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


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Steven Heine
Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 217 pp.
reviewed by Victor Forte, Albright College
© Japanese Religions, Vol 34, No. 1, January 2009

The latest work from Steven Heine, Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up? resulted from a recent combative encounter he witnessed while presiding on an East Asian ethics panel at a national academic conference. The confrontation took place between certain panelists who had presented the possibilities of traditional Zen as a viable response to ethical challenges of the contemporary world and audience members who declared the moral failings of Zen based on evidence taken from critical studies of its institutional history. These two factions (designated by Heine as “Traditional Zen Narrative” and “Historical and Cultural Criticism”) have evolved within the academy over the past twenty years and have become increasing intractable, with little effort on either side to recognize the value of their counterpart’s contributions to the field of Zen studies. Attempting to function as a mediator in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow, Heine carries on his own dialogue with the two viewpoints, recognizing the absence of such a dialogue actually taking place among his contemporaries. It is impossible to predict if he will have any measurable success in reconciling the parties, or in beginning to erase the line that has been so stubbornly drawn in the sand, but at the very least this work does expose the deficiencies infecting both camps.

The core chapters of Zen Skin, Zen Marrow are titled, “Zen Writes,” “Zen Rites,” and “Zen Rights” and are held between an introduction titled “Fore Play” and an epilogue titled “The Real Zen Buddhism: Engaged, Enraged or Disengaged?” As the title of the introduction indicates, one underlying problem in the way the present debate is being carried out is in the glaring lack of critical play. Each side refuses to play with the other, or to find the play within their own, rigidly held positions, or to recognize the importance of play in the very tradition they have immersed themselves. Like Nietzsche’s child, Heine takes on a playful role within the debate in order to uncover the limits of the camel’s traditionalism and the lion’s isolated criticism. Using word play, allusions to contemporary popular culture, and a number of creative devices to compare opposing views, he eases the tensions that feed an either-or judgment of available evidence. At the same time, his experience exploring the questions raised within the debate, most notably in previous works like Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan (1999) and Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters (2002) is evident in his capacity to draw from a broad range of textual, historical and cultural sources, while avoiding simple solutions and recognizing the complexities of the task at hand.

In his introduction, Heine reduces the debate to three main points of contention: where traditionalists see ineffability, critical theorists find language recorded in a voluminous collection of canonical texts (Zen Writes); where traditionalists see non-duality, critical theorists find ritual and supernatural mediation (Zen Rites); and where traditionalists see harmony, original enlightenment and Buddha-nature, critical theorists find a history of discrimination and intolerance (Zen rights). In the chapters that follow the introduction Heine attempts to take a step back from the debate and first, examine the historical reasons why Zen studies has become so polarized, and second, develop a middle-way, dialectical methodology that will allow for constructive dialogue while preserving the integrity and contributive value of both sides. Consistently achieving the middle is no easy task, and for the most part Heine finds himself drawn primarily to the positions held by historical and cultural criticism. He breaks ranks however in avoiding the conclusion that Zen is somehow defeated or refuted by these arguments. In doing so, Heine is able to reveal the human dimensions of Zen that are often forgotten or ignored by critical theorists (and traditionalists!), who are unable to recognize that it is in this human grounding where we find both the historical failures of the tradition as well as the possibilities for Zen to reaffirm and redeem itself.

Heine chooses to base his analysis of these competing arguments on two foundational Zen texts, Paichang’s Ch’an men kuei shih, a tenth century manual for communal living, including both Zen temple layouts and monastic rules, and the Gozan jissatsu zu, a collection of diagrams for Zen temple plans used in Sung China and then transmitted to Kamakura Japan in the thirteenth century. What should be recognized as foundational is a matter of methodological choice, but Heine argues that these texts are valid choices because they are taken from the earliest known records of Zen, and proved to be highly influential in how early Zen communities in both China and Japan understood the uniqueness of their sect and the ideals of how their monastic worlds should be constructed. What is indicated by these materials is that Zen was set apart from other competing systems of thought and practice by virtue of the abbot being recognized as a Buddha, thus displacing the historical Buddha and celestial Buddhas praised in the sūtras, so that the unique power of Zen practice was grounded in the direct encounters between monks and a living Buddha. The separate buildings that make up the design of the temple grounds were also arranged as a Buddha body with seven designated body parts: the gate representing the Buddha’s groin, the latrines and bathhouse his legs, the Samgha Hall and kitchen his arms, the Buddha Hall his heart and the Dharma Hall his head. It is in the historical use of these halls, especially the Buddha and Dharma Halls, that Heine finds a clarifying methodology for critically assessing the historical unfolding of the Zen sect(s).

