Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Engagement with Language as a Buddhist Path
Dennis Hirota
Winter Heidelberg 2006

I was hesitant for a long time about starting to review this slim (156 pages) book. Physically slim it is, but every page is dense with important ideas that I do not want to misrepresent. This is a very ambitious and significant book. The project Hirota attempts ends up being nothing less than to articulate the content of the central experience of the Jodo Shinshu way - shinjin.

In the Prologue, Hirota defines the intellectual ground he intends to occupy. Since the crucial part of his concern is with our engagement with the language of Shinran's teachings, he must explore the very limits of what language can and cannot convey. This brings Hirota to consider modern 'critical' thought (which is critical of the reification of texts, amongst other things) and how it can engage in a creative dialogue with Mahayana Buddhist traditions in general and Shinran's thought in particular. At the end of the Prologue, he foreshadows the concerns of the rest of the book.

'How does our engagement with the Pure Land teaching (hearing and saying the Name) differ from our usual delusional linguistic activity, so that it becomes the cause and the activity of enlightenment?' (p13)

We move on to the first part of the book, modestly entitled 'A Buddhist View of Language. This modest title foreshadows an attempt to consider how Buddhist language engages with reality. This is potentially an almost unfathomably complicated project. The Buddhist sutras constitute a vast array of texts, and the written and oral teachings derived from them are uncountable. Critical theory goes as far as to assert that there is nothing but text! I do not want to debate that here, but critical theory in its emphasis on the mutability of text dependent on the reader and the reader's background tells us something that may not have been obvious until it was stated, but which should be - texts (and teachers) speak to different people in different ways. This concept is interesting when applied to secular texts. It is vitally important when we are considering the sutras and commentaries on them and even oral teachings. Words lead and mislead but language is a fundamental human capacity and it makes us what we are. The sutras have potentially infinite meanings and I should think most Buddhist teachers have been conscious of this. The meaning taken from a teaching may well depend on who is hearing it, but the intent of the Buddha's teachings is always the same.

Hirota has an understanding of all this and more but a Buddhist understanding of language is deeper and more sophisticated than the critical perspective. Moreover, he is concerned with the transformative power of language rather than simply with a philosophical position. Hirota considers Shinran Shonin's use of language in his writings and in his oral teachings as reported in Tannisho. He begins with one of Shinran's most challenging assertions from Tannisho.

'...all matters without exception are lies and gibberish, totally without truth and sincerity.'

This is not nihilism but is, as Hirota points out, a statement made from a deep understanding of the falsity of human nature and human speech. Language is fundamental to our humanity, and the falsity of our language is an inevitable part of what we are. Hirota calls it the 'linguisticality of human existence.'

The next chapter, 'Reality as Language' moves from a consideration of what Shinran considered true to the concept of 'reality as name', a concept again enunciated in Tannisho as the next part of the passage quoted above.

'The Nembutsu alone is true, real and sincere.'

This brings us to the next chapter which Hirota calls 'The Dialogic Structure of True Language' and in which he relates the creative tension between the Dharmakaya as Suchness and the Dharmakaya as compassionate means to that between the Name and the Vow. Thus language and reality intersect. This brings to an end the first section of the book. The creative analysis of the language of Shinran's creative in the sense that the analysis stimulates thought, not in the sense that something not present is being dreamt up - that this part of the book undertakes is subtle and, in the end, reveals much about the content of Shinran's insight and teachings. Shinran could convey his understanding only by language, but his use of language was careful and creative and bears close analysis. Hirota has conveyed his analysis in a form which is, as is Shinran's, allusive and dense with meaning. It bears repeated reading, and some understanding of what Hirota has to say here - and my brief attempts here just convey something of the flavour but not much of the substance - is necessary before the rest of the book is attempted.

