Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Wu Tai Shan Clan Manifesto

Here, lifted from elsewhere, is something I think everyone should read, from a project I think everyone should support. This is the guiding manifesto of Lotsawa House -- or, as I like to call it, Dharma before it got incorporated.

The Case for Free Dharma

An Interview with Adam of the Wu Tai Shan Clan

Q: How did Lotsawa House begin?

A: A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I had translated quite a few texts over the previous ten years or so, and although some of them had been distributed on a small scale, for the most part they were just sitting on my hard disk. I thought others might benefit from them and I had also been given a little bit of money and couldn’t decide what to do with it, so the two just came together and I bought the domain name. I was inspired by the example of other websites, especially Andreas Kretschmar’s site with his free translation of Khenpo Kunpal’s Bodhicharyavatara commentary. Many teachers have stressed how the Dharma should be made available for free, and it is clear that the internet has made this much easier. The beginning of Lotsawa House also coincided with the formation of the Wu Tai Shan Clan.

Q: Why do you think there aren’t more sites like this?

A: There are plenty of sites out there with a few texts or a few prayers available for free, but people still seem reluctant to make larger works or entire books available. In some cases, I think this comes from financial concerns, and if so that’s very sad. But that will change, I think. There is a demand out there, so it will happen. Of course, people still like prefer to read real books, and electronic texts are not going to replace traditional ones, but, at the same time, we have a responsibility as followers of the Mahayana to make these teachings available as widely as possible, because they actually help people, and it is much easier to distribute the texts this way. Lotsawa House is getting positive feedback from people all over the world who find it difficult to get hold of Dharma books and in many cases can’t even afford them. It would be wonderful if we could arrive at a situation where the printing and distribution of books were sponsored by patrons, and texts given away for free. That should really become the norm. Many centres are already doing this. For instance, I recently received a copy of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s teachings on the Madhyamakavatara, funded by the Khyentse Foundation. And of course, Tarthang Rinpoche has been giving away texts in Tibetan for years, and I know many people find that very inspiring. It’s actually so much more in keeping with the teachings. Selling Dharma is known traditionally as “holding the Dharma to ransom” and is considered wrong livelihood. And there’s something about it that feels wrong to people almost instinctively. Of course, in many cases when people pay to cover the costs involved in producing Dharma materials, they are happy to contribute and they feel their money is going to a worthy cause. The problem is more with the attitude that can sometimes go along with selling things, the attitude of being proprietary. That is anathema to followers of the teachings. There is a Tibetan saying: “The Dharma has no ownership.” I don’t think many people are deliberately trying to limit the availability of teachings, but when this happens—as it does inevitably with anything that is bought and sold—I think it can come from a fear that people will take advantage of the generosity of others, which certainly does happen.

Q: So you don’t have any problem with people copying your own work?

A: No, not at all. We even say as much. But we do have a problem with people copying our work and then selling it for a profit. The whole point is to make Dharma available for free.

We don’t think there is any place for copyright in the Dharma. That is bound to be a little controversial and it may even seem naïve and idealistic to some, but we believe it. There was no copyright in Tibet. And it does not really work in practice. Tibetan writers quote from the major texts so frequently that it would be much easier and more efficient if we could quote existing translations each time, rather than always having to retranslate everything. I think some translators would find this flattering, and wouldn’t mind at all. But there is always this fear of breaching copyright laws as long as they are there.

Q: You could request permission?

A: Of course, and that does happen. But permission could be given from the beginning. You wouldn’t need to ask if it was part of the culture.

Q: Aren’t some translators afraid that their work will be lightly edited and then passed off as someone else’s entirely? Isn’t that a potential problem?

A: It might be a problem if such so-called ‘editors’ go on to sell the new version and make some money from other people's hard work. Yet, to some extent, this kind of thing is inevitable at the stage we are at now in the transmission of Dharma to the West. As long as different sanghas are using different vocabularies, they’ll feel like changing the key terms in a translation so that it becomes more familiar to them and easier to read. That’s just natural. We shouldn’t have any problem with that. The translations we are doing now can not be anything like definitive. They are just provisional, and more like initial contributions to an ongoing process. Of course, some are more definitive than others, but basically we are just coming up with the first drafts and passing them onto our successors and future generations for further refinement. If translators don’t acknowledge this, and think they are going to achieve some kind of immortality through their work, they are deluding themselves, and of course they will have problems.

Q: Shouldn’t translators already be working together to arrive at some consensus on terminology?

A: Of course they should, and they are doing, to some extent. But as, Ringu Tulku observed, translators tend to be very stubborn individuals. There are translators out there championing all kinds of obscure and bizarre-sounding terms which in most cases will never catch on. This happens when you spend a long time thinking about the meaning of words: you develop some very strong views about why your choice is correct. That’s one thing that is happening. Another is that something like a ‘lineage’ of terms develops. People start believing in a term because their teacher has used it, and of course that’s a sign of dedication and genuine devotion, but it can still turn into some kind of stubborn narrow-mindedness, and if we are not careful it could even contribute towards some kind of sectarianism in future. I think we will naturally move towards consensus, and of course if people don’t start adopting certain translation choices they quickly become obsolete. You can already see this happening. Guenther undoubtedly had an influence on many translators, but his more exotic choices seem as strange today as they did when he first used them. The standard terminology of today is being determined more by groups such as Padmakara, who deliberately avoid radical or unfamiliar-sounding terms which could alienate people, and whose output is so prolific and whose books are so widely read it is no wonder they are having a greater impact. They also set high standards in terms of quality of language, which is equally important.

