Last week we received the very sad news that Thomas Cleary, one of the greatest translators of our time, passed away on June 20, 2021. Thomas Cleary (1949–2021) was the twentieth century's most prolific translator of Asian classics to English, translating and introducing over eighty works from Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, Bengali, Arabic, and Old Irish. Shambhala Publications publishes over sixty of his works.
He was a very private person, shunning the limelight and preferring to work quietly, producing some of the most important works of the Buddhist world into English. I only met him once, in 2019, in Oakland where he told me about the enticing challenges of translating from Old Irish.
Yet despite his reclusive ways, he was a giant. Robert Thurman said of him,
“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 that he will be so known by grateful Buddhist practitioners and scholars in future centuries. Single-handedly he has gone a long way toward building the beginnings of a Buddhist canon in English.”
He did not play in one sandbox only—his works spanned Buddhism, Taoism, ancient Chinese classics on strategy and power, martial arts, Greek wisdom (translated from the 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 over twenty languages worldwide. His first published project, in collaboration with his brother J.C. Cleary, was the classic Blue Cliff Record, a great 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 including Tiantai, Indian Tantra from Bengal, Theravada, Yogacara thought, Hua-yen, and Bushido. Arguably his magnum opusis the 1,600+ page Flower Ornament Scripture, a masterpiece of translation from 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, evocative imagery.”
Taoism was another major focus, translating sixteen books, some containing multiple works of the great Taoist texts.
He also explored the intersection of these traditions, such as the Tiantai Buddhist explanation of the I Ching or the Zen take on the Tao Te Ching.
His best-selling books were the classics of ancient Chinese thought: The Art of War (for which he translated multiple related texts), The Book of Five Rings, various iterations of the I Ching, and many other books on leadership, strategy, power, and more.
But Cleary wandered far beyond East Asia, translating Greek wisdom as well as Sufi and other Islamic works.
We have released a set of Reader’s Guides to Thomas’s translations that we publish if you wish to explore his oeuvre:
A Guide to the Buddhist Translations of Thomas Cleary
A Guide to the Taoist Translations of Thomas Cleary
A Guide to the Translations of the I Ching of Thomas Cleary
A Guide to the Translations of The Art of War, Strategy, and Martial Arts of Thomas Cleary
A Guide to the Translations of Greek, Sufi, and Islamic Wisdom of Thomas Cleary
We also are editing another book of Thomas’s that will be published in 2022: Dahui’s Treasury of the Eye of True Teaching.
He is survived by his wife Kazuko and his brothers, J.C. Cleary and Brian Cleary.
I hope you join me in gratitude to Thomas for a life of dedication to these works and the figures behind them. They have benefitted—and will continue to benefit—countless seekers with the aspiration to achieve the highest potential of what it can mean to be human.
President, Shambhala Publications
June 26, 2021