You know the sea nourishes life

In the middle of Genjo Koan, Dogen introduces an analogy involving fish, birds, sea, and sky. This was actually the first bit of Dogen that I ever translated.

Swim as they may, fish find no end to the sea; fly as they may, birds find no end to the sky. Yet fish and bird still remain in the sea and sky as they have for ages…birds would perish instantly if they left the sky, fish would perish instantly if they left the sea.

This all seems rather understandable by Dogen’s standards. But just when we’re ready for some kind of insight or conclusion, Dogen launches into an opaque series of Chinese anagrams:

以水為命しりぬべし、以空為命しりぬべし。以鳥為命あり、以魚為命あり。以命為鳥なるべし、以命為魚なるべし。

What do they mean?

It turns out there is a very precise and symmetrical structure here. To see how, let’s line it up like this:

以水為命 しりぬべし、
以空為命 しりぬべし。
以鳥為命 あり、
以魚為命 あり。
以命為鳥 なるべし、
以命為魚 なるべし。

i-sui-i-mei shirinu-beshi,
i-kuu-i-mei shirinu-beshi.
i-chou-i-mei ari,
i-gyo-i-mei ari.
i-mei-i-chou naru-beshi
i-mei-i-gyo naru-beshi.

Nishijima translates this as:

So we can conclude that water is life and the sky is life; at the same time, birds are life, and fish are life; it may be that life is birds and life is fish.

And Tanahashi has:

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

Unfortunately, the only correct things about either of these translations are the nouns life, bird, fish, water and air. Both translators have missed the meaning of the central construct 以 A 為 B, translating it as simply “A is B”. The alternatives are hardly better; Waddell/Abe has “A means B”, Genku Kimura “A constitutes B”. Jaffe comes a bit closer with “because of A there is B”.

The Japanese are getting confused by the old kanbun habit of reading Chinese as Japanese, which in this case ends up as “A wo motte B wo nasu”. But actually the construction here is a common one in Chinese, for example 以海為田, which is something like “the sea as one’s breadbasket” or “from the sea one’s daily bread.” The 以 basically indicates something instrumental, and the 為 for (the benefit of). The entire phrase has an almost perfect English translation in the form of “A sustains B”. The sea sustains life.

Not content to merely mistranslate the central repetitive structure, the leading translators proceed to also mistranslate the modifiers on each phrase. The modifier on the first two is しりぬべし (shirinubeshi), which is neither Nishijima’s “So we can conclude” nor Tanahashi’s “Know that”–it simply indicates that this is something everybody knows. After all, when translated correctly as “the sea sustains life”, it is indeed something everyone knows.

The modifier on the next two phrases is あり (ari). This one Tanahashi simply ignores, and Nishijima invents “at the same time”. Actually, they indicate a declaration by Dogen; he is telling us something he believes we don’t know, and that is actually quite startling: that we can switch gears and think of birds and fish as being sustainers of life as well.

The final modifier is なるべし (narubeshi), which quite clearly means “it must follow”. One can’t imagine where Nishijima gets “may be” from this.

This whole section, then, is not some muddle of random Zen-like equivalencing of birds, fish, sea, sky, and life, but a carefully constructed syllogism, building upon what came before. First, there’s something we all know: that the sea and sky sustain life. Then, there’s something new Dogen is telling us: that the birds and fish also sustain life. Finally, there’s the startling conclusion: that life sustains birds, and life sustains fish, and life sustains, in the context of the overall analogy here, our very selves.

Taking a bit of poetic license and substituting “nourish” for “sustain”, we have:

You know the sea nourishes life;
you know the sky nourishes life.
I say the bird nourishes life;
I say the fish nourishes life.
Thus must life nourish the fish;
thus must life nourish the bird.

At the nitpicky level, should it be sky or air, or sea or water? Well, in the preceding part Dogen spells out “sora” (sky) in hiragana, so the corresponding character 空 in the section being addressed here can legitimately be translated as sky, rather than air. The Sino-Japanese character for “water” is used throughout, but by analogy with “sky” we prefer “sea”.

