CORVALLIS, Ore. - An Oregon State University philosopher is translating into English one of the most important texts in the Buddhist canon for a commemorative publication that will be given to 5,000 people attending the public teachings of the Dalai Lama this April in Los Angeles.
Jim Blumenthal, an assistant professor specializing in Buddhist philosophy, has completed a rough translation of "60 Stanzas of Reasoning" and will fine-tune his work in the next few weeks.
The text was written by a second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, who arguably is the most important thinker in Buddhist history next to the Buddha, Blumenthal says. Nagarjuna describes in the text Buddha's view on perfect wisdom and the nature of reality.
Blumenthal also recently completed his own book, a study of one of the prominent interpreters of Nagarjuna's thought, a late Indian Buddhist philosopher named Shantaraksita, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. The book, "The Ornament of the Middle Way," is being published by Snow Lion Publications in Ithaca, N.Y., and is due for release in early March.
"There are now more than 4 million Buddhists in the U.S. and it is one of the fastest-growing religions in the country," Blumenthal said. "Yet only about 3 percent of the Buddhist canon has been translated to English. In the West, we've hardly scratched the surface."
The Dalai Lama has been giving public teachings in the U.S. for more than 25 years and Blumenthal has met him a handful of times.
"I hope to again this spring," he said. "He is an amazing person, without a doubt the most incredible person I've met. He practices what he preaches. He does more than talk about non-violence, he incorporates it into every activity of his life, every day.
"He has an incredible presence when you meet him face-to-face that is beyond words," Blumenthal added.
Translating Tibetan into English by itself is difficult, Blumenthal admits, and the works of Nagarjuna are even more complicated. The text is written in verse and depends on syllable counts. It is intended to be written as a terse guideline, accompanied by oral explanation from a qualified teacher - such as the Dalai Lama.
Blumenthal first became interested in Buddhism while taking a metaphysics course as an undergrad at the University of San Diego. He went on to pursue his doctorate in Asian religions at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied Tibetan Buddhism for six years.
"Tibetan Buddhism seemed to me to be the richest form of Buddhism, and they are the most thorough inheritors of original Indian Buddhism," he said.
Blumenthal since has spent more than two years in Nepal and India on a half-dozen trips and plans to go to Tibet for the first time this summer. Most of the important teachers of Tibetan Buddhism live in Nepal, he pointed out, after being exiled when China took over Tibet.
The Oregon State University philosopher also spent three months living in a Tibetan monastery in southern India as part of a research project while at OSU.
"It is the largest Buddhist monastery in the world today with more than 5,000 monks," he said. "I went to receive traditional oral commentary on some philosophical texts I was studying for my book. I would go to the lama's room each morning and he would read the texts line by line, unpacking the meaning of every phrase and word as we went along.
"Outside in the courtyard, the monks would practice debate for four to six hours a day," he added. "It was how they refined their philosophic reasoning. They thought it was a little strange that a lay person would study so intently. But they were very warm and welcoming."
Blumenthal said many students at OSU are interested in learning about Buddhism and classes fill up quickly.
"Some hear bits and pieces about Buddhism in a world religions class, and others are drawn because the Beastie Boys or some other young bands are into it," he said.