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Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up?


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by Steven Heine. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, 217 pages including notes and index
reviewed by Helen J. Baroni, associate professor in and chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, winter 2010

Zen Skin, Zen Marrow represents a departure from Steven Heine's usual style of Zen scholarship. Its first four substantive chapters offer up Heine's usual brand of carefully crafted and evenhanded scholarship on the Zen tradition. Here, the author focuses his attention as much on the field of Zen studies as on the religious and philosophical tradition of Zen, seeking a middle ground between apologetics and excessive criticism. That shift in focus, however, is slight compared to the major departure he makes in the final chapter, entitled "Epilogue: The Real Zen Buddhism." In the epilogue, Heine self-consciously assumes a normative voice in order to express his recommendation that repentance be considered as a possible basis for the reformation of Zen "for those who care deeply about Zen and its place in Japan and the world" (p. 167). While it has not been uncommon for other scholars and proponents alike to speak normatively about Zen in seemingly un-self-conscious ways, Heine has generally maintained a "descriptive, nonjudgmental tone" (p. 22), which he sets out as a goal for this book as well, while carrying out his historical and literary explorations of the tradition and its literature. His departure here is therefore both surprising and refreshing for its sincerity and self-awareness. [End Page 202]

In the first chapter, Heine identifies two extremes within Zen studies—the TZN (traditional Zen narrative) and the HCC (historical and cultural criticism). The former argues that "Zen is an idealistic, utopian vision of nondual experience" (p. 6) that can be characterized as ineffable, nondual, and promoting social harmony. The latter approach applies various historical and philological methodologies to understand the historical, philosophical, and social development of Zen. It argues that an honest historical examination of the tradition demonstrates that it is characterized by the extensive use of language, reliance on mediation,[1] and widespread use of ritual and supernaturalism in spreading the school and by support for social injustice, nationalism, and military aggression in early modern and modern Japan. After laying out his aims and his methodological approach and providing a textual basis for understanding Zen's self-portrayal, Heine uses his analysis of these three areas of dispute to form the basis for the following chapters.

book cover Throughout his analysis (and in the book's title), Heine draws upon the famous kōan case in which Bodhidharma awarded his skin, flesh, bones, and marrow to four disciples, while selecting which among them would become the Second Patriarch. Noting that Dōgen's interpretation remains the minority position, Heine chooses to draw inspiration from it. Like Dōgen, he argues that the four awards, representing here various perspectives on Zen and different approaches to Zen studies, need not be understood in a strictly vertical, hierarchical fashion that designates a winner and losers. Following Dōgen's lead, Heine recommends that they may be viewed horizontally, as different but equally valuable means to gain understanding. Heine maintains that this allows the various viewpoints "to constructively encounter, rather than remain polarized against each other" (p. 26). In chapters 2 through 4, Heine achieves his goal of maintaining a descriptive and nonjudgmental tone while exploring the valid contributions of the two opposing viewpoints. He demonstrates, for example, that it is possible to accept the validity of the historical finding that Zen institutions participated in and supported both class discrimination and militarism without rejecting as hypocrisy the view that Zen can contribute constructively to contemporary ethical issues.

In a style delightfully appropriate to his subject matter, Heine enlivens his text with witty wordplay throughout, beginning with his clever use of titles that play upon the homophonic writes, rites, and rights to describe the three areas of contestation. Inspired by the Zen tradition's love for word games and allusion, Heine builds in numerous allusions of his own, making use of modern literature and popular culture, as well as parallel constructions, such as the questions that introduce each chapter. For the observant [End Page 203] reader, the literary form enhances Heine's purpose at the same time that it entertains.

Heine does not draw distinctions within his analysis between individuals who practice Zen as insiders and scholars who study it from the outside. He makes it clear, for example, that some of the harshest HCC critics are insiders calling for the reformation of their religious tradition. Nor does he distinguish clearly who falls within each camp by naming many names. A few HCC scholars are referenced along the way, of course, but Heine waits until the fourth chapter to identify the Kyoto school as a primary object of HCC attack and a primary element within the TZN. This early reticence on his part allows the reader the freedom to envision the contours of the two positions for him- or herself and to contemplate the question that Heine raises on page 14—which side are you on? I found myself mentally shifting the battle lines as I read, recognizing that while some friends and colleagues fit comfortably on one side or the other, many if not most fall into the gray area in between.

Heine hints at the wide spectrum of views inherent in the HCC camp, distinguishing in chapter 2, for example, between HCC scholars who champion the "dissolution thesis" and regard Zen literature as devoid of meaning and the proponents of the "realization thesis" that regard it as expressive of spiritual attainment. Heine himself argues for the latter view, maintaining that this position is not diametrically opposed to the TZN approach since it demonstrates the creativity and wealth of variation within Zen literature. The basic disagreement between the "realization thesis," identified by Heine as the majority position within the HCC, and the TZN view of Zen literature is their respective understandings of silence. While the TZN regards silence as the marrow of Zen and necessarily superior to the use of language, the realization thesis recognizes silence as only one among several options for Zen expression. Heine carries the realization thesis forward by offering a correction to the current HCC position. He argues compellingly that scholarly interpretation of kōan literature has thus far largely ignored its focus on monastic ritual and hierarchical structures as a critical component of its import. He provides an extended analysis of "Te-shan Carries His Bowls" to illustrate his point. Heine is truly in his element here, and the chapter on "Zen Writes" is compelling and thoroughly enjoyable.

