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Speech and Silence in the Mumokan:
An Examination of Use of Language
in the Light of the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze
Hakuin's Daruma

Philip Goodchild, Department of Religious Studies Lancaster University U.K.
© Philosophy East & West, Jan93, Vol. 43 Issue 1, p1, 18p

Goso said, "When you meet a man of the Way on the path, do not meet with words or silence. Tell me, how will you meet him?" Mumonkan, Case 36 1

One of the most widespread problems found in the academic study of Buddhism is that of the explication of its fundamental insights or essence. While there are well-established methods for the study of the more objective aspects of the religion, such as its history, texts, practices, and doctrines, these point beyond themselves, by means of words such as nirvana, sunyata, or satori, to some indefinable area of experience which is itself resistant to articulation. The language used in relation to these terms is predominantly apophatic; one is more concerned to define that to which the terms do not refer than to provide a positive direction along which understanding can proceed. Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish between the actual language used, which is characteristically negative and demonstrates an awareness of its limitations, and the usage made of such negative language, which has a positive role. Buddhism as a whole makes considerable use of its canonical and authoritative texts in order to communicate the dharma. A careful reading of such texts does seem to produce a form of insight. In spite of the apophatic language used in relation to the fundamental insights of Buddhism, some kind of sense is still communicated. It is this sense which allows the possibility of an intellectual study of Buddhism. In this article, we wish to examine pragmatically some of the 'speech-acts' or 'order-words' incorporated within Buddhist language in the hope that it is through this dynamic role, rather than in the static content expressed in propositions, that language comes closer to revealing the insights which have produced it.

This problem of the inefficaciousness of language finds an acute form in the school of Rinzai Zen. While one can see how other Mahayana doctrines have been incorporated into the body of Zen thought, it is difficult to isolate the specific ideas which have a correlative relation to Zen practice and define Zen as such. The paradoxical and problematic form of the koan seems to defy any possibility of intellectual study. The koans demonstrate an anti-intellectual stance by their characteristic rejection of rational answers to the profoundest questions of Zen. Nevertheless, koans are conserved and transmitted in a linguistic form. They are presented for use in meditation, and koan practice is productive of states of enlightenment. It would seem, therefore, that even the koans are able to communicate some form of sense.

One of the most famous and widely used collections of koans is the Mumonkan, and this text frequently returns to the problem of the usage of language. The use of language made in the Mumonkan itself is quite exceptional, and cannot be considered according to established rules of linguistic, semantic, and semiotic analyses. The characteristic motif of the koan is to break such socially established rules in an astonishing manner. Yet while traditional hermeneutical methods are inapplicable, it is no easier to consider the Mumonkan for itself, without any external interpretative presuppositions. The text does not lend itself to the construction of an immanent philosophical system or hermeneutical method; rather, it tends to defeat any such attempt. Constructing a Zen philosophy is remarkably problematic. Properly, one must approach the text in the context of the tradition which has produced it.2 Certain continuities can be established between the doctrines of earlier Mahayana schools and presuppositions evident in the Mumonkan. This does not explain, however, the unique form of the koan insofar as it differs from the textual form of earlier writings.

Some of the unique characteristics of the Mumonkan can be brought to light by the juxtaposition of a heterogeneous body of thought. The selection of a useful body of thought will initially appear to be arbitrary, although its effectiveness can be assessed later according to the characteristics of the Mumonkan which we are able to identify. In this study we shall select the works of the contemporary French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, whose 'pragmatism' may provide a philosophical and interpretative framework from which to examine the Mumonkan. 3 In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze attempts to construct an image of philosophy that is "one-third Zen."4 While his reference to Zen takes the nature of an allusion as opposed to a full study, this work has interesting applications to Zen thought.

Our study will not be comparative. A comparative study would presuppose that we have already been able to extract a Zen philosophy in order to compare it with a Western philosophy. Instead, we shall extract interpretative methods and concepts from Deleuze's work in order to make use of them in observing exactly how language is used in the Mumonkan. We shall also avoid providing an expository overview of Deleuze's thought, since, in the space allowed, this would be both too complex for an unfamiliar readership, and too simple to do the material justice.5 We shall attempt to develop and manifest concepts out of the problems presented in the Mumonkan. These concepts are used by Deleuze, and we shall follow a similar process of textual analysis as that followed by Deleuze in The Logic of Sense in his treatment of the non sense works of Lewis Carroll. Only those concepts which we are unable to define directly in term of the problems identified in the Mumonkan will receive separate attention.

