Thomas Cleary

Obituary of Thomas Cleary

Thomas F. Cleary, 1949–2021 Thomas F. Cleary died on June 20, 2021, in Oakland, California, from complications caused by heart and lung damage from previous illnesses. The second son of Thomas Francis Cleary, a chemist, and Jane Klein Cleary, Tom was born in New Brunswick, NJ, on April 24, 1949, the second of three brothers. He grew up in Summit, NJ, and graduated from Summit High School. He received an AB in East Asian languages, concentrating in Japanese, from Harvard College in 1972 and earned his PhD in 1975 from Harvard University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. In 2005 he earned a JD from the University California, Berkeley, School of Law, in part because of his interest in comparative constitutional law and the possibility of humanitarian resolutions to contemporary, but systemic, issues. He is survived by his wife, the concert pianist Kazuko Cleary, and his brothers J. C. Cleary of Arlington, MA, and Brian Cleary of Bernardsville, NJ. Tom was widely known for his prodigious accomplishments as a translator. Born deaf in one ear, he had an unusual innate ability with languages and, while still an undergraduate, decided he would be a translator. He began translating at the age of 18 and went on to write and translate more than 100 books. His translations from classical Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, Bengali, Arabic, and Old Irish are recognized for the clear, accurate, natural style in which he made accessible both well-known and little-known classical texts: Buddhist and Taoist works, works from the Art of War tradition on leadership and strategy and building strong organizations, the Qur’an, the sayings of Muhammad, the counsels of Hadrat Ali, the counsels of Cormac. Tom Cleary believed that the works he selected for translation spoke urgently to our present time, a present in which he always remained deeply interested. He strove always to convey the spirit of the originals but in contemporary language, so that his translations were never stilted. His introductions brought a breath of fresh air as they reviewed vast bodies of knowledge, distilling their essential message. Only someone with the depth and breadth of his scholarship could present such complex concepts in light, lucid prose. He continued his work to the end, despite his worsening illness. Tom came to Buddhism because it held ideas that struck him as tangibly true. He learned Buddhist Chinese and concentrated on reading primary sources, steering clear of academic debates. His aim was to bring the classic sources of Buddhism to English-language readers, as a means to enrich their lives, and to broaden the culture of the West. He translated a wide variety of Buddhist texts in order to introduce the full range of the teaching to the modern audience: the diverse schools of Zen Buddhism from China and Japan, Huayan Buddhism, Tiantai Buddhism, Yogacara Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism from Bengal, the early Indian Buddhism of the Dhammapada. In the latter half of the 1980s, having already produced a pioneering series of translations of Zen works from China and Japan—including his first published work, The Blue Cliff Record(which he and his brother J. C. Cleary translated) —and soon after translating the monumental Buddhist classic the Flower Ornament Scripture, Tom turned to Taoism. Over the next few years, he put out a massive collection of translations spanning the whole range of Taoist classics from ancient to modern, including Sun Zi’s Art of War. Readers of his Buddhist and Taoist works may have been surprised when he began producing translations of Muslim works from classical Arabic, beginning in 1994, but his interests here were sparked by the obvious parallels of Sufi material with Buddhism. His translations from Arabic included a compendium of wisdom by the mystic Hadrat Ali (Living and Dying with Grace); The Wisdom of the Prophet: The Sayings of Muhammad; The Essential Koran: The Heart of Islam—An Introductory Selection of Readings from the Qur’an; and a complete translation of the Qur’an. His longstanding interest in Sufism and his admiration for the work of Doris Lessing led him to write, with Sartaz Aziz, Healing a Wounded World: Visions of Doris Lessing (2021), on Lessing’s masterpiece, Shikasta. In his Irish work the emphasis was not on Irish uniqueness but on classical Irish culture as part of a continuum that stretches all the way back to Central Asia, the original homeland of the Celts. His translations of Irish classics reveal their integral vision of community, law, and a magnanimous and wise leadership. As prolific as he was, Tom also found the time to speak to community groups, especially, during a time of intense Islamophobia, to Muslim Americans. Part of his purpose in translating the Qur’an was to present the essence of Islam to Americans who had only been exposed to hateful caricatures and distortions. He was also an environmentalist, doing what he could to protect the earth: “healing a wounded world” was foremost in all his endeavors. In all his work as a translator, Tom Cleary painstakingly brought into the English language the testimonies of many, almost forgotten traditions that speak of true leadership and authentic justice, not merely as desirable ideals, but as practical necessities, and which maintain that the life of the spirit, the link with the infinite, is not something apart from, or opposed to, creative engagement in the ordinary world. Open-mindedness was the intellectual prerequisite for the kind of work he carried out – a willingness to let the original sources point the way, a willingness to take the sages at their word.
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