FROM MASSES OF ABLE AND WILLING DHARMA TRANSLATORS TO AN ELITE ‘SELECT FEW’: The ‘translation-school ‘ methods of the ancient Buddha Dharma translators during the four main eras of the 900-year period of intensive translation in China (17th Karmapa January 2023, Day Two)

“In the olden days, merely being able to speak and read the language was not enough to translate it. The translator was required to have a great and deep understanding of the meaning of the text to be translated. They had to have that sort of person. In particular, the translator had to be learned in the three baskets of scriptures — the Vinaya, the sutras, and the Abhidharma — and also learned in both sutra and tantra.”

The reason why this was necessary is because the main (or great, chenpo which is easier to say in Tibetan) the  translator and interpreter did not merely have to translate the original text into a different language….they also needed to explain the complete meaning of the text to all of their student assistants. That is the reason we talk about them as a ‘translation school’ (Chinese: yì chǎng; Tibetan: Gyur Dra).

“They did not just go there to translate but because the master also explained the meaning. So many monastics and laypeople wanted to get the new Dharma teachings and wanted to hear teachings on a new Sutra or Treatise, so they would come in hordes and droves to these Dharma schools. There would be hundreds or thousands of people. So it was mainly related to the fame and renown of the great/main translator.  If it was a very renowned translator then many people would gather. If they were not so renowned then not many people would come.”

–17th Karmapa (Day Two, January 2023)


On Day Two of the 17th Karmapa’s online teachings on Mind-Only in China (video here), the Karmapa gave an unparalleled insight from a Tibetan Buddhist lineage head, into the ‘translation school’ method used for the ancient translations from Sanskrit-Chinese in China, where a foreign pandita/main translator, together with an oral interpreter, scribe, editor and team of translator students and helpers who would listen to the teachings from the great master. Unlike in Tibet, and nowadays, where there would be just one main translator and a great teacher, or a translator working mainly on their own.

The 17th Karmapa first began with a brief historical overview of when Tibetans began translating the Indian Dharma texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan and the introduction of the Tibetan script (sometimes called the Bhoti language after its inventor, Thonmi Sambhota), through the eras of various Tibetan Kings and the publication of the first Sanksrit-Tibetan dictionary, Mahāvyutpatti.

This was followed by an extensive explanation of the first three of the four main eras of Chinese translation, and their ‘translation school’ teaching and translation methodologies. This section of the teaching focused on the great (or main) translators and their translations from those eras. Amazingly, there were hundreds, and even thousands of people in these teaching-translation ‘schools’. One of the reasons there were such huge numbers of people involved was because the main translators who came to China were great Indian paṇḍita masters, and many people were eager to see them teach the new Buddha Dharma. If the master did not speak Chinese, they used oral interpreters.

These numbers dwindled greatly during the time of the 7th Century Tang Xuanzang though, due to the introduction of ‘picking the best assistants’ and having gatekeepers to prevent others coming and translating and asking questions. Although the 17th Karmapa did not mention this as a possibility, this could also have been the time of an increased control and elitism in Chinese Dharma translation, with so-called ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘time-wasters’ being excluded, perhaps not always for the right reasons.

 In my view, as we know, sometimes those who ask the most important, or deep questions, may be accused of being disrespectful to those who regard their teacher with worldly or blind faith eyes, as I myself have personally experienced (see footnote for some recent examples) [i].  Yet, as the 17th Karmapa himself admitted in this teaching, Tibetan Buddhist lamas these days very rarely have to face the public questions and debates of western scholar-translators, including the 17th Karmapa himself.

These days, such massive numbers of eager and qualified translators willing to do such activities for no payment are a thing of the past. In fact, a heavily funded Khyentse Foundation translation project recently struggled to attract and find such qualified translators, and even had to set up a translator school,  and offer them funding to get them involved. As I mentioned in my Youtube introduction to Dakini Translations, the rise of big Dharma Inc. translation projects where huge numbers of paid staff (including administrators), many of whom would not voluntarily do such activities without payment, is the norm.

One of the reasons for this, in my own personal experience as a translator, could be the struggle to inspire translators with the efforts of qualified teachers to assist them. For example, finding a Khenpo or Geshe to help translate even just a few terms in a text, never mind a whole text itself, is not easy at all! They all seem too busy with other affairs to help translate a text. Forget about holding major teachings sessions on a text where the teacher is asked many questions and it is debated by all those listening!

Another reason for the lack of willing and able voluntary qualified translators could also be a mix of sexism, misogyny and male gatekeeping and jealousy of able women scholars and translators by the male ‘experts’/gatekeepers, as I have spoken and written about here. After all, the histories of China and Tibet do not mention women or nuns as being members of these translation schools, or as main Lotsawas (like Marpa) in their own right.  For example, even the 17th Karmapa (despite his public and practical support for nuns and women) did not acknowledge that the whole teaching-translation system was patriarchal and male-dominated (and is still, even these days), evidenced by the total lack of female lotsawas until as recently as the 20th Century, one of the first being the 16th Karmapa’s translator, Fred Bedi/Gelongma Palmo, for more on her, see here. This is clearly a major blindspot among the male Khenpos, Geshes, and even Rinpoches.

In defence of contemporary translators, such as myself, although I do not have such amazing qualities as the great Lotsawas (Chinese and Tibetan) of the past, nor hundreds of willing and able helpers (if only!), the many excellent dictionaries, libraries, resources and facilities available to scholars and translators these days is certainly much greater than it was in Ancient India or China, and so accurate and high-quality translations are also easier to produce.

In any case, the 17th Karmapa’s unique teaching on these ancient Chinese Buddhist translation methods is fascinating indeed. The textual sources for knowing about the translation methods during these time periods though were not clearly stated. It seems the Karmapa used old Chinese dynasty histories. It is a great reminder and homage to the work of some of those great Chinese translators (and their anonymous helpers), who at that time had no internet, no phones, no planes, no cars, no dictionaries etc. and the extraordinary interest and energy they showed in translating the Buddha Dharma not only for their own benefit but also for Chinese speakers and readers. One could imagine and feel that excitement, energy and abundance of learning and Dharma in these translation schools and what an amazing time it would have been to be a translator and scholar! Where is the time-travel machine?

