TURNING THE POLYGLOT DHARMA WHEEL
By Bhiksuni Heng Chen
The first literary remains extant for all known cultures throughout history are religious in character. Religion and mythology (which is only a word used to categorize a religion as "dead," in the sense that Classical Latin is a "dead" language) are the hallmarks of civilization, for they are the expressions of humanity's aspirations to transcend the confines of mortality, propitiate, commune with, and adore supersensible beings and forces, and, in their more developed forms, to attain infinite freedom, wisdom, power, peace, and bliss for all eternity. The Proper Mahayana Buddhadharma is the ultimate culmination and fulfillment of these aspirations, and as such is the birthright of all living beings, to whom it has been bequeathed as their inheritance from time immemorial by an unbroken succession of Buddhas.
Since all living beings have the Buddha nature and can become Buddhas, how could the Dharma be the exclusive heritage of certain "chosen" nations, races, and/or ethnic groups? There is no Chinese, Japanese, or Tibetan, etc., Buddhadharma: there is only one Dharma, which has been assimilated into the cultures of speakers of these languages throughout the course of many centuries.
Language---this is indeed the magical "open sesame" to acceptance and acculturation of the Dharma. Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language acquires a very special and subtle familiarity with the ethos, or cultural characteristics, of the native speakers of that language that he didn't have previously. If he visits the country (ies) where it is spoken, he discovers that the people are pleased and flattered that he has taken the time and trouble to learn their language. Immigrants who have taken up residence in (to them) foreign countries tend to preserve their national identities to the extent that they speak their native language among themselves and transmit it to their descendents. Conversely, they are assimilated into the general population to the extent that they succeed in mastering its mother tongue. (Of course, it is all too true that discrimination based on non-linguistic grounds often comes into play to isolate or even ostracize them from the larger community in which they live; nonetheless, "language barriers" and, to coin a phrase, "language bridges" are invariably of paramount importance in such circumstances.)
Similarly, in order for the Proper Dharma to become a fully, ethnically "naturalized" religion in countries and regions which heretofore have only known non-ultimate faiths, and not remain merely an exotic curiosity, passing fad, or museum piece, the Tripitaka must be translated into the living vernaculars and dialects of the peoples who presently are barred from access to it by linguistic barriers.
Unfortunately, initial translations of the Dharma into Western languages have been done for the most part by adherents of non-ultimate religions who force it into the Procrustean beds of their own religious terminolgies, which are misleading and inaccurate, or by scholars who use it as fodder for sterile and often ludicrously erroneous academic analysis. Scholars wield enormous power by virtue of their prestige as the cream of the intelligentsia, but regrettably their moral standards are considerably less lofty than their reputations, and they are frequently swayed by motives of self-interest to subject their students to unreasonable pressures. As translators of the Dharma, teachings grounded in morality, they cannot resolve the paradox of their own daily lives. Not wishing to relinquish their reign as the sole gods in the "hallowed halls" of academia, they try to resolve their conflicts by actively discouraging their students (who are often too naive to question the integrity of such professors) from believing in and cultivating in accord with the Buddha's teachings. The emphasis on "objectivity" versus faith has reached dangerous extremes, so that now scholars focus their own research and their students' attention on discrediting the authenticity of the Mahayana sutras, which are the literary sariras of the Buddha. They seek to corrupt their students' minds with putrid, poisonous garbage and force feed them with the foul offal of papers and dissertations slandering the Dharma; in this way they become the very demons exposed by the Surangama Sutra, the demons whose sensuality and perverse machinations are the deadly bait of Mara. They further escalate the Dharma's demise by passively allowing inestimably precious source materials and texts to molder in their sepulchral archives, refusing to release them to those who would publish them before they themselves get around to burying them underneath the trashy disquisitions that fuel the academic machine.
If the Dharma is to survive the kind of introduction into Western society which the translations replete with non-Buddhist terminology and "scholarly" distortions and delusions have inflicted on it, it must be reborn and come to flourish in the hearts and minds of people, and must be put into practice by true Buddhist disciples.
Now the Dharma is dying out in Asia, its stronghold in the past, and is "immigrating" to the West, where people with good roots and blessings accumulated throughout many great aeons in the past are thirstily seeking it and longing to find a Good Wise Advisor who can teach them how to cultivate to Enlightenment. However, due to the power of delusion both within and without them, they may not consciously realize what they are looking for, and may easily stray off onto deviant paths in the train of untrustworthy advisors. With the beacon of the Proper Dharma, elucidated by a genuine Good Wise Advisor and translated into their own language, these people can find their way back to the non-dual Dharma door.
