When all things are God's things

I ran across a provocative blog post about translating Dōgen the other day: "Philosophy of translation", at Numenware, Bob Myers's "blog about neurotheology" (that, sadly, seems to be defunct). tl;dr Myers's thesis: using words like "Buddhadharma" in translations of Dōgen's writings is a copout.

But then what can we use instead? Well...

Here in the West, we have the concept of "God." No-one knows exactly what it means, but in a way everyone does. It refers to something external, if you prefer, or something internal, if you prefer, an unknown essence. This is precisely the sense of the "buddha" in Dogen's "buddha-dharma" phrase. In other words, "buddha-dharma" refers to God's law, or things of God. As such, that is exactly how it should be "translated". That is why I insist that shohou no buppou naru jisetsu [諸法の仏法なる時節] should be translated exactly as:

  When all things are God's things.

This is what Dogen "meant." It is not "interpretative." It is the precise expression of Dogen's intent, to the extent possible, in English.

This is a bold claim. The underlying idea is markedness: since 法 and 仏 are unremarkable in Japanese, but "dharma" and "Buddha" are exotic in English, connecting the two via translation gives the reader a false sense of exoticism, much like literally translating a more or less lexicalized NP like osu お酢 "honorable vinegar."

But deities are not condiments. Three comments in, someone raises the obvious objection: "What about the association with Christianity that comes from using God?" Few English speakers may claim to know exactly what "God" means, but most everyone knows what it means to them: loving all-father, irrational superstition, figure of myth, impersonal force permeating all... only that last one even comes close to 仏法, and writing for an assumed readership of post-Enlightenment Deists is probably even less inclusive than just assuming that your audience knows what a "buddha-dharma" is in the first place.

So while I enjoyed reading Myers's argument, and I might even enjoy reading a determinedly Judeo-Christianized sutra, I don't find myself convinced that this is a "precise expression of Dōgen's intent." Dōgen was a lot of things, but Unitarian was not one of them.

In fact, it looks as if Myers didn't even convince himself: his freely available full translation of the fascicle in question retreats into fairly orthodox Buddhography, even going so far as to use the word "satori":

Viewing various things as Buddhistic things, then we have wisdom and we have practice, we have life and we have death, we have buddhas and we have sentient beings. Stripping all things of their essence, we have no delusion and no satori, we have no buddhas and no sentient beings, we have no beginnings and no endings...

Another translation available online, prepared by one Rev. Hubert Nearman and free as in both beer and Waley, puts it thus:

In that period of time when Buddhas give voice to the Teachings on existence in all its variety, there is talk of "delusion and enlightenment," of "practice and training," of "birth," of "death," of "Buddhas," of "ordinary beings." In that period of time when it is no longer relevant to speak of an "I" along with its "whole universe," there is no delusion or enlightenment, no Buddhas or ordinary beings, no being born, no extinction...

I wouldn't get too hung up on the extra information that Nearman includes; he is an interpolator, as revealed in explanatory notes such as "I have translated the title as The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching, though a fuller, more comprehensive rendering would be The Treasure House for What the Spiritual Eye of Wise Discernment Perceives from the Vantage Point of the True Teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and His Heirs." Somewhere Fiona Apple is taking notes.

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Your last comment made me laugh.

I am not a scholar by any means on the Bible, but I have heard that given the confluence of languages that are used not in the Old and New Testaments but also by their characters, there are arguments ongoing about how to either write or translate words or concepts from that time into English.

In the Pentateuch alone, the Hebrews had a doozie of a time deciding on a name for God in all his different facets. So although the Christian world has an encompassing term like "God", at the theological level, I get the sense that it is much more complicated.

(Hair split) This is not 尊敬語, but 美化語, and so wouldn't the riff be "beautiful vinegar"?


Just this weekend I was reading the Wikipedia articles on Buddhism and wondering what connotations the word translated as "refuge" had in the original, let alone when translated into languages completely divorced from Sanskrit or Pali -- especially when those languages probably now represent the majority of Buddhists.

(And aside to Peter: indeed, the various names of God in the Pentateuch are a staple of the attempts of the Documentary Hypothesis to untangle the various original strands.)


Myers claims, "Dogen was writing for 99% of Japanese people. Is it OK that I should randomly decide that it’s OK to arbitrarily change Dogen’s assumption about his audience? No, I should also come up with an English translation that addressed 99% of people, like Dogen was."

I find this assumption dubious. Yeah, Dogen wanted to reacher a wider audience than the old state sponsored monasteries of Nara, but writing a text that could be read aloud to "99%" of people wouldn't even be possible in medieval Japan, what with all the dialectical variations. Which is to ignore the problem of illiteracy, women's rights, oppression of lower classes, etc., etc.

For philosophical translations, there's a lot to be said for plodding literality. Trying to make the text more accessible for the reader can only succeed if you as the translator already have a strong enough grasp of the original material. For a lot of texts like the Republic, parts of the Bible, or most Buddhist sutras, that's a pretty bold assumption to make. I wouldn't try to improve on Dogen until I was as enlightened as Dogen. Claiming to be enlightened is what gave Dogen himself the hermeneutical permission to make such a hash of the Chinese sutras he had been reading. Those of us who aren't enlightened are therefore well advised to leave the fancy-pants transenculturation of texts to our betters.

Leonardo Boiko:

I think the hypothetical “layman” audience will likely interpret the word God in the old-fashioned sense (a bearded old man who watches and regulates people’s lives). If the audience is so sophisticated as to read God in a philosophical way, I expect they’re also smart enough to infer that Budhadharma is a technical term and not an exotic gem of orientalistic mysticism.


Leonardo's comment makes me think of my biggest objection: unwary readers will get the impression from this that buppou is a man with a big white beard, when, as we all know, the Buddha is a man with a thin dark mustache! Totally different!

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