Discourse and Ideology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Edited by Richard K. Payne and Taigen Dan Leighton. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
Did Dôgen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It. By Steven Heine. Oxford University Press, 2006. .
These two books show that the study of medieval Japanese Buddhism, at least among US-based scholars, is a field where steady and valuable progress continues to be made. The progress lies not only in the study of little-known texts, such as the obscure corners of Dôgen’s oeuvre explored by Steven Heine, or the Buddhist-Shinto Reikiki and the Tendai Kankô ruijû, dealt with by Fabio Rambelli and Jacqueline Stone respectively, in the Payne and Leighton volume. Nor is it due only to the examination of disciplines and rituals, pursued in acute analyses by James L. Ford and Mark Unno. Rather, as in a predecessor volume, Re-Visioning “Kamakura” Buddhism, edited by Payne (University of Hawaii Press, 1998), what is most innovative is the setting of Buddhist matters in a broad social and literary context, along with the construction of intelligent and imaginative problematizations that bring the material into a revealing perspective. The authors are well versed in the topics of ‘discourse’ and ‘ideology,’ as discussed by postmodern theorists such as Foucault and Zizek, but they draw on the theoretical reservoir discreetly and adroitly, and always in a way that sheds light on the medieval Japanese material.
The less convincing essays are those that go straight for the theoretical jugular. Dale Wright surely builds too much on the Nietzschean image of truth as a ‘mobile army of metaphors’ when he says: ‘Since language runs through all cultural domains, none more so than religious, linguistic and discursive change is the most telling condition for larger cultural transformation. Metaphor, I claim, is the primary instrument for this kind of social transformation’ (p. 26). Richard Payne’s quest for the theoretical foundations of medieval Japanese Buddhist handling of language in ancient India is foredoomed by the complexity of Indian tradition and of the relation of Indian to Japanese thought, as Payne himself seems to sense. It is best to confine oneself to clear lines of influence, as in Kûkai’s reception of Indian tantric texts or the influence of Madhyamaka, already heavily filtered by the Chinese tradition. Kûkai’s teaching that Buddha Mahâvairocana actively preaches the dharma, for instance, is grounded in specific Indian sources, but to say that it is ‘based on a history of religious and philosophic ideas about the relation between language and awakening that reaches back to India’ (p. 80) is to open the door to sweeping simplification. Vague debates about the oscillation between the views that language can express the highest religious truth and that it cannot, counterposed to an alleged stereotype of Buddhism as a religion of utter ineffability and silence, do not advance real insight. ‘The range of conceptions regarding the efficacy of extraordinary language that were the intellectual milieu from which the Shingon tradition formulated its praxis’ (p. 82) are not likely to be illuminated by reaching after pan-Indian axioms, such as the somewhat tentative and speculative thesis of Johannes Bronkhorst that in India ‘words and the things they denote constitute a single unity’ (p. 83). When the West is brought in as well, the discussion collapses under its own weight: ‘The foundational character of this view for the formation of Indic thought, including Buddhism – together with the neo-Platonic and Romantic presumptions regarding the barrier language and conceptual thought establish to direct perception of reality implicit within Western religious thought – suggests that a careful re-evaluation of our understanding of Buddhist views of language is called for’ (pp. 83-4). Surely all Buddhist scholars know that Buddhism has a plurality of complex views of language, which we struggle to understand.
Ryûichi Abé does a stylish exegesis of Myoe’s cutting off of his ear as a semantically saturated gesture, uniting the Jâtaka ideal of self-offering; the ascetic ideal of utter dedication; identification with outcast criminals who were marked in the same way; and becoming a salvific figure as one ‘simultaneously tainted and immune from pollutions’ (p. 156). Here is a ‘discourse’ written on the body, which both engages subversively with ‘ideology’ and is enabled by it.
The second half of the book focuses on the power of words in the hermeneutics of Tendai, Dôgen, Nichiren and Shinran. Jacqueline Stone reveals a deep-rooted belief in magical properties of words, but also an effort to introduce order and rationality into the magical system. Thus Nichiren gives to the idea of sômoku jôbutsu (the buddhahood of grasses and trees) the magical sense of empowering icons, ‘opening their eyes’ (kaigen). Only the words of the Lotus Sûtra can achieve this; sûtras of lower status in the kyôhan system of doctrinal classification have less potency. Nichiren thinks that in the past there were wooden images that walked and talked, but this efficacy has declined since the introduction of Shingon mantras to open their eyes; indeed such evocations can make the images demonic! Not content to assert the supreme effect of the Lotus Sûtra, he seeks to give a rationale for it, arguing from ‘the nonduality of physical and mental dharmas’ (p. 181), and ‘the interchangeability of the Buddha and the Lotus Sûtra text’ (p. 182), and the idea that the Lotus Sûtra is ‘the source of Buddhas’ (p. 183). This logic has tradition behind it as well, for Stone traces it to the little-known Tendai texts she examines, noting disagreements between the various texts as to the ontological status of the words of the sûtra. As so often in theological language, cumulative ingenuities seem to float on a foundation of thin air.
