Tantra: The Role of Translation and Concepts in Practice

Questions about Translating Tibetan Texts

When we are doing the sadhana on our own, we could do it in our own language. But this raises the question of how to translate, how to keep the rhythm in a language that’s totally different, and things like this, and that we need to have the correct terms in our language. It is not easy to solve these kinds of problems. Could you comment on that?

Let me elaborate on your question. As I mentioned that, if it suits us, then in our daily practice we might do these sadhanas, these ritual practices, in our own language. But what happens when we don’t have it translated yet into our own language – like here in Estonia – and we don’t even know how to go about starting to put it in our language? Because to translate requires not only paying attention to the technical terms – which are very difficult to translate accurately, especially since we need to know the definitions of the terms and how they’re used in the texts, in order to get a proper translation – but also the great advantage of the Tibetan texts is that they are in a metered rhythm so that they are beautiful to recite and we can actually chant them.

Well, this is exactly the difficulty here, that it takes not only a great translator to translate the text who is also a great practitioner – so they know what the texts are talking about and not just looking up words in a dictionary – but that translator also needs to be a great poet to be able to put everything into a meter. This takes a great deal of time and experience, to develop translators who are able to do that. It’s not so easy – it’s a problem that I struggle with myself in English – but I am thoroughly convinced that it can be done. If the Indian masters wrote everything in metered verse and the Tibetans translated it into a completely different language but still with metered verse (but a different meter), and the Chinese did the same, there’s no reason why we can’t do it with any language.

I think the main problem is the technical terms. In the beginning, a lot of technical terms were chosen (by Victorian missionaries) that might not be very accurate translations, and then they become standard. And so people are a little bit hesitant to change to things that are not so familiar. This is a long process, it’s absolutely true. But if we have the talent, it’s certainly something which is very worthwhile to pursue.

Now, in the case of here, in Estonia, I think that one has to look at the languages in which the texts are available. If they’re available in Tibetan and you don’t understand a word of Tibetan – well, that might be quite difficult. Well, maybe they’re translated into English, maybe they’re translated into Russian – it depends on what other languages you know – and see if you get more meaning from it reading it in English. Now the English might be in horrible English, that’s true.

There is a great benefit in reciting something that is in a beautiful rhythm, in meter, that’s for sure. If we’re reciting something, the breath and the energies of the body… From a Buddhist point of view, they’re talking about the same thing. Breath and energy, it’s the same word (prana in Sanskrit). So the shape of our breath, when we speak, shapes the energy within the body as well. And so that’s one aspect of mantras; it’s a shaping of our energy. Similarly, with the recitations; it shapes the breath and so if we’re reciting something in a beautiful rhythm that’s really beautiful to recite, then of course it helps to harmonize the energies within the body. That is another advantage of doing things in Tibetan. But then again, they could have done it in Sanskrit; it’s in beautiful Sanskrit as well.

That’s why I am saying, for some aspects of practice, you could say that the Tibetan is more beneficial; for other aspects, having it in your own language might be beneficial. In your own language, if it’s not very nice language, it might not be appropriate for recitation purposes or for aesthetic purposes. Basically, you have to see what’s available, and use whatever is available in order to deepen your practice.

I and some of my friends have tried to translate some lojong texts, but in Estonian the words are longer than in Tibetan, so the number of syllables will be longer. One of my friends came up with an idea that in Estonian we should use this traditional way of singing, a traditional rhythm. Is it okay to adapt it in that kind of way?

Well, of course that’s okay. Almost any language – except perhaps Chinese or Thai, these types of Asian languages – is going to have more syllables in the words than Tibetan. Certainly English does, and certainly German does, and Russian does. So there’s no reason why we need to follow the same rhythms, and meters, and number of syllables in each line, and even the chanting melodies as the Tibetans do. Tibetans changed the meter; the Chinese changed the meter; we can change the meter as well. The point is to make it beautiful and harmonious. Whatever would sound nice in our language without making it trivial, without making it sound like some silly little child’s poem. I think there needs to be a certain dignity to it. That’s there. Sometimes people have tried translating various ritual texts in English and put it to music with the guitar, and it sounds like some hippie singing a folk song and it really sounds silly. But if you look at religious music in the various traditions, it is very beautiful and is dignified. And this I think is necessary as well.

