How can reading a kungfu book as a young girl in China lead to a leap into a Buddhist path, Vajrayana in particular? How to practice into the high-tech business world in Silicon Valley? And how to translate the wisdom-intent of great masters of the present? Please listen to this conversation in which Tracy Tan shares how Buddhism, together with Daoism and Confucianism is rooted in Chinese culture since ancient times, how to bring practice into a life in today’s world and go beyond words in order to accomplish our aspirations.
Growing up in the metropolitan city of Shanghai, Tracy Tan found herself growing up in a land where Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism started to flourish over two thousand years ago and became all strongly part of daily life. China has a long history of human civilizations of which traces can be found till this very day. Although many people might not be aware of it. “It is more a way of life.”
Tracy grew up in a family that was exposed to western culture for generations and has a Christian background. She tells how, since her grandfather, family-members went to England or the United States to study. This impacted her strongly as a young girl. “I was always very curious about the outside world.” Yet, she said life was pretty routine since people are taught to be obedient and things are always in a set-order. This is similar for other Asian countries. Life, therefore, was pretty normal. “Don’t make trouble for others, be a good person by listening to seniors, do not question too much and so on – join the quiet.”
However, Tracy tells how she was on the rebellious side as a young girl, always trying to find the why. “Why do I need to do this or that? I thought that everybody should be different. There is a commonality we can share, but in the sense of adopting an ideology or particular value concerning life, you should be able to pick your own path.”
She came to the United States by herself to do a Masters Degree, MBA, at Boston University and stayed to work in Silicon Valley, California, for High-Tech Tycoons for about twenty years in the domain of strategic planning, budgeting, financial reporting and so on. Tracy had been exposed to Buddhism in China just before she went to the United States, but it was only then that she started to learn about the different Buddhist traditions. Nonetheless, she stayed with the Vajrayana-practice her first Kagyü-guru had taught her back home.
After combining the world of Business and Buddhism for a long time, Tracy became a full time translator for Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Nitartha and Nalandabodhi since 2012 and does so till this very day. Translating a teacher directly or scripture continues to teach her, she explains, how crucial it is to have a pure motivation on your spiritual path.
Why (and when) did you take the leap into a buddhist path?
It happened pretty naturally actually. Maybe I was not able to leap too much. It felt pretty natural. Actually, my grandma, who brought me up, was a very loyal Christian, had such a background and prayed everyday. Up to the age of 15 I prayed too, I was a self- or grandma-imposed Christian. I still remember a lot of those prayers and songs. Once you get introduced to the theory of evolution, you wonder whether there is a single creator. Soon this seemed not to be enough and I grew out of it.
Since our family had a Christian background, I was exposed to Buddhism relatively late through a very popular kung fu novel. Every modern Chinese probably knows this novel. I read it. It talks about this idea of non-attachment. That was the first time I heard about that and fell into it right away. When I was eighteen I was very fortunate to be introduced to a Vajrayana-master. There were only a handful of masters like that in China, with an authentic lineage of Karma-Kagyu (the most influential Tibetan buddhist lineage outside Tibet that is studied and practiced for over 900 years and all around the world today). That’s how my journey started – very natural.
It surprises me that a kung fu novel discusses Buddhism.
That’s probably because Buddhism is in the blood of Chinese people. Buddhism came to China two thousand years ago. Nowadays China is not thought of as a typical buddhist country, but the influence is everywhere. The Theravada school came, but the Mahayana school had the biggest influence. (The first is one of the oldest schools adhering to the teachings of the Pali canon & the so-called Elders who followed the tradition of the senior monks of the first Buddhist sangha. The second, also called Bodhisattvayana, considers its teachings to be the second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma by Buddha Shakyamuni characterized by its dual emphasis on wisdom and compassion).
Even for ordinary people, without a background in Buddhism, it became a mix of religion and life doctrine. It influenced generations. It has mixed with Confucianism and Daoism for example. So it is very natural for a movie or novel to talk about it. People draw the essence from these traditions. The novel itself was not meant to be a book to introduce Buddhism, but there are figures like Shaolin monks in the book who occasionally say things like ‘don’t be so attached’ when trying to stop people from killing. ‘Be kind, don’t think everything is as real as you think.’ That really drew my attention.
