What’s in a Word?
Conveying Judeo-Christian Guilt
into Tibetan Language


The word “guilt” does not exist in the Tibetan language. At least not in the way we use it in English. Nor is there a Tibetan word for “victim.” Many people find this surprising. How can two concepts so fundamental to our criminal justice system — and to our Western worldview — simply be absent? The nonexistence of these words says a lot; it reveals alternative perspectives on moral and social culpability. The notion that a person can feel guilt or self-loathing, like someone can feel joy or sadness, is foreign to the Tibetan psyche. Also foreign to the Tibetan worldview is the concept of victimhood as a fixed identity status. What can we learn from these perspectives in dealing with our criminal justice system and the people ensnared within it?


Causation and self-blame

I was interpreting in Europe for a health and wellness conference when a French psychologist asked a lama on the panel about his patients who suffer from guilt and shame — particularly when those feelings stem from early childhood trauma. I tried to explain the concepts of guilt and shame through examples and metaphors, using phrases such as “self-effacing fixation on feelings of regret after being forced into demeaning conditions” or “self-blame for the transgressions and abuses inflicted on one by others.” 

The lama paused for a long time, then asked the psychologist:

“Why torture yourself for something over which you had no control?”

The simplicity of that question elicited a wave of smiles and a few chuckles from the audience. But the psychologist’s furrowed brow belied some skepticism.  “Then why,” he pressed on, “do so many Westerners feel guilt and shame, even though they have no control over what happened to them? Why are there so many suicides? Why are so many people imprisoned by these feelings?”

The lama took another long pause, then replied,

“Because the human mind is powerful, and when misdirected, it can become self-destructive.”

The psychologist’s eyes began to soften into a faint smile. Then the lama continued, “And sometimes you Westerners have a little trouble letting go of your self-hatred.”

That did it.  The audience loved him. They were at once charmed and chagrined. The frankness of the lama’s response could have been construed as offensive or tone-deaf. But it revealed a sagacity and an innocence that could only come from someone who hailed from a different world — someone with no exposure to the Western neurosis. Some audience members later told me that those simple words unburdened them of years, even decades, of guilt and shame over past traumas. The lama’s words, they confessed, seemed to carry a wisdom that transcended cultural and geographic barriers.

I wanted to explain that these were not just mystical Shangri-La riddles or Zen Koans (although kudos if they served that purpose); these were windows into a different sociolinguistic framework for relating with our reality. Perhaps they were also models for a holistic (and more humane) approach to criminal justice.

No perpetual victim

Like the word for “guilt,” a similar challenge is presented when we try to convey the word “victim” in Tibetan. There is no exact translation. In law, “victim” is a legal fiction, or status, affording certain rights to individuals against whom a criminal offense has been committed.  In common parlance, the word “victim” is laden with connotations, many unfavorable. One such connotation is weakness or passivity. For that reason, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman prefers to refer to victims of sexual assault as “survivors.” A survivor is a victor — someone who has triumphed over adversity. There is a word for that in Tibetan. It’s called “rgyal ba.” And it’s also the word for “Buddha.”

In Tibetan, a “victim” is denoted through acts.  If someone is murdered, she is called “‘tshe las ‘das ma,” or “decedent,” but to reveal her identity as a homicide victim, one must nominalize the verb “bsad pa,” “to kill,” and render it in its accusative form, “bsad bya’i yul,” or “object of murder.” (When reviewing a draft of this article, a cognitive linguist friend recently noted, with a mischievous grin, the irony of conveying “victim” in the “accusative” form.)

To denote a victim of harm requires a similar configuration: changing the infinitive “gnod pa,” “to harm,” into its accusative direct object form, so the word becomes “gnod bya,” or “object of harm.” After nominalizing the verb “to harm” into a noun — “the one who was harmed” — that noun can then be conjugated into its instrumental case, becoming an agent of the act — “The one who was harmed said X” — and so forth.

Here, a person’s identity or status is tied to the act of harm. In English, the word “victim” can stand alone in a sentence without including the verb, “to harm.” But in Tibetan, you cannot have a victim without declaring that a harm has occurred; in other words, a victim does not exist without the act of harm also articulated. This is a grammatical acknowledgment that a wrong has been inflicted on the person. This grammatical structure serves as the basis for healing because it validates that injustice has occurred. As Dr. Herman has observed in her research on sexual assault victims for Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, “[T]he first principle of survivors’ justice is the desire for community acknowledgment that a wrong has been done.”


Identity and fluidity of personhood

Euphemistically, crime victims — especially victims of violent crimes — are sometimes addressed as “snying rje’i yul,” or “objects of compassion.” Surprising to the Western mind, that descriptor appears in Tibetan literature less often toward innocent crime victims (who have already experienced suffering), and far more often toward criminal aggressors (who have created future suffering for themselves).

Compassion for offenders sounds a lot like the rhetoric of the criminal justice reform movement, founded in part on critical legal theory. Its adherents seek to contextualize violent crimes by shifting the blame from the individual aggressor to the aggressor’s environment. They blame crime on systemic inequality and a colonialist system defined by binary categories of oppressor and oppressed. That Marxist perspective subsumes all guilt and causality to one abstract and distal cause — systemic injustice and power imbalance, rather than acknowledging an individual’s agency and free will and condemning that person’s criminal actions. Some scholars argue that this disempowers offenders because it treats them as passive instruments of fate rather than as agents capable of choosing right from wrong despite their circumstances. Professor Markus Dubber writes of this in The Right to Be Punished: Autonomy and Its Demise in Modern Penal Thought.

