Research Materials

Below is a sample of some of the research  materials that have been written for this website by Roberta Raine. Any comments or questions are welcome via the contact page.

Translators in Tibetan History

This topic is divided into four sections, followed by footnotes and sources:

  • The Word Lotsawa
  • The Qualifications and Training of a Lotsawa
  • Domtön Dampa: An Image of the Lotsawa
  • The Lack of Women Translators in Tibetan History


The Word Lotsawa

The Tibetan word for “translator” is pronounced lotsawa. Both modern and historical Tibetan sources, such as Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionaries[1] and commentaries by Tibetan scholars, agree that the word lotsawa is a loan word from Sanskrit that means “eye of the world” (Tib. ‘jig rten mig), or “one who opens the eyes of the world for others.” It is considered to be derived from the Sanskrit word loka-cakṣus, commonly abbreviated as locca. The first part, loka, means “world” (Tib. ‘jig rten) while cakṣus means “eye” (Tib. mig). Interestingly, this word in Sanskrit is also a synonym for “the sun”, thus leading one Western scholar to posit that the meaning could also be “one who illuminates.”[2]

In Tibetan, the Sanskrit word locca was transliterated as lotsa, with the addition of the letter ‘ba’ (pronounced ‘wa’) at the end to indicate a person or possessor, i.e. one who is the eye of the world.[3] The small subscribed letter “a,” which is attached to the middle consonant “tsa” in the diagram shown below, indicates that this is likely a loan word from Sanskrit, because the use of subscribed “a” in this way is only used in loan words. It is also sometimes written without the subscribed “a” vowel, indicating perhaps that it has become an ordinary part of Tibetan language and is no longer considered a “foreign” word. Indeed, it is common nowadays for people to use the word “lo tsa” as a verb, as in lo tsa byas’ (did translation).


While the meaning of the word and its derivation from Sanskrit is agreed upon by many—if not all—scholars, the origin of “lotsawa” is more difficult to pinpoint. When did it first appear, and who first coined this term? The earliest documented use of the word is in the Madhyavyutpatti (Tib. sGra sbyor bam po gnyis pa, here abbreviated as MDVP), a 9th-century document that contains advice from Emperor Tri Désongtsen on how Buddhist texts should be translated, in which the word “lotsawa” is used twice. Interestingly, the word “lotsawa” is not found in the Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicon known as Mahavyutpatti (MVP), which was compiled at roughly the same time as the MDVP, believed to be between 812-814. The MVP is a bilingual glossary of terms used in the translation of Buddhist sutras and thus contains mainly words related to Buddhism, which probably explains why the word “lotsawa” is not listed therein. The MDVP is a commentary on some of the entries in the MVP, and the word “lotsawa” is found in its preface, which is thought to have been written by the emperor himself. This clearly shows that the word was already in common parlance by that time.

However, translators of Buddhist texts had been active for decades prior to this royal edict, thus the word could have come into use at any time after Tibet’s first translator of Buddhism, Thonmi Sambhota, began to do translation, or perhaps even earlier. Were Thonmi Sambhota and his contemporaries called “lotsawa”? Since most of the works that Thonmi wrote were later destroyed, and since the two grammatical works of his that are still extant[4] do not contain any mention of the word, it is not possible to determine precisely when this word was first used, and by whom. However, a reasonable assumption is that it came into use at some point between the reign of Songtsen Gampo (617-649), when Thonmi Sambhota lived, and the publication of the MDVP (812-814).

The Qualifications and Training of a Lotsawa

Dungkar Dictionary, a modern Tibetan-language dictionary, defines “lotsawa” as those “who are good at two languages” and who “translate sublime knowledge of other nationalities into their own language.”[5] It further explains that there were two different kinds of lotsawa: lotsawa chenpo (“great lotsawa”), also known as zhuchen lotsawa, and chenbu (junior or assistant) lotsawa [6]. Lotsawa chenpo could not only translate the knowledge of other nationalities into their own language but also could edit and revise the translations of others, while chenbu lotsawa only did translations.

