Reading Dogen in Translation

by Enkyo O’Hara

There are so many ways to study Dogen, to experience, to express Dogen, even though most of us do this through the prism of available translations. I’m interested in ordinary people who are curious about Dogen, and my own role as an ordinary student and teacher of Soto-style Zen practice, here, in 21st Century western culture. My hope is to help people turn toward, and not away from, this marvelous writer and teacher, and to help them do that by understanding a little more about translation.

In my earliest days of Zen practice, I began to hear of a rich source of wisdom, the writings of a 13th century Japanese Zen Master, who held the secret to authentic practice. As I recall, the first texts of Dogen that I encountered were the instructions on zazen, “Fukanzazengi,” said to be his first writings on returning to Japan, and his lyrical and philosophical “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” and his deeply mysterious meditation on time: “Uji,” and of course, his prescription for life-practice, the “Genjokoan.”

dogen01So these were my introduction to Dogen! Wonderful, challenging texts that serve me to this day, in my practice and in the teaching that I offer my sangha. Through the years I have worked my way through nearly all of Dogen’s writings available in English. Whether it is to learn what Dogen wrote about a sutra, or a koan, or a ritual, or a central Buddhist theme, the many translations available are a treasure house.

When I began to work with these texts, I did not really consider the whole issue of whose translation I was reading. In 1980 there were not a whole lot of translations or scholarly studies available. So, not thinking too hard about the issue of translation, I simply dove wholeheartedly into the available English language versions themselves, into the words and phrases that helped me to practice, to experience my practice more deeply, and ultimately to share those insights. And they served me well. My practice deepened, some phrases leapt to mind when dullness or agitation bothered me:

  • If you wish to attain suchness, practice suchness
  • Dharma gate of ease and joy
  • You are the time being right now
  • Turn the light around
  • To study the self is to forget the self
  • When one side is illumined, the other side is dark
  • Body and mind drop away

Soon, I begin to notice that when I simply couldn’t ‘get’ a phrase of Dogen’s, such as “body and mind drop away,” I would first use the phrase as a koan to sit zazen with, to live with, and to investigate. I would take the phrase in, and work it into my life: what is this ‘drop body and mind.’ right now, as listen to a friend, as I walk down the street, as I encounter stress, as I sit zazen? How can this ‘drop body and mind’ come into me completely?

And, I would also try to find how another translator might have phrased it. In the early days, this was not so easy, but now there are many varied and delightfully felicitous translations. It is a joy to find them – listen for what resonates for you:

  • Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now. (Stanford)
  • Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this. (Kaz)
  • Body and mind naturally drop off, and the original face appears. If we want to attain the matter of the ineffable, we should urgently practice the matter of the ineffable. (Cross)
  • Your body and mind will drop off naturally, and original-self will manifest of itself. If you wish to attain Suchness, practice Suchness immediately. (Okamura and also Maezumi Roshi)
  • Your body and mind will drop away of themselves, and your original face will manifest. If you want to get into touch with things as they are, you – right here and now – have to start being yourself, as you are. (Antaiji)
  • The consciousness of our body and mind might vanish in a few minutes, and our original face and eyes will manifest themselves naturally. And if we want to get anything ineffable at once, just practice something ineffable, that is, Zazen, at once! (Nishijima)
  • Doing this, the body-mind will drop through itself spontaneously revealing your Original Nature. If you wish to be realized in Suchness, immediately practice Suchness. (Yasuda Joshu)

Aren’t they amazing? Each one, slightly different, kind of like the wise ones circling the elephant in the famous parable. Something is being expressed; which one moves you to greater clarity? Or is it the pattern of slight difference that opens our understanding? For example, my first version, from ZCLA, the one that puzzled me, said,

Your body and mind will drop off naturally, and Original Self will manifest. If you wish to attain suchness, practice suchness immediately.

I wondered, does this mean that I would lose consciousness of my body and mind? That I would forget my sense of physicality, or of sensibility? That didn’t seem right! That certainly wasn’t my own experience of deep practice! Quite the opposite. Rather than drop off, I felt my experience was dropping in. At such a point, it is so important for us to trust the conflict between how we understand the words and our own experience. When we encounter such a block, we can ask ourselves if it is the word, the translation, that is blocking our understanding, or is it the meaning that we are resisting? Either way, this ‘block’ can create a sense of stuckness, of immobility, that can happen when we don’t really ‘get’ what is being expressed.