So one point is putting it into meter; another point is putting it into a melody with a chant. Those are two separate things. First you have to put it into some sort of meter. (And not a silly meter, like in English: “Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow.” Not like that. That’s horrible, right?) But this requires quite a skill, to be able to do all that. When one looks at the translations and the texts that these great masters wrote, it’s unbelievable – unbelievable how they wrote that. It’s like Shakespeare in English. Shantideva, the great Indian master, wrote Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior in the most beautiful, beautiful, perfect rhythm in Sanskrit, and beautiful language. How did they do that? And then the Tibetans put things into magnificent language as well. So I think it can be done.

One of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, gave me a very good piece of advice when I was working under him doing translations. He said “Remember, nobody does the final version of a translation as their first version. Everything gets edited and redone and redone, later on.” If you look at the texts that are in the Tibetan scriptures, the Tibetan canon, the translations from Sanskrit – the Kangyur and the Tengyur – almost all the texts will say: Translated by so-and-so, and then, fifty years later or a hundred years later, it was revised and edited by so-and-so. And then, sometimes three or four times, it was reedited and corrected. So everything can be improved.

Also – since I’m so involved with this process myself – you go through stages. One stage is you try to make a very accurate translation, and it reads horribly – “Blah blah blah” – hard to get out of your mouth if you want to read it out loud. Then you go the other extreme, which is to make it very poetical and beautiful, but it’s not so accurate. Then the real art is to make it both accurate and poetically beautiful. But it’s really only after a translator has trained in the two extremes that they can find some sort of middle way that does both. But that takes many, many years of experience. Many years. So don’t be discouraged if you’re doing that, especially if you’re starting young.

Questions about Conceptual and Non-conceptual Cognition

Some people say that Westerners think in terms of verbal logic, conceptually. But some people say that this can disturb and affect practice. How can we balance conceptual thoughts with non-conceptual thoughts?

Some people say Western people are more involved with conceptual thoughts and many Tibetans are more involved with working with channels and energies. I would question that; it’s only very advanced practitioners who actually work with the subtle energy system. Most Tibetans are involved with doing ritual actually. And in addition to ritual, they do a lot of study and debate, these types of things, so we shouldn’t think that Western people are like that. But “how do we deal with this?” is the question.

First of all, I think it’s very important to understand that when we are, in Buddhism, speaking about a difference between conceptual and non-conceptual cognition (knowing something), that we’re not talking about the same difference that in the West we make between an intellectual and an emotional understanding, because they are not equivalent, not in the slightest. An intellectual understanding, from a Western point of view, is something that is just inwards and it hasn’t really made an emotional impact, and hasn’t really transformed anything in our behavior, in our way of thinking. Whereas an emotional, gut level understanding implies a transformation. Okay, these are useful ways of dividing our levels of understanding, but that’s not the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual. Both intellectual and emotional gut understandings, from a Tibetan point of view, would still be conceptual.

So what do we mean by conceptual cognition of something? This, to put it in very simple terms (what I hope is simple; it’s not such a simple topic), is cognizing something – cognizing is the most general word for knowing, to perceive, it’s the most general, general word – to cognize something through a category. That’s what we mean by conceptual – through a category. And so what would that category be? I look at this object in front of me, and what do I perceive? I perceive a colored shape. That’s what I see, isn’t it? It’s just a colored shape. Now I could hold it in my hand, not looking at it, and what do I cognize? I cognize some sort of physical sensation.

Well, what is this object? This object is not a colored shape, is it? When I look at you, you’re not just a colored shape, even though I see a colored shape – a round, tan-colored thing, and a little strip of black, and so on. That’s a sight, isn’t it? So we put these together and we know this through the concept – a category – of “cup.” I only see one moment of this at a time. The category “cup” as an object (an object category, we would call it) is something that pervades or covers all the different sense data of the thing – the sight, sound, physical sensation, feeling of it against my lips – and it endures over time. That’s a category; that’s a mental construct. Now there is no way that we can deal with this world without these categories. And I see these two objects – mind you, I see only colored shapes – and yet I can recognize and identify both of them as cups: that’s another category of “cup.” Well, without those categories, we can’t make any sense of what we perceive. Not only am I not just looking at colored shapes in front of me – I’m looking at people. But all of you are people, even though I’m seeing different colored shapes.

