A Conversation with Thomas Yuho Kirchner

Someone asked, “What does ‘sitting correctly and contemplating true reality’ mean?”
The Master said, “A coin lost in the river is found in the river.”
~ The Record of Yunmen
, Case 15

Coins, like our lives, are found and lost in the river through endless time. Thomas Yuho Kirchner is one of the leading editors and translators of stories and poems left centuries ago by the ancient Chan and Zen masters. He spent a decade editing and checking 600 “moldering pages” of Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s work to bring out The Record of Linji (2009). He also translated the Japanese resource koan collection, Entangling Vines (2013), over many more years. I use these source books in my writing and teaching almost daily. For me, like Yunmen’s coin, they shine with a wonderful light. He recently joined us as guest speaker on our Monday night program.

Kirchner first went to Japan in 1969 as a college student, and took up Zen to somehow address his “misery and desperation,” he says. “I was really at the end of my rope.” Kirchner plunged into practice, and within five years was ordained a monk and found himself at Kencho-ji, in Kamakura, the oldest training monastery in Japan. For ten years, he lived the full schedule of monastic life: up at 3:30, chanting, meditation, meals and work, and to bed at 11:00. “In a decade of monastic life, I doubt there were ten times I was awake during late night sitting (yaza),” he says with a laugh.

Zen monastic life in Japan has been in sharp decline in the last half century, with both demographics and secularization taking their toll. But in speaking with Tom, I also sensed a deep disappointment that the koan system used in Rinzai Japan failed him terribly. Ironically, this translator of koans says, with complete honesty: “I am not a koan person. They just never worked for me.” For him, his years of monastic koan work, where a student presents a standardized answer to a teacher (the so-called “Hakuin response”) was “a complete waste of time.” On departing the monastery, he questioned: “Was there any transformation and growth taking place here?”

At the same time, he is deeply thankful to his many teachers and the monastic institution that has for so many decades supported him.

On translating Chinese and Japanese: “I like it because it is a kind of puzzle. So much is left out of Japanese when you read it,” he says. But learning the spoken language ~ for decades he spoke English only a few times a year ~ helped him fill in the gaps. “The Zen person who wrote these words is trying to evoke in your mind certain feelings and ideas,” he says, “For me, the task is: how can I get into English, in a single reading, the point someone is trying to make.”

Some recent translators have criticized the Japanese and Americans for not sufficiently understanding the “China-root” culture. Tom strongly disagrees: “Those old Japanese Zen masters really knew their stuff” with their classical training in Chinese and often Sanskrit. Kirchner is now finishing up letters written by the great Song Chan master, Dahui Zonggao.

A few years ago, nearing his seventies, Kirchner married for the first time. “Ordinary life can be a very good place for practice,” he says. “Being married has been an opportunity to find out where I am stuck: letting go of ego; not letting stupid stuff bother me; seeing how I create my own problems.” On a half century of Zen practice, he says: “I have a deep sense that this is a really, really meaningful experience. It has given me a compass for my life. With time, I will be able to face death with peace of mind.” Perhaps he has begun to find that the coin lost in the river can be found in the river.