From the Archives: Interview with Buddhist Translator, Christian Bernert.

Updated: Apr 28

"There is an estimate that less than 5% of the Buddha’s teachings in Tibetan have been translated into modern languages. I don’t know how accurate this estimate really is, but it expresses a reality: a lot remains to be done, and time is running out! Why? Because the living tradition holding the knowledge necessary to unlock the wisdom contained in some of those texts is slowly disappearing."


I first met Christian in passing when I was studying at the International Buddhist Academy in Kathmandu in 2009. We only exchanged a few brief words but I knew quietly that he was to be my future friend. However, Christian left the country while I completed my study program that summer only to return when I was leaving, so we never had a chance to really have a conversation. It was not until 3 years later in 2012, when I returned to Nepal that my intuitive knowledge came to fruition. One evening I walked into a popular neighborhood restaurant in Boudha to find Christian having dinner with friends. He invited me over to join them and that night kicked off the first of many conversations to come.



Christian and I co-taught a beautiful retreat in 2013 at Neydo Monastery held in the hills around Pharping, Nepal. We also co-facilitated a 16-day Buddhist Pilgrimage held in 9 locations throughout Nepal and India in 2015. Christian's serious spiritual commitment and his laugh-out-loud humor continues to be an inspiration to me. You will get a taste of it in this interview.


Oh, and you can check out his book, a translation of Adorning Maitreya’s Intent

Arriving at the View of Nonduality published by Shambhala publications in 2017. You can watch an interview with Christian about the book HERE.


This interview was originally published in October of 2014.


- Sati


Christian Bernert Biography


Christian Bernert is a junior translator of Tibetan Buddhist texts, works at International Buddhist Academy in Nepal, and co-founded the Chödung Karmo Translation Group. He teaches classical Tibetan language and the basics of Buddhist theory and practice.​


Christian was born in Vienna, Austria where he enjoyed a French education in a multi-cultural environment. From an early age, he was more interested in foreign cultures than in the regular school curriculum. His interest in spirituality was triggered after graduating from high school in 1996. In the midst of common teenage confusion, he was looking for a way of living that would actually make sense to him. In his search for truth, he first encountered the path of Yoga, which he practiced with great enthusiasm for some time. Still lacking an authentic and realized teacher however, he quickly gravitated toward his spiritual home, which turned out to be Buddhism.


In 1999 he met his first teacher in the person of the wonderful Khenchen Sherab Gyaltsen Amipa Rinpoche, a senior master from the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This encounter moved Christian so deeply that his whole life received a new direction. In 2001 Christian went to Nepal with the encouragement of Khenchen Amipa Rinpoche to engage in Higher Buddhist Studies at the International Buddhist Academy in Kathmandu. He would follow the IBA summer courses from then onward every year with few exceptions. In parallel, he enrolled at the University of Vienna to study Religious and Tibetan Studies. He graduated in 2009.


Interview


Q: How did you first come in contact with Buddhism and when did you know this was a spiritual path that you wished to practice?


A: It was only after school, around the age of 18, that I took interest in things spiritual (after listening to a lot of Bob Marley by the way…). Looking for a path, I first turned to the Yoga tradition, simply because a friend recommended a centre in Vienna. I practiced mainly asana and pranayama, not really knowing what I was doing, but at least it felt good, really good. Then, in April 1999, I met the wonderful Khenchen Sherab Gyaltsen Amipa Rinpoche who was invited to give a weekend seminar on Green Tara in Vienna. I did not understand a thing. In the summer of the same year I was allowed to join a retreat with Rinpoche. At the end of that week, I decided to formally take refuge,[1] although he encouraged me to take my time with this decision. Again, I did not really understand what I was doing, but there was something in his presence, some kind of truth that emanated from his being, that attracted me so much I could not resist. From that moment on I was hooked. I cannot say I ever chose this path. This week of retreat with him was the most transformative experience of my life. I was completely overwhelmed by something much much greater than myself, and I am still trying to find out what it is. I personally feel extremely fortunate to have encountered Rinpoche and other similarly amazing beings through his kindness.


On another level, I would say that I started to take this path seriously through a personal crisis, about half a year after I formally took refuge. I was not well, emotionally and mentally. For months I had no interest at all in Buddhism, or any path or practice for that matter. On the contrary, I took my distance. Then one day I went to a bookshop and opened a book on vipassana meditation where I read a simple description of the Four Noble Truths. Words along the lines of “suffering has a cause and we can work on that cause in order to eventually overcome it” had a profound impact on me at that time. The Four Noble Truths are the most fundamental concept in Buddhism and I had heard about them many times before. But under those specific circumstances, I read those words in a very different light.