For Tibetans, lotsawa has always been a term of great respect, indicating that the individuals had not only thorough knowledge of the two languages concerned but also profound and personal understanding of the deepest meanings of the texts they translated. N. Singh, for example, writes that the lotsawa of the past were “not only sagacious and erudite, they were also accomplished saints” and that for anyone to reach this level, some twenty years of intensive study and mediation constituted a “bare minimum.”[7]

The training of lotsawa involved first becoming thoroughly versed in Sanskrit language, grammar and poetics, as well as in-depth studies of Buddhist philosophy with qualified teachers. Extensive practice were essential prerequisites for anyone wishing to do translation, and in cases of translating tantric texts, oral transmission (Tib. lung) and empowerments (Skt. abhisheka) were also required. It was unheard of in Tibet for a translator to not also be a practitioner, though their motivations did vary widely, as Ronald Davidson discusses in detail in Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture.

As Tsewang and Tri Samten write, being fluent in two languages is the basic requirement for a lotsawa, but they must also be very knowledgeable in all areas of study, meaning the five major and five minor studies[8] in traditional Tibetan education. They quote Jangkya Rolbai Dorje (1717-1786), who wrote the following in the preface to a Tibetan-Mongolian lexicon used for translating Buddhist texts into Mongolian:

“The teachings of the Buddha are meritorious from the beginning to the end. For those who try to reach liberation and enlightenment, all of the teachings are like eyes illuminating the way. Therefore, if lotsawa hold the teachings dear and wish them to exist in the world for a long time; if they give up the desire for fame and riches; if they thoroughly study the terms and their meanings with unbiased minds; if they ask scholars regardless of their rank to dispel their doubts when they don’t know exactly what something means; and if they explicitly translate the teachings that are easy to understand without contradicting the original texts, [their work] will help others create positive karma and also will serve the teachings of the Buddha, so the merit accumulated is immeasurable.”[9]

He further warns that if one arrogantly believes that one is a great scholar and is jealous of others, this will cloud one’s mind, and that those who disregard the teachings and pass time by translating as many texts as they can will contaminate the teachings with misinterpretations. Thus, Tsewang and Tri note that it is important to hold one’s translations as something precious, not to contaminate them with anything extra, and to have the wish to greatly help those who don’t understand the original language of the text.[10]

Another commentary on the qualifications of a translator was written by a 15th-century translator named Rinchen Trashi, who was a student of the eminent Zhalu Lotsawa Chökyong Zangpo:

“Generally, translators must understand kalapa and candrapa [two Sanskrit grammars] well without misunderstanding and be well versed in terminology. Whatever text is being translated, the translator has to know the meanings of the terms in it thoroughly. Poetics and synonyms also have to be learned. Of course, they have to make sure that they understand the Sanskrit text first. Then, without contradicting the meaning, if they translate it into Tibetan that is easy to read, it will be a good translation. This master [Zhalu Lotsawa] has all of that.”[11]

We can see from these commentaries that not only were translators revered in Tibetan society, they were also held up to rigorously high standards of excellence. They were expected to have a tremendous breadth of knowledge, not only in linguistics but in a wide variety of subjects including medicine, logic and arts. They needed to have studied Buddhist philosophy, rituals and practices in great depth, and should ideally have gained some measure of personal meditative experience. Further, they had to have a clear and pure motivation to benefit others, and had to always be on guard against allowing impure motivations to creep into their work.

Domtön Dampa: An Image of the Lotsawa

One of the most telling—and visually appealing—representations we have of how the Tibetans revered their historical translators is an image that has come to be known as domtön dampa[12]. This symbol is commonly seen in Tibetan communities, most often appearing on the doors of temples and prayer halls.

A beautiful modern version of this image may be found by clicking on the link below, which will bring you to the website of Namse Bangdzo, a Tibetan Buddhist online bookstore:

Symbol of the lotsawa

This image was originally painted by the great scholar Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) on the walls of Samyé Monastery, sometime during his lifetime (the exact date is unknown). He painted this image in the monastery where the first translations of the Buddhist canon took place hundreds of years earlier in the 8th-9th centuries. Remarkably, the paintings are still extant today on the walls of Samyé Monastery. Sakya Pandita, in fact, painted two identical paintings of this image, side by side, underneath which he wrote a verse of praise (see below). The image below is one of the two identical paintings done by this great master, kindly provided by Iris Dijkstra and taken at Samyé Monastery in 2007:


It is said that Sakya Pandita painted this image in order to commemorate the great deeds of the early-period translators and scholars. Sakya Pandita also wrote a “verse of praise for the painting symbol” directly below it. According to a modern-day commentary written about this image, the symbolism may be explained as follows: The lotus in the center symbolizes Padmasambhava, the Lotus-born One. The sword rising out of the middle of the lotus symbolizes Emperor Tri Songdétsen, said to be the reincarnation of Manjushri who holds the sword that cuts ignorance. The two-headed yellow-orange goose to the left of the lotus symbolizes the great Indian masters Shantarakshita and Kamalashila.