Why did non-attachment speak to you so strongly as a teenager?
It came to me pretty quickly that most of my emotional pain, my struggles – as a rebellious teenager for the sake of being rebellious – were because I took things to be real. So, when somebody says ‘there can be another perspective on these things’ attracted me right away. A kung fu novel, by a Shaolin master, that is quite convincing for a person who is fifteen years old. And it was also about the time that my Christian belief collapsed a little bit.
So, when one thing started to fall away or crumbled slowly another world was introduced?
It was quite consecutive. I think, before I fell into Buddhism, I maybe was an atheist. That is how typically people were taught in school. They tell you that there is no God for example and that we live in a material world. But that does not help with the mental struggle at all. At least for me. So, Buddhism filled that space. It made sense.
Then you started to follow this Vajrayana-master. That seems quite a big step.
At that age (around 18), you are just very curious about learning everything that is different. With my little Christian background I kind of always left the door open that there is something in life which is beyond material things. That is why it felt very natural to me, I guess.
Then there was this rare opportunity with this teacher, my first guru giving dharma-teachings. Giving very basic teachings, nothing fancy. The four reminders for example. There were almost fifty people in a very small room. To hear something different was very precious.
Would you say this is also where your buddhist path started?
I think so. Also because I took refuge, not just with this guru but also at another Mahayana-temple. Did I know Buddhism that well? No I didn’t. I tried to do the practices, like Ngöndro and so on. But I was just being introduced to do this, based on his memory and own experiences.
My knowledge of Buddhism till this point came from this kung fu novel. It was not readily available for ten or twenty years because of the Cultural Revolution. My generation did not grow up with Buddhism. But you could find a monastery that does a religious ceremony. But that is very different from my definition of Buddhism.
How would you define Buddhism then?
At Nalandabodhi we are introduced to the view, the meditation and conduct in a systematic and approachable way. When I was exposed to Mahayana-buddhism it was mainly rituals, practice chanting for a ceremony for a newborn baby or someone that passed. Nobody explained to you why that was.
In other words, Buddhism was present in a cultural sense or way of life, but less in teaching about the meaning or consciously practicing with the view in mind?
Yes and no. I think this is generally true for the average person, the mass public. It has always been the case. But the tradition of Buddhist practice has always been very serious and there have been many accomplished practitioners over the two thousand years of Chinese Buddhism.
It is not that easy to be exposed to this for an ordinary person. A young girl like me, for example, growing up in a metropolitan city about thirty years ago. Nowadays, for the newer generations of Chinese, they are luckier. They can access the internet for example and at least find things to start looking for more. I think I was lucky for that matter.
In the long history of Buddhism in China, you said it also got mixed with other traditions like Confucianism and Daoism. What does that ‘mix’ look like?
Confucianism probably has the longest history in China, but Daoism and Buddhism started thriving in China in the same period around three hundred Before the Common Era (BCE). Chinese culture, from the very beginning, integrated with different ethnic cultures. There were a lot of wars, one conquers the other, marriages happen, and so it goes on. People adapt easily to each other’s traditions. For this reason there were also very few religious wars.
Confucianism, the core of it, is about our current life and how you behave in society. There is an established social order that you are supposed to follow. To be kind and train yourself in that behaviour. Daoism basically says: ‘Don’t get too smart. There are so many things about this universe that you don’t know. Human beings are like insects, so ignorant. Don’t rely on yourself. Don’t be so active. Unite with nature, heaven and earth.’ It is not focused on society. There is a traditional saying in Chinese culture that says: if you don’t do well in society, then you run away and become a Daoist practitioner. A Daoist practitioner focuses on body & mind, and lives a long healthy life with the use of Qi practices and medicine.
Then Buddhism came, especially Mahayana tradition, which filled the gap. Mahayana had the focus not just trying to do things for the benefit of yourself, but also trying to look at all the miserable people in this world and trying to help them. You are a practitioner, with this duty to help. In a way this brings Confucianism and Daoism together.
How can you decide between one of these, or don’t people feel they need to make such a decision?
Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism melted together and became a guidance or doctrine for behaviour for people, unconsciously. It becomes part of life.
At what point did you decide to consciously pursue a buddhist path?