So may this article and transcript of the 17th Karmapa’s teaching also inspire people to see the major benefit and value in high-quality academic standard translation (in particular women who have been unfairly ‘excluded’ from such activity) and how it not only helps many Buddhist followers in the present, but also leaves a lasting legacy for the future too.

Music? It’s Only Words by Boyzone and Lost in Translation by The Neighbourhood.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 25th January 2023.


“I want to speak about the ancient translation methods in general. The reason is because these days, we have many scriptures (Sutras and Treatises) by Paṇḍitas that we can read. The fact it is so easy to read them is because of all the hard work of translators, both modern and ancient.  It is important to remember this.

On the other hand, the project of translating scriptures is not at all easy. Merely knowing another language is not enough to mean one can begin translating. In order to translate a scripture, one has to have many different skills and facilities. There are many points we have to be extremely careful and diligent about. For example, I myself over the last few years, have tried to translate a few texts on my own.  Yet, when I read the translations by ancient masters, I feel a little bit embarrassed by thinking I can actually translate this. It is actually kind of terrifying that someone such as me could translate any scriptures. So, for myself, for these reasons I have a particular feeling and interest in translation. If I speak about this with you all, it will give you some new learning and appreciation too. It will help in that way.

The Beginning of Tibetan translations of Buddha-Dharma

Generally, in China, the scriptures were translated several hundred years earlier than they were into Tibetan.  Chinese translation of Buddhist scriptures began around the beginning of the 1st century CE. In Tibet, when did the Dharma spread? There are different dates claimed. There is an Emperor in the Tibetan dynasty called Lha Thothori Nyan Tsan (ལྷ་ཐོ་ཐོ་རི་གཉན་བཙན་) [said to be 28th King of Tibet] and some say it began during his time.

King Songsten Gampo era and introduction of Tibetan (Bhoti) script by Thonmi Sambhota
Statue of Tibetan King, Songsten Gampo, in front of the Songsten Gampo library in Dehra Dun.
The inscription pillar (rdo rings) at Samye monastery. It is standing up against the east wall of the great temple. The inscription is the earliest document relating to Buddhism in Tibet. This photograph shows the base of the pillar. Photo: Hugh RIchardson (1949).

“However, the most reliable sources say that the Buddha dharma teachings spread to Tibet during the time of Emperor Songtsen Gampo  (སྲོང་བཙན་སྒམ་པོ, 569–649/650) based on evidence such as the pillar at Samye and other ancient manuscripts, as well as other evidence. These are good sources for this assertion. In particular, if we look at the time of Songtsen Gampo, as it is described in the Tang Dynasty histories and other texts, they state that Thonmi Sambhota (ཐོན་མི་སམ་བྷོ་ཊ།, b. seventh cent.) developed a writing system for Tibetan (and other Himalayan languages).”

“Before Thonmi Sambhota, there was Tibetan spoken language but no Tibetan writing. These days, they say it is the Bhoti writing, not just Tibetan, for all the different Himalayan regions that use it, like Bhutan. Who created that Bhoti yig writing system? Master Thonmi. Many of these ancient histories are described in the Tang Dynasty histories.

Later, there was some debate about whether or not it was actually Thonmi Sambhota who developed this system or not. Although in the Tang Dynasty histories it says it was developed by Thonmi Sambhota. Due to his kindness in doing that, it became the basis for developing Tibetan translations. Without a writing system there can be no written translations.”

King Trisong Detsen era, Guru Padmasambhava and Samye Monastery
Guru Padmasambhava

“Then, in the 8th century, during the reign of King Trisong Detsen, they invited many Indian masters, including Santarakshita and Padmasambhava. They also invited Hashang Mahayana from China at this time, and they built Samye temple. It was also the period when the first Tibetans went forth as monks. A translation centre was established at Samye monastery, for the work of translating dharma into Tibetan. In that Samye centre they translated quite a few different scriptures into Tibetan.

At that time, when they were translating scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, they took great interest in it and regarded it very highly. For example, they had to have an Indian pandita and a Tibetan translator work together, then the translation would be read aloud by an editor-translator back to the Indian pandita to check it. Until the translation was deemed complete and correct, they could not just disseminate it as they wished.”

Tang Dynasty influence on Tibetan translation?
Portrait painting of Emperor Gaozu (born Li Yuan, 566–635), the first Tang Emperor.

“At that time, there was a great connection between the Tang Dynasty [唐朝was an imperial dynasty of China that ruled from 618 to 907 AD] and Tibet. Thus, when they began translating from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in China they had already been translating Sanskrit and other Indian languages into Chinese, so they had some experience. So, I think the Tibetans adopted established methods from the Chinese translation system and used them in their translations.  However, in the histories there is no clear evidence the Tibetans did that and took that as their model. It is my thought they did because there is a great connection between the Tang dynasty and Tibet. I think they must have definitely given them some translation training.”

King Tride Songsten and the first Sanskrit-Tibetan Dictionary, Mahāvyutpatti and Tibetan texts on grammar
Detail from the title page of an old manuscript copy of the Mahāvyutpatti an ancient Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicon. Scan made by Chris Fynn from a manuscript in 2001.

“At that time, many Indian panditas and Tibetan translators gathered together and they produced a Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary (Skt. Mahāvyutpatti: Tib. Bye-brag-tu rtogs-par byed-pa chen-po The Great Volume of Precise Understanding or Essential Etymology), which is in the Tibetan Tengyur (see image). They also wrote two texts on grammar, and a text on dharma terminology. So, they had these three different sorts of Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionaries.   In particular, the two texts on grammar explain the methods to be used when translating into Tibetan from Sanskrit. At this time, there was an edict from the king which said they could not be done in any way, that finally settled the matter as to which method could be used. Many different situations are described in this text.   The time these two grammar texts developed was during the time of Tride Songtsen (ཁྲི་ལྡེ་སྲོང་བཙན, 761-815), also known by his nickname Senalek Jingyön (སད་ན་ལེགས་མཇིང་ཡོན་) the son of Trisong Detsen. We know this because the two texts on grammar state, “previously during the reign of my father”, I think this means king Tride Songtsen’s father, Trisong Detsen.

