Continuation of my memories of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche, No. 17: the translation of Tülku Tsullo's Gongpa Zangthal Manual (Part I)

Publié le 25 Mai 2021

Source of the illustration: Facebook page KHORDONG WORLDWIDE.

To get back to the beginning of this series, click here

I like this photo which, more than many others, reminds me of Chhimed Rigdzin as I knew him. This is exactly the expression he could have had when, once, clearing the table after his lunch, I asked him if I should also take his teacup, and he answered me, with a horribly wheezy voice:


Once the Gongpa Zangthal transmissions were given, I had to start translating the manual composed by Tülku Tsurlo (or Tshullo). This is another adventure, the details of which are not uninteresting. In my opinion in those times (inspired by the way the Tibetan tradition presents itself), this text could only be translated only if it had been possible to receive from Rinpoche’s own mouth, step by step, the practice instructions. I could not imagine translating it simply from the literal, and often obscure, Tibetan meaning.

   It must be said that in 1995, under the direction of Michel Hulin at the Sorbonne (Paris-IV), I had also begun a thesis on Longchenpa (1308-1364) - a thesis that was to be defended in 2002 - the same year that Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche passed away, and of which, by the way, the present blog contains many parts of, either in French or, now, in an English version (the publishable parts constituting the background of my French book Profusion de la vaste sphère, published in 2007). The preparation of this monograph on Longchenpa’s life, work and thought has led me to read all his writings, to which one must add the texts of which he was the principal editor - that is to say, more or less (according to the editions) 24 Tibetan volumes, many of which deal with themes related to those of Tülku Tsullo’s Manual.

   The assiduous work on Longchenpa and his sources, in addition to the reading of the Gongpa zangthal and the Manual itself, should eventually, with some oral clarifications received from various masters, allow me to see clearly even the smallest details of this text. But, at the beginning, many things escaped me, especially since the manuscript on which I was working was full of copyist’s mistakes (in spite of the handwritten corrections added by Rinpoche to his personal copy, on a photocopy of which I always worked). And above all, caught up in my idea (or: in the Tibetan ideology) that one had to be trained step by step and in the smallest detail by the lineage holding master in order to be able to consider translating such a text, I was extremely reluctant despite my appetite to embark on this – in many ways unreasonable – undertaking. I cannot do better than to quote my introduction to the French version of the Manual, where I tell the story of this translation (I put phonetics instead of the transliteration that is found in the French book):

"There would be a book to write about the circumstances in which this translation was started. This book would be as instructive as it would be amusing, but to write it - as, moreover, to compose the biography of C. R. Lama, in whose framework the episodes of the realization of this translation would form a secondary thread - one would need a writer who would be the son both of Rabelais, of Céline, of Gombrowicz, and perhaps also of the Abbé de Rancé.

 To keep to the point, this French translation, begun in 1996 after three years of careful reading of the manuscript, was, in its first version, completed as early as late 1997 or early 1998, at the instigation and with the advice of Chhimed Rigdzin Lama.

   C. R. Lama had told me I don't know how many times:

‘If you don't translate into English yourself, there will be obstacles.’ 

But I was afraid that, since English is not my language, an English version of my own would lack precision, clarity, and elegance. So I opted for French, and accepted the generous offer of David Cowey [a close disciple of CRR] to translate my French version into English, with my careful supervision. It is thus the French ‘first draft’ (1997? 1998?) that served as the basis for a first English translation, completed around 1998.