The goose has one body because Shantarakshita and Kamalashila shared the same philosophy, but it has two heads because they each taught in their own ways. The two panditas were the crown jewel of the ordained community, which is why a yellow-orange goose symbolizes them. The two-headed green parrot on the right symbolizes the well-known early-period lotsawa, Kawa Peltsek and Chokro Lü Gyeltsen.

Similarly, as these two lotsawa shared the same thoughts but taught in their own ways, the parrot has one body but two heads. The two-headed parrot also symbolizes the fact that the lotsawa spoke two languages, since parrots speak both human and bird languages.[13] Another possible interpretation of this image is that the two heads indicate that lotsawa not only spoke two languages, but could also communicate between the two cultures of India and Tibet.

The lake upon which the lotus and other images sit symbolizes that the teachings these masters gave were flawless like a pure lotus, and that they were deep and vast like a lake. It also symbolizes the pacification of a fire hazard that had been prophesied to harm Samyé. The painting was done on the right side of Khorsa Barba (Middle Circumambulation Path) in Samyé, below which the following verse was written, attributed to Sakya Pandita:

“Shantarakshita, sublime upholder of the vinaya,

Padmasambhava, master of extraordinary yogic practices,

And Kamalashila, the conqueror of wisdom,

Are the second Buddhas of this degenerate time.

The teachings of the Blissfully-Gone One are peerless.

The place of senior and junior lotsawas[14] is here,

And the bilinguals with clear wisdom

Became our eyes.

Dharma King [Tri Songdétsan], the lord of humans,

With a wise mind conquered living beings.

Surrounded by intelligent and courageous generals,

He looked after sentient beings like his own sons.

Because of the karma accumulated in the past,

I [Sakya Pandita] was also born in the land of snows in degenerate times.

But with the power of merit from previous lives,

I learned all knowledge with little effort.

In these times of disputes, scholars are pretentious.

Those who seem to listen to you teach a hundred times

Actually view the source of knowledge with  biased eyes

If you analyze them closely.”[15]

sakya-panditaBelow this verse, Sakya Pandita, who—like Tri Songdetsen—is considered to be an emanation of Manjushri, also wrote the following paragraph:

“This symbol with the sword of Manjushri was painted by me because its auspiciousness will help Samyé. The drawing is not very beautiful because it was done during the night and I didn’t have adequate brushes. But it has an auspicious sign.”[16]


In the image above, Sakya Pandita also bears the image of a sword as in the domtön dampa painting. The sword is a symbol of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. Image from Wikipedia.


The Lack of Women Translators in Tibetan History

Of the more than 600 names of Tibetan translators that have been recorded throughout the course of this research, in both the early and later periods, there are only three women: the two foreign wives of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (r. 617-649), Princess Bhrikuti Devi from Nepal and Princess Wencheng from China, and Princess Jincheng, the Chinese wife of Emperor Tri Désuktsen (r. 712-755). Apart from them, not a single female lotsawa has been found in the Tibetan canon or in other historical or modern sources. Two questions immediately present themselves: Why were there no female translators apart from these three? And why were these three women in particular able to—or allowed to—do translation?


Image above is of Emperor Songtsen Gampo with Princess Wencheng from China and Bhrikuti Devi from Nepal. Image from Wikipedia.

Regarding the first question, an obvious, if not very nuanced, explanation is the patriarchal nature of traditional Tibetan society. Many scholars refer to the Tibetan word for woman (skyes dman, lit. inferior birth) as clear evidence of the prevailing attitude toward females.[17] Chotsho believes that this view towards women began during the formation of the early Yarlung dynasty, quoting a law enacted by Emperor Songtsen Gampo that stated: “A man should keep to one’s view and must not pave way for the women’s voices.”[18] Other authors point to the “patriarchal theocracy”[19] that existed right up until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. It is true that most women in ancient Tibet were not highly educated, though there were nunneries where women were educated. However, as Kapstein writes, “higher religious education was exclusively developed in the monasteries, and nuns seldom were encouraged to go beyond learning their prayers.”[20]