A stone pillar with an inscription commemorating Senalek stand in the burial ground of the Tibetan kings near ‘Phyong-rgas. It is partially illegible but confirms a number of historical events. It is of importance in dating Sadnalegs’ reign as it states that warfare with China began when he took power. Photo: Hugh Richardson (1949) .

“There was also an old Dharma history called the Deu Dharma History and the dictionary is also mentioned in there. Basically, the time when these two texts were written was during the 9th Century.  Also, there is the old Pangtangma and Denkarma catalogues that list all the texts that were translated during Imperial times. The Pangtangma lists the two Tibetan texts on grammar but the Denkarma does not. So, there is a difference there. I think we can estimate from that when the texts were written. This still needs to be researched. There is also a third catalogue called the Chimpu catalogue. However, that catalogue is no longer extant, it has been lost.

These two catalogues list many of the names of the texts, but if we ask is this a list of all the texts that were translated into Tibetan, they probably are not. The Pangtangma is a list of all the texts that were contained within the Pangtang Palace, while the Denkarma catalogue lists the texts in the Denkarma palace. This is what most modern researchers say.  So, they are lists of texts within those palaces.

Later, if I have the opportunity, I will speak more about Tibetan translations. Today, I will speak about the Chinese translation methods. The reason for this, is as I mentioned yesterday, we are speaking about how Tang Xuanzang translated the Thirty Verses by Vasubandhu and its commentaries into Chinese.”


“When we speak about translators and translation, these days, one person works on a translation. This is the most common method. A single translator. There are few situations where many people gather and translate together in groups. When there is a book being translated, it is normally one person who translates it. However, this was not the case in ancient China when they were translating the texts into Chinese.

How do we identify the time of the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese? It began from the era of the Han dynasty at the end of the 2nd century CE and continued into the 11th century CE during the Sung dynasty era, a period of approximately 900 years.  There was:

  1. the Han dynasty era
  2. the brief period before the Sui dynasty era
  3. the Sui and Tang dynasty eras
  4. Then there is the Sung dynasty era.

Today, I will speak about the situations during the Han dynasty, the period before the Sui dynasty and the Sui and Tang dynasty. There is not time to speak about the Sung dynasty today.

During this ancient period of translation of 900 years, what was the method they used? They had what was called a ‘translation school’. Like we have different departments in monasteries, puja, retreat or study department, similarly they had translation schools: a school or a place where they engaged in translation.  The method was they would make a place to do the translation and have a building and an area where a lot of people would gather, and they would divide the roles of people and have a strict division of the work.  Thus, the translations were done where a lot of people gathered together. Unlike today, where one or two people worked on a translation.”

  1. The way of translating during the Han dynasty and the importance of mastery of the texts by the main translator

“It was during the Han dynasty[i] that the Dharma began to spread from India into China.  During the 900 years of translation, they had to have a leader and most of the leaders, were not actually Chinese. Most of them were panditas and acharyas from India and the “western regions”. In Chinese they call them the western regions (shi yu), which means not just in the West but a particular word in Chinese that refers to all the areas to the West of China, including Tibet and other areas. Some of these people from the ‘West’ were monastics, others were laypeople.

The main translators were mainly Indians or from the ‘western’ regions.  Few were native Chinese. Later, the first translators who appeared were Xuanzang from the Tang dynasty and Master Paramātha Yijing. Other than that, most were not Chinese. Most of these translators came from abroad and did not speak any Chinese. So, they had to have an oral ‘interpreter’ in Chinese: (Chuányǔ) So when they spoke in Sanskrit the other person would interpret it to translate it into Chinese. Normally, when we think of a translator, we don’t think of someone who does not even know the language. One would probably wonder if they have a master who does not speak Chinese, how can they translate into Chinese? So, I want to speak more about the methods on this to clarify that.

In ancient times, if the text was in Sanskrit, then it was not enough for a translator to merely know and read Sanskrit to be qualified. These days, many foreigners (and westerners) they know a little bit of Tibetan, they can read and speak it OK, then immediately they begin to translate. Sometimes a text on mind-training, or something a little bit more difficult, and they translate this and are very confident. In the olden days, merely being able to speak and read the language was not enough to translate it. The translator was required to have a great deep understanding of the meaning of the text to be translated. They had to have that sort of person.

In particular, the translator had to be learned in the three baskets of scriptures — the Vinaya, the sutras, and the Abhidharma — and also learned in both sutra and tantra. The reason why this was necessary is because the main (or great, chenpo which is easier to say in Tibetan) the  translator and interpreter did not merely have to translate the original text into a different language. In addition, they also had many assistants helping them with the translations. So they also needed to explain the complete meaning of the text to all of their helpers. The reason we talk about a translation school, in Chinese it is yì chǎng. In Tibetan, we say Gyur Dra. The second syllable chǎng means a school, or monastery, where the dharma is taught and dharma activities are performed. It was not merely translating the texts but also they had to be able to teach the meaning of the text. So, it was a Dharma teaching centre. Thus, a “translation school” here is a Dharma college where translation is done. In other words, it is a dharma college where one engages in translation. The method was to both translate and teach.

“This method began during the first period of translating from Sanskrit into Chinese at the time of the Han emperor Huandi (146–168 CE) when Ān Shìgāo (安世高) a master from the western region of Parthia (in present-day Iran) came there [2]. At that time there were quite a few Dharma translators in Parthia. He was a master from that region. We don’t know if he was a monastic or layperson. In any case, at that time, he translated the Sutra on the Aggregates, Elements, and Sense Bases (Yīn chí rù jīng).  While he was doing that, he also explained the meaning of the text.

Another reason why the translator had to have mastery of that Sutra was because the assistant translators were allowed to ask any questions or raise any doubts that they might have. The assistant translators were allowed to give the main translators a challenging time with questions.  Sometimes they would also disagree with their interpretations, and quite a few gave refutations. In brief, all the people assisting the main translator had to debate with them.

For example, among the many translators who appeared in China, one of the most important was Kumārajīva from the west. He was translating the Prajnaparamita in 100,000 Lines and the Treatise Proving the Truth (Satyasiddhi-śāstra), and several times there were discussions and debates with his assistants.

