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Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism

By DaleS.Wright Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv +227 pp.
reviewed by Joseph S. O'Leary
Sophia University, Tokyo
Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 147-151


In a work brimming with unobtrusive erudition and centered on the figure of Huang Po (d. 850), Dale Wright offers a seasoned account of a topic that is still very much in need of clarification, namely, the roles of language, conceptuality, textuality, interpretation, and historical development in Zen Buddhism. Some recent critics tend to see Zen as incoherent or even hypocritical in that this "special transmission outside the sutras, not dependent on language and texts, pointing directly to mind" (quoted, p. 64) in reality developed complex and varied textual and ritual traditions from which the supposedly pure enlightenment experience cannot be siphoned out. Wright argues that the critics themselves are often naive, giving an inverted reflection of the naiveté of earlier scholars such as John Blofeld, who saw Zen as centered on an ineffable Supreme Experience, quite independent of the language used to point to it. Nonetheless, Wright himself is in basic agreement with the critics and in radical opposition to Blofeld (and to D. T. Suzuki). But he points out that the early Chinese Zen masters speak in many voices, often anticipating the most sophisticated insights of their critics.Wright's style is very unlike that of Bernard Faure, being slow, serene, reflective, scrupulous, and imbued with the deepest respect for the Zen tradition. Yet his thought rejoins Faure's at many points.

The thrust of Wright's argument is to demystify Zen enlightenment by reinserting it in its varied linguistic, social, institutional, and historical contexts. He gives a realistic and holistic account of what Zen experience must have been like for disciples of book coverHuang Po (pp. 187-192). His stress on the linguisticality of all experience certainly illuminates the texture of Huang Po's world. But I am left wondering if there is not another aspect of Zen that is missed here. Modern philosophers have derived much insight from the realization that thought and perception are deeply embedded in language. But I do not know that anyone has proven that there can never be a thinking or perception that is independent of language. Even the supposedly pan-textualist Derrida states somewhere that he does not exclude the possibility of nonlinguistic thought. In most fields of inquiry this abstruse question makes no practical difference, but in the case of Zen it is of crucial import. The presupposition of universal linguisticality, especially if it hardens into a dogma, may block access to the core of Zen experience.

Wright argues that though some Zen masters sought prelinguistic immediacy, the majority were deeply aware of the inseparability of experience and the language in which it is grasped. But could it not be that prelinguistic immediacy was so much taken for granted in Zen that the masters scarcely needed to insist on it? Wright says that enlightenment itself is a linguistic event, since it is often occasioned by a verbal statement and given immediate expression in another verbal statement. But to recognize the indispensability of language for conveying experience is not necessarily to imply that the experience itself is dependent on language. Although a certain poem of Huang Po "strives to make its anti-textual point, the master must enter into the textual world to do so, thus abandoning the position of 'no dependence on texts'" (p. 22). Is it really necessary to see a contradiction here, given that, as Wright himself points out, "no unanimity on the meaning of the mandate against 'words and letters' existed" (p. 26)? Let us suppose that the point is nonattachment to texts and a realization of the intrinsic independence of enlightenment from the limited perspectives of textuality, language, and conceptual thought. This is quite compatible with intensive use of texts in practice.

Blofeld explains that texts were useful to the learner but cast aside when enlightenment was reached. Wright argues that the enlightened experience must "continue to hold within it, and to be supplemented by, the influence and outcome of reading" (p. 23). Blofeld might reply that if one learning to swim uses an inflated tube, then casts it away, the swimming is no longer in any way supplemented by the tube, and to reintroduce the tube would be an absurd irrelevance. But why then,Wright objects, did enlightened masters continue to read? One might reply that they read without attachment to or dependence on their reading. Wright suggests that the doctrine of dependent co-origination entails that enlightenment is always dependent on the textual and historical factors that occasion it. To be sure, one might reply, but only in the sense that emptiness can be seen as dependent on the particular basis of which it is the emptiness. To attain enlightenment is to be released from the attachments and delusions that tie us to the samsaric realm and in this sense to break the chain of dependent co-arising. From the space of freedom thus attained one revisits the realm of dependent co-origination and sees it in its emptiness. Zen enlightenment is a realization of emptiness in connection with a certain concrete path or career and continues to be enacted in relation to that path. The enlightened scholar does not cease to be a scholar but realizes the emptiness of his learning and has a freed relationship to it. Rereading the sutras now becomes a way of reaping the harvest of enlightened vision.

Wright gives a fine account of enlightenment as awareness of dependent co-origination, which is identical with awareness of emptiness, according to Madhyamaka logic. But he is averse to any suggestion that emptiness is something ultimate, invariable, or timeless. There are four rhetorical strategies in Zen dialogues — strangeness, direct pointing, silence, and disruption — all of which express the awakened state of "one who no longer seeks solid ground, who realized that all things and situations are supported, not by firm ground and solid self-nature, but rather by shifting and contingent relations" (p. 100). Enlightenment has not to do with some precious inner subjective ecstasy but with co-responding to what is going on in the here-and-now situation, grasped in its emptiness. Zen rhetoric, including the unnerving silences, is "designed to disorientate one's relation to everything" (p 97). It breaks the hold of substantialist delusion, enshrined in the habitual fabrications of language, so as to awaken one to emptiness, an awakening that brings joyful freedom based on intelligent insight into the way things really are. That means that Zen enlightenment is fully aware of its concrete context, and that "beyond the Zen rhetoric of timelessness, we find historical contextualization to be central to their self-understanding" (p. 106).

