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 Roshi'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. The fact is that the book was written at a time when Nishijima Roshi, due to his very advanced age, was not well and becoming not fully aware of himself. All his students, both those who supported publication in accordance with Roshi's wishes and those who cautioned against it, meant well.
There are many ways to express loyalty and caring toward an aged teacher and mentor. Nishijima Roshi, now 92 years old, is of such poor physical and mental strength that he withdrew completely from public life soon after the book was completed. In life, many of us in our families have faced an aging parent or grandparent. 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, that there could be any mistakes in the text he had worked on so diligently. Still others, for their own reason, chose to remain silent. And some of us (I was one) believed that it is right to speak up and not let someone we love harm himself if he does not really understand.
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 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 well known complexity of the text, and Roshi's very personal and particular usage of English were all at issue (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 much, and several of his students threw up their hands and withdrew from the project in despair). There was also the issue of Roshi's attempt to prove agreement and a match between Nagarjuna and Roshi's own personal interpretations of Buddhist doctrine known as the "Four Philosophies and One Reality". 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 attempting to bring some sense to the content.
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. The suggestion not to call it a "translation" was refused.
I believe that a loyal student must, sometimes, step in and speak honestly to an aged parent. 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. It is only the view of some of his students, and others among his students may certainly disagree (or silently agree).
Nonetheless, I will give '3 stars' to this book ... representing the Middle Way. In part, I want to award '5 stars' recognizing the heart and effort and study that Nishijima Roshi placed into the project. Part of me wants to award '1 star' for the result in terms of the "translation" that came about for reasons beyond the author's control. Nagarjuna might explain how all such stars and words are simply Empty in the end.
Gassho, with sadness,
Jundo Cohen (Treeleaf Sangha)