There are many triggers for the spiritual journey and suffering can definitely be one of the most effective ones. In this regard, suffering itself carries an enormous potential for healing and can even be considered a blessing, if it is held skillfully and embraced with wisdom. This, of course, depends on favorable conditions, which on our part is the readiness to embrace the experience and grow with it, and the outer condition of a supportive environment.


Q: As someone who has witnessed western students coming to Nepal over many years to study Tibetan Buddhism I am curious as to some of your observations on this topic. What particular qualities do these western students bring to their study of Buddhism that is perhaps unique or helpful to the path?


A: The teachings divide students into two broad categories: those driven mainly by faith and those mainly driven by wisdom. I think this applies to Western students as well. Some have a kind of natural faith in the teachings or in their teacher, and it is relatively easy for them to practice right away, without much study. Others are very analytical and tend to question everything until all their doubts are removed. Both approaches have their advantages, but both also have their specific obstacles. I think in either case it is essential to understand our own disposition, to know what drives us on the path and to see the dangers inherent to our approach.

Someone with a tendency to have blind faith based on emotion can very easily be misled. As long as some need, conscious or unconscious, is met, we are extremely gullible. I consider myself very lucky in this regard, actually, because I think I could have been a candidate for this, had I not met a really good teacher from the very beginning. Rinpoche always encouraged me to develop my own wisdom instead of relying on him to make my decisions.

The dangers inherent to the intellectual approach are obvious: getting stuck in the head, not letting the Dharma sink into our heart.


I heard Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once mention that to walk this path we have to be either complete idiots or extremely learned - anything in between won’t do. For us, this basically means: STUDY. And study can be a form of practice! I recently had the chance to study with the Geshe Kelsang Wangmo.[2] She stressed the importance of taking all the teachings as personal advice, instead of treating them as information to be stored on shelves or to enlarge our ego.


Q: Do you find that westerners often have trouble differentiating between Tibetan cultural constructions and the Buddhadharma itself? Do you see a sort of western romance with the culture of Tibet overshadow the core realizations or teachings these constructions are supposed to bestow on students?


A: Probably, since this is something that a number of modern teachers mention. This romance is not necessarily a bad thing, though, if it helps us connect to the path. But eventually we will have to let go of those crutches, the earlier the better. Dzongsar Khyentse compares the Tibetan culture to a cup and the Dharma to pure tea. We need a cup to hold the tea, but at the same time we have to be very clear about the fact that what we really want it to drink the tea. After all, the cup can be made of gold or of clay – it does not really matter.


The point is that the cultures of traditional Buddhist countries are necessary to keep the teachings alive, to transmit them to the next generation, and I think it is also important for us to value them in this function. But those cultures evolved locally and they changed over time. The Dharma, on the other hand, is that which does not change. It is the actual path to what is called the deathless, and this is what we must realize. The ways it is offered to new audiences must necessarily change, it always has, but its essence must remain untainted and this is the challenge, not only for the audience. I think the responsibility also lies to a great extent with the teachers.


Q: As a translator of texts, how has this pursuit affected your relationship to and understanding of Buddhist teachings? Do you view the act of translation as a contemplative act in itself that complements your other practices?


A: I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity, the time and freedom, to devote myself to the Dharma in this way. I don’t know how long those conditions will last, though. Learning the language of the tradition offers a privileged approach, of course. When you translate a text, you study the material in a different way. Under ideal conditions, you would first receive extensive teachings on a given text. Then you would sit with the text and produce a first draft (which in my case takes a long time), and you would clarify all doubts with a scholar from the tradition. This process takes time, but it is extremely rewarding. Unfortunately, not all translations are produced in this way, but it is the approach we try to follow for the translations of our group (http://chodungkarmo.org/). In any case, in the process of translation, you get very deep into a text. But I would not say the way I work is contemplative, though I think other translators do approach their work in such a way. I once heard that, I think, Thich Nhat Hanh advised translators to work on only one page a day and to use their work as a mindfulness practice. Not my case, unfortunately.


