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


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Author: Steven Heine
Oxford University Press, 2008, 217 pp including Index, Notes, & Bibliography
reviewed by Vladimir K.

Steven Heine, Professor of Religion and History, Director of the Institute for Asian Studies at Florida International University, is one of the most prolific authorities on Japanese religion and society with a focus on Zen Buddhism and its relation to culture in both China and Japan. He has written and edited over 20 books and numerous articles in refereed journals and collections. Although he falls into the “academic” class of writers on Zen Buddhism, his works are written with wit, humour and are quite accessible to a general audience — a strength in his writing. Zen Skin, Zen Marrow is no exception. Heine’s contribution to the understanding of Zen philosophy and history will stand the test of time and I, for one, am always pleased when I see a new book by this author.

The title, Zen Skin, Zen Marrow, is taken from the famous legend of how Bodhidharma, the twenty-eighth Buddhist  patriarch,  passed on the Dharma to Hui-k’o, the second patriarch of Zen. Bodhidharma asked his four disciples to express their understanding of Zen. The first three gave their understanding but only Hui-k’o, the last, stood in silence. Bodhidharma said to each that they expressed his skin, his flesh, his bones and Hui-k’o, his marrow. The story is seen by most Zen scholars today as apocryphal, taking several centuries to develop into its current form (p. 22-23). It is often interpreted as a hierarchical expression, the skin being a shallow understanding and the marrow as a deep understanding (hence, the bowl and robe goes to Hui-k’o). Typically, Dōgen turns this understanding on its head, saying, “interpreting the anecdote in this manner is not the result of studying the buddhas and patriarchs or of realizing the true patriarchal transmission....[each of the four disciples] expressed the first patriarch in his entirety.” (p 25)

Heine takes Dōgen’s approach in his title to “depolarize the sense of depth versus superficiality” seen in two distinct approaches to understanding Zen Buddhism. The first is the Traditional Zen Narrative (TZN), which sees Zen Buddhism as an idealized vision of non-duality standing beyond words and letters, a religious practice using heuristic devices to express the inexpressible leading to the ultimate truth of silence. Zen sees itself as ineffable, based on a non-duality that embraces all beings equally by virtue of their possessing original enlightenment (Buddha-nature). On the other hand, we have the Historical and Cultural Criticism (HCC) approach which argues that Zen deliberately cloaks itself “in a shield of opaqueness” to avoid historical scrutiny which would reveal Zen’s inconsistencies, flaws of character and “what is often the cynical obfuscation and hypocrisy inherent in traditional Zen” (p 8). Heine’s goal in this book is to find a middle path between these two extremes and thereby gain a better, perhaps more accurate, understanding of “real Zen Buddhism”.

Heine tackles the problem with wit and humour in the titles of the three main chapters of his book: Zen Writes, Zen Rites and Zen Rights. Word play is a characteristic of Zen kōans and Heine gleefully takes up the form to delve into the arguments of both sides.
book cover
Zen Writes, subtitled Fun and Games with Words and Letters, looks at the literary background of Zen writing, pointing out that for a religion that professes to be beyond words, it has probably the largest literature of any religion. In this chapter Heine asks the question: What do we hear at Zen temples? One thing we don’t hear is silence. While Zen literature has made a unique contribution to the world’s literary corpus, the Traditional Zen Narrative and the Historical and Cultural Criticism have quite different views on Zen’s literature. The traditionalists see the writings as pointing “deliberately yet evocatively beyond words and letters” (p 41), the skin, flesh and bones with silence as the marrow. The HCC, on the other hand, split into two camps. One sees the literature as a discourse of “hopeless inconsistency and a kind of rhetorical cover-up for a tradition devoid of meaning...meaningless, idle word games and gibberish”. (p 40) This Heine calls the “dissolution thesis.” Heine argues against this viewpoint, claiming that the other HCC theory, the “realization thesis”, which sees the literature as an expression of spiritual attainment, is the more accurate of the various viewpoints. To support his view, Heine looks at the origins of the articulation of Zen teachings in a historical context and analyses a number of kōans to show the importance in Zen of language and its use for communicating the truth. 

The next chapter, Zen Rites: The Eclipse of Buddha, asks What do we see at Zen temples? Here Heine explores the main debate between the two viewpoints as questioning the role of various intermediary rites in a religion that professes that the only real practice is seated meditation (zazen). Since the earliest history of Zen, the performance of rites such as funerals and the devotion to local deities and spirits seems to undercut the TZN position of direct experience of Buddha-nature based on zazen.

The final of the three main chapters, Zen Rights: A Series of (Un)fortunate Social Events asks Who do we meet at Zen temples? Here the argument revolves around Zen’s social role in supporting (or not) militarism, racism, and elitism. It is a historical fact that in both China and Japan, Zen Buddhism could not have flourished without the support and benevolence of the state and that compromises were made to maintain this support. Brian Victoria’s Zen at War came as a shock to many Western Zen students as it revealed the support for Japan militarism and the inherent racism of some Japanese Zen teachers who came to the West after the Second World War. This chapter is probably the most contentious for modern Western Zen practitioners.

How to reconcile the Traditional Zen Narrative with the Historical and Cultural Criticism is perhaps an impossible task. Heine has a go at it, presenting a dispassionate discourse from both sides of the argument. He often uses the Zen temple as a metaphor for the development of Zen over the centuries, pointing out how the roles of the Samgha Hall, the Dharma Hall, the Abbot’s Quarters and the other various buildings changed over time and place. The idea that Zen Buddhism is one practice with only minor variations between temples, sects and time should be laid to rest and a much broader understanding of the incredible variety of practices, from zazen and kōan study  to the virtual eclipsing of the Buddha by native gods and spirits in some temples and practices, should be embraced. Zen is far more complex than often credited and for the real Zen to stand up, this complexity needs to be taken into consideration.

In the final chapter of this intriguing and entertaining romp through the history of Zen, Epilogue: The Real Zen Buddhism — Engaged, Enraged, or Disengaged?, Heine suggests that a bridge between the two viewpoints can be constructed by a self-reflective and open-ended repentance where the strengths and weaknesses of Zen can be acknowledged:

Instead of trying to compromise by embracing extremes of subjective freedom and objective discipline, it is necessary to try to find a true middle way by asking, what is the fundamentally strong suit of Zen, and how can it be brought to fruition in spite of Zen’s weaknesses? (p 169)

 The issue of Zen’s failures is not just of academic historical interest. There have been far too many scandals in far too many Western Zen centres to claim that repentance is of historical import only. The authoritarian nature of the rōshi which Western Zen has inherited from Japanese practice has allowed abuses to occur. Acknowledgement and repentance by some teachers is long overdue. When we look at Zen writes, Zen rites and Zen rights, it is the latter that is most contentious among Western Zen students and the one that needs the most work to right what is wrong. Hopefully, Steven Heine’s book may make a contribution to this.

Further Readings:

Philip Goodchild : Speech And Silence In The Mumokan: And Examination of the Use of Language In Light of the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze
Steven Heine: Koans in the Dogen Tradition : How and Why Dogen Does what He Does with Koans
John McRae: The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism
Jin Y Park: The Putative Fascism of the Kyoto School and the Political Correctness of the Modern Academy
Shizuteru Ueda: Silence and Words in Zen Buddhism
Dale S Wright: Rethinking Transcendence: The Role of Language in Zen Experience
Historical Understanding: The Ch'an Buddhist Transmission Narratives and Modern Historiography