Monday, October 15, 2007

SHOZA: Upright Sitting -- Pete's Question

Peter asked:

Hi Mike,
In the introduction to Shobogenzo you translate Sho as “right” or “true” so why do you translate Shoza as “upright sitting” and not true as in say “the true sitting practiced by the ancestors” or just “the sitting practiced by the buddhas”? Could the concept of “uprightness“ stimulate an attempt to achieve (conform to?) a preconceived moral (upright) and physical position, resulting in uptightness, whereas Master Dogen’s advice not to lean to the left, incline to the right, slouch forward, or arch backward allows the possibility of something not directly stated, something in the middle between the opposing positions, to happen? I’m really struggling with this one.
Interesting to see how the earth appears in the characters for sho, za, jo and ge.
Peter, a low and base snake in the grass.

Thanks for the question, Peter. It gives me the chance to put down in words something I have been reflecting on these past few days.

I translated SHOZA as upright sitting because, at the particular moment of making that decision, I was blessed with the experience of having no other choice.

As a prefix, as I understand it now, SHO means to make right, to make straight, to make true, to make perpendicular. SHOZA means to make sitting upright; SHOSHIN-TANZA means to make the body upright in upright sitting, in short, to sit upright.

I am not saying that this is the only possible translation. It is just that any other possibility doesn't exist for me just now. Maybe in a few months or years time, I will look back and think that I missed the target, or that, due to my accumulated bad karma, I failed again to be a target that was hit.

On Friday I was talking with a concert violinist, formerly of the BBC orchestra, about what it might mean to do translation work as true practice, not as a means of boosting one's own prestige as a translator. Ron understood what I was trying to get at from his experience in music-making. He described the possibility of a musician reading what a great composer had put down when writing a score, and the musician simply communicating that -- nothing else but what the composer wrote.

Over the the past few days , for the first time in a long time, I have been doing some serious translation work. Most likely as a by-product of that 'serious' (for which read 'endgaining') effort, a couple of days ago I felt a renewed surge of anger and disgust towards Nishijima Roshi. In particular, I felt angry about his description of the Shobogenzo translation, two or three years ago, as "my personal job." He accused me of violating his "personal job." In truth, the translation ceased to become his personal job in 1988 when, in seeking my cooperation on the translation, he begged me for 5 years of my life. But Gudo's denial and delusion are his own problem. Why should I let those phenomena bother me?

When I reflected on why I was feeling this disgust and anger, it was obviously just another case of the mirror principle. The tendency that disgusts and angers me is one within myself.

It is a very human tendency to take pride in one's work but, if our professed aim is to drop off body and mind so that the original face may emerge, then that pride is something to be dropped off. Even if it is very difficult to drop it off, the true translation cannot truly emerge, in all its original splendour, unless the translator's ego truly drops off. When that happens, it is impossible for any excellent view that the translator has to be of any use whatsoever. The meaning of the original word is right there on the scroll, and right there in the Japanese-English character dictionary. There is no job for the translator to do, no decision for the translator to make, nothing to take pride in.

As far as Gudo Nishijima is concerned, he did a very nice translation of Shobogenzo into English that just required tidying up by a native English re-writer. But when I began to read Shobogenzo in the original Japanese, I realized that the problem was deeper than a linguistic problem. Gudo wasn't simply translating Shobogenzo; he was injecting his own interpretation into it at every step of the way, because he is just so filled to overflowing with his own brilliant view. The man has a very sharp philosophical mind and a very resilient translator's ego. For more than 20 years I have been looking into that particular mirror and feeling anger and disgust, and I am still looking into that mirror.

Again, seeing the effort I was putting into the translation on my webpage, and seeing the emerging result, my wife told me I should copyright it -- or else somebody other than us could publish it and make money out of it. My answer was that I don't want to do it as something in which there is something for me. But in stating my answer I was not without emotion, not without inner conflict. Something in me does want there to be something in it for me and my family.

Nowadays, whenever anybody tells me that they have bought a copy, or 4 copies, of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, something within me wonders who is getting all the money they are spending. The sense of wonder is not purely philosophical. When I ask myself: "Is somebody stealing my share of the royalties?", what is at work is not only an innocent desire to know the truth, but something else -- something to be dropped off, something that hasn't yet left home.

What you are struggling with in your own sitting practice, Peter, is not a different problem. Even before the word "upright," via your eyes and ears, has entered your brain, you have reacted to it wrongly. The problem is not in the original word. The problem is in the translation, in the process by which you react wrongly to a stimulus.

A monk from his early teens, the young Master Dogen went to China and got the point of sitting-zen. Coming back to Japan in his mid-20s, he did his best to express that point in words. I spent my teens indulging in various gross forms of crude end-gaining -- drinking, fighting, craving (with tissues at the ready) the experience of a passionate love affair even if it killed me, and the like. When I, with my bad karma and faulty sensory appreciation, read now the words that were written by the newly enlightened Master Dogen, my brain wants to translate those words into what I know. But what I know is never the point. The point is got in upright sitting as the dropping off of everything I know.

On the subject of snakes arising: Snakes in the grass pose no danger to a bloke who knows and loves snakes. But -- remember the parable of Steve Irwin -- that doesn't mean he will necessarily be safe if he goes off swimming with stingrays.

The struggle that confronts every Hissing Sid who reads this blog, not only Peter and me, is to drop off our wrong reaction to stimuli like "upright sitting," "right Dharma," "true Dharma." Master Dogen is giving us the straight Dharma -- Dharma on the rocks, undiluted -- and our challenge is to take it straight, not corrupting its taste with the artificial flavours that we already know.

There is a point to Fukan-zazen-gi. There is a point to get, only one point. The point to get is that sitting-zen is just the great Dharma-gate of ease. Ease in upright sitting is not something. Ease in upright sitting is a bit of nothing -- a bit of being released out of our web of wrong patterns of reaction. Ease in upright sitting is freedom from end-gaining.

If you read Master Dogen's words as they are, in their original splendour, this is what he is telling us. This is the point to be got. The more clearly we get the point, the less there should be for us to say. Master Dogen said it already.


Blogger gniz said...

The wonderful thing about this blog, Mike, is that--regardless of your translation hitting the target or not--you are creating something of value as well, from your own experiences and words.

Straight dharma, undiluted.

I like this. There is so much more power, i find, in the searching and questioning of someone who still cares to wonder about things, who still has the capacity to admit fear and uncertainty...then in all the grand statements of great realizers throughout eternity.

Seriously. Thank you for what you are doing here.


7:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Aaron.

Even before I went to Japan I tended to fix, in awe of what I felt to be the truth. My years in Japan only re-inforced that tendency. Then Marjory Barlow gave me the antidote to it -- she guided me in the direction of understanding that being wrong is nothing to be afraid of; rather it is our best friend in this voyage of self-discovery. It is our raw material in this work of working on the self, leading to forgetting the self.

These past few days I have found myself fixing in awe of the truth of Fukan-zazen-gi. Whereas Marjory's thing was "stillness without fixity."

8:02 PM  

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