uddhism.org   Buddhist eLibrary

Buddhist News

Dharma Talks


Seon Masters

Buddhist Studies

Gateless Gate


Buddhist Studies

Share |

Buddha Nature, Buddha Practice  

Carl Bielefeldt


Professor of
Stanford University

Buddha Nature, Buddha Practice :
Reflections on Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)

I should begin by warning you that my title, fixed several months before I actually imagined this paper, is somewhat deceiving, particularly before it comes to its colon. This is not a paper primarily about Buddhist doctrine and practice, and only partly a paper about the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) Instead, I want simply to talk here about three books that I have been reading recently. One of them is indeed the book that I mention in the title: the collection of essays by the famed thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen. I have been reading the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), recently because I have become involved in a project, sponsored by the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) Administrative Headquarters, to translate and annotate the entire collection. Given this technical task set by the project, my way of reading the book has been narrowly philological; and I have rarely looked up from the text, and the piles of sources and reference works I need to make my way through it, to ask what it might mean as philosophical or religious teaching. The Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), of course, is one of the most famous works of philosophical and religious teaching in the history of Zen, or indeed I suppose in the history of Japanese Buddhism more broadly; but for me it has been largely a set of textual and linguistic puzzles.

Two other books, however, have recently nudged me from my philological slumbers and prodded me to reflect a bit on the sort of book I am translating. Being one of the most famous books of Zen as well as the primary scriptural basis of the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes), the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) has been the focus of a long tradition of scholarly and religious study a tradition beginning in the early Edo period with the first modern editions of the work, gathering momentum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the development of modern Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) scholarship and the dissemination of the book to the general public, and swelling in the postwar period to what is now a major intellectual industry. As you know, in recent years this industry has been rocked by the movement known as "critical Buddhism", which has, among other items on its wide-ranging agenda, raised a set of questions about the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), both the nature of the book itself in its various redactions and the interpretation of the book by Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) tradition.

Unlike other products of postwar Japanese industry, most study of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) has been produced for and consumed by the domestic market. In an important sense, this seems particularly true of the products of critical Buddhism, both the writings of the movement itself and the responses prompted by those writings. The "movement"(if we can in fact call it that) is, after all, almost entirely the work of two professors, both formerly at Komazawa University, whose agenda, while wide ranging, has as its primary focus the reform of Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) doctrine and social practice. Thus, while the recent debates over the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) have cast up several significant new issues for the study of the text, much of the work, even at the most basic textual level, gets its force from and speaks most powerfully to the politics of the contemporary Japanese Buddhist especially Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) Buddhist scene. Given my own work with the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) Administrative Headquarters, I have naturally been exposed to various opinions about such politics, but given the philological nature of my work, I have taken them more as interesting church gossip than serious intellectual, let alone religious, challenge.

Recently, however, I was asked to review the new volume by Jamie Hubbard and Paul Swanson entitled Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism. This book, as I am sure many of you know, collects several articles by Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shiro, the prime advocates of critical Buddhism, together with various responses to their work by Japanese and American scholars. Most of the arguments in the book, I had encountered here and there in earlier reading and had put down to the passing passions of sectarian squabble. Still, to see the arguments thus collected in one volume drove home to me just how odd and confusing the debates over critical Buddhism are; and as I read through the arguments, I found myself becoming both more interested and more troubled than I had expected interested, perhaps not so much by the content as by the fact of the volume itself; troubled, by both the content and the fact. That learned American scholars from several different fields of Buddhist studies should have felt moved to contribute to and produce such a volume made me realize that there may be more to the "storm" over critical Buddhism than what I had taken as Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) church gossip; that an American academic publishing house (the University of Hawaii Press) should have brought out the volume suggested to me that it assumed there to be an international audience for what I had assumed was largely a matter of religious politics specific to Japan.

Except for the excellent piece by Steven Heine summarizing the debates over the twelve-fascicle Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), little of the material in Pruning the Bodhi Tree speaks directly to Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's text. Yet in much of the material, including some that is critical of critical Buddhism, we find an approach to reading Buddhist texts that does not bode well for a book like the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) or for the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) hope that the book's translation will foster an appreciation for Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) religion. We might call this approach to reading "philosophical reductionism". I shall return at the end of my talk to my forebodings about this approach, but first I want to introduce my third book, which I see standing, as it were, on the opposite side of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) from critical Buddhism and offering us therefore a quite different perspective on the religious possibilities of the text.

Back to Top

* * * * *

My third book is entitled Mountains and Rivers Without End, a long poem by the American author Gary Snyder. I have been reading this book recently because one of my graduate students, Mark Gonnerman, who is writing his dissertation on Snyder, organized a faculty seminar on the text last year at my university. Snyder is a poet, not a buddhologist; his book is a work of art, not of Buddhist studies. Unless you happen to be interested in American literature, probably few of you know Snyder's work, and even those who might be interested in American literature would hardly think to look there for a guide to reading the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes). I myself never thought to do so. Why, then, do I introduce this third book here?

The publication of Mountains and Rivers Without End in 1996 marked the completion of a project that had occupied fully forty years of its author's life. When Snyder came to read his poem to our university seminar last year, he mentioned to me, perhaps only partly in jest, that his reading, in the early 1970s, of my translation of one fascicle of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) had delayed his work on the project by a decade a decade spent in brooding over the meaning of the fascicle and its implications for the vision of his own poem. Gary Snyder is not a buddhologist, but he is a lifelong student of Buddhism, both of its texts and its practices. Whether or not we want to label him a "Buddhist" poet, the fact that he would want to brood at length over a Zen text and seek to incorporate its vision into his own should hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his life and work.

Mountains and Rivers Without End is a difficult text, bringing together in a complex structure many shorter pieces written over the long period of its creation. At first glance, I suppose, the poem might be seen as a celebration of the natural world of mountains and rivers, especially the wilderness of the American west through which Snyder has wandered for years. But in fact, like Snyder himself, the poem wanders not only among the high peaks of the Sierras and desolate canyons of the Great Basin but along old U.S. Highway 99 and down into the basement of the Good Will store on Howard Street in San Francisco (as well as many other spots around the globe). In wandering thus through town and country, the poem becomes an extended meditation on the intimate intertwining of the worlds of nature and culture, a song about the land to be sure, but also about how we inhabit the land and build it up, not only with our roads and settlements but with our dreams and memories, our art and song. The title of the work refers at once to the mountains and rivers of the natural world and to an anonymous Sung landscape painting (known as Ch'i-shan wu-chin, in the Cleveland Museum) that re-presents that world and re-creates it as cultural artifact. The work may be seen as coming to its climax, in a poem (based on the Noh drama Yamamba) entitled "The Mountain Spirit" in which the spirit of the mountain, having challenged the poet from the city to speak of real "minerals and stone", accepts his poem with the whisper, "All art and song / is sacred to the real, / As such."

If I understand it, then, Snyder's poem suggests two related points or perhaps one point viewed from two angles. First, the natural world is cultural. It is not a given, not simply the raw stuff of objective reality: the stuff is always already cooked, the world already mapped as human landscape. We cannot, as it were, get out of town into the unexplored wilderness; someone has always been there before us, leaving a beer can at the campsite. Or to put the point in traditional Buddhist terms, we might say that pratyak.sa is always shot through with anumaana, and even the dharmakaaya preaches the dharma. Second, the cultural world is natural. The beer can belongs to the land; it is just as wild as the rock it rests on. The wilderness is everywhere, in our rooms, in our computers, in our words on the computer. At some epistemological level, all our experience is raw, all our anumana is shot through with pratyak.sa; scripture is itself a separate transmission, not dependent on words or letters.

Snyder signals this intimate intertwining of the natural and cultural in his epigraph for the poem, which quotes Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's mysterious comments on the famous Zen metaphor of the painted rice cake that cannot satisfy hunger.

If you say the painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real, the Dharma is not real. Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting. Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.

These comments come from the Gabylong_o.GIF (526 bytes)ܿ ("Painted Rice Cake") fascicle of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes). But the fascicle that so preoccupied Snyder during his writing of Mountains and Rivers Without End is the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) ߣ ("Mountains and Waters Sutra"). This is hardly surprising when we remember that this fascicle is itself explicitly concerned with the theme of the intertwining of the buddha dharma and the natural world. The very title of the text expresses this theme. As Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen explains in his opening line, "The mountains and rivers of the present are the realization of the way (or the "Words"; dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) genjlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) Գ) of the ancient buddhas." The text is not to be understood, then, simple as a suutra on mountains and rivers: the landscape is itself a suutra, teaching us the meaning of the dharma. The natural world around us is somehow, it seems, a subjectivity, expressing, and even, as we shall see, itself pursuing the spiritual life.

Back to Top

* * * * *

While reading Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End, I went back to Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) to try to see what the poet saw in the text's vision of the natural world that so preoccupied him. I cannot say that I have fully understood either Snyder or Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, but here I want to suggest three layers of reading the Zen master's text that might make it a rich source for the poet. The first of these, we can call the "metaphysical" layer.

There is a haunting refrain running through Mountains and Rivers Without End: "Walking on walking, / under foot earth turns / Streams and mountains never stay the same". Here the natural world becomes a kind of walking, "underneath" the walking human foot. The mind leaps immediately to the words of Fu-jung Tao-ka'i ݳԳ quoted at the start of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes): "The blue mountains are constantly walking." Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen goes on to comment at length on this saying, playing with the famous Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, in which the seemingly solid mountain is reduced to a stream of momentary mountain dharmas. He then extends this kind of metaphysical analysis to the human sphere, to the life of the individual and the history of the buddha dharma, both of which are constantly "walking" with the mountain.

In the final poem of Mountains and Rivers Without End, entitled "Finding the Space in the Heart", Snyder has a little passage immediately familiar to anyone familiar with Buddhist texts.

Sound swallowed away,
no waters, no mountains, no
bush no grass and
        because no grass
no shade but your shadow.
No flatness because no not-flatness.
No loss, no gain. So
nothing in the way!

No mountains and rivers remain in the space cleared by the Heart Suutra. Like Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen in the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), the poet clearly senses the emptiness implied in his constant walking. As the Zen master puts it in his usual literary style, walking has been going on "since the very time before any subtle sign, since the age of the King of Emptiness (ku1.jpg (4177 bytes)long_o.GIF (526 bytes) nahan )." Or again, in his opening lines, mountains and rivers are "living in the present" because they are "the state prior to the kalpa of emptiness (ku1.jpg (4177 bytes)klong_o.GIF (526 bytes) ̤)"; they are liberated because they are "the self before the germination of any subtle sign." Or more simply, later on, mountains are "constant" because they are constantly "walking".

For the poet, the Zen master's logic of impermanence and emptiness opens up images of nature at once restless and still, a dynamic world always recreating itself in time through the constant thrust and erosion of peaks and gorges, and yet a world at peace in the present, stretching itself on space as the vast, vacant expanse of the landscape. There is opportunity here for language to play with the sharp consonants and smooth vowels of such a world. But, as we know, the same logic of impermanence and emptiness has dangers for language. It can empty the words of their referents and render them merely "conventional". It can cut off the poet's art and song from the Mountain Spirit's "real as such". It can end in the Zen master's silence, or perhaps in a shrug and a muttered "thus".

Here the poet finds a friend in Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen. As we know from his comments in the Gabylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) fascicle, the walking world is a world of art as well as of nature. As we know from the title of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), it is a talking world, speaking the language of scripture. Indeed, in this latter text (and elsewhere in the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)) Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen goes out of his way to chastise those Zen types who hold that language does not get at nature and that a saying like Yun-men Wen-yen's ڦ "The East Mountain moves over the water" does not really describe the mountain. These types, says Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, are not Buddhists, they are not even human, they are dumber even than animals. In fact, he concludes in a turn on the "liar's paradox", if they claim language is false, they falsify their own claim. Rather, we should realize that Yun-men's saying is the very "bones and marrow of the buddhas and patriarchs". The mountains do indeed "walk across the waters", and "the tips of their feet set the waters dancing". For those with eyes to see them, the mountains actually "mount the clouds and stride through the heavens".

With what eyes should we see mountains "striding through the heavens"? To the artist, such language may appear as elegant image of towering ranges on the horizon; to the philosopher, it can be a coded signal that the temporal stream of mountain dharmas has a transcendental status, in the emptiness beyond our earthly categories of understanding. But to those with an eye for Buddhist cosmology, it can also be a reminder that mountains walk not only back and forth in time but also up and down through the hierarchies of the dharma realm. This is true not only of mountains. Indeed, such movement "up and down" is particularly clear in the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes)'s treatment of water. Water, Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen says, does not just flow down from the mountains: it flows across the sky; it reaches everywhere throughout the dharma realm, from the highest heavens to the deepest hells. Water extends into every buddha land, and "countless buddha lands appear in a single drop of water".

In language like this, we are moving toward my second layer of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) text, what I shall call, with some trepidation, the "mystical" reading. By "mystical" I mean here a view of the natural world that sees it not simply as empty dharmas but as the expression, or embodiment of a sacred order, that sees the mountains and rivers of this apparent world as participating in, or communicating with, higher realms hidden from view, in the heavens and beyond. Here, the dharmas come together in a cosmic whole; here, emptiness comes alive as Vairocana, whose body, speech, and thought generate and enliven all things. As conscious processes of the living cosmic body, the walking and talking of mountains and rivers become more than metaphors, and "grasses and trees become buddhas". As Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen says in the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), the mountains do not merely walk; they have their own "way of life" (kakkei ͪ). Their way of life is their "investigation" of their own walking, their study of themselves. In studying themselves, "mountains become buddhas and patriarchs." "Mountains and rivers become wise men and sages."

Through this vision of mountains and rivers as conscious being engaged in spiritual activity, Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen brings the Sung Ch'an nostalgia for the natural landscape into conversation with the mystical hierarchies of his Heian Japanese esoteric Buddhism. In the process, he brings his religion out of the cloistered world of philosophy into the imagination of the gods. He creates a space for the Mountain Spirit, a realm of archaic meanings from which she appears to the poet to demand a song, a realm that makes the song not merely pretty or true but "sacred to the real as such". The poet sings her a Zen song.

Mountains will be Buddhas then
         when bristlecone needles are green!
         Scarlet penstemon
                    flowers are red!

The color is familiar in China, Korea or Japan, where buddhas see that bamboos are green; but the bristlecone pine grows only in the New World. The heavens of hidden meanings stretch all around the globe, as gods come and go at will; but the range of this Mountain Spirit is the White Mountains of the Great Basin. She seeks a song about her own range, her own buddhahood; and the poet, camped in her range, responds. This is the way the dharma travels, by converting the gods in their own range and addressing the people where they actually live. The sophisticated systems of the sastras circle back to the ancient patterns of the people; the ma.n.dalas migrate and settle down in sites long sacred to local lore pools and falls, caves and crags, groves of pine and crytomeria.

The ideal of local lore brings me to my final layer of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), what I shall call the "mythic". By the mythic, I mean an approach that reads the landscape through the historical narratives of a community, that sees the countryside as the storied sites of song and legend, the places where memories take place. The world of Mountains and Rivers Without End is such a storied place, crisscrossed by the myths of many peoples. In one central poem, we find the ancient native American cultural hero Kokop'ele, the hump-backed flute player, travelling with, perhaps travelling as, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan Tsang across a landscape that is at once the Great Basin of the American west and the Tarim Basin of Central Asia. "Logicians of emptiness" at Naalandaa join in the ghost dance that liberates the land and returns it to its inhabitants. Later, the poet sings to the Mountain Spirit.

Ghosts of lost landscapes
         herds and flocks,
                    towns and clans,
great teachers from all lands
tucked in Wovoka's empty hat,
          stored in Baby Krishna's mouth,
                    kneeling for tea
in Vimalakirti's one small room.

In practice, of course, what I am calling the mythic and the mystic often intersect, as gods descend into human form and heroes pass into the pantheon. But Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, as a Zen missionary seeking to convert his countrymen from their esoteric ways, was likely loath to over-populate his landscape with the familiar divinities of the Mahaayaana mystical pantheon. Rather, like the Chinese Ch'an literary tradition he sought to introduce to Japan, he favored the mythic powers of the patriarchs and historical legends of the masters. The very title of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), of course, refers to the tradition of these patriarchs and masters, whose legends and sayings provide the inspiration for most of the essays in the book. The mountains and rivers of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) are the haunts of the ancients, from the historical Buddha ^Saakyamuni himself, through the sages of early Taoist lore, to the Ch'an master Ch'uan-tzu Te-cheng , who live as a boatman on, and one day disappeared into, the Hua-t'ing River. Indeed, such is the intimacy between sage and mountain in the text that at one point their relationship is described in effect as a mating: the mountains are said to love their masters, and therefore the sages enter the mountains, charming the trees, rocks, birds and beasts, and giving the mountains delight.

Back to Top

* * * * *

Such, then, are my three layers of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes). If you can grant me for the moment something like these three possibilities for the text, the question remains how they are related. I have been using here the metaphor of "layers", but in my own mind the disparate readings are more like "seams" of meaning running through the text, twisting and crossing each other along the way. In my mind, Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's mountains are not built up from a bedrock of metaphysics, overlaid with the sedimentary deposits of mysticism and mythology. I do not have, and would tend to resist, a cosmogony of the text that posits a pure philosophy preceding the appearance of the gods and the time of the heroes. For me, the legends of the masters who practiced in the mountains are as important for understanding the meaning of these mountains as any abstract analysis of their being. This way of reading puts me at odds, I suppose, with almost everyone with the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) tradition that would ground the text in the doctrine of the universal Buddha nature, as well as with the critics of the tradition who would dig out the original Indian emptiness buried beneath the rubble of East Asian cultural accretion. Being thus at odds, I want to come back to my other book, Pruning the Bodhi Tree, and say just a few words in closing about the vexed subject of critical Buddhism.

The subject of critical Buddhism is both vexed and vexing in part because it covers such a wide range of issues and is argued from so many angles. The editors of Pruning the Bodhi Tree, have made a noble effort to organize their material into three loosely coherent categories, dealing with broad themes of methodology, substantive debates over Buddhist texts and doctrines, and social issues; but in fact the arguments are such that they often bounce back and forth between and beyond such categories, and the effect on the reader is rather like trying to watch several different games simultaneously games of philosophy, philology, history, ethics, religion, politics, and more. Rather than blunder into all these games, I want here only to raise a question about the one troubling feature of critical Buddhism I introduced at the start of my talk: its tendency toward what I called there "philosophical reductionism".

There is an argument appearing in the writings of both Profs. Hakamaya and Matsumoto that goes something like this. "We are Buddhists. As Buddhists, we must take a stand on the essential teaching of the religion and reject all that violates such teaching as not true Buddhism." Both authors, as we know, take their Buddhist stand on the teachings of pratiitya-samutpaada and ^suunyataa and from that stand reject all forms of "topical Buddhism" or hongaku shislong_o.GIF (526 bytes) or dhaatuvada, as expressions of the "indigenous thought" of Asian cultures Hinduism, Taoism, Shintlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) and the like that has found its way from the outside into the Buddhist tradition. On these grounds, it seems, not only Snyder's poem (which is clearly dedicated to mixing the dharma with various traditions of indigenous thought), but also Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's essay (at least large parts as I am reading them) must be rejected. They will be in good company, in a pile along with most texts of the tradition.

I do not want to argue about whether and why Buddhists should take pratiitya-samutpaada and ^suunyataa as the essential teachings of their religion, let alone whether and why these particular teachings are likely to be more conducive than other alternatives to the social reform sought by the professors of critical Buddhism. Much more could be, and has been, said on these issues than appears in Pruning the Bodhi Tree. But my own question here is more simple-minded: Why, as Buddhists, must we start by taking our stand in an essential teaching and rejecting most texts of the tradition? To be sure, there is plenty of historical precedent for this way of being a Buddhist, especially perhaps in the so-called "selective"(senchaku ) styles of Japanese Buddhism often associated with some reformers (including Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen) in the Kamakura period. But since most people, even in the Kamakura period, have not been Buddhists of this sort, clearly we cannot stand the argument on precedent.

One of the nasty corollaries of the argument for taking a stand on orthodox doctrine is that those who do not are not Buddhists. Thus, "objective historians", who rest on mere precedent and accept as Buddhism whatever Buddhists have actually said and done, are dismissed as outsiders, non-believers uncommitted to the dharma. But what about the rest of us, Buddhists who may not know what the essential teachings are, let alone what to do about them, and search the tradition in faith for guidance? What about those of us, perhaps like Gary Snyder, who may be struggling to make the dharma come alive in our own historical situations and who look to the tradition for the ways that Buddhists like Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen have done this in the past, in their own situations?

In fact, perhaps not surprisingly, there is much in critical Buddhism that reminds us of Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, in his emphasis on the need to read Buddhist texts with the "eye of the way"(Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen Գ) and his slashing attacks, like those we have seen in the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), on everyone who lacked this eye. But the eye of the way was not for Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen a natural gift, either of reason or intuition; it was a gift of the tradition itself. Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen could be sure that he himself had the eye in large measure because of his faith in the historical lineage of the buddhas and patriarchs; it was first of all the historical fact of his membership in this lineage that gave him the confidence to judge the tradition, and it was through participation in this lineage in its historical forms as he had received them that he sought to bring the dharma alive in his community. In this sense, for Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, history came first and philosophy second.

Faith in a particular version of sacred history was a common starting point for many Buddhists in Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen's day. It is not so common today and is surely not the starting point for the professors of critical Buddhism. Although they must of necessity sometimes argue for their vision of orthodoxy from the historical precedents of particular texts, their selection and interpretation of the texts rests less on faith in the dharma as an historical tradition than on belief in the dharma as a philosophical system. Where does this belief come from? Surely some of it comes from the fact the professors are specialists in doctrinal texts rather than, say, texts of ritual, history or literature that themselves seek to define the dharma as an intellectual system. But I suspect that the professors' belief (and likely their choice of specialization) is more deeply rooted in the modern need to define Buddhism as a coherent system of beliefs, so that it could take its rightful place among the religions (thus defined) of the world. In Japan, this need has been felt since the Meiji period, when Buddhists there first came into contact with the new "science of religion" and the nascent western buddhology already at work on such a definition.

As you might guess by now, I am not myself drawn to such work, what we might call the "Protestantization" of the dharma that weeds out the rich overgrowth of art and literature, myth and ritual, and in the process cuts off most possibilities for being Buddhist. But my larger point here is not to condemn this work so much as to remind the professors that their call to take a stand on orthodox doctrine and reject the rest, whatever value it may have in challenging and reforming the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) belongs to a particular historical context and is but one more example of how Buddhists must always struggle to bring the dharma alive in their own situations to remind them of this and to suggest that, if they look around for other Buddhists in other situations, both in the past and the present, they may find more friends than they think, even among those who take refuge in the buddha nature or sing at night to the Mountain Spirit.

                        Prev Next    
  To Become Truly Human
  On the Buddha-nature of Insentient Things
  Buddha Nature, Buddha Practice
  Self and meditation in Indian Buddhism
  The Ecological Dimensions of East Asian Buddhism Critically Considered.
  A Response to the Critical Buddhist Position on Zen
  Critical Considerations on Zen Thought
  The Linchi-lu and the Korean seon Buddhist Tradition
  The Reflection On The Metaphysical Presuppositions Of The Korean Buddhism

top Prev Next       List

Copyright(c) 2544 Digital International Buddhism Organization.