what you always wanted to know 
about Buddhist Text Translation 
but never dared to ask...

The Buddhist Text Translation Society of the Sino-American Buddhist Association has established the Eight Rules of Translation to serve as a guideline for its members. The first of the rules runs like this:

1. A translator must free himself from motives of personal reputation and gain.

Sakyamuni Buddha taught the Dharma for forty-nine years in over three hundred Dharma assemblies and his teachings have enlightened many throughout the ages. From India, the Dharma spread to China, and, thanks to the efforts of Kumarajiva, Hsuan Tsang, and other great masters, the Sutras were translated into Chinese. But, in all the time Buddhism flourished in China, no one had the foresight to translate the scriptures into the languages of the Western World. It was not until recently that translations of Buddhist Sutras have appeared in the West and readers may wonder, "How can I know that the translation I am reading is a true rendering of both the letter and the spirit of the Buddha's teaching?"

This is an important question, and not difficult to answer. How can one judge the credibility of a translation?

Only by taking a look at the translator. As Confucius so aptly put it, "Look closely into his aims, observe the means by which he pursues them, discover what makes him happy, and, can the person's real worth remain hidden from you? Can it remain hidden from you?

Look closely into his aims...

The earliest translations of Buddhist texts were done by the Christian missionaries. Their aim was to make converts among the Chinese, and their translations, filled with Christian terminology, retain little of the original Dharma. No one would dispute this.

Later, scholars took up that task and it is here we begin our discussion of the first translator's regulation: A translator must free himself from motives of personal reputation...

Recently, a well-known professor of Asian literature gave himself away when, in an after-lunch speech at Gold Mountain Monastery, he remarked, "Translation is, more than anything, an act of compassion. For a long time scholars have thought that anyone worth his salt could read the texts in their original languages, and so it was not necessary to translate them...” We can't but infer from his remark that "those worth their salt" are other scholars, like himself. But if they have translated texts, to be perfectly candid, they have done so either to impress other scholars or to, as they say, "publish and not perish."

If this sounds harsh, let me quote Dr. Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar himself, who spoke bravely at a conference in Poquatt, New York, in 1974. The conference of translators was held for the purpose of creating a dictionary of Buddhist terms. When an objection was raised to the proposed title of the project, Dr. Thurman injected:

"I know that in the hallowed halls of academia, in the various departments scholars will look down their noses...Those are people who have accumulated references, and have been studying in this field for a long time, and have never made a decent dictionary because they can never share with each other the slightest iota of their knowledge because they are in total competition with each other in the dog-eat-dog world of Western academia...As far as I'm concerned. I'm interested in this project for the...propagation of the Dharma because modern culture needs it. I don't want it to be just business like it is with these people. When they see it...if they still sneer...then they can take their chair, and stuff it. We don't care about their participation and don't want it." [Italics mine]

The spectra of reputation hangs heavy here.

On the other side of the coin, translations done by the Buddhist Text Translation Society are reviewed by four working committees. All involved assume responsibility for the quality of the work; no one makes a name for himself. Translations are done for the sake of one reason only: to provide the people of the Western World with a chance to read those Sutras and hereby

learn how to leave suffering and attain bliss, and to gain genuine wisdom.

Having discussed personal reputation, let's move on to the subject of personal gain. Gain means money. The translation of the Buddha's teaching is, as our professor pointed out, the work of a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas, I might add, do not take money for their work. It would never occur to them to demand payment for what they do. This is not to imply that members of the Buddhist Text Translation Society are Bodhisattvas; we are not. But we wish to walk down the road walked by the Bodhisattvas, we wish to imitate the Bodhisattvas in our actions, and that is why we would never consider taking remuneration in any form for the work we do. Once a person accepts money for work such as this, it "has a price." Work done with no thought of personal gain assumes another character entirely--it is "priceless"—beyond price. The aims, the goals of the two types of translation are directly, at variance. The difference is crucial. What is the effect of using the Buddha's words as a money-generating entity? Sponsoring such operations can only attract those who are interested in money. Translation projects, which are not commercial, will attract those interested in the welfare and enlightenment of all beings.  The old saying applies, "Birds of a feather..."

In the Buddhadharma, it is absolutely essential to practice that which one studies. Study without practice is utterly useless. Without real practice, it is impossible to have a deep understanding of the Buddhadharma.  Without a deep understanding of the Buddhadharma, it is impossible to translate Buddhist texts. And, without the aid of a Good Knowing Advisor, it is extremely difficult to practice the Buddhadharma.

