AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 515

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Session 515: New Directions in the Study of East Asian Zen Buddhism

Organizer: Morten Schlutter, University of Iowa, USA

Discussant: Griffith Foulk, Sarah Lawrence College, USA

The academic study of East Asian Zen Buddhism (Ch.: Chan, Kr.: Son) has developed considerably since the work of D.T. Suzuki (1870–1966) and other pioneers, in a number of different ways. Most significantly, perhaps, is the move scholars have made away from accepting Zen’s traditional essentializing representation of its own history; in a process that has been ongoing for several decades. But equally important are more recent attempts of placing particular expressions of Zen in East Asia in broader contexts of multiple dimensions. It is becoming increasingly clear that to achieve a fuller understanding of Zen we must expand our inquiry and contextualize our studies in new ways, that frequently tend to break with earlier academic approaches. The papers in this proposed panel each address specific aspects of East Asian Zen, exploring new contexts while reevaluating longstanding academic assumptions, and often challenging previously accepted ideas. The panel is also distinguished by its international character. Academic study of East Asian Zen has tended to be rather insular, and in the past there has been relatively little direct interaction between Asian, European, and American scholars. This panel seeks to facilitate communication and expand the dialogue by featuring Chinese, Japanese, Korean and French scholars as panelists, with a US academic as the discussant. The papers will be posted online before the meeting, and the presentations and response will be kept to 15 minutes each to allow ample time for discussion.

Dogen’s View of Enlightenment and Practice and his Dream Vision of the Ancient Patriarch Damei.
Shudo Ishii, Komazawa University, Japan

Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of Japanese Soto Zen (Ch.: Caodong Chan) Buddhism, is well-known for his ideas about the identity of enlightenment and practice, expressed in concepts like “wondrous practice based on innate enlightenment” (honsho myoshu). Dogen maintained that even the beginner’s practice is original enlightenment itself, and sharply criticized the Linji (Jpn.: Rinzai) school of Chan which stresses “turning delusion into realization.” There has been considerable debate among scholars about whether Dogen mainly transmitted ideas that he had been taught in China by his master Tiantong Rujing (1162-1227) and others, or if he primarily arrived at his own deep insights and understanding. In this paper, I will examine some examples of how Dogen utilizes Chinese Chan literature to make his points about enlightenment and practice. I argue that in Dogen’s retelling of the Chinese stories it can often be observed how he interprets them in creative new ways to illustrate his insights. In particular, I will examine Dogen’s description of the vision he had of the legendary Chan master Damei Fachang (752-839) while in China, and how a famous story about Damei later becomes dramatically reinterpreted in several of Dogen’s sermons to make the point that enlightenment is identical to sitting meditation. In the conclusion, I will revisit the question of Dogen’s relationship to Chinese Chan.

The Zen Oxherding Pictures and Kyoto-School Philosophy
Yansheng He, Independent Scholar, Japan

The Kyoto school of philosophy and religion has an especially close relationship with Buddhism. Its founder, Kitaro Nishida (1870–1945) set out to create a philosophical system that he felt could express Eastern thought, but he developed his famous logic of basho (usually translated as “place” or “topos”) and his concept of “absolute nothingness” mainly from his understanding of Zen Buddhism. But what exactly is the relationship between the Kyoto School of philosophy and Zen? In spite of a number of studies, this is still not well understood. Furthermore, almost all scholarship on this has focused on Nishida and his immediate successors. In this paper, I begin to investigate developments in the later Kyoto school to better understand how the Kyoto school’s understanding of, and relationship with, Zen Buddhism may have evolved over time. To this end, I will investigate the well-known contemporary Kyoto-school scholar Ueda Shizuteru’s understanding of the “Ten Oxherding Pictures” of the Zen school. Ueda has written a number of papers on the Oxherding Pictures and together with Yanagida Seizan he published the book The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Phenomenology of the Self (Jugyu zu: Joko no genshogaku, Tokyo: Chikuma shobo, 1992). Based on an examination of this material, I will argue that Ueda is engaging with Zen thought in a much more deeply involved mode than earlier philosophers in Kyoto school did, and I begin to map out how and why this development occurred.

Discovering the Doctrinal Positions in Ikkyu's Kyoun-shu
Didier Davin, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, France

The stanzas of the eccentric and iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist poet-priest Ikkyu (1394-1481) gathered in his famous collection, the Kyoun-shu, have always been a challenge to their readers, and even more so to the scholar who attempts to interpret them. Influenced by both Chinese poetry and Chinese Chan writings, Ikkyu’s poetry can be read as literature but also as the expression of his religious thinking. The overtly provocative and transgressive mode of the poems has often been interpreted as critical of society and the monastic community of Ikkyu’s time. But as a Zen monk, Ikkyu also put his doctrinal stance in verse. Recent studies in Chinese Chan have shown that the theoretical meaning of Chan texts can indeed be explained, even after the hermeneutical revolution caused by the rise of the gongan (Jpn.: koan) literature in the Song dynasty (960-1279). In spite of the impression of incomprehensibility, produced by the perceived impossibility of expressing the timeless truth of Chan/Zen in rational discourse, Chan and Zen monks did not cease to articulate their doctrinal stands. In this paper, I will show, through concrete examples, how it is possible to read Ikkyu’s doctrinal doctrinal in his poetry. I will further argue that we need to rethink our approaches to the whole Kyoun-shu, and begin to consider Ikkyu not only in terms of the persona he created for himself through his transgressive stanzas, but also as a profound religious thinker.

Gradual Experiences of Sudden Enlightenment: The Varieties of Gong'an Son (Zen) Practice in Contemporary Korea
Ryan B. Joo, Hampshire College, USA

While arguing that the teachings of koan (Kr.: gong’an, Ch.: gongan) practice in the West have been partial to the Japanese Rinzai Zen tradition, this paper introduces the gong’an teachings of three prominent contemporary Korean Son masters: Songdam, Seongcheol and Subul. In contrast to the popular discourse of the nonduality of subject and object that dominates Japanese and Western Zen literatures, the teachings of Korean masters are preoccupied by the discussion of arousing doubt in regards to the assigned gong’an, and different meditation stages prior to sudden enlightenment (Kr.: don’o). In spite of the ruling orthodoxy of sudden enlightenment in the Korean Son tradition, Korean masters have often expounded different stages that most practitioners experience prior to sudden awakening. In addition, their description of the pre-enlightenment experience emphasizes strongly the bodily dimension. Although the actual methods of arousing doubt vary from one master to another, they all agree that the gong’an is neither a series of riddles demanding to be solved with “correct” answers, nor a mantra intended to produce the state of samadhi. Instead, they maintain, it is a skillful means through which a practitioner gradually experiences both cognitive and somatic transformation. In this paper, I will explore the different approaches to arousing doubt of these three Son masters, and will seek to place contemporary Korean gong’an practice in the historical context of the Chinese gongan tradition on which it is based.