Original insights never fully present: Chan/Zen/deconstruction.

Author:Sargent, Stuart
 
FREE EXCERPT

Like many readers who will be curious about Bernard Faure's new book, I approach it as a person with a basic knowledge of Chan/Zen Buddhism but not as a scholar of religion; I come to the book also with a specific quest for insights on those who, in literary circles, embraced the aim of Chan, in Faure's words, "to mark the phenomenal world with the seal of the absolute" believing that "in awakening, immanence turns out to be transcendence" (p. 76). That "this equation often came at the expense of transcendental values, and ... led to legitimating the profane enjoyment of the world of passions" (p. 76) I already knew. One way of understanding this phenomenon is to associate it with changes in the social background of those who participated in Chan through the centuries, notably the Ming merchant classes, who supposedly lost the inner scruples inculcated by the aristocratic mores of Tang and the scholar-official ideals of the Northern Song.(1) But to supplement this kind of historical analysis, Faure's book promises a review of the problem from the inside, using recent strategies for reading texts to analyze the duplicity in the discourse of Chan itself.

The Rhetoric of Immediacy heroically attempts to encompass the many centuries of Chan practice and doctrine in three cultures (a Korean voice is heard now and then as we shuttle back and forth between China and Japan). Because of the enormity of the task, a frequently disjointed style of presentation, and a tendency to eliminate the logical or evidential underpinnings to some of the most interesting assertions, the non-specialist is likely to be frustrated on his first pass-through. Nevertheless, there is much here to be learned.

The several types of discourse promised in the prologue - "the hermeneutical and the rhetorical, the structuralist and the historical, the 'theological' and the ideological/cultural" - come into play in the first chapter, "The Differential Tradition." Faure agrees with those who see the division of early Chan into distinct Northern and Southern schools as having been as tactical as it was ideological. He further questions the whole notion of a coherent tradition that can be termed "early Chan." For one thing, the patriarchal tradition envisioned in that notion is logically incompatible with an original Buddhist "path" a stage of the religion in which individuals may become enlightened and thus empower themselves to teach others. At the same time, we need to deconstruct the very notion of that earlier stage as embodying a "pure" Chan principle that is later "corrupted." Not only are there ambiguities and contradictions at every turn: "the 'original' insight ... may exist only as a [Derridean] 'trace,' something that was never 'present' to a fully awakened consciousness, since there is no self that can actually live the experience" (p. 27). This last clause combines deconstruction and Chan itself to question not only the historical notion of an "originating" teaching, but even the ideological construct of an "originating" experience.

Nowhere is the ambiguity of Chan more apparent than in the dichotomy of sudden and gradual enlightenment, the topic of the second chapter. Faure cautions that this dichotomy is not coterminous with the North-South schism; both Northern and Southern schools were "sudden" in seeing enlightenment as imminent and immanent and "gradual" in being unable to do away with mediation, using "skillful means" or mediate stages of preparation to bring the practitioner close to awakening (p. 36). Once again, the intersection of theoretical Chan and deconstruction on the question of language is brought into play to question the reality of the theoretical opposition: "Speaking of the 'sudden' is always gradual; even dismissing subitism and gradualism in the name of a higher, truer 'subitism' is already derivative and therefore gradual."(2) Saying, as Faure does, that any thought in language about enlightenment "can only point to an always-receding horizon or absolute origin" making it "a vanishing point, an ideal origin - but also an ideological construct" (p. 42) brackets (phenomenologically) or denies (deconstructively) that enlightenment has taken place.

A related problem is that "[s]udden awakening cannot be the result of an empirical progress. Even when it is preceded by gradual practice, it is not as an effect [that] is preceded by its causes, for it is one of those states that, in Elster's words, are 'essentially by-products'" (p. 45).

Faure at this point suggests in a footnote two extremely seminal ideas that should have been explored more fully in his text. Jon Elster (reference is to his Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality [Cambridge, 1983]) shows that the very effort required to sustain the practice intended to produce the desired "by-product" state can block that state from occurring; but Chan, according to Faure, "solves the problem by positing that something, at the critical point, is taking over and continues to perform" the practice. Faure neglects to tell us where in Chan texts this solution is proposed and what it is that "takes over." Equally tantalizing is the suggestion that the "technology" of Chan must include a "sub-technology" that obliterates all memory of the traces left by the process. The reader may wonder: if this refers to the fact that any by-product is also "preceded by its causes" why in this case is it necessary that those causes remain unknown? Is it because liberation from the cycle of cause-and-effect must by definition not be an effect of a cause? Is it because the sensation of awakening is a matter of brain chemistry being altered by meditation or other practices, and this is beyond the reach of Chan ideology? (Chan discomfiture with hallucinations experienced during meditation is mentioned on pp. 105-7; it would have been useful to distinguish this more clearly from the Chan rejection of purposeful "occultic use of meditation.") Faure's sentence raises a number of possible interpretations, but we are given no guidance on which to consider.

A point made several times in this chapter is that "the sudden/gradual dichotomy is constantly blurred in the actual practice or discourse of Chan monks" (p. 48). More intriguing is the assertion that Chan never discusses gradualism "although it remains unchallenged in actual practice. The entire Chan tradition seems to hinge on this scapegoat mechanism" (p. 49). Perhaps this silence is the "sub-technology" of erasure mentioned in the footnote four pages earlier?

Before we can ponder that, we are presented with another interesting suggestion: awakening is like death insofar as there is a process that must be undergone before it is "absorbed, ratified by the collectivity" (p. 49). The comparison implies that the function of Chan practice is to affirm publicly an enlightenment that has already taken place. This is to put Zongmi's "sudden awakening followed by gradual practice" (p. 42; perhaps familiar enough not to require citation of a source, for none is given) into a potentially useful anthropological frame: a person is "awakened" at some point in life but does not experience it as such until the community recognizes it. Or perhaps Faure means to allude to the Chan teaching that we are originally enlightened. Either way, if we reflect that death is like "the 'original' insight ... [that] may exist only as a 'trace' something that was never 'present' to a fully awakened consciousness, since there is no self that can actually live the experience" as discussed above, the parallel would be truly fascinating. That is, neither death nor total awakening can be "lived" yet there are times when their traces must be acknowledged in life. Is this the parallel between funerals and gradual cultivation in Chan that Faure wants to draw?

Chapter three, "The Twofold Truth of Immediacy" treats the problematic doctrine that "passions are awakening;" to which I alluded at the beginning as relevant to a great deal of Chinese literature, both lyrical and...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP