Reflections on Translating DogenTaigen Dan Leighton
Published in "Dharma Eye" Journal of the Soto Zen Education Center, Copyright 2000
Translating Dogen, like reading Dogen (in the original or in reasonable translations), is a richly rewarding art. I am grateful to have been able to make a contribution to the burgeoning body of translations of Dogen into English. My own study of Dogen has been inextricably connected with my practice of zazen. My first zazen instruction in New York from my first teacher, Rev. Kando Nakajima, was also my first time hearing dharma talk about Dogen's teaching. Something struck home. Since that time, nearly three decades ago, I have continued everyday zazen practice, as well as regular study of Dogen. I feel that the two go together, and the wealth of new Dogen material in English since then has been very helpful.
A year or so after starting formal Soto Zen practice and listening to talks on Dogen, I returned to school to study Japanese language, and Chinese and Japanese history, literature, and philosophy. I did this simply to receive some background for more fully understanding this Dogen person. Since then I have continued studying Dogen, both academically, as well as in practice contexts with my teacher Reb Anderson and other San Francisco Zen Center teachers, and later for one practice period in a Soto monastery in Japan.
The current interest in Dogen seems to come in large part simply from the power of his writings as poetic, evocative texts that yield subtle philosophic truths. Dogen has become a world figure in the history of spiritual literature. His name now shares a place for many with such luminaries as Rumi, William Blake, Rilke, Tsongkhapa, Saint John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Shantideva, Meister Eckhart, Nietszche, Thoreau, or whichever particular dozen or so names we each might choose to suggest. But Dogen is notable in that he is not primarily interested in religious doctrine or literary virtue, but rather, is a dedicated meditation teacher. His focus is to encourage the sustaining of a specific practice tradition, that of ongoing awakening, or going beyond buddha.
It is ironic that Dogen's writing has been so meaningful to the introduction to the West of Zen (and even Buddhism generally) in the last half of the twentieth century. In terms of Dogen's importance to the historical development of Japanese Soto Zen, study of his writings was nearly insignificant. Since a generation or two after Dogen, his writings were basically unknown for many centuries except to a small number of Soto scholars and priests, until the popular revival and interest in Dogen in Japan beginning in the 1920s. In terms of the historical development of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen was much more important, firstly, for his training of a fine core group of dedicated and skilled Soto disciples, and secondly, for his emphasis on precepts, and his introduction of the lay bodhisattva precept ceremony, which helped develop wide Soto Zen support throughout the Japanese countryside.
And yet, the rediscovery of Dogen's writings and their popularity in translation in the West seems highly appropriate to our current situation. Dogen's writings are profound and illuminating. While often poetic and provocative, Dogen's writings also present a perspective appropriate to modern spiritual concerns. His writings are both challenging, and sometimes deeply comforting. His radical nondualism offers a stimulating alternative to our sense of alienation from the surrounding "other," and to a consumerist culture that skillfully aims to turn our world and our lives into objectified commodities. His non-anthropocentric, inclusive world-view provides a fresh spiritual context for seeing our intimate connection and responsibility to our environment.
The best way I have found for myself to study Dogen has been attempting to translate him. I have had the great privilege to work extensively on translations of Dogen in collaboration both with Kazuaki Tanahashi and with Shohaku Okumura. With Kaz I have worked on several Shobogenzo fascicles and some of Dogen's poetry, and have appreciated and learned from Kaz's incisive and poetically elegant approach to expressing Dogen's essential meaning. With Shohaku I have translated Bendowa (in The Wholehearted Way), Eihei Shingi (as Dogen's Pure Standards for the Zen Community), and we are currently working on Eihei Koroku (Dogen's Extensive Record, forthcoming). I have enjoyed and benefited from Shohaku's careful faithfulness to Dogen, and patient investigation of his teachings. I have also had the pleasure of working with, in various capacities, a half dozen or so other fine Dogen translators or scholars, including Norman Waddell, Steven Heine, Carl Bielefeldt, Thomas Cleary, Tom Wright, and Griffith Foulk. I have learned much about Dogen, and about translation, from each of them.
There are many challenges to translating Dogen's writings. Some of these are inherent in the Japanese language he uses, as well as in the Chinese in which some of his works are written. Often subjects are not stated, pronouns are indefinite, and singular or plural is unspecified. Sometimes these are clear in the context of what is being said. But often the translator must make a decision about what and how much to add in, just to make the English reasonably coherent. Not infrequently, even where a sentence breaks is unclear in Dogen's original, as phrases might be read either in connection with the phrase before or after.
