Why Study Tibetan?

Why Study Tibetan?

A Language Created for Translating Dharma

Translation literally means “to carry across.” It is said that the Tibetan language was created with the purpose of translating Dharma texts. Translations into English are still works in progress and in the process of being improved upon. 

The terminology and understanding of translators at present is not adequate to convey certain meanings of the Dharma.

Tarthang Tulku

Milking the Painted Cow (2005)

In general, when translating any Buddhist teachings from Tibetan into English, especially precious wisdom teachings, there is a language problem, since it is difficult to connect substantial, nihilistic ordinary expressions with insubstantial wisdom expressions.

Dharma words are connected to mind, mind is connected to wisdom, and wisdom is intangible. Therefore, whoever translates Dharma must try predominately to write about the intangible qualities of wisdom . . . If words are chosen with the misinterpretation of substantial word habit, these qualities can be turned into ordinary intellectual, philosophical, or material conceptions.

For those who like to study or practice Buddhism, it is of great benefit to learn literary Tibetan rather than reading translations, since it is the most vast and profound language in the world in this generation for conveying pure spiritual meaning.

Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

Sunlight Speech That Dispels the Darkness of Doubt (2015)

What might people be surprised to learn about the Tibetan language?

Tibetan is the largest and most comprehensive repository of the Dharma in the world. The Tibetan written language was specifically and consciously designed to translate the teachings of the Buddha. Unlike Chinese and other East Asian languages, Tibetan is alphabetic and largely mirrors the Sanskrit alphabet, thereby affording highly precise and accurate translations.

What type of person is the Tibetan language course designed for? Or, what kind of person would particularly be interested?

Many Tibetan students are engaged in traditional study, including a personal engagement with the ngondro or preliminary practices. The study of Tibetan provides the time to engage traditional Dharma materials in much greater depth and detail than simply reading translations in English.

How much homework is there?

We recommended that students engage in Tibetan for a minimum of 20 minutes each day.

What types of reading / texts do you frequently work with for Beginning classes? What about for Intermediate?

Once students have grasped the basics of the alphabet and grammatical structure, we start with short prayers and texts, gradually moving towards longer works like the Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva. Our focus is on writers central to the Nyingma tradition such as Lama Mipham and Longchenpa.

What does the Beginning class start out focusing on?

Beginning Tibetan starts with studying the alphabet and then moves into a close study of the phrase connectors that form the unique grammatical structure of classical Tibetan.

I started to study Tibetan as a way to deepen my understanding of the prayers and practices recited in  my practice. The language class here is taught as written Tibetan, starting with the very basics like alphabet and pronunciation, and a systematic look at the grammar. This is supplemented very early with translating text, which lifts it out of a purely mechanical language study into Dharma practice. Applying what is learned in the grammar in this way builds a sense of the structure of the language, and vocabulary is acquired fluidly. Most of all, I have come to treasure the effort Mark makes to clarify the meaning of the text as Dharma teaching. The longer I study the more the beauty of language and the texts shine!
L. H.

Tibetan language student, Nyingma Institute