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The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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The Contribution of the Tibetan Oral and Textual Heritage to Global Understanding: Progress and Prospects
(Abridged Version)

Alexander Berzin
New Delhi, India, December 2009

[See also: Full Version.]


We are gathered here today at this conference to discuss the contribution of Tibetan culture to global understanding – progress and prospects. Tibetan culture is, of course, a broad topic, encompassing many facets: the Buddhist and Bon spiritual traditions, medicine, calendar-making, astrology, art, architecture, music, dance, language, and literature. None of these facets, however, arose in isolation; but, rather, each evolved in dialogue with many other civilizations. Tibet has been a crossroad where Zhang-zhung, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Persian, Khotanese, and Turkic ideas have met. The Tibetans did not adopt wholesale any of these traditions, either individually or in combination. Rather, the Tibetans critically treated all foreign material and developed their own unique systems by reworking and blending various ideas with their own indigenous ways.

Moreover, Tibetan culture, having arisen dependently on many other civilizations, did not remain a static entity, isolated from ongoing interaction with other peoples living nearby. Rather, Tibetan language and culture spread and interacted with many other civilizations, contributing significantly to global understanding throughout the years. Before we examine this intercultural phenomenon in our present times, let us first survey its history.

Historical Survey

Over the centuries, Tibetan culture spread northwards along the Silk Route to the city states of the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor, and later to Mongolia, Dzungaria in East Turkistan, eastern present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, northern China, Manchuria, and the Buryat, Kalmyk, and Tuvan regions of Russia. Southwards, it spread to all the Himalayan states and beyond, from northern present-day Pakistan to northern present-day Burma. As a result, the multifaceted Tibetan culture and language has played a unifying role in Central Asia and the Himalayan regions similar to that of Roman culture and Latin in medieval Europe.

For example, from the mid-seventh century of the Common Era to the reign of King Langdarma in the mid-ninth century, the Tibetan Empire ruled, to varying extents, the entire area from the Silk Route in the Tarim Basin to beyond the Himalayas. Although this vast area was the home of many diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and languages and was traversed by merchants of even more far distant lands, Tibetan language and culture served as media for facilitating international understanding.

Moreover, after the break up of the Tibetan Empire with the assassination of King Langdarma, when several small buffer states sprung up along the Silk Route, Tibetan language and Buddhist culture continued to play a large unifying role in these regions for several centuries. For example, until at least the early tenth-century, the Tibetan language was used for commercial and diplomatic purposes in the Gansu Corridor and along the Silk Route as far as Khotan, since it was the only common language of the various peoples there. Moreover, scholars in these areas translated Buddhist texts from Tibetan into various local languages, in particular Uighur and Tangut. The Tanguts even used the Tibetan alphabetic script to transcribe their extremely complex ideographic writing system, as an aid for helping Tangut speakers learn to read their own language. Some Chinese Buddhist texts were also transcribed in Tibetan letters for ease of recitation.

Tibetan culture and Buddhism began spreading to the Mongol regions from the mid-thirteenth century onwards. Subsequently, the various Mongol branches propagated them even further. The Dzungars brought them to eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the Kalmyk Mongols to the Volga region of Russia, and the central Mongols to the Buryat Mongol and Tuvan Turkic regions of Siberia.

Already in the early fourteenth-century, scholars began translating Buddhist texts from Tibetan into Mongolian. Within four centuries, Mongolian scholars had completed the translation of the entire Kangyur and Tengyur. Similarly, a considerable number of Buddhist texts were also translated from Tibetan into Oirat, the classical language of the Western Mongols, including the Dzungars and later the Kalmyks. Despite these canonical translations into Mongolian and Oirat, many Mongol scholars continued to write their texts and commentaries, however, in Tibetan. At one time, monastic debates were also undertaken in the Mongolian language, but the Mongols soon found that it was more convenient to continue holding them in Tibetan.

Starting with Kublai Khan in the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols brought Tibetan culture and Buddhism to northern China. From this time onwards, until the fall of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in the early twentieth-century, the Tibetan form of Buddhism was the court religion of China for nearly all its emperors.

