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Why do the practice in Tibetan?

"Trungpa Rinpoche, who spoke better English than most of the people I know, spent literally years working with his translation team, refining and polishing translations of the long Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara sadhanas until they were not only accurate but read well. All that is lacking is that the stanzas don't adapt to traditional melodies and chanting styles.

I enjoy chanting short sadhanas in Tibetan, but for practices that go on for three hours or so, like the two mentioned above, I really prefer English. Moreover, the first-ranked English language translators working within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages today are so skilled that one can hardly compare the quality of their efforts to the translations that were being done 20-30 years ago.

My main teacher, Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche, when asked for perhaps the tenth time in the course of a retreat why we had to practice in a language that no one could understand, said, "Because it was the wish of the Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, it was the wish of Kalu Rinpoche and because it is my wish! (any more dumb questions?)" 

I don't know whether he convinced any of the questioners, but he certainly made his intentions clear. When it all comes down, I try to honor the wishes of the teacher who gave me the practice.  ... . "

~ Chris at The Kagyu Mailing List

Sacred Language has a Purpose

Sadhanas are in literary Tibetan which uses honorific vocabulary and conventions not found in conversational Tibetan.  They are also use cryptic "dakini"  language, and poetic turns of phrase.

"I once read something from a sadhana to a couple of lay Tibetan 
friends. They complimented me on my Tibetan. I thanked them, but said I didn't understand what I had read.  One replied matter- of-factly, "We don't understand it either."

... sacred languages [fulfils a special function in] communicating with the divine. It is common to many religions, and has the function of distinguishing sacred, transcendent experience from mundane experience.

Anne Klein has a very interesting discussion in her introduction to Path to the Middle about the oral uses of texts in Tibetan practices, and how they differ from the uses of texts in cultures like ours." 

~ K. Dorje to the Kagyu email list


In a sadhana that was designed in Tibetan, once the deity is generated, syllables are added to the lines of verse that change the metre [length of the line and its rhythm, beats or stresses] when we chant or sing.  Then, later, the metre reverts to its original form.  There is a good reason for this, and it is not well replicated in other languages.

Dharma should be taught in the language of the listeners, said Buddha Shakyamuni, which is how and why he sent his disciples off in different directions.  

Mantras or incantations are to be in Sanskrit [if born of that tradition.]

For Karma Kagyu the feeling is that sadhana and puja are to be in Tibetan especially if they are part of lineage traditions.  We read the translation in our own language to be certain of what the ritual means and what it entails.


Melody is nice but many teachers will say that it is relatively unimportant, unless it is part of a revealed practice.  It is primarily a means for keeping people in unison during the recitation.  That is not to say that there aren't any beautifully moving liturgies in Tibetan.  There are, and they ought to be preserved.

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