Special Issue "Language and Concepts in Relation to Enlightenment on and off the Cushion in Chan/Zen Buddhism"

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444). This special issue belongs to the section "Religions and Humanities/Philosophies".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (1 May 2021).

Special Issue Editor

Dr. George Wrisley
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Department of History, Anthropology and Philosophy, University of North Georgia, Gainesville, GA 30503, USA
Interests: Wittgenstein; Nietzsche; Dōgen; conceptualism; enlightenment; suffering; existential issues broadly construed; in particular issues concerning the relationship between language/concepts and Buddhist enlightenment

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

In Buddhism, but especially in Chan/Zen, it is not hard to find views on the relationship between language and enlightenment that are primarily negative. Language is taken not only to fail to allow us to say how things really are, but it necessarily obscures reality from us. In this context, enlightenment is often conceived of as the cultivation of a certain kind of experience, one that is ineffable, and thereby free of concepts and linguistic conventions, discriminations, and valuations.

Representative of such claims, consider Mario D’Amato’s noting that, “a dominant theme in Mahāyāna soteriological thought is that language and conceptualization are at the root of the problem with sentient existence…” (D’Amato 2009, pp. 41–42). Further, discussing what he takes to be the third of three ways one may describe something, Garma C.C. Chang writes that direct pointing, as with a finger, without employing concepts, is “the best and in fact the only genuine way to describe Emptiness…. It is this approach which is frequently applied in Zen Buddhism” (Chang 1971, p. 63. My emphasis). Again, not only are concepts supposedly unnecessary for describing/pointing to emptiness, but concepts and explanations occlude how things really are—most notably the reality of emptiness (sunyata). The latter is a point that Thomas P. Kasulis emphasizes a number of times in his Zen Action, Zen Person. For example, he writes, “Concepts are samvṛti; they literally ‘cover’ or ‘obstruct’ the way things are actually experienced” (Kasulis 1981, p. 23). Further:

The Zen Buddhist view is that intellectualizations, concepts, even language itself are inadequate for expressing our experience as it is experienced. We go through life thinking that our words and ideas mirror what we experience, but repeatedly we discover that the distinctions taken to be true are merely mental constructs (Kasulis 1981, p. 55).

As Toru Funaki puts it in his discussion of Merleau-Ponty and Shinran, “In Zen Buddhism…the practitioner aims at reaching an absolute stage where language is of no import as that stage lies beyond linguistic understanding” (Funaki 2009, p. 113).

I do not want to claim that all of these writers attribute to Mahāyāna and/or Zen Buddhism the same way of problematizing language/concepts. Nor do I want to claim that in other contexts, these writers would not acknowledge other, less problematic if not salutary functions of language. Nevertheless, it is clear that language is, in the context of practice, often taken to be an obstacle. This stands in stark contrast, for example, to the work of Hee-Jin Kim on Dōgen’s Zen. For example: “As I have often noted in the present work and elsewhere, the single most original and seminal aspect of Dōgen’s Zen is his treatment of the role of language in Zen soteriology” (Kim 2007, p. 59).

Further:

Dōgen’s view on [duality and language], particularly on language, is a far cry from such a conventional one, although he was all too aware of its fundamental limitations and dangers. At any rate, it is absolutely imperative for practitioners to deal with their everyday lives by continually making choices, decisions, and commitments, in terms of revaluated dualities that are informed and empowered by nonduality. In order to effectively engage in the task of daily affairs, they must employ language, the intellect, and critical thinking as a common basis for dialogue and communication with one another, whether they are Buddhists or non-Buddhists, religionists or secularists. Thus, negotiating the Way in pursuit of authentic practice consists in how to do Zen with nondually revaluated duality, now recast in terms of the various pairs of foci (Kim 2007, pp. 36–37).

Lastly:

Enlightenment, from Dōgen’s perspective, consists of clarifying and penetrating one’s muddled discriminative thought in and through our language to attain clarity, depth, and precision in the discriminative thought itself. This is enlightenment or vision (Kim 2007, p. 63).