Q: Do you have any advice for potential translators?

A: Yes, in fact many potential translators write to us asking for advice and we also meet students in Nepal and other places who are thinking of becoming translators. It seems there are many future lotsawas out there, which is excellent news if you consider the scale of the task before us. There’s a lot that could be said, and this is actually more in the domain of Lotsawa School, but it’s always good to remind people of one important thing. That is that translators need to be wordsmiths, who are skilled not just in Tibetan but also in their own language. This is a huge part of translation, and unfortunately it often seems to be neglected. Translators can not rely entirely upon editors to correct their language for them, especially when the editors don’t know Tibetan. So one important piece of advice would be to learn more about language in general, and one’s own language in particular. Other than that, work hard, take bodhichitta as your guiding principle, which means abandoning the eight worldly concerns, and consider everything you do as an offering for others’ benefit.

Q: How do you choose which texts to make available on the internet?

A: Up to now they have mostly been translations that were done in the past few years, before the website existed, and are now being edited and released. They are often the by-products of other work, from my ‘day job’ for Rigpa Translations. Other than that, we try to make texts available which we know people will find helpful, or which contain something new, which has not been translated before. We don’t have any qualms about translating important texts which have already been translated, or we think we can add something to make the teaching clearer, especially if it is a text we think should be freely available but isn’t.

We have also asked lamas what they would like to see translated. Khenpo Appey, when we asked him this recently, gave us a rare text on lojong, and said he thought the lojong teachings were particularly appropriate to make available in this form.

We don’t put up any translations of texts considered to be restricted—meaning they can be studied only by those who have received a particular empowerment. It’s sometimes hard to draw a line between sutra and tantra because they are so integrated in the Tibetan tradition, but as far as possible we try to keep to sutrayana texts. Obviously we have included texts which deal with aspects of the vajrayana. Even the ngöndro commentaries contain a lot of information about the vajrayana, but we still consider them unrestricted. Many teachers have expressed their sadness and concern about so many restricted teachings appearing in bookshops where they can be read by anyone at all and will not be shown the level of respect they deserve.

The same teachers are also deeply concerned about how vajrayana texts are often studied and translated in universities, even by practising buddhists who should know better. Rather than being of benefit, they say, such studies are positively harmful to the teachings and demonstrate very little regard for samaya. We need to change the culture, it seems, and find a way to combine the rigour of the academic system with an appreciation and respect for the power and sacred nature of these teachings. This means we need to provide institutions of buddhist studies where potential translators can receive a thorough training in all levels of the Dharma, surpassing that offered even by the universities, and undertake these sorts of translations in the right environment.

Q: Do you think Lotsawa House can contribute to this change in culture?

A: It would be a little presumptuous to say so, but other people have told us how important it is that we point these things out, and take a stand, in a sense. The western Dharma community as a whole, if it wants good translations, must create the right opportunities for translators so that they can be as beneficial as possible. Many potentially good translators enter the university system because they see it as the only possible career path, and then end up squandering their precious time on lots of things which are neutral at best, and maybe even harmful. Of course, some scholars, such as Jeffrey Hopkins and Robert Thurman, have shown that this model can be of tremendous benefit—that’s undeniable—but there is still some fundamental tension between the method adopted in western universities and the genuine Dharma approach. The one studies Nagarjuna in order to understand his historical significance, his approach to dialectics, his methodology and so on, and to develop some concept about what he said about reality; the other studies Nagarjuna in order to understand reality itself.

Q: You are also putting some Tibetan texts online. Why?

A: For one thing, it helps people who are learning Tibetan, but we are also trying to make it easier for people to receive an oral transmission and explanation of these texts, as well as providing them with a translation. Personally I find it quite frustrating how few Tibetan texts there are on the internet after all these years, when there are so many people around the world involved in inputting projects and so much obviously exists out there somewhere. We became sufficiently frustrated to start doing it ourselves. The Tibetan Buddhist Research Centre (TBRC) is doing amazing work on scanning texts, the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP) has put many texts online, and of course Tony Duff is also selling some important texts, but there are many other groups out there with seemingly very little to show for years of inputting, and if they are keeping it to themselves it will all have to be redone. I can hardly believe that noone has made Longchenpa’s Seven Treasures available so far, for example, because someone must have inputted them by now.

Q: What’s the story behind your name, the Wu Tai Shan Clan?

A: That comes courtesy of our friend, the grumpy monk. It appeared on a mic stand he gave Gyurme and me to use when we were taking turns to translate for Dzogchen Rinpoche in Ireland, at the same time as we began the website. We didn’t want to call ourselves a committee, which sounds so stuffy and bureaucratic, and we think the name says a lot about who we are: a group of translators who grew up with hip-hop and kung fu movies, who take their inspiration from Manjushri, and who are doing something as radical as providing free Dharma.

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