Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and
Social Virtuosity in Ch'an Buddhism. By peter D. Hershock. Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1996. Pp.236.
- Reviewed by Brook Ziporyn
- Philosophy East & West Volume 48, Number 3, July 1998; P.
This is a work of great originality and surpassing philosophical
interest, as well as a subtle and penetrating improvisation on themes suggested by the
canonical works of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism. Taking seriously both the canonical Ch'an
rhetoric and recent refinements in Western scholarly apprehensions concerning the
distinctive features of the Chinese cultural and philosophical world in which it emerged
ów especially the concept of the relational and social self as primary and the priority
of axiology to ontology ów Hershock develops the thesis that Ch'an enlightenment is best
understood not as the attainment of an individual state of interior or subjective
perfection, but rather as an intersubjective virtuosity and improvisational precedent-less
responsiveness, enacted not in any one putative being but in the communicative interstices
between all social persons.
This paradigm shift for understanding Ch'an Buddhism does for that
tradition something like what Hall and Ames have done for/to Confucius, and bears some of
the same risks and glories. On the one hand, it is undeniably and exceptionally fruitful
in promoting the sort of gestalt-shift (a metaphor
Hershock is fond of) that will allow us to take these texts seriously
at all. Indeed, recent trends have all but abandoned any attempt to take Ch'an bigmouths
at their word, and have had to start treating them as an especially slippery and cunning
form of ideological smoke screen. Hershock's alternative seems to be the only one so far
one that many of us will find far preferable ów it has at least the
virtue of being philosophically interesting.
Moreover, it cannot be denied that the themes Hershock identifies are
indeed staples of Chinese thinking, and certainly form a part of the deep structure that
helps us to understand the often strange-sounding pronouncements of this most
weirdness-mongering of all Chinese schools. In particular, the primacy of
intersubjectivity, as irreducible, ultimate, and constitutive of all experience, has
proved to be of indispensable usefulness also in the treatment of some of the stranger
formulations of Tiantai Buddhism, and Hershock's work suggests that one of the founding
distinctions between Indian and Chinese Buddhism must be located in precisely this issue,
with roots digging deep into the respective traditions. This insight is invaluable and, to
this reviewer at least, incontestable.
However, like all such radical rereadings of an old set of texts into a
modern idiom for a modern audience, Hershock's interpretation, like that of Hall and Ames
before him, runs the risk of shameless gerrymandering and fanciful looseness. To his
credit, Hershock is well aware of this danger and, even more to his credit, realizes that
the Buddhist vision of universal ambiguity to which he presents himself as committed
already makes any other conception of scholarship quite untenable. Indeed, to the extent
that Buddhist scholars with no more than a passing historical interest in their topic
remain something of an exception, it is surely strange that this issue has not become the
central methodological point of discussion in the field, inasmuch as certain readings of
the doctrine of emptiness and its relation to worldly truth would unquestionably undermine
and indeed demolish any attempt at historical researches, into Buddhism or anything else,
that assume a foundational objectivist epistemology. It is time for Buddhists to ask what
kind of history, if any, can be done in the context of a renunciation of the very
possibility of nonambiguous meaning. Hershock's book may mark a catalyst in bringing this
discussion to a new and fruitful level of crisis.
Be that as it may, it is hard to avoid the impression that some of
Hershock's renderings are more persuasive and attractive than others; the gloss of the
Chinese conception of kong ('suunyataa) as "relinquishing all horizons for
relevance" is profoundly insightful and useful, for example, and maps very tightly
onto many applications of the term in Chinese Buddhism, while the translation of wu-wei as
a form of conduct free of reference to conventional precedent seems a bit harder to
swallow, especially since the term is often used, it would seem, in precisely the opposite
sense, as unthinking accord with conventional precedent. Occasionally
there are fanciful analyses of Chinese terms and characters that will
certainly make more consevative sinologists wince.
The prevalence of (often excellent) metaphors drawn from
improvisational music and dancing and sex will, one likes to think, be pointed to by
thirtieth-century Buddhologists in the same way that their twentieth-century counterparts
regard tropes relating to filial piety in early Chinese Buddhism as a telltale mark of a
text dating from acertain phase in the process of the Americanization of Buddhism ów
which of course is certainly not to the detriment of the work in any way, nor indeed does
it at all undermine the appropriateness and usefulness of these metaphors. Buddhism, as
Hershock well knows, has no need to deny the legitimacy of such developments, nor to
dismiss them as distorions of an original, unambiguous set of doctrines or modes of
discourse, and can indeed point to their proliferation as unqualfiedly legitimate
exfoliations of the Dharma.
A more serious shortcoming, perhaps, is Hershock's insistence on
interpreting intersubjectivity and sociality in what may be a manner too literal to accord
with his own insistence on their constitutive status; why, one wonders (thinking of the
Tiantai case again, as well as Hui-neng's explicit statement to this effect in the
Platform Sutra), are not apparently private and interanl states of mind experienced in the
seclusion of a meditator`s cell just as
thoroughly and irreducibly intersubjective as literal social
interaction ? The constitutive nature of such a duality, which would make " private
" experience also profoundly intersubjective, and " intersubjective "
experience also profoundly private.
However, none of that should detract from the obvious conclusion that
this book is a treasure trove of finely wrought insights and ideas, a work of relentless
originality and possibly epoch-making importance, especially noteworthy for its
thoroughgoing pursuit of all the implications of its founding insights, yielding new and
fruitful ways of looking at our experience, in a way that is all too rare.
Sincere thanks to Tinh Tue for typesetting of this