Following a disagreement in a recent r/Buddhism thread in which one of Paul Reps and Senzaki Nyogen's Zen Flesh, Zen Bones translations (the 82nd of their "100 Zen Stories": "Nothing Exists") is compared unfavorably to a translation by Lucien Stryk and Ikemoto Takashi of the same anecdote, I decided to see if I could track down the original to consider the differences in detail.

Unfortunately, finding the original wasn't easy. ZFZB itself is no help; Reps does not provide specific sources for any of the Stories. In the introduction he says this:

These stories were transcribed into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand), written late in the thirteenth century by the Japanese Zen teacher Muju (the 'non-dweller'), and from anecdotes of Zen monks taken from various books published in Japan around the turn of the present century.

Since "Nothing Exists" is about two personalities of the Meiji era, it must be from one of those "various books." Here are the two versions under discussion. First, Reps/Senzaki:

Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: 'The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.'

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

'If nothing exists,' inquired Dokuon, 'where did this anger come from?'

And Stryk/Ikemoto, according to michael_dorfman in that thread:

One day, Tesshu, the famous swordsman and Zen devotee, went to Dokuon and told him triumphantly he believed all that exists is empty, there is no you or me, etc. The master who had listened in silence suddenly snatched up his long tobacco pipe and struck Tesshu's head.

The infuriated swordsman would have killed the master there and then, but Dukuon said calmly, "Emptiness is quick to show anger, isn't it?"

Forcing a smile, Tesshu left the room.

Dorfman prefers the latter version, saying:

There's a difference between "nothing exists" and "everything is empty" [...] (and the corresponding "If nothing exists, what gets angry" vs "Emptiness is quick to show anger"). There's a pretty big difference between emptiness and non-existence.

Not having the Stryk/Ikemoto book, I don't know if they identify their sources, but I think I found Reps/Senzaki's source in a 1909 book called Kokkei hyakuwa 滑稽百話 ("One hundred humorous stories"), by one Katō Kyōei 加藤教栄, under the heading "独園鐵舟を打つ" ("Dokuon strikes Tesshū"):


I won't provide a translation of my own, but I'm confident that this text must at least be in the same tradition as Reps/Senzaki's source. It's not so much that the translation matches exactly in all details as that the irrelevant details do. For example, "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist" is not quite the same as "心仏象生畢竟那頭にかある" (the latter is a rhetorical question rather than a flat declaration), but the correspondence of 畢竟 to "after all" at the same place in the sentence is quite striking.

The Stryk/Ikemoto translation follows the structure quite closely, but it seems to announce itself as a relatively free rendition (it contains an "etc.!"), and it is noteworthy that seems to include some details that Reps/Senzaki actually leaves out:

R/S: There is no giving and nothing to be received.
S/I: [T]here is no you or me, etc.

But okay, what about Dorfman's objection? Well, first of all, both Reps/Senzaki and Stryk/Ikemoto actually hit the first "emptiness" note in similar ways:

... 諸法本来空。
R/S: The true nature of phenomena is emptiness.
S/I: [...] all that exists is empty [...]

The real difference is

R/S: If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?
S/I: Emptiness is quick to show anger, isn't it?

Both translations are fairly free, and I think you can make a case for either. A painfully literal translation would be "[This] thing called 'Nothingness' (無) angers easily indeed." It's specifically not the "emptiness" (空) that appears earlier in the story, and these concepts are theoretically distinct, or were at one point; apparently the translation into Chinese and subsequent shoulder-rubbing with Daoist writings (where 無 had a big role) blurred things a bit.

So I'm not convinced that "Emptiness is quick to show anger" is actually that great a translation. On the other hand, Tesshu didn't actually say that "nothing exists." He denied the existence of a long list of things, but not everything.

This is the key point, I think, and so I can agree with Dorfman's main point: the use of "Nothing exists" in the text and even as the title is unfair to Tesshū and misleading as to the point of the story (which isn't, I think, "Ultraradical solipsism is foolish"; it's more like "You can talk the talk, but you can't walk the walk"). I think it's worth noting, though, that Stryk and Ikemoto are unfair to Tesshū in other ways, and needlessly dramatic: the original story doesn't say that Tesshū was literally about to kill Dokuon, after all.

Popularity factor: 15


Is it enlightened to quibble about the distinction between "emptiness" and "non-existence"?

Just inquiring, regarding the r/Buddhism originator. (Or perhaps, I should say that the posts are co-originating? Hm.)


More seriously: "This is the key point, I think, and so I can agree with Dorfman's main point: the use of "Nothing exists" in the text and even as the title is unfair to Tesshū and misleading as to the point of the story (which isn't, I think, "Ultraradical solipsism is foolish"; it's more like "You can talk the talk, but you can't walk the walk")."

I don't think either translation really gets that sense across any better than the other. "Emptiness" or "nothing existing" is less the issue than that Tesshū was claiming to have realized the truth of it.

Mostly "There's a pretty big difference between emptiness and non-existence" is, er, kind of not the point. (As either Madhyamaka or more a more general sense of non-duality would tend to negate that statement.)

Again, I'm picking a bone on your blog with someone not present. As you do.


Leaving aside the difference between 空 and 無, the old translation (in particular the punchline) is far more effective as English. Dokuon is taking the mickey out of Yamaoka, and 'Emptiness is quick to show anger' does so in a way that 'If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?' does not.


1) I would like to take this opportunity to pimp my new blog, japanphilosophy.com.

2) This reminds me of a joke I heard:

An Advaitan disciple goes to his guru.

The guru says to the disciple, "All things are one."

"All things?"

"Yes, my son, all things are one."

The disciple considers this to himself as he leaves and goes into the street. In the busy market, a man is driving an elephant towards the disciple and shouts, "Get out of the way! Elephant coming through!"

The disciple stands firm and says, "All things are one!"

The next day, the guru goes to visit the injured disciple where he is convalescing. The disciple turns his bloody heady towards the guru.

"I thought you said all things are one!"

The guru said, "Yes, they are. Why didn't you listen when you told yourself to get out of the way!?"


I could see this recast as an xkcd cartoon.

To echo 無名酒's point, I get the same feeling from the exchange.

(With apologies to, well, everyone--)

TESSHU: Is it not true, O Sage, that you and I are but ethereal vapours, that no sentient being truly exists, that...


[TESSHU kicks away his chair, hand on sword hilt]

DOKUON [laconically]: So which bit of your putative non-self would it be that just made to throw down on me, eh, grasshopper?


Oops. "Chair"? Ended up channeling modern furnishings along with the tone.


Ah, but Dorfman doesn't claim to be enlightened! Or even Buddhist. He's just an academic specializing in th topic, which makes him a very useful counterweight to folks who have read Suzuki or Batchelor and think that this sort of modernized understanding is "real Buddhism" and anything else (literal rebirth, discussions with gods, etc.) is obviously either non-literal symbolism or sheeplecruft added by later generations who couldn't handle Buddha's hard-core, uncompromising positivism.

It's not that I think that S/I got it right, more that I think R/S got it wrong in a particularly wrong way. But as Bathrobe says, the particular doctrinal point isn't really the issue.

Carl: I'll check out the site! Nice joke -- the Brahmanic version of the guy up a tree who refuses to get on the raft, helicopter etc. because "God will save me!"


And then I said… Lord Buddha, why were they only one set of footprints?… And Lord Buddha said, You dummy, this is beach. What do you think happened? They washed away. You know: Impermanence?


Buddhist jokes thread?

Once there was a monastery where the monks had to observe a vow of silence. Every year, on the day of Buddha’s Birth, a single monk was allowed to utter a single sentence. So, one year, it was a certain novice’s turn. As everyone waited in expectation, he turned to another monk and said, “Stop stealing my rice!”. With this the big event was over, and the monks returned to their posts. A year went by, and by chance, it happened to be the other novice’s turn; he faced the first one calmly and said, “Don’t lie, I didn’t take any!” Once again they resumed their daily duties, seasons came and went, and it became Buddha’s Day once more. This time it was Chief Monk’s turn. He beckoned for the two previous novices, looked at them and said: “Stop this bickering right now, you two!!”……


Some professors asked a monk to lecture to them on spiritual matters. The monk ascended a podium, struck it once with his stick, and descended. The academics were dumb-founded. The monk asked them, "Do you understand what I have told you?"

One professor said, "I do not understand."

The monk said, "Then I have concluded my lecture."

Another professor said, "We will not pay you for this lecture."


I loved that page so much. '"Yeah, I attained enlightenment too," the other sage said' may be one of the greatest lines in all Buddhist parody.


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