I first heard of Dr. Cleary in 1988 when he published his translation of Sun Tzu's Art of War (published by Shambhala Publications). It was indeed my first exposure of Sun Tzu in English. My experience reading the book was transformative.
His translation, in addition to showing me the Taoist side of Sun Tzu, showed me the humaneness of Sun Tzu, which brought the venerable classic all together for me. It was the last missing piece of the puzzle for me. Unlike the many previous translations and interpretations which emphasized battles, Thomas Cleary was the first modern scholar who revolutionized how we now view Sun Tzu -- who he really was: an idealist that dealt with a system that dealt out great suffering.
And because Sun Tzu isn't still widely understood, that same insufferable system exists to this very day, Chinese or otherwise. That is to say, China isn't less militaristic or direct than any other nation, just that it must go back to its ideals recorded by Sun Tzu. (I would argue America practices and devotes more time to The Art of War than China.) The Art of War isn't how war was conducted in China historically (although warlords like Cao Cao had tried to implement the principles). Instead, The Art of War is how war should be conducted, a manual and reminder for the military leader.
Something as serious as warfare could only be subverted by great wisdom that would last two and a half millennia. As Dr. Cleary wrote, the ring that is slipped around the monkey king's head (Journey to the West) to remind him to exude great compassion and serve the greater good is the same ring Sun Tzu slips on every reader wanting to find great success through his Art of War book. Those who understand will joyfully yell out "Eureka!" and those who don't will wonder what all the fuss is about.
I can't write a better obituary than the New York Times, but what I can share with you is my personal story of Thomas Cleary.
For those who don't know who Thomas Cleary was, he can be described as the J. D. Salinger of the translator world. He avoided the limelight, didn't want attention or recognition, didn't want to be associated with any organization, school, or association. He simply wanted to be left alone to do his work, which ended up to be over 80 books.
Trying to reach him, I first contacted his publisher Shambhala Publications. But the editor told me even he couldn't get a response from Thomas Cleary. It had been months since he last heard from him. It seemed I was out of luck.
But through a confidential source, I was given his home phone number. I dialed the number. He picked up. I inquired whether it was Thomas Cleary on the other end. He said yes. Then I went through my shpeel about how much I admired his works. I likely went on longer than he had the patience for. Finally I had the courage to ask for an interview with him for Sonshi.com. He flatly said, "No." He added he was "too busy with a current project and need to get back to it."
I mentally panicked. Oh no! Here was my only chance and I blew it. It was like the whole world was crashing down on me. Then I started to stutter, which I rarely do. The more I talked to save myself, I worse I sounded. I was pathetic. I was in free fall.
Silence on the other end of the line.
"[Sigh] Ok, tell me about the interview," Dr. Cleary said.
Looking back on this, Thomas Cleary felt sorry for me. I was a just a poor guy on the other end of the telephone asking for a break. He empathized. He had compassion. He understood Sun Tzu's wisdom.
Despite Dr. Cleary's many years as a famous writer, Sonshi's interview was the very first interview he ever accepted.
There were matters he never shared in public until that interview. Like how he shoveled raw asbestos when he was young, which contributed to his health problems later on. He was able to mitigate some of it through meditative practices.
Dr. Cleary and I worked on several other projects later on, including the Preface for Sonshi's Art of War book, published exactly 20 years after his own Art of War in 1988. It is an incredible honor I will never forget for as long as I live.
On one of our projects, I read a sentence he translated and had a question about one of the words. He immediately looked at the source. After a few minutes, he then said, "You're right -- it should be this." It was a small correction but I felt like I was on equal footing with a master, albeit just for that moment! And he was gracious and wise enough to make the correction so easily and without any care whatsoever.
Today, I feel I have an obligation to continue Thomas Cleary's work to promote Sun Tzu's humanity that is accepted much more now than back in 1988. More work needs to be done to apply those principles in the real world.
The way I look at issues is that if a problem is possible, then its solution is possible. If conflict is possible, then its resolution is possible. And if a world war is possible, then world peace is possible. If stumbling and stuttering are possible, then empathy and compassion are possible. This dualistic view is absolutely Sun Tzu's view. It's the way of the universe. Look for the right moment, the right opportunity and we'll wonder why we worried at all. Sun Tzu understood, Thomas Cleary understood, and we can understand, too. ☯