Saturday, May 28, 2011

Been Serving Leniently, Have You?

Fixing the Peacock Pedestal at Swayambhu Nath
'Phags-pa Shing-kun, Spring 2011)

I spent some time in Nepal at the IBA this Spring reading through a Sakya commentary on the famous 12th-century work, the Mind Training in Seven Topics (Blo-sbyong Don-bdun-ma) by Chekhawa (Mchad-kha-ba). Of course, being that old, the root text is full of those outdated ‘old vocabulary’ items that Tibetans call da-nying (brda’-rnying), which may at times make the reading a little difficult, even if it was quite simple language for people living then. But one line in particular has often been translated so badly it is hard to even begin...  “Do not serve the central object leniently.”

Here’s the line in Wylie:

gzhung bzang po ma bsten /

Now the same in real Tibetan letters:


The main sticking point here is the expression gzhung bzang-po, not found in many dictionaries.* You might want to understand the gzhung to mean a governing center, a capital city, a main textbook for a particular subject, or the like. But when you say that a person has a good gzhung you are referring to her or his long-term character in conjunction with behavior, I think something very like what we mean by integrity in English. In modern Tibetan gzhung bzang seems to be a near-equivalent to gzhung drang, which might mean an ‘honest core,’ which again suggests the English word integrity. Some more recent translators of the Seven Topics have opted for loyalty, which might also work. Others translate as consistency or sense of duty (I’ll have to look more into this and think about it some more; I’m not pretending to cover the whole range of possible translation choices). These other translations aren’t necessarily less right, let alone wrong. I’m not sure enough to pass judgment on them. But yes, choosing one over the other does make a difference in the meaning. 
(*Try the Dag yig gsar bsgrigs [reprinted at least eleven times since 1989], part 5 of the entry for gzhung on pp. 680-681, where gzhung is defined as mi'i rang gshis dang kun spyod kyi ming ste : mi gzhung bzang / khrel gzhung can / mi gzhung drang zhes pa lta bu.)
What I am sure of is that not serving the central object leniently is very, very misleading. To then go on and make a commentary on the English as if it made any sense at all, is wrong on an even deeper level. It simply compounds the error. But then for later translators to simply copy it, or pretend to improve on it by shifting the wording toward a meaning they prefer, is mind-bendingly deceptive for both the translator and the translation consumer. Both we the translators and they the consumers deserve better. 

To translate the commentary passage written by the famous Khampa scholar Ngagga (or Ngogga):

gzhung bzang po ma bsten / zhes pa ni / pha rol pos rang la gnod par byas pa 'khon du bzung nas 'khon 'dzin de las nam yang mi ldog pa / dper na 'jig rten pa'i mi gzhung bzang po can des dus tshod ji tsam song yang rang la ltos pa mi brjed pa dang 'dra bas 'khon 'dzin spangs la ma bsten pa / gnod pa'i lan du slar yang phan 'dogs pa'i bsam sbyor dang ldan par bya'o //
“When the opposing party has done something to injure you that resulted in your holding a grudge against them there is no way you will ever get out of the feuding that will result from it. To give an example, a worldly person who is regarded as one with integrity, no matter how much time has gone by, will never forget his obligations. Therefore give up feuding and don’t make use of it. Rather, in response to injury you must time and again react with good plans about how you can help the other person.”

I imagine that most persons who have sadly found themselves seriously under-exposed to the logic of Lojong won't understand the more subtle point of this commentary, but rather imagine they see a contradiction in it, ‘How can the person of integrity who repays good deeds be used as an example that applies to a person who holds a grudge?’

It’s saying that the person who has harmed you has done you a great favor that needs to be repaid if you are (in fact) a person of good character, and not just what this-world-lings regard as a person of good character. (If you didn’t follow the reasoning here, try reading the commentary again more slowly, or explore its context.)

Lojong is sustained, and even made to thrive, under negative circumstances (rkyen ngan). Its serious practitioners (not those who proudly proclaim themselves practitioners) are beholden to the people who contribute to their attempts to realize non-self, since the bad things done to them serve as expedients on the Path to Enlightenment (lam 'khyer).*
(*One response often heard from the incredulous this-world-ling who first hears about Lojong is, ‘Impossible! This is just inviting people to walk on you!’ While in a sense true, bear in mind that Lojong practitioners are not supposed to let other people know they are practicing it, so it isn't as if they are tempting fate and saying, ‘Go ahead. Come and get me. Give it your best shot!’  Also, they aren’t masochists who seek ego gratification from provoking their own suffering. Everyday life presents ample opportunities. I doubt the truth of this requires much reflection.)
Now when we look back at the root verse and read, perhaps in a new way, the line “Don't make use of a good character,” we are forced to rethink it.