Likewise, the translator Dharmarakṣa (in Tibetan: Chosung) translated the MahaParinirvāṇa Sūtra, which was translated into Tibetan from the Chinese. At that time, there were over a hundred people helping him who challenged him a lot. Dharmarakṣa was unable to continue translating and had to stop.

 That is both an example and evidence that if the main translator did not completely understand the meaning of the text or lacked confidence, they would be unable to resolve everyone’s doubts, and would have a difficult time during the debates.

As another example, during the 5th century CE, a monk named Dàotài from Hashi had translated the Treatise of the Great Being and Introduction to the Mahayana, but he wanted to, but did not dare to translate the Great Exposition of Abhidharma (Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā-śāstra).

Later,  Buddhavarman who came from India to China, then Dàotài invited him to serve as the main translator while Dàotài and 300 other helpers were the assistants. They gathered together and they translated the Great Exposition. So why did Dàotài invite Buddhavarman? He was able to translate, and was thoroughly familiar with the former two treatises, he had not completely mastered the meaning of the third and so he did not dare to translate it. So later, when a master came from India, he requested that he translate it.

So, we might also think that we should just sit there and do the translation. Why is it necessary to teach dharma while working on a translation? Also, what point is there to doing debate while translating? There are reasons for this. For a dharma practitioner, teaching dharma is a responsibility.  In particular, to teach the nature of the dharma to the public so that it dispels all people’s internal sufferings, is the responsibility of a Dharma practitioner. We do not need to explain that too much. Yet, why is it also necessary to debate? The reason why is because in the ancient Indian tradition, when dharma was taught, the listeners would pose questions to the teacher.

For example, when the Buddha taught the Great Sutra on Mindfulness of Inhalation and Exhalation (AnnapannaSatti Sutra). In this Sutra, at that time when he was teaching, no one asked him any questions at all, yet many Sutras are question and answers. Shariputra, or Ananda, or maybe Manjushri would stand up and prostrate to the Buddha and the Buddha would give an answer. At that time, no-one asked a question so the Buddha had no choice but to emanate a second Buddha from his own body so that one Buddha could ask questions while the other answered.

By having this mutual discussion and debate, it is said that the students could gain an even better understanding of the scriptures than before. So we can see that this way of teaching of the Dharma is a very ancient tradition.  These days, the teacher sits on the throne and teach and there is not much question and answer. Among Tibetans there are very few such debates but it was not like that in ancient India.”

Ān Shìgāo. 2nd Century, considered to be one of the first Sanksrit-Chinese Dharma translators

“The true Dharma spread from India to China, and as it was spread the ancestral teaching style came along with it too. So, as I said before, when Ān Shìgāo was translating the Sutra on the Aggregates, Elements, and Sense Bases (Yīn chí rù jīng) if people had any questions, he immediately answered them. This is the method he used because it was the tradition of ancient Indian scholars.

Likewise, when the Dharma first spread from India into China, discussion and debate was very important. The reason for that is there was no Dharma scriptures in Chinese, they were mostly written in Sanskrit or other Indo-Aryan languages and there were very few Chinese people who could read those languages. Ān Shìgāo knew Chinese very well, so he was able to explain them in Chinese and people could gain understanding of what the Sutra was teaching.

Among the Dharma listeners some of them wrote down each and every word of the scriptures that were taught orally, and in this way, they were able to compile a translation into Chinese. So, for the first scripture translated into Chinese, the translator interpreted it orally and then after the translated text appeared in Chinese. People then read it in great detail and they studied it and were able to teach the dharma in Chinese. So the foundation for spreading the Dharma was the translated text in Chinese.

“Later, during the reign of the Han emperor Lingdi, there were two translators called Lokakṣema (支婁迦讖Zhī Lóujiāchèn, 147-189, was a Kushan Buddhist monk from Gandhara who traveled to China) [iii] and An Xuan (安玄; Ānxuán) arrived from Western India and Parthia, respectively. Both knew Chinese well, so they engaged in translation work and began translating and teaching the dharma in Chinese. At that time, if there was another master from abroad who did not speak Chinese, such as from India or the Western regions, they would teach the scriptures as interpreters.

For example, there was an Indian master called in Chinese, Shuòfú, (I have not translated this name) who translated the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhâvasthita-samādhi-sūtra. [ “Sūtra on the Samādhi for Encountering Face-to-Face the Buddhas of the Present” 般舟三昧經; Bozhōu Sānmèi Jīng;] At that time, Lokakṣema served as the oral interpreter. He was also an Indian.  That is probably the earliest text to have been translated with an Indian master explaining through a Chinese interpreter.

From that day forward, even if a master did not speak Chinese, the dharma could be taught in China. The Chinese would continue translating scriptures through this method, with each and every syllable explained, teaching and translating the dharma together, establishing a tradition over the course of 900 years.  So, the reason they were able to teach the Dharma then was because they had oral interpreters. Likewise, because of the many teachings the masters who came gave, they were able to translate many scriptures into Chinese.

Two main advantages of the translation school method

“This was like the beginning of translating. So, this method was established that was used over the course of 900 years. So they combined teaching and translating the dharma together, and gave explanations of each syllable of the words/text.  There are two obvious advantages of doing this.

  1. Chinese and Sanskrit work very differently, so this  is a method where they could resolve doubts about terminology and the subtle meanings.

So Buddhist philosophy came out of India and then spread to China. So it was a new philosophy. The Chinese and Sanskrit languages are completely different with no resemblance at all. Sanskrit uses an alphabet that can be pronounced by reading, however Chinese does not.

There are two main difficulties when translating Buddhist philosophy into Chinese: translation of the terminology and understanding the subtle points and meanings of Buddha Dharma.

To overcome these two difficulties, before doing the translation, they would explain each of the Sanskrit words.  After doing that, then they would have debate so that understandings could be compared and discussed, and the subtle points made clear. As they discussed this, the benefit was that the translated scriptures in Chinese were very close to the original, and also precise and detailed with regard to each single syllable. If they had not spent all that time and effort and just translated it in any way, then it is not certain they would be close to the original and no guarantee that the translated words could communicate the same meaning as the original words.

