This book is a translation of, and commentary on, the 2nd century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna's Mula-madhyamaka-karika (MMK) written by Michael Eido Luetchford, a Dharma-heir of Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima Roshi. Mike is my Buddhist teacher and this book is the reason I became fascinated with the Sanskrit language and have, for the past six years, been studying it daily. And so I hope it is understandable that much of what I have written here shows bias. I don't see how it could be otherwise. I've spoken to Mike about the background and development of "Between Heaven and Earth" and have seen the email correspondence generated between him and Gudo Nishijima during the course of their attempt to collaborate in a translation of MMK. The ultimate failure of that enterprise is not unrelated to the recent publication of "Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way" by Nishijima and Brad Warner, another, very different translation of the same text. I have great respect for the work of Gudo, and for that of Brad. My criticisms of their efforts here only relate to their work on the MMK. They are included because I feel they are relevant to the broader context of Mike Luetchford's book.
In 1977 Mike Luetchford joined a small group of Western students meeting weekly in Tokyo to study Buddhism with Gudo Wafu Nishijima, a Japanese Buddhist priest who, although ordained traditionally in the Soto school of Zen, was concerned to re-orientate Buddhism according to his own understanding of the original teachings of the founder of that school, the 13th Century Zen Master, Eihei Dogen. For over two decades Mike studied with and served Nishijima faithfully. In 1990 he became the first of Nishijima's students to receive Dharma Transmission. Having been closely involved in the early stages of the translation of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo from medieval Japanese into English (finally accomplished by Mike Cross and Nishijima) and instrumental in bringing the four volumes to publication, Mike was approached in 1993 by Nishijima to help him complete another project, a translation into English of Nagarjuna's MMK. Initially employed, as Brad Warner was later to be, to render Nishijima's idiosyncratic Jenglish comprehensible, Mike met with Gudo every week for four years, working to revise the drafts. He eventually realised that without a thorough grasp of Sanskrit it was impossible to know how best to modify his teacher's awkward expressions; what word choices would accurately capture Nishijima's interpretation while remaining faithful to Nagarjuna's text. And so in 1998, with Gudo's blessing and support, Mike enrolled in a Sanskrit course at Harvard University. In contrast, Gudo's Sanskrit studies continued without academic guidance. Unlike most students of the language, who will work through a variety of texts gradually introducing them to aspects of grammar, syntax and idiomatic convention, the only Sanskrit text that Gudo had ever studied or had wanted to study was Nagarjuna's MMK. Although aided by a grammar book and a dictionary, Gudo's Sanskrit translation remained confused, marred by schoolboy errors and wishful thinking. As Mike began to point out the mistakes in Gudo's Sanskrit, and as Gudo continued stubbornly to insist that his understanding was correct, the translation partnership foundered. Gudo mistakenly came to believe that Mike's ideas were fundamentally different from his own and insisted that Mike pursue his translation independently. And so in 2002, with the help of friend and fellow Gudo student Jeremy Pearson, Mike published his own book.
No interpretation of this ancient, often elusive text, even if erudite and consistent, can be definitive. Ambiguities of rhetorical style and convention in Nagarjuna's 2nd century Sanskrit verse-philosophy ensure that his intention is often unclear. Hermeneutical assumptions have to be made. Unlike some other translators of the MMK, notably Jay Garfield, Luetchford does not guide the reader through the text with verse-by-verse analytical commentary in order to explain his understanding. Instead, the first half of `Between Heaven and Earth' comprises an introduction to the main themes of the book followed by an explanatory introduction to each chapter, in which Luetchford summarises the material to follow and makes his case that "The Buddhist truth that he [Dogen] is teaching, based on the practice of Zazen, was passed down from Guatama Buddha in one line, via Nagarjuna, and his successor Kanadeva, to Dogen himself, thirty-seven generations later." Each chapter introduction is then followed by a freely interpretive translation of that chapter. In this way, meaning emerges from reading the text rather than from reading explanation of it; the interpretation is explanatory. Reading the verses like this allows for a more holistic, intuitive disclosure of meaning than can be achieved by analysis. The second half of the book provides the original Sanskrit text with word-by-word grammatical analysis and another, literal, translation of the complete work. Thus, any doubts or confusion arising from the interpretive reading can be clarified by reference to the literal translation, vocabulary and grammar.
Readers familiar with previous translations of the MMK may be troubled by some of Luetchford's choices. For example, shunyata, considered by many to be the central idea of the MMK, has hitherto typically been translated as "emptiness" and understood as an entirely abstract philosophical concept, the absence of self-nature or enduring essence in phenomena perceived and conventionally understood as substantially existent. But here, on occasions, shunyata is translated as "the balanced state". This reading reflects Nishijima's - and Luetchford's - understanding of Nagarjuna's purpose as seen through Dogen's lens. Shunyata, as Luetchford makes clear in his introduction, is a term used in the earliest Buddhist texts to refer to a real state in experience, not merely an abstract notion, and where appropriate - by no means always - his translation adopts the earlier understanding. Other terms are similarly read, reflecting an approach to the MMK as more than a treatise dealing with Buddhist doctrine, but as a book also and fundamentally concerned with real human experience and activity. Unfolding the abstract by reference to the actual, embracing while distinguishing the realms of thought, feeling and action, is a feature of Dogen's and Nishijima's Buddhism and permeates Luetchford's reading of Nagarjuna.
"Between Heaven and Earth" is an original and valuable re-presentation of the Buddhism of the MMK. Anyone interested in Nagarjuna, Dogen, or Buddhism in general is recommended to buy it and read it.
AND A COMPLAINT
So it is that for a number of years prior to the recent publication of the Nishijima/Warner project, a translation of the MMK that elucidates the work in the light of Dogen's Buddhism as understood and taught by Gudo Nishijima, and which does so without torturing the original Sanskrit, has been available. As a fellow student of Nishijima and President of Dogen Sangha International, Brad Warner could not have been unaware of Mike Luetchford's book. And yet that book has not only been largely ignored by its small potential readership but has also been ignored by Brad, who has so far failed to mention it when discussing any aspect of Nishijima's project, or in any other context. The book that, in his dying years, Gudo Nishijima so badly wanted to be published could not have reached some sort of completion without the efforts made by Brad Warner. Some readers insist that there is much in the Nishijima/Warner MMK that is valuable, and so it must be so, and so there is room for gratitude for Brad's efforts. But I speculate that if Brad had taken the time to study a little Sanskrit (he admits he has scant knowledge of the language) he would soon have discovered, as did Mike Luetchford before him, that Gudo's version of Nagarjuna's text is not - not by any stretch of the poetic imagination - a translation into English of what Nagarjuna wrote. Brad may then have been inclined to investigate "Between Heaven and Earth," may have discovered that Mike's book is already a faithful and insightful presentation of Nagarjuna as understood in the light of Nishijima's philosophy, may have acknowledged it as such and may have found another way to respond to Gudo's request, thus saving his teacher the embarrasing reception his translation received from incredulous informed reviewers. As it is, we have both books. It would be unfortunate if Luetchford's were to continue to be neglected, for sales indicate that it has been.