Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


by Shinran
Translated by Inagaki Hisao

The translations produced in the English Tripitaka Project by the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research constitute one of the most important undertakings in the ongoing naturalization of the Buddha Dharma to the West. The translations are scholarly but deliberately lack the textual minutiae and commentary that an academic text must include. The beautifully produced volumes are presentations of the Buddhist teachings, not interpretations of the teachings. Interpretation is for practitioners and teachers. It is for them to make of the texts what each tradition and lineage transmits and for each individual what his or her insight gives. The long term nature of the project - it will not be complete until after this writer and his current readers are long gone - fills me with awe and reverence for its planners. It is my belief that if the Buddha Dharma is being read and studied 100 years from now it will be from these books. Professor Hisao Inagaki's translation of Shinran Shonin's Kyogyoshinsho is one of the latest offering of translations.

The Kyogyoshinsho or 'A Collection of Passages Revealing the True Teaching, Practice and realization of the Pure Land Way' is the major work of Shinran Shonin, the founder (although he did not intend to do other than transmit the teachings of his teacher, Honen Shonin) of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism. The work was probably completed by 1247 when Shinran was 74 years old. It consists of scriptural quotations with linking materials contextualizing and interpreting the quotations and building the structure of the explication of Shinran's realization. In this it follows the structure of Honen's Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu (A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Original Vow). The Kyogyoshinsho is the cornerstone of our understanding of the Jodo Shinshu path. Its translation is therefore of fundamental importance for those who do not read the language in which it is written, literary Chinese. It needs translation even for modern day Japanese readers and careful translation into English.

There have been previous translations, and I have found the version produced in the Shin Buddhist Translation Series (SBTS) very readable and the detailed introductory material very helpful. Prof Inagaki's ability as a learned scholar of Mahayana Buddhism familiar with all the necessary languages and a devout follower of the Jodo Shinshu way qualifies him to perform the great task of a single author translation. He has rendered into English other important Pure Land scriptures. His translation of the three Pure Land Sutras is unsurpassed, and has been published in the Numata Series and by Nagata Bunshodo. (The Nagata Bunshodo version is prefaced by a very comprehensive series of forwards that are essential reading for any student of the Jodo Shinshu teachings and this edition can be ordered via this web site.) While Prof Inagaki is fluent in English, he wisely asked two native English speakers to read his text before publication. The language of his translation therefore reads well to the English speaker and suffers from no anachronistic idioms; it reads as a collection of sacred texts with profound commentary but is neither too modern nor too archaic in tone.

The subtle differences of interpretation that any comparison of translations must inevitably reveal are not necessarily apparent to one without knowledge of the source language. As well as overall meaning and readability, the choice of even individual words can be of importance in any translation of any literary work, but especially the translation of subtle philisophico-religious concepts. The naturalization of Buddhism into China was both aided and hindered by the use of Doaist terms in early translations. The naturalization of Buddhism into the West is still in its very early stages and the choice of words is still open to debate and change. Some words such as nirvana and karma lack any brief correlates in English and have become words of common use (although generally in fact misuse) in English. It seems to me though that the use of the English 'Meditation School' for Zen/Ch'an School could have avoided a lot of the misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise, of what that form of Buddhism might truly be.

Important differences of this translation from the SBTS version are seen from the first sentence:

Reverently contemplating Amida's directing of virtue for our going forth to the Pure Land, I find there is great practice, there is great shinjin.' [SBTS]
When I humbly contemplate the 'going forth' aspect of Amida's merit transference, I realize there are great practice and great faith. [Inagaki]

This first sentence perhaps encapsulates the heart of Shinran's insight and teachings. The SBTS version is a good translation and reads well but it already assumes that we understand what Amida's 'directing of virtue' is - it is 'merit transference', a foundational concept of Mahayana Buddhism.

I do not wish to enter in detail here the debate about the use of the word 'faith' as a translation of shinjin. Clearly though a translator has to make choices at every juncture and this particular choice sets the tone of the work. Shinjin is a good word, and perhaps is sometimes the only appropriate word, but it is not an English word and has no currency in general usage in English even in a distorted colloquial sense. Its use in the sentence above renders that sentence wholly opaque to those without background in Japanese Buddhism. 'Faith' has many meanings, some arguably not congruent with the concept of shinjin, but it is a beautiful English word with good emotional resonances to most native speakers of English and its use in the sentence above opens the sentence to emotional understanding. Intellectual understanding can follow on further contemplation. This is a work for spiritual seekers, not the merely intellectually curious.

One could continue to cite many instances of difference of idiom and emphasis between the SBTS translation and the Inagaki translation and indeed any of the other translation. The criteria for evaluating this translation must however be as follows.

Is it accurate? Only a scholar fluent in the appropriate languages can truly answer this question, and in any case there is no such thing as mathematical equivalence in translation.

Is it readable? Immensely and satisfyingly so. It is a genuine translation in that it moves meaning from one language to another so that the text appears (within the constraints of maintaining the Indian and therefore exotic structural usages of the Buddhist Sutras) as an English text.

This translation includes a brief but informative Translator's Introduction; end Notes sourcing the scriptures Shinran quotes and a very comprehensive Glossary. I recommend this translation as the best starting point for English speakers wishing to become familiar with Shinran Shonin's teachings.

- Mark Healsmith

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