2. Those who listened were able to master the text and become teachers themselves

The second advantage was that when translating, sometimes they would teach and sometimes debate. As a result, within that ‘translation school’ it was the same as taking classes from the master. He would explain each and every word of a given text. As you don’t have experience in translation, then maybe you don’t have any feeling for this. However, as I have done a little bit of translation, I have a real appreciation for this. When someone is just reading a text as usual if you don’t understand a word or two, it can be skipped. There is no big problem. However, when one is translating it into another language, if you don’t understand every single syllable or word of the original then you cannot translate it. Understanding every single word is not very easy either. One needs to be able to explain every word and express the meaning. This is not easy at all.  At that time, it was really important to check the different manuscripts because if you can look and compare it with other manuscripts and then can see where it is mistaken and understand that. So it is really important to have different manuscripts. In that way it is not at all easy to understand and explain each word of a text. So when these translators were engaging in translation, then all the people at that time would give the explanation of every single word from the beginning to the end of the text to the students gathered there. So that people who were listening got very good understanding and training.

Later, they became able to teach the dharma to others.  First, the Indian masters would explain it and then they would translate it and then the people who later teach the Dharma were those who had translated the dharma in that ‘translation school’.

For example, the monk Fǎ chéng who had been an assistant to the Indian pandita Dharmarakṣa and studied the Sūtra of the Wheel of No Reversions with him. So, he had completely mastered the meaning of the words of the text and was able to translate it.  Likewise, there was Zhìsōng, who was the original translator of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. He had once been an assistant to the main translator Buddharaksha. So what this shows, in brief, is that in the ‘translation school’  they all became able to teach and explain the Dharma. The reason was because there was able to give excellent explanations of the meaning of each word. So everyone who was there was able to teach the Dharma.  So the methods of the translation school served two functions: translating Sanskrit scriptures into Chinese, and producing people who realized the meaning of the scriptures and then were able to teach the Dharma to others. The students asked the main translators about the meaning of the text and clarified doubts, but they also had other responsibilities which included taking notes.

Within the translation schools, Chinese students who did not know any foreign languages would study dharma texts written in Sanskrit or other languages. First, the main translator would read the text in the original language once. After that, the text would be translated orally into Chinese. If the main translator did not know Chinese, then an interpreter would orally translate. Then a particular student would be appointed the scribe (bǐ shòu), with the responsibility of documenting the oral Chinese in written notes. The scribe would transcribe each and every syllable that the main translator or the interpreter translated orally.

This transcription by the scribe was just the first step. The main translator would also explain each word that the scribe had transcribed, and the listeners would question or debate each word. Finally, once everyone present resolved all doubts, the translation would be finalized. For example, when Paramārtha translated various Mind Only texts during the Chén dynasty, it was said, “we debated each word repeatedly as we translated.”

  1. The period before the Sui Dynasty – the Northern and Southern Dynasties and the translator, Kumārajīva

“The Sui Dynasty period is what they call the great conferences, or discussions on Dharma and the method they used. However, in the three hundred years before the Sui dynasty, China became fragmented, and during that period China was called the Northern and Southern dynasties.

“Throughout that time, Dharma had spread into different areas of the north and south had their own translation schools, in which a few hundred to a thousand people participated. For example, the most well-known translator of that period was  Kumārajīva (摩罗什; Jiūmóluóshí; 344–413 CE. This is the period when he went to China. So how many assistants did he have? He had 3000 assistants. Like when we have the Kagyu Guncho, we have around 1000 people participating in the Guncho, so it is three times that many.  With so many 3000 students coming, how did they do the actual work? When one is doing translation, one has to do work, one cannot just gather together.  The answer to that question one has to first understand why so many people gathered together in the first place.  They did not just go there to translate but because the master also explained the meaning. So many monastics and laypeople wanted to get the new Dharma teachings and wanted to hear teachings on a new Sutra or Treatise, so they would come in hordes and droves to these Dharma schools. There would be hundreds or thousands of people. So, it was mainly related to the fame and renown of the great/main translator.  If it was a very renowned translator then many people would gather. If they were not so renowned then not many people would come.

As Kumārajīva was renowned and when he was living in Guangzhong, he had 3000 students who came from various different regions of China and go to a lot of effort to come to where he was teaching. As he was very renowned and learned, many people liked to listen to the Dharma from him. So for that reason, people came continuously in large numbers to see him.”

Kumārajīva in front of Kizil Caves, Kuqa, Xinjiang, China. Photo: Yoshi Canopus.

“Other translations schools also had many students, in the area of Huzhi there was a translator, Dharmarakṣa who had 500 students, Guṇabhadra in Jiāngdōng had 700 people in his school. Then there was Bodhiruci  in Luòyáng, who had over 1000 students. In any case, wherever one went at that time, there were hundreds and thousands of people in the translation schools throughout Northern and Southern China, and they were flourishing at that time.

So now another question, if there are so many people coming, and they do all they can to get there and listen, so what benefit does it have to the actual translation of the text?  The students asked the main translators about the meaning of the text and clarified doubts, but they also had other responsibilities which included taking notes. To answer this question you need to understand how notes were taken in the translation schools.

The translation schools were mainly for Chinese students who did not know any foreign languages, so they first would study dharma texts written in Sanskrit or other languages. First, the main translator would read the original manuscript once in Sanskrit. After that, the text would be translated orally into Chinese [the Karmapa gave the example of the Heart Sutra]. For example, what does Prajna mean, Paramita and so on.

If the main translator did not know Chinese, then an interpreter would orally translate. Then a particular student would take notes of the teachings. There were no recorders at that time, and they called them the scribe (bǐ shòu). Their responsibility was to transcribe the meaning of each syllable that the main translator had taught in written notes. The scribe would transcribe each and every syllable that the main translator or the interpreter translated orally. If they missed one word, then there would be a gap in the text.   That transcription by the scribe into Chinese was just the first step, the beginning of the process.

The main translator would also explain each word that the scribe had transcribed, and if the listeners had questions they would ask, not only that, sometimes they would debate each word. Finally, until everyone present had resolved all doubts, they had to continue teaching it.  Once it was all resolved, then they could settle the translation terms in Sanskrit and Chinese.”

Emperor Wu of Liang was Paramārtha’s patron in China.