So this is conceptual cognition. There’s nothing wrong with it. We need it, in order to make sense of what we perceive. The problem with it, however, is that when we perceive things in terms of categories, the mind makes it appear as though that category is some sort of box with a line around it: there it is in the dictionary, this category “cup.” Well, “cup” – I mean, that’s also another category, isn’t it? That’s meaningless sounds – “cuh-uh-p” – somebody put it together and some group of people decided that that is the sound that we’ll use to refer to this kind of object. It’s conceptual, isn’t it? It’s a mental construct. But it’s useful for communicating. Without it, we wouldn’t have language. We all agree that we use these words. But then it seems as though that is solidly what things are. That’s a cup. But it could be many other things as well. It could be something for washing my fingers – it could be all sorts of things. So conceptual cognition of things is deceptive because it makes… Although we understand things in terms of categories – and these categories can also be emotional feelings as well – nevertheless, our mind makes things appear as though they are inherently in these categories, like in a box. And they don’t exist that way.

So non-conceptual would be without these categories. Well, that’s very difficult to imagine. We don’t really experience non-conceptual cognition very much. You experience it with sense perception – seeing, hearing, and so on – but just for a microsecond, too fast to really notice, because immediately the mind puts things together and makes sense of these sense impressions. But with real non-conceptual cognition that you can sustain, then you would stay fresh in each moment. You know what things are. You know that people call this a cup, but you’re not perceiving it in terms of that category “cup.”

You see, one could make the mistake of thinking “Non-conceptual? Then it’s nonsense. Nothing fits together” – that all you perceive are colored shapes, or some Buddhist philosophers say all you perceive are pixels of light. So non-conceptual: we know what things are, but we don’t put them into these solid categories; although we know that, for communication purposes, they could be expressed that way.

So non-conceptual cognition is very, very difficult. Very difficult to achieve. And, as I said, it’s not at all the difference between intellectual and emotional. Doing these practices with the channels and the energies, these yogis, it’s definitely conceptual. They are visualizing and imagining these channels – that’s through a concept, through a category that they mentally construct – and then imagining moving the energies and so on. If you can’t visualize it and you don’t have perfect concentration, you can’t work with the energies. That’s why we do all these visualization practices and train – especially visualization internally and especially visualization on a microscopic level – to be able to then move these various energies and get them to dissolve, so that the mind becomes more subtle to get to the clear-light level. That’s the whole point of it. You’re working with conceptual – with a visualization. And it wouldn’t necessarily be in your imagination. How do you think of your stomach? Even if you don’t visualize your stomach, you are identifying some sort of feeling inside as a stomach. You’re putting it together, moment to moment, into a sustained thing. That’s conceptual.

You don’t have to apply a word. Conceptual cognition is not equivalent to verbal cognition. It could be nonverbal; it’s still conceptual. If I think of my mother, I don’t have to say “mother”; I don’t have to say her name. But there’s some concept, some category that represents mother so that I can think of her, whether it’s a mental picture, whether it’s an emotional feeling – something. That’s conceptual. We wouldn’t call that intellectual, though.

So in various types of practice, like mahamudra practice, when we are aiming to quiet the mind of conceptual thought, please don’t think that all that means is quieting the conversation, the talking in our head. It’s going much, much more deeply than that. To quiet the voice in our head, although difficult as that may be, is only the beginning level, the very first step. Conceptual cognition is – we’re doing it all the time, nonverbally as well – it’s how we make sense of the world and how we communicate.

The same question but in terms of lifetime, bardo and rebirth again as a child. A child has no words, but actually, if I understood, he has conceptual mind.

Right. We think of death, bardo, rebirth. And a small child, an infant with no language, still has conceptual mind. A cow has conceptual mind. How does a cow or any animal recognize its baby? How does a baby recognize its mother? How does the cow recognize the barn? It’s all conceptual; it’s some category. They don’t have language. How does a worm know that this is food and that’s a rock (which is not food)? It’s with a category, putting together different things and knowing that it’s food. It doesn’t have a word. So conceptual thought is not limited to human beings and not limited to words. Let’s think about that.


