Thomas Cleary, translator
Shambhala Publications: Boston and London, 1993.
1,463 pp., $100.00 (cloth).
There is no doubt in my mind that Thomas Cleary is the greatest translator of Buddhist texts from Chinese or Japanese into English of our generation, and that he will be so known by grateful Buddhist practitioners and scholars in future centuries. Single-handedly he has gone a long way toward building the beginnings of a Buddhist canon in English.
This he has achieved in spite of the astonishing reaction from almost all scholars in the field and a great many so-called practitioners. Even though one might have thought the spirit of Buddhism would have rubbed off on them a little, they seem not to have been able to restrain themselves from unleashing upon him an enduring wave of sheer envy. He is criticized under cover of confidentiality by those who pretend to be able to measure his command of difficult Chinese used in the Ch’an masterpieces he has given us, or the Derrida-esque, deconstructed Japanese of Dogen. If he is ever grudgingly acknowledged as prodigious at least in productivity, this praise is quickly drawn back by some apparently more damaging critique.
Though I am not a specialist in Chinese and Japanese (only three years of academic study of the former and two years of the latter language—all of it now molding in some dusty synaptic storeroom), I would like to make a statement about one of Cleary’s greatest achievements. His translation of the Flower Ornament Sutra from Shikshananda’s Chinese translation of the Sanskrit is one of the monuments in Buddhist Studies of our time. In this handsome new single volume edition, the thirty-nine books of the Flower Ornament (each really a sutra in itself) are rendered in 1,463 pages of beautiful, evocative, poetic, and accurate English. When I recommend the book to a student, I always warn them, “Don’t try to read this text, to get through it, get the message, the point, file it in your memory as saying this or that and so on. You have to swim through it, bathe in it, let your mind’s eye visualize its extraordinary visual explosions and implosions, let the text take you into it, into the realm of its inconceivable liberationitself.”
The Flower Ornament is a sacred book, in the Buddhist sense. It is the doorway into the Realm of Reality, the reality witnessed by enlightened beings whose vision is no longer clouded by egocentric addictions. It manifests the sacred through its expressions, communicating from the Buddha’s mind to our minds the vision he first obtained under the tree of enlightenment. It is to keep by a bedside or in a shrine. To turn to again and again, to savor bit by bit. It is said that this sutra records the very first revelation given out by the Buddha, wherein he transformed himself into Vairochana, the Radiant Buddha, and exalted the infinite cosmos in the bliss energy of his enlightened heart as it soared free from its beginningless bondage to ignorance and delusion. It is said that all other sutras subsequently taught were adaptations of this overwhelming revelation, which was apparently too much for most people, gods, and other mythic beings. The revelation of this sutra is the direct encounter with the completely perfect buddha-verse of enlightened beings. It is initiatory, beyond esoteric and exoleric. It is immediate, beyond sudden and gradual. Its very existence as a text that we can read, that can empower our imagination to enter into the total goodness that embraces everything and always has and always will, is itself an inconceivable liberation.
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