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).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 1 October 2020.

Special Issue Editor

Dr. George Wrisley
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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 59).


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, 36-37).


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, 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, 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.


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. 41-56.

Funaki, Toru. 2009. “The Notion of the ‘Words that Speak the Truth’” in Merleau-Ponty and Shinran. In Jin Y. Park and Gereon Kopf, eds. Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. Lanham: Lexington Books. 133-140.

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 LaFleur, William R., ed. Dōgen Studies. The Kuroda Institute For the Study of Buddhism and Human Values. Studies in East Asian Buddhism. No. 2.54-82.

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

Dr. George Wrisley
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

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

Published Papers (1 paper)

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Open AccessArticle
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
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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