It’s actually telling you not to hold grudges, isn’t it?

There is no contradiction. Still, your understanding heads in one direction, then the other, and back again...  Perhaps the theory that translation is impossible is attempting to prove itself true. Perhaps its very falsehood proves its truth?

Sun setting above Nagarjun Hill
(Glang-ru Lung-bstan-pa)

Here is one of the coolest and most fun Tibetan Buddhism websites ever. No joke! One student told me about it, but it was too difficult for me to access in Nepal. It allows you to instantly compare seven different translations of the Seven Point Mind Training. Go here and try it for yourself. If you want to go directly to this particular line, try pressing here once or twice. Once there, wave your mouse over the seven boxed letters next to the following words "Do not serve the central object leniently." By doing this you will quickly see seven different translations for the line flash in front of your eyes one right after the other. Now try it with some of the other lines and see how consistent (or not) the translations are with each other. One thing you might discover to your amazement is that often people seem to have worked on the English translations that have already been done in the past rather than approaching the Tibetan freshly. This is a shame. But I suppose we are all guilty of it in some degree since our ‘readings’ of the Tibetan texts may be consciously or unconsciously affected by our past readings of translations. I know it has happened to me.

Khenpo Appey (Mkhan-po A-pad Rin-po-che), Blo syong don bdun ma'i bka' khrid, a pamphlet published in Nepal in 45 pages, distributed free of charge, with the date given in the Tibetan Royal era year of 2137, which would correspond to 2010 CE.  On p. 25, you may read what he has to say about our line:

gzhung bzang po ma bsten / ces dper na mi gshis ka bzang po zhig yin na rang la phan btags pa de ga dus yin kyang mi brjed pa sems la nyar sdod kyi red / de bzhin du gnod pa byas pa de 'khon du bzung nas ga dus yang ma brjed par sems kyi nang du nyar sdod kyi red / de lta bu gzhung yun ring du ma bzung zhes pa'i don red //

Khenpo Ngagga (Mkhan-po Ngag-dga’ — the colophon names him as Mkhyen-rab-blo-ldan), Blo sbyong don bdun ma'i rtsa ba'i 'bru 'grel skal bzang rkang drug rol ba'i pad tshal, an unpublished pamphlet based on a computer printout (this might have appeared in a Manduwala 1985 publication that I haven’t seen yet). The author and the late Ven. Khenpo Appey were contemporaries, well known to each other, both being disciples of Ajam Rinpoche.

Chekhawa’s work is certainly to be counted in the handful of Tibetan texts that might be described as most translated, together with the Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Practically every last Tibetan Buddhologist has tried their hand at it, although not quite every attempt resulted in a major Snow Lion or Wisdom publication. I think the interest could be explained in several ways. One is that it is a very popular teaching text employed by Tibetan Buddhist teachers wherever they might be and regardless of their tradition. Another is just the high level of psychological insight it displays, something you appreciate more and more each time you go back to it. How can a text so simply (in its times) and abruptly stated contain such sophisticated understandings of the ways the human mind works? By being so old it defies evolution and makes us consider the possibility that here, at least, intelligent design has been at work.

Note: I used this font converter page to make the unicode Tibetan script out of Wylie input. You can use it, too, especially if Wylie creates obstacles for your reading comprehension.

One alternative text that I located in the Blo sbyong brgya rtsa has the different reading gzhung bzang mi bsten, which I'm tempted to translate — ‘Not all that literally!’ you may object — as ‘Good character (or integrity) isn’t going to cut it.’

Of late Tibetan Buddhists have begun to catch the fever of Translation Studies, which has long been playing in various academic realms. This goes along with huge plans, recently evolving onto a grandiose scale, to translate the entirety of the Tibetan-language Kanjur and Tanjur collections into English, on which we’ll talk some other time, OK?


  1. Dear Martin,
    thank you for a refreshing analyses.
    I would love to hear about your opinions on translating the Kangyur&Tengyur, so if I may, I vote for a high priority if that blog :)
    With best regards,

  2. Dear D.

    Good point about bad translation practice. I wonder if it would be best to think of *gzhung bzang po* as "honour" (or "honor" if you're from the US). According to Khenpo Ngagga's commentary, the line is about the kind of person who holds a grudge and perpetuates a feud in order to save their "good name" (another possible translation?).

