Prolific translator of Buddhist texts, Thomas Cleary dies aged 72

Thomas Cleary. Image taken from

Thomas Cleary (1949-2021), prolific translator of more than 30 Buddhist works as well as many texts from other traditions, died on June 20. Cleary lived a quiet life out of the spotlight in Oakland, California, where his language skills and interests took him far beyond Buddhist texts, to write and translate more than 80 books on topics ranging from Buddhism to Islam via Old Irish. His work on Chinese Buddhism alongside translations of Taoist and Confucian texts make him one of today’s most prolific translators of Asian classical works into English.

Cleary earned a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages ​​and Civilizations from Harvard University as well as a JD from UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law. After training, Cleary drifted away from college life, at one point telling an interviewer, “There’s too much oppression in a college 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 has published the majority of Cleary’s work, offered his recollection last week, noting, “He was a very private person, avoiding the limelight and preferring to work quietly, producing some of the most important works of the Buddhist world in English. I only met him once, in 2019, in Oakland, where he told me about the tantalizing challenges of translating Old Irish. (Shambhala Publications)

Image from
Image taken from

Expanding further on Cleary’s work, Odisios adds:

He did not play in a single sandbox – his works spanned Buddhism, Taoism, ancient Chinese classics on strategy and power, martial arts, Greek wisdom (translated from 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 more than twenty languages ​​around the world. His first published project, in collaboration with his brother [Jonathan] JC Cleary, was the classic Blue Cliff Record, a large 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 Tiantai, Indian Bengal Tantra, Theravada, Yogacara thought, Hua-yen and Bushido. Arguably his magnum opus is the over 1,600 page Flower Ornament Scripture, a masterpiece translation of 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 and evocative imagery”. (Shambhala Publications)

Robert AF Thurman, himself a prodigious translator and author of works 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 thus will be known to grateful Buddhist practitioners and scholars for centuries to come. come.

On his own he has come a long way towards constructing 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 the news of his passing on social media. A eulogy, taken from the story of Forest Books, a San Francisco bookstore inspired by Buddhism:

Thomas Cleary RIP. It’s hard to say how amazing this author has been for me. I have read all the books he wrote on Buddhist and Taoist subjects several times. Many of his books have supported me in my practice and brought me inexpressible joy. Through koans and sutras, he clarified the vision, behavior and intention of authentic Zen masters. He brought to life the unspeakable subtlety of compassion and the multifaceted perspectives of the ancient Teachers. It provided historical and philosophical context for the intent and method of the Zen Masters. He clarified to me my master’s heart and intention without which I may never know the heart-shattering scope and subtlety of my teacher Zentatsu Baker. With my teacher Chikido Roshi, we read aloud the extraordinarily profound and magical Avatamsaka Sutra clarifying the practice of enlightening beings every week for twenty years. Oh, my dear Thomas Cleary, thank you, thank you, “there is no measure for what you have done”. (Facebook)

See more

Thomas Cleary (1949 – 2021) (Buddha Nature)
Remembering Thomas Cleary, Translator of Asian Classics (Shambhala Publications)

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