Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


A translation and commentary on Tannisho
Toshikazu Arai
Buddhist Churches of America
Center for Buddhist Education
Berkeley, 2008

Although I ordered this book from the Buddhist Bookstore in San Francisco as soon as I saw it was available, it is reasonable for the prospective reader to ask the question which Aria Sensei himself raises in the preface - does the world need another translation of Tannisho? Well, the definitive translation does not necessarily exist, and may in fact never exist. Beyond a certain level of technical knowledge, which Arai Sensei of course possesses, translation becomes a matter of opinion and nuance and it can be illuminating to read different translations of a familiar text. Also, I naturally wanted to read Arai Sensei's commentary.

While conveying essentially the same meaning as the 'official' Shin Buddhist Translation Series version, Arai Sensei's translation has a different 'flavour'. For example:

Know that the Primal Vow of Amida makes no distinction between people young and old, good and evil; only shinjin is essential. For it is the Vow to save persons whose karmic evil is deep and grave and whose blind passions abound. (From Tannisho Chapter 1 - SBTS)

Amida's Primal Vow makes no distinction between old and young and between good and evil. All that is essential is entrusting ourselves to the Vow. The reason is that the Vow is to save sentient beings burdened with deep and heavy karmic evil, ablaze with blind passions. (Same passage - Arai)

The differences between these translations are not great. I rather prefer Arai Sensei's version of this passage, but my preference is not uniformly in favour of his translation. This is not a competition though, and either translation is fine. What Arai Sensei's translation does is introduce the reader to the way he thinks and this leads the reader on to his commentary which is the main part of the book. Arai Sensei breaks each chapter up and interpolates his thoughts. His commentary is, like his translation, direct and intimate, learned yet informal.

If there is a unifying theme to the commentary it is probably summed up in the last sentence of Arai Sensei's comments on the prologue of Tannisho - that its author Yuien is 'showing us what it is like to have true faith.' His comments however follow the flow of the text rather than some preconceived agenda. They are to the point. In Chapter 2 Shinran is quoted as saying:

... it is for each one of you to decide whether to take the nembutsu into your heart or to abandon it.

In response to this Aria Sensei writes:

There should be no ambiguity about true faith (shinjin). We either have it or do not have it - there is no in-between.

The explanation of how in Chapter 9 Shinran uses compassionate means in answer to Yuien's deep concerns that he does not feel joy on saying the Nembutsu is masterful. Arai Sensei takes the reader through the steps of the logic of Shinran's reply, and clarifies Shinran's meaning and concludes that a person

without bonno (delusion) would already be a Buddha who does not need the help of Amida. A person with any degree of bonno would not rejoice when he knows he is being born in the Pure Land, leaving his beloved ones, wealth and power behind.

I could quote again and again from the clear and useful explanations of the sometimes difficult text of Tannisho, but this work really warrants reading in its entirety. After the translation and commentary which make up the greater part of the book there is a fairly lengthy and quite didactic section entitled 'Important Terms and Concepts' wherein Arai Sensei explains a number of general Buddhist and specifically Pure Land concepts which need to be understood to understand the commentary and indeed Tannisho itself. There is then the complete text of Arai Sensei's translation of Tannisho without the commentary. The book ends with a brief but useful list of references.

I strongly recommend this book. The translation is very easy to understand and complements previous efforts and the commentary is full of important teachings.

- Mark Healsmith

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