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  • Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path
  • Michiko Yusa
Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path. By Dennis Hirota . Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag 12, 2006. Pp. ix+ 156

Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Pathby Dennis Hirota is a book that grew out of lectures given by the author at the Fürst Franz-Josef and Fürstin Gina Memorial Philosophy Lecture series in Liechtenstein (p. 153). Herein the author examines the significant role that language plays in the religious practice of the True Pure Land Sect of Japanese Buddhism (hereafter referred to as Shin Buddhism), founded by Shinran (1173–1263). Hirota's original audience being those present at his lectures, this book directly engages Western intellectuals, Christian and non-Christian.

Hirota examines the language act of recitation of " Namu Amidabutsu" ( nembutsu) and hearing the name of Amida Buddha ( monmyō) as fundamental religious practice, sustained by the Buddha's spirituality of wisdom and compassion ( shinjin). This approach to Shinran's teaching via language opens up the treasure chest of Shin Buddhism, making it accessible to those who are interested in the philosophical question of language and how it is related to everyday experience and spirituality.

Hirota starts out with a general discussion of Shinran's view of language, namely that ordinary deluded human beings cannot grasp the "truth," which is none other than the significance of Amida's Primary Vow revealed in the world of history. The Buddha essence ( dharmakāya) or spirituality, however, transcends thought and speech and enables the transformation of the deluded beings (chapters 1, 2, 3). Next, he investigates how language itself is not denied by Shinran. Rather, we should return to the origin of language, which is wisdom and reality, and enter into the "Pure Land," "Amida's bosom," "truth," or "suchness," to which language directs us. By entering this realm, the "teleological duality of this world and the Pure Land" and the "interpersonal duality of the self and the Buddha" are overcome, but the duality itself is not abolished (p. 53). In this experience, shinjin(the wisdom-compassion of Amida, and not one's own "faith") becomes the pipeline that connects duality. Shinran asks us to become aware of the falsity of ordinary language and the reality of true language; this is because "the world is characterized by the simultaneous presence of false and true languages." This is in line with Shinran's teaching that " nirvanais attained without severing blind passions" (p. 57). Shinran tells us to discard our moral judgment of good and evil, because it is still a stance of reliance on one's hubris (chapters 4, 5, 6).

In part 3, Hirota discusses two decisive moments for Shin Buddhists: (1) the entrance into the true awareness of shinjin, which takes place in a single thought-moment and transforms the practitioner radically from a self-centered being to an [End Page 382]Amida-centered being, and (2) the continuing practice carried out throughout one's life (chapters 7, 8). This seems to parallel the Zen experience in which the attainment of awakening or Kenshōand the sustained post -Kenshōpractice are both essential. In the final part, Hirota describes how the act of hearing the "Name" of Amida Buddha fills the awakened practitioner with the Buddha's virtues, and this transforms "our evil into virtue." Hearing the Name in the shinjin,our calculative thinking and ego-centric self drop away. In this way, chanting the Name of Amida, either "voiced or voiceless," functions as a "sacrament," and in this sense, concludes Hirota, the Name presents a new paradigm of language (chapters 9 and 10).

This book demands of the reader a certain familiarity with Shinran's teaching. Being truly well versed in the writings of Shinran, Hirota cites with mastery passages from the vast and complex body of treatises and other writings. Therefore, in order to engage in a meaningful conversation with the author, we would do well to bring out a copy of Tannishōand Kyōgyōshinshōto read, or reread, as the author unfolds his philosophical contemplation.

I found Hirota's discussion on the relationship between Amida, Dharmakāra, and...


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