Historically, Tibet, like other Buddhist countries in Asia, had built-in ways to support dedicated practitioners and scholars who translated important texts. Some monasteries received tax money; others owned property leased to farmers in return for a percentage of the harvest. Unaffiliated yogis could meditate in rent-free caves, subsisting on rations donated by the wealthy, in return for tidy bundles of merit.
Western Buddhists haven’t fared as well. Most have had to pay their own way. Those who do the time-consuming but essential work of translating Tibetan texts into English or French struggle to support themselves through temp work, teaching at universities, and translating for visiting lamas. Somewhere, no doubt, Marpa, the Tibetan saint and translator, is commiserating. Before and between arduous trips to India, he farmed his land to amass enough gold to offer to the Indian siddha Naropa for teachings and books. Earlier, Naropa had labored to pay his own dharma teacher, Tilopa, but when he offered Tilopa his hard-earned gold dust, the guru merely tossed it in the air, crying, “The whole world is gold to me!”
Now, thanks to the three-year-old Tsadra Foundation, dedicated scholar-practitioners in the West can devote themselves wholeheartedly to translation and retreats. When Eric Colombel, a New Yorker who works in information technology, came into an inheritance, he invited Lama Drupgyu Anthony Chapman, a Canadian living in France, to help him put it to good use. The two had met during the seventies at a three-year retreat in France led by the renowned Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche. Together they worked out a plan that Lama Drupgyu describes as “supporting advanced Western practitioners who have done long retreats and exhibited some kind of excellence.” They named the foundation after Tsadra Rinchen Druk, the hermitage in eastern Tibet founded by Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, the influential nineteenth-century scholar and meditation master. Kalu Rinpoche, one of Kongtrul’s five incarnations, was the retreat master at Tsadra in the 1930s.
Like the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, which dispenses the famed “genius” grants, Tsadra does not accept applications. Qualified candidates are identified by trusted Vajrayana scholars and practitioners. So far, more than sixty people have received either a fellowship to be used at the recipient’s discretion, or a grant to support a specific project. Some are using the money to finance long-term retreats, others to translate some of the hundreds of thousands of Tibetan works that escaped the destruction of the Chinese, including texts on theology, psychology, metaphysics, poetry, and travel.
The first fruits of Tsadra’s grants—new translations of tantric Buddhist classics—began showing up on bookstore shelves a year and a half ago. There are now four Tsadra Foundation Series texts in print (see final page); a fifth is due out this fall. These elegant, accessible cloth editions, issued by Snow Lion Publications of Ithaca, New York, have appeal for dharma students of many levels. To experienced practitioners, they are better than gold dust.
For Tsadra, Snow Lion was an obvious choice. One of the oldest dharma publishers in the West, it is the only one devoted solely to books on Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion grew out of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Ithaca in 1979 at the invitation of Sidney Piburn, a Cornell graduate who had sought him out in Dharamsala. Piburn and some friends were considering starting a small press. His Holiness suggested including Tibetan titles, and offered them his first book in English, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight. Its publication marked Snow Lion’s debut, in 1984. “We were just kids,’’ Mr. Piburn recalls. “It was a total basement operation.” Family and friends donated money; one partner sold a tractor to help cover costs.
Today, Snow Lion has two hundred titles and $2 million in sales. Nearly the entire list—including Kindness, Clarity, and Insight—is still in print. Snow Lion plans to bring out one or two Tsadra books a year, according to the company’s president, Jeff Cox. (French translations are being published by Editions Claire Lumiére.) Which texts to translate is decidedly jointly by Lama Drupgyu and the translators. Some of the translations, Drupgyu says, are longstanding projects that had to be postponed time and again while the translators worked at other jobs. For these scholar-practitioners, Tsadra’s support is a dream come true.
The Tsadra Foundation Series
Fittingly, two of the first four books in the Tsadra series are by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-18991. whose joint commitment to scholarship and meditation practice inspired the foundation’s mission. The Autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors($34.95, cloth) was translated and edited by Richard Barron (Chokyi Nyima), an esteemed translator of major Tibetan works for over thirty years. Kongtrul, one of Tibel’s finest and most prolific writers, is known for founding the ecumenical Rime movement to end the destructive chauvinism among the four Buddhist sects. In this graceful account of a vanished way of life, he writes about his journeys, his friends, and his efforts to make peace between tribes, as well as his studies, meditation experiences, and dreams. Half a world away, the West was seeking another kind of enlightenment through industry and progress, and Kongtrul’s tales remind us of the enormous gaps between the two worldviews. At one point he writes, “I also came close to encountering someone with whom I had an issue of broken samaya connection, which caused me to suffer from extremely high blood pressure.” (The term samaya refers to a tantric practitioner’s indelible commitment to the vajra master and the path of sacred outlook.)
Sacred Ground: Jamgon Kongtrul on ‘Pilgrimage and Sacred Geography” ($24.95, cloth) is Kongtrul’s travel guide for the path of awakening through meditation, along with his directions to Kham, in eastern Tibet, where he built his hermitage. In this text, translated from Tibetan for the first time, Kongtrul describes the connections between the outer and inner journeys, and gives instructions for finding specific sacred spots. The translator, Ngawang Zangpo (Hugh Leslie Thompson), a Westerner living in California, has included an account of his own travels to Tsadra while his teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, was living there.
Ngawang Zangpo also translated Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times($29.95, cloth), which contains four different biographies of Padmasambhava, the ninth-century Indian saint who tamed the “red-faced cannibal demons” of Tibet and introduced them to Buddhism. Tibetans revere him as the second Buddha. There are two renditions of Padmasambhava’s life by Jamgon Kongtrul and by Dorje Tso, Padmasambhava’s disciple and contemporary, as well as an account from the Bon point of view by Jamyang Kyentse Wongpo, a master of both Buddhism and Bon, Tibel’s indigenous religion predating Buddhism. The fourth version, by Taranatha, a sixteenth-century Tibetan historian, is based on Indian and early Tibetan documents.
The latest volume in the Tsadra-Snow Lion collaboration is Machig’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod ($29.95, cloth), translated by Sarah Harding of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. This is the first complete English translation of the most famous text on the life and teachings of Machig Labdron, an eleventh-century female saint and yogini. Machig originated Mahamudra Chod, a powerful practice to quell evil, hatred, and negativity by summoning those forces and offering oneself to them. As a Mahayana meditation, it is rooted in the idea of working for others’ liberation and putting their needs before one’s own. In this vivid practice of ultimate generosity, the practitioner visualizes the flesh and blood of her dismembered body being offered to satiate the hungry ghosts, hell beings, and all beings of the six realms. The text also includes the story of Machig’s life, as told to a fourteenth-century holder of her lineage.
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