    If we do translate *gzhung bzang po* as "good character" maybe it should be in the now-archaic English sense, in which a woman could lose her "good character" if she got involved with a man outside marriage. What's at state is not one's internal state, but how one is perceived in society. So a feud continues because each side is caught up in the mindset "what will people think of me if I don't respond?"

    Just a thought,


  3. Dear S.,

    I'm living in a place that is supposedly characterized by the "honour & shame" complex. And my faculty adviser for my anthropology minor is one of the persons best known for his discussions of this topic in Mediterranean studies. I was thinking to do something about one of those early Tibetan words mkhar-rje (also spelled kha-rje, khar-rje, etc.). I think it may be as close as you can get to the honor concept assumed by so many to be so important here where I am right now (including some people who are here, after all). In the 12th-century-or-so Tibetan texts, mkhar-rje is often coupled with another elusive culturally embedded concept, called ste[s]-dbang. But still, I'm not exactly sure that the Tibetan concept of honor here would be the same as what you find among Cretan goat thieves. You think?

    Thanks for your comment. I'm unable to argue against it. But I may try to keep the feud going anyway.


  4. I think you're right. "Honour" carries too much cultural (and academic) baggage to lug it across the Himalayas to Tibet. And as you say, other terms would be better candidates if you did want to use that particular word. But the prevalence of ongoing feuds -- across generations -- in Kham is clear from the biographical literature, isn't it? (I'm thinking right now of Patrul and Kongtrul, even though they are far removed in time from the text in question here; you can probably think of better examples.)

    But it is interesting that the term "good character" carries something of the same meaning across cultures, isn't it? It seems to me a nice example of the wisdom of Chekawa and his tradition that they are willing to turn this idea on its head and suggest that it might not be such a good thing to be attached to one's own "good character" -- it might in fact be harmful to oneself and others. It's also a nice example of the application of Buddhist insights to a local situation-- local enough to cause trouble for modern translators.


  5. The honor+shame complex as it exists in some degree still today in some parts of the part of the world I find myself in is very much family based and concentrated primarily on controlling access to the women (and more directly controlling the women themselves). In that stricter sense of the word 'honor' I don't think it would have the right reverberations in our context.

    But 'honorable person' might just work OK.

    There's that wonderful irony of [1] holding a grudge and [2] remembering a favor being considered very largely identical to each other (both forms of 'getting back' at someone), and that's what provokes reflection and second thoughts here according to my point of view (which might change in another minute if I don't quickly press that "Post Comment" button).

  6. But what about the etymo-tibeto-logic of ma bsten ?

    As always,

  7. What of it, Tan-tan? Have a nice logical explication do you?

    As ever,

  8. Still thinking about it, and will continue. My brand of Tibeto "Logic" doesn't aim to lead people (both self and others) into those dead ends — sometimes known as "solutions" — that cut off further reflection. Should I change brands?

    At the moment I'm thinking that even if using the term might seem a tad anachronistic, that what's at issue in this perplexingly simple line is what a modern anthropologist would call 'social reciprocity.'

    I think the Wiki entry on the subject:

    is very interesting for 2 reasons: [1] since it foregrounds the possibility that it may involve returning bad with bad, and not only good with good and [2] since it resolutely cuts off the concept of reciprocity from any idea of altruism... Which is as it should be, I'm thinking.

    I think that's very much what this Lojong statement's all about. I apologize (if apologies are necessary) if this seems counter-evolutionist of me to say so, but personally I have found that I find more wisdom/insight in Chekhawa than I find in the works of recent social scientists, particularly in matters that touch on human emotions and inter-relationships.

  9. That American (?) expression, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours!" defines reciprocity very succinctly. As a phrase it seems to go back to the 18th century, perhaps coined already in the 16th by by Montaigne (who wasn't an American, of course) as some say it was (nobody seems to want to supply us with a quote from him, however). In any case, Elvis didn't invent it.

    One good turn deserves another, indeed! Tit for tat. Quid pro quo.