At Gold Mountain Monastery, the Venerable Master Hua, a true Good Knowing Advisor, has been expounding the Buddhadharma daily-for many years, patiently, thoroughly training the members of the Buddhist Text Translation Society to be not only Buddhist scholars, but true practitioners of the Dharma as well. Not only do they study the texts, they put their knowledge into practice, upholding the precepts and cultivating meditation as well. Thus, for the first time in the West, texts are being translated by those in a position to have a real understanding of the material, from a practical as well as an academic standpoint.

Let me give a simple analogy: If you were deathly ill, would you go downtown and grab someone off the street and ask him to diagnose your illness and prescribe a healing drug? No. You would find a skilled physician. Likewise, we in the West now suffer from diseases of moral and spiritual corruption. The Buddhadharma is the medicine we so desperately need, and to rely upon the translations made by those who have never practiced it, those who do not uphold even the most basic of the Buddha's moral precepts, those who engage in translation as a commercial transaction, and who remain caught up in academic back-slapping and back-biting, is not only foolish, but dangerous.

I have attempted to explode a few of the old myths about translation, so readers can avoid "consumer fraud." Again, I do not wish to praise or condemn, but those who truly seek the Way are entitled to reliable translations. Think it over. It could make a lot of difference.


Excerpt from Lectures on the Surangama Sutra given by Venerable Master Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua
Translated by Bhiksuni Heng Ch’ih

Guard your mouth, collect your mind and do not transgress with your body.
Do not bother any living being.
Stay far away from unbeneficial ascetic practices.
You who cultivate like this can save the world.

"Guard your mouth" means do not just say whatever you feel like. "Collect your mind,” means keep your thoughts from wandering around, don't engage in false thinking. Don't continually climb on conditions. "And do not transgress with your body." Don't commit physical offenses.

In guarding your mouth, your speech must be free of the four evils: abusive language, lying, profanity, and gossip. In collecting your mind you must be free of greed, hatred, and stupidity. In not transgressing with your body you must not engage in killing, stealing, or sexual misconduct. For a person who has left the home-life even thinking of such things is not permissible.

"Do not bother any living being." Don't cause any person or creature you come in contact with to become afflicted. Don't trouble living beings. Even less should you bother your fellow-cultivators. Sometimes unintentionally you make a mistake and cause someone else to be upset. In such a case you should find an opportunity to explain yourself and not just let the matter drop.

"Stay far away from unbeneficial ascetic practices.” You should do things, which benefit yourself and others. Do not do things, which are not beneficial. The Buddha practiced the Middle Way. In his method of cultivation he taught his disciples to eat vegetarian food and not to eat meat. If they were given meat as an offering, or if their bodies were not strong they could eat only pure meat. The Buddha defined pure meat in three ways:

1) What I did not see killed.

2) What I did not hear killed

3) What was not killed especially for me.

But basically, the Buddha taught his disciples to eat vegetarian food. And what do you suppose Devadatta with his deviant knowledge and deviant views did? He thought, "Huh. You teach your disciples to eat vegetarian food, do you? Well, I teach my disciples not to eat salt." He called this a superior ascetic practice this practice also exists in Taoism, and is referred to as "superior pure vegetarian eating." Actually, this is not in accord with the Middle Way, but that's the way Devadatta did it. The Buddha taught his disciples not to eat after noon. In the morning they Ate rice gruel and at noon they had a full meal. Every day they ate twice. The Buddha himself ate only once a day at noon. He did not eat in the morning and he did not eat at night. What did Devadatta teach his disciples to do? He taught them not to eat for a hundred days. "See how much higher I am? You eat vegetarian food? I don't even eat salt. I'm always a bit higher than you." He constantly wanted to compare himself to the Buddha. He kept wanting to battle his dharmas against the Buddha's and he always said the Buddha could not compare to him. Eventually Devadatta convinced Ajatusatru to kill his father, the King and his mother, the Queen, and assume the throne himself. Once Ajatusatru was King, Devadatta would reign as the "new Buddha." Sakyamuni Buddha was the "old Buddha" and Devadatta wanted to take over. His Views were so deviant that finally Devadatta fell into the hells alive. He just took his flesh body right along with him. That's what happened to Devadatta because he was intent upon doing things differently from the way the Buddha taught. To put it another way, he wanted to be number one. He wanted to be first. He wanted this and he wanted that and in the end he fell into the hells alive. It is useless to cultivate unbeneficial ascetic practices.

"You who cultivate like this can save the world." If you avoid bad body, mouth, and mind karma; do not bother any living beings; and avoid unbeneficial ascetic practices, you can cultivate the orthodox Dharma and not go down the wrong road. Eventually your Bodhi conduct and vows will be realized and you can save all living beings.

Living beings are limitless,

I vow to save them

Afflictions are endless,

I vow to sever them.

Dharma-doors are boundless

I vow to study them.

The Buddha-Way is unsurpassed

I vow to accomplish it.