KUN-ZANG LA-MAY ZHAL-LUNG, Part Two and Part Three Translated and edited by Sonnam T. Kazi
Diamond-Lotus Publishing: Upper Montclair NJ, 1993.
352 pp., $50.00 (hardback).
OCCASIONALLY out of the multitude of books purporting to be translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts that have been published over the last few years, there appears a work that stands out and necessitates a genuine shift in perspective and appreciation. Such a work is the present Kun-zang La-may Zhal-Iung with its introductory title "The Oral Instruction of Kun-zang La-ma on the preliminary practices of Dzog-ch'en Long-ch'en Nying-tig" (whose author, Pal-trul O-gyen Jigme Ch'o-kyi Wang-po Rin-po-ch'e, 1808-1887, modestly claims that it has merely been "transcribed" by him)-a thoughtful and carefully annotated translation by Sonam T. Kazi. Part One (of three) was published in 1989.
On the surface this work might seem to be just another one in the literary genre called Lam-rim, "Stages on the Path" (a sequence of steps that shows one how to overcome obstacles to spiritual growth), with the emphasis on what makes different masters' experience effective. But rather than giving a systematic, dry, scholastic version of the stages, Paltrul's work insists on the actual experiencing of what is involved. In this experiencing, a person's imagination and symbolic awareness playa decisive role, as they alone can break the stalemate into which a mere logical approach tends to lead the individual. However, the moment one attempts to speak about experiencing the near-infinite spectrum of psychic spiritual life, one comes up against the prison bars of words and the treachery of language. This may have been the reason for Pal-trul to modestly call his work a "transcript," thereby disclaiming any "definitive" expression and formulation on his part. On closer inspection, this would have meant that what is recorded has nothing to say and is utterly remote from actual life. Implicitly, however, the characterization of this work as a transcript reflects the level of the transcriber's insight and understanding. Pal-trul's vast understanding and profound insights into the life of the psyche are further underscored by his judicious use of anecdotes and examples taken from actual life situations.
A major part of Pal-trul's work is devoted to a discussion of what is meant by bodhicitta in all its practical ramifications. This Sanskrit word, which the translator has wisely not "translated" (deviating from the current style, which runs the risk of turning an idea of the utmost importance into something inadequate or even absurd) is essentially a term referring to the lived experience of what a human being is in his or her essence. In the language of philosophy it is an ontological concept; in the language oflived experience, it is a concept by intuition that in its richness is inexhaustible and, unlike a concept by postulation, irreducible to a mere logical fiction. Pal-trul's dissertation may well be the most lucid presentation of an extremely intricate topic in the whole of Tibetan literature and is a most powerful tool to stimulate the reader's participation in the movement of thought so that he or she can gain the intuitions necessary for understanding. It is a work that cannot be read for quick and readymade information, but must be worked through with serious thought and meditated upon.
Another outstanding feature of Pal-trul's work is the frank presentation and detailed explication of what is usually claimed to be "secret" and properly withheld from the seeker after truth. The Tibetan word gsang-ba, often misleadingly rendered as "secret" -like the word "secret" in medieval Western mysticalliterature-means that one must have an experience in order to know what is so designated. Once one has had such an experience and has come to know what is meant, one can freely speak from knowledge. Not only is Pal-trul's work an indispensable manual for anyone who wants to make the Buddhist teaching a living experience (simply because the work has been written in an unpretentious style out of its lived experience), it is also a cultural document that is all the more relevant at a time when the very existence of humanity is threatened. In the same way as Pal-trul's presentation of the core problem of Buddhist thought is very personal, so Sonam T. Kazi's translation remains sensitive to the spirit ofPal-trul's work. The annotations provided by the translator are invaluable.
Not only do they reveal his deep understanding of the subject matter, they also correct some long-standing misconceptions about technical terms. Here one wishes that he would have been even more thoroughgoing and had applied his erudition to a much needed clarification of other terms as well (perhaps by avoiding Sanskrit terms and concentrating solely on the Tibetan words). In conclusion: Sonam T. Kazi's translation is a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Buddhist teaching "from within."
Herbert Guenther is the author of more than fifteen books on Tibetan Buddhism. His latest book, Ecstatic Spontaneity, has just been published by Asian Humanities Press.