Buddhist translators – from canonical corpus to progressive spirituality
There is no consensus among the different Buddhist traditions as to what constitutes the scriptures or a common canon in Buddhism.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The extend of the canonical corpus
- 2 - The translation of the corpus
- 3 - The corpus in the Modern Era
- 4 - Prominent Buddhist translators
- 4.1 - Amoghavajra
- 4.2 - D. T. Suzuki
- 4.3 - Taigen Dan Leighton
- 4.4 - Matthieu Ricard
- 4.5 - Xuanzang
- 4.6 - Alexander Berzin (scholar)
- 4.7 - Herbert V. Günther
- 4.8 - Robert Thurman
- 4.9 - Shōhaku Okumura
- 4.10 - Bhikkhu Bodhi
- 4.11 - Buddhayaśas
- 4.12 - Kumārajīva
- 4.13 - Kenneth K. Tanaka
- 4.14 - Patrick Gaffney (Buddhist)
- 4.15 - Kazuaki Tanahashi
- 4.16 - Arthur Braverman
- 4.17 - Taitetsu Unno
- 4.18 - Satish Chandra Vidyabhusan
- 4.19 - Dennis Hirota
- 4.20 - Shoryu Bradley
- 4.21 - Thích Nhật Từ
- 4.22 - Soma Thera
- 4.23 - Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu
- 4.24 - Sarah Harding (lama)
- 4.25 - Robin Kornman
- 4.26 - Richard Barron
- 4.27 - Thupten Jinpa
- 4.28 - Red Pine (author)
- 4.29 - Prajñāvarman
- 4.30 - Thomas Cleary
- 4.31 - Michael Saso
- 4.32 - Acharya Nyima Tsering
- 4.33 - Marianne Winder
- 4.34 - David Seyfort Ruegg
- 4.35 - B. Alan Wallace
- 4.36 - Bidia Dandaron
- 4.37 - Brian Cutillo
- 4.38 - Buddhabhadra (translator)
- 4.39 - Buddhasvamin (monk)
- 4.40 - Caroline Rhys Davids
- 4.41 - Christian K. Wedemeyer
- 4.42 - Degii Sodbaatar
- 4.43 - Keith Dowman
- 4.44 - Dharmarakṣa
- 4.45 - Edward Conze
- 4.46 - Erik Pema Kunsang
- 4.47 - Gareth Sparham
- 4.48 - Guṇabhadra
- 4.49 - John Blofeld
- 4.50 - John D. Dunne
- 4.51 - Kazi Dawa Samdup
The extend of the canonical corpus
The general belief among Buddhists is that the canonical corpus is vast.
This corpus includes the ancient Sutras organized into Nikayas or Agamas, itself the part of three basket of texts called the Tripitakas.
Each Buddhist tradition has its own collection of texts, much of which is translation of ancient Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts of India.
The translation of the corpus
While a large number of works survive only in Tibetan and Chinese translations, many Sanskrit manuscripts of important Buddhist Sanskrit texts survive and are held in numerous modern collections.
During the Pāla era, Vajrayana Buddhism flourished and its texts and scholarship was mainly conducted in Sanskrit.
When Vajrayana spread to the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim, Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts and scholars also entered these regions.
Medieval Tibet was an important center for the study and translation of Sanskrit Buddhist works, as well as for the study of Indian Sanskrit grammars.
The first Mahāyāna works were written sometime between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE.
Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahāyāna comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts, mainly those of Lokakṣema.
Since then Buddhism has spread across the world, and Buddhist texts became increasingly translated into local languages.
The corpus in the Modern Era
The 20th century saw a prolific growth of new Buddhist institutions in Western countries, including the Buddhist Society, London (1924), Das Buddhistische Haus (1924) and Datsan Gunzechoinei in St Petersburg.
The publication and translations of Buddhist literature in Western languages thereafter accelerated.
While Buddhism in the West is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East it is regarded as familiar and traditional.
Prominent Buddhist translators
This is a list of Buddhist translators past and present from all over the world.
Amoghavajra was a prolific translator who became one of the most politically powerful Buddhist monks in Chinese history and is acknowledged as one of the Eight Patriarchs of the Doctrine in Shingon Buddhism.
