What's in a Cow's Udder?
Updated: Mar 6, 2022
Is it really possible to understand Buddhism the way a Tibetan does? Talking with a new friend about translating from the Tibetan I am struck by just how hard this is. So here’s the thing - a Tibetan word has many meanings each dependent on context. ‘Rigpa’ generally means ‘intelligence’ or ‘awareness’ but in the context of Dzogchen it becomes something really special, a non-dual intrinsic awareness that, not arising from causes or conditions, is primordially pure. Phew! Another one is that Tibetan sentences end where ours begin. Just look at an English translation written beneath a row of Tibetan phonetics in a prayer book - it’s the other way round. There is also the big problem of do we translate according to the feeling of the word or its more strict meaning? This is really difficult because if we go for the aliveness of the feeling it is entirely subjective. It depends on what and how much the individual translator understands. However the opposite is not much easier - as we have seen each Tibetan word has multiple uses so is there a standard translation? Finally there is the issue of language reflecting the people who use it. My friend reminds me Tibetans come from an agricultural and very earthy culture while we come from a much more cerebral, thinky one. This reminded me of visiting a cave of stalactites beneath a farmers house on the small island of Gozo, off Malta, many years ago. Having all clambered down the ladder from his living room he proceeded to point out the wonders entirely through the imagery of animal body parts. There is the pig's foot, there the cow's udder and there the goat's nose. He came from an entirely different world. So is it possible to understand Buddhism like a Tibetan? I suspect not, it’s not just a matter of translation, it’s also a matter of having different ears.