Generally speaking, I don’t think it is necessary to learn those exotic languages for the sake of one’s own practice. If you only want to practice, if you have no ambitions to teach or translate, learning those languages can even be a waste of time. There is so much excellent material available in English and other languages. There are great Western teachers around and of course teachers from the tradition who speak our languages. For the practice, we need to cultivate certain states like confidence, loving-kindness, compassion, concentration, and so on. I don’t think it is necessary to know new alphabets for this.


Q: Can you explain for those readers who are not familiar with the breadth of Buddhist textual work available, how much work is yet to be translated and the value of translation work being done today?


A: The translation of scriptures has always played a crucial role in the transmission of the Buddhadharma.[3] Texts are an essential foundation for the teachings we receive. Tibetan teachers in particular base their explanations to a great extent on texts, and we need to have access to this material ourselves to become more independent in our studies. Teachers come and go, but the texts will remain. We can carry them with us and consult them on our own to broaden our understanding and even find out whether or not the teachings we received are in line with what we find in the scriptures. And if we find contradictions, we should use our analytical ability to resolve our doubts. We can discuss these things with our teachers. Authentic teachers are, according to my understanding, interested in the students’ freedom and independence, and in my experience they are always pleased to see the student study on his or her own. This is why the translation of texts was a priority for enlightened masters like Khenchen Appey Rinpoche. Of course, our studies should be guided in the right direction. This too is something we can discuss with our teachers and senior students, otherwise we might lose precious time, studying the wrong material. I said earlier that there is a lot of excellent material out there, but there is at least as much misleading information in books and on the web.

There is an estimate that less than 5% of the Buddha’s teachings in Tibetan have been translated into modern languages. I don’t know how accurate this estimate really is, but it expresses a reality: a lot remains to be done, and time is running! Why? Because the living tradition holding the knowledge necessary to unlock the wisdom contained in some of those texts is slowly disappearing. I think that everyone who is in contact with the tradition, at least as it is represented in exile, would agree with this. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is even reported to have said that it is possible that the survival of the Buddhadharma might depend on it being translated. This is a strong statement, both incredibly encouraging and terrifying at the same time, isn’t it?


Q: As a facilitator in the upcoming Vasudhaiva Buddhist Pilgrimage through Nepal and India next year, could you share with us your thoughts on the value of pilgrimage and how it can contribute to ones practice and/or study?


A: I am not an expert, but as far as I know pilgrimage is an important practice in all religious traditions, and I think we all undertake this kind of journey at some point in our life. The question is: what do we consider sacred and worthwhile to undertake this journey for, with all the difficulties that might come with it? For some it might be a music festival, a rock star or a sports event, for others a famous motivational speaker, a yoga workshop or a sacred ritual from an exotic culture. There are many reasons that make us undertake difficult journeys. When we see a benefit, we are happy to go through all kinds of troubles on the way. And there are benefits in all those activities, I am sure.


Of course, being is a Buddhist pilgrimage, this event will be of special value for someone on the Buddhist path. Outwardly, we will connect to the life story of a very special being, Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian noble man who was to become the Buddha, the Awakened One. When I think of this person, of what he went through, what he realized and what he did after that, I sometimes get goose bumps. Personally, I cannot think of anyone greater on this earth, seriously. Hearing about him and his Dharma is already wonderful and can inspire us tremendously. Now imagine you actually walk where he walked, you sit where he sat, you meditate where he meditated. You hear stories about what Gautama Buddha did, what he said when he was where you are now. You touch the ground where the fundamental confusion we all suffer so much from completely collapsed through the power of his realization. To me, this is profoundly significant. And by connecting to his story in this way, we connect to our inner potential, which is fundamentally the same as his. I don’t think pilgrimage is absolutely necessary, but it can be a huge boost for our spiritual practice. After all, what is it that drives us to practice in the first place? Isn’t it the idea that transformation is possible, that liberation is a reality? The person who embodies liberation more than anyone else is, to me at least, the Buddha himself. And when we go to places he went to, this story, which is also our own, becomes an even greater reality. It is like a wakeup call for our own potential.


Q: Is there such a thing as a spiritual pilgrimage without hardship or challenges? I often think of the event as being a noble practice that readily embraces the inherent difficulty of the event.


A: I agree, and I would like to add that the entire event will be a non-smoking, non-complaining journey. Just kidding, participants are allowed to smoke if they really have to. But seriously, if all participants join us with the attitude you mentioned, it will make the whole event unfold smoothly.


