Our community first experienced the dharma as a bolt of lightning in the night sky. The Vidyadhara emerged in North America as a unique figure who offered ancient dharma as—in his words—fresh baked bread. Students gathered. Before too long it became clear that our teacher wanted us to have access to as much written dharma and practice liturgy as possible. He also made it clear that he wanted his students to be able to study and practice in their own language. On the foundation of this strong, heart-felt desire, he gradually prodded and cajoled a translation committee into existence.
A group of students gathered to learn both the Tibetan language and the art of translation from the Vidyadhara. What brought us together as translators was our love for our teacher and passion for the dharma. Our passion (and probably our aggression and most certainly our ignorance) far outweighed our expertise. At that time, only a few of us had previous training in Tibetan and Sanskrit. The Vidyadhara was the focal point for all our activities, providing us with our vision, choosing the texts for translation, meeting with us, and painstakingly reviewing our preliminary translations. In 1976, with the blessings of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, we gained the invaluable assistance of Lama Ugyen Shenpen, who at that time knew only a little more English than we knew Tibetan.
The work was inspiring but also tough at times, and not conducive to conventional living, even though most of us were trying to hold down semi-regular jobs. In the early days, translation sessions that began in the afternoon might last into the wee hours of the morning, with the Vidyadhara pushing us back up if our energy started to flag. At times we found ourselves not only in argument with each other but in open disagreement with our teacher, which tended to make one’s seat uncomfortable. But the Vidyadhara patiently sat through our endless questions and quibbles, and awakened in us a larger vision of translation.
From 1975 to 1987, the Translation Committee’s initial work included daily chants, the Karma Kagyu ngondro, and the Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara sadhanas. The equally important work of providing examples of realization from our lineage, such as the vajra songs and life stories of great teachers, resulted in The Rain of Wisdom and The Life of Marpa the Translator. As the Vidyadhara’s own life and teachings evolved, we worked with him in translating the unique and special terma of Shambhala that the Vidyadhara received as well as the Shambhala liturgies he composed.
With the Vidyadhara’s death in 1987, the Committee’s work continued under the guidance of Lama Ugyen (photo to right). The major works then translated included the VajrakilayaSadhana and extensive retreat materials, the practice texts and commentaries for the retreatants at Gampo Abbey (guru yogas, mahamudra instructions, commentaries on Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara, the six dharmas of Naropa, and the sadhanas of Avalokiteshvara and Mahakala), the abhisheka texts used by the Vajra Regent and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, as well as many practice manuals. We have also been integrally involved in translating, editing, and publishing the texts and instructions for the mahamudra and ati practices that Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso has been teaching to our community.
The passing of Lama Ugyen in 1994 left a void in our hearts and, while still missing him, we continue to move forward with our work. Since that time we have been fortunate to have the help and guidance of a number of very learned teachers. The Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche and the Venerable Tenga Rinpoche have continued to guide us in the translation of Kagyu texts. Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal and Lama Chonam have taught us and aided our translation work on the Longchen Nyingthik, Konchok Chidu, and Rangjung Pema Nyingthik cycles, In recent years, we have also benefited from the advice of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and Tulku Thondup Rinpoche.
In addition to the work of translating dharma texts, we are involved in many activities that support and encourage the spread of dharma. Some of the behind-the-scenes work we do has included working and consulting with the educational branches of our mandala such as the Shambhala Office of Practice and Education, Vajradhatu Publications, Nitartha Institute, Shambhala Archives, Kalapa Recordings, Vidyadhara Institute, Ngedon School and Naropa University. Part of this has been to help present and teach many of the Buddhist and Shambhala practices and ceremonies central to our community’s culture of meditation. Over the years we have also provided oral interpretation for Tibetan teachers, taught Tibetan language in various venues, developed computer software for the printing of Tibetan texts, and spent much time ensuring the quality of translations through our direct publication of them.
We have much on our plate and much more we would like to do. We see more work ahead than behind us. And not the least of that work will be bringing along new translators, so that the legacy of living dharma that we’ve inherited from India and Tibet and elsewhere can continue to be practiced by anyone in any language.