He is none other than the late Garma Chen-Chi (CC) Chang (Garma being is Dharma name in Tibetan), whose passing exactly twenty years ago almost to the date marks yesterday as a special one of note. I first came upon the name several months back from an email invitation from Sister Nancy to attend a talk to be given by his surviving wife, Mrs. Helena Chang as blogged here. The talk was later postponed due to unforeseen circumstances, until two days ago on May 24, 2008.
Until two days ago, I was still scouting the Internet on any form of biography that could afford a glimpse into this great man of scholarship and selfless contributions in propagating the teachings of the Buddha despite formidable odds at the personal level. The best I could find is this biographical sketch (in Chinese) that is more factual than on what drove Garma CC Chang on his epic quest, with occasional anecdotes of how his way has influenced others most fortunate to have crossed paths with him and excerpts from two eulogies written by the late CT Shen and Venerable Ri Huei. However, I was not able to find the full texts of the two eulogies online.
The other valuable online source in this regard is CT Shen's 1996 talk on his learning sojourn in Buddhism, again in Chinese, wherein he paid a glowing tribute to his mentor and friend, Garma CC Chang. In his talk, CT Shen, another great Buddhist practitioner whose philanthropy in bestowing to the Buddhist cause is legendary and who passed away recently in 2007, attributed Garma CC Chang as the second most important personality in influencing beneficially his own somewhat similar journey, second only to his own mother.
Thus, I began to piece together in a somewhat rudimentary manner the man behind the name who had brought one of the original works in Tibetan Buddhism to the western world, the translated text entitled The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa as early as the 1950s. But a more complete picture did not emerge until I attended the rescheduled talk given by Mrs. Helena Chang on May 24, 2008, at the clubhouse of the residence of Peter and Nancy Kau, amidst the serene setting abutting a placid pond teeming with life, both botanical and zoological, in the company of like-minded Buddhist practitioners and lay followers gathered on this auspicious occasion, the soft and unhurried tone of Mrs. Helena Chang silently reverberating through the room, resonating with the rapt audience who could only marvel at both her lucid memory of events dating back to the first half of the 20th century and her systematic narrative of her husband's epic journey through life's vicissitude but never harboring for a moment a single doubt on his personal quest to help humanity understand the universal truth embodied in the teachings of Buddha.
Through it all we also gained a better perspective of the woman behind every great man, the unsung pillar of support, both in spirit and in deeds, a woman whose slight build belies her fortitude, her silvery hair and knowing eyes unveiling a lifetime of wisdom, seemingly at ease with the personal trials and tribulations that pulsated through her verbal account.
The comfortable clubhouse setting before the talk. The man standing at the back is Mr. Yang who took the group picture shown toward the end and hence was not featured there.
At slightly after 10.30am, we first observed a one-minute silence, offering prayers for the recent disaster victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and Sichuan Earthquake in China. After a brief introduction by Peter Kau, we settled in to the one-hour-and-a-half long delivery in Chinese by Mrs. Helena Chang, seated facing us in the front.
Mrs. Helena Chang, stressing a point during her delivery.
She preambled her talk by informing us that there has only been another occasion when she spoke on a similar topic, lasting 15 minutes at Penn State where her late husband was a professor of religious studies. So we were indeed blessed and honored to have partaken in this rare event, thanks to Nancy Kau who had kindly made all the arrangements for the event.
What followed was an eventful trek through space, a diaspora traversing across China, Tibet, India, Taiwan, Hongkong, US (New York, California, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia), and time covering a greater part of a century. Along the way, they were assisted by many friends and colleagues and in turn, had had a profound beneficial influence on those who crossed path with them, at the end of which lies a treasure trove of Buddhist scholarly works, both translated and original English and Chinese writings that bear testimony to the indelible contributions of Garma CC Chang in propagating Buddhism into the American sphere.
Their journey through life was riddled with constant struggles at the initial stages of settling in US, one perhaps not uncommon for Chinese immigrants in the 1950s who found the going tough. But as the saying goes that as the going gets tough, the tough gets going, those challenges, while seemingly daunting, did not deter them from embarking on their translation efforts, unshaken from their belief that Buddhism would show him, and along the way others as well, the way to the ultimate truth of life. Mrs. Helena Chang summed up five great handicaps that they had to surmount in their translation efforts:
- failing eyesight for both (it's only now that this debilitating ailment is recognized as glaucoma marked by an inability to focus);
- his back problem;
- their uncertain citizen status;
- his hereditary heart problem;
- and language barrier.