Born in Samarkand of an Indian merchant or a brahmin father and a mother of Sogdian origin, he went to China at age 10 after his father’s death.
In 719, he was ordained into the sangha by Vajrabodhi and became his disciple.
D. T. Suzuki
Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was a Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen (Chan) and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin to the West. Suzuki was also a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature. Suzuki spent several lengthy stretches teaching or lecturing at Western universities, and devoted many years to a professorship at Ōtani University, a Japanese Buddhist school.
Taigen Dan Leighton
Taigen Dan Leighton is a Sōtō priest and teacher, academic, and author. He is an authorized lineage holder and Zen teacher in the tradition of Shunryū Suzuki and is the founder and Guiding Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, Illinois. Leighton is also an authorized teacher in the Japanese Sōtō School (kyōshi).
Matthieu Ricard is a French writer, photographer, translator and Buddhist monk who resides at Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal.
Matthieu Ricard uses three types of meditation: compassion, open awareness, and analytic.
He has spent a total of 5 years in solitary meditation, largely in a remote mountain hut.
He promotes veganism and animal rights and co-founded Karuna-Shechen in 2000 with Rabjam Rinpoche.
Xuanzang, born Chen Hui / Chen Yi, also known as Hiuen Tsang, was a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator. He is known for the epoch-making contributions to Chinese Buddhism, the travelogue of his journey to India in 629–645 CE, his efforts to bring over 657 Indian texts to China, and his translations of some of these texts.
Alexander Berzin (scholar)
Alexander Berzin is a scholar, translator, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.
Herbert Vighnāntaka Günther was a German Buddhist philosopher and Professor and Head of the Department of Far Eastern Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada. He held this position from the time he left India in 1964.
Robert Alexander Farrar Thurman is an American Buddhist author and academic who has written, edited, and translated several books on Tibetan Buddhism. He is the father of actress Uma Thurman. He is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo- Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, holding the first endowed chair in this field of study in the United States. He also is the co-founder and president of the Tibet House New York. He translated the Vimalakirti Sutra from the Tibetan Kanjur into English.
Shōhaku Okumura is a Japanese Sōtō Zen priest and the founder and abbot of the Sanshin Zen Community located in Bloomington, Indiana, where he and his family currently live. From 1997 until 2010, Okumura also served as Director of the Sōtō Zen Buddhism International Center in San Francisco, California, which is an administrative office of the Sōtō school of Japan.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, born Jeffrey Block, is an American Theravada Buddhist monk, ordained in Sri Lanka and currently teaching in the New York and New Jersey area. He was appointed the second president of the Buddhist Publication Society and has edited and authored several publications grounded in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
Buddhayaśas was a Dharmaguptaka monk and translator. He is recorded as having learned both Theravada and Mahāyāna treatises. He translated the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, the Dīrgha Āgama, and other Mahāyāna texts including the Ākāśagarbha Bodhisattva Sūtra. Buddhayaśas’ preface for his translation of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya states that the Dharmaguptakas had assimilated the body of Mahāyāna sutras.
Kumārajīva was a Buddhist monk, scholar, missionary, and translator from the Kingdom of Kucha. He first studied teachings of the Sarvastivadin schools, later studied under Buddhasvāmin, and finally became an adherent of Mahayana Buddhism, studying the Mādhyamaka doctrine of Nāgārjuna.
Kenneth K. Tanaka
Kenneth Ken’ichi Tanaka, also known as Kenshin Tanaka or Ken’ichi Tanaka is a scholar, author, translator and ordained Jōdo Shinshū priest. He is author and editor of many articles and books on modern Buddhism.
Patrick Gaffney (Buddhist)
Patrick John Gaffney is an English author, editor, translator, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who studied at the University of Cambridge. He was one of the main directors and teachers of Rigpa—the international network of Buddhist centres and groups founded by Sogyal Rinpoche. As of April 2019, Gaffney has been disqualified by the UK Charity Commission from acting as a trustee in all charities for a period of 8 years.
Kazuaki Tanahashi is an accomplished Japanese calligrapher, Zen teacher, author and translator of Buddhist texts from Japanese and Chinese to English, most notably works by Dogen. He first met Shunryu Suzuki in 1964, and upon reading Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind he stated, “I could see it’s Shobogenzo in a very plain, simple language.” He has helped notable Zen teachers author books on Zen Buddhism, such as John Daido Loori. A fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science—Tanahashi is also an environmentalist and peaceworker.