The study will take the form of a presentation of and a commentary upon some of the various koans presented in the Mumonkan. The commentary will merely attempt to draw out some of the possible relations which exist between the uses of language in various koans. It is through the manner in which the koans both relate to and differ from one another that we are able to construct a view of their use of language as a whole. This whole cannot be described directly for itself, but can only be made manifest by drawing attention to certain relations that exist between the koans. We shall attempt to draw attention to a certain kind of sense which exceeds the normal powers of propositional statement, but which is included in the dynamic effect of language as a series of speech-acts.6 This sense cannot be directly stated, therefore, and so our argument may seem obscure and complex. The commentary is merely designed, however, to draw attention to a certain sense of the koans which can be inferred indirectly; it is the koans themselves which are able to present directly to the reader the sense that the commentary is only able to infer indirectly.

The Negative and the Problem

The text of the Mumonkan begins with "Joshu's mu," Case 1:

A monk asked Joshu, "Has a dog the Buddha-nature?" Joshu answered, "Mu."

This koan illustrates the most characteristic motif of Zen language: negation. It is an apparent denial of the doctrine of the universality of the Buddha-nature, and implicitly points toward denial of the power of any doctrine to articulate the truth. The 'mu' is often taken as a koan in itself and meditated upon alone. The realization of emptiness produced by meditation upon such a koan is often taken to be a psychological or ontological breakthrough which has no relation to language or thought. [ 7 ] The negation is used reflexively to delimit the domain of the operation of language, and it is a realization of this limitation which allows the breakthrough to an alternative mode of experience to occur. Yet Joshu's mu is not simply a statement concerning the impotence of language: it is posed as a problem which requires a solution. This status as a problem is generated by the institutional and social context in which the koan is placed, or its enunciative modality. The incident recounted is invested with the authority of an enlightened Zen master who has been revered by Zen practitioners throughout the centuries. Furthermore, it is presented with an implicit demand for a response, both by Mumon in his stated purpose of the text, and by the master who gives the koan to a disciple to meditate upon. On the level of language itself, the reflexivity of the negation is also problematic: in pointing to an area outside of its operation, language surpasses its area of operation and hints at something unsayable, which has nevertheless allowed language to speak of it.

Another koan phrases the problem of negation more directly. Case 4:

Wakuan said, "Why has the Western barbarian no beard?"

The Western barbarian is Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch, who is traditionally depicted as having a beard. Wakuan's negation of this is presented directly as a problem by means of its interrogative form. One is pressed to find a response. The model of a problem which is most commonly accepted is that of a pedagogical master who has predetermined answers to predetermined questions. Once the solution or set of solutions has been found, the problem itself vanishes.8 In the case of the koan, however, there are no set answers. Quite frequently, the responses found to questions in the Mumonkan are just as problematic as the original question. For example, Case 18:

A monk asked Tozan, "What is Buddha?" Tozan replied, "Masagin! [Three pounds of flax!]"

In response to the initial problem, "What is Buddha?" Tozan poses a new problem, "What is the relation of Buddha to masagin?" The pedagogical model of the problem would assume that the solution to this latter problem is in the form of a doctrine, such as one concerning the interpenetration of the Buddha with all things. A new approach to the problem would understand this relation as being newly created by Tozan in the act of speaking. The doctrine may be deduced as one possible solution to the problem, but the problem itself transcends its solution and remains available to other possible solutions.

The matter is complicated further when the same response to a question receives a different evaluation. This is so in Case 11:

Joshu went to a hermit's cottage and asked, "Is the master in? Is the master in?" The hermit raised his fist. Joshu said, "The water is too shallow to anchor here," and he went away. Coming to another hermit's cottage, he asked again, "Is the master in? Is the master in?" This hermit, too, raised his fist. Joshu said, "Free to give, free to take, free to kill, free to save," and he made a deep bow.

If there are hidden differences between the two hermits which are not manifest in this koan, then it is possible that Joshu chooses between them on the basis of a direct perception of levels of insight and attainment. Mumon's comment rejects any such hidden distinction, however. This koan presents us with a problem, therefore, which cannot be solved by any hidden solution. It is not sufficient to invoke the freedom of the master in order to justify the difference of evaluation made by Joshu.

While it is always possible to invent a further doctrinal axiom in order to justify actions of the strangest kind, such an approach misses the point made by these koans. The problematic response does not imply that some hidden knowledge is necessary to decode the strange action; such a hidden knowledge could be stated directly. Instead, the problematic response demonstrates a power of the problem to surpass its solutions, and to retain an insoluble excess which cannot be put into language.

Any axiomatic solution is capable of being negated. This happens in Case 39, where a fine statement is regarded as being a mistake since it is repeated:

A monk said to Ummon, "The brilliance of the Buddha silently illuminates the whole universe. . . . "But before he could finish the verse, Ummon said, "Aren't those the words of Chosetsu the Genius?" "Yes, they are," answered the monk. "You have slipped up in your speaking," Ummon said.