Theirs was a triumph over trials and tribulations, driven by a zeal etched in the teachings of the Buddha.
While Garma CC Chang was perhaps best known for his epic translation works that resulted in the publication of the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, what drove him to write the Practice of Zen, his first English Buddhist text, were no less onerous. For a time, he had been pondering the nexus between western philosophy and Buddhism as it emerged at its source in India, a thought process that prompted him to learn Sanskrit and Pali. He noted further that the Hippies movement then had latched on to the somewhat mystic appeal of Buddhism. But the prevailing Buddhist thought then among the westerners was dominated by the Japanese Zen school spearheaded by T. Suzuki. The over-emphasis on instant enlightenment to the exclusion of assiduous practice seemed to have created a hiatus that bypassed the preparatory imperatives intended in Buddhism.
So he set off to write the Practice of Zen, his first English Buddhist text. He approached Harper (then the Collins part was still not yet developed), giving them two weeks to accept his draft, oblivious to the need for prior review and daring in that he had no track record in publishing). And at age 40, he signed his first publishing agreement, receiving an advance from Harper.
In the words of Kenneth Ch'en, who reviewed this book back in 1961 that appears in Philosophy East and West, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Oct., 1961), pp. 174-176 (University of Hawaii Press), which still ring true today:
“To the growing list of books on Zen Buddhism in English, Mr. Chang Chen-Chi has made a significant contribution. However, the author differs from many of the contemporary writers on the subject in that he has not been influenced by Japanese writers on Zen Buddhism. Again, he is not writing his account from secondary sources, but has gone back to the primary materials in Chinese. Finally, through his years of residence and study in Tibetan and Chinese monasteries, he has acquired a profound knowledge of the wider aspects of Buddhist philosophy that is fundamental to the proper understanding of Zen theory and practice... The author aims to show from these selections how Zen masters lived and worked – in other words, how they practiced Zen – in the hope that these might serve as examples for beginners at the present time. In addition to these translations, there are also discussions on the nature and problems of Zen. In the latter category, he seeks to throw some lights on such questions as, Is Zen completely unintelligible for the intellect? as Suzuki insists, and, What is Zen enlightenment? In answer to the first question, the author makes this sensible distinction between understanding Zen and realizing Zen, and that “to understand Zen through an intellectual approach is not reprehensible, but is the only way for the beginner, for who can get into Zen without having first some understanding or conceptual knowledge about it?” (p. 117) ...”
On Buddhist friends, one who stood up in particular is the mentor-mentee relationship he had with CT Shen, a great Buddhist practitioner and philanthropist whom he first met in India in 1950 and subsequently in US where he imparted Tibetan Buddhist teachings to Shen through several one-to-one sessions in the 1960s. But Garma CC Chang declined to be cited as his teacher, saying that he was only doing that on behalf of his Tibetan Master, the late Lama Gong Kar. [These interactions were recounted in CT Shen's 1996 talk of his learning journey following the Buddhist path.]
The Hundred Thousands Songs of Milarepa, the text of which was entirely typed, is now in its second edition in a two-volume hardcopy set. Selected chapters are also available in paperback, one of which, Sixty Songs of Milarepa, is available freely on the Net here.
Health-wise, he had his first heart operation in 1974 at New York, and a second one in 1984. And he passed away on May 25, 1988, a passing missed by all who have crossed paths with him, either in person or through his writings.
In CT Shen's 1996 account of his own journey on the Buddhist path, he had described his journey by using a set of verses from a Chinese poem of the Tang Dynasty, about overcoming all odds and emerging that much fortified and wiser after life's litmus tests. I could not have done better in summing up the epic journey traversed by Garma CC Chang except by using the same two verses, but appearing in a slightly different version (taken from here) as appeared in the image at the top, using the Plum Blossoms as a symbol of rectitude, a no-less fitting depiction of his steadfast belief in the universal truth enshrined in Buddhism, and the unwavering support from his wife, to make their legacy available to all of us. Here then are my translation of the two verses, hoping that they would transmit the same gist in spirit as their Chinese counterpart:
Without the ordeal of the bone penetrating frigid cold,
absent the nose-thrilled fragrance of the Plum Blossoms.
The blessed group, including Mr. Yang, the photographer who is not in the picture but appeared in an image above.
Mrs. Helena Chang with wify at the residence of Peter and Nancy Kau, our gracious hosts for the day.