結跏趺坐 or Why The New Shobogenzo is the Second Best Translation












Originally posted by Hardcore Zen 

First logistical stuff. If you’re in Los Angeles, you still have one more chance to hear me talk. Tomorrow (Sunday Nov. 14, 2010) at 7pm I’ll be speaking at the Bodhi Tree bookstore 8585 Melrose Avenue West Hollywood, CA 90069-5199.
Also, the folks from Dogen Sangha Los Angeles have put together some videos of me and stuck them up on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles YouTube Channel. They’ll be adding more soon.

Also, my newest book Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between has been nominated as the worst religious book cover by a website called Religious Bulletin. Yay! I hope I win because then they can put “Award Winning Author” on my next book.

Also I just put up a new article on the Suicide Girls’ Safe For Work Blog. It’s called Desire and you can find it by clicking on the word “Desire” in this here sentence right here.

Ans speaking of Suicide Girls, I’ll be on their radio show tomorrow night. For more details on that just click right here!


Last weekend I went to the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) to participate in an event celebrating the publication of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s translation of the complete 95 chapter Shobogenzo.

If you want to see what I said there go to this link and scroll ahead to 36:26 into the piece.

This new English language edition of Shobogenzo is essentially the San Francisco Zen Center edition of Shobogenzo. They own the copyright, they provided the bulk of the funding for the project and 32 priests from SFZC acted as co-translators, the average person working on between one and three chapters.

Naturally, during the celebration this weekend a number of people proclaimed that this was the best English translation of Shobogenzo. And, of course, those of us who worked on or, as in my case, were associated with people who worked on other English translations said that ours were the best. It became a bit of a running gag. If you watch the video of my talk on Saturday you’ll see my contribution to the gag. I was the third or forth person that day to make this joke. But it wasn’t really a joke.

At one point Kaz said that every translation of Shobogenzo was the best in its own way. Each one provided a unique and valuable perspective. A very diplomatic response! And true. I’m sure he meant it.

I haven’t read much of the Tanahashi Shobogenzo yet. I read a few chapters while I was at Tassajara over the Summer and a couple more since I bought a copy for myself ($150, ouch! And that was with a discount!). I am not an expert on it the way I am on the Nishijima/Cross version, which I’ve read at least four times cover to cover, and have read my favorite bits maybe a dozen times or more and which I produced a book of my own about (see link below). Though I’m still hard pressed to quote chapter and verse even of this version.

Even so, I feel safe saying the Tanahashi Shobogenzo is the second best one available, after the one by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross, which will always be the best (which is high praise from someone as picky as me, for whatever that’s worth) . I’m familiar with the earlier versions of Tanahashi’s translations that have appeared in books like Moon In a Dewdrop and Enlightenment Unfolds. During the couple of years when it was tough to track down a copy of the Nishijima/Cross edition, I used to often recommend the Tanahashi books. I felt that they were the closest to the original. Now you can easily find the Nishijima/Cross version on line. (links to follow below)

The main reason the Nishijima/Cross version is best is because it so faithfully replicates the original Japanese Shobogenzo it’s almost too much. Even Dogen’s odd word order is retained as much as possible. This means it sacrifices a lot in terms of readablity. But then, so does Dogen’s original. So that’s as it should be. It was never meant to be easy reading.

The other big advantage of the Nishijima/Cross edition are the copious footnotes on every page. All of Dogen’s obscure references to ancient Chinese texts are provided. And any time a Japanese word has been translated in a way that might be questionable, the original Japanese wording is also footnoted.

These two factors make for an edition of Shobogenzo that is the closest a person who can read English but can’t read Japanese is going to get to discovering a pair of magic glasses that allow them to read the original Japanese. No one is ever going to be able to match it in that way until the day the English language itself changes so much that this version becomes outmoded for that reason. Sorry. It can’t be done.

One area in which the Tanahashi version is clearly superior is in terms of poetry. I have to admit, the Nishijima/Cross edition is clunky as hell. It loses a lot of the beauty of the original by trying to stick to a very nuts and bolts literal translation. Tanahashi and his co-translators have done a tremendous job of making an English version that sings like the original.

The reason I feel the Tanahashi edition isn’t quite as good overall relates to a lot of the aspects of trying to study something as personal and intimate as Zen in a large institution like SFZC. You can distill the reasons I think this edition is only second best by looking at the way they chose to translate the Japanese compound 結跏趺坐 (kekka fuza).