I was naturally attracted to this idea of non-attachment and heard more and more from my teacher. He also gave us pith-instructions. He took us through and jumped from religious practice to the core of the Buddhist path: work with your mind. At that time I could not understand deeply what that meant, but it was certainly revolutionary for my mind to learn that there is a way to work with our own mind.
The second concept I was introduced to was non-view. I thought that was really cool. My zodiac is a libra. So I always like a balanced way: it is not this, not that, it is both okay.
You also mentioned that you experience emotional pain. How does working with the mind help in dealing with this?
In Vajrayana there is this idea of liberation upon hearing. To be merely introduced to this idea that a self may not exist, and things may not be as true as they manifest, that itself is a big relief. Especially for a young girl.
But then you decided to study Economics & Business in Boston.
That was actually according to my family’s wishes. I wanted to go to a Buddhist Institute in China, but my family said: ‘No’. My school teacher told my mother that I had this crazy idea and needed to be stopped. Economics & Business was not bad.
In fact, you entered the world of business and specifically High-Tech in the famous Silicon Valley. How did you combine this world with that of Buddhism?
I think it went head-to-head. I gained more experience and regular working status in life. I got married as well. It was quite normal. At the same time I got more introduced to Buddhism. I kept the relationship with my guru, even though at that time there was no internet. But there was snail mail. Within a month you can maybe connect one time. It took two weeks for a letter to go there. Yet, it was very reliable. You treasure it more, because you think and write. And you get something back in hand-writing as well. I was also very upset, because my teacher scolded me every time: ‘You still did not get it.’ (Laughing)
In the mid-nineties there were many teachers that came to Silicon Valley and I was exposed to different Yana’s in Buddhism. The economy was booming, a lot of activities and many immigrants from Asia. This was a perfect time for the Dharma to spread a bit. I started to become a translator, from English to Chinese mostly and sometimes the other way around about the Three Yana’s. I started to learn more about the view-part of Buddhist practice. I had a good opportunity to learn.
Where did Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche enter this story?
My guru passed away, but was kind enough to introduce me to Mahamudra (a tradition of methods of meditation based on direct realization of the mind’s true nature, often seen as the highest meditation practice within Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk lineages of Tibetan Buddhism). He used a book that was now already available in China, at the beginning of this century. He was using the Third Karmapa’s Prayer to Mahamudra. Obviously that was a very profound text to teach somebody. To understand is one thing, then to be able to practice is another. He introduced Mahamudra to me before he passed away, maybe also because he felt there was not too much time left for him and I was a long-term student.
I found it extremely difficult to practice Mahamudra on my own. At that time, I happened to buy the book Wild Awakening by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. I went home, read it and felt: ‘Wow, this is phenomenal! I need to find this teacher.’ This is how I found Rinpoche, through the book. It spoke to my heart and was very much needed. I had so many questions and needed a teacher badly. This is how Rinpoche and Nalandabodhi entered my life.
And then you became a full time translator.
I was already a translator part time. It has always been my hobby or passion. I never thought about leaving my job and becoming a fulltime translator. Though I was certainly encouraged by different teachers to do so. Many Tibetan teachers expressed the wish for me to learn some Tibetan because it will help a lot in translating. That kind of got into my mind but I did not imagine I would actually do it. Until 2012. Would you call this a leap? Maybe that was a little leap.
Rinpoche was kind enough to allow me to practice Mahamudra at that time. Because the teaching on the Ocean of Definitive Meaning is profound and detailed, and Rinpoche guided us through meditations, it changed my perspective of life. If I look back on thirty years of being a Buddhist, there were a couple of occasions that Dharma changed my life. This is certainly one, which had the biggest impact.
How did this change your perspective towards life?
It is not external. When I was first introduced to Buddhism, that was revolutionary. The second was when I practiced meditation seriously. But those were more external in a way. For Mahamudra, when I was introduced and started to practice, it changed me as a person internally. It broadened my perspective on life. It broke the boundary of self and other. I was very happy.
Rinpoche said there were no Mahamudra-practitioners that did not work. So, I went back to work as well. I had a very busy life, but I was able to stick to practice everyday. I was very cheerful. I remember, the first thing people do in the world of High-Tech is to go to the breakroom to get coffee. The company offers free coffee, so that is how you start your day and you meet people on the way to this breakroom. That was really cheerful, sincerely. To see all these people. I started to see this boundary between myself and others melt. Along with this was this sense of great liberation, of relief. It is like your mind is expanded. If you take your mind as a hard-drive, your memory has been expanded by ten or hundred times. Sense of freedom is very true. That had a profound impact on my life.
