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A Historical Account of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center's project to translate The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment

Cover image of the Great TreatiseThe following is an article that Joshua Cutler wrote for the Snow Lion Newsletter and Catalogue.

When I think back to the conception of the project to translate Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam rim chen mo) in 1991 and all the efforts to get it started, it seems a very long time ago. But the original enthusiasm of that distant time never diminished, and the project has finally reached completion with the November 2004 release of volume two. Volume one came out in the year 2000, followed by volume three in 2002. Volume two represents the heart of Tsong-kha-pa’s work, explaining in precise detail both how to develop the altruistic spirit of enlightenment and how to put this altruism into action through the six perfections and four ways to gather disciples. It explains what a bodhisattva thinks and does, and inspires one to do the same. Through it, one can deeply appreciate that a bodhisattva is a truly great being.

The Great Treatise is presented in the format of a meditation manual and is 813 pages long in the Tibetan original. Tsong-kha-pa gives lucid and insightful explanations of all the stages of the path to enlightenment, adding very personal instructions from time to time. His prodigious scholarship is most impressive in its command of the source materials. Tsong-kha-pa gives citations from the words of the Buddha and the great masters of India—Nagarjuna, Asanga, Santideva, Candrakirti, etc.—and then embellishes these with sayings of the gurus in Tibet’s Kadampa lineage. As a result one gets a clear picture of a strong and vital tradition that authoritatively presents how one person can realize his or her innate potential for perfection step-by-step, beginning with knowledge of the preciousness of our human life and concluding with the practice of tantra.

For the Gelug tradition the Great Treatise is the primary text for the whole lam rim (“stages of the path”) genre of literature. This genre has become popular in the West because it makes the vast corpus of Buddhist teachings very accessible and easy to understand. In the monasteries it is studied outside of the standard curriculum, which is primarily oriented towards training the intellect, in order to understand how to use this intellectual training in the practice of meditation. When I was recently in Dharamsala, I heard from a nun who had been living there for many years that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had said that he read the Great Treatise an astounding eighty-two times! Though this may sound incredible to someone from our culture, it certainly explains why I can identify so many points that Tsong-kha-pa makes in the text incorporated into His Holiness’s lectures.

Ever since I started studying lam rim texts in 1969 with the then Harvard doctoral candidate Robert Thurman, the Great Treatise was held up to me as one of the greatest achievements in Tibetan literature.  How can it be that until now there has been no complete English translation of this invaluable text?  ( The late Dr. Alexander Wayman of Columbia University made a courageous effort and published a translation of the final two-thirds of the book.) The length of the text, the wide range of topics covered, and the complexity of certain portions, have made it a daunting task for any one person to undertake.  So in the summer of 1991 when Loling Geshe Yeshe Tapkay and University of Michigan professor Don Lopez, who were visiting teachers at the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC) in New Jersey, proposed to me that a group of translators under TBLC auspices do the job, I jumped at the chance to organize and participate in the effort, confident that it could be done because my wife Diana would take on many of my responsibilities as TBLC director.  I was to learn later that in undertaking this project I was continuing a tradition, for the root guru of TBLC founder Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, the famous Buryat Mongolian guru Ngawang Dorjieff, had translated the Great Treatise into Mongolian. 

As TBLC is the oldest center for teaching Tibetan Buddhism in the West, I knew, or knew of, many translators. Geshe Wangyal was an accomplished translator into the English language and had trained many of his students, including myself, to be translators. Besides fellow students of Geshe Wangyal, there were many others from the Buddhist studies programs at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the University of Wisconsin in Madison where they had studied with, respectively, Professor Jeffrey Hopkins (also a student of Geshe Wangyal) and Geshe Lhundup Sopa, whom Geshe Wangyal sponsored in 1962 to stay for six years at his center. Thus, in consultation with Don Lopez, I formed the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, a group of twelve translators who would work on seventeen different sections of the text. One can say that these twelve are each part of the foundation of Tibetan Buddhist Studies in this country.

