The title of Pamela Winfield’s new monograph on Japanese Buddhism, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kūkai and Dōgen on the Art of Enlightenment, may lead one to assume that the main purpose of her text is to contrast the centrality of images in Kūkai’s esoteric Buddhism with the radical iconoclasm evident in Dōgen’s approach to Zen. While this contrast is thoroughly examined by the author, Winfield also reveals important dimensions of both iconoclasm in Kūkai and the iconic in Dōgen. Throughout the volume, in fact, she both cites and creates pairs of opposing analytical categories in order to disclose important dissimilarities between the two founders while at the same time deconstructing these same categories and presenting a much-needed critical study of prevalent bifurcations found currently in the field of Japanese Buddhist studies. The challenge in taking on such a project is in recognizing exactly where the misrepresentations lie and how far one needs to extend a correction toward the opposing category. In analyzing several bifurcations, Winfield undertakes a weighty scholarly task, but succeeds in exposing and correcting a number of one-sided views in the field.
In the introductory chapters, Winfield lays out the main purpose of her study, namely to examine the relation between the visual and the soteriological in Buddhist practice. She chooses to focus on Kūkai and Dōgen as representatives of Japanese schools of Buddhism because of their reputations regarding visual instruments. Kūkai appears to have great value for visual imagery in his notions of both practice and attainment, while Dōgen appears to reject such forms of mediation as impediments to realization. In constructing this comparison, Winfield argues that Icons and Iconoclasm provides a novel perspective given its interdisciplinary methodology of both art historical and textual studies. Indeed, the author proves to be quite at home in both fields in effectively bridging the “text-image gap” she finds plaguing contemporary academia.
Winfield’s comparative paradigm is centered in the descriptive categories of “Unitive and Purgative Experience” (p. 6), where Kūkai identifies liberation with the unification of practitioner and deity (Dainichi Buddha) while Dōgen sees liberation as a purgative process as one evolves from affirmed self to negated self and to relational self. This paradigm also provides a space-time distinction; whereas Kūkai’s liberation occurs in unobstructed space, Dōgen’s occurs in unobstructed time. Supporting this model with a theory taken up in her introduction, Winfield turns to early studies in neuroscience concerned with brain activity during meditation. Citing the work of Eugene d’Acquili and Andrew Newburg from the University of Pennsylvania, [End Page 647] she finds Newburg’s categories of active and passive meditation useful in explaining the liberation experiences described by Kūkai and Dōgen. Although the researchers were originally working with Christian practitioners when identifying the active form, Winfield applies their descriptions to Shingon practice. By focusing one’s attention on an esoteric image, certain regions of the brain are stimulated so that one loses a sense of the body while, at the same time, merging with the image. In zazen, as a form of passive meditation, the brain may reach a state where the practitioner will abruptly experience selflessness, what Dōgen may have been describing in his claim of “casting off body and mind.”
Although this work provides an interesting, yet highly reductive, explanation of possible differences in Buddhist soteriologies, Winfield also points out that the researchers prioritized passive meditation over active, resulting in what she sees as “an implicit bias against imagistic meditation experience” (p. 10). She traces this one-sided privileging of formless states in Western scholarship to the early influences of D. T. Suzuki and Protestant iconoclasm, and points out that such states in esoteric Buddhism are actually considered low-level attainments, the fifth stage in Kūkai’s ten stages of mind. Supported by the...