About Kazuaki Tanahashi: An Interview with Roshi Joan Halifax

Shambhala: How long have you known Kaz?

Roshi Joan: I met Kaz in the mid 1980s when we invited him and other artists to the Ojai Foundation with Thich Nhat Hanh. I felt an instant connection with him, and since that time we have collaborated on many projects and have become good friends and allies in the work of nonviolence.

S: How long have you and he been teaching together-and what form does that take?

Book cover

RJ: We have been teaching together now for more than twenty years in sesshins, in international travel programs in Japan and China, as well as intensives on Buddhism that focus on the work of Zen Master Dogen and Ryokan, as well as on many of the Mahayana sutras. We have even done a weekend on Japanese grammar! Not that I know anything about Japanese grammar, but it was Kaz's idea, and it was a bit of an adventure, to say the least.

S: What has it been like to work with Kaz on Dogen, and particularly his translation of the entire Shobogenzo?

RJ: To work with Kaz on this kind of project is a fascinating process…He seems to be Dogen himself when offering the translations that we Western collaborators then refine with him. The Shobogenzo is an enormous work that captures the vastness of Dogen's realization. Kaz, over many years, threaded the beads of these many fascicles into a great mala of wisdom.

S: Kaz is also known as a calligraphic artist, of course. How would you characterize his distinctive art?

RJ: Kaz's art is a powerful example of discipline and freedom. His classical calligraphy captures the inner movement and stillness of the brush and mind. His wilder work captures the great beauty of the human heart and the natural world.

S: You and he have produced together a new translation of the Heart Sutra (which will appear in his upcoming book about that text). What was the impetus behind new version?

RJ: Kaz was sitting a sesshin in Germany when he had a staggering insight into the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, and particularly what was meant by shunyata in the context of it. He came to Switzerland where I was teaching to share with me this wondrous insight. There he and I worked on this new translation-with my part being to help render it into a verse form that would be good to chant. Since I have worked with many dying people over the years and often share the Heart Sutra with them, I found this new version that we created together to be so much more accessible to those who were facing death. I remember having a discussion with him about his translation of the word shunyata as "boundlessness," instead of the more traditional "emptiness." I said: "Kaz, everyone is used to the word emptiness for shunyata. This might not sit well with people. He said: "Translator's prerogative!" Then he added, "One cannot assume we know what they meant…." I agreed. My test for veracity has always been: How this will settle with a person who is dying? Boundlessness seemed to me to open the door to the true nature of mind that is pointed to in the Heart Sutra.

S: How would you characterize Kaz and his teaching-in just a few words?

RJ: He is a great scholar, very funny-a true man of no rank! We are very fortunate that he is such a close part of our sangha at Upaya Zen Center!