- Zen Buddhist Rhetoric in China, Korea, and Japan ed. by Christoph Anderl
In the past twenty-five years, it has become increasingly common for scholars to study so-called Zen1 Buddhism not in terms of its history per se, but in terms of its literary and rhetorical practices. The impetus for this approach has come primarily from our increasing appreciation of the extent to which traditional Zen history itself was a rhetorically crafted fiction. At least in its supposed heyday, during Tang China, Zen Buddhism was, it now seems to many scholars, not so much a discreet, institutionally embodied sect of Chinese Buddhism, but a set of discursive practices and imagined traditions based on the idea of a continuous lineage of enlightened Zen masters stretching back to the Buddha. Arguably, even in the later Song dynasty (960–1279), Zen was distinguished from other forms of Chinese Buddhism primarily in such terms: by its discourse about the nature of awakening, its unique textual genres such as the enigmatic dialogues commonly known as gongan (Jpn. kōan), and the practices associated with these genres, including written and oral commentary, ritual performance, and meditation.
Zen Buddhist Rhetoric in China, Korea, and Japan, the fruit of an international conference held in the fall of 2008, adds to the growing body of scholarship that approaches Zen in these terms. The overall quality of the contributions is high, and despite the large number of typographical and grammatical errors, some of which suggest that the book did not receive a final run-through by a native speaker of English,2 this volume will remain a useful reference for scholars of Zen for many years to come. Christoph Anderl, the editor, is to be praised for having brought together scholars working on a wide range of topics. The inclusion of several chapters on Korean Buddhism is particularly welcome given its relative neglect within Western-language scholarship. This volume is thus ambitious in scope and is, indeed, one of the few books in any language that has attempted to gain purchase on the entire Zen tradition and the diversity of linguistic and cultural contexts within which it has been found.
Anderl’s introduction—at more than eighty pages, nearly a short monograph in itself—sets the stage by surveying the many areas within Zen in which a focus on textual and rhetorical practices yields insight. Despite initially claiming interest in [End Page 564] Zen rhetoric rather than Zen doctrine (p. 2), Anderl’s most interesting point here is arguably a doctrinal one—that the creativity of Zen texts with regards to genre, rhetorical modes, and poetical or “non-referential” language can be understood as an attempt “to solve the underlying paradox between the conviction concerning the limitations of linguistic expression, and the necessity of using language to express one’s views” (p. 3). In other words, the tendency of Zen texts to avoid explicit doctrinal maxims in favor of depicting (and, in ritual, embodying) deeds and speech that express awakening directly, itself reveals, and is motivated by, a particular doctrinal understanding, namely that ultimate truth lies beyond realm of words.
Following the introduction, the first two essays address aspects of Indian Buddhism that eventually become of central importance to Zen. Jens Braavig first analyzes what he calls, in the title of his chapter, the “rhetoric of emptiness”. Specifically, he considers those Mahāyāna texts where the idea that language cannot point to the highest truth is not simply asserted, but displayed through dialogue, a narrative device that shows certain parallels to what we find in many Zen texts. Meanwhile, in his contribution, “‘Thus Have I Heard’ and Other Claims to Authenticity,” Bart Dessein examines evolving standards of textual authenticity within Indian Abhidharma literature, noting in particular how the growth of Indian Buddhist sectarianism went hand-in-hand with the development of written, rather than oral, literature, and a concomitant rise in claims to authenticity based solely...