A problem, however, remains prior to affirmation and negation. The paradoxical response cannot be either right or wrong. The koans draw our attention to an area of thought in which problems surpass their solutions. It is the use of the negative, in order to reject any possible solution, which makes the problem stand out for itself apart from its solutions. The problem is not an empty linguistic form, however, since it is capable of both bearing its own meaning and giving meaning to possible solutions. The use of the negative differentiates between problems and solutions, and marks an excess of sense present in the indeterminacy of the problem as opposed to the determinacy of the solution. The use of the negative is therefore merely the shadow side of this difference in nature between problems and solutions. Silence, or apophatic language, gives way to a paradoxical form of speech which can still be studied, even if it cannot be reduced to a set of doctrinal axioms. The study of problems forms an essential part of Deleuze's philosophy.9

The Logic of Sense

Speech is found to be inadequate in the Mumonkan insofar as it expresses a proposition which functions as a logical response to a problem. The responses which do take the form of propositions are unexpected in such a way as to draw attention to a further problem. Similarly, silence is also inadequate since it is unable to capture the positive aspect of the problem. A single exception to this is the Buddha's silence in Case 32:

A non-Buddhist philosopher said to the Buddha, "I do not ask for words; I do not ask for non-words." The Buddha just sat there. The philosopher said admiringly, "The World-honored One, with his great mercy, has blown away the clouds of my illusion and enabled me to enter the Way." And after making bows, he took his leave.
Then Ananda asked the Buddha, "What did he realize, to admire you so much?" The World-honored One replied, "A fine horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."

Here the Buddha's silence is compared to the "shadow of the whip," which implies that the negation expressed by silence is merely the shadow of the dharma. The element of language which finds its meaning in problems, whether these are expressed in speech or silence, is the element we must consider when examining the use of language in the koans. It is at this point that Deleuze's study, The Logic of Sense, becomes uniquely valuable.

Deleuze isolates an elusive dimension of a proposition, which he calls its 'sense'.10 Traditionally, a proposition is considered to relate to the world outside of language in three different ways. Denotation is the relation of a proposition to external and identifiable objects. Manifestation is the relation of the proposition to the speaking subject insofar as it expresses beliefs, desires, and intentions. Signification is the relation of a word in the proposition to universal and general concepts, and of syntactic connections to the implications of the concept. Deleuze's fourth relation of the proposition, sense, is difficult to locate, since it cannot be said to exist either in things or in the mind. Furthermore, it has no direct utility which would make it empirically evident, in the manner of the other three relations, but only "an inefficacious, impassive, and sterile splendour." Deleuze uses a de jure argument to infer it directly, and a de facto argument to infer it indirectly. Briefly, these run as follows: Deleuze shows that the other three dimensions of the proposition exist in a relation of mutual presupposition. This results from a complex argument which considers whether one of these dimensions can serve as the ground for the elaboration of the other two. First, one cannot express a belief or desire without referring to a concept or object; hence manifestation presupposes denotation or signification. But in addition, one cannot indicate an object without also anticipating that its existence will be produced by an external causality. This fact of anticipation introduces the domain of the personal into denotation, and so denotation also presupposes manifestation. The last possibility is that signification may serve as a ground for denotation. This would appear to be the case when a state of affairs is denoted on the basis of a logical deduction from certain premises, since these denotative premises can be forgotten once the deduction is made. One is left purely with the domain of signification. But signification involves its own infinite regress: if we affirm that proposition Z is true on the basis of premises A and B, then this involves a further proposition, C, which states the implication itself. C says 'Z is true if A and B are true'. Then one requires a further proposition, D: 'Z is true if A, B, and C are true'. The infinite regress within signification shows that it cannot be separated completely from its own premises, and hence not from a presupposed denotation.

It follows from this circular logic that denotation, manifestation, and signification are in state of mutual presupposition. In order for us to construct a model of the proposition which shows the source from which it is generated, therefore, one must introduce a fourth dimension so that the model can function a priori from within. Thus, de jure, there is a hidden fourth dimension of 'sense'. At this stage, sense cannot be said to exist, but is merely necessary for us to think about the possibility of a proposition. But the introduction of the dimension of sense is also de facto. The problem remains of how names are related to objects, and how proper names and pronouns are related to persons. Something indicates that a word denotes or manifests a particular object or person. This would appear to be its signification, but by the principle of infinite regression, signification presupposes a previous denotation. In order for a proposition to relate to a state of affairs, it is necessary that something unconditioned by the other dimensions of the proposition is introduced which is capable of assuring a real genesis of these other dimensions. 11

Deleuze studies the logic of this dimension of sense by examining a number of paradoxes. Sense is found to be expressed by a proposition, and yet it does not exist outside of its expression. It is of a different nature to the mode of its expression, the proposition, since it is an attribute of a state of affairs. It exists as a metaphysical surface between language and reality. The state of affairs it relates to primarily, however, is neither an object, which would be denoted, nor an action or passion of a person, which would be manifested. The state of affairs is an impersonal event, expressed as an infinitive verb.12 Sense, insofar as it differs from the denotation, manifestation, and signification which it grounds, is neutral in relation to objects, persons, and abstract logical relations. It is therefore indifferent to truth and falsehood, grammatical voice or mood, and affirmation or negation.