Arthur Braverman is an American author and translator, primarily translating from Japanese to English. A Zen Buddhist practitioner, Braverman lived in Japan for seven years and studied at Antai-ji temple in 1969 training under Kosho Uchiyama. In 1978 he returned to the United States and studied classical Japanese at Columbia University. He lives in Ojai, CA with his wife.
Taitetsu Unno was a scholar, lecturer, and author on the subject of Pure Land Buddhism. His work as a translator has been responsible for making many important Buddhist texts available to the English-speaking world and he is considered one of the leading authorities in the United States on Shin Buddhism, a branch of Pure Land Buddhism. Dr. Unno was an ordained Shin Buddhist minister and the founding Sensei of the Northampton Shin Buddhist Sangha.
Satish Chandra Vidyabhusan
Satish Chandra Vidyabhusan was a Bengali scholar of Sanskrit and Pali Language and principal of Sanskrit College.
Dr. Dennis Hirota is a professor in the Department of Shin Buddhism at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan. He was born in Berkeley, California in 1946 and received his B.A. from University of California, Berkeley. In 2008, he was a visiting professor of Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School where his studies focused on the Buddhist monk Shinran.
Shōryū Bradley is a Sōtō Zen priest and the founder and abbot of Gyobutsuji Zen Monastery located near Kingston, Arkansas.
Thích Nhật Từ
Ven. Thich Nhat Tu or Thích Nhật Từ in Vietnamese is a Vietnamese Buddhist reformer, an author, a poet, a psychological consultant, and an active social activist in Vietnam. He is committed to propagate Buddha’s teachings through education, cultural activities and charitable programs in order to benefit the individuals and the society at large.
Kotahene Soma Maha Thera, born as Victor Emmanuel Perera Pulle in Kotahena, Colombo, was a Theravada Buddhist monk, translator and missionary.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu is an American Buddhist monk. Belonging to the Thai Forest Tradition, for 10 years he studied under the forest master Ajahn Fuang Jotiko. Since 1993 he has served as abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California — the first monastery in the Thai Forest Tradition in the US — which he cofounded with Ajahn Suwat Suvaco.
Sarah Harding (lama)
Sarah Harding is a qualified lama and teacher in the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Since 1972, she has been a student and translator of Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989).
Robin Kornman is best known for his work as a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, as well as a founding member of the Nalanda Translation Committee. Up until his death, he had spent many years working on an English translation of the Tibetan (living) epic Gesar of Ling — it is his work on this translation that has gained him the most recognition. A longtime student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Kornman had been co-director of Trungpa Rinpoche’s first Shambhala Buddhist retreat center in North America, Karmê Chöling, when first established in 1970.
Richard Barron is a Canadian-born translator who specializes in the writings of Longchenpa. He has served as an interpreter for many lamas from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including his first teacher, Kalu Rinpoche. He completed a traditional three year retreat at Kagyu Ling in France, and later became a close disciple of the late Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He is currently engaged in a long-term project to translate the Seven Treasuries of Longchenpa.
Thupten Jinpa Langri is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, former monk and an academic of religious studies and both Eastern and Western philosophy. He has been the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985. He has translated and edited more than ten books by the Dalai Lama including The World of Tibetan Buddhism, A Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus, and the New York Times bestseller Ethics for the New Millennium.
Red Pine (author)
Bill Porter is an American author who translates under the pen-name Red Pine. He is a translator of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including poetry and sūtras. In 2018, he won the American Academy of Arts & Letters Thornton Wilder Prize for translation.
Prajñāvarman within early medieval literature, was an 8th-century Buddhist writer. He lived during the reigns of the Pala king, Gopala I and the Tibetan emperor Trisong Detsen, under whose auspices he came to Tibet. He was a contemporary of Jinamitra.
Thomas Cleary was an American translator and writer of more than 80 books related to Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Muslim classics, and of The Art of War, a treatise on management, military strategy, and statecraft. He has translated books from Pali, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Old Irish into English. Cleary lived in Oakland, California.
Michael R. Saso is a professor emeritus of the Department of Religion at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is a scholar of the religious practices of Japan and China, with a particular emphasis on Taoism.