Fukan_Zazengi_Tenpuku_CopyTo get out of this trap, I looked to other translations seeking a more nuanced sense of this ‘drop.’ I found a sense of dropping off, dropping away, dropping through, even of a vanishing, a making way for this “Original Self’ or Original Nature to manifest. This network of versions chipped away at my block – my inability to be intimate with the meaning behind these words. Thus, reading various versions allowed me to grasp the relaxed, the naturalness, the lack of forcing, the sense of the body-mind dropping, as one said “of itself.”

And then there’s the next line, “If you wish to attain suchness, practice suchness immediately.” Although that is the most common version, the Stanford version has, “to get such, get to work on such” which has a sharpness and directness that pulled me away from the many truly obtuse definitions of ‘Suchness’ – a word I labored over for years, long after having experienced the sound of water, the touch of wind, the quiet in the roar. Other versions have instead of ‘suchness’, “just this” (Kazuaki Tanahashi), “the matter of the ineffable” (Cross), and “things as they are” (Antaiji), and that short, direct ‘such’ with its implication of ‘only this’ or ‘just so.’

Again, reading these slightly different renderings offered me an insight into naming my own experience and understanding what was being expressed in this line. Things as they are, just this, suchness, what would that be? Wasn’t it what I experience when I encounter life, just so? It is so beautifully expressed in Steven Heine’s translation of poem by Dogen:


Just at the moment
Ear and sound
Do not interfere —
There is no voice;
There is no speaker.

(Impromptu hermitage poems), 45-J, Steven Heine, The Zen Poetry of Dogen, p.113

Or, even more clearly, in a subsequent poem,


If you ask,

What is Buddha?
An icicle
From a mosquito net.

(Impromptu hermitage poems), 48-J, Steven Heine, The Zen Poetry of Dogen, p.113

Through multiple translations, then, the heart and mind can open, can dissolve the blocks that hinder insight. This leads me to wonder: with such an array of possible interpretations, what it is that I really want in a translation of a deeply spiritual text? And immediately I have to recognize a naïve, fundamentalist impulse to find a ‘correct’ or ‘true’ rendition of the text.

DogenP2Respectable Zen students know very well that the truth is not in the words and letters. We know this in our life experience, and yet when it comes to Dogen, I think I am not the only one who has fretted that I am not ‘getting it right.’ I think of it as our fundamentalist impulse. We care so much about the Dharma, and we want to offer it in the most pristine manner. And so we may at times forget that there really is no ‘right version’ to get – but rather a push in a direction that will serve the new practitioner, revive the long-time one, and refresh the community. Reframing the purpose of translating Dogen, then, becomes a key support when choosing, say, which translation, or portion of translation, to use in a teaching.

What is ‘translation’ anyway? In English, our word for ‘translation’ comes from the Latin – “trans and latus” – meaning ‘to carry over.’ To carry over what? The words? The meaning? What meaning? The exact, literal meaning of words? But when? What the word meant when Dogen wrote it, what it meant in Chinese koans, in Indian Sutras, what it meant in various Soto commentaries through the centuries? Or what it might mean now?

This gets even more complicated when we look at how the idea of ‘translation’ is different in different cultures. In China, with its many borders and needs for translation, and its great history of translating Buddhist scriptures, the word for translate is fan yi, meaning to flip or turn over (fan) and (yi) to interpret. To flip something over is to see what’s behind it, and to interpret is to explain the meaning. This has a different flavor than the English ‘carry over.’ We are not in the realm of carrying meaning over like a bucket of water, but rather, flipping it and explaining it. In India, classical translation tends to be looser, less tied to exact formulation; for example, two words from Sanskrit for translation are rupantar to change in form, and anuvad, ‘speaking after, following.’ These seem to imply a freer movement across language than ‘carrying over.’ And in Native American culture, to translate is to ‘tell a story from across”(Maria Tymoczko Enlarging Western Translation Theory: Integrating Non-Western Thought About Translation p. 13) Again, we are telling a story, not carrying a word across the border.

