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Reviewed by:
  • The Formless Self
  • Newman Robert Glass
The Formless Self. By Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. 174 pp.

For the past seven years I have been deeply involved in a worldwide experiment in global education. Students in the Comparative Religion and Culture (CRC) Program study the world's great religions for ten-week terms in each of East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, totaling one academic year in all. Recent programming has taken place in Taiwan, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Turkey, with stops in Rome and Athens. Students have met with Buddhist and Christian teachers in Kyoto, Sojiji, Eiheiji, Taiwan, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Bylakuppe, Dharmsala, Jerusalem, Rome, Athens, Ankara, and Istanbul. As part of their academic work, students write responses to each encounter and engage in term-end and year-end reflections on their own work. The program brings to light, in a very powerful way, some of the fundamental questions in cross-cultural study and interreligious dialogue. How do we come to understand a religion or culture other than our own? In analyzing their own work, students find themselves using terms from a Jain teacher's talk in Sravanabelagola to frame their response to the Dalai Lama's talk in New Delhi, and terms from the Dalai Lama's talk to understand and respond to the audience with the Pope in Rome. As the students become more sophisticated in understanding issues in interpretation, new questions are posed: How many people (other than ourselves) do we unknowingly bring to understanding an encounter with an other? When we use the Dalai Lama's talk in interpreting the Pope, does this enlarge our understanding of Catholicism, diminish or distort the Pope's message, or create something new altogether? What do we gain and what do we lose?

Joan Stambaugh's The Formless Self is "an attempt to present Eastern ideas, or at least oneWestern interpretation of Eastern ideas, toWestern readers in a meaningful way" (p. x). The most referenced names in the index are Heidegger, Nietzsche, Plato, Keirkegaard, Descartes, and Meister Eckhart. These, then, are the key figures Stambaugh brings with her as she enters into conversation with the three Buddhist thinkers Dogen, Hisamatsu, and Nishitani. The latter two figures are themselves well known for their conversations withWestern thinkers. Stambaugh's book is best located within the larger body of work within and about the Kyoto School, that school of Japanese philosophy identified primarily with Nishida Kitaro, Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji, and more recently with Abe Masao. In the United States, this school of philosophy reached its zenith of popularity in the late 1980s, culminating in an American Academy of Religion (AAR) award to Abe Masao's Zen and Western Thought and a series of annual AAR dialogues between Abe and John Cobb. Abe's presence hovers over Stambaugh's book as well, from an acknowledgment in the preface (p. x) to a reference in the index that seems to encompass the whole book. The Formless Self is a good short introduction to key beginning texts [End Page 300] in this larger field: Dogen's Genjokoan, the Hisamatsu-Tillich dialogues, and Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness.

Stambaugh has in print translations of a substantial number of Heidegger's texts, including a recent translation of Being and Time. As might be expected, she seems to have a special affinity for Dogen's Uji (Being-Time; see especially pp. 31-40), and makes a creative contribution to the different understandings of these difficult concepts. Stambaugh also makes a brave attempt to work with Dogen's discussions of fire turning to ashes, fish in water, and mountains walking/ranging (pp. 39-48) in a productive way. Stambaugh's middle section on Hisamatsu may be the best place to begin, centering as it does on the dialogues with the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. In 1957, the Zen Buddhist teacher and scholar Shin'inchi Hisamatsu was a visiting professor at Harvard lecturing on his recently published book Zen and the Fine Arts. Though Tillich's aesthetic approach to "ultimacy" made for a fine series of dialogues with Hisamatsu, the numerous difficulties in the dialogue serve as a warning...