Last night I was (once again) very fortunate to get to hear preeminent Dogen scholar and artist Kaz Tanahashi speak at my zendo. We have him here at least once a year to teach and do a dharma talk. Kaz-sensei has been translating the Shōbōgenzō since his 20's when he was a Shinto adept. It's nearly ready for print. It is nearly a thousand pages, with a 100-page introduction, and three-hundred pages of footnotes, indices, sources-cited and bib. It's been his life's work, and most likely his scholarly magnum opus.

In the middle of the talk, he stopped and said "But let me tell you about getting to meet Bodhidharma..." He told us a story about visiting a monastery in northern Japan in the early winter. It was a huge temple-town, with a very high wall, and many buildings, and was considered one of the most important monasteries in the entire history of Soto. When he arrived, Kaz asked (as a formality) if there was room for him, the postulant who showed him through the gate said "No, it's fine. This abbot is very strict and most of the monks run away from him." Kaz began to notice that this huge monastery was--aside from a few laity tending to menial work--essentially empty.

Later, when Kaz was having tea with the abbot, the older priest asked Kaz "So, what are you doing? What is your practice?" Kaz answered "I'm translating Master Dogen's Shōbōgenzō into modern Japanese from the original Chinese texts." He expected the older monk to be thrilled, being that at the time, there were only three translations, and all were arguably less than effective conveyences of Master Dogen's teachings.

Now keep in mind that translating the Shōbōgenzō from Chinese to Japanese is effectively analogous to translating the entire Dr. Seuss cannon from English to Vietnamese (Actually, by word-count, it'd be a better analogy to say James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake", but not as many people are familiar with that, and even less understand the word-play there, so...). Both languages share an alphabet, but due to the very intricate word-craft and phonetic playfulness of the source material, "lost in translation" is a TOTAL understatement. Anyway, so he tells the abbot, expecting some excitement. The abbot, after taking a sip of tea, says "Well, it's better than doing nothing..."

And that's how Kaz Tanahashi met Bodhidharma...


Frederic Lecut said...

That's hilarious !
Thank you for sharing this