Taigen Dan Leighton notes that ‘the Lotus Sûtra has a strong tendency to be self-referential – so much so that it may be considered a prime example of an empty signifier,’ hence ‘an open text, one that can be inclusive and pluralistic’ (p. 15). Dôgen imitated this method, affirming that he was now preaching the eternal dharma, without specifying its content. This performance ties up with a nondual outlook: just as the vehicle of discourse is itself its tenor, so the phenomenal world is itself the ultimate.
Japanese Buddhism in the Kamakura period saw a triumph of a hermeneutics of ‘personal insight’ (kanjin) over ‘fidelity to texts’ (kyôsô). The kanjin approach involved a certain amount of hermeneutical violence, in Dôgen’s many techniques for inventing new reading of Chinese kôans, canvassed here by Steven Heine. These revisionist interventions are textual shocks that parallel the sudden gestures of slapping or shouting that punctuate kôans. The liberties Dôgen takes with the received stories is connected again with nonduality and ‘the equalization of all views based on emptiness’ (p. 229). Some of Heine’s commentary is opaque (p. 224 for example) and I did not grasp the sense of ‘he then rationalizes demythology’ (p. 232). Surprisingly, Shinran’s revisioning of Pure Land textual tradition to make it signify that ‘the subject of the directing of virtue (Jpn. ekô) does not originate in the nenbutsu practitioner but is directed from Amida Buddha’ (Eisho Nasu, p. 249) has recourse to equally violent readings, applied to Confucius as well. It seems that kanjin was as prevalent in medieval Japan as the comparably reckless methods of allegorical exegesis were in medieval Europe.
Heine’s book on Dôgen has an odd title – he does not seriously call in question Dôgen’s stay in China, though he delights in pointing out how little we really know about it. His summary of Dôgen’s encounters and activities during the packed four and a half years he spent in China (pp. 107-13) vividly brings home the momentousness of this exposure to the older culture. Heine makes much of a ‘fundamental historical gap between the early trip to China and the evocation of its meaning in later stages’ (p. 8), but from a master of kanjin such varied reinterpretation of his own past is exactly what one would expect. I do not see the necessity of making so much of the fact that little mention is made of Ju-ching in the ten years after the China trip. The ‘delayed reaction and retrospective quality’ (p. 35) shown in later references, which sometimes vary from the recorded sayings of his Chinese master, may suggest that Ju-ching became a convenient emblem of Chinese Chan wisdom. People often use their teachers in this way. Heine becomes quite self-conscious as he defends his title by odd postmodern strategies: ‘The title of this book mocks those who would take historical deconstruction to its extreme by denying just about any religious truth claim’ (p. 43).
In reality, it is Heine’s subtitle that indicates why his book is an indispensable vademecum to the work of the Sôtô Zen master. For the first time in English we have here a comprehensive account of what Dôgen wrote, and a detailed chronology of his life and writings, helpfully divided into seven periods, from Early Early 1223-1227 to Late Late 1248-1253. Heine shows great sensitivity to the variety of genres in which Dôgen wrote and to their concrete communal contexts. He uses well the most recent Japanese scholarship and engages in challenging argument both with those who see Dôgen as falling in his later years into a narrow sectarianism – the Decline Theory upheld by Bielefeldt and Dumoulin – and with those, such as the Critical Buddhists, who see him as returning to a purer Buddhism. Heine’s attention to chronology reveals that both theories are fatally simplistic. ‘The Decline Theory often cannot make up its mind about when the late period began, and it refers to fascicles written prior to Echizen as either “early” or “late” depending on whether or not they reflect a partisan outlook that substantiates the theory of a reversal in Dôgen’s outlook’ (p. 151).
The brilliant 75-fascicle Shôbôgenzô has exerted great fascination and has won Dôgen the reputation of a deep philosopher. Heine shows that it essentially belongs to one phase in the master’s career, centered on the transitional period 1234-1244. I balk, however, at his description of the later 12-fascicle Shôbôgenzô as ‘an independent version of Dôgen’s magnum opus’ (p. 57). This dreary set of disciplinary tracts would have no claim to our attention were it not appended to the larger work. Apparently Dôgen thought of revising the 75-fascicle work to bring it into line with the orthodoxy of the 12-fascicle one (p. 58). We may be grateful that he didn’t.
A short review cannot do justice to Heine’s intricate argument, which will keep the specialists busy for years to come. Suffice it to say that he brings us face to face with the flesh-and-blood Dôgen and his multifarious creative activities, and thus provides an anchorage and a perspective for which puzzled readers of the Shôbôgenzô will be profoundly grateful.
Monumenta Nipponica 62 (2007):389-92