And also, there is the history of many translators working together on a text, such as Kumarajiva’s amazing team of perhaps two thousand (Ikeda, The Flower of Chinese Buddhism. Trans. Burton Watson) in China in the 4th and 5th century, and the forty-seven who worked on the King James version of the Bible in England in 1604. Such large group efforts no doubt benefited from scrutiny and debate, but also likely had some losses through groupthink and the inevitable politics that arise out of such groupings. Today when I look at the major translations of Dogen, I see primarily duets: Kaz and his many dharma friends, Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okamura, Masao Abe and Norman Waddell, Cross and Nishijima. And yes, there are those who work more or less alone: Thomas Cleary, Stephen Heine, Francis Cook, and others.

It is rigorous scholarly research, helping us to look into the original phrases and subsequent changes to our Dogen texts that can be such a vital support for all of us – professional translators, Dharma Teachers, and Way seekers. Existing scholarship explores the lexical fields, the words and how they were used, and what other phrases the words were in conversation with, and when a phrase is a quotation or variation on a historical phrase. In Dogen, we can often recognize the many exact phrases from the Lotus Sutra and the Chinese masters. The scholarship helps us to recognize the resonance of one word or phrase with another, the ‘echo’ of previous works being crucially important to the heart of a translation’s meaning and word play. This kind of research is enormously helpful to us all, and is the familiar territory of professional translators. In the two lines of Dogen that mentioned above, for example, it enriches our understanding to know that the phrase ‘original face’ derives from a koan in the Mumonkan (case 23), which in turn, derives from an incident in the Platform Sutra (p25. BDK), and so on. Thanks to knowing this, when I read the phrase ‘original face’ there is also the image of the sweating Monk Myo and his insight at the challenge of the Sixth Patriarch!

And there is always more. For us, Dharma practitioners of the 21st century, we also need to scrutinize the relevance of Dogen’s message to our own practice communities, and our own practice. Do we prefer a translation that is very ‘close’ to the original, almost word for word, character for character? Or one that reflects current thinking in some particular ‘Zen school’ – like Soto Shu? Or do we want a jazz-like riff on the original text?

FZ Opening_0I have studied some character-by-character renderings. Maezumi Roshi left some of these for his students, in a matrix, so that each character’s English equivalents could be seen. These do give a tiny window into meaning, and are helpful at times, but without the larger context, the window is tiny. When I look at various translations that I trust, what appears as a jumble of meanings to me, gradually clarifies. Looking at these many translations, and finding the paraphrase that works for me, I may well have found ‘my’ meaning, but does it work in its entirety, with the phrase before it and the phrase after it? For this we move into the world of adaptation, the creation of a new work based on the old.

Today there are many fine poets and writers who are creating translations from languages that they do not know. We can recall Ezra Pound’s Cathay doing this in his extraordinary Chinese poems. While he received much criticism for inaccuracies, he was appreciated by his critics for transmitting the feeling and intent of the ancient Chinese poets. I personally recall being summoned to Asian poetry by Ezra Pound in my early teens, simply by reading his translation of the four-line poem by Li Po (also known as Li Bai), The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance.

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

NOTES: Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach. Personae (1990)

Pound’s notes break the poem open and teach how to read Li Po. Online, I found twelve of the many translations or adaptations of this verse by various poets, each one delightfully rendering the main point, the woman’s distress, but in very different styles, appealing to different readers, some quite playful some quite casual, others more formal. (

Like Pound, like Gary Snyder, and W.S Merwin, many poets and writers are rendering verse and plays from ancient and today’s texts, creating adaptations, versions of poetry from languages that they do not know. Look at Seamus Heaney’s many translations from ancient and contemporary languages; note the many Greek plays being translated by non-classical writers, and various brilliant renditions of many texts from many languages. The way is open for us, too, to experiment and offer creative adaptations of Dogen’s writings. How? One prominent literary critic, George Steiner, suggested that first we must have trust in the original text, and then we can be prepared to do violence to it, by ripping it up and taking its core and then creating a new text in a new language. If we think of this violence, it is natural; it is necessary. The word for word or character-by-character grid is really useless to us, what we want is some sense of the meaning. What meaning? In my case, I am interested in the meaning that is useful to today’s Zen student.