“For example, the first person to translate Mind-Only texts into Chinese was the Master Paramārtha (真谛Zhēndì) translated various Mind-Only texts during the Chén dynasty.  We have the translation of the Sutra Unravelling the Intent, into Chinese and many notes on what Paramārtha said. It is also mentioned in many Tibetan texts how Paramārtha asserted that there are six different collections of consciousness.  In any case, he translated many different texts. He said “they debated each word repeatedly as we translated.” They checked the words again and again. In the end, both the meaning and the words were excellent because of doing that.

So if we think about the situation, there had to be an oral interpreter, the scribe and these two had their own responsibilities. However, there were hundreds of other people, who did not necessarily have clear role, but were assistants or helpers or collaborators. So some might think did they actually do anything beneficial other than asking questions and clarifying doubts. Actually, having so many people was very helpful. The reason for this was that once the main translator had `taught the text orally, the scribe took the notes, but also the other participants took notes, which were extremely helpful in finalizing the translation by comparing them. For finalizing the translation, the notes taken by other listeners were very important.

As you all know, Sanskrit and the other Indic languages are completely different than Chinese. So, the right word had to be used, for the Sanskrit word. One needs to find a Chinese word that matches the meaning of it. It is not easy to find such words.  If the translator speaks Chinese , then they can decide that as well but if they did not, then it is difficult. Even if the main translator knew Chinese, it was not certain that they would know the best word. Only after the translation was deemed perfect by the participants was it finally complete.

For example, there was the famous translator Kumārajīva, who had translated the White Lotus of True Dharma Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra). Before they translated it, the White Lotus Sutra had also been translated by the Indian master Dharmarakṣa. So, when he was looking at the translation of that Sutra, he took it as he basis to examine ad they did a new translation of the Sutra.  In the fifth fascicle there was a chapter on a prophecy and there was a verse in that, and a Sanskrit term which Dharmarakṣa translated in one way. It is difficult to translate exactly what it was in Chinese. The main point is that the people who are in the God realms can see the humans, but the humans cannot see those in the God realms. So, when Kumārajīva saw this, he thought that the translation matched the meaning of the original, however the style was not as good in Chinese and he wanted to change it. At that point, one of the helpers, a Chinese monk, suggested an alternate translation, that humans and Gods are mutually connected and can see each other. In any case, the style was much nicer with the same meaning. When he showed it to Kumārajīva, he thought it was very good and accepted the suggestion. So he was very famous in China and had mastered Chinese, yet even he had to listen to his assistant’s opinion. Even if it is a master who speaks Chinese, if their mother native language is not Chinese, then the Chinese monks would help them. For example, I have my own feeling about this.  When translating Buddhist philosophical terminology it can be the most difficult to translate. If three, or four people do it together, then one will think of something the others have not. Sometimes, if one person is thinking very hard, then they just cannot find the right word.”

The difficulty of matching the meaning of the word and not just translating it literally

“The second point is we have the Buddhist philosophical words, which are very difficult to translate. There are many things one cannot change. For example, the Sanskrit words might be multi-syllable or one syllable. but if they could be translated by a single Chinese character that matched the meaning, then they would do that.

法, fǎ- Chinese translation of Dharma

“For example, the two-syllable bodhi (enlightenment) was translated into Chinese by the one character jué, The two-syllable dharma is translated as the one character 法, . If it was absolutely impossible to translate into a single character, only then could they use two or more characters. For example, guṇa (qualities) was translated as gōngdé and śrī (glorious), was also translated as the two syllable word, jíxiáng.

Additionally, the Chinese terms used in translations had to match grammatical usage and meaning in Chinese. One could not just use any word. This terminology had to communicate subtle meanings through the words of the text alone. One cannot just translate the word superficially but it must match the meaning.

For example, there is a funny story about that. In Chinese, the word wú lòu (in Tibetan this is translated as zagmey, undefiled) means “having no afflictions and no desire”. Otherwise, one had to think about the actual meaning. However, if we look at the actual Sanskrit word, it means ‘something that does not drip’. However, what it means is “having no afflictions or desire”. During the Tang dynasty, there was a monk called “Undefiled” because he would never tell people his name, even when asked he would not tell them. Another thing is that people never saw him going to the bathroom, even after eating.  So, they would say he ‘never drips’ anything. He drinks in but he never drips out, so they called him in Chinese “not dripping”.  So he was named by the Chinese Buddhist term “Undefiled/Never Dripping.” However, if we consider the Sanskrit term, then it does not match the actual deeper meaning of the term. So one cannot just translate the ‘surface meaning’ of the word, one has to translate the actual meaning of it.

I heard something like this once. There was a foreigner who said they were going to translate the Seven Points of Mind Training, and it said ‘take adversity as the path/ your riches’. He looked the word yangsa in a dictionary. Sometimes this word can be understood as an abyss/chasm and that is how they translated it. So, he thought it meant ‘one has to throw adversity into the abyss.’ This happened because if one is looking at the words in the dictionary this does happen.

The scribes who had to transcribe every single word the Master had taught, but as they are human it is possible that they might make mistakes. They had to completely understand the meaning of the text as explained by the main translator. Therefore, they also needed to compile and examine the notes taken by everyone else present.  So, the notes they took were very important. The assistants may have had different styles and methods, and these needed to be considered.

After translating it, the translated text would have to be proofread against the original manuscript and whether it matched the original or not. In Tibetan, we call it the editor translation, the people who do the editing and checking. For example, the Master Buddhabadra completed the translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra in the sixth month of the second year of the reign of Eastern Qin emperor Yuan Chi (420 CE), but the work of proofreading was only completed in the twelfth month of the second year of Yongchu of the Liu Song dynasty. It took a year and a half to do that. So they still had to examine it.

It took even longer for Kumārajīva in 402 CE to finish the translation of the Dhyana Sutra. Then for six years it was scrutinized. The reason this level of care was taken because the foundation for studying and practicing the dharma is the texts.  If the translation is no good later when you teach it, then it is difficult. For example. the master Paramārtha translated the Treasury of Abhidharma in 463 CE.  However, the next year in 464 CE, the students asked to him to revise the translation. The reason they said was because there were passages that they could not explain or did not know how to comment on while teaching the dharma with the old translation. Realizing that the old translation was not perfect, it was revised and corrected so that such a situation would not occur again.”

