Buddhist Text Translation Society

The translation of Sutras has such great significance, and yet, how can a person who doesn't even know English or any language other than Chinese manage to translate the Chinese Sutras into other languages? The Venerable Master said:

"I have this vow, and I want to do this work. Even though I don't know any other language, I'm bold enough to want to translate the Sutras. The mere thought of wanting to do this has already made the Buddhas happy. Even a person like myself who doesn't know any foreign language wants to do this work, how much more should people who do know other languages honestly devote themselves to carrying out this task."

In the countries of the West, the Buddha's teachings are virtually unknown. Most people have never even heard of the Buddhadharma. When the Venerable Master left Hong Kong and came to America in 1962, his first task was to lecture on the Sutras and speak the Dharma. The Master lectured on the Vajra Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra, the Earth Store Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, the Dharma Flower Sutra, the Flower Adornment [Avatamsaka] Sutra, and even on such short texts as the Sutra of the Eight Awakenings of Great People, the Sutra of the Buddha's Final Teaching, the Sutra in Forty-two Sections, the Song of Enlightenment, and others. The Venerable Master was lecturing on the Sutras almost every single day. He said,

"My vow is that as long as I have one breath left, I will lecture on the Sutras and speak the Dharma. When I have no more breath, I will stop speaking."

From the records of history, we know that Shakyamuni Buddha advocated transmitting his teachings in the languages of the people. He was not in favor of the body of his teachings being preserved in the lofty languages used by other religions of the time. He wanted ordinary people with an average education to be able to understand his teachings. In that same spirit, the Venerable Master, in explaining the Sutras and speaking the Dharma, carefully kept his language simple.

The Master's published commentaries on texts from the Buddhist canon were called "simple explanations" [in the Chinese] because he hoped that the most ordinary person could understand his explanations. Another reason was that the translators who interpreted his lectures were not proficient enough in Chinese to understand a more difficult explanation. As Westerners with little understanding of the Buddhadharma, they needed special help in understanding the Buddhist terminology and the Chinese vocabulary. Thus, the Venerable Master's simple commentaries were aimed at universally rescuing living beings, teaching and transforming on a vast scale, and guiding the translators so they could translate the texts correctly. The commentaries also provided the translators with a basic knowledge of the Buddhadharma, according to which they could practice and develop a solid foundation.

The words of a sage are not something that ordinary people can fathom with their understanding and wisdom. The Venerable Master used to say, "I don't know any other language." Yet many times, when the translator had racked his brains and couldn't come up with a translation or when he didn't know which word to use, we would hear the Master spontaneously speak a suitable phrase or word in English. During the rapid English translations of the Master's lectures, if the translator happened to interpret something incorrectly, the Master would immediately catch it and tell him, "No." When the Venerable Master first lectured on the Shurangama Sutra, there were only four or five people in the audience who understood Chinese. All of the others relied on the English translation. Americans were difficult to teach, however, and there was a time when all the translators went on strike. Having no recourse, the Venerable Master translated for himself. The Master said:

"Basically, I don't know how to speak English. From listening to them speak, I had picked up a few phrases, and I translated those phrases. What I couldn't remember, I told them to investigate on their own. Even though I'm very stupid, I do have my ways."

After the Venerable Master translated for himself that day, his four or five translators were so alarmed that they didn't dare go on strike again. Seeing the Master give his lecture and do his own translation, they decided that going on strike was useless. They couldn't gain any advantages from it. Therefore, they ended their strike.