But I’m left with one nagging doubt. Is it not possible there was a transcription error that was never caught, and that the second pair should refer to bird and fish nourishing sky and sea? It would seem to make much more sense if it read (substituting “nurture” for “nourish”):

You know the sea nurtures life;
you know the sky nurtures life.
I say the bird nurtures the sky;
I say the fish nurtures the sea.
Thus must life nurture the fish;
thus must life nurture the bird.

And the cycle is complete.

5 Responses to “You know the sea nourishes life”

  1. Jundo Says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thank you for sending me this.

    I feel most comfortable in looking at the issues you raise from the point of view of Master Dogen’s overall philosophical perspective. I understand the points of your criticism, but I do not think that the translations by the others or incorrect. I rather lose you where you take a bit of “poetic license” with “nurture”, which seems like an even more serious leap of faith from the original than the other translations. In fact, the other translations succeed in overcoming some of the dualistic separation between fish/bird/water/sky that is important to understanding Dogen’s ‘whole-istic” image. Fish/water/life/water/fish” are not two. So, it is better to keep the general structure “fish is water is life is water is fish”. I think.

    Gassho, Jundo

  2. Jundo Says:

    PS -

    I tried to capture the intent of this section in my talk today … Please see if I succeeded or missed the mark ….

    http://treeleafzen.blogspot.com/2008/04/sit-long-with-jundo-genjo-koan-xxxix.html

  3. admin Says:

    Jundo–thanks for your comment. Most basically the question is whether “A is B” is likely to be a useful–in the sense of helping the reader understand something of what Dogen was trying to communicate– translation of 以A為B.

    At the purely syntactical level, it seems unlikely. At the semantic level, it seems even more unlikely, given what we know about this expression and its components. And finally at the philosophical level, the only justification for the “A is B” translation is a preconception on the part of the translator that that “must” have been what Dogen meant because “that’s the kind of thing Dogen or other Zen teachers say.”

    The philosophical level is highly subjective and we cannot criticize other translators’ choices, as long as their interpretations are based on sound lexical, syntactic, semantic, and discourse flow analysis of the original text. All too often they’re not. This is one of those cases.

    I myself do not pretend to interpret or elucidate on Dogen’s deeper meaning. I simply try to go where the original text takes me. However, that does not prevent me from noting when the result makes pleasing sense. In this case, to my untutored mind the idea that life, bird/fish, and sea/sky are connected in a cycle of interdependency makes more sense than that they are somehow all mushed into one.

    I’ll go back to “sustain”, and drop nurture and even nourish if using those words obscures the central point.

  4. Greencookie Says:

    I’ve never ever read Dogen, nor heard of him but if I may be allowed my two cents, I think he means to draw an analogy of something like

    we try to be independent, but the truth is, we all depend on each other. One cannot exist without the other. The sea without the fish, the air without the birds, water without air, fish without birds or air, and so forth.

    Life is this minuscule-ly mis-mashed triangle of relationships.

    Err. I just read your last post :) yep thats what I was trying to say too:D

  5. Transducer Says:

    My heart soars and my mouth smiles as I read the above, and marvel at the joy of cognitive gymnastics in the language analysis! For me the gymnastics were way way ‘over my head.’ But the following paragraph happily put it all together in a way that brought satisfaction to my left brain.

    “This whole section, then, is not some muddle of random Zen-like equivalencing of birds, fish, sea, sky, and life, but a carefully constructed syllogism, building upon what came before. First, there’s something we all know: that the sea and sky sustain life. Then, there’s something new Dogen is telling us: that the birds and fish also sustain life. Finally, there’s the startling conclusion: that life sustains birds, and life sustains fish, and life sustains, in the context of the overall analogy here, our very selves.”

    Yet the intellectual, structural, and rational satisfactions only add to the joy of right brain pictorial imagery, which was an initial attribute of my experience of reading.

    “Swim as they may, fish find no end to the sea; fly as they may, birds find no end to the sky. Yet fish and bird still remain in the sea and sky as they have for ages…birds would perish instantly if they left the sky, fish would perish instantly if they left the sea.”

    So feelings of gratitude do I send to he who has given me the link to this wonderful right brain, left brain, and ultimately whole brained experience……..:) :) :)

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