FEATURES|COLUMNS|Women in Buddhism

Found in Translation: Annie Bien

By Caitlin Dwyer
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-05-26 |

Annie Bien was just 18 months when her family immigrated to the United States via New York. Coming from Hong Kong, the Bien family was eager to explore their new country. Bien’s father was a practicing Buddhist, but her mother proclaimed the need to find a Western religion. “How do you think the kids are going to get comfortable in this country if you’re practicing Buddhism?” Mrs. Bien asked, and so she sent her children on a search for a new religion.

“My sister brought home the Mormons,” recalls Bien. “They were so nice! My mom made green tea and Chinese cookies.” What Mrs. Bien didn’t know was that Mormons don’t drink caffeinated beverages. When the tea was refused, Mrs. Bien pulled Annie into the kitchen. “She said, well, I have to drink tea, so we have to tell them to leave,” says Bien, laughing. “And that was the end of the search!”

Bien grew up straddling cultures and languages, never quite comfortable in either an American or a Chinese milieu. It wasn’t until she was much older, after she learned Tibetan and Sanskrit, became a translator of ancient Buddhist texts, and re-embraced her father’s Buddhism, that Bien found her own ways to explore her heritage.

Annie Bien. Image courtesy of the authorAnnie Bien. Image courtesy of the author

Now that she is a Buddhist translator affiliated with the 84000 project, a non-profit initiative of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche that seeks to translate and preserve Buddhist literature for public record, Bien’s own creative work also often responds to ancient Buddhist texts. Her poems are conversations with Buddhist tradition, but also reflections of her own immigrant identity, her relationship with her mother, and her engagement with language. In June this year, she will share her own translation and interpretation of a Buddhist sutra at the 15th Sakyadhita International Conference in Hong Kong.

In 1999, Bien was living in New York. She had gone to college, been required to take remedial English, and studied hard to become comfortable with the language. “I didn’t feel very good at any language,” she says. She was interested in her father’s old religion, but unsure about how to approach it. As an immigrant, she “never felt comfortable in my own skin—I felt too Chinese or not Chinese enough.”

Curious to learn about Tibet and Buddhism, she attended a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Audience members were asked to submit questions and, to her delight and trepidation, Bien’s was one of those picked. She asked: My father was a Buddhist and I really believe that I have a connection with Buddhism, but how can I be a truly compassionate person if I don’t feel comfortable about my own heritage?

To her surprise, the Dalai Lama addressed her question: if you really are interested in Buddhism, you will come to understand that compassion is a universal emotion, he told her. After the talk, Bien began to seek out a teacher, eventually choosing to study with Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, based at The Tibet Center in New York City.

She also began to audit Tibetan language classes at Columbia University. “They were all grad students and it was incredibly difficult and I was intimidated,” Bien recalls. “I went back to my teacher and said, ‘I’m really scared.’ He said to me, ‘Stay with the text, it will tell you everything you need to know; don’t be distracted.’” Her fear of failure, of not keeping up, was distracting her, she realized. From then on, she focused solely on the words themselves, mastering the nuances of Tibetan-English translation, and then adding Sanskrit to her arsenal. Bien eventually began to work with the 84000 initiative, focusing on translating canonical Tibetan texts into English.

Annie Bien with Khyongla Rato Rinpoche at the Jangchup Lamrim teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Rato Monastery in Mundgod, India. Image courtesy of Annie BienAnnie Bien with Khyongla Rato Rinpoche at the Jangchup Lamrim teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Rato Monastery in Mundgod, India. Image courtesy of Annie Bien

Her first book of poetry, Plateau Migration, sprang from a project translating the poems of the 6th Dalai Lama. “The poems were so beautiful, so short. They’re very personal. They’re sung and they’re very romantic,” says Bien. In her spare time, she began to write replies in verse. That volume, published in 2012, became a correspondence across time and language with a historical Buddhist leader.

When Bien was working on Plateau Migration, her mother became ill with Alzheimer’s. A number of the poems are based on excerpts from her mother’s diary. “She kept voluminous diaries to help her learn English . . . half in English and half in Chinese,” says Bien. As her mother’s condition worsened, Bien asked her teacher for help. He recommended the White Tara Mantra, which is often recited for a long life.

When Bien introduced the mantra, her mother quickly perked up. She knew the White Tara Mantra; during World War II, hiding in a closet during the bombings of Shanghai, Mrs. Bien had recited the mantra with other women. After that, Mrs. Bien began to give her daughter old Buddhist malas and other practice implements belonging to her father, passing on their family’s Buddhist heritage.

Bien credits her mother’s scholarly interest and careful record-keeping when it came to language learning as essential to her own translation work. “I’ve always liked word etymology a lot, and I’ve always been interested in language—that came from my mom because she was always writing in these journals, trying to learn one language or another,” says Bien. Now that she reads and writes at least four languages, Bien has found a way to speak across her various identities, including continuing to respond in poetry to Buddhist sutras. Some of these new responses are included in her latest book of poems, Under Shadows of Stars, forthcoming in 2017.

The way that her translation work has intersected with her creative writing has been unexpected. “I hadn’t really planned on using another language or using Buddhist thought in a technical way in my writing. Buddhism has more affected me as a practice, a meditative way of being. So I don’t use a lot of Buddhist terminology [in the poems],” she says. Primarily, she’s interested in the process of reading—how engaging with language can be a powerful contemplative practice.

“When you’re studying [a Buddhist text], you’re trying to see if it’s applicable to your daily life,” she explains. But readers and translators must be aware of what expectations and judgments they, as modern readers, bring to the act of reading. She says we should ask, “How much is a secondary response to the words, and how much might [genuinely] come out of the reading?” In other words: don’t become distracted; stick with the text. “And that part, I find, is a really interesting exploration of language,” observes Bien. These are the issues that Bien plans to discuss during her workshop at the Sakyadhita International Conference in June.

It has been a long journey from Mormon tea and cookies to international translation, but Buddhism is becoming “more organic” for Bien all the time. As for her mother, who passed away a few years ago? Mrs. Bien told her daughter before she died: “You’re a lot nicer than you used to be. I think that Buddhist stuff is really good.”

See more

Annie Bien
Annie Bien – Candrottara, Beyond the Moon: How Translation Moves Words into Contemplative Practice (15th Sakyadhita International Conference)
84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha

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