More Precious Than Gold Dust

Barbara Stewart

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.

Barbara Stewart is a journalist living in New York City. A student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she is a longtime member of Shambhala International.

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