Khandro: Yes, hundreds and hundreds of Chinese. In a way that was nice training because I would speak to their translator and he would translate for the masses. So I was the ‘in-between’ and it was a great way to train. You have more time, because when it is three-way you are not on every second.

That led to more study of Dharma and more translation work. I spent a lot of time in the early years translating liturgies for Pacific Yeshe Nyingpo. I would ask Gyaltrul Rinpoche questions, but Rinpoche is not a scholar and of course he would help me when he could, but I was pretty much on my own. So I am afraid to say that these days when I look at those sadhanas, I would like to redo every last one of them…whenever I can get around to it.

Lotsawa School: Did any of the lamas you were translating for speak difficult dialects?

Sangye Khandro: Those lamas that were coming through then were all refugee lamas, and I find that refugee Tibetans have a common, modern language. It wasn’t until later, in the early 1990s, that the non-refugee Tibetans from China started to come and that was another story.

That began with Khenpo Jikmé Phuntsok. I was his translator in the States for the whole tour, except in Napa Valley, where it was Chökyi Nyima. It was very challenging. I was fortunate though, because before his visit we did have some Golok lamas living with us in Oregon at the temple, including Lama Chönam. So I had heard their dialect and I had conversed with them, and I was a bit familiar with it. Also before he came, I was given tapes of his teaching and I listened to them continuously and Gyaltrul Rinpoche helped me to identify different terms. Gyaltrul Rinpoche has always been extremely helpful and kind to me.

Lotsawa School: What were the most difficult things about translating in the beginning?

Sangye Khandro: It is difficult because you are put on the spot. Yet, if you are not willing to be put on the spot, how are you ever going to learn? Obviously the first times you ever translate publicly it is going to be rough going. That has been the case for me countless times, because I have worked with so many different teachers. Then, once you become familiar with their dialect and so on, it begins to iron out.

Lotsawa School: There are stories about you remembering long sections of teaching, sometimes lasting even half an hour, when translating for Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. Was that a skill you developed, or did you always have a good memory, even in the beginning?

Sangye Khandro: I really think that if you have a strong karmic connection with a particular teacher, there is some kind of magic that just happens. I can’t do that for every teacher. It is really because of a teacher’s blessing. I don’t feel that it has so much to do with me. It is really their blessing, and being within the field of the transmission that is happening.

But another turning point for me was working with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, most definitely. I wasn’t his translator for years or anything like that. Actually Thinley Norbu Rinpoche doesn’t use translators. Of course he knows the English language very well and is a master of terminology like Trungpa Rinpoche was. You can tell that by reading his books and seeing how he uses terms and how carefully he selects them.

He was requested by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche to give a teaching and he was very tired and thought he couldn’t do it in English. He must have mentioned me, or else Lama Tharchin Rinpoche did, I am not sure, but whatever it was, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche called me. I was in Oregon and I was so shocked and honoured. I just went right down. I still remember when I got there, Steven Goodman and some other people just looked at me, shook their head and said, “You know Rinpoche has burned out every translator he has ever worked with within the first ten minutes.” So I just thought “Well, he’s asking, so I am just going to try.” That is why I say it was just a blessing and a connection with Rinpoche, because I really have a lot of faith in him. I don’t see him as being different from his father, who was my root guru, and now he is my root guru. It was just amazing the different things that happened during that time. He taught me how to remember like that. He trained me specifically.

Lotsawa School: By giving you advice?

Sangye Khandro: Different things. There was the string on the toe thing.[i] And Rinpoche likes to speak from the space of his meditation and not to be interrupted. I think a lot of teachers are the same; when they’re giving that kind of mind transmission it is better for them not to have to stop. I wasn’t going to stop him, and no one else said a word. I was able to do it because he was blessing me. It pleased him that I was able to say most of what he had said—I mean, he knew, he can understand me. After a while, he started getting up and leaving. He would go out into the forest and listen.

I also have this kind of connection with Khenpo Namdrol. That is why it works. I really admire him and have a lot of faith in him and he is also one of my most important root teachers. I just enjoy working with him so much. I feel that that ability comes through the connection with the teachers and their blessing.

Lotsawa School: Do you take any notes while you are translating for Thinley Norbu Rinpoche?

Sangye Khandro: Yes, it is the same as I do here. I have my own short-hand. It is also true that it helps if you are familiar with the material. By now I am familiar with a lot of material: I have been at this a long time. Translation work is not just repeating words; you also have to study and learn Dharma and take it very seriously. You have to practise and do retreats and internalize what you learn. If there is no practice then it becomes like an intellectual game, and that will not work out in the end, not for these great Nyingma teachers.

Lotsawa School: Do you have any memories that stand out for you as being your best or worst experiences while translating?

Sangye Khandro: The best memory I have from more recent times is that month with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. That was the best month of my life and unforgettable really.