The neutrality of sense in relation to negation makes it of particular relevance in studying problems apart from the negation of their possible solutions. It is therefore of interest in the study of the Mumonkan. Moreover, many of the same paradoxes of sense which Deleuze considers are implicitly present and revealed in the Mumonkan. It is therefore necessary for us to draw attention to these paradoxes in the text in order to understand the use made of the logic of sense.

Paradoxes of Sense

The problem of speech and silence is clearly expressed in the Mumonkan in Case 24:

A monk asked Fuketsu, "Both speech and silence are faulty in being ri or bi.
How can we escape these faults?" Fuketsu said, "I always remember the spring in Konan, Where the partridges sing; How fragrant the countless flowers!"

Ri and bi refer to the inward and outward actions of the mind, respectively. If these actions were to be expressed in a proposition it would be through the relations of manifestation and denotation. Both actions invoke the activity of the mind, either in relation to itself, or to external reality. This action necessitates the division between subject and object, or intentionality and phenomenon. To avoid this fault one must rest at the surface between inner and outer. Fuketsu's response appears not to relate to the problem posed: it introduces its own denotations, manifestations, and significations which are not connected in any way with those of the problem. Instead, the haiku demonstrates a somewhat Proustian experience of reminiscence, in which a rich memory surges out of the past with a splendor that could never have been evident when the original experience was lived. Nevertheless, it would appear that the present problem functions as a trigger which allows such a memory to return. The essential point is that the memory is triggered passively in the mind, instead of being thought up actively according to certain inward or outward processes. The sense of Fuketsu's response, if it has one at all, must arise out of a transcendental ground which expresses itself on the surface between inner and outer. The activity of the mind can only be developed on the basis of this surface between thought and external reality. The surface itself, however, is passive.

The difference in nature between the problem posed and Fuketsu's response still remains as a problem. Something is communicated between the two interlocutors, but the subjects of their conversation bear no resemblance to one another. The direct triggering of a passive mind so that it thinks its own thoughts seems to be the key process at work here, and it is this which we shall explore further. The necessity of relinquishing the mind's activity in the enlightened state is clearly shown in Case 41:

Bodhidharma sat facing the wall. The Second Patriarch stood in the snow. He cut off his arm and presented it to Bodhidharma, crying, "My mind has no peace as yet! I beg you, master, please pacify my mind!" "Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you," replied Bodhidharma. "I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it," said the Second Patriarch. "Now your mind is pacified," said Bodhidharma.

When the mind gives up its activity of trying to take hold of itself or speak of itself, it returns to the prior transcendental ground which is peaceful. Nevertheless, a certain shock is often necessary to enable the mind to return to this pacified state. In this Case the physical shock is self-administered by the Second Patriarch. In Case 3, the shock is administered by the master, Gutei, who cuts off a boy's finger. The astonishing or paradoxical response is another form of shock which is found more frequently. A characteristic form of the shock administered in the Mumonkan is a 'deflation' of the questioner's beliefs. For example, Case 7:

A monk said to Joshu, "I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me." "Have you eaten your rice porridge?" asked Joshu. "Yes, I have," replied the monk. "Then you had better wash your bowl," said Joshu. With this the monk gained insight.

Similarly, Case 21:

A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?" Ummon replied, "Kanshiketsu! [A dry shit-stick!]"

In Case 33, all belief is negated:

A monk asked Baso, "What is the Buddha?" Baso answered, "No mind, no Buddha."

The inflated ideal is the product of an active mind. The questions posed to the masters show language operating as a manifestation of the beliefs and desires of the questioner. These beliefs correlate with concepts which are not fully formed, and hence questions arise concerning these concepts. The active mind of the questioner remains upon the level of subjective desires and abstract concepts, whereas the response relinquishes such matters and returns to the surface of everyday life. Buddhahood can be conceived of neither as a belief nor as a concept. Nor can it be considered as a goal, and this is shown in Case 9:

A monk asked Koyo Seijo, "Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in zazen for ten kalpas and could not attain Buddhahood. He did not become a Buddha. How could this be?" Seijo said, "Your question is quite self-explanatory." The monk asked, "He meditated so long; why could he not attain Buddhahood?" Seijo said, "Because he did not become a Buddha."