It is also true that—most likely due to the dangers of traveling—Tibetan women did not go to India on pilgrimage, as did so many men, who went in droves in search of teachings, studied with panditas and learned Sanskrit; a great many of these individuals became translators. However, not all male lotsawa in Tibet went to India on pilgrimage, especially in the later period when India had been overrun by Muslim invaders from the north. Could women have learned Sanskrit from wandering panditas in Tibet in the later period, as some men did? Or could they have gone instead to Nepal to study, a common destination for many lotsawa? These are questions that can only be speculated upon, as historical data is extremely scarce.

We do know of some women in Tibetan history who were accomplished scholars in their own right, such as Yéshé Tsogyal (777-837 A.D.), who was queen to Emperor Tri Songdétse, is said to have revered and honored the great panditas and translators and studied under the great scholars of that time. Migyur states that Yéshé Tsogyal “acquired perfect knowledge in the five major fields of science,” studied the Tripitaka, built centers, gave teachings and wrote treatises.[21] Thus, she was clearly in very close proximity to the lotsawa and panditas of that period, and was certainly able to write and read Tibetan. However, whether she assisted any of the lotsawa in their work is an as-yet unanswered question.


Yéshé Tsogyal. Image from Wikipedia.

In the later period we also know of a number of accomplished female scholars such as Machig Zhama (1062-1144), “probably the second most illustrious woman of the times” and famous for imparting the lineage known as Lamdre.[22] Interestingly, her brother, Zhama Lotsawa Senge Gyalpo, was a translator, and from the age of 16 to 21 she was a consort of another well-known translator, Ma Gebai Lodro (1044-89). Later, she studied with a long list of teachers including “Vairocana, the Oriyan translator”[23] and after the age of 40 began traveling and teaching with her brother Chokyi Gyaltsen. From this, we know that she spent considerable amounts of time with more than one lotsawa and was even the consort of one, but whether she assisted him at all in his work is, like the case of Yeshé Tsogyal, an historical unknown.

Similarly, the great 12th-century female adept Machig Labdron, who transmitted the teachings known as chö, learned reading, writing and the sciences, became a nun, and also studied Sanskrit grammar. She was skilled in dialectics, held debates with great scholars of her time and wrote extensively on chö practice. Since she studied Sanskrit and was well educated, she would have been capable of doing translation, but historical records are silent on this point. Martin writes that despite these and the other women who gained a measure of fame, in general women’s status in Tibet in this period was “not high” and he notes that “if women did have identical opportunities for education and employment to men in those days, we ought to find just as much written about women as we do about men,”[24] but in fact there is very little.

This leads to another plausible explanation: that there may have been women translators, but their names, identities and even their works have been lost. As Janet Gyatso writes, “virtually all of the information that we have from traditional textual sources about Tibetan women is written by men, operating in the ambit of androcentric institutions and textual traditions.” Gyatso explains that in historical writings women are rarely discussed all, “except for the briefest mention of someone’s mother or consort.”[25]

Thus, there may have been more women of accomplishment in Tibetan history than are known about, but they were marginalized or even left out of the historical records “because of a tendency to exclude them from the…predominating male monastic institutions who reserved for themselves responsibility for the record keeping.”[26] Migyur agrees with this view, writing that “countless numbers of great women have existed in Tibet, but only a few of them were recorded in the historical documents, probably because of discrimination against women.”[27] Further, it is well known that all of the editors and compilers of the various Buddhist canons in Tibet were men, such as Butön Rinpoche. It is possible that if any women did produce translations, they were not put in the canon or were re-translated by other lotsawa who were male.

Let us now consider the second, much simpler, question posed above: Why were the two foreign wives (one Nepalese and one Chinese) of Emperor Songtsen Gampo and the Chinese wife of Emperor Tri Désuktsen able (or allowed) to do translation? This was most likely due to two reasons: the high status of royal wives and consorts during the early period of Tibetan history, and the native linguistic competence of these three women. Regarding the first point, we know that during the imperial period, women connected to the royal families enjoyed especially high status, with some even being de facto rulers themselves, such as the the little-known Empress Trimalo, who was the consort of Mangsong Mangtsen (r. 650–676) and ruled as regent from 705-712.[28]

We also know that the consorts of Tri Songdetsen (r. 742-797) enjoyed great prestige and power, with three of the five women ordering the building of temples at the time that Samyé Monastery was being constructed. The imperial consorts of this period, in fact, enjoyed a rank in society that was second only to the emperor himself.[29] Thus, with such status and power, it is not surprising that the three princesses were able to take part in translation activities, not only by sponsoring translators but also by working directly with panditas from their native lands to do translation.

