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The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism
by Bernard Faure
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 400 pp. $39.50 (cloth)
reviewed by Stephen F Teiser, Princeton University
The Journal of Religion, Vol. 74, No. 1. (Jan., 1994), pp. 137-139


Not since D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) has any responsible scholar attempted in English to synthesize such a broad stretch of the history of Zen Buddhism as has Bernard Faure. This is Faure's fifth book, and it is best read in relation to the first four. They are written in French and have unfortunately been largely neglected in the Untied States. Two are paradigms of what modern textual criticism and historiographical acumen can bring to the study of Chan (the Chinese word, in Pinyin romanization, for Zen) during the seventh and eight centuries. The third offers an intelligent, non-technical translation of a text seminal to the Chan tradition, the Damo lun, attributed to Bodhidharma (died 532). The fourth is a study of a source determinative for the later development of Zen, Dōgen's (1200-1253) Shōbōgenzō. While The Rhetoric of Immediacy builds on Faure's earlier work, it also extends it in significantly new directions. First, it offers the best narration in English of the role that magicians, healers, jesters, relics, mummies, dreams, funerals, deities, and mundane rituals play in a tradition that lays claim to emptiness. Second, it is conceived in a style that owes as much to Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, and Jacques Derrida as to any figure within the tradition itself.

book coverThe Rhetoric of Immediacy divides easily into "inner" and "outer" chapters. The inner chapters 5-13, are organized along thematic and historical lines and are easier to read. Chapters 5-6 on "The Thaumaturge and Its Avatars" argue that "it is precisely the role of liminal figures to legitimize 'structures' — dynastic, sectarian, and doctrinal" (p. 96). Faure distinguishes three ideal types — the "otherworldly" thaumaturge, the "this-worldly" trickster, and the "societal" bodhisattva — and asserts that the trickster figure replaced that of the thaumaturge as Chan became part of the conservative establishment at the end of the Tang dynasty (p. 131). Chapters 7-8 deal with relics, mummies, and mummy-like icons. Here Faure succeeds in exhuming the uses of death in Chan, thus forcing us to reevaluate the "funerary Zen" of late medieval Japan as a natural evolution rather than a basic change or debasement. His analysis of the manipulation of mummies and portraits reveals that Zen's celebrated iconoclasm was far from complete; even those who burned statues did so under the watchful eyes of their revered Zen ancestors. Chapter 11, which examines libertinism, misogyny, and homosexuality in Zen, is not without its rewards, but on these topics the sources are so spare that a more convincing argument can be made only by looking far more broadly — in another few books — into questions of gender in China and Japan. Chapter 13, "Ritual Antiritualism," draws attention to the Zen ambivalence toward ritual (which Faure defines as practice that is repetitive and different in kind from everyday acts), an ambivalence in which traditional Buddhist practice was denied or interiolized on the one hand and encouraged on the other.

The "outer chapters" ( 1-4 plus prologue and epilogue) treat the philosophical problems involved in the construction of a "tradition" in Zen. Near the beginning Faure introduces the paradox animating much of the book: "everything in Chan revolves around the patriarchal lineage," while at the same time the tradition "denies the existence of any tradita" (p. 11). He also puts it the other way around, writing that "the very insight that there is nothing to obtain comes to play the role of an original insight, and thus constantly risks becoming hypostatized" (p. 27). Chapter 2, "Sudden/Gradual: A Loose Paradigm," offers the strongest and most clearly written analysis of the dialectic of subitism in the whole book. Building on the work of Paul Demiéville, R. A. Stein, and contributors to a recent American volume (Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, ed. Peter N. Gregory [Honolulu, 1987]), Faure distinguishes three senses in which enlightenment is "sudden" (Chinese: dun): it is fast, absolute, and immediate (p. 33). He goes on to assert that, throughout the history of Zen, proponents of sudden and of gradual enlightenment in fact agreed on most important issues. The real difference between the two is found on what Faure calls the epistemological level: the moderate subitist first accepts conventions and then rejects them, allowing for the existence of two tiers, while the radical subitist rejects convention entirely from the start. Faure also points out that the mere appearance of a debate between sudden and gradual both camouflaged and enabled the creation of a Chan spiritual elite — consisting of both camps — which, like the Confucian-inspired secular elite, thereby attempted to distinguish itself from common people.

The greatest strength of Faure's superb book may also be the source of its greatest weakness. Despite his keen eye for the internal contradictions and shifting boundaries that define Chan and Zen, Faure is sometimes overly committed to preserving the tradition in terms provided by the tradition itself. Faure writes that, "whereas Chan shares the ideology of mediation with the rest of Buddhism, it stands apart from it with its ideology of immediacy. . . .This justifies us in preserving,as we have done, the denomination 'Chan/Zen'" (p. 303). It is, however, precisely the virgule that is in question: on what grounds can Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen be joined? The continuities and the breaks in the tradition — a tradition which was, after all, created by a genealogy and social institution projected backward in time — could bear further scrutiny. Faure's usage also tends a priori to insulate Chan from mainstream Chinese religion and, in the Japanese setting, to divorce it from parallel movements in the other sects of Buddhism. Faure is sometimes careful to point out that neither what he calls "popular religion" nor Chan constitutes a "monolithic given" (p. 79). Yet at other times he ends up reaffirming the bias of most of his authors that there was a principled difference between them and mere common folk. As Faure puts it, "the agnostic structure remains essential" (p. 87). Such an approach, in contrast to Faure's earlier work, takes little interest in historical change because, as he succinctly notes, it aims "to reveal the structural logic of those developments rather than their historical occurrence" (p. 100).

Some readers are likely to find fault with the book's style, which resembles an English version of contemporary French academic prose, perhaps using that as an excuse for not thinking about Faure's ideas. That would be a mistake, for the book has many things in common with some of the most important Zen texts: it is written in a language that requires some time to understand, but it is also playful, dialectical, and serious, and it has much that is not empty to teach us about Zen.

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