Buddhahood can only be found where the mind is passive, and this is the surface of everyday life once extraneous desires and beliefs have been eliminated. The most profound state of mind also exists on the most superficial level.

To what extent can this surface be considered the surface of sense, which interacts between language and reality? Initially, one would be inclined to reject this assumption. Certain paradoxical responses in the koans directly denote the material world, outside of thought. Hence Case 37:

A monk asked Joshu, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming to China?" Joshu said, "The oak tree in the garden."

This denotation of the material world turns our attention away from thoughts which are made possible by means of language, and focuses it upon the sensible and material world. One is left contemplating the oak tree in silence. Nevertheless, here we meet a familiar problem: how is it that language can speak of its own negation? How can we proceed from the predication of existence, implicit in denotation, to existence itself? One must assume the transcendent element of sense which passes from language to the thought of material reality. This thought of the existence of material reality is itself correlative to language, since it invokes the concept of existence. Nevertheless, the truth of Zen experience must be sought beyond propositions of existence, just as much as it must be sought beyond negations. This is stated in Case 25:

In a dream Kyozan Osho went to Maitreya's place and was led to sit in the third seat. A senior monk struck with a gavel and said, "Today the one in the third seat will speak." Kyozan rose and, striking with the gavel, said, "The truth of the Mahayana is beyond the four propositions and transcends the hundred negations. Taichol Taicho! [Hear the truth!]"

The four propositions concern existence, nonexistence, both existence and nonexistence, and neither existence nor nonexistence. The essence of Zen speech is beyond predication just as much as it is beyond negation. The paradoxical answer of Joshu, therefore, draws attention not so much to the material object itself, but to the transcendent boundary between words and reality which allows the two areas to communicate.

Some koans involve a response that is not merely denotative, but one that is a physical action or gesture. Hence Case 3:

Whenever Gutei Osho was asked about Zen, he simply raised his finger. . . .

Also Case 40:

Then he took a water bottle and stood it on the floor, and said, "You may not call it a water bottle. What do you call it?" The head monk said, "It cannot be called a stump."
Hyakujo asked Isan his opinion. Isan tipped over the water bottle with his feet and went out. Hyakujo laughed and said, "The head monk loses."

Both of these koans take us out of the domain of conceptual thought by responding with an action. They avoid the linguistic operations of de-notation, manifestation, and signification; furthermore, the gesture does not repeat any of these operations by means of a sign language. The response does not arise from the activity of discursive thought, but simply from a passive mind: it therefore bears no logical relation to the question. The response is a pure event, devoid of the intentionality of a personal action. Deleuze shows that it is such events which form the material correlate of sense. Sense and event become indistinguishable: one is attributed to bodies, the other is the attribute of bodies. Each forms a side of the metaphysical surface which passes between language and reality. The response of an enacted event, when a linguistic operation grounded in sense is expected, draws attention to this transcendental field which passes between thought and reality.

The paradoxes of sense are explored further. One of the paradoxes is that sense can never be directly said. It subsists, rather, in the disjunction which divides words and reality. There is a difference of nature between language and reality which prevents a structural correspondence from occurring between the two. This is stated in Case 43:

Shuzan Osho held up a shippei [staff of office] before his disciples and said, "You monks! If you call this a shippei, you oppose reality. If you do not call it a shippei, you ignore the fact. Tell me, you monks, what will you call it?"

In the substitution of word for object a displacement is introduced. The signifier, 'shippei', requires a signified, 'staff of office', to express its meaning. This, in turn, requires a further definition to express its meaning. The infinite regression which this leads to means that the sense of shippei can never be said directly. Sense appears as an excess in the signifier which occurs in an infinite series of signification. On the other hand, this sense is entirely lacking in the reality of the object. By introducing this sense, one opposes reality. Nevertheless, not only is sense absent from the object, but it also appears to be a lack or deficit in relation to language. Hence Case 44 follows from Case 43:

Basho Osho said to his disciples, "If you have a staff, I will give you a staff. If you have no staff, I will take it from you."

While speech has an excess of sense, silence lacks a sense altogether. This excess and lack always go together. The interpretation of a gesture or sign always involves an excess of sense being added, and a sense being lost. This happens in Case 26:

When the monks assembled before the midday meal to listen to his lecture, the great Hogen of Seiryo pointed at the bamboo blinds. Two monks simultaneously went and rolled them up. Hogen said, "One gain, one loss."

