- Emptiness and Temporality: Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Poetics
Back in 1979 Earl Miner wrote that “Shinkei is a poet of real genius, not studied as he deserves, perhaps because of the difficulties he presents.”1 In what have now become three substantial volumes devoted to this fifteenth-century poet, Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen has given the world of Anglophone studies of classical Japanese poetry so extensive a treatment of Shinkei that it now probably runs second only to what other studies have provided of Bashō. Her first volume was Heart’s Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei,2 which was followed by a volume of translations and commentary, Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei.3 Her third volume, the focus of this review, expands on some of her comments in the second book and, as described on its opening page, represents “a book of poetic theory, philosophy, and critical practice.” Emptiness and Temporality, though physically thinner than its predecessors, is intellectually weightier and made so by a very ambitious agenda.
I fully share one of Ramirez-Christensen’s core assumptions—namely, that some understanding of Mahayana Buddhism is requisite for grasping what is going on in much of medieval Japan’s poetry. In fact, my sharing of this core assumption as applied to Noh theater drew criticism—however off target in my view—earlier in this journal.4 That she and I fully agree on this becomes apparent in Emptiness and Temporality when, having claimed that Western scholarship on Japanese literature has not “adequately appreciated or rigorously examined” what about that literature is Buddhist (p. 4), she cites a book of mine that [End Page 547] was published a quarter century ago as the “notable exception.”5 My offering of a caveat lector here will not, I hope, make disingenuous my gratitude for this citation. But, in truth, Ramirez-Christiansen’s list is far too short. She overlooks what now is a sizable shelf of books and dissertations doing what she claims has not been done. A short and surely imperfect list of just the North America–trained scholars who have seriously dealt, however diversely, with the roles of Buddhism in classical, medieval, and even early modern literature would have to include Robert Morrell, Edward Kamens, James Sanford, Sonja Arntzen, Linda Chance, Thomas Hare, Rajyashree Pandey, Margaret Childs, Michael Marra, Arthur Thornhill, Susan Klein, David Barnhill, Stephen Miller, Ryuichi Abé, and Leopold Hanami.6
That not one of these scholars receives mention in Emptiness and Temporality invites curiosity. Perhaps, however, these omissions are only a natural consequence of Ramirez-Christensen’s judgment that the Zen monk-poet Shinkei (1406–1475) stood so clearly at the apex of theorizing the nexus between Buddhism and poetry that, by comparison, all other literary works of the long medieval epoch, even when informed by Buddhism or trying to say why it mattered to poets and playwrights, were at best no more than adumbrations of Shinkei’s views.
I am not suggesting that Ramirez-Christensen imposes an elitist stance on Shinkei. Imposition was hardly needed. The poet-theorist himself viewed his own perspective as that from the summit. And, tellingly, Ramirez-Christensen defends his “occasionally denunciatory prose and tone of authority” as characteristics that “do not sit well with modern and liberal permissive attitudes” but coherently reflect Shinkei’s belief in “the primacy of mind” and concomitant repudiation of any notion that “a common, mundane way of thinking is sufficient for a truly human existence” (p. 129). With Shinkei positioned alone up there on the peak, poets and theorists struggling upward but still at much lower levels are bound to seem less worthy of attention. Ramirez-Christensen even hints at her own special identification [End Page 548] with Shinkei, describing her book through an analogy to two coupled “verses” within a renga sequence: “In sum, it is all a question of reading, and what I am doing is writing a tsukeku to Shinkei’s riddle maeku in order to comprehend it...