Philosophy East and West
by Vivian Tsang
My teacher, Tam Shek-Wing, is a teacher following the Nyingma tradition. After translating one of his books, what still stands out after three years since its publication is his opening paragraph:
Buddha taught prajñā pāramitā, which was later compiled into the Prajñā series in the Buddhist Canon. This series can be separated into two, one on the essence of prajñā paramita, one on its practice and realization. This is exactly as Buddha says, that there is the teaching, then there is the practice, and the realization, which happens to be representative of Buddhism during the time of saddharma.
Tam’s teacher was H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche. He gave Tam the task of teaching Buddhism in the West. By the time I met him in 2006, he was leading a quiet life in Toronto, teaching the practice to a small group of students. Up until then, he already had quite a collection of books published, but they were all in Chinese. Very early on, I was asked to participate in the effort to translate his works into English. The first book came out in 2011 without any of my direct involvement. The second book wouldn’t come out until 2018, on which I was one of three editors. The third and the fourth, both of which I translated from start to finish, came out in 2019 and 2021.
Why the gap in time between the first book and the second?
On the Buddha Family
Buddhism had its beginning in the East, travelling from India to the rest of Asia, by way of Tibet and the Silk Road. Throughout this history, efforts have been made to modernize and eventually, to Westernize it. It is safe to say that the practice is not tied to a particular culture or nationality. Written and online resources are many. Those who wish to find out about it, have much to explore. The scriptures span a huge range of subjects, with speakers of many walks of life and discourse styles. The range of speakers is intriguing, considering the compilation of much of the Canon happened in India during a time of a strict caste system. Several scriptures immediately come to mind: Queen Śrīmālā in the Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā, Aṅgulimālīya the bandit in Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra, and Vimalakīrti the householder in Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa. What is remarkable are their roles as outsiders: as females, as criminals, as lay people. Regardless of one’s identity, the resources and the inner resolve for wisdom is not reserved for an elite class of people. This approach is also what some practitioners call Tathāgatagarbha or buddha-within, to mean that the awareness for wisdom is something naturally endowed, not newly acquired. This interpretation is also evident in the scripture where Buddha refers to the “Buddha caste” or “Buddha family,” seemingly contradictory but transcending the ordinary meaning of caste if everyone belongs to it.
On the path towards enlightenment, the scholar Nāgārjuna famously wrote in The Dhamardhātastava (In Praise of Dharmadhātu):
It triumphs in science, sports, and arts and crafts,
The full variety of samādhi’s range,
And over afflictions very hard to master.
Thus, it is considered Difficult to Master. 
Ordinarily, people do not triumph over “science and sports, and arts and crafts” all at once. In the world of education, it was once popular to consider students as unique in their learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and so on). That said, as a society, we are increasingly moving away from vocational training into a world heavy in text and digital literacy, where such differences are easily seen as learning disabilities instead of what they truly are, different learning styles. The labelling puts a person in an unfortunate bind. On the one side, the label of learning disabilities allows room for accommodations, and yet, the label itself, if treated like a terminal condition, risks casting the diagnosed as the outsider, never to become free.
Now we are ready to revisit the issue of translation I encountered in the previous decade. Wherein lies the problem?
While it has become clear that Buddhism transcends cultural boundaries, the writers themselves must still situate themselves in the social and cultural milieu at the time of writing. The book that I struggled with editing was called Elucidating Tathāgatagarbha. The original book was first published in 2010 in Taiwan, long before the trade war and now, the new cold war. In spite of its title, the book illustrated fourfold dependent origination in three chapters. Most Buddhist readers and practitioners would be familiar with the idea of dependent origination, but the convention of four is curious. For now, one can think of it as four perspectives on dharma, proceeding in a gradual manner, with one level being more inclusive than the previous, leading to where dependent origination is eventually surpassed entirely. By “surpassed entirely” it is not as in the ordinary interpretation where one becomes ethereal and other-worldly, completely unencumbered. Rather, the notion is sometimes called the coalescence of wisdom and consciousness, or wisdom and conceptuality.