Another main issue is how to include in English the ambiguities that are abundantly present in Chinese and Japanese. These can arise in the multiple meanings of some Chinese characters and compounds, as well as in Dogen's abundant references to Buddhist teachings and Zen lore, along with Chinese literary classics. Usually, in the more precise English language, it is difficult to suggest all the overtones or nuances that exist in some of Dogen's sentences (although footnotes can help). Often the translator can clearly sense from the context Dogen's primary intended meaning, but there are instances where a multiplicity of meanings is clearly relevant. In such cases, occasionally, I may discover a way in English to suggest the same range of ambiguities as the original. Of such are the small "victories" in translating Dogen.
Dogen is famous for his intricate play with language, turning inside-out conventional phrases from the sutras and koan collections to yield their deeper meaning. Further, many of his sentences at first may seem unnecessarily lengthy and complex. Indeed, at times a literal English reading of his Japanese style might produce something that seems childish or repetitious in a way that is not at all the case, but simply natural, in the original Japanese or Chinese. But simplified paraphrase is often an injustice to Dogen's original. Norman Waddell told me that when he was studying Dogen's writing with Kyoto School philosopher Nishitani Keiji, that Nishitani once took apart one of Dogen's long, complicated sentences to show that there was no other way Dogen could have said what he wanted to say. Nishitani believed that all of Dogen's seemingly convoluted sentences were completely necessary to the teaching Dogen intended.
The following two sentences from the "Self-fulfillment Samadhi" section of Bendowa are examples of Dogen's intricate, precise utterances that cannot casually be condensed or simplified into short sentences:
Therefore, this zazen person without fail drops off body and mind, cuts away previous tainted views and thoughts, awakens genuine buddha-dharma, universally helps the buddha work in each place, as numerous as atoms, where buddha-tathagatas teach and practice, and widely influences practitioners who are going beyond buddha, thereby vigorously exalting the dharma that goes beyond buddha. At this time, because earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in ten directions, carry out buddha work, therefore everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand. (The Wholehearted Way, p. 22)
The primary questions while translating each passage of Dogen are, "What is the Dharma here? What does Dogen mean? Why is he saying this?" It is not enough to just translate the words without considering their spiritual meaning. But on numbers of occasions after a few hours of wrestling over the teaching of a particularly difficult passage, considering various possible meanings, I have found that upon returning to reconsider Dogen's original sentence structure, suddenly the meaning becomes clear. Then, of course, how to put his meaning into readable English that as accurately as possible conveys the teaching Dogen is offering, with something of the same feeling and tone as Dogen, is the next part of the challenge.
I have come to refer to my current, regular collaborative translation sessions as "Dokusan with Dogen." In encounter after encounter, Dogen presents profound nuggets, sometimes playfully twisted inside-out, that challenge both understanding and response. The only appropriate response is somehow to clearly express Dogen's Dharma in English. One can only hope that the attempts offered will be helpful to others' partaking of Dogen's insight.
I especially have come to enjoy Dogen's forthright style of proclaiming the Dharma. He does not follow what we might consider conventional logic, but his mind works and plays creatively in the connections he makes in order to express and declare the reality of awakening. In his essays in Shobogenzo, but also in the short Dharma Discourses to his monk disciples in Eihei Koroku, Dogen interweaves connections between major themes, imagistic motifs, and the celebrated Chan figures upon whose dialogues he comments. He plays freely with this material to proclaim his own deeply experiential sense of the teachings and their expressions of wisdom and compassion.
More and more I appreciate Dogen's playfulness and joy in simply expounding and expressing the Dharma, radically going beyond any dualism his students might be caught in. Dogen's teaching is also very practical. The point of his wisdom is to encourage expression of this awareness throughout all our activity. In one of his short talks to his monks in Eihei Koroku (# 239), Dogen expresses how this wisdom must be applied to expression in everyday activity:
Entering the water without avoiding deep-sea dragons is the courage of a fisherman. Travelling the earth without avoiding tigers is the courage of a hunter. Facing the drawn sword before you, and seeing death as just like life, is the courage of a general. What is the courage of patch-robed monks?
After a pause Dogen said: Spread out your bedding and sleep; set out your bowls and eat rice; exhale through your nostrils; radiate light from your eyes. Do you know there is something that goes beyond? With vitality, eat lots of rice and then use the toilet. Transcend your personal prediction of future buddhahood from Gautama.