As one of Nishijima Roshi's students and 'Dharma Heirs', I would like to comment a little bit on how this book came to be published ... why several of us thought it never should have been. Others among Nishijima's students, for their own good motives, believed it worthy of release in the old man's name. All were acting with good intentions, certainly. That is not to be doubted. Nonetheless, the publication of this book is, many of us believe, a tragic mistake that may come to seriously tarnish the reputation of a gifted translator who cared so much about the quality of his translations but, in old age, came not to be fully aware of himself, nor how much he had fallen into confusion, nor how much his abilities had slipped. It is a sad tale, a tragedy.
There are many ways to express loyalty and caring toward an aged teacher and mentor. Nishijima Roshi is now 92 years old, of such poor physical and mental strength that he has recently withdrawn from public life. Sometimes, as in all our families, an aging parent or grandparent loses some abilities with age ... yet does not wish to recognize the fact, becoming perhaps ever more stubborn in his or her refusal to admit a weakening at the hands of time. Many of us have faced this in our other families, for it could be a parent who no longer can drive a car, a grandparent who cannot live alone or ... in this case ... a talented, caring and insightful scholar and Buddhist teacher who had become very tangled in his thinking (though not his non-thinking). Such was the case here, and the reactions of his "children" took many forms ... all out of loyalty to him, all not to be doubted. Some, out of devoted loyalty, simply wanted this book published because Nishijima Roshi, their beloved teacher, wanted it published. Many knew that there were serious problems with the book (and some tried to patch up a few of those problems in the editing ... an impossible task for a book like this), yet in their loyalty they followed Nishijima's wishes despite their concerns. Others, out of loyalty, simply were unable to believe ... or admit to themselves ... that Nishijima could have so weakened, could be confused, that there could be any mistakes in the text he had worked on so diligenlty. Still others, out of loyalty (misguided in my view), chose to remain silent in the face of the whole affair, looking the other way, letting what would happen just happen.
And some of us (I was one) believed that it is not right to let an old man publicly soil and harm himself if he does not really understand what he is doing. I visited Nishijima Roshi at his home on almost a monthly basis during his writing of this book. I also was a reader of his draft which he published on his blog every few days. From both, it quickly became apparent that Nishijima Roshi was not completely in control of what he was doing on this project. As other reviews here have pointed out, the combination of his questionable understanding of Sanskrit (I believe this to be Roshi's first attempt at a major Sanskrit translation, all his previous ... and masterful ... translations being from the Japanese), the complexity of the text, and Roshi's very personal and particular usage of English were creating a "Perfect Storm" (in previous translation efforts, such as the wonderful "Shobogenzo" volumes, native translators among his students such as Chodo Cross were able to polish the rough work into a diamond. In this case, it was simply too far gone, and several of his students threw up their hands and withdrew from the project in despair).
When I visited Nishijima Roshi at his home, I gently and lovingly tried to raise these concerns with him. The response was, unfortunately, much like many of us have faced in life when trying to discuss such sensitive matters with an aging parent. Nishijima Roshi stopped talking with me for a time, even believing that I was conspiring against his project and him. In fact, at the time, Nishijima Roshi told me that all my concerns about his grasp of Sanskrit could be put aside because (as I understood his explanation) Master Nargarjuna was either visiting Nishijima Roshi in his dreams, or directly in his thoughts, and whispering the correct meaning to him. For that reason, when I attempted to gift Nishijima Roshi with existing translations (however imperfect) of the MMK by Garfield, Kalupahana and Inada, the gift was refused as not useful given Nishijima Roshi's feeling that he was directly communing with Master Nargarjuna (Master Nishijima at the time also told me that he had never seen these other English translations before, except the version by Inada, and had not known they existed). Furthermore, Nishijima Roshi several times repeated to me something he has come to insist on more and more over the years regarding a theory Nishijima developed for expressing Buddhism called the "Three Philosophies and One Reality" (The "3P1R"). Nishijima Roshi told me that this theory had only been understood in all Buddhist history by Masters Dogen, Nagarjuna and Nishijima, and that the MMK was simply the 3P1R. Although a beautiful explanation of our Practice, Nishijima Roshi tried to fit Nagarjuna's writings ... section by section ... into a neat one-by-one match to Nishijima's 3P1R, something he has tried to do with some of Dogen's writings in the past. However, in this case, the result can only be described as sometimes rewriting Nagarjuna to find the Nagarjuna that Nishijima was hoping to find.
And that is fine ... and Nishijima Roshi was perfectly entitled to offer such a take on the subject. However, even if this book were to be published, some of us suggested that it not be called a "translation" of Nagarjuna ... but perhaps an "impression" or a "personal treatment" or "reflection" or "personal interpretation" by Nishijima. As with any poem or lyrical expression, great treasures can be found in another writer's reworking or revoicing, and in this case, in Nishijima Roshi's interpretation or re-interpretations of what he felt, in his heart, Nagarjuna may have believed. Nishijima Roshi refused the suggestion not to call it a "translation" because, as he described to me and others, he believed thoroughly that he was writing a true ... in fact, the first and only ... accurate and precise translation of the MMK. (What is more, some of us pointed out that there was no rational reason to title the book exactly, word for word, the same as Jay Garfield's book title ... something that could be misleading to those searching both books. Suggestions to this effect to the book's co-author fell on deaf ears.) As the co-author admits too in the book, the co-author also had and has no particular command of Sanskrit and had very little ability to try to fix any problems. He did manage to write a commentary to try to make some sense of the confusion, although the result can only be what some of us might call ... in popular terms .. "putting lipstick on a pig".
I believe that a loyal student must, sometimes, stop an aged parent from hurting himself when the parent is no longer thinking clearly in a situation. I applaud the ability of my teacher, in the ninth decade of his life, to have undertaken such a task ... trying to learn Sanskrit nearly from scratch in order to translate one of the most difficult works in that language. I celebrate his ability to make his own personal interpretations of what that text may mean ... mean to Nishijima whether or not to Master Nagarjuna. However, even if this book were fit for release under those terms ... it should not have been done in this way, with this title, with this description of what the book supposedly is. I want to say 'shame' on those who let it happen. It is only my view, and others among his students will certainly disagree.
However, I will give '3 stars' to this book ... representing the Middle Way. In part, I want to award '5 stars' recognizing the heart that Nishijima Roshi placed into the project. Part of me wants to award '1 star' for the result in terms of the "translation" that resulted. Nagarjuna might explain how all such stars and words are simply Empty in the end.
Gassho, with much sadness,
Jundo Cohen (Treeleaf Sangha)