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.

In this new edition, the translator’s introduction is the same as in the three-volume edition. He gives the essential information about his source, the translation by the Khotanese monk Shikshananda (652-710), who translated it at the request of the Empress of Great T’ang. He goes on to compare the sutra with the Pali suttas and other majorMahayana Sutras, especially the Vimalakirti, the White Lotus, and the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra. Cleary closely follows the commentary of the eighth-century lay scholar Li Tongxuan. He closes his fifty-five page introduction with a useful summary of each book of the sutra, and some personal comments on what must be called the practice of the text. Part of the original introduction, eleven pages on technical terminology and symbolism, is included as an appendix. Another appendix contains some perhaps apocryphal passages, and a third contains Li Tongxuan’s commentary on the thirty-ninth book. A short glossary appears at the end. There are a few footnotes in the introduction and one in one appendix, but none throughout the sutra itself.

Some of the “Buddhist Studies experts” have made a big fuss about Cleary’s lack of such apparatus. But I find that a marvelous case of completely missing the point. Cleary has published a separate volume, Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1983), that could serve as his own introduction and commentary to the Sutra, in which his interpretations are supported by his excellent translations of the greatest Chinese Flower Ornament school philosophers. He is elegant enough to let the sutra stand on its own in this publication. Heavily annotating it would be like putting icing on icing, like drawing illustrations of waves in the waters of the ocean.

There are so many beautiful things in this sutra, such as the visionary events that occur at the beginning, when millions of enlightening beings from other galaxies come to this world to listen to Shakyamuni Buddha’s revelation of the Flower Ornament Reality; the incredible intra-atomic implosions of the All-good enlightening Being Samantabhadra, who always magnifies each good thing by multiplying himself in micro-emanations to repeat each virtuous deed in microscopic buddhaverses within each atom and subatomic particle; the extraordinary visionary descriptions of the multi-dimensional reality seen by enlightened eyes; the accounts of Mayadevi, Buddha’s mother, and Gopa, his wife, of their own enlightenments and their vows to work with that Buddha in all universes wherein he manifests; and the encounter by the young seeker Sudhana when he enters the Vairochana tower and transcends time and space with the vision of future and past in the present, of all worlds in this world; and so forth. I cannot begin to recite these wonders. But, fortunately, there is no need. Thanks to this precious volume you can endlessly enjoy timeless travels into its realm of inconceivable liberation.


Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .