In my more than 30 years as a scholar of Japanese philosophy and a practitioner of Zen meditation, I have often encountered the question of why I dedicate my life to the study of Zen philosophy. In this essay, I would like to leave aside considerations of whether ethnicity, country of origin, and assumed religious identity determine our field of study and whether there is philosophy in the Zen Buddhist tradition.
It goes without saying that, as I have written at length, an academic Zen philosophy is possible and that ethnic and religious identities – whether real or imagined – do not prevent scholars from studying specific traditions, both that they possess a necessary amount of knowledge and respect for the practitioners and practice of the tradition in question. A more interesting subject, however, is what texts written a thousand years ago in a specific soteriological context, and concerning monastic life and freedom from suffering and rebirth, can contribute to our contemporary discussions and concerns. . This is what I would like to talk about today.
In the classical Zen/Chan canon, one can find quite a few lines that confuse the casual reader. The most famous are in The additional registers of the transmission of the lamp (Xu chuangdeng lu) and reads as follows:
Thirty years ago, when I had not yet started meditation, I saw that the mountains were mountains, the waters were waters. After I started to meditate and gained some knowledge, I saw that the mountains were not mountains, the waters were not waters. But now that I have reached a place without desire, I see that the mountains are only mountains and the waters are only waters.
The Chinese character of the third line, translated here as “just”, “秖” (Ch. zhi), has obvious agricultural connotations since it indicates the ripening process and is simplified to “只” (Ch. zhe), “only.” It is also used as a variant of “衹” (Ch. zhi) the traditional character for “only”.
This triple structure [is – is-not – really/only-is] is quite common in the Chan/Thien/Sŏn/Zen Buddhist canon. In a certain sense, these poems and sayings resonate through the structure of the “three truths” (Ch. sandi) of the “void, the provisional and the middle” (Ch. kongjiazhong) (T 1887B.45.764, T 1911.46.89) and reflect the famous saying: “All things causally produced, I say, are void, are only false names, and indicate the mean” (T 1824.42.5), that Zhiyi (538–97), Jizang (549–623) and Chengguan (738–839) developed to interpret the “philosophy of emptiness” of Nāgārjuna (c. ~200) (skt: śūnyatāvāda).
The “three truths” articulate the aspect of negation, affirmation and the non-duality of the first two. However, it reverses the order of affirmation and negation in relation to the above passage. Be that as it may, the “three truths” express the “middle way” between the “philosophy of emptiness”, emphasizing the emptiness of all linguistic articulations, and a nominalism which denies that words and the sentence refer to a signifier real (reality).
As my friend and fellow sinologist Louis Komjathy pointed out at a recent meeting of the International Japanese Philosophical Association, the famous line of Additional recordings of lamp transmission indicates the linguistic deconstruction that Buddhist and Taoist self-cultivation practices facilitate. In meditation, practitioners realize that our conceptual constructs do not describe “things as they are” (Ch. rushi shixiang) correctly or sufficiently. It is only when we free ourselves from our conceptual assumptions as well as the impulse to categorize our experiences and, in turn, to reify the concepts and category systems we use, that we are able to understand reality. . Similarly, Thomas P. Kasulis interpreted the ironic advice of Dōgen (1200-1253) in his instruction to zazen“Sit firmly and think about non-thought; how do you think of non-thinking; non-thought” (DZZ 1: 89) to outline a “phenomenology of zazen” (Kasulis 1981: 65) by which the practitioner unlearns conceptual thought and intentional commitment.
This interpretation of the above saying as providing a road map of the process of deconstruction and deconceptualization through self-cultivation is a wonderful way to understand the three lines in the Chan/Zen canon. This reading of the above passage is well rooted in tradition and provides a reason to study these texts as a philosopher. However, there is a second way to read this text. Japanese Zen thinkers DT Suzuki (1870-1966) and Masao Abe (1915-2005) interpret the stages articulated by the three lines of our original passage to indicate affirmation, negation, and “superior” or “absolute affirmation.” . They inherit the expression “absolute affirmation” (Jp. zettai kotei) by their friend and teacher Kitarō Nishida (1870-1945), although Nishida preferred the nomenclature “absolute negation” to describe the third stage.
Nishida illustrates these three stages by offering the analogy of a play:
In the great game of life, we participate both as actors and spectators. If we were only spectators facing the unfolding of the play, our point of view would be purely intellectual and aesthetic. Again, if we were just performers, we would sink into our roles and there would be no place to watch the play unfold from. But since we are both actors and spectators, we act and, at the same time, observe the unfolding of the play.
On the first stage, where we “see that the mountains are mountains”, we observe reality from an external point of view, distanced and detached. Philosophers call this “the third person approach”. The stage where one “sees that the mountains are not mountains” describes the committed point of view of introspection. This is also known as the “first person approach”. Nishida suggests that in real life we are both spectators and actors, we are engaged observers and conscious as well as reflective participants.
But how to understand this third stage, described as the non-duality of affirmation and negation, exteriority and interiority, objectivity and subjectivity? Masao Abe and DT Suzuki suggest that this stage occurs in religious experience where all opposites are unified and transcended. This is obviously a possible interpretation of the third stage. However, it is quite esoteric and removed from everyday experience. Kitarō Nishida and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) have a more concrete suggestion of what this third stage might indicate when they identify the human body as the place where the distinction between exteriority and interiority, affirmation and negation, is overcome. .
Dōgen, finally, introduces a third possibility to understand the place where the opposition of affirmation and negation, of exterior and interior, is overcome: interpersonal relations. In his commentary on the passage above, Dōgen describes the first stage as “the people outside the mountains” (Jp. sangenine), the second stage as “people inside the mountains” (Jp. sanchunin), and the third stage as the interpersonal relationship. In Dōgen’s words: “Decheng emerges when the person sees Decheng” and “the person emerges when Decheng meets the person”. (DZZ 1:266) Similarly, Kuoan Shiyuan (12th century) Ten Ox Images (Shiniutu) end with a meeting between a master and a disciple.* Anyway, Dōgen seems to suggest that Additional recordings of lamp transmission offers a third way of engaging with the world and, by implication, an innovative method of scholarship and knowledge production: the ‘second person approach’. The implication is that we are always in relation to others as well as to the world and, subsequently, always, simultaneously, spectators and actors, outside and inside. Our lives unfold at the intersection of affirmation and negation. This perspective opens up a host of exciting possibilities. And this, I believe, is one more reason to study Zen philosophy.
* See my previous essay: Who Am I – Self-Discovery in Japanese Zen Practice (BDG)
Abe, Massao. 1985. Zen and Western Thought. Ed. Guillaume LaFleur. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Dōshū Ōkubo, ed. 1969–70. Dogen zenji zenshū (Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen). Two volumes. Ed. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo. [Abbr. DZZ]
Kasulis, Thomas P. 1981. Zen Action – Zen Person. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Nishida Kitaro. 1988. nishida kitaro zenshu (Complete Works of Kitarō Nishida). 20 volumes. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. [Abbr. NKZ]
Takakusu, Junjirō and Kaigyoku Watanabe, eds. 1961. Taisho shinshu daizōkyō (The Taishō Edition of the Buddhist Canon). Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. [Abbr. T]
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