Recently, Suzanne Cahill and I finished our collaborative translation of the Record of Linji, something that has been a weekly project for a year now. I look back on this experience with great satisfaction. Following are some random observations on the process of translating a Chinese Zen text:

  1. Zen masters are like Nietzsche: they maintain the right to constantly contradict themselves. I’m currently re-reading Bernard Faure’s Chan Insights and Oversights, and am fascinated by his description of Daisetz Suzuki’s strategy of constantly shifting his viewpoint to gain favor with whoever supports one side of the argument. For example (I am not quoting directly): “Zen is Japanese and only accessible to Japanese. Zen is universal. Zen needs work to get to. Zen comes of its own.” Suzuki’s maneuvering here comes close to Linji, who will never let himself be caught by any given viewpoint. Perhaps Suzuki’s Zen then, is the real thing from a certain viewpoint, a point Faure also makes (in that even orientalist discussions of Zen convey some truth about the religion).
  2. Whatever you do, don’t hesitate: Whenever someone’s action was described as  擬 or 疑 (to plan or to hesitate, respectively), we knew that this person was in trouble. He was about to be slapped, shouted at, or served his tea on a fan. What then, should one do? Just act, be in the moment. I have often been told that the roots of this type of behavior are Daoist, and certainly I can see how the type of naturalness and wuwei Zhuangzi advocates would fit the Zen ideal. I have always envied this about Zen masters (whether they were real or not): their ability to be okay with doubt.
  3. Stick to the word order: Before, I had the impression that Chinese grammar wasn’t that complicated. Certainly, in Mandarin  one does not have to bother with cases, genders, and even plurals in most cases. But classical Chinese is different. Yes, there are still no cases or genders etc,  but the very simplicity of the grammar makes it hard to identify exactly what is being said. With Sanskrit, it’s a headache to recall exactly what case something is in, and what that means for the function of a word in the sentence, but with enough time the problem can be solved. With Classical Chinese there always remains that lingering uncertainty, another way of putting the words together in a grammatically correct way. Now, as Wai-lim Yip would have it, in this very ambiguity lies the poetic power of the language. But it makes the challenge of translation huge. The only thing you can hold on to, really, is the word order, which in Chinese is similar to English: Subject-Verb-Object. Stick to it religiously, and you’ll begin to make sense of the text.
  4. Be without affairs: for Linji, the best type of situation is to be “without affairs” (無事). I don’t exactly know what this means, but like most analyses of the Daoist wuwei (“non-action”; 無為), I don’t think it means doing nothing. I think it means not categorizing what you’re doing as an “affair,” as something to be worried about. Linji claims to be free as a bird, always, whether he’s raking the garden or lecturing to students. For him, these are not affairs. These are simply what he is doing, and he stops doing them as soon as he, well, stops doing them:

    師示眾云。道流, 佛法無用功處。秖是平常無事。屙屎]送尿著衣喫飯。困來即臥。 愚人笑我。 智乃知焉。

    The master appeared to the crowd and spoke: “Followers of the way, in the Buddhadharma there is no point in making an effort. It only is average, without anything to do. Taking a shit, having a piss, wearing clothes, eating food; when tired, sleep immediately. Stupid people laugh at me. Only the wise know of this.

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