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The Many Beings Are Numberless: A Transient Reflection on Translation


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Query

A scholar on the Vine of Obstacles not too long ago requested, “Our translation of the primary Nice Vow is ‘The numerous beings are numberless, vowing to hold them throughout.’ The group I practiced with beforehand used a distinct translation, ‘All beings, one physique, I vow to liberate.’ This has a distinct taste. Particularly, I’m wondering concerning the ‘one physique’ that’s referenced. May you say one thing about that?” (1)

Response

If there’s only one physique, why so many various translations, proper?

I’ve heard this attention-grabbing model earlier than. It is likely to be extra widespread amongst Korean-derived lineages. Right here’s a breakdown of the characters for the primary Nice Vow:

衆 – many, mass, multitude
生 – life, life varieties, beings
無邊 – no restrict, no boundary
誓願 – vow
度 – to ferry over (as in to ford a river)

We comply with our lineage ancestor Aitken Roshi’s translation of the vows, and for the primary line, as you say, we’ve “The numerous beings are numberless; vowing to hold them throughout.” Aitken Rōshi renders 度 as “carry … throughout,” so together with 誓願 or “vow,” we are saying “vowing to hold them throughout.” That’s, ferry beings throughout the flood of samsara.

Additionally, you will usually see, “I vow to save them.” And though that model tends to get folks’s hackles up, it’s a honest translation. When translating 度 as “save,” although, it is very important needless to say it isn’t the Christian sense of saving that we’re speaking about, i.e., saving somebody from going to hell, however to save lots of beings from the wandering-in-circles world, aka, samsara.

You’ll discover that within the seven characters of the primary line of the vow there is no such thing as a “I.” Nonetheless, it’s honest to impute an actor and so to incorporate a pronoun. The seven characters additionally do not need “liberate,” (“All beings, one physique, I vow to liberate”), nevertheless, “ferrying beings throughout the flood of samsara” definitely implies as a lot.

Essentially the most artistic a part of the interpretation raised within the query is the phrase 無邊 “one physique,” or actually “no restrict/boundary.” I suppose the pondering of the translator was “no restrict” modifies “beings” in “The numerous beings…. Thus, if there is no such thing as a boundary between beings, then we’re “one physique.” Truthful sufficient.

The extra widespread studying is to treat 無邊, “no restrict/boundary.” as modifying “many” in “The numerous beings….” On this view, if there is no such thing as a restrict to the variety of the various beings, then they’re numberless.

It is a good instance of taking an attention-grabbing various implication in Chinese language and making it the one that means within the English translation the place we have a tendency to decide on between both modifying “beings” (as “one physique” does) or modifying “many” (as most translations do with “numberless”). One strategy to get across the both/or response to the query about what’s being modified (i.e., does “no restrict/boundary” modify “many” or “beings”) is to go away it to the reader’s interpretation. One thing like this, for instance: “Many beings, no limits or boundaries, vowing to hold them throughout.” Or, because the questioner instructed in a follow-up put up on the Vine, “Uncountably many limitless beings….”

As for making “one physique” the one studying, for my part, to parse “no restrict/no boundary” as “one physique” introduces two parts into the road (e.g., “one” and “physique”) that aren’t expressly within the Chinese language. Which may not be an enormous deal, but it surely does counsel connections with different teachings which merely aren’t there. So the English reader might spin away with associations that aren’t in any respect grounded within the authentic. That is fairly widespread and an enormous subject in Western Zen.

And what’s much more problematic is that the “one physique” translation takes a destructive (無 mu/no restrict/boundary) and adjustments it to a constructive assertion – “one physique.” It is a vital interpretive transfer and, for my part, a bit questionable. Dharma teachings usually provide a negation with out implying what we would assume because the logical reverse – a constructive assertion.

I hope this helps. Questions or feedback are welcome.


(1) Modified for common consumption.


Dōshō Port started training Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches together with his spouse, Tetsugan Zummach Sensei, with the Vine of Obstacles: On-line Help for Zen Coaching, an internet-based Zen group. Dōshō acquired dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi within the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Document of Empty Corridor: One Hundred Basic Koans, is now out there (Shambhala). He’s additionally the writer of Maintain Me In Your Coronary heart a Whereas: The Haunting Zen of Dainin KatagiriClick on right here to help the instructing observe of Dōshō Rōshi.




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