-By John Blofeld
-Continued from issue 100
As is widely known, the original Sanskrit texts containing the great bulk of Mahayana teaching were mostly lost during vicissitudes and upheavals in India centuries ago, but have been preserved in two great compendiums, the Chinese and Tibetan translations from the Sanskrit to which some original Chinese and Tibetan sastras and commentaries have been added. Each of these compendiums consists of hundreds of volumes, some of them highly abstruse and most difficult to render correctly into readable English. The total amount of work awaiting us is therefore enormous and highly complicated. Yet, unless translation is performed on a large scale, Buddhist teaching is bound to be perverted, albeit unintentionally. Moreover, now that Buddhism has been disrupted or even totally destroyed in several Asian countries, it is imperative that records and translations be made as soon as possible of the vital oral teachings that used to be transmitted from master to disciple down the ages. We can no longer depend upon its oral continuance, as so very few Westerners are qualified to understand it in its entirety. While some of the last Asian teachers to receive the transmission are still among us, we must strive to obtain from them every bit of the teaching. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has made provision for this at his headquarters at Dharmasala, India; but time is short and what can be accomplished at Dharmasala will be only a part of the whole and, of course, limited to the Tibetan traditions. The recording of Chinese oral traditions will, to a great extent, devolve upon Gold Mountain; for Chinese teachers in the West are few and those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc, rarely know much English or have good translators to help them. It is greatly to be hoped that more and more young people in the West will dedicate themselves to acquiring sufficient mastery of written and spoken Chinese and Tibetan to be able to take part in this inspiring work.
At present the number of translators is far too few, especially if we respectfully exclude those Western scholars who know Chinese or Tibetan but who are not themselves Buddhists and are therefore liable to error not of scholarship, of course, but with regard to what might be called the inner meaning of certain texts. A good translator needs to understand both the letter and the spirit of the texts; to be just a scholar or just an enthusiastic devotee is not enough; he must have both excellent scholarship AND spiritual insight.
No less important than translation is the building of institutions. These, I believe, should be of two kinds, or else combine two kinds of training and function. Dissemination of the Buddha Dharma, the main task of a Buddhist college or university, is one of those functions. However, Buddhism is not something that can be fully absorbed from books and/or lectures it must also be lived; for otherwise its dissemination will be impaired and even perverted. Therefore there must be institutions for relatively small numbers of students who, whether they are monks or laymen, spend a great deal of time in the various meditative practices which include meditation beyond conceptual thought, another kind of meditation in which conceptual thought and learning play their part, the cultivation of insight, the exercise of awareness and, above all, the arousing of Bodhicitta that state of mind which inspires one to make unlimited sacrifices in this and all lives to come so as to assist in drawing all sentient beings towards Enlightenment. To some extent, a single institution could perform both these functions; nevertheless I think there should be some institutions which specialize almost wholly in the second function, as the demands made upon a university teacher may not always be conducive to attainment of the state of inner stillness required for exercising it. In China and, much more often, in Tibet, it used to be the practice for people to live in total seclusion for years at a time while cultivating that stillness. In Thailand, I have observed that perfect stillness of mind is very rarely cultivated in any of the famous monasteries; those monks who desire above all else to attain it mostly go to live in small monasteries deep in the jungle. In any case, regardless of the decision reached as to types of institutions, some form of institutionalization is absolutely necessary; for otherwise the wisdom of even the most accomplished teachers would soon be dissipated or unwittingly adulterated by pupils living among the strains and stresses of worldly life.
most Asian countries, the very center of Buddhist life has always been the
monastic communities known collectively as the Sangha. How far Buddhism in
the West should be monastic in character is not for me to say. I realize
that, if the Buddha Dharma is to survive and flourish in the West, a
certain degree of adaptation to Western ways of living must take place;
but I myself have spent such a very little time in the West since my
undergraduate days that I do not feel qualified to decide how far or in
what directions adaptation should go. I just have a feeling that, as far
as is reasonable and possible, traditions should largely be preserved. I
do see that too much rigidity might sharply curtail the advance of
Buddhism; on the other hand, I think that too much looseness resulting
from over eagerness to adapt might lead to Buddhism’s undergoing such
changes as to be no longer recognizable as what we now call Buddhism. This
is a problem that will have to be solved by the Asian teachers in the West
in full consultation with their most intimate and advanced Western
disciples. It is those disciples who, a very few decades from now, will
themselves be the leaders in their respective institutes (and, indeed,
this has already happened in such cases as California’s Zen Center, for
example). Therefore, a great responsibility devolves on them. It is upon
their wisdom that the future of Buddhism in the West will very much
depend; since by the time a third generation will already have been made.
I pray that all of them will be inspired by the Wisdom Gone Beyond!