On the other hand, if everyone would complain, the facilitators, meaning you and I, would have more opportunities to practice, right? Pilgrimage can be an extremely valuable spiritual practice and I think it is important to make it a personal journey. When we go on pilgrimage, we are not joining a tourist group on sightseeing. The places we visit are of profound spiritual significance. In our case they are the four places Shakyamuni Buddha himself recommended his followers to visit after his passing into parinirvana. Reminding us of the four principal activities of a fully awakened being (taking birth, attaining enlightenment, teaching others the way, and passing into parinirvana), they connect us to what many consider the most significant event in human history: awakening. What Shakyamuni displayed over 2500 years ago is a timeless reality. It is never separate from us but at the same time the hardest thing to realize. It takes a huge amount of courage and discipline to face the inner demons and the strategies we developed to avoid facing reality. Such strategies include being attached to our ideas and expectations, and the rejection we manifest when things do not happen according to our wishes. Of course, this happens every day, and every moment offers an opportunity to face this tendency skillfully. But pilgrimage is a sacred time and space in which such challenges can be met with more wisdom and compassion.


ON WISDOM . . .

Q: How do you define “wisdom” in the context of your spiritual life?


A: I think most of us would say that ‘wisdom’ always has some practical implication, a direct effect on the way we live and deal with our experience, our environment and ourselves. Otherwise, it is simply dry accumulation of information. Regarding “wisdom in my spiritual life”, I’m not really sure. And I am not convinced defining wisdom in my own terms is such a good idea. Buddhism is a wisdom based and wisdom oriented path. I try to follow the Buddha’s path and even though I have all kinds of ideas about what wisdom is or can be, those ideas are tricky because I have no deeper understanding of the matter. My ideas are most probably misleading, at least embarrassing for myself. Also my understanding, being rather superficial, is constantly changing, hopefully for the better, but I’m not even sure about that. I think it is safer to stick to how the teachers have defined terms as crucial as wisdom to guide us along the way.

Of all the Tibetan terms rendered as “wisdom” in English translations, two are particularly important. One is she-rab (Sanskrit: prajñā), the other is ye-she (Sanskrit: jñāna). Those terms are crucial and a headache to translate. There is no consensus among translators even today. Both include the syllable she, which simply means “to know”. According to some schools, the second term refers to the type of knowledge or cognition peculiar to the awakened mind, while the first one is applicable to ordinary beings. So in this regard, we are more concerned with she-rab (prajñā) here I guess. Literally, it means “excellent/supreme/higher knowing”. Due to the central importance of this term and the many meanings it carries, it is very difficult to translate. And we find various definitions of this term in different contexts. In the Abhidharma, for instance, she-rab is defined as the mental factor that perfectly differentiates between the various phenomena under investigation. In other words, it is the ability to correctly distinguish one thing from another. This ability is important on all levels of the path, obviously. We need to distinguish what is wholesome from what is not to begin with, and most importantly, what is actually happening from what is merely a product of my imagination. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is actually not that easy to distinguish between those two. I think this question goes a very long way.


And then you have the classical triad of wisdom (she-rab) based (1) on study, (2) on personal reflection, and (3) on meditation. First you listen to teachings, you learn, and you read. Then you apply the knowledge gained in this way to your personal experience to find out if it really makes sense or not. Once you have developed certainty about the things integrated through this process, you cultivate your insights with a deeply concentrated mind to make them sink into your heart and become a living experience.


What is essential to remember in this context is that wisdom is never to be cultivated divorced from compassion. The pair of compassion and wisdom is likened to the two wings of a bird – both are equally important for the bird to fly.


Q: What particular texts have had a profound impact in your cultivation of wisdom and could you describe briefly why?


A: I had the chance to study quite a bit at the International Buddhist Academy in Kathmandu (http://internationalbuddhistacademy.org/). At this institute we went through many of the great classics of Indian Buddhism. To name some of most famous ones: Shantideva’s Bodhicharya-avatara (Entering the Bodhisattva’s Conduct), Chandrakirti’s Madhyamaka-avatara (Entering the Middle Way), Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamaka-karika (Root Verses on the Middle Way), Kamalashila’s Bhavanakrama (Stages of Meditation) and Maitreya’s Uttaratantra-shastra (Treatise on the Sublime Continuum). Although we did not have much time to go through those texts in great detail, studying them was extremely beneficial. The problem is that I should revisit those texts again and again, which I don’t, so I keep forgetting.


