July 29, 2006 at 11:58 pm #15957
Interview with Thomas Cleary
Below is a rare interview Thomas Cleary gave to site managers of sonshi.com
Hope you enjoy…Snowlion
In the world of strategy books, a milestone was reached in 1988 when Dr. Thomas Cleary published his translation and interpretation of The Art of War. A Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard, Dr. Cleary redefined the military treatise by linking it to Taoist thought found in classics like the I Ching and Tao Te Ching. He purposefully highlighted “a profound undercurrent of humanism” to the often misunderstood book on warfare. Most Sun Tzu scholars have followed these viewpoints ever since.
Thomas Cleary is a prolific writer. He has penned 80 books, most of which are related to East Asian culture and philosophy, e.g., Buddhist and Taoist works. We have found the author to be fiercely independent and that he likes to draw information directly from the source (thus perhaps explaining his deep interest in translating classics from their language of origin). If you were Sun Tzu, wouldn’t you want to gather intelligence the same way, too?
We at Sonshi.com also found Thomas Cleary to be very down-to-earth. He told us of a time recently when he worked with a contractor to install fiberglass insulation, which of course is not the safest work. The contractor liked his work ethic so much that he offered him the job. When Dr. Cleary finally fessed up to being a successful writer and just wanted to go blue collar for the day, the contractor said he graduated from Princeton but found his current career suited him better. Luckily for us, our esteemed author did not also change careers, and so we will continue to enjoy his works for years to come.
Below is a rare interview with Dr. Thomas Cleary. Enjoy!
Sonshi.com: You have translated numerous books; we are simply astounded by your productivity. When did you first take interest in translations?
Cleary: I got into Buddhism when I was in my teens and started translating when I was 18. The reason behind my research into various books was because I wanted to learn.
Sonshi.com: Your Art of War edition is among the best-selling Art of War books of all time. What got you interested into translating the military classic?
Cleary: I usually translate works that have never been translated into English before. But in this case, everyone has heard of Sun Tzu. His Art of War has already been translated into English.
However, I found past interpretations of the book too limited. They are limited representations of the West. There are a variety of presentations not given, such as from a Taoist standpoint. Previously, Taoism in The Art of War has either been denied or minimized. I wanted to say, here is one way — another way — to look at the text.
Sonshi.com: What concept from The Art of War would you say people misinterpret the most?
Cleary: I no longer read Western interpretations of the Art of War so it’s hard to say. If I have to venture it would be that The Art of War is not political. It is military and technical.
Sonshi.com: What was your most challenging book to translate?
Cleary: Of the eight languages and some 80 books I translated, I would say Old Irish was the most challenging. This is due to the destruction of Irish language and culture over the centuries, and so the records are very spotty. I am a student of law myself, and many aspects of Gaelic law can be useful in the American system such as in Restorative Justice.
The Flower Ornament Scripture, the Avatamsaka Sutra, was also challenging.
Sonshi.com: Where would you place the importance of The Art of War in relation to the other 79 or so books you have translated? In other words, do you think it is particularly important or merely the most well known?
Cleary: I suppose that the importance of a book depends on whether people can benefit from it, according to their needs. The attention it gets, on the other hand, may be affected by different factors.
Sonshi.com: Have you ever thought of teaching at a university?
Cleary: There is too much oppression in a university setting.
I am not in Engaged Buddhism, have never supported cults, am not a member of any academic clique, and do not belong in organized education. I am not confined to any group. I want to stay independent and reach those who want to learn directly through my books.
Sonshi.com: But you were taught at Harvard, perhaps the most traditional of all universities.
Cleary: A good thing about Harvard was language training was done by native teachers. You did not find that everywhere.
Sonshi.com: What are you currently working on and what is next for Thomas Cleary?
Cleary: I am currently studying law, e.g., Comparative Constitutional Law. The American system is in flux and needing new ideas. The current system is based on the power of precedent so change is slow. By looking into other systems around the world we may be able to resolve issues, for example, in a more humanitarian way. All this may be a subject of a future book.
Sonshi.com: According to a recent LA Times story, you were with the Dalai Lama. The news reporter incorrectly described you as a Harvard professor. Could you tell us more accurately what happened?
Cleary: I am not a Harvard professor, as the LA Times article says. All the other representations and their implications are likewise fictitious. I was not onstage with the Dalai Lama, and did not flank him at any time. I was not among those sporting the silk scarf he bestows. My work is not connected to any personal, political, or sectarian associations or alliances. My message that day had no relation whatsoever to the Art of War, and I was not introduced or identified that way.
As I have already translated both Buddhist and Islamic scripture from their original Sanskrit and Arabic, I was requested to address that assembly. I just recited some scripture as an amicus mundi, friend of the world.
These are the passages I presented.
By the age,
man is indeed at a loss,
except those who have faith
and do good works
and take to truth
and take to patience.
Say, “O atheists,
I don’t serve what you serve,
and you don’t serve what I serve.
And I won’t serve what you serve
and you won’t serve what I serve.
You have your way,
and I have my way.”
Do you see the one who repudiates religion?
That is the one who rebuffs the orphan
and does not encourage feeding the poor.
So woe to those who pray
yet are inattentive to their prayer:
those who put on the appearance
and yet are withholding assistance.
Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka-sutra):
I know all the various arts and crafts and sciences in the world dealing with writing, mathematics and symbols, physiology, rhetoric, physical and mental health, city planning, architecture and construction, mechanics and engineering, divination, agriculture and commerce, conduct and manners, good and bad actions, good and bad principles, what makes for felicity and what for misery, what is necessary for enlightenment, and behavior linking reason and action. I know all these sciences, and I also introduce them and teach them to people, and get people to study and practice them, to master and develop them, using these as means to purify, refine, and broaden people.
[End of interview]August 8, 2006 at 2:21 pm #15958
> Cleary: .. My work is not connected to any personal, political, or sectarian associations or alliances. ..
As I have already translated both Buddhist and Islamic scripture from their original Sanskrit and Arabic, I was requested to address that assembly. I just recited some scripture as an amicus mundi, friend of the world. >
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