In spite of inherent frailties in their make-up, words are the bearers of ultimate truth. In this respect, words are not different from things, events, or beings—all are “alive” in Dōgen’s thought. The dynamics of words as living forces in the context of realization, in turn, legitimates discriminating thought (Kim 1985, p. 58).

With the above in mind, this Special Issue of Religions will address the following (set of) question(s):

What is the relationship between meditation practice and enlightened activity off the cushion, particularly in regard to language use and conceptualization? While one might break through to special experiential states in the context of meditation (or elsewhere), those states cannot, presumably, be maintained off of the cushion in the course of daily life, as one must interact with “others” and discriminate/differentiate, make judgments, etc., which would seem to require language/concepts.

Thus, what is the most fruitful/skillful/correct (?) way to view the relationship between enlightenment and language/concepts? That is, for example, is it that concepts are transcended on the cushion, upon entering special states of consciousness, but then those concepts are taken back up when relating the experience on the cushion to negotiating the Way in the nitty gritty of real life (monastery included)? Or might any achieved state of consciousness on the cushion itself implicate or otherwise require language/concepts? And if they did, would they implicate language in the same way on and off the cushion?

One angle on the above that I would particularly like to see developed concerns Dōgen's engagement of the idea/practice of hi-shiryō (非思量), “beyond-” or “non-” “thinking,” in contrast to “thinking” (shiryō 思量) and “not-thinking” (fu-shiryō 不思量), as found in such Shōbōgenzō fascicles as “Zazenshin” and “Zazengi.” In particular, it would be good to see addressed not only the nature of hi-shiryō (非思量), but what the relationships are between it and language/concepts and enlightenment practice off the cushion.

As the above suggests, the primary focus of this issue will be on the various forms of Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen Buddhism; however, projects concerning other forms of Buddhism in relation to the questions above will be considered for inclusion, particularly if they critically and creatively go against the grain of “standard” interpretations.

References

Chang, Garma C.C. 1971. The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism. University Park: The Pennsylvania State Press.

D’Amato, Mario. 2009. “Why the Buddha Never Uttered a Word.” In D’Amato, Mario; Garfield, Jay L.; and Tillemans, Tom J., eds. Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 41–56.

Funaki, Toru. 2009. “The Notion of the ‘Words that Speak the Truth’” in Merleau-Ponty and Shinran. In Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. Edited by Jin Y. Park and Gereon Kopf. Lanham: Lexington Books, pp. 133–40.

Kasulis, Thomas P. 1981. Zen Action / Zen Person. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Kim, Hee-Jin. 1985. ‘The Reasons of Words and Letters.’: Dōgen and Kōan Language. In Dōgen Studies. Edited by William R. LaFleur. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, pp. 54–82.

Kim, Hee-Jin. 2007. Dōgen on meditation and thinking: a reflection on his view of Zen. Albany: SUNY Press.

Dr. George Wrisley
Guest Editor

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Keywords

  • Zen
  • Chan
  • Zazen
  • Dōgen
  • enlightenment
  • language
  • concepts
  • non-thinking (hi-shiryō)

Published Papers (6 papers)

