Author Interviews / From the Editors / Snow Lion Articles

Translating the Maitreya Treatises: An Interview with Thomas Doctor

photo from shedrub.orgWe recently interviewed Thomas Doctor, a translator on the Dharmachakra Translation Committee, about the importance of their recent translations of the Maitreya texts and commentaries.

Shambhala Publications: The Dharmachakra Translation Committee has now published two of the five Maitreya texts, with a third on the way soon. Can you give a brief overview of why you chose to translate these?

Thomas Doctor: There is a set of thirteen classic Indian texts that make up the core curriculum of sutra studies in many of the monastic colleges of Tibetan Buddhism. Among those thirteen classics, the five Maitreya texts provide an extremely rich account of Mahayana philosophy and practice.

Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature

It is tempting to say that the scope of the five treatises is infinitely vast, because they deal with the ground, path and fruition as discovered and experienced by the bodhisattvas. With equal emphasis on view, meditation, and action they account for the full experience of limitless emptiness inseparable from universal love and compassion. It is for this reason that these texts are at the heart of the education of all scholar-practitioners in the Tibetan tradition.

According to Tibetan tradition, the Buddha’s regent, Maitreya, blessed the great Indian master, Asanga, and transported him to the divine realm of Tushita. In Tushita Maitreya taught Asanga these five treatises in person. Upon Asanga’s return to this world of humans he passed the teachings on to his students.

SP: What are the main features of these two “Distinguishing” texts as compared to the others?

TD: In Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes [published as Middle Beyond Extremes], Maitreya invites us to explore the way things appear and the way things truly are. He guides his students toward a realization that goes completely beyond the dualistic grasp of ordinary consciousness, and yet at the same time avoids the pitfall of denying experience—an extreme negation that might otherwise mistakenly be derived from the teaching of emptiness. Through careful description and analysis of the fabric of the world and that which lies beyond it, Maitreya leads his students toward a pivotal conclusion: emptiness and experience are not in conflict but entail one another.

This all-consuming conclusion can be seen as the point of departure for Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature. Whereas duality produces samsara and the delusional experience of the unreal, insight into nonduality leads to the encounter with reality and, thereby, the discovery of infinite wisdom qualities. In Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature,­­ Maitreya explains the factors for and features of this fundamental transformation of the entire framework of consciousness.

SP:  Why did you include Mipham Rinpoche and Khenpo Shenga’s commentaries? What are the defining characteristics of these?

Middle Beyond Extremes

TD: The Maitreya texts are pithy, packed with meaning. Traditionally they have been taught and studied with the help of commentaries that open up the verses and let their meanings unfold. In this series we present Maitreya’s verses along with the explanations of Khenpo Shenga and Jamgon Ju Mipham. Both of these masters participated in the nonsectarian Rimé movement, and so they both emphasize close study of the Indian classics. Yet the way they write their commentaries are quite different.

Khenpo Shenga intersperses glosses and explanatory remarks between the words of the root text. This format lets the reader begin the process of unpacking the condensed message of the verses without ever losing sight of them. It is a unique feature of Khenpo Shenga’s approach that he almost never adds a word of his own. In the case of Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes and Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature, all his comments are extracted verbatim from Vasubandhu’s classical commentary.

Mipham

With his careful focus on the wording of the verses, Khenpo Shenga leaves many issues wide open to further interpretation. Mipham, on other hand, generally goes much further, seeking to explain and provide clear solutions. Shenga’s commentaries maintain a unique closeness to both the root verses and their very first commentaries—a feature that necessarily would be lost in any other format. Mipham invites us to follow him on a journey of exploration, taking up the issues set forth in the verses and offering his understanding of them. Mipham also writes with a natural elegance and wonderful clarity, always highlighting the points that are crucial for practical experience and direct insight. We hope that the synergy that we have felt between the root verses and the two commentaries can also be sensed in the translations.

SP: There are so many dharma books, so little time. What is the importance of reading these from the point of view of a practitioner? Should they be read or studied in a particular order?

TD: If we have a perfect teacher, receive perfect instruction, and put the instructions that we receive into perfect practice there is, strictly speaking, no need to read anything. That is the message that Milarepa has passed down. On the other hand, the teachings of Maitreya are true classics of Mahayana Buddhism, and they remain key curriculum in the education of the scholar-practitioners of the Tibetan tradition. These teachings are both the entrance point and the very heart of the scholarly learning that has continued to inform and inspire the confident practice of accomplished bodhisattvas across the centuries. Each of the five treatises has its own special emphasis, but there is no need to read them in any particular sequence. They are a seamless web of word and meaning.

SP: What’s next?

We look forward to the publication of Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras in 2014. The masters understand the views and contexts of the Maitreya texts in many different ways, but perhaps we can say that the Ornament is the mother scripture and that Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes and Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature constitute specific analyses that zoom in on issues that are presented and discussed in the Ornament. The Ornament is a feast of profound and vast Dharma. It displays and explains the beauty, wisdom, and power of the bodhisattva way, letting the Dharma of fearless compassion manifest in the present moment. It is an inexhaustible source of guidance and inspiration.

The Ornament will also be accompanied by commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham. Mipham’s commentary is monumental, spanning 380 Tibetan folios and the entire second volume of his collected works. Drawing on the Indian masters Vasubandhu and, in particular, Sthiramati, Mipham explains the Ornament with eloquence and brilliant clarity. This commentary is among his most treasured works.

It has been a joy and a blessing to work on these texts. So many accomplished scholars and practitioners across the centuries bear witness to their wonderful qualities. We hope that their beauty and wisdom will also shine through in the translations.

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