Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: Tibetan Tranlsation

Prayer to Avert War by Khenpo Gangshar Wangpo

One of the Rigden Kings of Shambhala

One of the Rigden Kings of Shambhala

LAST night, I finished translating the Prayer to Avert War by Khenpo Gangshar Wangpo (gang shar dbang po, 1925-1959). Khenpo Gangshar resided at Shechen (zhe chen) and, later, Surman (zur mang) Monastaries, both in eastern Tibet. He was also one of the primary teachers of both Thrangu Rinpoche (khra ‘gu) and the controversial Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (chos rgyam drung pa), who founded Shambhala International. Interestingly, this is a prayer to the kings of the mystical realm of Śambhala, as described in the Kālacakra Tantra.

In this verse, the Dharmarājas are the first seven kings of Śambhala and the Rigden Kings are the last twenty-five. Raudracakra is the very last king of Śambhala—the twenty-fifth Rigden King and the thrity-second overall. Mañjughoṣa—more commonly called Mañjuśrī—is the bodhisattva of wisdom. I’ve tried to translate as literally as possible while still maintaining the original Tibetan’s metrical quality:

Dharmarājas and Rigden Kings, protectors of wanderers,
Raudracakra, very emanation of Mañjughoṣa,
We pray to you. When foreign armies occupy us, arise!
Pacify foreign armies and this perilous time of war!

Khenpo Gangshar wrote this in response to a prophecy by the Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa (de bzhin gshegs pa) about enemies invading Tibet. (Invasion and occupation have been a recurring—if unfortunate—theme throughout Tibetan history.) It seems particularly relevant today given the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; the increasingly dire prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine; and the ongoing occupation of Tibet, East Turkestan, and Inner Mongolia by the People’s Republic of China. By the virtue of translating and publishing it, may all war and occupation everywhere be totally pacified!

The Collected Works of Khenchen Palden Sherab

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche

THE Collected Works of Khenchen Palden Sherab comprise three Tibetan volumes, and include 1) all of his completed Tibetan works; 2) a massive collection of the most essential prayers of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism that he edited; 3) three works written by his teacher at Riwoche Kham (ri bo che khams) monastery, Khenchen Tenzin Dragpa (bstan ‘dzin grags pa); and 4) three praises to him written by his late student, Khenpo Padma Gyaltsen (padma rgyal mtshan).

Khenchen Palden also wrote at least two other Tibetan texts that he never completed, and that are not included in his Tibetan works—an autobiography and a commentary on the famous Heart Sutra.

Here are some stats for the Collected Works, keeping in mind that the numbers for volume three are woefully inaccurate; I haven’t translated the complete table of contents for that volume yet, so I’m only counting works I know for certain to be translated:

  • Volume One 18 texts • 1 text fully translated •520 pages • 99 pages translated
  • Volume Two 17 texts • 2 texts fully translated• 536 pages • 73 pages translated
  • Volume Three 178 texts • 3 texts fully translated • 861 pages • 8 pages translated (again, these are woefully inaccurate)
  • Unfinished 2 texts • 1 text fully translated • 148 pages • 128 pages translated
  • Total 215 texts • 6 texts fully translated • 2065 pages • 308 pages translated

So, there’s quite a bit to be done, yet. And it’s all such wonderful, interesting stuff—including a collection of Khenchen Palden’s dreams; a collection of his aphorisms; a cycle of liturgical texts (sadhanas) he wrote; commentaries on well-known prayers, sutras, philosophy, logic, and epistemology; biographies of great masters, including his teacher, Tenzin Dragpa; et cetera. I’ll leave you with a beautiful verse from the Extensive Display Sutra, as quoted in Khenchen Palden’s Four Preliminary Mind-reversals, which I recently translated:

The three realms are impermanent, like the clouds of autumn;
The birth and death of wanderers is like viewing a play;
The life of beings passes by like lightning through the sky;
Passes quickly, like water descending a steep mountain.


A monk reading the Tibetan "rGyud gzhi," or "Four Medical Tantras"

A monk reading the Tibetan “rGyud gzhi,” or “Four Medical Tantras.” Copyright by Maciej Wojtkowiak.

