“I am not confined to any group,” he said in a 2009 interview for the website Sonshi.com. “I want to stay independent and reach those who want to learn directly through my books.”
Dr. Thurman said that Mr. Cleary’s great contribution was “bringing insights and sensibilities achieved in Asia to luminous life in our culture, enriching our understanding and expanding our sensitivities.”
Thomas Francis Cleary was born on April 24, 1949, in New Brunswick, N.J. His father, also named Thomas, and his mother, Shirley Jane (Klein) Cleary, were chemists.
He grew up in Summit, N.J., graduating from Summit High School in 1967. He received a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages, with a concentration in Japanese, at Harvard College in 1972, and then earned a Ph.D. in East Asian languages and civilizations in 1975 at Harvard University. Thirty years later he earned a law degree at the University of California, Berkeley.
The law degree, he said in the 2009 interview, grew out of his interest in exploring new solutions to systemic problems.
“The American system is in flux and needing new ideas,” he said. “The current system is based on the power of precedent, so change is slow. By looking into other systems around the world we may be able to resolve issues, for example, in a more humanitarian way.”
He became interested in Buddhism as a teenager and began translating when he was 18. J.C. Cleary, in an unpublished memoir about his brother, who was two years younger, said that their schooling had been heavy on science and math but that their discovering Buddhist writings had revealed a whole different reality.