The Tibetan worldview is more nuanced. In Tibetan philosophy, the victim-offender paradigm is not a zero-sum game. Tibetans acknowledge that violence is a symptom of systemic inequality, in the sense that all beings are caught in a web of karma and delusion, leading people to mistreat one another in their misguided pursuit of happiness. But Tibetans also recognize individual responsibility and agency and the moral value of humane punishment. Excusing wrongdoers by placating violence or rationalizing abuse is, to paraphrase Ju Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche’s seminal treatise on Buddhist ethics, Distinguishing Virtue from Immorality, “ultimately harmful to the wrongdoer because it allows him to believe he is not accountable for his crimes.” And it telegraphs a message to others that societal harm is acceptable. In fact, Tibetans believe we are accountable for our mental, verbal, and physical actions, and that inflicting harm on others — especially innocent civilians — is a grave malfeasance that sows for the perpetrator unimaginable suffering after death. 

Even so, punishment is never administered with a vengeful mind. To punish a wrongdoer out of anger, according to the poet Ngulchu Thogmed in The Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva, “is worse than the crime itself, for anger is worse of an enemy than any external adversary.” At the same time, Tibetans do not repress feelings of anger and instead learn to recognize anger, feel it, and let it go.

Tibetans believe that all beings suffer from systemic injustice — but they do not blame a single class or race of people as “oppressors.” This is true even though Tibetans lost their land and autonomy during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the early 1960s. Instead, from the perspective of distal causality, Tibetans blame all societal ills on our inner demons of greed, arrogance, jealousy, ignorance, and hate, which they classify as the five toxic mental states (known as dug gsum in Tibetan). That is why Tibetans encourage mercy and compassion for offenders. They believe that all beings are influenced by toxic mental states, which compel them to perpetuate harm. But this attitude of compassion is never confused with indulgence or leniency.

Tibetans believe in a sort of Rawlsian universe where we reincarnate in many forms, exchanging roles in successive lifetimes, trading bodies as oppressor and oppressed, aggressor and victim. The slaveowner might be reborn in a future life as a slave, forced to suffer the same treatment he once inflicted on another. The fisherman is reborn as the fish, the abuser as the victim, and so on. There is, in the Tibetan cultural-linguistic framework, no fixed ontological form. The very nature of the world is ephemeral and illusory, according to Tibetans.

Identity in the Tibetan cultural-linguistic framework is not fixed; it is formed and dismantled through action. That is why a victim is identified in relation to the act of harm, rather than as a separate entity. The act, or verb, creates the person. In the theory of karma, you become what you do. Evil creates ugliness. Patience creates beauty. The grammatical structure supports the Tibetan Buddhist theory that our previous actions create our experiential world. Because Tibetans believe in the law of karma, Tibetan society is founded on the Buddhist ideals of mutual respect, nonviolence, and kindness.

(A somewhat tangential aside: While Tibetans do not believe in intrinsic identities, it is easier to convey gender dysmorphia and gender fluidity in Tibetan. The idea that a person assigned male at birth might “feel” more like a female, for example, is not blasphemous or shocking to a culture that sees all beings as fluid, mutable, and constantly changing bodies, roles, identities, and life narratives in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. But that is the topic for a future article.)

The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, reflected in the Sino-Tibetan linguistic framework, holds that the ultimate wrongdoer is the unlocatable “self,”—the myth that we “exist” as independent, singular, permanent selves who must defend against threats from an equally illusory objective “other.”

And while Tibetan language lacks precise terminology for the Western senses of guilt, shame, and victimhood, it has over 20 different terms expressing prelapsarian states of awareness. Likewise, there are five different words for “compassion,” 10 different categories of joy, and separate terms for every stage of meditation. To render these words from Tibetan to English presents a converse challenge: English lacks such terminology, so a translator must explain these words descriptively. This requires first understanding and experiencing these states, and then seeking phrases or expressions that convey that same felt experience. But subjective experience is generally difficult to convey objectively. To paraphrase a beloved Tibetan meditator, “A finger points to the moon, but the finger is not the moon; words express the ineffable but are not the ineffable.”

As both an attorney and an interpreter, I find these conundrums delicious. It is the ethics of translation and interpreting — the challenge of conveying the source author’s expression and implied meaning without losing the beauty, wit, unspoken connotations, and poetic allusions — that reminds me lawyers are also interpreters. A lawyer must convey the arcane and sometimes cumbersome language of the law into the language of consequence while staying privy to the diverse backgrounds and social views accompanying the parties, witnesses, factfinders, and the court. The recognition that a single word means one thing to one person and can have an entirely different resonance to another human being allows us, as lawyers and officers of the court — as translators of the law — to infuse our use of language with empathy for our audience and with awareness of the greater impact of every word we choose.

Vanessa Kubota is an assistant United States attorney in Arizona. All views are her own. She previously served as the chief translator and interpreter for Lama Chodrak Gyatso Nubpa, former deputy secretary of the Dalai Lama. She has authored over 200 translations of endangered Tibetan literature; studied Sanskrit, philology, and hermeneutics at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and completed a Fulbright at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies University in Varanasi, India.


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