Do you have to learn the Tibetan language to practice Tibetan Buddhism?

Not at all. Since the exodus of Tibetans from their homeland in 1959 (in the wake of the Chinese occupation), and subsequent travel by Tibetan Buddhist teachers to virtually every continent in the world, the important practice texts of all the great Tibetan traditions have been translated into other languages—including English and Mandarin—so that students in every part of the world can read and understand them.

Most Tibetan teachers these days use hybrid, or combination, practice texts that include the original Tibetan script, a transliteration (phonetic spelling so that you can pronounce the Tibetan words), and a translation into the language of the reader.

When Tibetan teachers first traveled to Western countries in the 1960s, they encouraged students to learn to read Tibetan script, which was developed in the 7th century by Thonmi Sambhota (a Tibetan imperial minister) at the emperor’s request. (Tibet at that time had no alphabet, so Thonmi traveled to India and created a Tibetan alphabet based on Indic letters.) Since the written language was initially developed to translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit, many Tibetan teachers felt that the script itself was blessed, and that blessing could be imparted to anyone who used it.

But in response to requests from new students in the West, translation of Tibetan Buddhist texts into English and other languages became a priority. Tibetan teachers in all lineages began training translators and producing texts that could be read and used by Western dharma students. Similar requests were met in Taiwan and other Asian countries, and Tibetan texts increasingly became available in new languages. 

By the turn of the 20th century, texts were being produced that allowed students to receive the direct blessing believed to result from reciting prayers and practices in their original languages (using transliteration) and at the same time receive the clear meaning of texts in the dharma students’ own languages.

Today, Tibetan language study is offered in colleges in various countries. Monasteries and dharma centers also have translation schools and committees to help deepen students’ understanding, train translators to help with the interpretation of oral teachings and written works, and prepare practice and study texts for new generations of dharma practitioners. 

But for the average student of Buddhism and daily practitioner of Tibetan chants and meditation, learning the Tibetan language is not a requirement, just as you don’t need to know Sanskrit and Japanese to join a Zen sangha or Pali to follow a Thai Forest Tradition teacher.


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