應以何身得度者,即現何身而為說法 Teach the Dharma in the Local Language

Life sized statue of the Buddha from the Tang Dynasty period (618-906 AD)

Life sized statue of the Buddha from the Tang Dynasty period (618-906 AD)

應以何身得度者,即現何身而為說法 does not translate to “Teach the Dharma in the local language”.  The Chinese text would translate loosely to “Depending on the need of the audience, (one) shall manifest in whatever form/appearance to teach the (Buddha) Dharma”.  This is the crux of the teachings in “妙法蓮花經 觀世音菩薩 普門品” Saddharma-puṇḍarīka sūtra, chapter on Samantamukhaparivarto nāmāvalokiteṡvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeṡa.

Confused yet?  Ya, thought so.  For those of us who are do not read sanskrit or Chinese, the above lines might as well have been written in greek or an alien language, which brings me to the earlier statement, that one shall manifest in whatever form/appearance to teach the Dharma, depending on the need of the audience.  That should include adopting whatever language is appropriate for conveying the message.  The language is but a medium, a tool while style and prose just an expression of that medium.  The intended message is what is important.  And because of that, language, style and prose should be chosen to encourage communication.  The communication of the message, of the idea, rises above previous trio in importance.

Today, I read an interesting article about a westerner who finds that developer community can only grow when the local language is used.  He quotes a Jeff Atwood’s question “Shouldn’t every software developer understand English?” and describes how his own experience with building up a developer community in China gave him insight into language considerations.

Mandarin Chinese programmer communities
http://odwks.com/2009/03/mandarin-chinese-programmer-communites/

His clients wanted all the documentation and programs to be in English so that the Chinese developers would be forced to learn English and learn they did.  However, when he later started grassroots movements and started organising conferences, he found that when the conferences started using the Mandarin language, interactions and exchange of knowledge went “faster and more in-depth”.

Embracing Translation Projects

This reminded me of how language can be a tool or a barrier, depending on how it is being utilised, and led to this blog entry.  In my previous post “Wacana Conference 2008“, I highlighted in my paper that language is a crucial factor for communication.  Used rightly, we can exchange ideas, views and arrive at agreements, if not better mutual understanding.  Buddhism, therefore, need to embrace translation projects if the teachings of the Buddha is to be transmitted beyond the shores of present buddhist communities.

Chinese Mahayana Buddhism

In particular, Chinese Mahayana Buddhism need to embrace translation projects more earnestly.  For a long time, Chinese Mahayana
Buddhism has remain closed to non-mandarin-speaking communities.  With the rare exception of a few Buddhist groups from Taiwan, most Chinese Mahayana Buddhist community remain mostly stuck in Chinatowns in foreign countries.  When these monasteries establish themselves in foreign land, they bring along with them the Chinese culture, including language, food, art, architecture and customs.  It may be intriguing initially, but beyond a casual interest, such a setup very often mean that the monastery or Buddhism do not become integrated into the local community.  The monastery, and consequently Buddhism, remains a foreign artefact, the tourist attraction, a chance to get a whiff of the orient, but never quite something one embrace as one’s faith or way of life.

This presents to Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, and perhaps to all Buddhist traditions, not an obstacle, but an opportunity to improve upon itself. Instead of clinging onto the Mandarin language and Chinese customs, we should adopt the native language of the adopted country where our temples and monasteries are established, so that we may share the essence of Buddhism wherever it can be of benefit.  While it may not be immediately feasible to introduce a 100% western-chinese Mahayana Buddhism, it may be of help to begin with the language and let the local four-fold community grow and develop from there.

Mindset

To begin, we should change the mindset that the Truth and Dharma can only be presented in a certain language, be it sanskrit, pali, mandarin / chinese, sinhalese, thai, myanmar, tibetan etc.  If we hold onto that, we will never be truthful or earnest in adopting another language as a medium for teaching.  While we may not get it right 100% at the onset, we should start somewhere.  Translations of indian Buddhist teachings into the Chinese language weren’t easy as well.  But because of the work of many monks and laity, we have the very comprehensive Chinese tripitaka canon today.  If it is to be relevant to people today and not be relegated to being worshipped in a bookself or altar, it must be accessible to people, both physically and literally.

Culture

It is normal and understandable to wish to retain one’s culture and tradition.  There is nothing that wrong altogether.  However, if that means retaining an artificial barrier just so that the tradition live on while Buddhist teachings become stagnated, then we may have to rethink our priorities.

At the heart of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is the Bodhisattva ideal, wherein one learns and practises the Buddha-Dharma so that one may benefit oneself and others in attaining Buddhahood.  Buddhahood is seen as a means for benefitting others so that they may, as well, attain to cessation of suffering, and where possible attain Buddhahood.  The bodhisattva ideal plays a central role in one’s learnings and strivings.  In this light, the importance of culture as opposed to the Buddha Dharma pales in comparison.

Granted, if culture and tradition is not a barrier, it should also not be discarded frivolously as well.  Striking a balance, and maintaining a healthy dosage of tradition and integrating with new local culture is much needed.

Skillset

Skilful means should naturally extend to include usage of languages.  Here, we come back to the quotation at the start of the articles, “應以何身得度者,即現何身而為說法”.  If a foreign language is needed, then we should learn the foreign language so that we can help bridge the gap and aide in the understanding.  If the Indian and Chinese monks were able to learn foreign languages in those early days, I don’t see why we living in this day and age, with so much technology on our hands, should be deterred.

Language aside, we should also consider the mode of practice that is all too prevalent in Chinese Mahayana Buddhist communities today.  Long chanting
sessions are common and has become de facto modus operandi.  While there are benefits from such practices, one should consider other practices that are available in Buddhism and not carve a narrow trail in the wide highway on the bodhisattva path.

When Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is able to discern and adapt to the culture of foreign land, we would be able to more successfully welcome all sentient beings onboard, regardless of language, creed, gender or race etc.  Then can we be worthy of the name Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle!