Deep Roots, Flourishing Branches

by Bhiksu Heng Kuan


      High flourishing branches hint of long deep roots. Can you imagine one without the other? No? Then what would you say of a Sanskrit scholar who had left the home life, and uses her through knowledge of the languages of Buddhism and the Buddha to understand the true principles and instructions, who puts them into practice, and aims at a state beyond birth and death as her goal?

      Such is the fundamental character of Sramanerika Heng Hsien of the Sino-American Buddhist Association. You had better be alert and on your toes, because she is your new teacher. Vajra Bodhi Sea is pleased to begin a new feature, a series of Sanskrit lessons based on Buddhist texts, which will appear regularly in each issue, taught by Heng Hsien.

Sramanerika Heng Hsien

Because all Vajra Bodhi Sea readers are perspicacious individuals with fine discriminatory powers, you will want information about Heng Hsien’s qualifications before you agree to take the course. A consistent honors student, she has long studied ancient languages, beginning in grade school with Latin. Her interest extended to the philosophy of language and the structure of human thought. She did her BA at The University of California at Berkeley in Comparative Literature, receiving the Departmental Citation and being elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

      Of the many scholarships offered to her for graduate study, she chose to study with Professor Cyrus Gordon, the well known linguist and anthropologist at Brandeis University, whose department of Mediterranean studies is unique in the country in providing comparative studies of classical and Near Eastern civilizations. Heng Hsien studied Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Egyptian, Latin, and Akkadian, and obtained her MA in one year.

She returned to Berkeley intending to specialize in Greek, but the study of the Oriental Greek philosophers soon opened the way to Indian thought. It was just one further step to Sanskrit and the treasury of Buddhist Sutras preserved in that language.

Sramanerika Heng Hsien has recently passed the qualifying examination for the Ph.D. in Sanskrit at Berkeley. She has been trained in Sanskrit, Vedic, Pali, Prakrit and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit by such eminent scholars as the distinguished linguist and comparative philologist, Murray B. Emeneau, Professor Emeritus at Berkeley, who is also known for his work on the Dravidian languages.

In addition to her work in comparative Indo-Aryan, Heng Hsien has studied the Indian philosophical and grammatical tradition with J. Fritz Staal, philosopher, linguist, and co-editor of the journal. Foundations of Language, and the learned grammarian Barend A. Van Nooten, who interprets India's subtle grammatical science for the West.  Both are professors at U.C.  She studied Tibetan with Professor James Bosson, Berkeley's Mongolian expert.

Her Chinese studies at Gold Mt. Monastery enable her to work on Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese with Berkeley's Professor Lewis Lancaster, noted Buddhologist and Advisor to Vajra Bodhi Sea who, along with Professor Edward Conze (also in Berkeley this last year) has done so much to promote Buddhist studies in this country.

Sramanerika Heng Hsien combines all this study with a difficult and rigorous schedule of Buddhist practices, including daily meditation, bowing, memorization and recitation of texts and mantras, and the practices of eating only once each day and never lying down to sleep. She took the precepts of a Sramanerika in July of last year, with the intention of turning her Vast  talent and knowledge to the benefit of others by making what has been an esoteric study of Sanskrit and the related languages in which the Buddha's teachings are preserved easily available and comprehensible to sincere disciples of the Buddha.

Few people have the opportunity or the inclination to follow an intensive Sanskrit program, but a knowledge of Sanskrit is essential for an accurate translation or a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist texts. To this end, Heng Hsien will present the essentials of Sanskrit for VBS readers beginning on this page of this issue.

In addition to all her other work, Sramanerika Heng Hsien is an active member of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, teaches Sanskrit at Gold Mountain Monastery, and is now taking part in the one hundred-eight day precept transmission ceremony, the first in the Western hemisphere. She will be one of the first to become fully ordained in the Orthodox tradition of Buddhism in the West.