There is invariably a displacement between language and reality which prevents a proper correspondence. This displacement seems small in the cases above of naming an object or obeying a gesture. In the koans that we examined earlier, however, the displacement introduced in order to draw attention to the field of sense is large. It would appear that the response is nonsense, rather than an introduction of sense. The sense of a sign or response always remains hidden, or seems to be replaced entirely by nonsense. Nevertheless, Deleuze has isolated a certain kind of nonsense which bears a special relation to sense, and it is this nonsense which we can identify at the heart of the Mumonkan. Let us examine Case 14:

Nansen Osho saw the monks of the Eastern and Western halls quarreling over a cat. He held up the cat and said, "If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it." No one could answer, and Nansen cut the cat in two.
That evening, Joshu returned, and Nansen told him of the incident. Joshu took off his sandal, placed it on his head, and walked out. "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat," Nansen remarked.

In this case, Nansen does not even specify the question he is asking. The monks have an entirely free range of response. Joshu's response has nothing to do with the cat or the quarrel, and therefore seems to be nonsense. He responds with an unusual gesture, which is an event having an indeterminate sense. Since the sense of this gesture does not relate to its context, there is no displacement between the gesture and its sense. This nonsensical gesture exhibits a strange form of the univocity of being: its being and its meaning become indistinguishable. It is what it says, and it says what it is. Operating in the disjunction between language and reality is a figure of univocal nonsense, such as this gesture, which is not so much opposed to sense as it enacts a donation of sense. The disjunction between language and reality is no longer exclusive, as in Case 43, but becomes inclusive, so that language and reality are expressed in a single, free gesture.

This univocal nonsense creates the displacement between language and reality. At times it appears as language; at times as a reality. It circulates between the two, manifesting itself either as an excess of meaning which can never be said, or as a lack of meaning which needs to be said. It is with such nonsense that thought attains its own freedom, and language is made possible. This nonsense causes the displacement in the chains of signification which makes language possible. In itself, however, it escapes language. It brings about a vicious circle between signifier and signified, in which each refers to each other. It is the difference between signifier and signified, and yet it relates the two together.

To speak of a metaphysical surface between language and reality, or a point outside of language which makes language possible, as we have done so far, is a little misleading. We do not wish to allude to some transcendent 'secret' which is only available to those with a privileged degree of insight. Univocal nonsense or the vicious circle, cannot be said to exist. Rather, they subsist or insist within language. They have a real structural and genetic role. Joshu's gesture does not yet have a determinate sense. It is a problem without a solution. Nevertheless, since its sense is the event itself, it establishes the communication between sense and event. At the basis of the relation between language and reality one finds such an arbitrary or 'aleatory' point. Such a point circulates between language and reality, generating the structural relations and the displacement between the two. The sense or solution to the problem does not preexist, but must be generated.

Nevertheless, Joshu's gesture, when considered alone, does not yet effect a donation of sense. The paradoxical element sets up a structure by being repeated. Each time it is repeated, however, it will appear under a different form. The paradoxical element is a displacement between language and reality, but is also displaced in relation to itself. It is a pure difference which is repeated throughout the text of the Mumonkan as different forms of displacement. It is this pure form of difference and repetition which comprises the subject of another of Deleuze's major works, Difference et Repetition.13 This subject is also present in the Mumonkan.

Difference and Repetition

We can distinguish between two different kinds of difference in the Mumonkan. The ordinar y kind of difference is established between two previously defined objects. This is obvious in Case 35:

Goso said to his monks, "Seijo's soul separated from her being. Which was the real Seijo?"

Here there is an obvious difference between two aspects of the same person. The question, however, raises the problem of how these two aspects are defined. If they are defined co-relatively, then it is this relation, or a pure difference, which is ontologically prior to the two terms. Expressed within the ordinary kind of difference there is a pure difference. This pure difference can also be manifested in the negation of an ordinary form of difference, as in Case 30:

Daibai asked Baso, "What is Buddha?" Baso answered, "This very mind is the Buddha."

Mind and Buddha appear to be a single individuality in this case. Yet a simple equation of the two reduces the Buddha to a status of banality. Implicit here is an 'internal' or 'intensive' kind of difference, in which something differentiates itself from itself. Light, for example, should not be distinguished from darkness as its opposite or its negation; instead, light differentiates itself from itself, so that darkness is merely undifferentiated light. 14 In the Case above, mind is a determination of the prior indeterminate ground of the Buddha from which it differentiates itself. Nevertheless, the ground rises so as to be present in the determination. This determination is the pure form of difference.15 An intensive difference is indifferent to quality and quantity, and so it remains imperceptible. It can be expressed as an ordinary difference, however, as in Case 28:

Tokusan asked Ryutan about Zen far into the night. At last Ryutan said, "The night is late. Why don't you retire?" Tokusan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but he was met by darkness. Turning back to Ryutan, he said, "It is dark outside." Ryutan lit a paper candle and handed it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryutan blew it out. At this, all of a sudden, Tokusan went through a deep experience and made bows.