There are some intellectuals who consider the Venerable Master's commentaries too simple and too shallow. They think the Master's words are not sophisticated and erudite enough. The Master himself often said, "I only had two and a half years of formal schooling." If you try to edit the Venerable Master's words, however, you will discover that despite their simplicity, these words convey extremely genuine and profound ideas. The Master's sentences are so well-structured that to edit them would only destroy their original phrasing. His erudition in the Chinese classics and his knowledge of medicine, divination, astrology, physiognomy, and so forth surpass that of university professors. In explaining the doctrines of the Sutras, the Venerable Master's use of language is dynamic and profoundly moving. An uneducated person would not be capable of this. Generally speaking, English sentences are much more structured grammatically than Chinese sentences. Yet many people, in translating the Venerable Master's lectures, have found that the Master's sentences are very well-structured and easy to translate. In fact, the Master often ingeniously used English grammatical structure in his Chinese, making it easier for disciples who were not proficient in Chinese to learn and to translate.

When the Venerable Master first began lecturing on the Sutras, only three Americans came to listen. Of these three, one would sit down, one would recline on the steps and doze off, and one would lie on the ground with his feet propped up on a table. That's how they listened to the lecture. But the Master endured it and didn't criticize them. He patiently explained the Sutras to them, for as he once said,

"As long as there's a single person who wants to hear me speak the Dharma, I will speak. Even if no humans are listening, I will still lecture to the ghosts, to the spirits, and to all supernatural beings."

The Master continued in this way until the summer of 1968, when a group of more than thirty American college students, including candidates for doctorate, Master's, and Bachelor's degrees, travelled from Seattle to San Francisco and requested the Venerable Master to lecture on the Shurangama Sutra. When the Master finished lecturing on the Shurangama Sutra after ninety-six days, five American college students resolved to leave the home-life under the Master. This marked the beginning of the Sangha in America.

After that, many highly educated American intellectuals came to take refuge or to leave the home-life under the Venerable Master. Although some of these people were professionals in their fields and possessed doctorate or Master's degrees, they were amateurs when it came to the translation of Sutras, and some of them understood little or no Chinese. Therefore, in the early period from 1968 to 1969, the Master gave nightly Chinese lessons to his disciples at the Buddhist Lecture Hall. Every evening before the evening recitation and lecture, the Master wrote out a portion of the Shurangama Sutra on the blackboard. He would write out twenty-four Chinese characters from the Sutra (in sequence), stroke by stroke while his disciples gathered around and watched.

In that way, in less than a year, those who attended those classes could write Chinese characters in their proper stroke orders. At the same time, the Master encouraged his disciples to memorize those twenty-four characters a day from the Shurangama Sutra. After the move to Gold Mountain Monastery (located then on Fifteenth Street in San Francisco), the Master set up language classes every day of the week. During that year, his disciples studied Sanskrit, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and English. The Master used many expedients to encourage the teachers to teach and the students to learn those languages.

In order to bring forth each person's inherent wisdom, the Venerable Master set up a course with a special class format. For every class, the lesson was written on the board in Chinese (and later in Chinese and English). Then the teaching assistant would read the lesson, sentence by sentence, directing the class to repeat each sentence. After at least three readings, students would then volunteer or else be selected at random to explain the lesson. Each explanation would be bilingual. Often ten or more students would give explanations, so by the time the Venerable Master went up to explain the lesson, it was possible that many different interpretations had been given and many of the students already had the lesson memorized.

Having heard the practice explanations, the Master would be aware of the places in the lesson that the students had been unable to explain or had explained incorrectly and would be sure those passages were clarified. These lessons often lasted five to six hours uninterrupted. Later the format of the class was expanded slightly to include student critiques at the end of the lesson. The name Developing Inherent Wisdom was given to this course. This class format gave students a chance to learn both Chinese and English. It also trained everyone to have patience. More importantly, through the practice of giving lectures and listening to others' lectures, each person's inherent wisdom was inspired and developed in new ways.

The Venerable Master frequently reminded his disciples to use their true wisdom to translate the Sutras. He also said that if they felt something had been translated inappropriately, they could bring it up at any time and everyone could study it and discuss it together. Such open and democratic discussions allowed for more accurate translations. In this way, the style of the translation centers of the past was brought to Western countries. The Venerable Master said:

"Before a nation's constitution is formally ratified, it must be read three times, and each time people are asked if they have objections. We should adopt this method in the translation of Sutras. After the translation is completed, everyone should study it and see if there are problems. Everyone's wisdom should be used in translating the Sutras. All opinions can be brought up. When we ask for opinions, we should follow the procedure for holding karmavachanas (formal Sangha meetings).