In chapter 3, "Zen Rites," Heine explores the use of rituals and objects of worship to argue that, contrary to the TZN position that zazen is the only religious practice of any value within the Zen context, mediation and ritual function as the marrow in many Japanese temples. The chapter begins by reviewing the classical layout of Chan monasteries and ritual practices that symbolically supplanted the Buddha with the abbot as a living manifestation of the Dharma. As he observes, research into Chinese monastic history demonstrates that this ideal was never achieved in practice. In Japan, Heine [End Page 204] argues, the Buddha has been supplanted not so much by the abbot as by local gods and other objects of religious devotion. He describes a range of Japanese Zen temples in logical order from monastic training temples that make use of prayer to full-fledged prayer temples where meditation has no place and visitors may not even realize that they have entered a Zen temple. He explains that while the softer side of the HCC sees this reliance on mediation as a form of skillful means, the harsher elements of the HCC suggest that it represents either duplicity or corruption. Left unsaid is the reality that some TZN purists would deny that these prayer temples are forms of Zen at all.

Heine becomes at once more careful and more direct in chapter 4, "Zen Rights," the issue on which the battle has been most fiercely waged. He again carefully lays out the two positions, openly naming names for the first time in the book, but refrains from making many direct arguments of his own. He indicates the deep chasm that divides the two camps but avoids any attempt to bridge the gap as he did quite effectively for "Zen Writes" and "Zen Rites." Heine views the breach between Zen rights and wrongs as too wide for remediation using scholarly techniques and turns instead toward rituals of self-reflection and repentance as a possible solution, which he saves for the epilogue. Discussion of writes, rites, and rights would have been enhanced by closer examination of the historical workings of the same three points of tension that have existed in the tradition throughout its history. Heine offers a few hints regarding these matters but keeps his focus on the modern manifestations of the battle.

In the epilogue, Heine steps outside his typical scholarly role to recommend repentance as a bridge that allows one to recognize the merits of Zen as championed by the TZN as well as the need for self-criticism and reform based on the HCC position. He distinguishes between a mechanical or liturgical form of repentance, zange metsuzai, representing the skin, and a more self-reflective form of repentance, Zangedō, as the marrow. Heine here seemingly departs not only from his earlier neutral voice but also from his stated preference for interpreting skin and marrow horizontally rather than vertically. He reflects upon the existing mechanisms for self-doubt and self-discovery as basic strengths that Zen could draw upon for this purpose. As Heine envisions it, Zangedō can move beyond the traditional process of zange metsuzai, in which an individual monk or nun repented for breaking the monastic code, thus transgressing against Buddhism, in favor of a process in which an individual or a community may repent for transgressions against society committed by Buddhism. In attempting to envision how such a process would work, it is not difficult to imagine the suggestion being taken to heart by practicing Zen communities.

Several years ago, Brian Victoria made a presentation at a local Zen center of his work on Japanese Zen during the Pacific War. At the time, [End Page 205] Victoria was a visiting Numata scholar at the University of Hawai'i, and he offered similar presentations at various Zen temples on Oahu. At this particular Zen center, teachers claim descent from the Yasutani Hakuun-Harada Daiun Sōgaku lineage, and Victoria made a vigorous case against Yasutani for his complicity with Japanese militarism before and during the war. The community obviously felt under attack, since invalidating the patriarchs of a lineage is an age-old weapon for intrasectarian battles. It was unclear what action they could take to satisfy these charges. Issue an apology and remove Yasutani's image from the patriarch's altar? The resident teacher responded that he could no more disown Yasutani as his great-grandfather in the Dharma than he could disown his biological great-grandfather who owned slaves before the Civil War. For such a community, Zangedō could represent a viable option, precisely because its members are already in the gray zone between the TZN and the HCC. This particular community, for example, had already participated in extended reflection on the place of the precepts in Zen practice. Both their founder and second-generation teacher are well known for their teaching and actions related to peace and social justice issues.

For the scholarly community, Heine's work contributes to the possibility of healing within the field of Zen studies in at least three ways. First, he openly discusses the rift that has long been tacitly recognized. Second, he provides an example of excellent scholarship that seeks to bridge the extremes where that is possible, showing due respect to all viewpoints. Finally, where he understands that scholarship alone may fail, he invites scholars to practice self-reflection and to consider repentance. Only a scholar of Heine's stature in the field could offer such an invitation.

1. Heine uses the term "mediation" to refer to the mediation between human needs and desires for practical benefits (health, longevity, wealth) and supernatural assistance provided by religious rituals, amulets, and other forms of what he calls supernaturalism.