- Buddhism and Deconstruction: Toward a Comparative Semiotics
Youxuan Wang's Buddhism and Deconstruction: Toward a Comparative Semiotics is a full-length study comparing Derridean and Buddhist discourse, especially their deconstruction of the notion of sign. Since Robert Magliola's 1984 publication Derrida on the Mend, which involved his pioneering comparison of Derrida and Nāgārjuna, many articles or book chapters have contributed to the growing body of comparative studies on Derridean and various (Indian, Chinese, or Japanese) Buddhist thought. However, a more systematic study of Buddhist deconstruction had not been achieved until the publication of Wang's book. In my view, as long as the investigation of deconstructive strategies in important Buddhist texts has not been completed, the comparison of Derridean and Buddhist deconstruction will never be sufficient. Wang's book provides substantial development of this topic. The understanding of sign and the conception of the Same are the major threads running [End Page 486] through his detailed investigation of Derridean texts and the Chinese texts of Mādhyamika and Yogācāra Buddhism.
Wang denies that the objects of his study are "representatives of Buddhist philosophy" but rather believes they are "specimens of Buddhist literary production" (p. 11). This attitude enables him to be open to different Buddhist texts, to discover different strategies and styles, without being fettered by the problem of the self-identity of each text and its authorship. Consequently, the author's selection of a particular set of Buddhist texts has proven distinctive and philosophically significant. The texts he investigates are written neither by famous Indian Mādhyamika philosophers such as Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti nor by great indigenous Chinese thinkers such as Sengzhao, Jizang, and the Chan Buddhists. Such texts, with their greater names, are popular among contemporary scholars for their study of Buddhist deconstruction. What Wang examines, however, is a set of peripheral texts, including the Dazhidu Iun (translated and edited by Kumārajīva but attributed to Nāgārjuna) and the Treatise on the Eighteen Points about Emptiness (translated and edited by Paramārtha but also attributed to Nāgārjuna). Because of their problems of alleged authorship, these have largely been neglected by modern scholarship. Wang's study in fact subverts this kind of judgment of central/marginal texts by revealing their significance to the historical development of the understanding of Mahāyāna teaching in Chinese Buddhism and their critical usefulness in the postmodern discourse of sign.
The subversiveness of Wang's study lies not only in his use of marginal Mādhyamika texts, but also in his bold approach to a couple of Yogācāra texts. To my limited knowledge, no serious discussion of Buddhist deconstruction has specifically referred to any Yogācāra text. Most discussions have hitherto referred to Nāgārjuna, Prāsangika, or Chan/Zen texts. It has been a common impression that Yogācāra Buddhism somehow smuggles a form of substantialization into Mahāyāna teaching through the back door. But this is not the case with the texts Wang studies. Although these texts may also be considered marginal compared to some others, Wang convincingly demonstrates in them a Yogācāra deconstruction of substantialization through the three categories of absence-of-being (san wu xing) and other strategies, with regard to a Yogācāra understanding of the Same or True Suchness.
The first two chapters concentrate on a survey of the Sarvāstivāda-Sautrāntika metaphysical-semiotic themes in the list of seventy-five existential factors and how they are undone by Kumārajīva and Paramārtha's commentaries on the Mahāyāna list of eighteen points about emptiness. Wang's analysis reveals the deconstructive power of these commentaries while doing justice to the Sarvāstivāda-Sautrāntika refutation of naive realism. The central semiotic theme as involved in the soteriology of Mahāyāna Buddhism, according to these commentaries and Wang's interpretation, is the "true character of all dharmas"—the emptiness of all existential factors (pp. 76...