In “Zen Writes” Heine analyzes the conflicts between the traditionalist emphasis on silence and transcendence of language and the critical interpretations of the Zen canon, especially the kōan collections. There is also a split among critical theorists who posit what Heine categorizes as the “realization” and “dissolution” theses. He places himself in the realization camp, which argues that the language play found in the kōan materials are creative expressions of spiritual attainment. The position of the dissolution theorists, based on the argument that the entire corpus of kōan literature is nothing more than “meaningless, idle word games and gibberish…,”(40) is a surprisingly lazy conclusion to reach, given the claim that this conclusion results from a rigorous critical methodology. Heine rightly contests the dissolution thesis as “Orientalism now disguised as sophisticated scholarship.” (51) In his examination of these texts as “monastic narratives” Heine is able to reveal the literary devices and historical contexts of cases like “Kuei-shan’s Kicking over the Water Pitcher” and “Te-shan Carries His Bowl.” However, it is difficult to imagine that there are contemporary critical scholars who find themselves unable, or even unwilling to recognize these dimensions of the kōan records as well, but choose instead to simply label the canon as pure nonsense.

In “Zen Rites” Heine shows how Traditional Zen Narrative generally relegates examples of ritual activity and supernatural belief to Zen Skin, i.e. just unnecessary window dressing, or at most, skillful means. The only important practice in Zen Buddhism therefore is zazen or seated meditation, identified by traditionalists as the Zen Marrow. Many in Historical and Cultural Criticism argue that the traditionalists have it backwards – the true Zen Marrow, if one admits to the history of Zen, has always been in ritualism, where institutional self-interest has primarily been maintained through ritual support of well-to-do patrons and pragmatic indulgence of local cults and other popular superstitions. Both of these polar assessments of Zen rites seem to be dependent on a naïve ideal of purity projected onto human institutions functioning in the real world. The traditionalists act as if ritual is not central to Zen in an attempt to preserve the perceived purity of zazen, while the critical theorists, recognizing the central importance of ritual in the tradition, respond by condemning the institutions for indulging superstitions. There are some among the critical scholars, like those supporting the realization thesis, who find themselves at least partially within the traditionalist camp by recognizing the ingenuity and flexibility of Zen in embracing local beliefs as a form of skillful means. In order to tread the middle way in this debate Heine turns again to his chosen foundational texts to show how Pai-chang’s vision of an ideal temple compound would exclude the Buddha Hall, ordinarily a central building on the grounds of competing Buddhist sects. But the elimination of the Buddha Hall was never fully realized in China or Japan, where these structures were often included, due to local pressures, along with additional ritual halls containing images and relics of tutelary deities, Chan patriarchs and bodhisattvas. Contemporary examples of Zen-folk syncretism are examined by Heine through a close look at a number of the prayer temples associated with Japanese Sōtō Zen. He recognizes the skillful and nuanced ways in which Zen has absorbed and transformed kami worship, spirit exorcisms and folk magic, but leaves the chapter open-ended concerning the extent to which indulging in such practices and promoting worldly benefits for lay persons might also result in monastic corruption.

