Ming said, “Though I practiced at Huang-mei with the assembly, I could not truly realize my original face. Now, thanks to your pointed instruction, I am like someone who drinks water and knows personally whether it is cool or warm…”
Gateless Barrier, Case 23 (excerpt)
Lately, I have been thinking much about translation and communication within our project. Our fundamental premise is that the ancients possessed a wisdom that we, in our present era, can come to know and embody. But how do we find resonance across so many wide frontiers of time, distance, and culture? Centuries of years, thousands of miles, and disparate cultures of south, central, and east Asia, and now the West. All these seem barriers to promoting easily knowing.
Which is why clear literary translations of the ancient teachings are so obviously important. Yet the source materials, pulled across those frontiers, are often far from obvious in their direct translation. Below are the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, arguably one of the most translated documents in history:
A first cut of the ancient Chinese graphs reads something like: “Way possible way, not true Way. Name possible name, not true name.” Looking up these characters in an online Chinese-English dictionary takes minutes. But scholars have spent decades trying to get these very lines right. And they rarely fully agree. Stephen Mitchell translates the passage: “The tao that can be told, is not the eternal tao; The name that can be named, is not the eternal name.” Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo translate those same lines, “Tao called Tao is not Tao; Names can name no lasting name.” And David Hinton illuminates the passage: “A Way become Way, isn’t the perennial Way. A name become name isn’t the perennial name…”
Despite the range in translations, a thread is clearly evident in these lines: Words and names themselves cannot express the truth. Explanations fall short of communicating immediate experience.
Yesterday morning, during a ten-minute break in the middle of our Open Temple sit, I went downstairs to make coffee. I filled the pot in the sink, and began pouring the water into the coffee maker. While doing that simple act, I thought: “Oh, I’m pouring water into the universe.” It was a small revelation, but at the same time, every bit of awakening is all of awakening. As soon as I tried to convert my experience into words, I found the words themselves fell short. How could I share with my temple friends what I had learned? I thought I might unplug the coffee maker, take it upstairs and hold it in front of the zoom camera: “Look, the universe!” But that would have disrupted the wonderful, quiet group meditation.
The true value of this practice is we do not need the experts to tell us what the ancients had in mind. We can, and must, experience it for ourselves. In the above Gateless Barrier koan “Not Thinking Good or Evil”, that is what Ming learned. Disagreeing with the clandestine transmission Huineng received from the Fifth Ancestor, Ming chases and catches the new Sixth Ancestor to take back the robe and bowl, symbols of transmission. The monk then has a change of heart, and Huineng asks him: “Not thinking good or evil, what is your original face?” Ming has an awakening, and says that he is now like a person who drinks water, and 冷暖自知 “Knows for himself whether it is cool or warm.”
The truth that can be named is not the perennial truth.