In order to determine our approach and agree on a list of translation equivalents, we divided the committee into three groups according to the three volumes in which we planned to publish the text. In the spring and summer of 1992 we convened three translation conferences at TBLC’s facilities with great enthusiasm and came up with a list of about five hundred terms. As is normally the case, we had our individual preference for words, but it was surprisingly easy to agree to a unique choice of translation equivalents. Each translator was then responsible for using this list, rendering his or her section (one did two sections and another did three) into an unedited translation, and sending it on to me as the editor-in-chief. In addition to translating one section, my job was to bring all the sections into one voice. I was assisted in this capacity by one of the translators, Guy Newland of the University of Central Michigan, who also took full responsibility for editing the 249-paged insight (lhag mthong) section, as well as translating one section of it. 

The translators were not responsible for locating the citations in their original text. The TBLC resident geshes took on this immense task for volume one. They were assisted by the erudite scholar Dr. Lozang Jamspal of Columbia University, who found the citations in the Sanskrit sources for all three volumes. In an amazing effort Geshe Yeshe Tapkay, professor of the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in India, located all the Tibetan citations for volume three. For volume two we relied upon Tsultrim Kelsang Khangkar’s critical edition of the Tibetan text. Translation committee member Gareth Sparham of the University of Michigan coordinated all the notes for the three volumes, as well as standardizing the Sanskrit for the names of all the texts cited and pulling together the bibliographies.

We wanted to have the translation be as authoritative as possible, so TBLC sponsored Denma Lochö Rimpoche and Geshe Yeshe Tapkay to stay at the TBLC facilities over a number of summers and give a commentary on the text. These two teachers are highly respected in the Tibetan community and are expert in the meaning of Tsong-kha-pa’s works. They gave a commentary on the first 564 pages; the remaining 249 pages constituted the insight section, and the translation of this was checked over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator Geshe Thupten Jinpa, who also closely reviewed some sections specified by Guy Newland. We also took care to use the most reliable edition of the Tibetan that was widely available, the Tso Ngön edition printed in 1985. For reference we also used a rare manuscript of the Ganden Bar Nying edition, whose wood blocks were carved at around 1426. Furthermore, each translator was given the appropriate section of the Great Treatise commentary called Four Interwoven Annotations (Lam rim mchan bzhi sbrags ma). This proved especially useful in standardizing our approach to translating the numerous citations. When there was no commentary provided by the Four Interwoven Annotations, we relied on the commentary given by Lochö Rimpoche or Geshe Yeshe Tapkay. 

By the end of 1994 most of the sections of the translations were in my hands, so I began the painstaking work of getting the book into one voice. This involved carefully checking the translations against the 250 hours of Lochö Rimpoche and Geshe Yeshe Tapkay’s commentary that we had taped, and then editing each translator’s contribution.  I gave the resulting draft to a reader for a fresh perspective on the flow of the English, which invariably falls victim to the Tibetan syntax.  These editors—Brady Whitton, Carl Yamamoto, Gray Tuttle, and Paul Coleman—were TBLC students who had varying degrees of knowledge of Tibetan.  After integrating their suggestions, as seemed appropriate, into the text, I sent the result on to Guy Newland for his suggestions.  Don Lopez was also instrumental in this process for volume one, and gave helpful guidelines to keep the whole translation within acceptable academic standards. This process raised further questions about particularly difficult passages (of which there are many), and these were resolved primarily by asking Geshe Yeshe Tapkay, who was graciously available from the start of the project until its completion.

Our goal was to achieve an English translation that was readable for the general public. We strove hard to achieve this within the constrictions of keeping faithful to the Tibetan grammar and the author’s intent. I hope that this goal has been realized.

In 1999 the first volume’s manuscript was finally ready to send to Snow Lion. After I handed it in, Diana and I went on a pilgrimage to India. In an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama we asked him to come to TBLC to give a teaching on the lam rim. We were thinking of some short lam rim text, so we were greatly surprised when His Holiness suggested that he give teachings on the entire Great Treatise. I have often wondered whether this was the proverbial carrot or the stick, but we certainly picked up the pace on the next two volumes! We are now waiting with great anticipation for word on when His Holiness can give this great honor to all of us who worked so hard to complete this project.

I have eaten, breathed, slept, and dreamed Great Treatise for the last thirteen years of my life, and do not regret a moment of the experience. It has been a great honor and privilege to work on it, and I am in awe of the wonderful being who created it. Through the dedicated help of the people at Snow Lion Publications—especially my editor extraordinaire Susan Kyser, who gave me invaluable assistance—many others too can enjoy this precious jewel of Tibetan literature. For this I am very grateful to many kind persons, each of whom I have acknowledged by name in the prefaces to the three volumes.