Thomas Cleary (1949–2021), a prolific translator of more than 30 Buddhist works as well as numerous texts from other traditions, passed away on 20 June. Cleary lived a quiet life out of the spotlight in Oakland, California, where his linguistic skills and interests drew him far beyond Buddhist texts, to author and translate more than 80 books on topics ranging from Buddhism to Islam to Old Irish. His work in Chinese Buddhism alongside translations of Taoist and Confucian texts make him one of the most prolific translators of our time of Asian classic works into English.
Cleary earned a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University as well as a JD from the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of Berkeley. After his training, Cleary shied away from academic life, at one time telling an interviewer: “There is too much oppression in a university setting . . . I want to stay independent and reach those who want to learn directly through my books.” (Buddha Nature)
Nikko Odisios, president of Shambhala Publications—which published the majority of Cleary’s works, offered his remembrance last week, noting: “He was a very private person, shunning the limelight and preferring to work quietly, producing some of the most important works of the Buddhist world into English. I only met him once, in 2019, in Oakland where he told me about the enticing challenges of translating from Old Irish.” (Shambhala Publications)
Expanding further on Cleary’s works, Odisios adds:
He did not play in one sandbox only—his works spanned Buddhism, Taoism, ancient Chinese classics on strategy and power, martial arts, Greek wisdom (translated from the Arabic), great works of Sufism and Islam, and more. His books have sold millions of copies and his translations have in turn been translated into over twenty languages worldwide. His first published project, in collaboration with his brother [Jonathan] J. C. Cleary, was the classic Blue Cliff Record, a great collection of koans.
Buddhism was a large part of his translations, with over thirty works spanning the traditions of Chan, Zen, and Soen but also including Tiantai, Indian Tantra from Bengal, Theravada, Yogacara thought, Hua-yen, and Bushido. Arguably his magnum opusis the 1,600+ page Flower Ornament Scripture, a masterpiece of translation from one of the most influential works of Mahayana literature, the Avatamsaka Sutra. Taigen Dan Leighton describes it as “a samadhi text, designed to inspire luminous visions and exalted experiences of mind and reality through its use of lush, psychedelic, evocative imagery.” (Shambhala Publications)
Robert A. F. Thurman, himself a prodigious translator and author of work on Tibetan Buddhism, observed:
There is no doubt in my mind that Thomas Cleary is the greatest translator of Buddhist texts from Chinese or Japanese into English of our generation, and that he will be so known by grateful Buddhist practitioners and scholars in future centuries.
Single-handedly he has gone a long way toward building the beginnings of a Buddhist canon in English. (Facebook)
Buddhist teachers, scholars, activists, and translators, including Mushim Patricia Ikeda and Red Pine (Bill Porter), and Kusala Bhikshu shared news of his passing on social media. One eulogy, from the account of Forest Books, a book store in San Francisco inspired by Buddhism:
Thomas Cleary RIP. It is difficult to convey how important this astonishing author has been to me. I have read every book he wrote about Buddhist and Taoist subjects many times. Many of his books have sustained me in my practice and presented inexpressible joy. Through the koans and sutras he has clarified the outlook, bearing, and intent of authentic Zen Masters. He made vivid the unspeakable subtlety of compassion and the multi-faceted perspectives of the ancient Teachers. He provided historical and philosophic context for the intent and method of Zen Masters. He clarified my master’s heart and intent to me without which I might never know my teacher Zentatsu Baker’s earthshaking range and subtlety. With my teacher Chikido Roshi, we read aloud the extraordinarily profound and magical Avatamsaka Sutra clarifying the practice of enlightening beings each week for twenty years. Oh, my dear Thomas Cleary, thank you, thank you, “there is no measure to what you have done”. (Facebook)
Thomas Cleary (1949 – 2021) (Buddha Nature)
Remembering Thomas Cleary, Translator of Asian Classics (Shambhala Publications)
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