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:
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:
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.