March 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm #27906
Love him or hate him here are two interesting interviews from Translator Thomas Cleary..SL
1. (2004)Thomas Cleary
An Oakland author and translator ranges through the many worlds of spiritual life
By Daniel Burton-Rose
THOMAS CLEARY IS one of the country’s most prolific translators of classical spiritual texts. Since the initial publication of The Blue Cliff Record (Shambhala), a core text of Chan Buddhism Cleary translated with his brother in the late 1970s, he has authored, edited, or translated more than 70 books from Celtic, classical Chinese and Japanese, Pali (the scriptural and liturgical language of Hinayana, or “lesser vehicle,” Buddhism), Old Bengali, and Arabic. If you’ve pursued any interest in Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, conflict studies, or women’s spirituality, you’ve most likely been aided by his contributions.
Cleary’s work is clear-eyed and incisive. He consistently conveys what the contemplative San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth called “the experiential or existential core of the transcendental experience.” As for those who intentionally obfuscate so as to manipulate others, the master translator’s remarks are cutting.
Cleary’s most recent publications are The Counsels of Cormac: The Ancient Irish Guide to Leadership (Doubleday) and, with Bannie Chow, Autumn Willows: Poetry by Women of China’s Golden Age (Story Line Press). His upcoming projects are equally fascinating: a translation of Oriental tales from medieval Spanish, a comparative study of Chinese and Japanese constitutional law, and a study of contemporary cultural warfare in East-West relations, among others. Despite a penchant for reclusiveness, he recently spoke with the Bay Guardian from his Oakland home.
Bay Guardian: With the publication of The Counsels of Cormac, your work now spans from east Asia to westernmost Europe. What insights about commonalities and differences among peoples have you picked up on this path?
Thomas Cleary: Much could be said about this, but to paraphrase Confucius, it seems our closeness is natural, our distance acquired.
BG: How did you come to translate classical Asian spiritual texts?
TC: It came about through my interest in Buddhism. I got interested in Buddhism about 40 years ago. I had non-ordinary experiences ever since childhood, and Buddhism put them into perspective. I got interested in other religious methods through an experience induced by Pure Land Buddhist practice. When I learned to read canonical Buddhist languages, I also found that studying other religions and other ways of thought is a normal part of Buddhist practice, so I continued.
BG: What issues are involved in the process of translation?
TC: The central issue involved is how much of the original range of intention can be usefully conveyed under the prevailing conditions, based upon need and possibility. The issues of meaning and purpose necessarily touch on any and every question that might be posed about the relationships between language and experience. The diverse possibilities of the effects of language on sensation, perception, and conception can be very complex, and the potentiality of literature designed to affect the whole mind is particularly rich in this respect.
BG: What allowances do you make for cultural differences?
TC: It’s a question of the underlying meanings and purposes of the work, how these can be conveyed and accomplished in a new milieu. Of course, there are considerable differences within cultures as well as among cultures, and similar sectors in different cultures may often be more alike in their outlook than different sectors of the same culture. Also, international communications have become quicker. Some of my work is published and read in English in Asia, for example, while some is translated into modern Asian languages such as Mandarin, Korean, Thai, and Indonesian. I’ve found that culture, however useful and important, is neither the foundation nor the ceiling of human experience, even if it is commonly used for walls.
BG: In your opinion, have consumer cultures like those of the United States, Japan, and, increasingly, China changed people’s abilities to receive knowledge from classical texts?
TC: Well, even if you look at it from a strictly linguistic point of view, you can see that time and change naturally distance any culture from its classics. The intrusion of incongruous elements exaggerates this process. The question of whether anything useful can be derived from classics, beyond residual cultural identification, may remain an individual matter. As for consumerism in particular, this is not a new phenomenon, even if it has been more generalized by the economic methodology of modern imperialism. Chan Buddhist texts criticize the consumerist approach to religion and spiritual studies, while Daoist classics criticize the consumerist approach to everything.
Organizations that collect followers for fuel, however, whether they’re religious or political in appearance, regularly make even greater efforts to foster consumerism in their own domains. So it’s a matter of whether anyone can and will retain or recover the innocence and autonomy to appreciate anything beyond implanted expectations.
BG: Among your most popular works are those on conflict, such as Sun Tzu’s immortal Art of War and The Japanese Art of War, which you authored. In what way do these pieces join with your purely literary, philosophical, and spiritual contributions to form a whole?
TC: What one discovers in these materials depends on how they’re approached. In Buddhist terms, they’re there to assist in the study of causes of suffering and ways to relieve suffering. Tactics that are used every day to capture minds and overcome personal autonomy become part of common convention, fixtures of everyday life even dressed up in overtly respectable guises such as education, religion, and philanthropy. They can’t be efficiently avoided or escaped unless they’re identified and explained for what they really are.
BG: What are the implications of improving people’s ability to conquer?
TC: That also depends. Improvement of people’s ability to conquer irrational fears, ambitions, and vanities might help them. People might benefit from this if they are being made to suffer needlessly, if they are being induced to act upon, or to act out, the fears, ambitions, and vanities of others who are adept at manipulating human weaknesses to exert influence and control. Then again, even if some tactics are so deeply hidden as to remain invisible, simply being realistic about the costs of conflict can sometimes calm people down long enough to reconsider their options. In any case, the reason, clarity, and emotional state of the person involved are always going to factor in, and objective conditions are also affecting most people’s minds at any given time.
BG: Is there anything in the texts that dictates who its users can be, or are they as open to “patriarchal authoritarians” a category you’re quite critical of in your work as to those who combat them?
TC: In terms of access, the only strategic text I’ve translated from Chinese that is really encoded in the original is The Master of Demon Valley, which I’ve translated into ordinary language in Thunder in the Sky. This was more secret, and more highly prized, but also more dangerous for the would-be sorcerer’s apprentice in search of power. It explains the dynamics of certain marketing ploys that are still commonly used in commerce and politics, however, so its defensive and liberating potential is quite considerable if employed for these purposes. As with any science, the results of strategic studies will reflect differences in the abilities and intentions of the parties concerned, as well as differences in circumstances.
If anyone’s worried about authoritarians getting this knowledge, it’s too late, by thousands of years. How do you suppose they got their power in the first place? Tyrants and would-be tyrants have always tried to acquire and reserve knowledge and information for their own purposes, and that’s precisely why it’s important to make this knowledge public: to counteract the dangers inherent in monopolization.
BG: Officially imposed ignorance and prejudice have reached a new pinnacle in this country since 9/11. Are there lessons to be gleaned from the priests and mystics who have dealt with repressive regimes in the past?
TC: In today’s context as well as any other, we need to consider the underlying mechanisms of ignorance and prejudice, including the purposes for which they are fostered. Thinking of today’s situation as unique will inhibit our ability to take lessons from past precedents or to perceive predictable futures. We could potentially benefit from studying the reactions of all classes and conditions of people to repressive regimes, not just certain groups.
As for priests and mystics, one thing history tells us is that people called priests have also acted as agents of repressive regimes, and people called mystics have also acted as escapists in the interest of personal peace of mind. Then again, there have also been priests who brought order from chaos, and priests who led wars against repressive regimes, and mystics who have left great legacies of science and art, and mystics who labored and suffered in the world for the sake of others.
When we get past labels and ideologies and see what people really are and actually do, we are in a position to ask ourselves what lessons we can derive from events. And then we can ask ourselves if we’re able to make any use of these lessons. When it comes to appointing other people to do our thinking for us, we’ve had the story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing for so long that we sometimes forget why it’s there.
Interview with Thomas Cleary
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 and J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, 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.
Sonshi.com: We understand you will introduce a series of books on the different schools of traditional Japanese military and political science. Please tell us more about the first book, The Warriors Rule, and how it would help a person in today’s world?
Cleary: The Warrior’s Rule may serve several purposes, depending on the reader.
There is an underlying social purpose, in broadening and deepening general understanding of Japanese culture, including the special characteristics and distinct varieties of the warrior culture of the samurai. While it is well known that Japan has for some time been subject to external pressure to change its constitution to permit international military action, nonetheless the potential implications of the revival of Japanese militarism have not, for historical reasons, been as carefully considered in the West as in the East.
The safeguard of the postwar Japanese constitution, moreover, is not necessarily as solid as popularly imagined, even if it remains as is, and may not inhibit international action that is formally framed in terms of national defense. Indeed, the label of defensive purpose might conceivably be applied even to preemptive action, without requiring any constitutional change within this framework of interpretation. Anecdotal information suggests that many Americans are not even aware that postwar Japan has military forces at all, but the following quotations illustrate something of the gravity with which the potential role of the modern Japanese military in the power balance of East Asia is viewed in certain circles:
From US Dept of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, Feb. 06, 2006, page 41:
“Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time off set traditional U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter strategies.”
Now let us consider the following suggestion for Japan ‘s possible role in a counter strategy addressing this fear of China:
Japan Policy Research Institute , Critique, Vol. XII, No. 1 (January 2005)
Will Japan Go Nuclear?
by Marshall Auerback
“While the rest of the Asia/Pacific region is increasingly turning to Beijing as its new economic and political locus, Japan appears to have made the decision to throw in its lot completely with Washington . Economically, the Bank of Japan has systematically destroyed its balance sheet through its longstanding (and ultimately futile) dollar support operations to accommodate the most egregious excesses in U.S. economic policy-making. But as Japan ‘s Iraq deployment indicates, this cooperation is now manifesting itself to a greater degree in the military sphere. Although not yet explicitly stated, the logical culmination of these ties would be to encourage Japan to go nuclear at some stage in the future. From Washington ‘s perspective, this would also have the added advantage of curbing China ‘s growing influence in the Asia/Pacific region.”
A nuclear Japan may be one of those phenomena that become more possible to the degree popularly ignored or dismissed as improbable. There are, nonetheless, undoubtedly those with grave concerns in this regard:
From The Korea Times , 7/9/2006:
“We see the recent move of elevating its defense agency’s status as being closely related to Tokyo ‘s growing inclination to beef up its military capabilities. The recent moves by Japan to gloss over its wartime atrocities in school textbooks is also viewed to be deeply related to a strong current that is pushing for a revival of nationalism and militarism in Japanese society.
Japan ‘s Self-Defense Force (SDF) has been steadily strengthening its military capability at a rapid pace, introducing state-of-the-art weaponry and expanding its sphere of operations. It is an undeniable fact that the rapid transformation of the SDF into a full-fledged military force is awesome enough to bring back neighboring countries’ bitter memories of Japanese militarism.”
Considering the magnitude of the powers and forces involved, maximization of all-around understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological elements that are engaged in international relations can be useful to minimize miscalculations of potentially disastrous proportions, by rendering the principals involved, and the public at large, less vulnerable to the influence of ill-informed opinion, the destabilization of artificial inflammation, and the peril of indiscreet experimentation.
On May 1 of 2006, the US Department of State issued a joint statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Japan’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, saying, “The Ministers stressed the imperative of strengthening and improving the effectiveness of bilateral security and defense cooperation in such areas as ballistic missile defense, bilateral contingency planning, information sharing and intelligence cooperation, and international peace cooperation activities, as well as the importance of improving interoperability of Japan ‘s Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces…”
The envisioned role of Japanese forces in this alliance is evidently not limited to the East Asia . Afghanistan , Iraq , and the greater Middle East are also mentioned in this joint statement, suggesting the potentially world-wide scope of US-Japan military cooperation.
This increasing emphasis on the US-Japan alliance will unavoidably intensify the need for American military directors, officers, and soldiers to understand the many faces of Bushido; and expansion of joint operations in the future may be expected to bring the subject to the attention of the American public to an unprecedented degree.
In terms of specific applications, military officers and noncoms will recognize the significance of the care that Bushido devotes to the cultivation of the warrior spirit. The effects of warfare on the human psyche have been studied for ages, and it might be said that a general concept of chivalric education and training is to balance the personality of the warrior under the most difficult of circumstances. This balance is considered beneficial both to the individual and to society, given the entire nexus of stress created by the conditions of mobilization and combat. In view of widespread warfare and the proliferation of private military corporations, currently said to be active in over one hundred nations, the moral and psychological elements of martial culture are of intrinsic concern to both civil and military sectors of society.
For the military sector, information on the disciplines of other orders can be useful, not only for understanding the ethos and operation of those other orders, but also for stimulating improvement in the discipline of one’s own order. This latter effect is enhanced by difference of origin, because the material of other orders is not authoritative in one’s own order, and therefore the individual defiance impulse does not operate so automatically, resulting in less resistance to absorption by recruits. The consequent institutional and psychological detachment permits the material to be sorted in an objective and pragmatic manner, for relevance and usefulness, without dogmatic or traditionalistic compulsion.
Some element of competition, such as is characteristic of the combat mode itself, can also contribute to the efficiency of external stimulation to excellence. This is in fact one of the principles of the specific school of military science represented in The Warrior’s Rule, that is adopting and adapting whatever technique or method is useful at the time, whatever the source, whether in one’s own tradition or another.
This principle of adaptation is also extended to matters of individual organization and personal self-discipline. It is emphasized that ideals and precedents of the past, however excellent in themselves, may not be applicable unaltered in the present, and should therefore not be taken as inflexible dogma; but can nevertheless be profitably studied to suggest or to illustrate certain practical principles, with the understanding that their actualization in real life in the present requires accurate adaptation to current conditions. This is a most important point in this school, and its fundamental culture of conscious consideration, applied to all aspects of life, including education and profession, expands the relevance of The Warrior’s Rule beyond the realm of political and military science per se, to the condition of individual human beings responsible for themselves and others in a world of massive forces that are not entirely predictable and under no one’s absolute control. The training of the warrior’s spirit fosters qualities of character and habits of conduct that can help develop character and effectiveness in all walks of life, personal powers of self-government including vigilance, order, thought, will, discernment, and decision.
Another aspect of The Warrior’s Rule that is associated with the theme of adaptation is somewhat more specialized, but the significance of the issue implied does have the potential to affect the entire world. This melancholy matter has to do with the development of Jingoism in modern Japan , a monster as yet undead, indeed showing signs of revival. When considered in connection with the foregoing views of global affairs, the problems that a revival of Japanese Jingoism could pose demand serious consideration. The Warrior’s Rule illustrates the fragmentary origins of ultra-nationalism in the attempt to extricate Japanese political and military thought from uncritical and inefficient idealism based on ancient Chinese classics. The original impulse was not anti-Chinese as it was to become in its ultimate deformity, but an initiative toward intellectual independence for practical purposes, in an atmosphere clouded by an intensifying sense of being surrounded by powerful forces.
In this connection, while illustrating the beginnings of this individuation process to differentiate subsequent developments and distortions, The Warrior’s Rule also balances the circumstantial division with inherent evidence of the profound and indelible interconnection that Japanese culture has had with Chinese culture throughout history. The last and longest of the five treatises translated in The Warrior’s Rule, entitled The Way of the Knight, exemplifies this profound appreciation of Chinese culture with particular vigor and clarity. The extent and sophistication of Chinese learning evinced by the Japanese author is remarkable in any era, and Western readers in particular may be surprised to read such accessible, practical, and even dynamic presentations of ancient classics as sources of inspiration for self-development and self-mastery, personal dignity and social skill.
[End of interview]
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