   It is this draft English translation, hardly completed, still badly revised, of a more than imperfect French text which was communicated by David Cowey, in 1998, to C. R. Lama. I confess that I was very deeply upset to be dispossessed of my work in this way, a work in progress, in a state that was still not presentable – actually just a draft. I was even more saddened that, as Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s level of English did not allow him to correct it himself, he immediately sent this shapeless draft to Tülku Thondup, a famous Tibetan master, eminently scholar, living in the United States, whose English is much better than C. R. Lama’s, and who is linked to C. R. Lama by their common geographical origin and their shared enrolment in the same spiritual streams. C. R. Lama seems to have insisted very strongly that Tülku Thondup revise David Cowey’s unfinished English translation; after a long hesitation, Tülku Thondup seems to have redone it very largely. The fruit of his work became known to me at the very end of the life of C. R. Lama; to top it all off, David Cowey, who at that time knew no Tibetan at all, is thanked [in Tülku Thondup's work], while the principal craftsman of the translation sees his work entirely plundered without a word of recognition.

   This English version is definitely useful: Tülku Thondup understands the Tibetan text better than anyone else. However, it has the unfortunate defect that is common to almost all translations from one's own language into a foreign one [which was the reason why I was so reluctant to make one in English]: the theme is infinitely more difficult than the version, especially in a field where there is hardly any established usage - and it seems to me that the Tibetan text, even though it is probably perfectly transparent to the translator, is not rendered in English with all the necessary accuracy, both in terms of style and even of certain details of content.

   When I read it, it made me regret my stubbornness in not translating it into English myself: certainly, especially at the time, I would have fallen into many misunderstandings (I still found a number of them when I last reread it [and even more, I confess, while now finally preparing a new English version]), unlike Tülku Thondup, who can only be reproached for often translating the overall meaning without restoring the subtlety of the lexicon and the particular syntax of the Tibetan sentences. But, precisely, the style in English would not have been more awkward, and then it would have avoided many intermediaries and many misunderstandings - undoubtedly I would have had the pleasure and the honor of working with Tülku Thondup, instead of seeing my work treated as a raw material that is used without attributing to it the slightest part in the work.

   The discouragement that this situation produced, combined with the death of Nyoshül Khenpo (my main source of inspiration regarding Dzogchen) in 1999, and then of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche in 2002, my thesis which had to be completed and defended at that time, to which I must still add, vexation of vexations, the production of a French translation by some of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche’s disciples on the basis of Tülku Thondup’s translation, and many other demoralizing avenues that accumulated – all of this made me disgusted enough for a long time to put the finishing touches to this translation.

   Yet I never really abandoned it: it aged like a fine wine in a cellar; I constantly annotated it as I read and reflected. All its parts were confronted with a lot of parallel material in Tibetan literature, notably the five strong volumes of Longchenpa’s Fourfold Heart Essence (sNying thig ya bzhi) or his Seven Treasures (mDzod bdun), which I had to study meticulously in the course of preparing my thesis. If, at the beginning, the reading of Tülku Thondup’s translation was useful for me to see some mistakes I had made, it still came much too late: over the years, the Tibetan text has become even more transparent to me than the English (if only because it is intrinsically clearer: some parts of the English might have been written by someone serving as Tülku Thondup’s secretary who may not have been able to understand what the Tibetan scholar meant in his, despite everything, limited English). [Now that I am working on a “final” English translation, I find what I wrote about Tülku Thondup’s translation a bit excessive, as I finally still use it for some idiomatic or local phrases that are not found in any dictionary. I cannot copy Tülku Thondup’s formulation, but, when I try and understand how he made that sense from that text, it helps me tremendously to figure out what it actually means.

   I have benefited, since 1995, from the clarifications of several Tibetan masters and scholars well versed in this particular tradition, not to mention the detailed information (notably for some very rare words, or borrowed from the vernacular, or incorrectly spelled in the manuscript) that several learned Tibetan friends have been kind enough to give me. It would not be possible to give each of them their due, since this is a work that has been spread out over twenty years and also because it is very often explanations given on other corpora that have illuminated the meaning of certain passages in this one. Given the considerable time that has elapsed between the beginning and the end of my work on this text [it is still an ongoing process as for the English !] – between my twenty-first and my forty-sixth birthdays, in short – most of the points on which I initially stumbled seem to me today to be so childishly simple that I can no longer devote an explanatory note to them, giving thanks for explanations that are ultimately less clear than the text itself is to me today as it stands. There are also many difficulties about which I remained perplexed for a long time, but which were only due to the accumulation of copyist’s errors in the manuscript: as soon as the real text was restored, all obscurity vanished. Finally, the “online” materials available today are incomparably richer than what was available twenty years ago. I have made much use of the Rangjung Yeshe Wiki ( to resolve my remaining doubts, and the edition of the Seventeen Tantras at http:// wikisource. org/wiki is extremely valuable for quickly finding a quotation. The TBRC site ( is obviously a gold mine, and even more so since it allows to find passages in many Tibetan texts simply by typing a few words.