Here, I wish to illustrate this notion of coalescence in the practice of translation using this book as an example. The book has three chapters, with the first one focusing on a description of the fourfold dependent origination. The four levels are also said to be tied to Nāgārjuna’s eight negations in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (The Middle Treatise): neither arising nor annihilating, neither perpetual nor interrupted, neither one nor many, neither coming nor going. Then the four levels are dependent arising 1) due to causality; 2) due to interdependence; 3) due to relativity; and 4) due to mutual obstruction. One gets a glimpse of the names as a description of one’s state-of-mind in relation to the outer world. Here, I switched the wording from dependent origination to dependent arising to highlight the human tendency to focus on phenomena on the consciousness extreme because, in reality, the human reach via the six consciousnesses (i.e., the five senses plus the mind) is painfully superficial and limited. In other words, the world we are not aware of is much vaster than we realize.
The Father-and-Son Analogy
Without getting into the four levels in details, I wish to highlight the middle two levels, for which my teacher likes to use the analogy of a father and son. In interdependence, a man is not a father without a son, which is contrary to the common wisdom that a father comes before his son in our linear time world; father and son are thereby locked into a perpetually interdependent relationship. But as we transcend interdependence and step into the world of relativity, it then becomes clear that the interdependence is in name only; the two are indeed two separate entities, albeit related.
Father-and-son is only an analogy, but it provides an interesting vantage point into the world we live in.
The First Chapter in Elucidating Tathāgatagarbha
What makes the book worthy of discussion lies in the first two chapters, one as a brief introduction of fourfold dependent arising and in the second, an illustration of the four folds via the history of Western philosophy.
In the first chapter, through the description of the four folds, Tam gave examples of world events to illustrate the different perspectives one can have on the path to Buddhahood. Some of the descriptions appeared political in nature and was eventually omitted in the published work. For example, the over-expansion of the financial sector, either via issuing bonds, or later, via quantitative easing, contributed to the financial crisis in 2008, but also the high debt ceiling we observe these days. But the root cause could be seen as the value we attribute to capital. Money is a method for standardizing the value of material goods and labour, but is meaningless if there is no agreed-upon way to transform it into goods, services, and labour. At one point money was tied to the gold standard, with gold as the ultimate measurement à la “in gold we trust.” Once the gold standard was removed, there was no longer an upper-bound value to which a dollar can be tied down. But the human world continues to operate in the exchange of goods and services via money. When a government is allowed to freely print money, its value remains tied to the goods and services of human survival. When misappropriated as a form of monopoly, it becomes the increasing disparity of haves and have-nots, it becomes inflation and high debt ceiling that sank, and will sink, many countries into tough austerity measures, poverty, or worse, war.
The Second Chapter
To me, the second chapter is intriguing as early reviewers considered it extraneous and adding nothing of value to the book. In truth, it was the approach to translation that was problematic. As discussed earlier, Buddhism is not a form of moral high ground issuing judgments on things from high above. Therefore, the second chapter was more an attempt for conversations, a dialogue between philosophers and Buddhists. Western philosophy is also a practice, a practice in approaching one’s mind and one’s world. Every philosopher had their realities, some suffered more hardships than others. Here, the stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer come to mind. By recognizing the life and times of these philosophers their thoughts can be seen considering fourfold dependent arising. On that note, the problem of translation becomes clear. Despite cultural differences, it is neither to turn the content into entirely the product of the target culture, nor is it about casting the source culture as an unsurpassable moral high ground. But rather, it is a non-duality of the two, such that the dialogue of the two cultures gives rise to something entirely new. This is also the practice of Tathāgatagarbha that allows the bridging the known to the unknown, such that the vitality of nature remains inexhaustible and accessible to all.
Ultimately, the editing process didn’t require a dramatic rewrite, but rather, it was a process to make clear of the teaching through one’s action. In fact, in the world of translation, there were known techniques for handling the untranslatable, either through analogies or metaphors, neither of which are foreign to the Western reader.
The final chapter was written in the traditional Buddhist discourse of poetry interspersed with a commentary.
This concludes my incomplete introduction of the school of thinking and practice as passed on by my guru and the masters before him, and my recent experience as a translator. Questions and suggestions are welcome.
Brunnhölzl, Karl, trans. In Praise of Dharmadhatu. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2007.
Tam, Shek-Wing. Elucidating Tathagatagarbha. Ottawa: Sumeru Books, 2018.
Tam, Shek-Wing. Fourfold Dependent Arising and the Profound Prajnaparamita. Ottawa: Sumeru Books, 2019.
(Jan. 7, 2022)
Vivian Tsang is a student of Master Tam Shek-Wing (Dorje Jigdral) since 2006. She is a translator of his Buddhist writing. Together with other students of Tam, she is a volunteer facilitating the weekly meditation classes for the local community in Toronto.