Languages are a mystery to me. My own native language, English, remains as mysterious to me today as it was when I first chanted A, B, C in nursery school. Then came French, which I loved the idea of, but hated its finiky reality (and still do.) So why I then took German as my third language I will never know. I have never really learnt a language thoroughly. I just grab at the odd verb and noun and repeat them loudly until someone asks, “Would you rather speak English?” Hard to believe, I know, but after more than eighteen years living in Germany, my German is only slightly more advanced than that of an 18 month old native baby. Sad, no?
All of which made my foray into the world of Tibetan-English translation such an un-get-overable shock. Throughout my career as a Buddhist student, I never once considered learning Tibetan. I can barely bring to mind the most basic terms that have been repeated to me ad nauseam for more than a quarter of a century, and the idea of having to string them together inspires cold sweats and palpitations! Nevertheless, a frisky demon with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous entered the minds of the great and the good who assign me projects, and, for better or for worse, I am now connected with a couple of accomplished Buddhist scholars whose priorities include the translation of Tibetan texts into contemporary English. And it was through them that I came across the rhino.
I mean, what would you have done with a rough translation of the sentence, “I have now experienced sensual pleasures more than a rhino?”
My first thought—although as it turned out, not my best—was that it was a comment on the sex life of a rhinoceros. (A bit obvious, though.) But given that the context was the nam tar of a beloved Tibetan teacher who lived in Kham and who would have been hard pressed to distinguish a rhino from a yak, it seemed unlikely. No other thoughts followed that first stab, so instead of wracking my already throbbing brains, I requested clarification.
The first thing I learnt was that rhinos are not Tibetan natives—which I’d sort fo guessed. That a rhino has never, and probably will never set foot on the plateau did not surprize me in any way. Yet, somewhere back in the mists of time, a Tibetan translator came across a description of a beast with a single horn, and now, god knows how many centuries later, the most recent English equivalent of the metaphor he originated seems to be ‘rhino’. Why not a unicorn, I wondered? Or a narwhal? Then I pulled myself up quite sharply and vowed to stop thinking. Thinking really isn’t much help in the Tibetan Buddhist world.
Then I twigged that it isn’t the rhino that’s the big deal here, it’s his horn (do ‘her’ rhinos also have horns, I wonder?) The single horn. Of course, my clever-dick mind immediately conjured any number of videos and photos of I’ve seen of rhinos and told me, in no uncertain terms, that many rhinos have two horns. But that’s an irrelevant detail from the Tibetan point of view. As far as they are concerned, the rhino has just one horn, and therefore is the perfect candidate to represent the number ‘one.’ A conclusion I don’t think any other nationality would have reached, but which makes perfect sense to a Tibetan mind. Let’s move on…
My next question was, does ‘sensual pleasures’ refer to sex? And again, my modern mind was in entirely the wrong arena. Here ‘sensual pleasures’ means ‘life.’ And as the writer was a great master who had developed absolute renunciation for samsara and nirvana, ‘life’ doesn’t refer to sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and all our modern ideas about living life to the full, but his spiritual life. Which makes the whole phrase mean something like, “I have lived a full life.” One might even extrapolate ‘satisfying.’
So that’s the rhino sorted. On one level at least. There are, as always, outer, inner and secret meanings to be considered, and so if the final draft doesn’t convey any of the above, don’t be surprised. Or I might have misunderstood everything I’ve been told and find I have to start again. Again.