This leads us to consider simply, who is the translation for? Naturally I strongly encourage, and am delighted by, ongoing research into the context, the semantic and lexical fields, the historical and political ambience, the biography, and so forth in which Dogen created his masterpieces. And these studies will surely continue to yield valuable insights into the study of the history of Zen, of Japanese literature, and of the history of philosophy.

But that is not exactly what I am interested in, right here in my life. I am interested in what Dogen can teach us, how he can inspire us, ordinary Zen practitioners, ordinary Dharma teachers, to live a life of meaning and benefaction.

Fukan_ZazengiOne way to take Dogen in, as I am trying to show, is to really get down and experience translation. I highly recommend that you try to translate something from one language to another, just to uncover for yourself some of the issues. Last spring I led a Sesshin in Bolivia, and used as my source text, the Fukanzazengi. Now my Spanish at one time was fluent and also somewhat versed in Spanish Literature, but years have passed and it is quite broken now. But, as I looked at the two available Spanish language versions of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, I found myself resistant, uncomfortable, with what I encountered. And so, armed with my limited skill yet large determination, I began to flip the English into Spanish, to rephrase the previous translation, and to creatively offer my own sense of the spirit that Dogen is offering. And how humbly, how carefully, one does offer a word, a phrase that might be helpful, and that will also serve the reader! I came perilously close to disaster and yet I persevered. And as I worked, I came to realize the translator as Bodhisattva! Yes, an enlightening being who takes the risk of offering to give a little light. My own humble project, really just a re-wording of some phrases, gave me serious insight into the joys and risks of translation. The risk is one of violating the text, and the reason for that risk is to share the meaning more widely.

So, I could say that my question is, how can a sincere dharma student experience true Dogen Zen and how can one teach Dogen’s wisdom, use his writings to encourage and clarify for others? My answer is: don’t be afraid to violate the text, don’t be afraid to use it in your practice, to listen to your own heart-mind when interpreting, and if something needs changing, change it.

And alas, it does call to mind the famous quip by a contemporary of Alexander Pope, who commented on Pope’s majestic translation of Homer’s Iliad, “A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” So, can we call it Dogen when we replace a word, a phrase so that it can be better understood by our dharma relations? When there’s the chance to offer a sincere and openhearted interpretation to others? I think so.

As I mentioned before, my own ‘fundamentalist impulse’ can get in the way of pure enjoyment of the text. I think at a certain point in my practice, I was looking for the ‘real meaning’ of a specific phrase of Dogen’s. As if by digging deeply enough, reading enough scholarly articles, I could uncover the ‘truth’ of what Dogen was saying. But actually, it not only seems quite impossible to be able to recapture the situations and politics and conversations of the times in which he wrote, and thus to get a sense of what he was responding to, but it also seems irrelevant when thinking of my own practice, today, these 800 years later in a whole other time and culture.

But ‘something’ endures. What is that? Yes, there is the delightful play on words, the images, the echoes of sutras, poetry, zen stories, that delight the mind and challenge the determined reader to trace them to their origins. But such tracing is rather like writing in sand on the beach, as the water laps over our efforts, and draws back to the ocean, all that is left is faint traces in the sand. And what are these traces? They are a command to write again on the beach, to once again offer an inspiring and sincere way to interrogate reality and our place in it.

Enkyo RoshiEnkyo O’Hara

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara serves as Abbot of the Village Zendo. She received priest ordination from Maezumi Roshi and Dharma Transmission and Inka from Bernie Tetsugen Glassman. Roshi Enkyo’s lineage comes through Maezumi Roshi whose teaching was uncommon, bringing together Soto priest training and study of the Rinzai koan system. Moreover, Roshi Glassman’s focus on social engagement and peacemaking underlies much of her vision of Zen practice.

Roshi is a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Family, a spiritual and social action association. Roshi’s focus is on the expression of Zen through caring, service, and creative response. Her Five Expressions of Zen form the matrix of study at the Village Zendo: Meditation, Study, Communication, Action, and Caring.