What You Need to Know About the Translations of Spiritual Texts

Finding translators for cultivation materials is a daunting task. I've used almost two dozen translators over the years, and have come to some conclusions based on my own experiences along with deep discussions with other people who have also struggled to find translators for Chinese, Indian and Tibetan cultivation works.

In short, good translators are hard to find. The untapped wealth that awaits English audiences lies waiting mostly in Chinese texts rather than in Sanskrit or Tibetan works or European texts, although more Persian works also need to come to light.

Most people cannot translate spiritual cultivation texts because they don't cultivate themselves, and if you don't cultivate you cannot understand what the texts are saying. Actually, only when you have gong-fu can you understand the true meaning of many texts.

Another general rule: usually the best way to pick a translator is to find native speakers of your language (English) who can understand the source language, rather than source language speakers who know your language. This rule usually produces superior translation results.

One translator I've used previously is Thomas Cleary, and his brother, J.C. Cleary, too. Thomas is a prolific translator who has produced so many cultivation books because he also personally cultivates himself. Some individuals have told me they've met other translators of Zen and Buddhist texts in New York -- very famous names -- and were both shocked and amazed when they found out these guys knew absolutely nothing about spiritual cultivation. Nothing at all, which I told them would be the case. The translations they produced were purely academic affairs, and those professors had hardly any knowledge of cultivation in general.

It wasn't what he expected.

I can even remember Thomas telling me over the phone one day about the fact that his colleagues, after his getting his Ph.D., frowned on his decision to translate Chinese works into English. It was considered a big no no!

Isn't that incredible? Believe it or not, most academics were against it. It made him a pariah! Here he's doing what academics should do -- in making these works available to the public and helping influence the culture -- and academia is against him for it.

He told me that many scholars did not WANT other people to be able to read and access information they were specialists on. Otherwise, they would no longer be "specialists" any longer, and he told me stories of how some scholars he met had worked on translations for years and kept them secretly in their drawers without letting others look at them, and had no intent of sharing their research. They would take it with them to their graves just so they could know something that others did not.

There were other reasons as well, and Master Nan has told me similar stories of Chinese academics, too.

Such are the strange tales of academia. If I told you all the politics that goes on in academia you would flip out. As someone told me once, there is more politics -- not intellectual truth -- involved with academia because money is not involved. Because money is not involved, only ego, name and status is involved, so the battles are furious. On top of that, PhDs tend to be quite narrow-minded, which is an outcome of their occupation. As master Nan used to say, you can foretell the destruction of a country is at hand when the PhDs start ruling the government because they lack wisdom and go by theory or narrow intellectual views. They think they are right and don't listen to the common sense and practical wisdom of the masses. Contrast that with the fact that most of the millionaires I know never even went to college, but were very practical and simply used what works.

Master Nan told me of many similar experiences to Thomas Cleary's, which are beyond what you might expect, but my job is to teach you WISDOM, which means that you have to recognize that this is how the world really does work -- not how you think it works.

The situation, overall, reminds me why the dharma and esoteric sciences die out over the ages.

Usually the holder of the specialized information considers it a treasure and doesn't want to pass it on to too many people, except those in their family or direct lineage, and the information therefore dies out or gets lost. That's what's happened in China and India over the ages, and in the West as well when some people's hearts weren't big enough to transmit information to others.

That's how medical prescriptions get lost over time as do secret astrological methods, esoteric lore, and all sorts of other information and specialized techniques. If they are only passed down through a family and the family members die, or a not-so-smart person is born into the family who cannot understand the information, dead it becomes.

Luckily the way you get money and renown in the West is by sharing information and passing it on, whereas in the East you retained power, status and monopolistic money streams by keeping your secrets close to your chest. That's why information has died out in Asia and each generation had to struggle to rediscover the same information that was not passed on. In the West however, look at the information flows.

Different system ...different results.

In all fairness, however, you have to remember that sometimes esoteric information cannot be passed on unless there is someone qualified to receive it, and masters really wishing for students to receive a transmission might have had no one qualified to pass a lineage to.

