There is an expression in the Esoteric
Principles which reads, “Even Hell under the upraised sword.”
This is followed by a sentence which has been translated to mean,
“there are rapids where by disregarding oneself one will float by
safely”. The first translators took the first and second
expression, and combining them, translated them thusly, “There are
rapids where if one is too cautious one will land in Hell, but by
disregarding oneself one will float by safely.” While this is an
adequate translation of the expressions, it is unbalanced. A better
translation would be, “There are rapids where if one thinks only of
oneself one will perish, but by disregarding one’s self one floats
by safely.” Now there is balance and both meanings have been
There are those who do not understand
how “Even Hell…” can be translated as indicated. This is
because “Even Hell…” is a Zen aphorism and must be understood
in its Zen context.
This is best described by presenting a
short story (see reference above):
A man came upon a priest sitting in meditation and asked,
there a Heaven and a Hell?” The priest paused for a moment and then
looked up and said, “Who is asking?” The man declared with great
pride and haughtiness of voice, “I, a Samurai, am asking!”
The priest looked upon the man and began deriding him saying, “A
Samurai! You, a Samurai! Why look at you! Your clothes are tatters,
your hair is a mess and you stink! Why you are no Samurai, you are a
beggar. Look at yourself! You are nothing but skin and bones. Not
only are you not a Samurai but you are not even a very good beggar! I
doubt if you have eaten in days. Why I bet you re so weak that you
cannot even raise your sword.”
At this torrent of abuse, the Samurai became completely enraged.
He drew his sword high over his head, preparing to kill the priest,
when suddenly the priest cried, “Behold, the Gates of Hell!”.
Whereupon the Samurai, recognizing the meaning of the priest words,
lowered his head and his sword in shame and humility. The priest then
declared, “Behold, the Gates of Heaven!”
We can see from this story that “Even
Hell…” actually refers to being self-centered and emotion driven.
So, the first translators of the Esoteric Principles did well in
presenting the meaning of the Zen idea. To translate the words “Even
Hell…” and leave them at that is really no translation at all.
For translation means to convey the meaning of one language into the
meaning of another. The literal provides no meaning whatsoever and
does not qualify as being translated. But perhaps the best of all
translations lies in the telling of a story, the meanings of which
can be more fully discerned.