"That is, after the translation is read once through, everyone is asked to give their opinions and the translation is revised. After that, it is read another time and people are asked again. Then, it is read and people are asked for a final time. There must be three readings, and people must be asked three times. The text should be read slowly so that it can be heard clearly and distinctly. When the three readings are done in accord with karmavachana procedure, those who have opinions should bring them up. If there are no opinions, that means everyone is in agreement. In the future, no one can say, "This part is not translated well. It was done wrong at the time." None of us can object then.

"So everyone has to be responsible. Only when everyone is in unanimous agreement can the translation pass. As we do our translations here, we want to set up a pattern for the people of the future. They will have to follow our method. It won't do for one person to come out with his own translation. We are using everyone's strength to carry out this work."

In addition to having language abilities that surpassed most people's imaginations, the Venerable Master had an extremely thorough and clear understanding of the principles and methodology of Sutra translation. Of the three principles of faithfulness, elegance, and clarity of meaning, faithfulness is foremost. The Venerable Master said,

"In translating the Sutras, nothing is more important than accuracy (correctness). The translation cannot be at odds with the original text. When translating someone else's work, you must translate that person's words faithfully. You cannot add your own ideas. If the grammar is awkward, you may smooth it out, but there is no need to add your own interpretations."

It's a pity that some people felt the Venerable Master's explanations were lacking in erudition or else they wanted to get into the spotlight themselves, so they inserted their own or others' opinions into the published commentaries on the Sutras and left out the Master's original explanation. The Master gave those "simple explanations" for the sake of beginners, as well as to allow translators to learn from them, gain a basic knowledge of the Buddhadharma, and cultivate accordingly. The Master wasn't attached to his own words. He modestly said,

"You can use my kindergarten-level explanations if you want. Since we are just beginning, we should first lay a firm foundation. After that, we can expand our scope and translate other things."

The translation of the Buddhist canon is an endeavor that may take a hundred years or a thousand years. From his standpoint as a trailblazer, the Venerable Master said,

"In our present translations, it will be enough if the meaning is clear and understandable. We shouldn't embellish our work so it is as beautiful as embroidery. As long as it's passable, that's enough. In the future, if people think it's unsatisfactory, we will have given them a general translation which they can rework."

The Sutras are translated so that people can understand them. The Venerable Master pointed out,

"Sutra translations should be simple and clear. You don't necessarily have to use Sanskrit. If the term doesn't exist in English, then use the Sanskrit word if you must. If it does exist in English, we should use words that people in this country can understand with ease. If we use Sanskrit words everywhere, then there's no need to translate the Sutra into Chinese, and then into English. You might as well use the Sanskrit version! The purpose of translating a work is to popularize it, to make it so that people can understand it as soon as they read it. It's enough if we can do that. It should be very ordinary. If you deliberately find a very difficult word to use in the translation, people will be mystified when they read it. We should use our wisdom to investigate the matter. If a word is fitting, we can use it. That's enough. The evolution of language takes place bit by bit. People may not understand something for the time being, but gradually, after they look at it a few more times, they will come to understand. As long as the meaning is felt to be sufficient and complete, that's good enough."

While following the principles of faithfulness and clarity of meaning, it is also necessary to pay heed to the principle of "perfect harmony of all differences," because the Buddhadharma is perfectly fused without obstruction. In this regard the Venerable Master said,

"In translating the text of the Sutra, you cannot translate according to the meaning of the commentary. The text of the Sutra is like the ocean, while the commentaries are like rivers that can flow into the ocean in any way they please. You shouldn't treat the rivers as the ocean. The Sutra is alive, not dead. It is perfectly fused and unobstructed. It is not restricted to a single meaning. Any interpretation is acceptable, as long as it is logical and makes sense. Don't make it so rigid and insist that it has to be a certain way. As long as the meaning is conveyed, that's enough. Don't spend too much effort on this aspect. If you spend all your time quibbling over the words themselves, you'll get farther and farther away from the meaning and you'll never come up with a good translation. In translating Sutras, you have to be very flexible and dynamic. You can't always be so obstinate and fixed in your ideas. As long as the meaning is there, it's enough."