Non-conceptual Cognition of Voidness

The real discussion of non-conceptual understanding – where we find it very strongly in the teachings is with reference to voidness, this absence of things existing in impossible ways. The non-conceptual cognition of it is a voidness that is beyond words and beyond categories. You always hear that expression – beyond words, beyond concepts. Well, what does that mean? It’s not so easy. If we understand things as, well, having impossible existence – what’s called true existence – having true existence, well, that’s a category. We see things as having true existence. Well, you can also think that things are devoid of existing with true existence; they’re void of that, empty of that. That could also be a category, to understand it with that category of “no true existence.”

So we can have a category of “existence.” We can have a category of “no such thing as true existence.” So we understand it in terms of that category. Or when they work out the logic, it could be, in one way, “true existence,” and from another point of view “no true existence.” So it could be both or it could be neither. But, in any case, when we talk about voidness beyond words and concepts, we’re talking about a voidness that doesn’t fit into any of these categories of “true existence,” “non-true existence,” both, or neither. Even though things are devoid of true existence, that’s true, that doesn’t mean that being devoid of true existence is a box, a category. That’s the main thing that one wants to gain the non-conceptual cognition of.

It’s beyond words and beyond categories. Well, you could make “beyond words and beyond categories” a category, a box. And the great masters write these words, and so it seems as though it’s in another box. But one has to understand that’s just conventional language in order to communicate. The important thing is that it doesn’t fit into a box – that words imply that things do – it’s beyond that. Beyond it doesn’t mean in some transcendental realm, up in paradise, totally unrelated to anything that we experience. That’s a mistake to think like that.

When we speak about voidness, that’s just how everything exists. Things don’t exist with lines around them, in boxes, that correspond to the words in the dictionary. And to say that they don’t exist like that, that also could be a box, so forget about that box as well. So, no boxes. Yet conventionally – like an illusion, we say – things appear as though they are a boy, a girl, a cup, a table, and we communicate with each other like that, and they serve the function of these things. I can use the cup to drink water. I can’t use the tabletop to drink water; from that, it would be quite difficult. So things perform functions. There’s order in the universe. But there’s nothing on the side of the universe with little lines around it, dividing the universe into boxes. That’s all mental construct to help us to deal with the universe. From the side of the universe, there are no lines. Even Western science would say that it’s all a big energy field. Everything’s interrelated, interconnected.

When we think in terms of ourselves: “Me. Poor little me. I can’t do this and I can’t do that.” – with a big line around it, “me,” a big line around what we identify “me” with – this is what we want to renounce with tantra, what we want to renounce in general with Buddhism. Instead of that – well, I don’t exist with a big, solid line around it as some stupid being who is confused and messed up and my feelings are all over the place – but we can instead generate ourselves as a Buddha, in terms of Buddha-nature. That is possible, but without putting a big, solid line around being a Buddha, or a Buddha-figure; don’t make that into a category. That’s what we try to do with these visualizations.

Sure, a visualization is conceptual – it certainly is conceptual – but we understand that it doesn’t exist the way that our mind makes it appear. I’m not really Chenrezig or Tara. I could be; but even if I were, it wouldn’t be with a big line around it, all by itself. That there is some Chenrezig hidden inside of me, and all I have to do is discover it, and there it is, with a big line around it, sitting somewhere inside my mind. It’s not like that. So tantra is very much involved with transformation and purification. Without that understanding that things don’t exist with lines around them, from their own side, we cannot practice tantra properly; it’s just an exercise in craziness. You might as well be imagining that I am Mickey Mouse and I live in Disneyland, and here I am. I am the Red Fairy, Vajrayogini, and I live in Fairyland. Come on, that’s crazy.

That’s another reason why what’s very important with tantra is that you keep it private. Secret means private. You don’t tell everybody that “I am the Red Fairy and I live in Fairyland.” They will think you are crazy and lock you up. You keep it private and try to understand what we’re actually doing with the practice. If you’re just reciting a ritual in some weird language that nobody knows, that’s very innocent, isn’t it? You could be reciting something in Latin or in Zulu, it doesn’t matter. If we’re really doing these inner transformations then you have to know what you’re doing, and especially have some understanding of voidness: Things don’t exist with – it’s impossible that things have these solid lines around them, making them into boxes and categories.