In short, for many parts of this vast area to which Tibetan culture spread during the pre-modern era, particularly in the various Mongol and Himalayan regions, people there have traditionally looked to Tibet for spiritual and intellectual leadership. For most of them, Tibetan remained the principal language of learning and Buddhist practice. In this way, Tibetan language and culture have traditionally served as means for bringing about global understanding to this vast area.

The Modern Era: General Developments

Since the mid-twentieth century, many aspects of Tibetan culture have been spreading further abroad, so that now, in the early twenty-first century, we can safely say that Tibetan culture has a truly global reach. This has been a remarkably fast development, undoubtedly spurred by the arrival of the exile Tibetan community in India and Nepal. For example, when I first started studying Tibetan at Harvard University in 1967, hardly any material was available on Tibetan Buddhism. The only Tibetan grammar book available, written by the Christian missionary Jaeschke in the mid-nineteenth century, analyzed the language in terms of Latin grammar.

Now, more than forty years later, the situation is completely different. A large number of Tibetan Buddhist texts and oral teachings and, to a lesser extent, the same from the Bon tradition, are now available translated into several Western and modern Asian languages. Tibetan spiritual masters have founded numerous Buddhist and Bon centers throughout the world, with an ever-growing number of students studying and practicing there. Despite the availability of translations, students at a large number of these centers recite their prayers and practice texts in Tibetan, which they read in transliterated versions in the phonetics of their own languages. As was the case in pre-modern Central Asia and the Himalayan regions, and as is continuing in many areas there today, this helps to build international communities of Buddhist and Bon practitioners, joined together by the fact that all of them do the same spiritual practices in the same language, Tibetan.

Those practitioners and scholars who wish to pursue their studies in more depth have been learning Tibetan through a wide array of textbooks and audio material. Once they have mastered the language, many of them are rendering even more Buddhist and Bon teachings into their own native tongues. Following the example of the various Mongol groups, Tuvans, and Himalayan peoples, a growing number of students from other countries throughout the world have been studying in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, in Tibetan, and/or doing intensive three-year meditation retreats. Many of them have gone on to become spiritual teachers themselves, spreading Tibetan learning and culture even further afield.

Other aspects of Tibetan culture are also becoming increasingly well-known throughout the world. In pre-modern times, Tibetan medicine, art, monastic architecture, ritual music and dance, astrology, and calendar-making spread throughout all the regions to which Tibetan Buddhism and Bon had diffused. At present, a number of Tibetan doctors regularly visit foreign lands and several Tibetan medical clinics have opened outside of Tibet and the Indian subcontinent. Further, Western doctors are conducting research in universities and hospitals on the effectiveness of various Tibetan medicines for the treatment of certain diseases.

Tibetan art and architecture have also become more well-known globally. Museums around the world display collections of Tibetan artwork and sculpture, and an increasing number of foreign Dharma centers and Tibetan refugee and immigrant communities have built Tibetan-style temples in their own areas. Tibetan monasteries in India have sent monks abroad to construct sand mandalas, and groups of monks and nuns to give concerts of ritual chants and dance. Audio and video recordings of these are amply available. Tibetan performing art troupes have made numerous international tours, and a network of Tibet Houses has sprung up around the planet to preserve and promote all the various aspects of Tibetan culture. Through these many ways, Tibetan culture has become renowned throughout much of the world today.

Tibetan culture is enriching the global community in numerous further ways. To promote understanding and to exchange spiritual methods, Tibetan masters have been engaging in dialogues with the spiritual leaders of most of the world religions. They have been participating prominently in interfaith services. Tibetan masters have also been sharing their vast stores of knowledge and experience with leading scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and business and political leaders. Of particular interest has been the relation between mental states, meditation, and health, and between ethics, ecology, and sustainable development. The most outstanding example of such participation is His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his tireless efforts to promote basic human values, secular ethics, and religious harmony.

The Preservation of the Tibetan Oral and Textual Heritage in Its Traditional Forms

Continuing contributions by Tibetan culture to global understanding depend on the preservation of its various elements in two aspects. First is preservation of them in their traditional forms; and second is the evolution of some of these aspects as they interact and adapt to other cultures. This second topic echoes the process whereby Tibet preserved the Buddhist culture of India and Nepal. I shall limit my remarks to Tibet’s oral and textual heritage.

