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  • Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path
  • George Tanabe
Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path. By Dennis Hirota. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006. x + 156 pages. Soft-cover €25.00.

Every religion struggles with the problem of using language to apprehend truths that transcend language and designates certain texts as sacred scripture accepted as the final word. Even so, the meaning of scripture is not self-evident, and philosophers and theologians are forced to decipher sacred texts (including the writings of sectarian founders) and, in the process, to admit that their own commentaries cannot encapsulate the truth in words. Many masters of words—St. Thomas and the Buddha, for example—were sometimes driven to celebrated silences. But the need to articulate persists, and commentaries are then written about commentaries, all to no final avail, which is why they continue to be written, struggling to say what cannot be said.

Asura's Harp is an attempt to explain the use and limits of language in the Buddhist tradition of Shinran (1173-1263), the founder of Jōdo Shinshū, the True Pure Land Sect, and, according to Dennis Hirota, a figure "widely recognized as among the most original and consequential thinkers to emerge in Japanese civilization" (p. 3). Hirota examines Shinran's use of language within the context of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Western thought, and compares both traditions in an attempt to explain what might be called Shinran's philosophy of language.

Using oversimplified constructions of Mahāyāna and Western thought that ignore their internal complexities and differences, Hirota refers to "recent Western hermeneutical thought" as having a more hopeful view of the ability of language to elucidate, in contrast to "Buddhist thought," which sees ordinary language primarily as delusional (pp. 8-9). These general assertions, made without reference to particular thinkers, are stereotypical characterizations that might suffice for readers who know little about Buddhist or Western philosophies, but for those who have some understanding of these intellectual systems and their defining characteristics, Hirota should be more specific and identify individual thinkers or schools of thought and thereby avoid the impression that he is writing for an uninformed audience. Only in the postscript does he briefly take up specific Western thinkers.

Fortunately, Hirota is very specific when he deals with Shinran and cites from his writings liberally. The basic thesis of this book is that Shinran ascribed a positive role for language to play in the dynamics of Shinshū understanding and salvation, but one in which that language, different from ordinary discourse, was a special articulation known as the nenbutsu. Saying the Name of Amida Buddha—namu amida butsu—is an act of this special language, and the "moment one hears and says Amida's Name— whatever else one may or may not do in one's life—a transformation has occurred, expressed by the notion that one's realization of enlightenment or Buddhahood has become completely settled" (p. 12). There is more than grammar, diction, and syntax at work in nenbutsu language, and Hirota does not explain how hearing the Name equals spiritual liberation. Rather, here we see that Hirota's own language, like that of Shinran himself, does not lend itself to ordinary elucidation so much as it does to making a truth claim. This special language of the Name, in some mysterious way that transcends normal linguistic functions, has the power to sever the bonds of [End Page 515] delusional thought and is the "single exception to the falsity of ordinary human speech" (p. 32).

Throughout the book, the theme of false and true language recurs repeatedly. Ordinary language is false, and true language can be understood only if one has already attained special insight. "Since words arise from wisdom, one must apprehend them through wisdom. To encounter them with our ordinary thinking, dominated by attachment to a delusional self, is to fail to grasp the actual meaning" (p. 50). This implies that we can understand words properly only after we have gained wisdom and that language is not the means toward it. Hirota is more explicit when he states that Shinran provides a "hermeneutic circle, in which we...


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