The last point of contention, and the most deeply entrenched division, is concerning the question of “Zen Rights,” the topic of the final chapter and the epilogue in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow. These arguments have been centered on two ethical issues: first the complicity of both Zen abbots and Kyoto School philosophers in the military activities and colonial enterprises of the 1930s and 1940s, and second, Zen’s support for exclusionary socio-political practices towards both the Japanese outcaste community and women. The former issue has been brought to the attention of the academy mainly through ground-breaking works like Ichikawa Hakugen’s Bukkyōsha no sensō sekinin (Wartime Responsibility of Buddhists, 1970), Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism (Heisig and Maraldo 1995), and Zen at War (Victoria 1997). The discriminatory practices of Zen related to hierarchal practices in funeral rituals has been a focus of condemnation in the Japanese movement of Critical Buddhism, spearheaded by the work of Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shirō in the 1980s. Traditionalists have responded to these attacks using the same kinds of rationalizations as the original perpetrators, namely, that from the enlightened standpoint of non-duality there is no discrimination between various worldly views, so that the liberated transcend one-sided notions of good and evil. Moreover, it is because of this unique insight made possible through Zen practice that allows for creative, iconoclastic responses to social ills, ultimately giving Zen Buddhism a unique position regarding its possibilities of contributing to positive change in the world. However, historical and cultural critics argue that Zen, from its earliest periods in China were always dependent upon socio-political power centers, so that the twentieth century support of imperialism and social discrimination was just a modern manifestation of these institutional foundations and should really come as no surprise.

In responding to these highly sensitive debates, Heine returns to the temple layout and the traditional practices of the Samgha Hall, a kind of democratic space where Zen monks not only lived together, but where the rituals of precept recitation and repentance took place. It is in this foundational emphasis on repentance that Heine finds a contemporary space for Zen’s redemption. However, the concrete implementation of precepts and repentance in the history of Zen is a complicated matter. Monks were obligated to live according to both the Vinaya and the Mahāyāna precepts, engaging in ritual confessions as part of the regular monastic calendar and receiving harsh punishments including excommunication for misbehavior. Yet there has also been a kind of philosophical loophole provided by the teaching of śūnyatā and supported by Hui-neng’s Platform Sūtra that subverts the necessity for ordinary forms of confession, leading to notions of “the non-production of evil” and evolving into a practice of “formless repentance.” According to Heine, “This doctrine suggests that a realization of the fundamental emptiness…of all phenomena, or the realm of the formless, makes one aware that the realm of form is basically irrelevant, so that it is not necessary to confess particular, or form-based transgressions.” (127)

In order to reconcile this internal conflict within the confessional history of Zen, and to find a middle way between the traditionalists and critical theorists in the academy Heine turns to the work of Kyoto school philosopher Tanabe Hajime and his notion of zange-, or “creative pathway of repentance.” Heine employs zange-to critically assess the dangers of moral relativism in the traditional notions of formless repentance. He characterizes the ethical arguments of the contemporary Traditional Zen Narrative as a kind of virtue ethics, emphasizing the subjective attainments of the practitioner while remaining aloof to the objective results of their actions, and Historical and Cultural Criticism as a contemporary example of form repentance, a harshly critical and unforgiving approach. Instead he suggests recognizing the weaknesses of Zen while emphasizing its strengths so that the practice of zange-will make possible “a profound personal sense of self criticism…an existential struggle and coming to terms with one’s wrong doing, which can be applied on both individual and communal levels.” (170-171)

By moving the debate towards a human-centered practice of self-examination and honest assessment of concrete activity in the world, Zen apologists can no longer ignore the horse they rode in on through a convenient misapplication of emptiness philosophy. Nor can cultural and historical critics assume they have negated an entire centuries-old religious tradition by simply pointing out examples of human weakness. Whether or not Tanabe can truly serve as a bridge to a new Zen ethic is unclear. By relying on a secondary, non-canonical source, Heine may find few converts, especially among Western practitioners who generally remain unmoved (unfortunately!) by the debates among academics. John Daido Loori has stated that Zen Skin, Zen Marrow “belongs on the shelf of every Zen Center in the West.” The only danger with this suggestion is that the book will remain there. But the canon may already contain its own expression of zange-in the simple, straightforward words of Zen’s claimed founder, Gotama Buddha. Instructing his son Rahula in the Ambalatthikārāhulovāda Sutta, he tells him to reflect before, during and after any bodily, verbal or mental action, considering whether the action leads to the affliction of oneself, others or both. If so, he should definitely not do the action.