The most difficult experience was translating for Kusum Lingpa, whom I really love and have a strong connection with to this day. Lama Chönam and I see him every year when he comes, although I am no longer his main translator. I have translated for him recently, but when he first came to the States he was like a crazy, wild man and it was always difficult to say what he was saying without changing it and without putting my personality in, which you are not supposed to do.

Lotsawa School: Because what he said was so outrageous?

Sangye Khandro: So outrageous. I mean it was unbelievable. One of the most difficult times was during an interview in Hong Kong. Here was this student, a major jindak [ed.—sponsor], who had come over from Taiwan to meet him. One of my best friends brought her because I had told her how great this lama was, and the whole thing was happening because I had encouraged it. In comes this lady, who is very proper, and she sits down. He didn’t even say hello. He just said, “So, how much money do you have?” And I had to translate that.

It was difficult because he had no social skills. I don’t want this to come off as my saying bad words about Rinpoche. All the money he gets goes to the Dharma. It is only for Dharma. He doesn’t even own a watch. He is really a character, but every single penny he ever gets goes towards building stupas, supporting hundreds of lamas and nuns and poor people. He is really a beautiful, beautiful master and a crazy yogi. But in the West it was a disaster, because he has no social skills and people were so shocked by him. We would go to someone’s house because they had asked him to do a puja, and whenever he offered a serkyem [ed.—usually black tea or some kind of alchohol], he would just throw it in their house all over the walls.

Lotsawa School: I would like to ask about your choice of terminology, and how you decided on certain terms, because I know some of them come from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche.

Sangye Khandro: A lot of it comes from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, because I study with him now. We spend the winters with Rinpoche and I am continuously learning from him.

With the translation group [ed.—Light of Berotsana] we make decisions together about terms too. If there is a chance we run them by Rinpoche. If it’s Rinpoche’s term then we run that by Jules, our colleague, and he almost always agrees with it. There have been a few times when he came back after looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and contemplating and in the end found that Rinpoche’s term is really correct.

I’ll give you an example. When I was translating Chokchu Munsel [ed.—Dispelling Darkness in the Ten Directions, Longchenpa’s commentary to the Guhyagyarbha Tantra] in Alameda, California this last April, I was using the term ‘exaltation’ for bde ba chen po.  Some people sent me notes saying it should be ‘exultation’ with a ‘u’, but if you look up these two words in the O.E.D., you’ll see there is a big difference. In the end it is exaltation that wins out. People were thinking of bliss, but bde ba chen po is really ecstasy. ‘Ecstasy’ somehow just doesn’t fit in this context, but exaltation really does.

So we are really trying to refine the terms. At first, a lot of people might think they don’t like a term or they’re not used to it. But if you look it up and see what it really means and compare it with the Tibetan and check the context in which the term is being used, I think it will probably work. We are trying to decide on our terms in this way and run them by masters like Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and Khenpo Namdrol Rinpoche. We ask Khen Rinpoche questions all the time about the inner meaning to determine the correct terms.

Lotsawa School: Do you have any advice for people who want to become translators?

Sangye Khandro: Always check your motivation and make sure that you have the highest aspiration in mind. Practise continuously throughout the whole process and don’t just take it as some intellectual pursuit, because in the end that won’t be of very much benefit to anybody. Then you should spend time with Tibetan people, which means you are probably going to have to go to Asia and immerse yourself in the Tibetan culture. You will have to learn colloquial Tibetan if you want to be an oral translator. If you just want to translate literature of course that’s not necessary, but even translators of literature who don’t know spoken Tibetan are a little bit handicapped.

Try to fit into the ‘golden standard’[ii], which will hopefully become more well-known as time goes on. Don’t be discouraged: things are getting better and looking up for translators. There can be a career in this and there will be.

There is a lot more respect now and dignity with the job, but the fact that there wasn’t in the beginning was also okay. I don’t regret that. I feel really happy that I had just a pure intention to learn the Dharma and serve, without expecting to get anything. In effect, it was much purer than it is now, because now we expect to get things.

Basically people just have to surrender to it, watch their motivation and become a real practitioner, not just a tokgewa [ed.—intellectual scholar], as Thinley Norbu Rinpoche says. He always says that Patrul Rinpoche praised those who spoke simple words that were genuine, rather than those who spoke the dry, intellectual words of a scholar with no practice. I have learned a lot from that because when you are learning to be a translator you run into a lot of scholars, who really are smart, and you feel intimidated. You feel like you should use their terms because they are more accurate, but that may not necessarily be the case.

If you are working with a lama, then you need to ask the lama what a word really means, and then also if you have some practice you can kind of figure it out and understand on your own, without having to follow others. If the right terms are chosen and they are really correct, then I think that when we do have a translators’ conference, it will be pretty easy to decide on them.

This interview took place in August 2004 near Montpellier in the South of France, where Sangye Khandro was translating for Khenpo Namdrol.




[i] Whenever it was Sangye’s turn to speak, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche would pull on a string tied to her  big toe.
[ii] As set out by the Light of Berotsana translation group.