The Lit interview: 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.

Daniel Burton-Rose is the China correspondent for Counterpunch.