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Buddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayan, and the Possibility of Buddhist Postmodern Ethics (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 62, Number 3, July 2012
pp. 417-420 | 10.1353/pew.2012.0049

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Buddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayan, and the Possibility of Buddhist Postmodern Ethics by Jin Y. Park is both an ambitious and fascinating book. Its ambition can be seen in its reach — Zen Buddhism, Huayan Buddhism, and their resonance with postmodern ethics — and what it attempts to accomplish. It is a fascinating book for the cogency with which Park attempts to dispel century-old suspicions of Buddhism as a "religion of nothingness" or, worse, one that is disdainful of philosophers, and for her valiant attempt to reframe Buddhism as a worthy ethical partner in conversation with the West by re-envisioning ethics in the context of Zen and Huayan along with postmodernism. Buddhism was long accused of lacking a definitive ethical strategy toward social issues, and mired in a history of (mis)interpretation led by Western philosophers, culminating in Hegel's recasting of its "non-substantialist" position through the lens of metaphysics. Park's enterprise, which becomes evident only in the second half of her book, attempts to envision Zen ethics through Huayan phenomenology and to propose a dialogue, which she does with some success.

All this is part of an overarching effort to bring Buddhism from the periphery to the center of Western philosophical discussions on ethics. As Park says at the beginning of her book, this work is a response to some of the problems that have emerged in the process of Buddhism's encounter with modernity and the West. And none is more intriguing than the Buddha's silence when asked certain questions. Park revisits Malunkyaputta's tenfold inquiry to the Buddha, which was posed from two distinct philosophical questions: the eternalist position and the annihilationist (or materialist) position pertaining to metaphysical issues.

A second theme of the book revolves around the meaning and function of violence in the Zen Buddhist tradition. This section expertly brings together two generations of scholarship on Zen in the West: the first tending to romanticize it and the second more willing to vilify it. The latter cites Japanese Zen Buddhism's role in Japanese imperialism and nationalism during World War II as evidence of how Zen practice is in reality discrimination more than nondualism, and violence more than harmony. Park addresses these seemingly contradictory strands by asking, what if Zen Buddhism's claim to ineffability is both real and rhetorical? And what if its identity involves a focus on both meditation and secular worldly rituals?

Without neglecting historical responses from within the Buddhist tradition to this conundrum, Park launches an engaging discussion by recasting the issues of violence and language in postmodernist terms in her attempt to seek a meaningful response. For example, to reframe our understanding of violence in language in Zen Buddhism, she reminds us of Derrida's injunction that the very act of naming and making distinctions is itself violence and that even so it does not offer us the option to throw out the use of language.

The first two sections of the book, though important in their own right, function mostly as background to the third and most important theme in Park's book: the problem of ethics and where Buddhism stands — in particular Zen because of its radical challenge to dualistic categorizations and antinomian tendency. In taking on this problem, Park believes herself to be making a defense for postmodern philosophy as well. Her insight that both Buddhism and postmodern philosophy have a shared problem in ethics, or are often perceived this way, is not an inaccurate one. Both their claims for non-identity of identity, interconnectedness of opposite categories, and lack of a transcendental foundation of an entity have often been seen as grounds for a disregard for ethics, or at best an apathy toward it. Throughout her discussion Park navigates easily between postmodernists such as Kristeva, Lyotard, and Derrida, and Buddhist interpreters such as Nagarjuna and the interpreters of the Huayan jing (Flower Garland Sutra). Her success in bringing two important strands together effectively bridges Buddhism and Western philosophical discourse.

What is especially refreshing for scholars of Buddhist philosophy is Park's presentation of Huayan philosophy by some of Buddhism's most important exponents, including the Korean Zen master Chinul. Though Huayan has long...

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