3. Sui and Tang dynasty periods: the introduction of ‘gatekeepers’ and choosing the ‘best scholars and researchers’ to translate

“During this era, they had Dharma translation research groups, or study groups we could say. There is a text called the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks:

During the time of Fu and Yao, there were 3000 bright people translating scriptures. Now during the Great Tang, there are no more than twenty translators.

What this means is that during the three hundred years prior to the Sui dynasty, China had been fragmented. Later, during the Sui dynasty it was unified and continued to be unified during the Tang dynasty. As it was unified, before that, it was difficult for people to travel, there were restrictions on people travelling. However, when it became a single country the restrictions on travel were abolished. Since the restrictions were abolished, it should have been easier to travel than before and possible that more people would show up in the translation schools. However, in actuality, there were fewer people. There were usually no more than twenty people in a given translation school. Even the school led by Xuanzang, who had translated 1000 volumes of scriptures, but there were never more than twenty people. So why was that?

Given that the great translator Kumārajīva translated around three hundred volumes of scripture and had 3000 assistants before the Sui Dynasty, why did Xuanzang, who translated over one thousand volumes of scripture have only about twenty? Why did the number of translators decline?

As explained in the Life of Cí En (Ci En is another name for Tang Xuanzang), there are two points we need to pay attention to, the first point is that guards were stationed at the gates of the translation schools, these were not ones they hired. The government had sent gatekeepers and guards to protect the translation schools.  So, they didn’t let anyone in who had no business there and they stopped people from coming in. In the past, anyone could enter. there was limited contact between the translators and those outside.

The second point, there were only 23 people who could participate in the translation for Tang Xuanzang. Among them, there were different ways they divided the work, which I will not speak about. These people were all great beings who had been invited from all the different areas of China. They were the most learned of all the scholars who were all picked for this.

So, when you look at these two points in the Life of Ci En, when you compare the situation previously with those of the Tang dynasty, there were huge differences between the two. What is the reason for that?

Before the Sui dynasty several thousand people, who knew little to no Sanskrit, would gather and take notes together, compile them and choose the right terminology. Later, as the translation of scriptures gathered momentum, knowledge of Sanskrit increased and became more widespread among the Chinese, so that there was less need for the older methods.

The biggest disadvantage of the older translation schools, is when hundreds and thousands of people gathered, they could all ask questions and answers. Moreover, in the older translation schools, everyone present could ask questions of the main translator, who had to answer all of them.    Yet, as there were various types of people with various levels of education and intelligence, some had great levels of education and understanding. So, if we ask did all the questions get to the point? No, they did not. The main translator perhaps had to spend a lot of time dealing with pointless debate, so there was a great danger of wasting a lot of time. If the main translator did not know Chinese, the responsibilities of the interpreter became more difficult.  If the main translator did not know Chinese, the responsibilities of the interpreter became more difficult.

The Chinese emperors and princes viewed supporting the translation schools as a way to gather the accumulation of merit and gave offerings to those in the translation schools. Though everyone went for the sake of receiving dharma teachings, there was a fear that some people might take advantage. In the Lives of Eminent Monks, when a great master named Sēng yìn taught dharma, the listeners used the question-and-answer session as a pretext for being critical and saying disrespectful things. Teaching dharma and translating are similar, so even though there are no stories of such disrespectful people in the translation schools, there are stories when people taught Dharma, so it is possible that happened in the translation schools as well.

For these reasons, during the Sui dynasty, the “gathering for teaching and discussing the dharma” format was gradually changed, and the method of “choosing the best assistants” began to spread and they would be appointed. 

What was the method for choosing the best assistants? Who made the choice?  Beginning from the Eastern Qin dynasty in China, there was a tradition of saying “everyone under the heaven”—in Tibetan we say everyone on earth and in the heavens, like giving an order to everyone on Earth. Of course, such a person cannot give orders to everyone on the planet, but such a person who was appointed a leader of all the monastics in the empire—began and was called the “Leader of the Sangha” (sengzheng). That person would choose the best assistants for the translators. The two, basic qualifications to be picked were a complete knowledge and practice from both Buddhist and Confucian perspectives. They had to have complete educations in both a transcendent and worldly education.  

For example, at the beginning of the Tang dynasty, the venerable Prabhākaramitra from the west had an assistant, a Chinese monk who was well-known for his good writing style. He also knew the treatises very well, so at that time he was appointed as the scribe. Also, among Xuanzang’s proofreader assistants, before entering the translation school, had mastered the meaning of the scriptures [the Karmapa mentioned the name but he said he was not sure of it]  and was very skilled at teaching dharma. 

Similarly, among Xuanzang’s editorial assistants for style and clarity, Tao Shuang. He was not just any person, he was the well-known author of the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, the Dianlu Catalog of the Great Tang, and Guang hongming ji, a very famous treatise. This master was also the upholder of the lineage of the Vinaya transmission. Another assistant was Xuan Ying who was the author of the Yiqiejing yin yi dictionary, and was a famous master of Chinese grammar and archaic language, possibly the most well-known scholar in China on this. So, during this period, there were only a few people in the translation schools of Tang Xuanzang, everyone there each had there own particular area of expertise and were the most learned of scholars that had been chosen. In the past, they were places where everyone gathered. However, they evolved into places where great scholars and specialists gathered.”

Sources/Further Reading
Namgial, Eshey. “Ladakhi: An off Shoot of Classical Tibetan Language.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, 2018, pp. 35–47. JSTOR,
Richardson, Hugh. A Corpus of Early Tibetan Inscriptions (1981), pp. 72–81. Royal Asiatic Society, London.

Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa Tibet: A Political History (1967),Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Chinese transcriptions of Indic terms in the translations of Ān Shìgāo 安世高 and Lokakṣema 支婁迦讖:


[i] For example, I was recently accused by a couple of avid followers and admins of the Kalu Rinpoche Facebook pages, of being disrespectful to their lama for ‘daring’ to mention, in my article about Niguma Yoga, the work of respected scholars who had asserted that Niguma may have been the consort, and not the sister of Nāropa, as (unbeknown to me when I wrote it) this contradicted Kalu Rinpoche’s teaching that Niguma was the sister. Hardly disrespectful, and an important research question to consider on that topic anyway. Kalu Rinpoche did not correct their unfounded and unjust accusations of ‘disrespect’ in the Whatsapp group he administrated either, and dogmatically continued to say she was the sister, ignoring the work of such scholars.

