Bringing the Bard to Tibet

On April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare died at his home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon. While he was a much-admired playwright in his own time, neither he nor his contemporaries could have anticipated the tremendous impact the Bard would have over the following 405 years: his work has now been performed in at least 140 countries and translated into more than 100 languages. Relatively recently, his plays were translated into Tibetan, with Hamlet first published in 2002 and Romeo and Juliet the following year, thanks to the diligent work of Drakdong Tréling Wangdor. 

Wangdor’s translations demonstrate a magisterial understanding of the original plays, including an acute sensitivity to the sonic shift between prose and verse, sometimes missed by other translators. Wangdor renders this brilliantly despite the many dissimilarities between English and Tibetan poetics, which differ in meter, rhyme, and line arrangement. His translations are nevertheless sharply attuned to a Tibetan worldview with sensitivity to Tibetan cultural considerations. In diction, phrasing, and imagery, Tibetan readers will hear Buddhist echoes ringing throughout. At times, the register of his language, particularly when translating verse, has a timbre reminiscent of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the Tibetan Buddhist canon. 

The Buddhist resonance that pervades his Shakespearean translations likely derives from Wangdor’s overarching translation philosophy. He emphasizes the importance of faithfulness to the source text but argues that the translator must convey the meaning of the original in the context of the translated language, even if this is at odds with a literalistic translation. The translator needs to artistically re-create the work, ensuring both that it honors the original and that it stands on its own right within its new cultural framework.      

North American Buddhists often think about the translation of Buddhist texts into English, but far more rarely consider the knowledge flow in the other direction. By looking at the Tibetan reception of one of the most important writers in the Western canon, we can better understand the role of translation in facilitating works written centuries ago, in vastly differing environments, to speak vividly to contemporary audiences. Wangdor’s life and work offers another perspective on the cross-cultural exchange at the heart of translation and can help clarify some of the challenges that arise when rendering Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the West. 

Drakdong Tréling Wangdor was born in 1934, during de facto Tibetan independence. As a child, he rose every day before dawn and chanted the mnemonic formulas of Tibetan grammar, which were composed well over a millennium before and would one day become the foundation for his Shakespearean translations. After completing primary school in Tibet in 1946, he was one of ten students sent by the Tibetan government to study at St. Joseph’s, an English Jesuit boys’ boarding school located in Darjeeling, India. It was there that a teenage Wangdor fell in love with Shakespeare.     

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Tibetans Caught in India’s Second Wave of COVID-19 

Tibetan residents in India face vaccine shortages amid rising cases, an upcoming talk addresses Black Buddhism in the US, and Tricycle contributor Charles Johnson is featured in a cartoon anthology. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Amanda Lim Patton and Emily DeMaioNewtonMay 08, 2021

Delek Hospital in Dharamsala, India | https://tricy.cl/3euFrcu

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week. 

Tibetans Caught in India’s Outbreak of COVID-19 Cases

Tibetan residents in India are caught among the rising numbers of cases as India battles an unrelenting outbreak of COVID-19 infections. On Thursday, the Indian health ministry recorded 410,000 cases in 24 hours, a new global record, with experts suspecting the actual number of infections to be much higher, the New York Times reports. The number of cases is rapidly climbing in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government in exile, with nearly 140 Tibetans testing positive since last week. In response to the outbreak, the Central Tibetan Administration issued an urgent appeal to Tibetan communities worldwide to donate to India’s COVID-19 relief measures. According to Radio Free Asia, a shortage of vaccines at Delek Hospital, the largest Tibetan hospital in India, has halted the campaign to vaccinate Tibetans age 18 and older in Dharamsala. Dr. Tenzin Tsundue told RFA that Tibetans should not wait for Delek Hospital to receive more doses: “I urge Tibetans to get vaccinated in government hospitals now if they get the chance.” Further south in Dehradun, capital of the northern state of Uttarakhand, 225 Tibetans have tested positive, including 83 monks from the local Sakya monastery. 

Upcoming Talk Addresses the Emergence of Black Buddhism in the US

A new talk from Buddhist Currents, an ongoing series of conversations focused on critical contemporary issues in Buddhist thought and practice, will illuminate the emergence of Black Buddhism in the US. Led by Dr. Rima Vesely-Flad, the director of Peace and Justice Studies at Warren Wilson College, the talk will explore how the field of Buddhism and Psychology is expanding to recognize intergenerational trauma resulting from slavery, Black Buddhist practices, and the reclaiming of Black embodiedness. The free event will be held on Zoom on May 20 at 5 p.m. PT (8 p.m. ET). 

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Best of the Haiku Challenge (April 2021)

The most significant event in the history of modern haiku has been its internationalization. That process began in the early 20th century but did not take hold fully until the advent of social media in the early 2000s. Since then, haiku has become a form of world literature.