The ordinary difference between the lit and the blown-out candle expresses the intensive difference between two states of mind. A similar intensive difference is expressed in Case 10:

Seizei said to Sozan, "Seizei is utterly destitute. Will you give him support?" Sozan called out, "Seizei!" Seizei responded, "Yes sir!" Sozan said, "You have finished three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say you have not yet moistened your lips!"

In this example Sozan draws attention to a difference present between possible states of mind of Seizei. Nevertheless, the imperceptibility of intensive difference does not imply the universality of its presence or realization. It can only be detected insofar as it makes a difference. The Buddha's gesture in Case 6 makes a difference to Mahakashyapa alone:

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.

The problem for the Zen practitioner is, then, that of how one makes a difference to oneself. This problem of progress is exemplified in Case 46:

Sekiso Osho asked, "How can you proceed on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole?". . .

This constitutes a problem which has no possible solutions. Instead of progress being possible upwards, in a perceptible dimension, one can only make a journey 'in intensity', remaining in the same place. Nevertheless, a repetition of the problem may produce a displacement or change in its conditions. No final solution can ever be approached to such a problem, and so the question may be repeated indefinitely, so long as it is able to make a difference. It is the repetition of such a problematic expression of difference which makes a difference.

Repetition is another prominent feature of the Mumonkan. Frequently, repetition is taken as an expression of awareness and attentiveness, as in Case 17:

The National Teacher called his attendant three times, and three times the attendant responded. The National Teacher said, "I long feared that I was betraying you, but really it was you who were betraying me."

Both the compiler, Mumon, and the contemporary translator, Sekida, understand 'betray' in the sense of rebelling against and surpassing the teacher's test. The repetition is an expression of concentration. Nevertheless, there are other examples in which repetition is regarded as an error. The monk's repetition of the words of Chosetsu the Genius in Case 39, and the boy's repetition of Gutei's gesture of the raising of a finger in Case 3 are imitations. It is possible to distinguish between a material repetition, in which the imitated object, gesture, or phrase is already defined, and a different kind of repetition. Gutei obtained his one-finger Zen from Tenryu, and repeated it all his life without exhausting it. The difference between the two kinds of repetition is initially imperceptible. The problem of distinguishing which repetition is in operation is the problem of Case 31:

A monk asked an old woman, "What is the way to Taisan?" The old woman said, "Go straight on." When the monk had proceeded a few steps, she said, "A good, respectable monk, but he too goes that way."
Afterward someone told Joshu about this. Joshu said, "Wait a bit, I will go and investigate the old woman for you." The next day he went and asked the same question, and the old woman gave the same answer. On returning, Joshu said to his disciples, "I have investigated the old woman of Taisan for you."

This case shows that it is not the response which must be repeated, but the Zen understanding. This can result sometimes in the repetition of the response. We are not told the result of Joshu's investigation, and the problem still remains. The pure repetition of a Zen understanding is manifested in Case 12:

Zuigan Gen Osho called to himself every day, "Master!" and answered, "Yes sir!" Then he would say, "Be wide awake!" and answer, "Yes, sir!" "Henceforward, never be deceived by others! "No, I won't!"

Zuigan manifests both a form of internal difference, in his dialogue with himself, and a form of pure repetition. Zuigan's message is that deception comes from without. Repetition must therefore be of that which comes from within, as opposed to an imitation. The original self which must be repeated, however, is imperceptible. It remains as a problem. Hence the first and second of Tosotsu's three barriers in Case 47 are as follows:

You leave no stone unturned to explore profundity, simply to see into your true nature. Now, I want to ask you, just at this moment, where is your true nature?

If you realize your true nature, you are free from life and death. Tell me, when your eyesight deserts you at the last moment, how can you be free from life and death?

What is repeated in the Zen experience is the awareness of this imperceptible true nature which has the form of an intensive difference.

On the level of language, this has an equivalent in the paradoxical element or aleatory point. This point produces a displacement in the conditions of the problems presented in the Mumonkan. Upon each reading, new possible solutions will appear as the new senses of the koans. Reading the different koans in the light of the senses produced by others places them in relation. These relations are determined by the aleatory point, which is an unsayable figure of speech manifested in the paradoxes and insoluble problems. This unsayable figure of speech forms the heart of the usage of language in the Mumonkan. When the individual cases are read and reread in various combinations and sequential orders, one almost gains a glimpse of this transcendent and imperceptible form which generates ideal relations between the cases. This paradoxical element can never be fully expressed in any of the cases individually, however. It manifests itself only as nonsense, or an excess of sense which subverts all prior understanding. It can never be defined or spoken of in any other terms, but only expressed in its own paradoxical terms. Beyond speech and silence, the paradoxical element may reveal itself in a flash of insight which is triggered by the problems of the text.