Later, I then corrected (with the assistance of an international Sanksrit scholar) the incorrect Sanksrit phonetics of the Niguma mantras they published on Shangpa Kagyu websites and FB pages, and published an article about those same mantras here, and that was also deemed ‘rude’ of me by very same people. They then, as punishment/retalitation (rather than correcting the mantra phonetics on their page) subsequently blocked the Dakini Translations FB page from posting any further articles about Niguma Yoga or Shangpa Kagyu on the ‘Friends of Kalu Rinpoche’ FB page, and the articles I had posted (which had been very popular) were suddenly deleted. Needless to say, out of choice, I no longer attend or promote any of Kalu Rinpoche’s teachings, nor have any contact or connection with his ‘community’ of followers.

Then, there is the case in 2020, after misconduct complaints had been made about Sangye Nyenpa by myself and other women,  of Carina Bleicher-Kramer of Benchen Monastery Trust in Belgium and the some anonymous Benchen monastic staff ‘punishing me’ by stating that even though I had the in-person full transmission, one to one instruction and permission of the living author, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche to translate some of his texts, I lacked THEIR permission to translate them to the Khyentse Foundation, who withdrew the Ashoka Grant funding from me without any investigation, see here. Ironically, and rather hysterically, Benchen Monastery Publications then hastily published the work (completed in 2011) of another male translator, David Molk who told me he had never even met, spoken to, or received any transmission or instruction on the texts he had translated by Sangye  Nyenpa. Yet that was not considered ‘disrespectful’ at all.

Then, there was the recent conduct of two volunteer adminstrators at the Chicago Dharma centre of Drupon Dorje Rinpoche, whose teachings I had been happily typing up and promoting (with translated texts) for zero payment. He had even shared some on his own FB page. Yet, when I queried their conducting a Vajrayogini empowerment and retreat for people who did not even have the empowerment, and no prior requisites of Ngondro/Preliminaries, as well as their switching off the videos of all the thirty of so participants in the Zoom meeting, I was suddenly labelled ‘disrespectful’. Yet, to conduct such a highest yoga tantra practice in such conditions was completely going against the advice and example of great yogic Siddhas and teachers. Needless to say, I have no more connection with this community either.

In addition, one could even assert that many of the written translations produced and published by Dharma E-books, on behalf of the 17th Karmapa (particularly those not in English or Chinese languages) have been translated and edited by people without any recognised scholarly, linguistic, background and publications in Dharma translation, and even if they do have that, their work has not been subjected to such stringent checking, editing and so on by recognised expert-scholars in those other foreign languages (often due to the lack of them). I was even accused of being ‘disrespectful’ by a couple of people (who are neither scholars nor translators) from the Kagyu Office’s team of ‘writers’ for doing these transcripts and articles about the 17th Karmapa, which is utterly comical if you think about it.

Even renowned scholars can (and do) take umbrage at having some of their work challenged for inaccuracy or omissions (especially, if that scholar is male and the person challenging them is female).

So, it is important to be aware and acknowledge that people throw around the word ‘disrespectful’ often merely for correctly disagreeing with something their teacher, or a Professor said. In the context of Dharma research and translation that is not disrespectful at all.  Forget about any public (or private) questioning of the teacher on their private lives or conduct that may seem to contradict the teachings, that is strictly forbidden!

 So, it is not unknown for ‘blind faith’ devotees of Tibetan Buddhist lamas to accuse people of being ‘disrespectful’ and wanting to ‘exclude’ (and even ‘punish’) those who are actually asking the correct and profound questions, or even merely trying to help promote the Buddha Dharma and correct mistakes etc. This is not the first time the work of a qualified translator-scholar has been ignored and shunned by such ‘devoted’ Dharma communities either. Even in Tibetan history this happened quite a lot. Yet, if any conduct could be labelled ‘disrespectful’ it is such conduct towards a lone, devout Buddhist woman, who is a qualified and published Dharma translator-scholar.

[ii] The Han dynasty (漢朝; pinyin: Hàncháo) was an imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD), established by Liu Bang (Emperor Gao) and ruled by the House of Liu.

[iii] According to legend, An Shigao was a prince of Parthia, nicknamed the “Parthian Marquess”, who renounced his claim to the royal throne of Parthia in order to serve as a Buddhist missionary monk in China.

iv] The editors of the Taishō Tripiṭaka attribute twelve texts to Lokakṣema. These attributions have been studied in detail by Erik Zürcher, Paul Harrison and Jan Nattier, and some have been called into question. Zürcher considers it reasonably certain that Lokakṣema translated the following:

  • T224. 道行般若經. A translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.
  • T280. 佛說兜沙經. The Scripture on the Tusita Heaven, part of the proto-Avatamsaka Sutra
  • T313. 阿閦佛國經. Akṣohhya-vyūha
  • T350. 說遺日摩尼寶經. Kaśyapaparivrata
  • T418. 般舟三昧經. Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra
  • T458. 文殊師利問菩薩署經. Mañjuśrī’s Inquiry Concerning the Bodhisattva Career.
  • T626. 阿闍世王經. Ajātaśatru Kaukṛtya Vinodana Sūtra
  • T807. 佛說內藏百寶經. The Hundred Jewels of the Inner Treasury.

According to Nattier, Harrison “expresses reservations” concerning the Akṣohhya-vyūha (T313), and considers that T418 is the product of revision and does not date from Lokakṣema’s time. Conversely, Harrison considers that the following ought to be considered genuine:

  • T624 伅真陀羅所問如來三昧經 Druma-kinnara-rāja-paripṛcchā-sūtra

One thought on “FROM MASSES OF ABLE AND WILLING DHARMA TRANSLATORS TO AN ELITE ‘SELECT FEW’: The ‘translation-school ‘ methods of the ancient Buddha Dharma translators during the four main eras of the 900-year period of intensive translation in China (17th Karmapa January 2023, Day Two)

  1. Hola, necesito recibir su información en español.gracias.saludos

    El mié, 25 ene 2023, 12:17, Dakini Translations and Publications

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