It is too early to say if there is any broad consensus about non-Japanese haiku—what it is and what it does. The popular culture agrees that a haiku should be written in 5-7-5. Beyond that, it is largely a matter of “whatever you can get away with in 17 syllables.”

In that spirit, the April challenges invited our poets to gaze skyward—at a kite or a galaxy—and express themselves as freely as possible in 5-7-5. These were the winners:

Kathy Fusho Nolan discovered the fundamental paradox of kite flying—that liberation comes with limits.Alex  J. Lubman offered a green kite as a gift to springtime, thus capturing the childlike joy of the season.Suzi Golodoff accepted an invitation from life itself to “let out all her string”.Becka Chester captured the existential vertigo of the 21st century as a galaxy filled with “dark emptiness”…and ledges everywhere.Laurance Sumners invited us to contemplate the heavens in a place without distractions—and “only rocks for chairs”.Tamar Enoch’s galaxy was the only container large enough to cradle the sum of all our sorrows.

Congratulations to all!

You can submit a haiku for the May challenge here.

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Learning with Autisha

What might it mean to recognize that autistic people—after a century of being pathologized—seem to be particularly aligned with certain of the qualities that are described in early Buddhist thought as supreme?                                     

A key word in contemporary autism theory is monotropism. This is also referred to as “single attention,” “concentration,” or “perseverance.” Also mentioned, often anecdotally, is an “unusual concern” with non-harming, and an intense connection with non-human animals. The overlap with the paramitas of virya (perseverance), dhyana (one-pointed concentration), and perhaps sila (ethics), are conspicuous. 

The diagnostic list known as the Broader Autism Phenotype Constellation consists of sensory awareness, non-conformity, attention, systemizing, object-orientation, and memory. While these traits are familiar among other human traits, some of us were born directly beneath this particular cluster of stars. In combination, I relate them to wide-open sense doors, “going against the stream,” relational interdependence, and an inclination toward and ease with shamatha (tranquility). To be clear, I am not proposing that to be autistic is to be awake, nor that one needs to be autistic to awaken. Yet I find this a compelling intersection to contemplate and a vivid edge of experiencing to abide in.                

In 2018 I attended a retreat with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in which she expounded on the Therigatha (Verses on the Elder Nuns). She also shared Atisha’s Lojong Root Verses, or 21 Lines of Advice, written in the 11th century. Thus I heard: The supreme conduct is to be in disharmony with the world… the supreme generosity is non-attachment… the supreme patience is to take the lowest place…

The simple verses resounded, contextualizing the paramitas both as and with provocation, while also remaining mundane. And hearing them supported by Jetsunma’s keen and buoyant gloss, accompanied by her broad grin, blinking eyes, and inquiring brow, was a doubly sparkling gem.

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Finding Your Way

When George Floyd’s murderer, former police officer Derek Chauvin, was found guilty on all charges on April 21, 2021, the world breathed a sigh of fleeting relief. I sighed too, but the breath was not my own. The emanation was an ancestral exhale for accountability, and it rattled my foundation in a mixture of grief and frustration. There was no joy. There was no rest. There was no peace.  

Four days before the prosecution rested in the Chauvin case, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot by a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer who mistook her own gun for a taser. Just over a week later, Andrew Brown, Jr., 42, would be shot in the back of the head while driving away from police in North Carolina.  Between these killings, Adam Toledo, 13, was shot to death by an officer in Chicago, and Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, was fatally shot by an officer in Ohio. For many Black, indigenous, and other people of color, every shooting is retraumatizing.

Police brutality, combined with historical trauma’s cumulative effects, structural racism, health disparities, disadvantage, and poverty, all negatively impact African Americans. We are affected on a deeply cellular level, and our suffering is a bitter seduction. Untreated, pain feeds despair, an idol to our suffering—but there is a path forward. We can find our way by embracing and exploring African Americans who were bodhisattvas, and as such, provide pathways to heal our collective, historical trauma.  

A bodhisattva is someone who aspires to be a buddha but delays reaching nirvana in order to help others reach enlightenment. By extension, we might consider the Black Bodhisattvas to be those of African and African American descent who, by example, lead us toward a path of liberation, provide inspiration, direction, and healing. 

The Black Bodhisattva and first African American woman to speak publicly about women’s rights was Maria W. Stewart [1803-1879], who urged us to “possess the spirit of independence” and “sue for your rights.” Stewart wrote these words in 1831, in a pamphlet that was distributed before her public speaking engagements. She spoke to mixed crowds of both Blacks and whites, men and women, which was uncommon at the time. Stewart’s call to legal action is an example of the preparation and tools to confront white supremacy. This struggle will throw innumerable challenges as long as white supremacy is allowed to inflict its dangerous, oppressive destruction on Black and brown bodies and livelihood. Every stage of the struggle for justice will be met with a counterattack designed to preserve the status quo. The challenge is to be increasingly more skillful at managing emotional pain and equipping ourselves with the instruments to address inequality without succumbing to violence.

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