These are mental constructs. People came together and decided these are both “cups.” They took some meaningless sounds and made a word for it, that’s all, and everybody agreed, and they put it in a dictionary. And it’s helpful when these two things are both cups, even though they look exactly the same. Otherwise, if we didn’t have categories, we’d have to have a completely different name for each of these. That would make it very impractical, wouldn’t it? But they don’t have something, on their side, saying underneath “cup,” “plastic cup.” It’s devoid of that. Absent. Nothing on the side of that object. So it’s beyond words, beyond concepts.

That cannot be stressed enough, particularly in tantra practice, but in sutra practice as well, to understand this and not make some big, solid fantasy world out of tantra and these visualizations. We are using mental constructs – these visualizations – for a purpose, knowing full well that they are mental constructs and not being fooled by them. I know full well that this is in my imagination. But I know it’s possible because energy can vibrate on these levels – so it’s not a lie, it’s not self-deception – but I also know that I’m not there yet. Please digest that for a moment.


How Do These Buddha-Figures Exist?

In what category should I think about the Buddha whom I visualize?

The category of a Buddha.

Should I think of it existing like I am during the practice?

Well, no. The Buddhas, whether we’re thinking of Buddha Shakyamuni or we’re thinking of Avalokiteshvara, Tara, or whatever – the important thing with them is to think of all the qualities of a Buddha. These are things we need to have been familiar with already in terms of taking refuge. Have some idea of what is a Buddha; and what is the Dharma, the accomplishments of a Buddha; and the Sangha, those who have accomplished that in part.

But, in any case, each of these Buddha-figures, as I mentioned yesterday, has a special feature to it that it specializes in, plus representing all of enlightenment. So if we’re imagining ourselves as Tara, or we’re just thinking of Tara in front of us, we think of Tara as the energy of an enlightened mind to be able to accomplish things – either in terms of overcoming fears, either in terms of health, either in terms of just general benefiting others. (There are many different types of Tara – white, green, etc.) So we imagine that yes, I have all this energy, and I can stimulate the energy in others to make them grow, like Green Tara – green – this type of thing to grow. Plus, we think in terms of all the enlightening qualities of compassion and so on. It’s not that only Chenrezig has compassion and Tara doesn’t. Of course Tara has compassion too, and clarity of mind. So we try to imagine that we have these qualities. And, as I mentioned, all the various arms, and faces, and so on, represent all these different qualities, so they help us to remember them and keep them all together in mind.

Is it a category? Sure, it’s a category of what a Buddha is. We put all that together and call that a Buddha. But don’t just think in terms of the word Buddha. We try to imagine that we have all these qualities, and we use them in the sadhana. There are various places in the sadhana where sometimes you recite… Mind you, there are many, many different sadhanas for each Buddha-figure, but there are many of them where you recite the four immeasurables – love, and compassion, and joy, and equanimity – so, at that point, you recall and you generate this, and you try to maintain this love and compassion, and so on, throughout the practice.

Sadhanas Are Scripts

Each little point in the sadhana is mentioning something. It’s like to remind us, to help us to generate a certain state of mind that we’re putting all together in the sadhana practice. That’s why it’s important to understand what it’s saying, what we’re actually saying there, because these are instructions of what to do in your meditation. It’s not just sing the words and play a drum, and so on; that’s just the decoration, the form. The important thing is to do what it says you’re doing. So it’s almost like the script of an opera. You sing the opera but, you know, it’s what you’re doing – you’re singing what you’re doing, and you do it.

Transformation of Self-Image

Imagining that we are a Buddha means that we are imagining that we have all these qualities, and we try to generate them to the best of our ability. And we try not think of ourselves as “Poor little me. I can’t do anything,” but without going to that other extreme of just making it a big inflated ego trip: “Ah, I’m the great Buddha.” That’s why you have to not do this on the basis of some solid image of a solid “me” that’s doing all of this. It’s just a transformation of the energies of what’s possible.