Then again, sometimes they were too tight, close-minded or greedy, ... or their hearts weren't big enough ... and ignored their duty to share information. In the Esoteric school, for instance, it is considered a violation of discipline to share information with those not qualified, and a violation of discipline to NOT teach those who are qualified when you encounter them.

That's why a master will often pull someone aside and teach them something out of the blue that they teach no one else, which is to keep the information alive. What tears at a teacher's heart is when they have so much to offer, so much they've absorbed and no one to transmit it to. That's what pains them. So much to give, and no one to receive it. Most people are interested in sex, money and power while giving only lip service to cultivate (you can't make money with the information), and of those interested, most aren't qualified. In the past ages the smartest people went into politics and religion, whereas today they go into science and business (investment banking, as an example). Who's interested in cultivation ... and who will offer money to support it?

Luckily in the martial arts field I see many Asians now teaching foreigners what were previously considered "secrets" and finding that the foreigners have the better mindset for preserving these traditions than the nationals. I am also glad to see Chinese medical texts being translated and predict that within several short decades (especially if 3-4 sages get born into the West), Western TCM will rival most of Chinese TCM. Already in acupuncture we see Westerners catching up and surpassing Asian studies in some respects. We had psychics like Edgar Cayce, Steiner, Wheelright and others who greatly shaped western naturopathy, and if a sage can take the information that comes to the West about Chinese and Indian ayurvedic methods, and combines them with science and the Western pharmacoepia, then we'll be able to see some wonderful blessings come to the world.

That is, if the FDA doesn't interfere with the process!

I also remember Master Nan saying that when he taught in Taiwan Normal University, he often told the professors that they had to practice meditation and spiritual cultivation in order to be able to translate or understand the materials they were teaching. They all scoffed at him, he said, but I was present when years later one of these older professors came back to him and admitted, "You know, you were right and we were wrong." His words are true.

Thomas Cleary has done so much for Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, in terms of making all sorts of translations available, that we owe a great deal to him whether or not you feel his translations are good or not. When I was young there were hardly any texts available for anything from the East -- yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Koran, Taoism, Tibetan works, Persian texts, Confucianism -- and now we have many texts available, and the translations are getting better all the time. Some of the Zen texts by Red Pine (Bill Porter) and Andy Ferguson are excellent, and many of the Asian translations produced at Columbia University are outstanding. I particularly like The Awakening of the Faith.

Another individual who we should thank for his spiritual translations is Charles Luk, or Luk K'uan Yu, who passed away several years ago. His translations of Zen material still stands out in my mind as being a great introduction to Zen. Most impressive of all, he knew how to select which texts to translate. I don't think anyone has selected better texts than he did to get translated. I shake my head when I see someone spend years translating a text that was really not that important, and the major gems stand by the wayside.

Eva Wong is another greater translator of Chinese materials whose selections are excellent as well. You cannot go wrong with her works.

I feel very sad when I see so much good, no ... excellent, no ... GREAT Chinese materials that still should be translated and yet scholars stay away from this material while certain people think it's more important to translate Tibetan spiritual texts. Nonsense. I particularly feel bad when so many people put their efforts into translating Tibetan texts because when I read them, I have to say they give a warped view of the dharma. The problem with Tibetan Buddhism is that monks have veered away from source materials and focus on studying commentaries and commentaries on commentaries as well as arcane tantric yoga texts that focus too much on the body. I used to argue with my teacher that these works were very high stage -- he being recognized as an enlightened Esoteric master, mind you, rather than just a Rinpoche (Tibetan Phd) and I'm arguing with him -- and he would laugh and scoff at me saying you'll find out later as your gong-fu progresses. As my own gong-fu and understanding progressed, and as I met various samadhi masters in the Tibetan tradition, I saw how right he was.

The Source Mirror, Shao Yung's works, and various Buddhist sutras are simple examples of things that should be translated into English, as well as certain famous and highly practical works on feng shui and astrology. This is the useful stuff, the stuff that will link Eastern and Western cultures.