Acharya Nyima Tsering
Acharya Nyima Tsering was a Tibetan writer and a translator from Tibetan to English.
Dr Marianne Winder was a British specialist in Middle High German and a librarian at the Institute of Germanic Studies at the University of London. She later was associated for more than thirty years with the Wellcome Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine where she was successively Assistant Librarian (1963-1970), Curator of Eastern Printed Manuscripts and Books (1970-1978) and finally, after having retired, a Tibetan Medical Consultant (1978-2001).
David Seyfort Ruegg
David Seyfort Ruegg is an eminent Buddhologist with a long career, extending from the 1950s to the present. His specialty has been Madhyamaka philosophy, a core doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism.
B. Alan Wallace
Bruce Alan Wallace is an American author and expert on Tibetan Buddhism. His books discuss Eastern and Western scientific, philosophical, and contemplative modes of inquiry, often focusing on the relationships he sees between science and Buddhism. He is founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.
Bidia Dandaron was a major Buddhist author and teacher in the USSR. He also worked in academic Tibetology, contributed to the Tibetan-Russian Dictionary (1959) and made several translations from Tibetan into Russian. He is mostly remembered as a Buddhist teacher whose students in Russia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania continued both religious and scholarly work, and as an early Buddhist author who wrote on European philosophy, history, and science within a Buddhist framework. Among his students were Alexander Piatigorsky and Linnart Mäll.
Brian A. Cutillo (1945–2006) was a scholar and translator in the field of Tibetan Buddhism. He was also an accomplished neuro-cognitive scientist, musician, anthropologist and textile weaver.
Buddhabhadra was an Indian Buddhist monk, with the title of śramaṇa. He is most known for his prolific translation efforts of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese, and was responsible for the first Chinese translation of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra in the 5th century.
Buddhasvāmin was a Sarvastivadan Buddhist monk and famous scholar from the kingdom of Kucha. During part of the 4th century CE, he presideded over all Buddhist temples and nunneries in Kucha.
Caroline Rhys Davids
Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids (1857–1942) was a British writer and translator. She made a contribution to economics before becoming widely known as an editor, translator, and interpreter of Buddhist texts in the Pāli language. She was honorary secretary of the Pāli Text Society from 1907, and its president from 1923 to 1942.
Christian K. Wedemeyer
Christian Konrad Wedemeyer is an American scholar and political and social activist.
Degii (Delgerjargal) Sodbaatar graduated from Ulaanbaatar University, Mongolia in 2000 with a degree in Korean language and culture. Later she did a one year course on Korean poetics at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. She then entered Donguk University of South Korea as a graduate student, to pursue an MA in Buddhist studies.
Keith Dowman is an English Dzogchen teacher and translator of Tibetan Buddhist texts.
Dharmarakṣa was an early translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese, several of which had profound effects on East Asian Buddhism.
He is described in scriptural catalogues as Yuezhi in origin.
Edward Conze, born Eberhard Julius Dietrich Conze (1904–1979) was a scholar of Marxism and Buddhism, known primarily for his commentaries and translations of the Prajñāpāramitā literature.
Erik Pema Kunsang
Erik Pema Kunsang is a Danish translator and was, along with Marcia Binder Schmidt, director of Rangjung Yeshe Translations and Publications in Kathmandu.
He has translated over fifty volumes of Tibetan texts and oral teachings.
His other projects include the Rangjung Yeshe Wiki, an ongoing electronic publication that is compiling an extensive glossary of Buddhist terminology to bridge the Tibetan and English languages.
Gareth Sparham is a scholar and translator in the field of Tibetan Buddhism.
Gunabhadra (394–468) was a monk and translator of Mahayana Buddhism from Magadha, Central India. His biography is contained in the work of a Chinese monk called Sengyou entitled Chu sanzang ji ji.
John Eaton Calthorpe Blofeld was a British writer on Asian thought and religion, especially Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.
John D. Dunne
John D. Dunne is the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities through the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also holds a co-appointment in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature. Until January 2016, he was Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.
Kazi Dawa Samdup
Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup is now best known as one of the first translators of important works of Tibetan Buddhism into the English language and a pioneer central to the transmission of Buddhism in the West. From 1910 he also played a significant role in relations between British India and Tibet.