   However, I cannot refrain from expressing my special gratitude to Yongdzin Rinpoche, Lopön Tendzin Namdak and to Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung, his disciple. As masters of the Bön tradition, they are obviously not specialists in the texts of the Gongpa Zangthal in what they have of particular. But, as is well known, the Dzogchen also exist in their religion, in a surprisingly parallel form; their degree of knowledge of the detail of their own texts, as well as their generosity in sharing their vast science, have been of great help to me, when the Nyinmapas often left me in the dark – either to respect the “discipline of the arcane,” or sometimes – to be true – out of ignorance of the subtleties of their own literature.

[I was Yongdzin Rinpoche, Lopön Tenzin Namdak's main French interpreter for some years, which by the way gives great sense to what CRR told me when I was more or less 20, that I should learn the Tibetan dbu med script "to be able to read Nyingma and Bön manuscripts”…]

It is fourteen years since C. R. Lama is no more; I regret of course not having been able to publish the fruits of my work while he was alive: but it took all this time and the level of Tibetan that I finally acquired to bring it to a state that I judge worthy of being delivered to the editor. I think today, with much delay, that the result is worthy of the trust he placed in me, even though it is now certain that I will never present to the public the English translation he desired from me.”

With this general framework in mind, I will continue, in the next chapter, by reporting some episodes that marked the years I worked on the translation of this text under the often distant (in appearance) guidance of Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche.

Addition to the French text. - After the publication of my French translation in 2016, which preceded the writing of these few chapters of recollections on CRR, Keith Dowman’s “rewritten” version of Tülku Thondup’s translation was published in English. 

It is a book in every respect indefensible.

That is, it is a rewrite that was not done with an eye to the Tibetan text. In short, it is nothing more than a smoothing of the English text, but which injects into it, in addition to an improbably psychedelic vocabulary, real misunderstandings which deprive it of all reliability.

It is true that Tülku Thondup's English style is not very pleasant to read; it is true that his translation lacks some notes which would make it more usable; but if it contains obscurities or clumsinesses, there is absolutely no misunderstanding. Keith Dowman (or whoever he delegated the job to) had only to rewrite in better English what was nevertheless very clear in Tülku Thondup’s rather shaky English. However, without any reason, he sometimes “corrects” the translation by injecting misunderstandings.

There is typically a passage in which, after explaining that the master is forbidden to give this teaching to unqualified disciples, Tülku Tsullo moves on to the opposite symmetrical point: that the master is forbidden NOT to give this teaching if a qualified disciple comes along, because then he would be contributing to the interruption of the lineage, the loss of this tradition, etc. The Tibetan text is absolutely clear, the English translation of Tülku Thondup is also clear, but it doesn't fit in Keith Dowman’s head, for any reason, so he invents something else, turning the statement into a negation...

His text is full of this kind of stuff and that’s why it should not be read.

It is also unfortunate that the text was published with James Low’s preface, which James wrote before he had carefully looked at the translation and realized that it was unpublishable as it stood. This is also an aspect that makes this book unhealthy and gives it a kind of fraudulent character, since it seems to be clothed with the authority of the one of his disciples to whom CRR entrusted the care of its tradition, especially for the English-speaking world – whereas it was not James Low’s intention to authorize it, at least before further corrections. 

To read more of these memories, click here.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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