The translation of Sutras is not merely a kind of skill. It can also develop and train each person's genuine wisdom. The Venerable Master said,

"No matter who you are, if you use your wisdom to translate Sutras, your wisdom will become greater day by day. The growth of wisdom takes place day after day. If you concentrate your mind and devote yourself to studying every day, your wisdom will open up."

To ensure that the translations would be accurate and genuinely in accord with the Buddha's intent, the Venerable Master repeatedly bade his disciples:

"We must have proper views and proper knowledge when we translate Sutras, and we must maintain a sense of righteousness. You can't be partial or speak nice words to please people. You have to make quick decisions and speak with determination and courage, like a judge. We should have the spirit of a judge deciding court cases. We have to bring forth sincerity, use correct and penetrating views, and be decisive. We should translate in an objective manner and not get caught up in the language. We have to use wisdom when we translate Sutras, without harboring the least bit of emotion. No matter whose words they are, if you think they're wrong, then at that point you have to be inflexibly just and impartial. You have to be cold and emotionless when you translate. If you listen to your emotions, you'll go wrong. Why did Shakyamuni Buddha speak this Sutra? When we translate, we have to imagine Shakyamuni Buddha's frame of mind. What he was thinking? What were his intentions at the time? We have to use our own thoughts to comprehend the principles that the Buddha expounded in the Sutras. In doing so, we will attain the wonderfully subtle meaning.

"If a person wants to have far-reaching achievement, he must first cultivate virtue, and only then apply himself to literature and art."

Under the Venerable Master's standards, even if one possesses linguistic skills and is intelligent enough to understand the Master's explanations, one still can't be considered a well-rounded translator. The Master set down the Eight Guidelines for the Translation of Buddhist Texts. If translators can actually follow these guidelines, they will be endowed with noble integrity. All those involved in the work of translation should honor these rules.

The Eight Guidelines for the Translation of Buddhist Texts are:

1. A translator must free him/herself from motives of personal fame and reputation.

2. A translator must cultivate a sincere and reverent attitude that is free from arrogance and conceit.

3. A translator must refrain from aggrandizing his/her work and denigrating that of others.

4. A translator must not establish him/herself as the standard of correctness and suppress the work of others with his/her fault-finding.

5. A translator must take the Buddha-mind as his/her own mind.

6. A translator must use the wisdom of Dharma-Selecting Vision to determine true principles.

7. A translator must request Virtuous Elders of the ten directions to certify his/her translations.

8. A translator must endeavor to propagate the teachings by printing Sutras, Shastra texts, Vinaya texts, and other Buddhist texts when the translations are certified as being correct.

From these Eight Guidelines, we can see that every person who takes part in the translation work must be broad-minded and of lofty integrity. Only then will he or she be able to take on this sacred work. The Venerable Master exhorted those doing the translation work with the following words:

The measure of our minds should encompass all of space and pervade worlds as numerous as grains of sand, excluding nothing and including everything. If you have doubts, bring them up. If you feel that a certain point is correct, you can explain your reason. Everyone is here to discuss and investigate together. We don't need to argue. It's not a case of one person winning and another losing. No one wins and no one loses. At all times, everyone is level and equal. United and equal, we advance together.

