Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

A Classical Tibetan Reader - Preface

Selections from Renowned Works with Custom Glossaries

Preface

While teaching classical Tibetan during the last twenty years, my students and I both would at times feel frustrated with the limited choice of pedagogical aides available for beginning students in English. From the beginning, I started compiling Tibetan-English glossaries for the selection of stories that we read in class. The book in your hands is the result. It contains twelve Tibetan stories, each with its own accompanying glossary, supplying meanings specific to the context in each story. Once they have found the meaning of each word, the students themselves can attempt to translate pieces of Tibetan literature. If they do this ahead of time, valuable class time can be used for discussion about especially difficult idioms, fine points of grammar, and the like. In my experience this is an excellent means for teaching the language, beginning with students in their first year of study.

I think that even now, twenty years later, there is a shortage of resources available to beginning students of classical Tibetan. Although today there are plenty of resources out there, they are bound to overwhelm the beginning student with far more than they are prepared to know. This reader attempts to assist the beginning students who find themselves intimidated by the array of possible meanings within a multitude of texts. The existing Tibetan-English dictionaries were not made with beginners in mind. In my experience, after a year of studying classical Tibetan with the help of this reader, students had little difficulty in using the electronic dictionaries available on the internet, with their great variety of meanings for each word. Furthermore they acquired a certain basic vocabulary for reading the classical language.

Beginning students benefit most from the reading of narratives. Though stories may be regarded as “simple” (as in some ways they are), this is exactly why they are easier for new learners. These stories are of course not just stories. They convey basic Buddhist teachings. As several of the stories chosen here are well known, they supply those students who know them already with a special joy when they find that they are enabled to read them in Tibetan. What is more, since all these stories have been translated into English, beginning students can benefit from checking themselves against the translations. Unlike some primers that make up some very simple stories, these stories are “real” Tibetan stories written for the sake of Tibetan people. I think being assured of reading the real thing is also important.

As I see it, this reader is unique in the combination of these three things: First it is geared to the beginning level, unlike readers based on philosophical texts that go into much subtlety and details. I do recommend such readers to my more advanced students. Second, this reader is intended for those who want to learn classical Tibetan for reading purposes. For students who are mainly interested in studying modern spoken Tibetan or modern literary Tibetan, there are other resources available. Thirdly, for the most part this reader contains only stories written in Tibetan for Tibetans. It is based in original Tibetan compositions with natural Tibetan style and syntax, rather than translations from Sanskrit. Since the Tibetan translations are very faithful to the original Sanskrit, the syntax of Tibetan texts translated from Sanskrit has its own characteristics and in my opinion confuses beginning students. For understanding Tibetan syntax—one of the biggest challenges in studying this language—students must read works originally written in Tibetan.

I use stories from this selection only for the first year. At the beginning of the school year, I direct my students to two useful internet sites: Tibetan Writing Course, which teaches how to write and pronounce the letters and letter combinations, and The Tibetan Language Student, which in addition offers some basic grammar instruction. I spend the first five weeks teaching the writing system and some very basic grammar, after which I continue to teach the grammar with the help of stories from this reader. This method derives from my philosophy of teaching languages.

I always begin with the story of Saraha; students love it, it is telling and short, and the unnamed woman has a significant role in it. The stories on Bodhanath stūpa and Padmasaṃbhava, being relatively easy, can be read next. The Bodhanath story contains many repetitions that help vocabulary acquisition. The story of Padmasaṃbhava, while grammatically simple, conveys profound messages about the path, the role of the guru, the mandala, and so on. The story of Atiśa, being a little more difficult, should come at the very end.

The way I see it, there are two very different approaches to language instruction. One of them supposes that students must be familiar with most of the important grammatical rules before they can read a piece of literature. In this system the students usually learn many separate sentences that demonstrate each of the rules one by one in a rational progression. However, these sentences are usually out of context and are therefore often overly ambiguous. The other approach maintains that context is of utmost importance and all the rest will follow. This is a more intuitive approach that relies more on human beings’ innate abilities to acquire language skills.

My approach tends toward the second. While I do believe in teaching grammar, I also believe that only by reading can students learn how to read. They need to actively participate in the learning effort, and figure out for themselves how the new language works, and they will do this not by memorizing rules but by understanding sentences in their context. After finding out the meaning of each of the words from the glossary, the students will try to understand the sentences. When they have understood, whether by themselves or with the help of a teacher or a translation, they will be able to internalize their understanding, in their own terms.

I wish all those embarking on the adventurous journey of learning classical Tibetan would enjoy the marvelous rewards this experience can offer.

 

How to cite this document:
© Yael Bentor, A Classical Tibetan Reader (Wisdom Publications, 2013)

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