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Research

Article
Dōgen and the Linguistics of Reality
Religions 2021, 12(5), 331; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12050331 - 10 May 2021
Viewed by 694
Abstract
The goal of this article is to show how Dōgen’s views of language, perhaps the most “mystical” part of his thought at first glance, can be interpreted in a framework that is wholly rational in the broader sense of the word. Dōgen belongs [...] Read more.
The goal of this article is to show how Dōgen’s views of language, perhaps the most “mystical” part of his thought at first glance, can be interpreted in a framework that is wholly rational in the broader sense of the word. Dōgen belongs to a pansemioticist tradition and indeed maintains that being is tantamount to signification, but unlike previous pansemioticists, such as Kūkai, he does not posit a signifying subjective Other to whom the “message” of reality can be attributed. In Dōgen’s view, the meaningfulness of an event is a concomitant characteristic of its very reality, because the availability of reality for us to experience is already a linguistic phenomenon. The article argues that this is not a mystical thesis, but a view that can also be articulated in a more familiar and fully rational idiom, and that it bears similarities with many different Western thinkers and theorists, such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Peirce, Jakobson, and others. Full article
Article
Silent Accord: Qi 契 as a Metaphor for Enlightenment and Transmission in Chan Buddhist Discourse
Religions 2021, 12(4), 279; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040279 - 16 Apr 2021
Viewed by 411
Abstract
In this paper, we explore the historical background and the semantic underpinnings of a central, if marginally treated, metaphor of enlightenment and transmission in Chan discourse, “silent accord” 默契. It features centrally in Essentials of the Transmission of Mind 傳心法要, a text that [...] Read more.
In this paper, we explore the historical background and the semantic underpinnings of a central, if marginally treated, metaphor of enlightenment and transmission in Chan discourse, “silent accord” 默契. It features centrally in Essentials of the Transmission of Mind 傳心法要, a text that gathers the teachings of Chan master Huangbo Xiyun (d. ca. 850), a major Tang dynasty figure. “Silent accord” is related to the concept of mind-to-mind transmission, which lies at the very core of Chan Buddhist self-understanding. However, Chan historiography has shown that this self-understanding was partially a product of the Song dynasty lineage records, historically retroactive syncretic constructs produced by monks and literati as efforts towards doctrinal and political recognition and orthodoxy. There are thus lacunae in the history of Chan thought opened up by the retrospective fictions of Song dynasty, and a lack of reliable, dateable documents from the preceding Tang dynasty era, possibly fraught with later additions. We situate the metaphor “silent accord” in the history of Chan thought by searching for its origins, mapping its functions in Chan literature, arguing for its influence and thereby its role in helping to bridge the ninth century gap. Full article
Article
Dōgen on Language and Experience
Religions 2021, 12(3), 181; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030181 - 10 Mar 2021
Viewed by 364
Abstract
Understanding Zen views on language and experience from a philosophical hermeneutical point of view means conceiving such an understanding as a merging of horizons. We have to explicate both the modern Western secular horizon and the medieval Japanese Zen horizon. This article first [...] Read more.
Understanding Zen views on language and experience from a philosophical hermeneutical point of view means conceiving such an understanding as a merging of horizons. We have to explicate both the modern Western secular horizon and the medieval Japanese Zen horizon. This article first describes how Charles Taylor’s notion of the immanent frame has shaped Western modernist understanding of Zen language and experience in the twentieth century. Zen language was approached as an instrumental tool, and Zen enlightenment experience was imagined as an ineffable “pure experience.” More recent postmodernist approaches to Zen language and experience have stressed the interrelatedness of language and experience, and the importance of embodied approaches to experience. Such new understandings of language and experience offer not only new perspectives on Dōgen’s “Zen within words and letters” and his embodied approach to enlightened experience, but also an expanded view on what it means to understand Dōgen. Full article
Article
Effortless Expressions: Dōgen’s Non-Thinking about ‘Words and Letters’
Religions 2021, 12(2), 111; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020111 - 09 Feb 2021
Viewed by 413
Abstract
What is the relationship between Zen experience and language? Is Zen awakening/enlightenment ineffable? In this article, I will address this general question by providing a panoramic treatment of Dōgen’s (道元) philosophy of language which Hee-Jin Kim characterizes as “realizational”. Building on the research [...] Read more.
