Tesshin opened this talk this week by noting the recent passing of Thomas Cleary who is considered one of the greatest translators of classical Buddhist texts into English.
In many ways, Cleary is one of our greatest teachers as his work has provided access to the Dharma to so many of us in the West. He has translated over 80 works including the Blue Cliff Record collection of Zen Koans and the Avatamsaka Sutra. It is interesting to note that Cleary’s education at Harvard was centered on science, mathematics, and law – not a normal education for someone who would go on to achieve so much in religion and philosophy.
What would cause such a rational thinker to begin a life’s journey in Buddhism? According to Tesshin, it all started when Cleary was in his teens and came across some crude translations of Zen teachings. For the first time it occurred to him that there are some truths which go beyond rational science and logic. This is a situation which many thinking people encounter. What is the truth which Cleary found in those cryptic translations? It is the relation between the absolute and relative – both being totally real and completely interconnected. Science is very useful, but to only focus there creates a dualism in the mind which clouds the appreciation of the complete truth. Cleary was able to apprehend this from the crude teachings he found. However, the translations in circulation at that time obscured the message and limited the potential to disseminate the truth widely. It is said in our practice that we make the commitment to save all beings. One way to do this is to make the Dharma available. In this way, Cleary upheld the vow by dedicating his life to translating some of the greatest work of Buddhist thought and philosophy.
Tesshin next went on to focus on an important teaching about loneliness which came from Cleary’s translation of Dogen. This is especially relevant in our current age of Covid lock-downs and the resulting stress we are all experiencing. Is there a difference between being “alone” vs being “lonely?” There a lot of the pain and suffering in today’s world, and much of it is due to loneliness. Life is hard and has many challenges around things like health, finances, relationships. In today’s world, we are often called upon to face these challenges alone and this makes us feel quite lonely.
In one of Cleary’s translations, we see Dogen directly address this issue. He states that when it comes to identity, most of us are mistaken – our form is not our identity – we are simply “ornaments in space.” What does that mean? We might think that this is simply poetics, but to Dogen it is practical truth. According to Dogen, our body is not our identity, and by extension our challenges do not define our existence. In an absolute sense, our bodies are not our own. Our life cannot be reduced to just maintaining our form, position, possessions, and so on. Dogen is stating that our life is so much more. We simply keep forgetting this, and this forgetfulness drags us back into suffering and loneliness.
Tesshin mentioned that the most elegant solution to being lonely is Zazen. When we sit and we breath, and let go of boundaries and let in the expanse of the universe – we are lifted of the burden of thinking that our problems solely comprise our existence. We forget what should be and become what we really are. We realize that there is more to existence than the day-to-day personal struggle with problems. Our physical form is simply a part of the universe at this particular moment. It is not truly us – we just inhabit this form for a short period of time. As such, we are simply ornaments in space.
Tesshin wrapped up by noting that these precious gifts of the great thinkers of our tradition have been made available though the diligent work of teachers, practitioners, and academics like Cleary. We should pause for a minute and give gratitude for these gifts.