The most Venerable Tripitaka Master Hua, Abbot of Gold Mountain Monastery of San Francisco, and the peerless Good Wise Advisor of our age, has explained and continues daily to explain all of the major Mahayana sutras. The Buddhist Text Translation Society, composed of American sangha members ordained in the orthodox tradition and devoted precept-holding lay disciples, collaborate in a group effort to publish translations of the sutras with the Master's commentaries which are at once precise and readable.
When Sakyamuni Buddha was in the world, he exhorted his disciples to translate his discourses, the sutras, into the vernacular languages of India, which were the Middle Indic Prakrits of his time. He himself spoke several Prakrit dialects, and did not favor one over another since they were but the "vehicles" for his Vehicles. He condemned the rigid caste hierarchy dominated and perpetuated by the Brahmin pandits for centuries by means of linguistic elitism---for they alone had sufficient leisure and training to master Vedic and Sanskrit, the sacred languages of the Hindu scriptures---and showed by his example that the Dharma's impartiality is devoid of any discrimination based on language. Biblical Hebrew, New Testament Koine Greek, Ecclesiastical (Vulgate) Latin, the English of the King James Version of the Bible, the Arabic of the Koran, etc., have all acquired a more or less sacrosanct prestige as well, and the human tendency to become attached to language, to worship the "beauty" of archaic expressions one does not really understand, and so forth, has proven to be a potent force of both intentional obscurantism and unintentional obstructiveness which has militated against the very religions of the "sacred language" worshippers. ("Hocus pocus" is a popular corruption of "hoc est corpus," a key sentence in the sacrament of the Eucharist ceremony in the Latin liturgy. It refers to magical hanky-panky and mummery because the common people who didn't understand Vulgate Latin didn't know what the priests were mumbling, and the rite became surcharged with more than religious mystery for them in consequence. Perhaps the unintelligibility of the Vulgate contributed to the prevalence of superstition in the Middle Ages, since it prevented the masses from understanding Christianity before vernacular translations of the Bible were accessible to them. It comes to mind here that the Chinese expression for superstition means literally "confused belief"; when people don't understand a language fully their beliefs based on misapprehension are bound to be confused.)
Aware of the pitfalls of sacrificing understanding on the altar of one or more "canonical" languages and inspiring reverence for the letter rather than the spirit of the Dharma, the Venerable Master Hua, Chairperson of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, encourages its members to put the Dharma into the languages of the people. Therefore, in addition to English, other target languages for translation projects of the Society include Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian at present, and eventually all major languages of the West will be used to turn the Dharma Wheel, so that all humanity may learn the truth and resolve to attain unsurpassed proper and equal Enlightenment, walking the Path of all Bodhisattvas from suffering to bliss.
Again and again the Avatamsaka Sutra states that the Buddha speaks with one sound which living beings understand in accord with their own kind (i.e., in their own languages, for all living beings have languages). One of the most important spiritual penetrations of Bodhisattvas is that of communicating in and understanding the infinitely numerous languages of the infinitely diversified species of living beings. We common people, however, must work with what we have and start from where we are, and what could be a better step towards these ultimate powers of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas than translating the Tripitaka into the languages of our fellow human beings? Even if in the distant future every person on earth were to speak one universal language (and it would be deplorable if one or a few languages entirely supplanted the others as the result of political and technological domination and linguistic genocide), that time has not yet come. But right now, today, the sooner the better, all the people on our planet need to have access to the Dharma in accurate and idiomatic translations in their own languages. If enough people throughout the world begin to cultivate the Way, there is hope for saving the world from the imminent destruction with which it is now threatened as the retribution for the karma of hatred and sheer madness. Nuclear stockpiles, ballistic missiles, overkill...these words of horror are all too familiar in all languages. Our very physical survival is dependent on enough people learning of cause and effect and conducting themselves sanely in accord with it, to say nothing of our prospects for spiritual development.
We of the Buddhist Text Translation Society sincerely hope that those who are capable of collaborating with us in the enormous undertaking of translating the Tripitaka into Western languages will do so, and thereby contribute to the cause of world peace and universal salvation as they establish merit for themselves and give the most valuable of gifts, the gift of Dharma, to their fellow human beings.
Soon to be published:
THE LOTUS SUTRA, VOL. 1, with commentary by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. The Buddha appeared in the world in order to lead all living beings to understand the teaching of the Lotus Sutra. "For the sake of all living beings, I preach the One Buddha-Vehicle. If you are able to receive these words with faith, you shall all be able to become Buddhas. This vehicle is wondrously pure and supreme. In all the worlds throughout the universe there is nothing more exalted."