  10. Yes, I tend to think that your insight (and here I'd like to refer the reader to truly discloses the deep issue here. The rather more superficial (or, say, elemental) aim of my question was to gain some additional insight into the difficult terrain of translation in general (so promisingly mentioned by you at the end of your text!). So, seizing the day and taking the line at hand as an enterance to the larger field, I just wanted to hear what your soundings as to the basic sense - etymology, that is - of the variously understood verb sten pa of the Tibetan language might be - could it be that we find in it some resonance or reference to something shaping and ‘informing‘ it, to ston pa or, say, rten pa - just for example. And so a way of thinking of - or even in - Tibetan language. To be free to be accurate. And, as a further line of inquiry, what wider implications could be concealed (and / or revealed) in the use - here - of the so called past (or future) verb form bsten with the negating ma ? Just complicated simple things ?

    Again and again,

  11. Dear T-T,

    Yes, I've often been puzzled by the distinctions between (and confused usage of) the verbs brten-pa and bsten-pa, since generally there would be no way to distinguish their pronunciation. But I think clearly the first (present: rten) has a sense of relying on something that is somehow supposed to be supportive, while the 2nd (present: sten) seems more likely to be used in the sense of 'resorting to' or 'seeking assistance from' or 'attend upon' [a teacher, a doctor, etc.). And unlike the 1st it seems to take direct objects, isn't that so?

    So the usual reading for our line, ma bsten I would take to be a future form acting as an imperative. The main problem with this way of reading (or reading through) is the form of the negative, the ma, which would have to be mi if it were a future... So we would have to fix it to either ma sten or mi bsten, wouldn't we? For the latter form at least we have one testimony in one version of the text... Is this the king of thing you're talking about?

  12. Well, yes; something along these lines.

    The trust, so to say, in the first, rten pa, would seem to be based on some kind of stability that is already there while the that of the second, sten pa, would seem to be in need of some confirmation.

    Since sten pa seems to be used in the sense of seeking guidance it might make one to think of ston pa, as well.

    But to get the sentence in question in perpective I tried to look for some ‘original’ versions of the lines of blo sbyong gi dam tshig. This far I managed to find just one ( To provoke further questions it seems to be enough. But I cannot claim to have found any answers.


  13. Dear T&t,

    Of course I meant 'kind of thing' instead of the "king of thing" in my latest comment. The typo is rather funny anyway, you think?

    Definitely the sten-pa involves more active involvement and initiative on the part of the subject performing the action (as those 's' superscript forms of verbs tend to do). In my understanding rten-pa is just the tha-mi-dad-pa (nondifferentiated subj.-obj.), while sten-pa is the tha-dad-pa (differentiated subj./obj.) of the 'same' verb.

    I think the verb ston-pa (to teach, to show) must form a pair with the verb 'don-pa (to extract, to expose to view), although both are supposed to be tha-dad-pa, and even though 'don-pa has the form typical of a tha-mi-dad-pa verb (there are similar such exceptions here and there).

    Cheerios! I'm off to another side of the globe for a change. Be back before you know it.


  14. PS. Hope you are enjoying the Saga Dawa holy day. I've been abstaining from the bad stuff, as we must, and will go out to see the empty moon tonight.

  15. Thanks, indeed !

    Good sight-seeings !


  16. Just to add a note: There is a wonderful new book by Ga Rabjampa Künga Yeshé, translated by Rigpa Translations and published by Wisdom called To Dispel the Misery of the World: Whispered Teachings of the Bodhisattvas. This translates (on p. 166) the words of the root text as "Don't be so loyal to the cause." and comments: "'We must not continue to hold grudges based on the harm others do to us."*

    *There is a footnote that explains further: "For example, a good-natured person will keep in mind all the benefit they have received, no matter when it occurred, without forgetting it. In a similar way, we might harbor resentment, keeping in mind all the harms that have been done to us and never forgetting them. The meaning here is that we should not hold on to things for a long time in that sense. In other words, we should not bear grudges."

  17. And another note:

    I just received a copy of the Chödung Karmo Translation Group's translation of Khenchen Appey Rinpoche's Cultivating A Heart of Wisdom: Oral Instructions on the Mind Training in Seven Points, and I see there on p. 44, they deal with our line like this:

    — “Do not maintain inappropriate loyalty.” —

    “An inappropriately loyal person will, for instance, never forget the good they have received from others, but will also keep engraved in his mind the harm others have done to him, holding a grudge no matter how long it has been. This verse means that we should not keep such records for a long time.”

    Close, to be sure, but I'm not sure they've got it 100%. The way they put it it sounds as if remembering past favors is not quite as interesting or serious as remembering past slights. I think both are regarded as equally unproductive here.


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