What is the relationship between Zen experience and language? Is Zen awakening/enlightenment ineffable? In this article, I will address this general question by providing a panoramic treatment of Dōgen’s (道元) philosophy of language which Hee-Jin Kim characterizes as “realizational”. Building on the research of Kim, Victor Sōgen Hori and Dale S. Wright, I maintain that the idea of ineffable experiences in Dōgen’s Zen is embedded within language, not transcendent from it. My focus begins by reviewing Dōgen’s critical reflections on the idea of ineffability in Zen, and then proceeds to make sense of such in the context of zazen, and the practice of non-thinking, hi-shiryo (非思量). Based upon this inquiry, I then move into an examination of how Dōgen’s “realizational” philosophy of language, in the context of non-thinking, conditions a ‘practice of words and letters’ that is effortless, vis-à-vis non-action, wu-wei (無為). From there we shall then inquire into Dōgen’s use of kōan for developing his “realizational” perspective. In doing such, I shall orient my treatment around Hori’s research into kōan (公案), specifically the logic of nonduality. This inquiry shall in turn provide a clearing for highlighting the non-anthropocentric perspectivism that is salient to Dōgen’s “realizational” philosophy of language. Finally, I bring closure to this inquiry by showing how Dōgen’s “realizational” perspective of language sets the stage for expressing a range of value judgments and normative prescriptions, both on and off the cushion, despite his commitment to the philosophy of emptiness, śūnyatā, whereby all things, including good and evil, lack an inherent self essence, svabhāva. Full article
Article
Just Sitting and Just Saying: The Hermeneutics of Dōgen’s Realization-Based View of Language
Religions 2021, 12(2), 81; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020081 - 28 Jan 2021
Viewed by 517
Abstract
This paper explicates the complex relationship between contemplative practice and enlightened activity conducted both on and off the meditative cushion as demonstrated in the approach of the Sōtō Zen Buddhist founder Dōgen (1200–1253). I examine Dōgen’s intricate views regarding how language, or what [...] Read more.
This paper explicates the complex relationship between contemplative practice and enlightened activity conducted both on and off the meditative cushion as demonstrated in the approach of the Sōtō Zen Buddhist founder Dōgen (1200–1253). I examine Dōgen’s intricate views regarding how language, or what I refer to as just saying, can and should be used in creative yet often puzzling and perplexing ways to express the experience of self-realization by reflecting the state of non-thinking that is attained through unremitting seated meditation or just sitting (shikan taza). In light of the sometimes-forbidding obscurity of his writing, as well as his occasional admonitions against a preoccupation with literary pursuits, I show based on a close reading of primary sources that Dōgen’s basic hermeneutic standpoint seeks to overcome conventional sets of binary oppositions involving uses of language. These polarities typically separate the respective roles of teacher and learner by distinguishing sharply between delusion and insight, truth and untruth, right and wrong, or speech and silence, and thereby reinforce a hierarchical, instrumental, and finite view of discourse. Instead, Dōgen inventively develops expressions that emphasize the non-hierarchical, realization–based, and eminently flexible functions of self-extricating rhetoric such that, according to his paradoxical teaching, “entangled vines are disentangled by using nothing other than entwined creepers,” or as a deceptively straightforward example, “the eyes are horizontal, and the nose is vertical.” Full article
Article
Master Questions, Student Questions, and Genuine Questions: A Performative Analysis of Questions in Chan Encounter Dialogues
Religions 2020, 11(2), 72; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11020072 - 05 Feb 2020
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 1053
Abstract
I want to know whether Chan masters and students depicted in classical Chan transmission literature can be interpreted as asking open (or what I will call “genuine”) questions. My task is significant because asking genuine questions appears to be a decisive factor in [...] Read more.
I want to know whether Chan masters and students depicted in classical Chan transmission literature can be interpreted as asking open (or what I will call “genuine”) questions. My task is significant because asking genuine questions appears to be a decisive factor in ascertaining whether these figures represent models for dialogue—the kind of dialogue championed in democratic society and valued by promoters of interreligious exchange. My study also contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of early Chan not only by detailing contrasts between contemporary interests and classical Chan, but more importantly by paying greater attention to the role language and rhetoric play in classical Chan. What roles do questions play in Chan encounter dialogues, and are any of the questions genuine? Is there anything about the conventions of the genre that keeps readers from interpreting some questions in this way? To address these topics, I will proceed as follows. First, on a global level and for critical-historical context, I survey Chan transmission literature of the Song dynasty in which encounter dialogues appear, and their role in developments of Chan/Zen traditions. Second, I zoom in on structural elements of encounter dialogues in particular as a genre. Third, aligning with the trajectory of performative analyses of Chan literature called for by Sharf and Faure, I turn to develop and criticize a performative model of questions from resources in recent analytic and continental philosophy of language and I apply that model to some questions in encounter dialogue literature. Full article
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