Great progress has been made in the preservation of the Tibetan oral and textual traditions in their original tongue. Only a small fraction of the vast store of Tibetan knowledge and experience has been translated so far into modern European and Asian languages. It is important that this work be completed. What has been translated so far has revealed to the world invaluable insights into the workings of the mind and the universe. This has, in turn, stimulated scientists to investigate topics they had never considered before, such as the role of compassion, mindfulness, and concentration in improving physical and emotional health. The possibilities in the yet-to-be-translated portion for further contributions of methods for fostering inner peace and social harmony are enormous.

Despite the advances in technology available, completion of this translation task will, realistically, take several centuries more. Therefore, the Tibetan oral and textual heritage needs to be preserved in its original language in preparation for the work of future generations. Even when portions of it have already been rendered into other tongues, the translations can be further edited and refined. Moreover, original language material provides fertile ground for continuing research.

Much of the Sanskrit Buddhist tradition was lost with the twelfth and thirteenth-century invasions of India. Tibet was able to preserve only a portion of this rich heritage. The twentieth century has seen comparable losses in the Tibetan traditions due to the communist excesses in the Soviet Union, Mongolia, and the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, it is imperative that what remains of the Tibetan oral and textual traditions be located and preserved as soon and as efficiently as possible, for the benefit and enrichment of the world, both present and future.

It is beyond the scope of this talk to catalog all that has been done in the area of preservation of the Tibetan spiritual traditions. The projects have included digitized recordings of Buddhist and Bon teachings and oral history, the microfilming and publishing of Tibetan texts, as well as digitizing and making them available on the Internet, and the development of Tibetan Unicode, search engines, and online dictionaries.

The Preservation of the Tibetan Oral and Textual Heritage in Translation

The number of organizations and individuals involved with translating Tibetan texts and oral teachings into modern European and Asian languages is also far too large to list. There are almost ten thousand titles in print. With such a proliferation of books on Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, global awareness and understanding of the Tibetan spiritual traditions are steadily growing.

A noteworthy development in the preservation of the Tibetan oral and textual heritage in translation has recently emerged. In September 2008, Light of Berotsana convened a Conference of Translators in Boulder Colorado, USA. Over a hundred senior and junior Tibetan translators met to discuss ways in which they could network together to further the dissemination of the teachings of the Tibetan traditions.

This initial meeting was followed, in March 2009, by Translating the Words of the Buddha: the Khyentse Foundation Translation Conference, held at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, India. This time, fifty senior Tibetan translators, together with senior lamas from each of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, met to establish The Buddhist Literary Heritage Project. The participants formulated a 100-Year Vision, namely “to translate and make universally accessible the Buddhist literary heritage.” This refers to translating the entire Kangyur and Tengyur, along with their Tibetan commentaries. When the full corpus of Buddhist canonical literature is available in the major world languages, its addition to the world bank of knowledge and its contribution to global understanding will be ensured.

The Evolution of the Tibetan Oral and Textual Heritage in Translation: The Berzin Archives


Many non-Tibetan scholars and practitioners from numerous countries around the world are now teaching Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. Like their Tibetan counterparts, quite a number of them are publishing their lectures and writings in printed and online digital forms. They are also making their teachings available in audio, video and DVD formats, often also online. Although some of these teachers present the Buddhist and Bon material in traditional styles, several are being innovative with it and adapting it to their societies and times. I would like to use the remainder of my address to outline the work that I have been doing in this regard with my Berzin Archives website,

I first went to India on the Fulbright program and began my studies with the Tibetan refugee community there in 1969. This was in conjunction with research for my doctorate dissertation at Harvard University, jointly from the Departments of Far Eastern Languages and Sanskrit and Indian Studies. After receiving my PhD in 1972, I returned to continue living primarily in India, which I did, in total, for twenty-nine years. There, I had the good fortune to study with some of the greatest masters from all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions, especially His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. I served as interpreter for several lamas, primarily for Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, and translated many texts from Tibetan and Sanskrit into English. I returned to live in the West at the end of 1998, specifically in Berlin, Germany, with a treasure trove of teachings. I had nearly 30,000 pages of unpublished manuscripts. Having already published many books and noting their limited distribution and sales, I decided that the Internet was the medium for making my works the most widely accessible.