結跏趺坐 (kekka fuza) has one clear and totally unambiguous meaning in English. It means sitting in the Lotus posture (full, half or quarter). There is no other possible interpretation. So we’re not talking here about a word that has nuances a translator could argue about. It’s a proper noun with a set English equivalent. The word is used often in Shobogenzo as a synonym for zazen.

During the presentations on Sunday at Green Gulch someone (I think it was Kaz himself, but I’m a little uncertain — it’s probably somewhere in that video feed I linked to above) explained something about how their translation was accomplished using the example of how they had chosen to translate this word.

Apparently they’d originally translated it as “sitting cross legged,” which is good. I think that’s the phrase the Nishijima/Cross version uses. However, some talk arose around SFZC that certain readers may not be able to do the Lotus posture and would feel put off by such a translation. After some discussion it was decided that 結跏趺坐 (kekka fuza) would be translated as “sitting in meditation” so as to allow those who could not manage to sit in the Lotus posture to feel included in Dogen’s message.

I admit this is not a major failing. Really, it’s pretty much the same thing. It doesn’t drastically alter Dogen’s message. But it does alter it nonetheless.

It’s not that it alters his message in a minor way that bothers me so much as the reasons whythe editors chose to alter Dogen’s message.

They altered it because they felt the actual meaning of the phrase might limit the book’s appeal. They altered it because of a committee decision.

The matter of the Lotus posture in Dogen’s teaching is one that a lot of people love to argue about. But Dogen is pretty uncompromising. In Fukanzazengi (Recommending Zazen for All People) he allows for full Lotus or half Lotus and that’s it. My own teacher, Gudo Nishijima, extends the meaning of half Lotus to include what is commonly known as quarter Lotus or “Burmese Posture” in the West these days. But Dogen says nothing about using seiza benches or chairs or sitting in any of the other myriad ways you often encounter in Zen centers in the Americas and Europe these days.

I myself have taken some heat for being a stickler about posture. But here’s a little secret. Whenever someone comes to me one-to-one and shows me that they really, honestly cannot do full, half or quarter Lotus (incl. Burmese) I always try to work with them to find another way. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts even Master Dogen would have done the same in such a situation. Yet in public I never talk about any other postures.

The reason I don’t talk in public about doing zazen in chairs or on seiza benches or what-have-you is that it seems like as soon as you mention the possibility of using these things, immediately half of the able bodied people in the room are rushing to get themselves a chair so they can be more comfortable. But zazen is not about comfort. In fact, without a bit of discomfort it’s really not zazen.

Be that as it may, this change is just one of several in the book that reflect this attitude. In another instance Dogen’s phrase “the kingly Bodhi Tree” was changed to “the glorious Bodhi tree” so as not to seem so sexist. I’m sure other such changes abound. They don’t really alter the fundamental meaning of Dogen’s prose, but they do alter it, and for reasons that appear to me to be a bit silly.

This is what happens when committees get involved. Gudo Nishijima and Mike Cross had no such problems. There were only two people involved in the nitty gritty of the translation and three or four others involved in editing.

What happened with this new edition of Shobogezo is also instructive in understanding the difference between studying Zen in a large institution and studying Zen in a smaller setting. I am a big fan of the San Francisco Zen Center. I like what they do and I’m happy to support them. I often recommend people to go to SFZC, Tassajara and Green Gulch. They’re good places. They’re good people.

But the truth is, if SFZC and institutions like it had been the only places I knew of to study Zen, I’d probably have lasted a year at most. That’s not my kind of scene.

Is one way better and the other worse? I can only speak for myself. I feel like the Nishijima/Cross edition of Shobogenzo is the best. This doesn’t mean I hate every other edition. But only one edition can be the best. As far as teaching styles go, I went with the form of Zen that suited me. If I didn’t feel it was best for me I would have gone somewhere else.

Just to be very clear here, the Kazuaki Tanahashi translation of Shobogenzo is a magnificent achievement. Here’s a good article all about how it came to be. It’s a really, really tremendous translation. I highly recommend it. I spent $150 on my copy, and I can’t really afford to do that kind of stuff these days. I did it because I genuinely like it.

But it still ain’t the best!

• Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye by Brad Warner
• Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Book 1 translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross
Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Book 2 translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross
Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 3 translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross
• Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 4 translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross
• Enlightenment Unfolds by Dogen, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi
• Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi
• Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi
• Free digital download of the Nishjima/Cross edition of Shobogenzo in PDF format


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