The work of translating the Buddhist canon is of great significance to this entire age. It is also difficult and laborious. The Venerable Master said,

"We do not have many people who understand Chinese, and some of us don't know English very well either. Thus, we are translating the Sutras under very trying and difficult conditions. Despite the hardships, we are prepared to transmit the Buddha's wisdom-life and pass on the lamp of the Buddhadharma. The kind of work that we're doing will have great impact on mankind in the future. Therefore, we want to do this sacred work with special diligence. Don't be sloppy and casual. Take it seriously. Be especially solemn and do this work in all seriousness. We have to think: "I am a member of Buddhism. If I don't fulfill this responsibility, whom do I expect to fulfill it?" Every one of us has to think, "If I don't do it, who will? The entire responsibility for Buddhism lies with me."

When Sutras were being translated in China in the past, it was very difficult to obtain paper, brushes, ink, and other tools. Modern times are much more advanced, and the opportunity we have to take part in this work is rare in a hundred million ages. So the Venerable Master said,

'When we translate Sutras, our hearts should be filled with the joy of the Dharma. You shouldn't have thoughts of fighting. Use wisdom. Don't be indecisive. Don't use stupidity. We should think of how rare this opportunity is: "That I can take part in this Sutra Translation Assembly is truly a fortunate event that is hard to encounter in ten thousand eons. It's impossible to describe my happiness.

"Each time we translate a Sutra here, everyone should first very quietly recite, "Homage to the eternally dwelling Buddhas of the ten directions. Homage to the eternally dwelling Dharma of the ten directions. Homage to the eternally dwelling Sangha of the ten directions." That doesn't mean reciting it verbally. In your minds you should have this thought, "I take refuge with the limitlessly limitless, infinitely infinite, eternally dwelling Triple Jewel of the ten directions to the exhaustion of empty space throughout the Dharma Realm. We hope that the Triple Jewel will aid us and enable us to have proper knowledge and proper views, and open great wisdom, so that we can translate Sutras.

'Every time we do the work of translating Sutras, each person should first request the aid of the Buddhas. Don't use the human mind to translate Sutras; you should use the true intention of the Buddha. When you translate, ask yourself, "Is this meaning in accord with what the Buddha meant, or is it in opposition to what the Buddha meant? At the time when the Buddha spoke this Sutra, what was his intention?" That's what you should pay attention to. Although you could say this is a false thought, if your mind is true, what you do will be genuine. If your contemplation is true, you will unite with the substance of the Triple Jewel.'

Even though the Venerable Master's wisdom and vision surpassed that of ordinary people, no matter where he was, he always walked in back and let his disciples walk in front. That was because throughout his life, the Master was always training talented people for Buddhism in order to lay a solid foundation for Buddhism in the West. The Master said,

"No matter what it is, I could do it single-handedly, but I don't. If I did it all by myself, there wouldn't be much meaning in it. Buddhism belongs to everyone. We have to train a lot of talented people. My aim is to train others, not train myself".

In that way, the Venerable Master "shed blood and sweated without pausing to rest." At all times and in many different settings, he used various methods to train his disciples. Bit by bit, step by step, over the days and months he trained many excellent and talented translators for Buddhism.

The work of translating Sutras, under the auspices of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, began in 1968. The lecture hall at that time also served as a translation center, for after the Venerable Master finished lecturing on the Sutra, his disciples would translate the lecture into English on the same day.

In 1973, the Venerable Master formally established the Institute for the Translation of Buddhist Texts on Washington Street in San Francisco. In 1977, it was incorporated into Dharma Realm Buddhist University as the International Translation Institute. In 1990, the Master expanded and moved the International Translation Institute to the city of Burlingame, south of San Francisco. The address is 1777 Murchison Drive, Burlingame, CA 94010. Tel: (415) 692-5912.

When the Buddhist Text Translation Society was established, the Master set up Four Committees to govern the translation process: (1) Translating Committee, (2) Reviewing Committee, (3) Editing Committee, and (4) Certifying Committee. These Four Committees provide an excellent means for training newcomers in the translation process. More importantly, as people practice taking the Buddha's mind as their own mind in translation and as they immerse themselves in the Venerable Master's words of Dharma, their minds expand and mature and they advance more resolutely upon the path to Bodhi.

