You are here

Pema Wangyal

Pema Wangyal

First of all, I would like to thank Latse Library, especially Mr. Pema Bhum, for organizing such a wonderful conference. In particular, it has really been a special opportunity to meet so many scholars who have come from all over: the venerable Kirti Rinpoche, Jeffrey Hopkins, Don Lopez, Tsering Shakya, and others.

As most of the people from Amdo who are in my generation know, it was when we were in middle school in Tibet that we first heard the name Gendun Chopel. Then, when we got hold of his "Dod pa'i bstan bcos" (kamaśastra or “treatise on desire”), we enjoyed his beautifully written descriptions of lovemaking. I can still remember many of the verses in that book. Though we had no chance to put into practice the contents of the "Dod pa'i bstan bcos," later it left a deep impression when we were studying poetry because of its beautiful wording. Generally speaking, most students from Amdo like poetry very much. I, too, fell in love with certain poems of Gendun Chopel, which he written in kāvya style. In my opinion, his poems are easy to understand and yet hold deep meaning; if Gendun Chopel wasn’t a poet, then who is?

Later, while studying at the Central Nationalities Institute in Beijing, I managed to get hold of other writings by Gendun Chopel: his White Annals, his verses relaying Buddha's teachings, The Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought, and various poems. I read them again and again. They greatly benefited me in many ways, by broadening my vision, my thought, etc. From his writings, it was clear that his intellect was unfettered and his views deep.

In 1986, after I graduated from the Institute, I was hired to teach there. During that time, Nyenshul Khyenrab Özer (Gnyan shul Mkhyen rab 'od zer) was teaching [Śantideva's] Guide to the Bodhisattva Path to graduate students. Khyenrab Özer told me a great deal about Gendun Chopel’s amazing life, things I had never heard before.

The opportunity for me to translate Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought (Klu sgrub dgongs rgyan) into other languages came about in this way. In 1998, I came to America to study. There is a professor by the name of Dr. Lancaster who teaches Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley. Some of his graduate students were studying Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy. I spoke to them about [Gendun Chopel’s text] Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought and we studied a bit of it together. Among these students, there was an American woman named Jane. She not only knew a bit of Tibetan but had also studied Buddhism for many years. Seeing that there was no English translation of the work, we began translating it into English. In the meanwhile, the scholar Namkhai Norbu came to America. When he heard about our project, he greatly encouraged us saying that an English version of Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought would be of great benefit. So, this woman Jane and I finished the translation in one year or so. We have since revised the translation many times, and it now reads very comfortably. However, it has not been published yet. Perhaps the Zhang Zhung Institute [Italy] will be able to publish it by the end of this year.

The idea of translating the book into Chinese came one day when I was searching the Internet and I noticed that there was a biography of Gendun Chopel written in Chinese. The author was Professor Du Yongbin from the China Tibetology Research Institute in Beijing. In the introduction to that book, he wrote that it was disappointing that Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought had not yet been translated in Chinese, although many other works by Gendun Chopel were available in Chinese. After reading that, I thought it might be useful to translate Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought into Chinese and so I started. As we all know, Gendun Chopel’s writing is characterized by clear wording and deep meaning. If this quality is not translated, in Chinese or whatever language it may be, then the translation will not be considered a good one. “Translation” first requires that one correctly understands both the words and the meaning of the original, according to the meaning of the contents of the work to be translated. Only then does it require translating into whatever language it may be, in a clear and readable manner. Keeping this principle in mind, I read Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought again and again and thought a lot about both its words and its meaning. I asked many questions of geshés about the difficult parts and, through this, gained confidence that I understood it in terms of both its words and its meaning. Then, per my understanding, I translated it into Chinese such that it read comfortably. The whole process took me about six months.

Once I had finished the Chinese translation of Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought, I still faced many obstacles in publishing it. At first I considered a publishing house in Taiwan. When I contacted them, they asked me: “Whose reincarnation is this Gendun Chopel?” Those claiming to be Buddhist practitioners in Taiwan are obsessed only with the name (lit. empty position) of their lama or trülku and disregard true Buddhist thought as if it were mere grass on the path. When I realized that there was not much hope of publishing it there, I then contacted the Qinghai Nationalities Publishing House. However, they had just published many books about Falun Gong and they had been punished by the authorities. They told me that they could not publish my translation, because they were being very careful about publishing any religious books. After that, a dharma group in Los Angeles contacted me and said they had a number of books on Middle Way philosophy and would I be able to translate them into Chinese. I showed them my translation of Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought. They highly praised it and happily published the book. However, because they are a dharma group, the book has not been distributed widely. So, I then contacted the Nationalities Publishing House in Beijing. They agreed to publish a bilingual Tibetan-Chinese edition of Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought, and the volume came out this year.

As everyone knows, the spread [of Dharma] in China consisted of teachings that prioritized the Cittamatrin or Mind-Only School, and many Cittamatrin texts were long ago translated into Chinese. For this reason, many of the terms pertaining to the Mind-Only School already existed in Chinese. However, teachings on the Middle Way are not widespread in China. Thus, many terms related to this do not exist in Chinese. Those that do exist are written in obscure characters that even a great many Chinese scholars have difficulty understanding. If such archaic or obscure terms were used to translate Gendun Chopel’s Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought, even a literate Chinese person would not comprehend it. For this reason, I did not use obscure or archaic Chinese terms while translating; rather, I used modern language that everyone could understand. For special religious terms—such as “neither exists nor not exists” (yod min med min)—I included explanations in my translation. In short, by translating Adornment for Nāgārjuna’s Thought into English and Chinese, I myself have learned a great deal; in particular, it was of great benefit in increasing my understanding of Buddhism’s unique school of thought. All of this is only thanks to Gendun Chopel and his blessing. Now, it has probably been about twenty minutes. I shall stop here. Thank you. Tashi Delek.

Translated by Lauran Hartley.