I'm in Manchester, England now. I'll be speaking here on Friday evening and running an all-day zazen on Saturday. You can find the relevant likes by clicking here.
Gudo Nishijima’s translation and commentary on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is finally out and available now at decent bookshops all over the USA as well as on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon websites. I helped Nishijima fix up his English and contributed extensively to the commentary so I received a co-writer credit.
But speaking of Amazon, the book has been getting a total trashing in their reader reviews section. It’s been so nasty and vindictive in there that I thought it would be good to address the matter.
There are now five extraordinarily mean-spirited and angry one star reviews of the book on Amazon. You can read them for yourself if you enjoy bile and vitrol. But I’ll try to summarize the key issues here without quite so much bitterness.
The main criticisms appear to be that 1) some believe the book is presented in such a way as to deliberately fool people who want to buy Jay Garfield’s translation of the same Nagarjuna poem into thinking this is his, and that 2) the book is not an accurate translation of the poem itself.
The first criticism is based on the fact that both Garfield and Nishijima chose to title their books Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. This is one of the standard English translations of the Sanskrit title of the work, Mulamadhyamakakarika. While some scholarly translations such as the one by Kenneth Inada used the Sanskrit, Monkfish Books thought that would be too difficult for most readers and instead chose to go with a standard English translation. Other translations of the Sanskrit title include Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way and Fundamental Song of the Middle Way. Personally I did not notice that the title was the same as Garfield’s and that his was the only currently available English version that used this specific translation. Had I noticed this, I probably would have substituted something like “poem” for the word “wisdom” in the title. I regret having not done so, but it’s too late to change it now.
Also some have said that the cover resembles the cover of the Garfield version. It’s true. It does. It also resembles the covers of about 80% of all books on Buddhism these days. Monkfish followed the very standard practice of illustrating the cover with an ancient Chinese painting of the master who wrote the original piece. Pretty much every publisher follows this practice when designing a cover for a translation of an ancient Buddhist work.
In any case none of this was an attempt to deceive the public into thinking they were buying Garfield’s translation. Why would anyone want to do that? It’s not as if the Garfield translation sells in Harry Potter-like or Twilight-like quantities, thus making it attractive to try and copy. It’s also not as if the intended readership are the kinds of people who’d buy the book without checking out who wrote it first. It’s an absurd allegation, but one that is repeated in four of the five negative reviews on Amazon.
Some of the other allegations are similarly absurd. One reviewer states that, “Dogen, Godzilla, and Nishijima--the autonomic nervous system-- are all more fully present than Nagarjuna.” Godzilla is mentioned once in my introductory essay in a sentence in which I apologize to readers familiar with my other books for not mentioning Godzilla in this one. There is one commentary in which Nishijima outlines his ideas about the autonomic nervous system. I quoted this commentary in full in an earlier posting on this blog, which can be found by clicking here and scrolling about halfway down the piece. This commentary is then referenced briefly several more times in later commentaries. Dogen is mentioned a lot. But Nishijima says right in his introduction, “My own thoughts regarding Buddhism rely solely upon what Master Dogen wrote about the philosophy. So when reading the Mulamadhyamakakarika it is impossible for me not to be influenced by Master Dogen’s Buddhist ideas.” Why then would it be surprising to find a lot of references to Dogen in the commentaries?
As for the book not being an accurate translation, this is a more complex issue. I address it in great detail in both my foreword and my afterword to the book. I have put those on a webpage so you can read them in full. Just click here.
In part I said there that, “We’ll never know Nagarjuna’s real intentions. We’ll only ever know what his words mean to us. This book represents what those words mean to Gudo Nishijima.” Further along I wrote, “Every translation of anything is an interpretation. For fifteen years I worked at a job where one of my main tasks was translating the dialogue of cheap Japanese monster movies into English. Even when doing this seemingly simple and straightforward work I had to change a lot of details to make them comprehensible to English speaking people. Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika is a lot more complex than any monster movie. For one thing it is a poem. A poem isn’t like an instruction manual in which there is only one correct way to interpret its meaning. There are as many ways to understand a poem as there are people to read it and all of them are valid in their own right.”
I also said in the afterword, “I still don’t know whether it will be accepted as a translation of Nagarjuna or not. I’m anticipating that a lot of scholarly types will debate its merits as a translation without ever giving the philosophical points contained within it much notice. If they do so, that would be a shame.” This seems to be precisely what is happening. The current critics on Amazon don’t really comment on the actual contents of the book. One even admits that he hasn’t read it! Is it fair to criticize a book you have not even bothered to read?
Kumarajiva was a fifth century Indian scholar who translated many of the canonical works of Buddhism into Chinese. His translation of the Heart Sutra is still chanted in Buddhist monasteries all over the world. Nishijima contends that when it came to Mulamadhyamikakarika, Kumarajiva got it wrong. He simply did not understand what Nagarjuna was talking about. Furthermore, Nishijima contends that all later translations and commentaries have relied upon Kumarajiva’s faulty understanding of the poem — even the very ancient ones. As evidence of this, Nishijima notes that Dogen quotes extensively from Nagarjuna’s other works but never mentions Mulamadhyamikakarika, which is regarded as Nagarjuna’s masterwork. This, he says, is because Dogen had access only to Kumarajiva’s translation and found it lacking. Therefore Nishijima deliberately avoided consulting any other translations of the work either in English or in Japanese. It’s no wonder then that his translation does not sound much like any of the others.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, this is a damned good book. If you are interested in knowing what I learned in fifteen years of studying Buddhism under Gudo Nishijima, most of it is in this book. It is deep and difficult Buddhist philosophy. Nishijima Roshi believes that all of these ideas are present in Nagarjuna’s poem. I trust that he found them there. But whether they are really there or not, I know that it’s valuable stuff. If he found all of this philosophy in the wood grain of the wall he sat in front of every day for seventy years it would still be valuable stuff. Maybe he did but he thought it would be more believable to say he found it in Nagarjuna! (That’s a joke, he was very methodical in his translation and he presents his translation methods to readers of the book very clearly. This is something few others have done.)
Some of you have written to me saying you’ve ordered the book or that you bought it in a store (hooray for you for supporting bookstores!). If you have read the book and you like it, please take a moment to go to Amazon and express your feelings. It would really help out a lot.