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  • Asura’s Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path
  • Kenneth K. Tanaka
Asura’s Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path. By Dennis Hirota. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 2006. 156 pp.

In Asura’s Harp, Hirota focuses on the Pure Land Buddhist thought of Shinran (1173–1263), the founder of Jōdo Shinshō school and one of the major figures of Japanese Buddhism. I believe Hirota’s main argument of the book is succinctly expressed on its back cover blurb: “Unlike monastic traditions that seek the eradication of delusional attachments through transcendence of ordinary thought and speech, Shinran teaches that human existence is inevitably characterized by linguisticality and that the genuinely practicable path to realization lies in engagement with language.” For Hirota, language plays a central role in the religious transformative experience called Shinjin, considered a genuine awareness of the self and the world. This way of understanding religious language goes against the dominant view, especially that of Zen with its proverbial “beyond words” approach 1 and contemporary Buddhist discussions on language as being limited and even false.

In the prologue of the book, Hirota points out the growing convergence in the Buddhist outlook and the current interest in Western thought. Both traditions see that “persons are not autonomous agents making judgments and initiating actions independently of others, their past, and their location in society and history” (p. 2). Instead, humans are now seen to be situated in particular temporal and spatial circumstances, with its attendant limitations, prejudices, and finitude. In terms of language, this realization has led to a shift in Western thought from metaphysical to hermeneutical concerns, thus resonating with Buddhism’s view of ordinary language [End Page 182] as “inevitably warped by attachments and informed by falsely reifying conceptualization” (p. 2).

At the same time both traditions recognize the adaptive use of language, as seen especially in the Buddhist conception of “skillful means,” to provide guidance to self-realization and awareness. This, Hirota believes, offers an opportunity for a dialogue between contemporary Western thought and Buddhism.

With this as the backdrop, Hirota sets out to clarify the nature and significance of language in Shin Pure Land thought with an intent to contribute to this broader discussion of religious language across religious and cultural boundaries, a formidable task for any scholar. However, there is no one, in my opinion, more qualified to carry out this task than Hirota, for he served as the chief translator of the twenty-year project that culminated in the Collected Works of Shinran (CWS)2 and has been publishing insightful and provocative writings in the study of language from Shin Buddhist perspective in both English and Japanese.3 There are very few, if any, scholars in Japan dealing with this subject with the ability to talk about it in a cross-religious and disciplinary context. In more recent years, he has taken his findings to gatherings outside Japan, particularly to Europe. In fact, this book is, in large part, an outcome of the talks he delivered several years ago in the Fürst Franz-Josef and Fürstin Gina Memorial Philosophy Lecture Series at the Internationale Akademie für Philosophie in Liechtenstein.

Before I focus in on some of the central points in this book, it would be helpful to get a bird’s eye view of this book, Asura’s Harp by listing the chapter titles. The book comprises four parts: “Buddhist View of Language,” “Engagement with the Pure Land Teaching,” “Truth as Transformative Event,” and “Language and Religious Awareness.” Part 1 contains three chapters: “Shinran’s Buddhist Critique of Language,” “Reality as Language,” and “The Dialogical Structure of True Language.” Part 2 also includes three chapters: “Modes of Engagement with the Teaching,” “The Encounter with Truth,” and “The Context of Encounter.” Part 3 contains two chapters: “Shinran Face to Face” and “Hearing the Vow.” In part 4, we find two chapters: “Language and Realization of Shinjin” and “Living from the Name of Buddha.” The postscript, “Shinran and Hermeneutical Thought,” is a helpful aid in getting a little more insight into Hirota’s view on language.

As is evident by the chapter titles, there is much to comprehend and digest, particularly...