When juxtaposed with methods and insights from Deleuze's philosophy, the Mumonkan takes on a new sense. The question of comparison of Zen and Deleuze has not been addressed. Matters of identity, resemblance, analogy, and opposition are less significant here than the question of difference itself. While it is possible to say, with a little freedom of expression, that the whole of Deleuze's work is imbued with a Zen spirit, it would be more precise to use Deleuze's own terminology. The juxtaposition of the Mumonkan and Deleuze's philosophy places both in a relation of mutual becoming. While the language of the Mumonkan appears to embody elements of contemporary French linguistic philosophy from this perspective, Deleuze's own philosophy finds a clarity of expression by adopting the Mumonkan to illustrate its various transcendental and problematic concepts. Finally, we must say that there is no such thing as a single, objective, ideal philosophy belonging to Deleuze, but only our interpretations and perspectives upon it from different contexts. This is why I have been able to assume my own interpretation of Deleuze without presenting or supporting it, and to adapt its methods implicitly into this work without presenting them.

The difference between the essence of Zen and the essence of Deleuze enters a zone of indiscernibility in the points discussed above, so that one is unable to distinguish between them. It is this pure, imperceptible difference which has formed the source and object of this study. While this difference remains ultimately beyond the power of language to express, it may sometimes be communicated in a flash of insight arising from the trigger of a paradoxical text. The whole of this study may therefore be considered to possess a resemblance to a koan, not with respect to brevity, religious context, and negation of conventionally conceived meaning, but insofar as it attempts to point to the dynamic and transcendent sense of language which can not be formulated propositionally. We conclude that this dynamic use of language exists, and is relevant in expressing the profound insights which make Buddhism what it is; while these insights can express themselves in certain Deleuzean concepts of sense, difference, and repetition, it is only possible to illustrate the meaning of such concepts, and not state them directly.

The intellectual study of Buddhism is hampered by the limitations of speech and silence. Nevertheless, there is a use of language which transcends these limitations. While it is impossible to define and conceptualize the fundamental insights of Buddhism, it is possible to construct problems, senses, paradoxes, and repeated differences which function as triggers so that such fundamental insights can occur. Then, instead of attempting to incarnate such insights as the expressed content of language, to which they are fundamentally heterogeneous, we may allow language to point beyond itself towards the source of its meaning. Perhaps this may form a valuable component in the future in the intellectual study of philosophy and religion.


1 - K. Sekida, Two Zen Classics (New York: John Weatherhill, 1977), p. 108. We have adopted Sekida's translation for all the quotations from the Mumonkan, and hence have followed Sekida in using the Japanese names of the Zen masters.

2 - This approach is followed in a useful study by Toshihiko Isutzu, Towards a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism (Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1977).

3 - The specific works chosen to provide a source for this study are G. Deleuze, Difference et Repetition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), and G. Deleuze, Logique du Sens (Paris: Minuit, 1969). The latter has a recent English translation, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: Athlone, 1990).

4 - Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 248.

5 - A brief, accurate, and difficult summary of these two works of Deleuze is given by Michel Foucault, "Theatrum Philosophicum," in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977). Other useful works include R. Bogue, Deleuze and Guattari (London: Routledge, 1989), and J. J. LeCercle, Philosophy Through the Looking Glass: Language, Nonsense and Desire (London: Hutchinson, 1986). These latter tend to simplify Deleuze; other, more critical references to Deleuze in works on contemporary French philosophy often misunderstand the nature of his philosophical project.

6 - For Deleuze, the elementary unit of language is the 'mot d'ordre, the order-word or slogan. "Language is made not to be believed, but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience" (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus [London: Athlone, 1988], p. 76).

7 - See D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, second series (London: Rider, 1950).

8 - An archetypal example of this approach to the problem is found in Plato's Meno 80d-85, in which Socrates teaches a slave boy certain principles of geometry. Once the solution to the problem set has been discovered, Socrates assumes that the piece of knowledge gained has been 'recollected' by the slave boy. The method of deduction followed by Socrates is put aside.

9 - In particular, see Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, pp. 52-57, and Difference et Repetition, pp. 198-212.

10 - Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, pp. 12-22. The following argument is taken directly from this chapter, in which it appears with greater detail and clarity.

11 - Deleuze's original should be referred to for a more thorough clarification of this argument.

12 - It is interesting to note that Deleuze attributes a Chinese and Japanese origin to the concept of the 'event', and specifically mentions Dogen in this connection. This occurs in a footnote in a recent work: Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli (Paris: Minuit, 1988), p. 141.

13 - The whole of this work may be considered as a profound meditation upon the Nietzschean themes of the will to power and the eternal return, considered now as difference and repetition.

14 - This point is philosophical and independent of the precise determinations of physics.

15 - See Deleuze, Difference et Repetition, p. 43.

By Philip Goodchild Department of Religious Studies Lancaster University U.K.

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