By Patrick Dowd
When I arrived to SINI’s Summer Program in Manali, both students and staff overwhelmed me with kindness and hospitality; I drank more cups of tea in the past week than I have in the preceding year. More importantly, I feel like I stepped into a vast, ongoing conversation between East and West. Our resident manager, Tsering Nyima, recently used SINI’s beautiful metaphor of building a bridge between these cultures, where each side contributed their knowledge and expertise to meet the other in the spirit of communication and exchange. I could not feel more fortunate to be one of the bricklayers, making my own small contribution to bridge the spaces between cultures and worldviews in order to benefit others, now and in the future.
About a week after coming to Manali, I had the pleasure to sit down with Khenpo Ju Tenkyong, the Chief Editor of the Kagyur Karchag Project, the two Executive Researchers and Editors, Thubten Lobsang and Thubten Gyatso, and Assistant Director Tsering Nyima. Khenpo Ju Tenkyong had just received an award in recognition of his immense work to preserve the Tibetan language, presented personally by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Afterward, we hosted Khenpo la here at SINI’s campus outside Manali, where he worked daily with the Karchak team and we could all enjoy his wonderful sense of humor and indefatigable passion for Tibetan language and Buddhism over meals and the aforementioned endless cups of tea.
More than 50 researchers work on the Kagyur Karchak Project, including members of the five major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Kagyu, Jonang, Nyingma and Sakya). Together, they examine the 368 sutras that compose the Kagyur, the transcribed, spoken words of the Buddha. The Karchak project also includes a research division that compares Tibetan editions with those of other major classical Buddhist languages: Chinese, Pali and Sanskrit. All of this work strives to give the most faithful rendering of this essential body of Buddhist scriptures.
Khenpo Ju Tenkyong explained, “The Kagyur is at the root of the teachings of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are so many branches of Buddhism, so many different texts and traditions, but the Kagyur is the taproot that connects them all and from which they all arise. There is no teaching of the Buddhas without the Kagyur.”
Khenpo la went on to describe why this particular Karchak, roughly translated as “table of contents” or “catalogue” is so important. “There are many, many different karchaks. For nearly a thousand years, we have had karchaks: there’s the Tshalpa karchak, the Dergé karchak, the Choné karchak, the Narthang karchak—so many different karchaks. But there’s never been a karchak like the one we are creating. Ours is the very first of its kind.
“What were the other karchaks missing? They were missing introductions (ngo sprod), which could immediately inform the reader of all the essential information within the sutra. Some previous karchaks had short introductions, but none were as thorough or as comprehensive as the ones we are writing. It’s like we’re creating an ‘ID card’ (he used the English term) for each sutra. These days, wherever you go, you need an ‘ID card’ right? This immediately shows someone your name, where you’re from, how old you are, where you live, etc. All the critical information. Well, our Karchak is like this, but for the collected teachings of the Buddha.”
The texts within the Kagyur were translated during two periods: the “early period” which began in the 7th century, and then the “later period” starting in the late 10th century. However, these texts were only compiled into their present collections beginning in the 14th century, under the guidance of the great Zhalu scholar and editor Butön (1290-1364). The various karchaks were, therefore, written several centuries after the translations and, as Khenpo la explained, none contained the breadth, depth and ease of reading of the current Kagyur Karchak Project.
Khenpo la continued, “Each of our summary-introductions begins with a description of the five perfections (phun sum tshogs pa lnga): the teacher, the teaching, the place, the disciples, and the time. When our readers see this, they immediately understand the context of when, where, how, and to whom a particular sutra was taught. Just like an ‘ID card,’ right?
“These summary-introductions also provide the history of the sutra, an introduction to its path or vehicle, and finally an introduction to its philosophical school. This is all within the narrative portion of our work.
“The other component of our work is bringing out the meaning and importance of each sutra. We try to draw out the main instruction from each particular sutra, the heart-essence (snying po) that readers should take away after reading. In particular, we consider how these sutras can most benefit people in the modern world.
“Many Tibetans, particularly lay Tibetans, think that the Kagyur is very difficult; that the language is too complex and the meaning too profound for them to understand. In our introductions, we avoid the demanding, archaic language of the sutras themselves and write in a way that’s easily understandable to absolute beginners. Our work will be of great benefit to Buddhist researchers and scholars too, but we strive to show all people, no matter their background, how relevant these sutras are to their own lives. These are not just ancient books—these are pith instructions (man ngag) to show us how to make the best use of our precious human life.”
Khenpo Ju Tenkyong’s passion is infectious; he describes his work with the urgency of ER surgeon and the enthusiasm of a child completely enraptured in play. When he talks about the Kagyur Karchak, he sends out a torrent of words that seem to travel on both his in and out breath. It’s as though he has no time to waste for inhalation alone.
Khenpo la and the other Karchak team members informed me they have already completed more than 300 of the 368 summary-introductions. The length and breadth of each introduction accords with that of the sutras themselves, though Khenpo la told me all the introductions, even for the shortest sutras, strive to clearly present the essential meaning to most benefit contemporary readers. In the future, the team will translate the summary-introductions into English to bring these precious teachings to an even wider, global audience.
Khenpo Ju Tenkyong described the project as “ham pa tsha po,” a term with many valences in Tibetan, both good and bad. In this case, it’s perhaps best translated as “audacious,” “ambitious” and “courageous verging on arrogance.” He explained, “I have to say that we are all very ham pa tsha po for taking on this work. It’s an enormous undertaking. Tibetans have cared for these texts for more than a millennium, yet nothing like this has ever been done before. But I think if you don’t have 100% of ham pa, you won’t get a 100% result. We received the blessing of His Eminence Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and so many other great masters. And we have complete and total determination to see this project through. I have absolutely no doubts whatsoever this project will create vast benefit for humanity, both now and for generations into the future.”
Patrick Dowd is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, where his research centers on Tibetan Buddhist culture of language and letters. He has spent nearly a decade researching, studying and collaboratively working with Tibetan-speaking Buddhist communities in India, Nepal and Tibet. Patrick joined the SINI ESL faculty in May 2022 and currently teaches English at the SINI English for Dharma Purposes Summer Program in Manali.