I have a pretty long commute these days, from San Jose, where we’re living with my mother-in-law until sometime after the baby is born, up to San Francisco and Oakland, where I work. I spend hours every week on Caltrain. There are many things to love about my commute: the fact that I even have a job is miraculous; I was so worried as my job hunt was beginning earlier this year. My feeling of gratitude and excitement to be working at all is one piece of my mornings and evenings on the train. But there’s more. I ride my bike from home to the station, and on the other end from the station to work, and I’m so happy with the bike car on the train, its rectangular yellow sign with the words “Bike Car” and a helpful picture. I enjoy the way my thighs hurt after those damn hills on the way back from the SF office. I love the yellow tag I have labeled with my destination, the scramble of bungee cords and pedals when the racks are all filled. I pull my right sock up over my dress pants so I don’t get grease on them while I ride. Some people use Velcro straps around that pant leg—very sharp. Some people roll the pant leg up; everybody’s got a system. I leave my sock pulled up for the whole ride, for some reason, and don’t pull my pant leg out until I get to my destination.
This is all to say that I have these hours every week—well over two hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, sometimes even more—to just sit on the train and read, and for the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Kaz Tanahashi’s translation (with various co-translators) of the Shobo Genzo. I wouldn’t say I’m studying it, exactly; often I’m pretty exhausted, and I’m not comparing translations, or consulting commentaries, or working line by line through the acrobatics of Dogen’s dizzying range of expressions. Instead, I’m just reading it, page after page, fascicle after fascicle, stopping occasionally to look out the window at the graffiti on the walls, or the rows of houses and apartment buildings, or the sky.
All these parts of the experience mix together—this feeling of having a job, my sock pulled up over my pant leg, the other commuters and their iPods, that hill on my ride to the station in the evening, the conductor’s voice on the intercom, Dogen’s dense, looping prose—and I have a whole herd of thoughts that I’d like to try to clarify for myself in the next couple of posts.
The first thing on my mind is translation itself, that bizarre act of moving something—what?—from one language to another. This is an aspect of our lives that I have some experience with. I spent the first few years of my life speaking Spanish and didn’t learn English until we moved to the U.S. from Argentina when I was five. I remember preschool in Nashville, Tennessee, all the strange clanging noises of English, the sharp edges of English words in my mouth. These days, my Spanish is rough—I can feel myself blush if a conversation in Spanish starts moving too fast, out of the vocabulary I’m comfortable with.
At one of my very first sesshins, at the Austin Zen Center. I remember having a really difficult time. The silence was unbearable to me somehow, the fact that no one was speaking. The evening of the fifth or sixth day, I found one of the senior priests after the day’s last zazen period to tell him I was thinking of leaving and going home. I probably talked really fast; I doubt that I made much sense.
The priest was kind. He listened, and I’m sure said various wise things. I don’t remember. But he suggested that I try telling myself that everything was all right. Somehow our interaction calmed me down, or at least calmed me down enough to try sticking things out for another day. The next morning, again, that silence, and dutifully, I tried telling myself things were all right, that I’d be okay. Nothing. Crickets. Just a guy sitting on a cushion, deeply, painfully unsure if he wanted to stay. I tried it various other times, and then, for some reason, I tried it in Spanish—Davito, I said (Davito, my family’s name for me when I was young), Davito, todo está bien—and I cried as hard as I have in my entire life, loud, with snot running down my face, for a really long time. Different languages impact us in different ways; different words have different kinds of power.
About Dogen and the Shobogenzo, specifically, I have such different experiences of different translators. The Nishijima and Cross translation in the four different-colored volumes is a classic, of course—the first complete translation I ever saw, with that pursed-lip Dogen on the cover. The footnotes in that text are so helpful, I think, especially since I know absolutely zero Japanese. I have to say, though, that this new Tanahashi version, at least for me, is much more fluid than Nishijima and Cross’s, much more readable. It flows more easily. In the Nishijima, it can be a chore to get from page to page. Part of this may be that Nishijima is skimpier on the paragraph breaks, printing long sections in one paragraph, whereas Tanahashi tends to break sections up into shorter paragraphs, which makes an enormous difference.
Waddell and Abe’s versions feel especially nuanced somehow, and full of power. The footnotes are detailed and clarifying, worth careful attention. I admit I’m not crazy about Thomas Cleary’s translations of Dogen, although I love his Avatamsaka Sutra, the only complete translation into English as far as I know, and his Blue Cliff Record (with J.C. Cleary) and his Book of Serenity. Where would we be without the Cleary brothers’ efforts? Francis Cook’s translations I love—his are the ones I recommend people new to Dogen start with (the few who have ever asked!) at least partly because his introductions are so helpful and clear. Then there’s the Shasta Abbey one, which is just wild. It can be fun to spend a little time with, but I admit that for my taste it’s so idiosyncratic that I haven’t looked at it too much.
All of these different experiences of the same text. To the point where it’s strange to speak of “the same text” at all. There are various Shobogenzos, as there are various me’s who have read it. I remember reading Moon in a Dewdrop when I first came to practice and feeling overwhelmed by it somehow. It was like nothing I’d ever read, maybe a little like Faulkner in its power and strangeness, that combination of utterly incomprehensible and deeply moving, but otherwise not like anything I’d ever come across. My experience now is different—I’ve read and re-read some of those chapters, and they’re more familiar. It doesn’t have the foreignness it had then; it feels more subtle, more nuanced, softer, although still the strangeness of it—the radicalness of Dogen’s Dharma—can wash over me with no warning at a particular line.
So which is the real Shobogenzo? (Which is the true Seijo?) If even one version changes for me over time, as I change, and there are now half a dozen English versions or more of many of these fascicles, along with various Japanese versions in the first place, along with myriad other versions in the myriad languages I don’t know, then what is the Shobogenzo, really? Is there a Genjokoan in Finnish? In Arabic? How many editions? My mind boggles. What do we think we’re reading when we read someone’s version of someone’s version of Dogen’s version of someone’s version of an old Chinese or Indian poem or story? What does this all have to do with my train ride to work, my practice today, my vow?
Somehow I can’t stop thinking about all of this, the shaping and branching of the Dharma as it flows from mind to mind, language to language, culture to culture, generation to generation. Next time I’ll try to take up one of the wilder essays about these issues, Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” from 1923. It’s an amazing piece of writing—and I’ve only read it, of course, in translation.