Buddhisms and Deconstructions
Buddhisms and Deconstructions originated in a panel on "Buddhism, Deconstruction, and the Works of Robert Magliola" at the twenty-second annual convention [End Page 182] of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature. Half its essays began as conference papers, while the rest (including several published elsewhere) were solicited for the volume. Implicit too are an awareness of other volumes—for example, Harold Coward's Derrida and Indian Philosophy (1990) and (with Toby Foshay) Derrida and Negative Theology (1992)—and the conviction that such volumes, although making a contribution, have not adequately sorted out what can usefully be said with respect to that tantalizingly elusive couple, deconstruction and Buddhism.
The volume exemplifies many starting points and avenues for testing the Buddhism-deconstruction relationship, but all of it is clearly mapped. "Buddhism and Deconstruction" (section 1) illumines some basic issues underlying Buddhist-deconstructionist comparisons: "Naming the Unnameable: Dependent Co-arising and Différence" (Jin Y. Park) and "Nagarjuna and Deconstruction" (Ian Mabbett). "Buddhism Deconstructs" (section 2) explores how deconstruction can be analyzed from a Buddhist perspective, and includes "Derridean and Madhyamika Buddhist Theories of Deconstruction" (Zong-qi Cai) and "Indra's Postmodern Net" (David R. Loy). "Deconstructing Buddhism" (section 3), with essays on "Deconstructive and Foundationalist Tendencies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism" (Roger R. Jackson) and "Ji Zang's Sunyata-Speech: Derridean Denegation with Buddhist Negations" (Ellen Y. Zhang), looks in the other direction, still further deconstructing Buddhism. "Chan/Zen Buddhist Deconstruction" (section 4) furthers the critique with another pair of detailed analyses, "The Chan Deconstruction of Buddha Nature" (Youru Wang) and "Sudao: Repeating the Question in Chan Discourse" (Frank W. Stevenson). All these authors stick with cases in order to test the larger Buddhism and deconstruction hypothesis, showing, unsurprisingly, that similarities and differences make comparisons work out in different ways and for different conclusions. It matters which Buddhist tradition is brought into play, how one interprets some particular Buddhist thinker, and (because almost everyone here is thinking of "Derrida" and "deconstruction" at the same time) how someone with Buddhist learning ought to read which early or late essay by Derrida. Altogether, these eight essays illumine specific examples and contribute to the volume's larger topic, as we narrow down and define the Budhism-Deconstructionism conversation. Loy perhaps speaks for many of the authors here:
From a Buddhist perspective, the post-structural realization that the meaning of a text cannot be totalized—that language/thought never attains a self-presence which escapes differences—is an important step towards the realization that there is no abiding-place for the mind anywhere within Indra's net. But the textual dissemination liberated by Derrida's deconstruction will not be satisfactory unless the dualist sense-of-self—not just its discourse—has been deconstructed.(p. 80)
Or, as Ellen Zhang soberly puts it, [End Page 183]
The play of sunyata/denegation implies a movement of thought that sees the surplus of thought, and understanding this surplus sometimes requires the un-thought. The moment of negativity is, therefore, also the moment of construction and creativity. Sunyata/denegation is not simply a nihilistic place of reducing meaning to non-meaning, reality to non-reality. On the contrary, it is the moment of emancipation of meanings, we find in the Chinese traditions from Zhuangzi to Buddhist philosophers and Chan masters. Meanwhile, the experiential dimensions in the process of transforming our thought and consciousness explored by Daoism and Buddhism also offer a possible critique of postmodern discourse.(p. 121)
One could well imagine an entire volume made of just these essays with just such insights.
But there is more. In "Deconstructing Life-Worlds" (section 5), two essays—"The Veil Rent in Twain: A Buddhist Reading of Robert Magliola's Deconstructive Chiasm" (Jane Augustine) and "Emmanuel, Robert" (Gad Horowitz)—remind us that the volume is indeed a still more complex three-way conversation, including also the writings and personality (evident by the vehicle of an Afterword) of Robert Magliola, a scholar of both Buddhism (which he teaches in Thailand) and deconstruction, and creator of his own unique symbiosis of the two. As Park puts it in her general introduction, "a relationship between deconstruction and the life-world is well articulated in Robert Magliola's book, Deconstructing Life-Worlds (Scholars Press, 1997), in which Magliola deconstructs the double binding of his own life which he sees as a life caught in the double-cross, the chiasm between philosophy and experience, the conventional truth . . . and the ultimate truth, . . . samsara and nirvana" (p. xviii). And Jane Augustine vividly captures the spirit of Magliola's writing:
Magliola's brilliant, sui generis deconstructive literary style arises from his personal experience of sunyata, "emptiness" or "devoidness," within meditation as distinct from his intellectual encounter with its logic in the Mahayana Buddhist texts. These meditations on the meaning and implications of "emptiness" . . . emphatically deconstruct his Christian theology with its positing of a "real" God as Being, the ultimate essence. Caught in conflict, Magliola therefore interprets the Biblical account of the Temple "veil rent in twain" at Jesus' death to reveal a "God rent 'between.' " Symbolic associations to the "rent veil," the cross of chiasm, the slippery "between," and Derridean "difference" open up his preoccupations: to stay "between" Buddhism and Christianity, eastern practice and western intellection; to compare Nagarjuna and Derrida; to apply "devoidness" in the reform of Christian doctrine; and to stretch language to show how things "go on." His intricate, multi-tonal "differential" discourse, sous rature, makes a radical new contribution to post-modernist discourse.(pp. 171–172)
Augustine maps Magliola, and Horowitz analyzes him, and together their essays create the strong interpersonal trajectory that Magliola intensifies in his afterword, [End Page 184] giving the whole volume much of its special energy and unusual character.
But still one more angle must be considered before one gets to the afterword. The essays in "Questioning the Self, Questioning the Dialogue" (section 6)—"Sartre, Phenomenology and the Buddhist No-Self Theory" (Simon Glynn), "Self and Self Image," (Steven W. Laycock) and "Zen Flesh, Bones and Blood: Deconstructing Inter-Religious Dialogue" (E. H. Jarow)—remind us that things could and perhaps should be still more complicated. After all, why would one want to privilege this dialogue among these versions of Buddhism and some particular version(s) of (largely) Derridean deconstruction? Glynn and Laycock, drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre and others, remind us that there are other important starting points for dialogue between Asian and Western thought, and with different advantages. Jarow is more skeptical, in a largely salutary fashion, about whether there can be a dialogue that is not constrained by the religious and cultural agenda of those who set it up.
Jin Y. Park (American University) has done an impressive job in editing the volume, holding together essays and themes that might otherwise fragment off into their own worlds, endlessly more specialized and resistant to arrangement according to anyone else's theme and project. In a solid overall introduction, she puts forward introductory views on Buddhism and its reception in the West over the past several centuries, deconstruction in the context of twentieth-century thought, and then sets up the dynamic of the volume: the sense that many have that deconstruction and Buddhism have similar agendas with respect to essentialism, language and reality, theology, and so on—but yet still that each may find the other lacking—deconstruction as still too connected to the metaphysical tradition (p. xvi) or lacking in religious discipline (p. xvii), or Buddhism itself as ontotheological in some strands in some eras (particularly aside from Madhyamika). Perhaps which Buddhism and which strand of Derrida's thought one has in mind will determine whether there will ever be a volume titled "Buddhism and Deconstruction" in a singular, more economical, and more articulate fashion. Park also offers a brief introduction to each of the six parts, and aids readers in making their way through the varied essays. A good index would have rounded off the excellent editorial work that went into this volume.
Magliola's afterword (at thirty-five pages, considerably longer than any of the essays) gives a personal voice and edge to the overall product. He vigorously engages several of the essayists, mainly with respect to Madhyamika and in response to particular challenges posed to his own thought. His afterword then is both rather technical—clarifying details in Buddhological disputes—and deeply rooted in Magliola's own persona as deconstructionist, Buddhologist, and Christian theologian. It is a fascinating response to the volume, and gives a flesh-and-blood concreteness to the entire inquiry. But because Magliola does not offer a synthesis or conclusions, it would have been good if Park—so patient and careful and capable—had authored yet one more section of her own commentary, a [End Page 185] concluding set of remarks after Magliola's comments. As it is, it is tempting to conclude that the volume is ever on the edge of self-deconstruction; the analysis of "Buddhisms and Deconstructions" might well have proceeded without reference to Magliola's work; Christian theologians might well have engaged Magliola in conversation about Catholicism past and future, without very much attention to Buddhism and deconstruction. But in the end we are probably wise to attest that the conversation is all the more interesting because its components are bound together in what should really be named "Buddhisms, Deconstructions, and Robert Magliolas."
I close with three observations. First, as mentioned, the volume reminds us clearly of the challenges related to making good comparisons without allowing essentialist and ontospeculative theory to predict results before the comparisons are enacted. Particularly the earlier essays in the volume are exemplary in demonstrating how to narrow down comparisons in order to come to a few good conclusions about whether the now familiar "deconstruction and Buddhism" intuition really works once one descends to particular cases. Comparison is not impossible, but it is difficult, always a matter of juggling multiple concerns with respect to history, theme, and mode of comparison. Simply by the fact of this project and its repeated warnings against latent ontotheology, we see that we have a long way to go before comparative projects are freed of the invasive effects of unexamined Western, Christian starting points. My intuition, though, is that we need to learn to be still more specific, paying still more homage to the early Derrida, still more closely reading whole texts, contesting but also yielding to the texts we read.
Second, we can ask how this volume contributes to Buddhist-Christian studies. Cross-readings of Buddhism and deconstruction may indeed catalyze a new linguistic world in which comparative encounters of Buddhism(s) and Christianity(ies) may be more imaginatively written. The contributors' conversation with Robert Magliola and his project in Deconstructing Life-Worlds ends by reminding us that "Western Christian" can be (and probably always has been) a complex construction containing as many interesting variables and nuances as any given Buddhist or deconstructionist project. But if so, more needs to be said if we are to factor that more complex understanding of Christianity into a larger "Buddhisms and Deconstructions and Christianities" conversation that does not demonize Christianity in order to liberate Buddhism and deconstruction.
Third, additional follow-up issues will be more particular to other readers, such as this reviewer, who want to use this book as a reminder and guide even while engaging in other kinds of comparative study with other conversation partners. As a Roman Catholic engaged in the study of classical Hindu texts that have a strongly theological, even ontotheological perspectives, I am not only chastened regarding the essentialist, substantialist, and cryptotheological habits of my own writing, but also encouraged, with some relief, to appreciate the solid lineages, lifelong training, and enduring doctrinal claims about real realities and persons that make Hindu and Christian traditions natural conversation [End Page 186] partners, even friends. Ontotheological foundations—revealed, tried, exonerated—graciously manage to provide deep rooted and fruitful places for learning. Reading Hindu texts through other Catholic and Jesuit eyes, but still with Derridean care and agility, promises to complement and even reconstruct this pioneering Buddhisms and Deconstructions and its Magliolan inspiration.