I JUST posted my first article for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue’s new State of Formation blog, “(In)Formation: Putting Flesh on the Bones of Public Conversations About Religion.” Please check it out, along with the many other wonderful articles by my fellow contributing scholars!

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Some Thoughts on American Buddhism

alms bowl

A Laosian monk on a begging round with his alms bowl.

RECENTLY, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the state of Buddhist communities (sanghas) in the United States. This is, in large part, due to the fact that I graduated from Harvard University this past May and am now looking for a non-chaplaincy job where I can use my Master of Divinity in Buddhist Studies. (There isn’t one.) Still, I think that some of these ruminations extend beyond personal frustration into genuine insight.

More to the point, now that four schools—Naropa Univeristy, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, University of the West, and my own alma mater, Harvard Divinity School— are offering graduate-level programs for people interested in professional Buddhist ministry, it is important for us to pay attention to the shape of Buddhist institutions in the United States.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few constructive suggestions for American Buddhist institutions, with two caveats. First, I have almost no experience in ethnically Buddhist communities, despite the fact that they form the vast majority (75 to 80 percent) of American Buddhists. So, this applies only to non-immigrant sanghas. Second, most of my experience is with Tibetan Buddhism, though I think that some of this will apply across the board. Keeping that in mind, here are my rough, initial suggestions:

  • Invest in people. Many American Buddhist communities have invested a lot of their resources in buildings, sacred objects, texts, translations, and publications. There is good reason for this, and it is important that this sort of work continue to receive support; however, institutions are more than just these. We need to make sure that we have people with the sort of administrative and organizational skills, academic and language training, or spiritual realization to make our institutions sustainable. This means more scholarships, fellowships, and training programs. If the 629,000 Unitarian-Universalists in the United States can manage to scrape up a small stipend for all of their seminarians every semester, then surely the 1,000,000 or so American Buddhists can find the resources to help support the much fewer people training to serve it as future translators, chaplains, administrators, or teachers.
  • Get professionals and pay them accordingly. Most dharma centers, monasteries, and retreat centers in the United States are run largely, if not entirely, on volunteer labor. This helps cash-strapped centers and gives cash-strapped students a chance to gain both skills and merit while studying and practicing the dharma. It also ensures that work is unprofessional, turnover is high, and knowledge is not passed on when one person leaves and another takes over. Most sangha work, like most church work and most synagogue work, will always be volunteer. That is as it should be; but, like churches and synagogues, there ought to be some positions that are staffed by paid professionals, even if that pay is very modest.
  • Learn from churches and synagogues. American churches and synagogues have an awful lot of experience in the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts of administering a religious nonprofit, be it a local congregation, a retreat center, or even something as exotic as a monastery. There’s absolutely no reason why we ought to go about re-inventing the wheel when it comes to matters of administration or finance. Running a library at your retreat center? Take a look at the National Church Library Association or the Church and Synagogue Library Association. Wondering how to make your dharma center more welcoming to minorities? More than a couple of churches have struggled with that problem, as well, and probably have some useful advice. Fundraising? There are more Google results for “church capital campaign” than I can even begin to list here. It’s not as if there is a Christian way to do these things and a Buddhist one. We ought to learn from our more experienced Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian-Universalist neighbors.
  • Join interfaith organizations. There are countless national and local interfaith organizations that do everything from providing for the needy, to serving their member organizations, to fighting various social injustices. Even if a sangha doesn’t want to join a service or social justice group like the Interfaith Hospitality Network or the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, there are thousands of local ministerial associates in cities and counties across the country that help their ministers network and support local charities. It is important that American Buddhists visibly reach out to their local communities. Not only does it increase the likelihood of the sort of skill-sharing that I advocate above, but it helps others see us as normal members of the community, just like themselves, instead of something strange or foreign. The benefits are countless, and mutual.
  • Meet other Buddhist and share with them. There’s been an awful lot of academic squabbling over whether the different schools and sects of Buddhism share any common, overarching characteristic. What is certain is that very different Buddhist communities in the United States share very similar problems when it comes to administration, structure, funding, etc. There ought to be more forums for us to meet—online, in print, and in-person—to share these common concerns and share our best practices.
  • Make meetings accessible. When we do have inter-Buddhist meetings or conferences to discuss important issues, we need to make sure that their timing, location, and cost of attendance don’t shut out the low-income students, meditators, and, especially, monastics who will be our future leaders. Building them up is building our institutions up and ensuring their longevity. Conversely, by neglecting them, we neglect our institutions. We need to make sure we include these people.

