The Tradition of Oral Transmission in the Digital Age

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Continuing the Tradition of Oral Transmission

On my website, I have recorded reading all the original texts that I’ve translated from Tibetan and Sanskrit. The reason for this, beside the fact that some people like to listen to them, is that there is the Tibetan tradition of lung or oral transmission. Although the Tibetans received oral transmissions originally in Sanskrit, coming from India, they translated the texts into Tibetan and carried on the oral transmissions in terms of the Tibetan translations.
Having great respect for this tradition, and also from my experience of trying to understand what is involved with this tradition and why it is important, I decided that it would be very important for my generation of translators – if they were in agreement – to continue this tradition and to start the oral transmission of our own translations in our own languages, so that in the future this tradition will be carried on.

I suggested this to a few of my colleagues and although they found it an interesting idea, nobody really seemed to take it up. So, I decided that I’ll do it myself, and the way to do that is through digital media. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that the use of technology for Buddhist transmissions is a very serious issue to examine in our present time. What happens when you have the transmission of initiations and various other teachings over the internet? Do people actually receive them?

His Holiness said that if it’s the intention of the teacher that those who watch or listen receive the initiation, and if those who are listening to it have the intention to receive it, then it works. Their listening doesn’t have to be at the exact same time as when the teacher delivers it, because of time zone differences.

I think this custom of indirectly receiving oral transmissions follows from what occurred in Tibet where there were large crowds of people attending various teachings and they had no amplifiers or loudspeaker systems or anything like that. Obviously, only the people who were sitting very close to the teacher could actually hear what was going on. The people way in the back couldn’t hear; nevertheless, through indirect interaction, they received the initiations and the oral transmissions. I think digital media follows the same principle of this experience from traditional Tibet and no doubt India as well.

The Meaning of Oral Transmission

If we examine the tradition of oral transmission, what does it actually mean? It was many centuries before any of the teachings were written down, and the only way to learn the teachings was to hear them recited. People recited texts in a group over and over again, and through that process, memorized them. Initially I thought that oral transmission meant that the person transmitting a text had to actually understand its meaning, and the person was transmitting, in a sense, a realization or an understanding from one generation to the next. I thought this was the way oral transmission occurred. But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
For example, I received the oral transmission of a very special lineage of a text by Tsongkhapa from my teacher Serkong Rinpoche who received it from his father, his teacher, who had received it from a vision of Tsongkhapa. It was the text Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po), one of the most difficult texts of Tsongkhapa. Although I’d received the oral transmission, I’d never had the opportunity to study the text. Apparently Serkong Rinpoche never had the time to give it to His Holiness, because he’d been waiting for a special occasion or something like that.

Years later, when the reincarnation of my teacher Serkong Rinpoche wanted to receive that special oral transmission, there was no one around who actually still had it. I was the only one available. I have a very close connection with the young reincarnation, as I had with the old Serkong Rinpoche, and he asked me to give it to him. I queried His Holiness if that was possible, and if I was qualified as I had never studied the text. He answered, “Yes; you have received the oral transmission and therefore you are qualified to give it.” So, I practiced reciting the Tibetan text out loud until I could do it in a reasonable amount of time, and I made a special trip to India and gave it to the young Serkong Rinpoche.

The Transmission of a Close Connection

The word for an oral transmission has to do with sound. You are actually transmitting the speech. When you look at the Sanskrit texts, many of them start with the phrases: “Evam maya shrutam ekasmin samaye” “Thus, have I heard, on one occasion” and then it goes on to say Buddha was residing at such and such a place and teaching to such and such an audience. These occasions were oral transmissions; the word for these occasions in Sanskrit is samaya. Samaye is in the locative case, meaning “at this occasion.” The Tibetan word for samaya is damtsig, literally “sacred words,” but also meaning “close connection,” something that makes a sacred bond between a teacher of a teaching and a practitioner.

My theory is that what is actually transmitted with an oral transmission is this close connection, or close bond, with the lineage. If you have a very close bond with the teacher who gave it, then what is transmitted to the next generation is this close connection with the text and the teaching. I think this is the principle behind oral transmission. In order to try to continue that tradition and the lineage, I have recorded my translations onto a digital device and it’s available on the website so that, in future generations, people can also make that connection.

When I received this specific oral transmission from the old Serkong Rinpoche, he recited it by heart from memory, which is the real way of doing the oral transmission. He didn’t read it, although this is a text that is about 250 pages long. Actually, he would recite it from memory every day as part of his daily practice. He had his attendant follow the text to make sure he didn’t make any mistakes in doing this. He recited it so quickly, my eyes couldn’t go that quickly through the text in order to follow what he was saying.

This is the tradition of oral transmission. We shouldn’t think that it is something meaningless or trivial. It’s not. It is very important for maintaining a close bond with the lineages of the great Buddhist texts.