With this in mind, I began the Berzin Archives website in November 2001, with the strict policy that all material on it be available for reading, listening, and downloading free of charge, and that the website be completely devoid of commercial features. My concept was to use the Internet medium for both preserving the teachings of my Tibetan mentors in translated form, as well as for presenting my own explanations of these teachings that have evolved from my study with them. The project has the full support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the present incarnations of Ling Rinpoche and Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. The website contains transcripts of lectures by my three main teachers that I have either translated or taken notes of, as well as the textual translations, articles, and books I have written and the audio files of lectures I have delivered. Now, after eight years in existence, the site has over seventy volunteer and paid personnel and has published online in English over 640 written articles and over 460 audio files. This represents about 30% of the unpublished material in the Berzin Archives. In this past year, 2009, nearly 0.6 million persons visited the website, and in recent months, over 2000 persons have been accessing the site each day.

Contents and Features

The contents of the website span a broad spectrum of topics related to the Tibetan cultural heritage. They range from an introduction to Buddhism up to tantra, and cover Buddhist theory and practice of all four Tibetan traditions, with special sections on Kalachakra, dzogchen, and mahamudra. The site also includes presentations of Tibetan medicine and astrology, certain aspects of Bon, as well as of Buddhist, Tibetan, and Central Asian history. One of its unique features is an extensive section on the historical interaction between Buddhism and Islam.

For the teachings from the Tibetan heritage to have a maximum impact on global understanding, they need not only to be widely disseminated and easily accessible; they need also to be presented in such a way that they are easily understandable to the modern mentality. Information technology provides a wide array of tools that make this possible and we have tried to incorporate many of them in the Berzin Archives website.

For example, our technical team has programmed the written articles in such a way that makes them more easily accessible to the blind and we are in the process of providing transcripts of the audio material so as to make it accessible to the deaf. We have also been podcasting the weekly lectures from my ongoing courses.

In terms of making the material of the website more easily usable for educational purposes, we organize the items in each section in graded levels of difficulty. We also offer comparative studies indicating how specific topics are treated in each of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions and Bon or in Mahayana and Theravada. Moreover, to facilitate study, we include the Tibetan and often the Sanskrit equivalents for the Buddhist technical terms on the website. In addition, we provide extensive glossaries of these terms, with full definitions, a thorough internal search engine and, with each article, lists of other articles on the website with similar content.

Non-English Language Sections

From having lectured at universities and Buddhist centers in more than seventy countries, I learned that not everyone can read English. Even if they can, many people understand better and feel more comfortable if the Buddhist teachings are rendered into their own languages. Therefore, I also resolved to have the works on my website translated into as many of the world’s major modern languages as possible and available in separate language sections of the site. At present, there are six language sections online. In addition to English, we have German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish divisions containing translations of a growing number of the written English articles and bilingual versions of many of the English audio files. For example, the German section has over 360 items and the Russian section 200. In addition, we are actively preparing French and Chinese sections and we have begun translation into Hindi and Tamil.

Berzin Archives Buddhism and Islam Website Project

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has emphasized that one of the major keys to global understanding and harmony is education. At present, one of the most pressing needs for this approach is in relation to the Islamic world. Therefore, with the inspiration and support of His Holiness, we have undertaken the Berzin Archives Buddhism and Islam Website Project. The aim is to make available to the Islamic world, in their own languages, extensive information about Tibetan culture, history, and religion, while avoiding any hint of proselytism. Offering information on a multilingual website in the major Islamic languages not only shows respect to the vast Muslim population, but is also a step in the much needed process of more closely integrating the Islamic world into the global community.

The project encompasses the Buddhism and Islam section of the website, plus the transcripts on the website of the public talks by His Holiness on religious harmony and secular ethics, as well as the articles on Tibetan history, medicine, and astrology, and on the basic principles of Buddhism. The project is in two phases. The first phase is translation into Arabic and Urdu. Work on both is well under way, in cooperation with such academic institutions as Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, the Iqbal Academy Pakistan in Lahore, and the Islamic Research Institute in Islamabad. The second phase will focus on Farsi, Turkish, and Indonesian.