Unfortunately, scholars in the universities are scared stiff to have their names linked with such material, so they don't want to translate them. Actually, that's the stuff that would be useful and would penetrate society. I always laugh at cultural exchanges of the high level snob crowd material when for years I said that the martial arts, Chinese medicine, and feng shui, astrology material would be the items to bring the two cultures closer together. Look at feng shui, martial arts, Chinese medicine and various Taoist inroads into the West and you'll see who was right. This is the type of effort that has to be supported rather than an emphasis on bringing Chinese opera to America. Yes of course Chinese opera should be brought to America, but the cultural mixing will come from the practical esoteric sciences just mentioned.

Instead, scholars like to study and publish useless things like "homosexuality in Ming dynasty China" or "a study of foot binding in Ching dynasty noble houses" and all sorts of trivia that will hardly make any impact on society at all. Sometimes the problem is just that no one will finance the necessary translation work I've talked about, and universities have been firing their Chinese language professors en masse these last few years despite the fact that China is the rising superpower and trade partner for the US.

We need more understanding of China and India rather than less. In particular, we actually should be increasing the number of Chinese scholars rather than decreasing them, just as we increased the number of Japanese scholars in the 80's when the trade flows merited it. Funny enough, most of those US scholars on Japan were funded by Japan, rather than by the US. If we want to get the upper hand we need to be the ones funding the useful dialogue.

Academia is usually behind the times, narrow-minded and liberal arts usually gets beaten up ... so I have few hopes here.

One man who is an excellent translator of Chinese material, Doug Wile, is a case in point. He is an excellent translator of martial arts materials, medical texts, and originally translated the finest collection of materials on sexual cultivation available, and since that time has collected nearly a hundred new texts on Chinese sexual cultivation -- works that have never seen the light of day and should become available in English to help cultivators -- but the translations would cost over $25,000 just to have it done. I'm sure that collection will never make it into English, and yet that possibility is within reach while he's still alive and could greatly help many cultivators,including the Chinese.

The Japanese, incidentally, seem to me to be the best translators of most Chinese materials going into English -- moreso than the bilingual Chinese, and have done excellent Buddhist sutra translations. Most of the superior Lotus sutra translations are due to Japanese translators. If you didn't know about it, the Numata Institute in California was funded by a Japanese multimillionaire and charged the institute with the task of translating numerous important Buddhist texts into English. You can contact them and buy a subscription to the new works they produce as they are translated, which is about 10 per year, and they are wonderful. As to Japanese Zen, remember that real Zen studies should concentrate on China. Japanese Zen has the outward form today, but the inside has been gutted of true enlightenment leadership. Even the Japanese Buddhist sects have gone into politics.

As to Korea, if I told you what Korean monks have told us about the inner workings of temples -- all the physical fighting that goes on with knives and martial arts and so forth, you would hardly believe it. In China the monasteries are devoid of practice too. This one is known for the monks eating meat, at this one they all have girlfriends, this one is a gambling den, and so on. In Sri Lanka they don't even recognize any monks outside their own tradition, and the narrow dogmatism can be found in other Asian Hinayana countries, too.

Interesting. The dharma of true cultivation is dying in the monasteries, just as Shakyamuni predicted. As Master Nan said, the true enlightenment eye in the future will only be found in layman, which is why YOU should keep cultivating.

As to Indian texts on yoga, I have to say that anything from the Bihar School of Yoga is usually top notch. I'm impressed with the translations they have produced. In many cases, superb materials.

For Tibetan works, I like Glenn Mullen's materials and also wish that someone would translate the Nagarjuna Guhysamaja materials, as well as numerous works by Tsong Khapa and Tibetan medical texts that deal with cultivation sicknesses. The true Esoteric school will end up in the Western world, which combines the teachings with science, but it won't be Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetans themselves think that they represent the true Esoteric school, which is just nonsense and cultural prejudice as you find elsewhere.

I could go on about translations and how difficult it is to find good translators, but I thought I'd share with you some snippets of these topics for your consideration. In short, we need more Chinese works translated, but translators are hard to find. If you are bi-lingual, it's not someone else's responsibility, but YOUR responsibility to take a page per day or week and do something. Simply record it into a tape recorder, then transcribe it, take it to some friends and you have a translation. Something is better than nothing, so why not gain some merit? The responsibility is YOURS.

Have a good translation? We'll post it to the site.



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