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  • Kūkai on the Philosophy of Language
  • Eric H. Swanson
Kūkai on the Philosophy of Language. By Shingen Takagi and Thomas Eijō Dreitlein. Keio University Press, 2010. 480480 pages. Hardcover ¥6,500.

Kūkai on the Philosophy of Language (hereafter Philosophy of Language) was published as the fifth volume of the Izutsu Library Series on Oriental Philosophy. Every title in this series has been a translation of distinguished philosophical treatises from Eastern traditions into a Western language, with the expectation that "the translation itself will naturally and necessarily open up the 'space,' or a functional field of semantics, in which the Orient encounters the Occident, and the traditional the existential present" (p. vi). Especially following the recent publications of Ryūichi Abé's The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse (Columbia University Press, 1999) and Cynthia Bogel's With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icons and Early Mikkyo Vision (University of Washington Press, 2010), it has been widely accepted in the Western academic world that Kūkai is a critical figure in studying not only Japanese Buddhist thought, but also the literary and visual culture of Japan. Philosophy of Language, which provides new translations of Kūkai's doctrinal [End Page 341] works by Shingen Takagi and Thomas Eijō Dreitlein, is a substantial addition to the goals of the Izutsu series and to deeper scholarly study of Kūkai.

The volume begins with an introduction by Takagi that provides a good overview of the concept of language seen in Kūkai's writings. One point that Takagi articulates in the introduction is the "paradigm shift" in Kūkai's thought. He explains, "Kūkai's profound thoughts on letters and language probably had their source in his experience with the esoteric Ākāśagarbha practice. That experience allowed Kūkai to escape from the world of superficially interpreting pages in books full of written letters to enter the great realm of empty space (ākāśa), where he learned to decipher the natural and inherent letters written on the pages of the book of the universe itself" (p. 6). According to Takagi, this aspect of experience that Kūkai acquired through esoteric practice is essential to understanding his theory of language. Takagi also introduces Toshihiko Izutsu's interpretation of Kūkai's philosophy of language:

Toshihiko Izutsu has attempted an explanation of Kūkai's philosophy of language using his original theory of semantic articulation. According to Izutsu, the central proposition of Kūkai's language theory is hosshin seppō, the preaching of the Dharmakāya. He writes that the preaching of the Dharmakāya is possible only because the Dharmakāya is preaching, or language itself. That the Dharmakāya is itself the preaching means that the foundation or essence of existence is itself language.

(pp. 14-15)

Takagi goes on to discuss the difference between the exoteric and esoteric scriptures, Kūkai's study of Siddham letters and Sanskrit, and Kūkai's view of language through the theory of the letter a as the fundamental sound of existence.

The main section of the book is made up of the translation of Sokushin jobutsu gi (Buddhahood Immediately and in This Body), Shō-ji-jissō gi (The Meanings of Sound, Letter, and Reality), and Unji gi (The Meanings of the Letter Hūṃ). As Takagi mentions in his introduction, these three treatises are known for their detailed exposition of the doctrines through which Kūkai established Shingon teachings. There is no doubt that they represent his theory of language. Some may question the necessity of new translations, as these treatises can already be found in Yoshito S. Hakeda's Kūkai: Major Works (Columbia University Press, 1972), but given that there will never be a definitive rendition of the original text, we can be assured that each new translation has the potential to reveal a different aspect of its source. In fact, as I will explain, Philosophy of Language makes a major contribution to the academic study of Buddhist philosophy and of Kūkai in the West distinct from that of the Hakeda volume.

The first major difference between the two works is in...


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