The second part of the book is 'Engagement with the Pure Land Teachings'. In the first chapter of this section, 'Modes of Engagement with the Teaching', Hirota introduces one of his core concepts. In the initial stage of engagement, the person entering the Pure Land path finds a tension between his or her aspiration and the image of the perfection of the Pure Land. This tension will provoke introspection and, at some time, the tensions are overcome (but not eliminated) and this is shinjin.

The rest of the book is, in a sense, an elaboration of this concept but Hirota has further insights to share. In the next chapter, 'The Encounter with Truth', he elaborates on Shinran's use of language in his teaching. Despite the deep knowledge of Buddhist texts that Shinran displayed in writing his Kyogyoshinsho, in the records of his personal encounters with those who came to him seeking clarification and re-assurance (Tannisho), he declined to provide textural authority for his understanding, instead presenting his reliance on the insight and attitude of absolute reliance on the Nembutsu of his teacher, Honen. Hirota calls this Shinran's notion of truth becoming 'manifest as a mode of apprehension and not a conceptual formulation.' This is, actually, one definition of 'prajna'. He continues with the chapter, 'The Context of Encounter' and equates 'the abandonment of the mind of self-power' with shinjin. This abandonment of self-power is genuine engagement with the Pure Land teachings and implies abandonment of the self deceiving interior monologue that compares the self with some (unattainable but still strived for) ideal and which judges others and itself against this ideal. This concept could also be expressed in the teaching phrase that Amida invites each of us to 'come as you are'. This is a homely turn of phrase, but deeply affecting, nevertheless. Hirota, here as everywhere in this book, is striving to intellectualize the experience of shinjin. I mean this not in a deprecatory sense but in the sense that he is trying to put core concepts of Shinran's teachings, teachings that we perhaps accept in an emotional and visceral sense, into terms that an intellectual outsider, Buddhist or not, could understand.

Part Three of the book is 'Truth as a Transformative Event.' In the first chapter, 'Shinran Face to Face', Hirota delves further into Shinran's use of language as recorded in Tannisho. This is a critical chapter and Hirota here shows how Shinran's mature shinjin led to a 'fundamental rift [...] between the question and the mind-set from which it arises, on the one hand, and Shinran's response on the other.' In other words, Shinran confounded the preconceptions of his interlocutors but with the effect of opening them up to his state of mind. In the next chapter, Hirota returns to and elaborates on the content of 'authentic engagement' with the Pure Land teachings. Authentic engagement is, of course, shinjin and Hirota reminds us that Shinran taught that shinjin is given in 'one thought moment' and that it is 'once and for all'. He also points out that there is another aspect or phase which is a continuation of the engagement and the effect this continues to have on an individual.

Hirota expands on this in the fourth and final part of the book proper, 'Language and Religious Awareness' and he gets straight to the point in the first chapter of this section, 'Language and the Realization of Shinjin'. This chapter and the next are the final two and the epitome of the book. In this chapter, Hirota elaborates on the experience of shinjin and Shinran's use of language in his attempts to teach others to hear the Name. This is again an attempt to reveal what 'authentic engagement' (shinjin) is and this was surely Shinran's objective as well. The last chapter, 'Living from the Name of Buddha', seems awkwardly named at first glance, but the title draws the reader into the content. Here Hirota expands on the content of the life of the authentically-engaged Pure Land practitioner which is, in the end, nothing less than 'to come to speak what is true within ordinary words and to enact what is real within acts of daily life.'

After the concluding chapter, there is a postscript 'Shinran and Hermeneutical Thought', an appendix, a glossary and an afterword. It is quite a journey making one's way through this important book. It is not for the casually interested, but will likely fulfill its author's aim and provide a basis for dialogue with Western philosophers. Buddhists from backgrounds other than Jodo Shinshu could find common ground here if they were inclined to look. For Shin Buddhists, the articulation of what we perhaps feel, more than intellectualize, should help us better to understand our experience and therefore improve our ability to invite others to hear Amida's call.

- Mark Healsmith

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