In terms of ability, royal women of this period were well-educated and, most importantly, these three women possessed native linguistic talent that was greatly needed at that time, when translating was just beginning and no institutional system was yet set up for translation. Their high status allowed them to use their linguistic abilities to aid in the translation and transmission of Buddhism, and all used their high rank to become patrons of translators as well. After this period, no other women in Tibetan history—as far as we know—possessed the unique combination of native language ability and high social status that would have allowed them to join the ranks of the lotsawa.


[1] For example, Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary and Muge Samten’s Sanskrit-Tibetan Dictionary.

[2] Snellgrove 1987: 505.

[3] Some Western scholars, however, take issue with the Tibetan claim that this is a loan word from Sanskrit, such as Peter Verhagen who notes that “a major problem with the loka-cakṣus etymology is that this term, to my knowledge at least, is wholly unknown in Sanskrit literature in the meaning ‘translator’” (Verhagen 2015). However, no evidence exists to disprove the Tibetan claim that the word was transliterated from Sanskrit.

[4]  These have been translated by Tony Duff of the Padma Karpo Translation Committee, both available as e-books: Standard Tibetan Grammar Volume I, The Thirty Verses of Minister Thumi and Standard Tibetan Grammar Volume II, The Application of Gender Signs.

[5] Dungkar 2003: 1973.

[6] Also called lochung, meaning “junior” or “small” (vs. “great”) lotsawa.

[7] Singh 2001: 25.

[8] The five major studies are “interior knowledge” (i.e. Buddhism), logic, language, medicine, and arts and crafts. The five minor studies are poetics, prosody, synonyms, dramaturgy, and astrology and divination. Schaeffer 2011: 292.

[9] Translation by Thinlay Gyatso and Roberta Raine. This quote from Jangkya Rolbai Dorje (1717-1786) appears in the preface to Dag-yig mkhas-pa’i ‘byung-gnas, a Tibetan-Mongolian lexicon used for translating Buddhist texts into Mongolian, completed in 1741-1742. Ruegg (1973) provides his own translation of this paragraph, p. 252.

[10] Qtd. Tsewang and Tri 2002: 293-4.

[11] Rinchen 2011: 27a-27b. Translation by Thinlay Gyatso and Roberta Raine.

[12] The image came to be known as domtön dampa because these are the very first words of the Tibetan verse written by Sakya Pandita. Domtön is a shortened form of the phrase dompa la tönba, which means “working hard to maintain vinaya” (the vows of a monk or nun). Dampa refers to the sublime or excellent person who is doing the hard work. The phrase is here translated as “sublime upholder of the vinaya” in the first line of the verse.

[13] The symbolism of this image is discussed in Chabgak 2007: 236.

[14] Zhuchen lotsawa and chenbu lotsawa, respectively.

[15] Translation by Thinlay Gyatso and Roberta Raine.

[16] The auspicious sign refers to the lake in the image, which was intended to counteract the fire hazard predicted for Samyé Monastery. Sonam 1968: 400. Translation by Thinlay Gyatso and Roberta Raine.

[17] This is not the only word with negative associations for “woman” in the Tibetan lexicon. Some synonyms include tsam denma (“she who has limitations”), ching chema (“she who shackles),” and do denma (“she who has lust”). Campbell 1996: 31.

[18] Tsering 1997: 63.

[19] Campbell 1996: 29.

[20] Kapstein 2006: 200.

[21] Migyur 1997: 76-78.

[22] Martin 1997: 53.

[23] Also known as Vairocanarakshita, not to be confused with Vairocana of the early period.

[24] Martin 2005: 80.

[25] Gyatso 2005: 6-8.

[26] Martin 2005: 50-51.

[27] Migyur 1997: 69.

[28] Uebach 2005: 37.

[29] Uebach notes that only a very few women of the early period are known about at all, and all of them are noble women, indicating again the scarcity of information about ordinary women in Tibetan history. Uebach 2005: 48.


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