Nonetheless, you currently are again a full time translator?
It is hard to describe, but it is a calling from the heart. You feel it is time to make some change. It was kind of a struggle, because my career so to speak was on a rising trend. I remember I went to Nepal and visited Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. He was coming out, three o’clock in the afternoon, in the winter, and there was hardly electricity. He came out and sat in the sun. I was in a guesthouse, my room was next to him. The way he sat was so spacious. I decided I should give myself a reason to be close to him. Though the motivation was not that pure. I did not decide to become a translator for the benefit of all sentient beings, but initially wanted to be close to Khenpo Rinpoche.
What is it like to translate directly for a teacher, like Khenpo Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche or work on text?
The struggle is the deadline. I remember Mitra Tyler said one time that a common thing among translators is not being able to meet the deadline. You really have to be disciplined. Other than that, it is really joyful. The oral interpretation and written translation go quite well together.
For oral interpretation you need to have clear thinking, you have to be able to think on your feet, you can not wait. There is no time to wait. Written translation always feels more like a jigsaw puzzle to me. You don’t always know whether you get it right or not. Sometimes you are trying to look for one verse, maybe you need a whole day. The time-consuming part is not about translating itself, but trying to get the information correct. Tibetan language has that beauty of being ambiguous sometimes. While I was learning Tibetan some said: ‘For Tibetan translation, the most important thing you need is blessings.’ I feel so too.
How to solve the jigsaw puzzle?
I am a bit lucky, compared to English-speaking-only translators. Because of the abundant translations, Tripitaka, in China and Buddhist tradition. After all, Buddhism has existed in China for almost two thousand years. You can always do a cross reference between Tibetan, Chinese and English. That helps so much. If you are trying, for example, from Tibetan to Chinese. Chances are that work has been done already by English translators. Because the western approach is very academic, it is usually a very good piece of work. Sometimes, within those ambiguities, it helps. And sometimes when you read English and compare it to Tibetan, you feel that English is actually not so accurate. Then you use your own language and really know what it means.
Does your translating work also inform your practice?
Of course. First of all, it teaches me to have the right motivation. Being a translator, as any kind of work for Dharma, only has meaning or makes sense when you have a pure motivation. That is so important. It is also an experiential thing for me, not just saying this. The more ego you bring to translation, the more miserable you are. In this translation world you have a lot of opportunities to grow your ego or bring your ego into it. The pure motivation of just being a channel for the pure Dharma to flow through, not contaminate it with your egocentric way, is crucial. Regardless whether it is oral translation or written translation. Ten out of ten times people know it: it is a heart-to-heart connection. You cannot cheat. Your guru knows it. You know it. The people know it. Whether you are speaking from egocentric ways or pure motivation. Your motivation is most important and strong support for practice from this perspective.
Can I have two? I think from an emptiness-perspective, the question I ask myself most of the time is, how can I exhaust the seemingly true phenomena of samsara? We talk about this all the time, but we forget this all the time too. Not until we realise this completely can we become truly enlightened, something that happens naturally and can not be forced. The second is about compassion. I constantly think, how can I really be of help to people? Real in the sense that it is not from ego-perspective. Sometimes we think we are helping, but we only help in the way we want.
IF YOU CONSIDER TO TAKE A LEAP…
Not so much advice, but something to share. I feel: don’t force it. Always go back to the question: what do I want to achieve? What do I really want? If I am making this leap, am I doing this just out of some unsettled mind, as a human being with the tendency to grab the next thing that I think is better than my current situation? There is a saying, in the professional world as well, the grass is always greener on the other side. Be prepared if you want to take a leap, to fully take the consequence. It is not anybody else’s fault if it does not work out. Don’t blame anyone, including your guru. You wanted it. You asked for it. Thinking very clearly about what you really want and then looking at the priorities in your life, make the right choice. Better than first leap and then be sorry. There are many ways to gradually expand a beautiful spiritual journey. You have to take full responsibility for your life. It is your life.