Norman Fischer.

Rigorous, Pious, and Poetic: Comparing the different English translations of Shobogenzo

Norman Fischer compared the different English translations of Shobogenzo.

By Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer compared the different English translations of Shobogenzo.

Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo is the fourth complete version of this immense and profound work to appear in English.

The first English version was Dogen Zenji Shobogenzo: The Eye and Treasury of the True Law, published in four volumes from 1975 to 1983 by Nakayama Shobo in Tokyo. It was translated by Kosen Nishiyama, a professor and Zen priest, with John Stevens, Steve Powell, Ian Reader, and Susan Wick. The translators worked in Japan, in the Sojiji tradition of Soto Zen (most Japanese Soto Zen teachers who came to the West were from the Eiheiji tradition).

This version is quite readable, but that is probably because it is highly interpretative. There isn’t much explanatory material in it for the reader who wants more detail and nuance. Still, I always go to it for a good clear sense of how a Soto Zen priest in Japan would tend to read a particularly tough passage. (At issue with this and all Dogen translations in which the lead translator is a Japanese Soto Zen priest is the difference—if there is or ought to be any—between the way Dogen is read in Japanese Zen and how he is read in the West.)

From 1994 to 1999, Gudo Nishijima brought out his four-volume translation titled Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, which was published by Windbell Publications (in England and Japan). Nishijima was a lawyer and businessman who became a Zen priest late in life, training under the great master Sawaki Kodo Roshi. He collaborated on the translation with Chodo Cross, an American Zen student living in Japan. To my eye, their version is a bit more rigorous, reflecting more of the complexity I imagine is in the original, and includes valuable footnotes that often cite the Japanese characters used in the text, which give the reader a good sense of what is involved beneath the surface of the English. I always consult this version for extra depth in my study.

In 2007, Rev. Hubert Nearman of Shasta Abbey brought out The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching: A Trainee’s Translation of Zen Master Dogen’s Spiritual Masterpiece. It is published for free distribution (and available in its entirety as a PDF on the web) by Shasta Abbey Press. Nearman, who began his career as a young theater scholar interested in the Japanese stage, spent the last fourteen years of his life working on this version. While he had some editorial help from his fellow monastics at Shasta Abbey, the translation is his own, a tremendous feat in itself.

Rev. Nearman’s clear translation reflects his passionate Soto Zen faith, cultivated in the Jiyu Kennett Roshi lineage and Sojiji Zen style. The clarity, however, might be a bit misleading, since I am not so sure that the original is as definite as he sometimes makes it out to be. Also, his version reads a bit piously, reflecting the style of his lineage (obviously every translation of Shobogenzo reflects a Dogen whose tone and flavor of expression resonates with the values and styles of the particular lineage the translator comes from). His use of the word “trainee” in his subtitle tips you off that his approach emphasizes the doctrinal meaning of the text as it relates to students practicing Zen. Like Nishijima, Nearman provides a brief introduction and explanation to each fascicle, however in this case emphasizing practice points. He is not much interested in the philosophical or poetic texture of the text, though Shobogenzo is prized for these qualities.

Finally, we come to the present text. First, I must disclose that Kaz Tanahashi’s version comes from my practice lineage and I have collaborated with him on this text myself, so I make no claim to objectivity, though I hope to be fair in my assessment. Well known in American Zen circles (he has lived in America since the 1960s), Tanahashi is a calligrapher, artist, peace activist, and world traveler, as well as a Dogen scholar. He made, in the early sixties, the first translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo from ancient to modern Japanese, and was, with Robert Aitken, the first translator of Dogen into English—they translated “Genjokoan” in 1965. Since then he has been steadily refining and extending his English Dogen, with the help of thirty-two translators, almost all of whom are active American Zen teachers—most, but not all, in the Suzuki Roshi lineage of the San Francisco Zen Center.

This new, complete edition collects work from Tanahashi’s previously published Dogen translations and adds to it, gathering all the fascicles of Shobogenzo into one chronological text. Over the generations in Japan there have been several versions of Shobogenzo. As a result, none of the English versions presents the fascicles in the same order, which is a bit cumbersome when you are trying to make comparisons.

The virtue of this text is chiefly that Tanahashi and his associate editor, the poet and Zen teacher Peter Levitt, have taken pains to preserve the poetic and philosophical depths of Dogen’s writing. While clarity in English is of course a primary consideration, it never takes precedence over the tone and flavor of the original, which often seems to be less interested in understandable communication than in presenting nuance, ambiguity, and wonder. While the text reads as perfectly solid English, it also, oddly, retains a Japanese inflection, as if you were somehow hearing Dogen’s original voice through the differences in language and culture. The text includes several useful appendices containing, among other things, biographical material as it relates to the fascicles as well as an extensive glossary that provides, as does Nishijima, many of the original Japanese characters. However, in many cases Tanahashi adds, as Nishijima does not, the literal meaning of these characters, so that layers of poetic nuance available in the Japanese can be brought forth.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.