But can this rhetoric of timelessness really be written off as a red herring? Even if insight into the texture of one's historical here and now is part of enlightened awareness, this does not necessarily align Zen with the contemporary philosophical doctrine of universal historicity. Wright points out that Zen disciples aspire to "go beyond" their master: "Pai-chang's 'transmission of mind' to Huang Po will have been effective and complete only at the point that Huang Po has transcended Pai-chang's 'mind' in the act of creatively 'going beyond' it" (p.139). This, he claims, introduces pluralism, historicity, and individual creativity into the heart of Zen awakening, and disqualifies "essentialist" notions of an unvarying experience. But perhaps this is a case of having to run very fast to stay in the same place. Perhaps the "sameness" of what the Zen masters discover is something like the "sameness" of love, as celebrated by the poets, a sameness that prompts an ever new variety of poetic invention. In that case, without harping on the identity of the experience in a literal-minded fashion, we could still maintain that Zen awakening concerns a single reality that is not in itself subject to historical change. To give a homelier analogy: a teacher of English might surpass his predecessors in developing new and more effective methods, but the end result, the transmission of competence in the English language, remains the same.

Wright sees mind-to-mind transmission as a mythical account of the creative interaction of masters and disciples, prompted by concerns with institutional legitimation: "It may be that, instead of 'mind-to-mind transmission' giving rise to the recording of historical lineage, it was actually the other way round" (p. 141). But again I wonder if Huang Po's statement, "Mind is transmitted with Mind and these Minds do not differ" really refers to "an exact replica of the Buddha's 'awakening'" (p. 142); the word "replica" is surely inapplicable to "awakening" under any circumstances. Why not read "do not differ" as meaning "do not fundamentally or essentially differ"? Wright addresses this possibility, already found in the Zen sources: "While the substance or essence of mind could be said to be identical between equally enlightened masters, the way this 'awakening' functions in the world might differ significantly" (p. 142). He argues that such a differentiation and hierarchy of substance and function is discredited in Madhyamaka thought as well as in contemporary deconstructive philosophy. But one could still be certain that an identical reality is transmitted, even if one could not pretend to distill it in a pure form from the variety of its realizations. In some sense a piece of music is substantially identical despite the infinite variety of individual performances. What is to prevent Zen awakening having this degree of substantial identity? In this sense, "to maintain an essence for enlightenment in the fact of its changing appearances" seems quite defensible. I do not see that it "inevitably pushes the elusive 'essence of enlightenment' out of the finite world into a transcendent realm about which nothing can be said because one encounters only its appearances" (p. 145). The essence obviously exists in all its realizations (which only a Platonist would call its "appearances"), as the music exists in all its performances, so that there is no call to formulate it in some abstract extraperformative space. We could even claim that koan literature, rightly interpreted, has something of the objectivity of a musical score, helping its student find the way to the awakening it reflects. The insistence on identity in the Zen texts is perhaps only a way of saying that Zen discovers a reality and does not merely invent it. To say that Zen awakening is "best conceived, not as a timeless, ahistorical essence, but as a continually evolving, historical realization of successive generations' highest aspirations" (p. 144) may not do phenomenological justice to contemplative experience, whose discoveries are "ever-ancient, ever-new," and do seem to claim an independence of language and history. For Wright, the experience of emptiness entails "denial of all claims to truth and absoluteness, including its own claim to know something ultimately truthful about all claims" (p. 197). Again, I wonder if Zen statements to the effect that nothing is "known" or "obtained" in enlightenment really undermine the (nonconceptual) truth and ultimacy of the experience. Perhaps they serve only as phenomenological indicators of the non-graspability of enlightened insight (as expounded by Wright, pp. 199-200), without the implications of radical epistemological scepticism that the phrase "denial of all claims to truth" suggests.

Wright contests the use of "enlightenment" as the standard English term for the Zen experience, pointing out that there is no exact equivalent for it in Huang Po and suggesting that it attempts to graft the Zen world onto the European Enlightenment (p. 182). This is far-fetched; "enlightenment" is a fairly straightforward translation of Japanese satori. It is also far-fetched to characterize the claim that Zen perceives "things as they are" as a "rhetorical figure drawn from European rationalism" (p. 182), ultimately deriving from Descartes' use of meditation to purify the mind so as to see clearly and without prejudice. The obvious source of the expression is Sanskrit tathata (thusness, suchness), which D. T. Suzuki associates with the homely Japanese expressions kono-mama and sono-mama, "just as it is." I noticed some slight inaccuracies in Wright's critique of Blofeld. Note 22 on page 186 reads: "The Zen master is thought 'to clothe invisible Reality in the garments of the religion then and there prevailing' (Blofeld, The ZenTeaching of Hui Hai, p. 18)." In fact, in the passage quoted Blofeld says the opposite of this: he speaks of "three alternatives — to remain silent . . . ; to clothe invisible Reality . . . ; or to point the way by systematically demolishing all the categories of thought. . . . It is this last approach which gave rise to . . . Zen." Again, Wright says that Blofeld sees Enlightenment as "an Ultimate Perfection lying beyond the realm of ever-changing forms" (p. 184), but the reference in Blofeld's text is to the object of Pure Land faith.

A mere review is not the place to resolve the issues dealt with in Dale Wright's profoundly attentive study of a classic moment in Zen history. As we continue to struggle with these issues, his book will remain a landmark point of reference.

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