These thoughts aren’t very organized, and they certainly aren’t systematic. It is entirely possible that I’ve misread how things or going or else proposed an impractical or immodest solution. Still, I hope that these suggestions will generate some thought on what, if anything, is needed for Buddhism to continue to grow and flourish in this country. I hope, also, that they will be taken in the spirit in which they are given—one of care and appreciation.

Note: This post is also syndicated at the Zen Peacemakers Order’s Bearing Witness Blog, and has been featured at Rev. Danny Fisher’s blog.

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Tracing the Threads: Ashvaghosa and Shantideva

RECENTLY, I wrote a paper using Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative to interpret Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva) 3:18-22, which was written in the seventh century AD. This weekend I’m in the middle of a paper on Ashvaghosa’s Buddhacharita (Life of the Buddha), written in the first or second century AD. While re-reading it I noticed that the verses I worked with from Bodhicharyavatara actually borrow heavily from Buddhacharita.

First, here’s Buddhacharita 12:13, as translated from the Sanskrit by Patrick Olivelle. It’s a eulogy spoken by the Buddha-to-be to his first pre-enlightenment teacher, Aradah:

As a light for a man longing to see,
as a guide for a man longing to trek,
As a boat for a man longing to cross,
so do I regard your philosophy.

And, Buddhacharita 13:62-64, spoken by a god to the demon Mara as the later was unleashing his armies on the Buddha-to-be to frighten him away from attaining enlightenment:

When the world is swept along crooked paths,
he toils in search of the right path.
So it’s no more right to harass that guide
than to harass a skilled navigator
while the caravan is lost.

When creatures are lost in the great darkness;
this man is being made a lamp of wisdom.
It’s no more right for you, a gentleman,
to extinguish it than to extinguish
a lamp set up to shine in the darkness.

Seeing the world plunged in the great flood of samsara
and unable to find the farther shore,
This man is working to ferry that world across;
what gentleman would entertain
wicked thoughts against him?

Now, here’s Bodhicharyavatara 3:18-19, as translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to cross the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for land,
A lamp for those who long for light;
For all who need a resting place, a bed;
For those who need a servant, may I be their slave.

According to Vesna A. and B. Alan Wallace’s critical translation of Bodhicharyavatara (titled A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life), the original Sanskrit version of verse 19, above, doesn’t actually contain the line, “May I be an isle for those who yearn for land.” Apparently that bit was just added in the Tibetan translation. So, the Sanskrit version of Bodhicharyavatara is even more strikingly close to the metaphors in Buddhacharita.

In Buddhacharita, the Buddha-to-be compares Aradah’s philosophy to a light, a guide, and a boat; in Bodhicharyavatara Shantideva wishes to become a guide, a boat, and a light. In Buddhacharita, a god compares the Buddha-to-be to a guide, a light, and a ferryman; in Bodhicharyavatara Shantideva wished to become a guide, a ferry, and a light.

• • •

I wonder if these were common Sanskrit poetic conventions that both were drawing on, or if Shantideva was drawing specifically from Buddhacharita. I also wonder how each section would match up in the original Sanskrit, as opposed to their respective English translations.

Alas, both questions are beyond my abilities to answer. It is a neat discovery, though, and I think it says something about Shantideva’s intent. He wasn’t aspiring for just any damn thing or simply pulling aspirations out of thin air. He was aspiring to be like the Buddha and the philosophies that helped him along his path to enlightenment.

Note: This post was originally posted as “Tracing the Threads: Asvaghosa and Santideva” at Angelheaded Hipster on 3 March 2009.

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