Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 147-151
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Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism
Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism. By DaleS.Wright. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv +227 pp.
In a work brimming with unobtrusive erudition and centered on the figure of Huang Po (d. 850), Dale Wright offers a seasoned account of a topic that is still very much in need of clarification, namely, the roles of language, conceptuality, textuality, interpretation, and historical development in Zen Buddhism. Some recent critics tend to see Zen as incoherent or even hypocritical in that this "special transmission outside the sutras, not dependent on language and texts, pointing directly to mind" (quoted, p. 64) in reality developed complex and varied textual and ritual traditions from [End Page 147] which the supposedly pure enlightenment experience cannot be siphoned out. Wright argues that the critics themselves are often naive, giving an inverted reflection of the naiveté of earlier scholars such as John Blofeld, who saw Zen as centered on an ineffable Supreme Experience, quite independent of the language used to point to it. Nonetheless, Wright himself is in basic agreement with the critics and in radical opposition to Blofeld (and to D. T. Suzuki). But he points out that the early Chinese Zen masters speak in many voices, often anticipating the most sophisticated insights of their critics.Wright's style is very unlike that of Bernard Faure, being slow, serene, reflective, scrupulous, and imbued with the deepest respect for the Zen tradition. Yet his thought rejoins Faure's at many points.
The thrust of Wright's argument is to demystify Zen enlightenment by reinserting it in its varied linguistic, social, institutional, and historical contexts. He gives a realistic and holistic account of what Zen experience must have been like for disciples of Huang Po (pp. 187-192). His stress on the linguisticality of all experience certainly illuminates the texture of Huang Po's world. But I am left wondering if there is not another aspect of Zen that is missed here. Modern philosophers have derived much insight from the realization that thought and perception are deeply embedded in language. But I do not know that anyone has proven that there can never be a thinking or perception that is independent of language. Even the supposedly pan-textualist Derrida states somewhere that he does not exclude the possibility of nonlinguistic thought. In most fields of inquiry this abstruse question makes no practical difference, but in the case of Zen it is of crucial import. The presupposition of universal linguisticality, especially if it hardens into a dogma, may block access to the core of Zen experience.
Wright argues that though some Zen masters sought prelinguistic immediacy, the majority were deeply aware of the inseparability of experience and the language in which it is grasped. But could it not be that prelinguistic immediacy was so much taken for granted in Zen that the masters scarcely needed to insist on it? Wright says that enlightenment itself is a linguistic event, since it is often occasioned by a verbal statement and given immediate expression in another verbal statement. But to recognize the indispensability of language for conveying experience is not necessarily to imply that the experience itself is dependent on language. Although a certain poem of Huang Po "strives to make its anti-textual point, the master must enter into the textual world to do so, thus abandoning the position of 'no dependence on texts'" (p. 22). Is it really necessary to see a contradiction here, given that, as Wright himself points out, "no unanimity on the meaning of the mandate against 'words and letters' existed" (p. 26)? Let us suppose that the point is nonattachment to texts and a realization of the intrinsic independence of enlightenment from the limited perspectives of textuality, language, and conceptual thought. This is quite compatible with intensive use of texts in practice.
Blofeld explains that texts were useful to the learner but cast aside when enlightenment was reached. Wright argues that the enlightened experience must "continue to hold within it, and...