From the texts of Tibetan origin, the most important for me were Sakya Pandita’s Illuminating the Sage’s Intent, and the two collections of pith instructions from the Sakya tradition called Parting from the Four Attachments and The Three Visions or Three Levels of Spiritual Perception. Then of course you have the amazing text by Thogme Sangpo, The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, which is a beautiful poem condensing the entire path in 37 verses, and the Mind Training in Seven Points by the Kadampa master Chekawa which is like a torture plan for the ego.


I think this list gives a good overview of the texts I found to be most beneficial in my studies.

Of the texts mentioned, Shantideva’s contains the greatest wealth of practical advice. It is really comprehensive in terms of practice, in particular practice in daily life. And it has a long chapter devoted to the understanding of reality according to the Madhyamaka school of thought, considered by many the most profound view of reality. Chandrakirti’s and Nagarjuna’s texts are specifically devoted to this topic. Studying them you get a good understanding of this view. And to learn about how to proceed along the stages of formal practice, Kamalashila’s Stages of Meditation is considered an important resource. I heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama outline the study of conduct, view and meditation based on those three texts a few years ago in France (if I remember correctly, he did not mention Chandrakirti on that occasion, although it is usually studied before Nagarjuna's text). The various pith instructions like those based on the four lines of Parting from the Four Attachments were composed to condense all the teachings relevant for effective practice in an easily accessible form. It is almost like ready-to-eat menu you buy at the supermarket when you don't have time to prepare the whole meal yourself. You still need to heat and eat it, but it is all ready. I found the combination of studying scholastic treatises and practice instructions very helpful. Both nurture your understanding, based on which your actual practice will be more mature. They support each other beautifully.


Q: Can you tell us one or more specific wisdom teachings (direct quotes if possible) that have deeply touched you and briefly describe why?


A: The longer I am exposed to the Dharma, the more I understand the importance of familiarizing myself with its most fundamental concepts. At the moment, and since some time already, it is the teaching on the so-called four seals I try to get my head around. The four seals are: 1) All compounded things are impermanent; 2) all tainted experiences are painful and unsatisfactory; 3) all phenomena are empty and devoid of inherent existence; and 4) nirvana is peace.


Only accepting the first of those four would have an incredible impact on our life, very grounding. If we could only accept this one simple statement about a fact of life from the depth of our hearts, our lives would be so much more peaceful. If you are interested to read about this teaching I recommend Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s What makes you not a Buddhist.

One teaching which is always so precious and practical is called transforming adverse circumstances into the path. When we are in pain and suffer, from anything, if can manage not to shut ourselves down but to keep our heart open to others, our pain can actually be put to good use. To help us do this, we are recommended to think along the lines of: “By experiencing this pain now, may all similar pain of other beings be absorbed in my experience and may they thereby be free of it”. In this way, we do not deny the pain, we accept it, but at the same time we keep our heart open. We are not alone in the experience of suffering. So many suffer as we do, and many suffer more. Realizing this alone offers some relief. On top of this, this kind of thinking is actually the soil for great compassion to grow and eventually for the enlightened attitude of bodhicitta to take birth, which is the direct cause for full awakening, the state of a Buddha. I realize that it can be incredibly difficult to cultivate this kind of attitude when we are absorbed in depression, in states in which we hold destructive views of the world and of ourselves and are convinced that our limited view is the one and only reality. But nobody said this path was easy, it is not. It requires constant self-inquiry and discipline. It is a path of training, of cultivation, and we have to do things again and again and again to slowly change our patterns. But it is the only thing really worthwhile investing such much energy in I believe.


Two quotes to end this:


We do not practice because it feels good. We practice because we know it is the right thing to do. (anonymous teacher)


Taking only what you like and discarding whatever you don’t like isn’t practice, it’s disaster. (Ajahn Chah)


[1] To ‘take refuge’ means to accept the Buddha as one’s guide, the Dharma as one’s path, and the Sangha as one’s role model and spiritual support. To strengthen one’s commitment to this path, a formal ritual is usually performed by one’s teacher to mark the beginning of one’s journey.

[2] Geshe Kelsang Wangmo is a Tibetan Buddhist nun from Germany and the first women in the history of Tibetan Buddhism to have been awarded the Geshe title which marks to successful completion of 16 or more years of academic training in the Gelug tradition.

[3] This coming October there is a conference about this very topic in Colorado (http://translationandtransmission.org/).

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