The purpose of translating Sutras is to give living beings a chance to hear the Buddhadharma and cultivate in accord with it. The Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS), under the Venerable Master's guidance, is dedicated to making the genuine principles of the Buddhadharma available in the West, so that Westerners will be able to put the Buddha's teachings directly into practice. The salient attribute of BTTS is that those who are involved in the work of translation have steeped themselves in the orthodox Buddhist tradition. They have devoted their lives to the actual practice of the Buddha's teachings and not to mere academic study. For this reason, the publications of BTTS put an emphasis on what the principles of the Buddha's teachings mean in terms of actual practice, rather than in terms of intellectual conjecture.

In January of 1993, the Buddhist Text Translation Society was reorganized under the Venerable Master's direction, and the translation and publication process was formally defined. The Master instructed that future publications of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA) be bilingual.

The steps of the translation process currently used by the DRBA Buddhist Text Translation Society are given below. (English is the language used in this example.)

1. Transfer (the Master's lecture) from reel-to-reel tapes to cassette tapes

2. Transcription (of the Master's Chinese lecture from cassette tapes)

3. Chinese data entry

4. Checking Chinese transcription

5. Proofreading the Chinese (several times)

6. Polishing the Chinese (several times)

7. Certifying the Chinese

8. Translation into English

9. Bilingual review

10. Polishing English translation (several times)

11. Certifying the English

12. Bilingual review (several times)

13. Bilingual certification

14. Initial layout on computer

15. Proofreading (several times)

16. Corrections on computer

17. Second layout

18. Proofreading (several times)

19. Corrections on computer

20. Sample (silver-print)

21. Artwork/graphics

22. Printing

Every step of the above process takes an immeasurable amount of time and energy. However, every second of time and every bit of effort invested in producing translations that are as accurate and free of errors as possible is worth it. All of the Sangha members and laypeople involved in the work of BTTS contribute their efforts as volunteers. As the Venerable Master said,

"The work we do is not like the work of worldly people. Don't ask, "What kind of compensation will I get for doing this work? What will I gain from it in the future?" The translation work we are doing offers no worldly gains whatsoever. We are working for Buddhism entirely on a volunteer basis. We are devoting our entire lives to work for Buddhism. Therefore, we want neither money nor reputation. We're not greedy for wealth, nor are we greedy for sex, food, or sleep. In our work, we must accord with the six great, bright paths of not contending, not being greedy, not seeking, not being selfish, not pursuing personal advantage, and not lying. When we carry out this work, we don't ask for a reward, or for anything at all. We simply want to translate the Buddhist Sutras, and that is enough."

Since 1972, the Buddhist Text Translation Society has been publishing translations of Buddhist texts. To date, the Society has published over two hundred volumes of translations of the Venerable Master's commentaries on the scriptures in English, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Five volumes of the Venerable Master's commentaries and Dharma talks have been published in bilingual (Chinese and English) format.

The Buddhist Monthly--Vajra Bodhi Sea is a monthly journal of orthodox Buddhism which has been published by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association since April 1970 and is already in the beginning of its twenty-sixth year. To conform with the bilingual standards of the Association, the journal overcame various technical difficulties and has presented every article in bilingual format, with Chinese and English side by side, since 1992. Among Buddhist periodicals today, such a bilingual layout is a unique feature. The Venerable Master said,

Certainly our personal cultivation is also extremely important. If we can cultivate and realize the fruition of enlightenment, of course we will be able to help Buddhism in a great way. Even so, this is only a temporary contribution. If we can translate the Sutras into the language of every country and deliver the Buddhadharma into every person's heart, that is a lasting achievement. Propagating the Dharma is a very important task, but the translation of Sutras is even more important in terms of the propagation of Buddhism as a whole. I hereby seek out those who share the same aspirations as I have. Let us all stand together and work hard in cooperation to translate the Sutras, using everyone's wisdom.

For ordering online, please visit the BTTS website at: BTTS Online


return to top