Dōgen studies have prospered in the academias of America and Europe for over three decades, and in Japan much longer. There hardly seems to be a year that does not see several monographs or collections published on the subject, and many issues continue to draw scholarly attention. Of paramount importance among these is, without doubt, Dōgen’s perspective on language.
The well-established state of the field notwithstanding, Ralf Müller’s debut monograph is a most welcome contribution. It stands out by virtue of its fresh and [End Page 636]thoroughly rational perspective on the problem of Zen and language and succeeds in bringing philosophical theories to the table that all too often go without notice.
While the book’s main title, Dōgens Sprachdenken, is essentially ambivalent—linguistic philosophy, or thought on language?—the subtitle, Historische und symboltheoretische Perspektiven, indicates the approach and structure of the study. A first part (pp. 19–177), consisting of chapters 1 through 3, takes a history-centered perspective. Taking his cues from Dōgen’s statement “When an expression is uttered, that which is not expressed remains unsaid” (p. 21; cf. Shōbōgenzō“Dōtoku,” fascicle as translated on p. 275), Müller sketches his project as follows: While a radically critical view on language as soteriologically inefficient, if not positively harmful, is what Zen Buddhism is famous for, the present study “argues, within the framework of a rational theory of language, against an obscurantist interpretation [mystizistische Auslegung]of Zen that time and again invokes experience” (p. 25). The narrative takes the reader from the twentieth-century Western analyses of Dōgen’s thought in Hee-Jin Kim and Thomas Kasulis through the definitions of religion in Jonathan Edwards and William James (chapter 2) toward the interpretations of—among others—Yodono Yōjun, Watsuji Tetsurō, and Tanabe Hajime (chapter 3). Müller’s retelling of hermeneutical history first aims to disclose ‘experience’ as the central concept in earlier Western treatments of Buddhism in general and Dōgen in particular, and, second, argues—primarily along the lines of Watsuji (1924) and Tanabe (1939)—that experience is not at all an entity in itself but essentially and dialectically depends on language.
The study’s second part (chapters 4 though 6, pp. 178–367) is devoted to the theory of symbols and how it may be applied to Dōgen’s conceptualization of language. Müller follows Ernst Cassirer, Susanne Langer, and Jens Heise when he distinguishes two types of language: a first, discursive type that constantly structures our experiences and—more fundamentally—in fact produces the world we experience in the first place; and a second, presentative (präsentativ)type, which takes a holistic stance and establishes the totality of significations (Sinnganzes)through a texture of relations (Beziehungsgeflecht)(p. 231). It is this second type, Müller holds, that allows for a positive view of language even from the radically skeptical perspective of Dōgen’s brand of Zen Buddhism. Building on the previous observations on the dual structure of language, a German translation and detailed commentary of the “Dōtoku” fascicle are provided, followed by the presentation and analysis of all instances of dōtoku道得 (which Müller translates as “ vollkommener Ausdruck”—perfect expression) throughout the Shōbōgenzō.
Finally, the study moves on to the field of kōan. In view of their essentially pragmatic type of language, Dōgen reduces the presentative opacity of language once more to the discursive level and thereby reinstalls hermeneutics as an effective tool. “Zen cannot be equated with an attitude of language negation,” Müller sums up, “but has to be understood from the perspective of tradition while affirming its textu ality” (p. 366). What remains unexpressed in each and every expression, therefore, refers “not to something that was unutterable in principle but rather to the impossibility of giving expression...