Adaptations of the Buddhist Teachings: “Dharma-Lite” Versus “The Real Thing Dharma

The Berzin Archives website is not only one of the many projects around the world that are helping to preserve the Tibetan oral and textual heritage. It is not only one of the many projects that are making this rich heritage more accessible through the use of modern technological and pedagogical methods. It is also one of the portals for presenting adaptations and applications of that heritage that can further personal development and, consequently, global harmony.

An important distinction must be made, however, when designing and presenting modern adaptations of the Tibetan heritage, and specifically modern adaptations of Tibetan Buddhism. To describe this distinction, I have coined the terms “Dharma-lite” and “the real-thing Dharma,” modeled after “ Coca-Cola lite” and “the real-thing Coca-Cola.” “Dharma-lite” is a presentation of aspects of the Buddhist teachings as methods for improving the quality of this life alone. “The real-thing Dharma” presents these teachings as methods to improve future lives, to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth and, further, to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to benefit all as much as is possible. It is essential that these two versions of the Dharma not be confused with one another; otherwise, Buddhism becomes reduced to merely another form of psychotherapy, which it most certainly is not. Buddhism is far more than that.

There is no problem with people practicing “Dharma-lite” as a form of therapy to benefit them in this lifetime. In fact, such adaptations of the Tibetan heritage of Buddhism are extremely beneficial. However, when offering “Dharma-lite,” one must make clear that if practiced merely to improve this lifetime, it is not “the real-thing Dharma.” However, if practiced as a preliminary step for engaging in “real-thing Dharma” training, then “Dharma-lite” can easily be incorporated into the structure of the lam-rim, graded stages of the path. It would serve as a stage of training prior to developing the initial level motivation, namely working to benefit future lives.

On the Berzin Archives website, I have tried to make this distinction clear between “Dharma-lite” and “the real-thing Dharma.” The website contains several modern adaptations of Buddhism that I have developed. These draw upon traditional Buddhist teachings and meditational methods for addressing such problems as insensitivity, oversensitivity, insecurity, guilt, low self-esteem, alienation, and so on. Traditional Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts do not explicitly address these topics. This is because the Sanskrit and Tibetan languages lack equivalent terms for these syndromes. Nevertheless, the Buddhist teachings include methods for gaining complete liberation from all forms of suffering, including them. These “real-thing” methods can be employed also in a “ Dharma-lite” manner to help lessen these problems even in this lifetime.

This is the approach I have used in the two major training programs I have designed and presented on my website, “Developing Balanced Sensitivity” and “Exercises for Integrating One’s Life.” Throughout these trainings, I emphasize that people may follow them either as a “ Dharma-lite” therapy for self-development in this lifetime or as part of a “real-thing Dharma” training. With programs and features such as these, the Berzin Archives website has been a pioneer in using the latest information technology developments for bringing the Tibetan heritage to the world.

Concluding Remarks

In short, as we have seen, the Tibetan oral and textual heritage has historically played a major role in fostering global understanding throughout Central Asia and the Himalayan regions. At present, many persons and organizations are involved in preserving that heritage and they have made great progress. Preservation, however, does not mean simply making this heritage available in its original form, as a museum exhibition or library collection, or universally available on the Internet. Just as the Tibetan traditions have evolved over the centuries, this process of evolution and growth must continue. This is essential not only for the survival of this rich heritage as a living tradition, but also for its ability to continue contributing to a truly global understanding.

In a world characterized by increasing globalization and information sharing, the Tibetan heritage has a great deal to offer. Every culture has unique, anthropologically interesting features that enrich the so-called “human bio-diversity” of this planet. The Tibetan heritage, however, goes well beyond that. Its Buddhist and Bon traditions transmit insights and methods that enrich the world’s knowledge bank and, through increasing interaction with the heritages of other civilizations, stimulate growth in areas spanning science, medicine, and psychology. Through the guidance, inspiration, and untiring efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan heritage has already made significant contributions to global understanding. Through all our combined efforts, the prospects for further contributions look bright. Thank you.