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A Buddhist Paradigm of Language

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by Dennis Hirota

For Pure Land Buddhists, the way leads not through dispelling discriminative thought and speech by meditative praxis but precisely in and through language.

Language has always been at issue in Buddhist traditions, for Buddhists have never assumed the transparency of the word. The fundamental problem is suggested in the narrative of the aftermath of Gotama Buddha's awakening. While enjoying the bliss of enlightenment, he pondered whether he should try to impart his realization to others. Doubting he would meet with understanding, he was inclined to remain silent within the joy of his own awakening. It was only after the god Brahma entreated the Buddha to teach the dharma, assuring him that there would be beings who would benefit - lotuses rising above the pond's surface undefiled - that the Blessed One rose from meditation and set out to convey the path to others. It is not that the teaching is abstruse and difficult to grasp intellectually but that our ordinary language use is tied to a delusive grasp of things. Nirvana transcends the conceptual horizon of unenlightened beings.

Buddhist masters of the various traditions have, down through history, cautioned practitioners about the need for an appropriate mode of understanding the teaching. Nagarjuna's well-known formulation admonishes: "Rely on the meaning, not on the words. . . . Rely on wisdom, not the working of the mind." Words, he states, are but the finger pointing to the moon: "Why do you look at the finger and not at the moon?"

Language is the medium in which our existence in the world takes shape and our thoughts are formed; it ordinarily functions in the lives of unenlightened persons to affirm a false, ego-centered apprehension of the self and world. At the same time, as the Chinese Pure Land master Tanluan (476-542 CE) states: "Great bodhisattvas, having awakened to formless reality, constantly abide in profound samadhi. For this very reason, they are able to display freely in all worlds numerous and diverse bodies, supernal powers, and ways of communicating truth."

Language, which ordinarily forms the tissue of our delusive perceptions and judgments, can paradoxically become the vehicle of awakened ones for guiding beings to truth.

In the following, I will focus on the Japanese Pure Land tradition, for it is here that the contrary aspects of language - as medium of false, conceptual thought and as manifestation of truth - emerge most sharply. In many Buddhist paths, the mind is stilled and delusive language use eradicated through the performance of meditative practices and disciplines, so that the practi­tioner touches suchness or reality. In the Pure Land traditions as developed in Japan, however, persons of the nembutsu say the Name of Amida Buddha, entrusting themselves to Amida's vow to bring all beings to enlightenment in his Pure Land. Practitioners do not extricate themselves from the realm of delusional language use but, instead, in encountering Amida's vow, simultaneously awaken to their own ineluctable finitude and incapacity - the impossibility of transcending the false discriminative thought and language of human existence. In this way, their lives come to embody the Buddha's practice in the form of the linguistic act of saying the Buddha's Name.

Modern Conceptions of Religious Language

Despite the concern with language throughout Buddhist history, this topic offers at present a fresh opportunity for casting light on Buddhist traditions in a contemporary context. This is because recent philosophical thought has focused much attention on language and often presents resonances with Buddhist thinking that allow us to appreciate anew the role of language in Buddhist paths. Some thinkers have sought to effect a kind of Copernican transposition of perspective with regard to the relationship between the speaker and language. This is an aspect of the deconstruction of the notion of the autonomous self - the self as transcendent, reified subject that perceives itself as the center of the world, grasps and appraises all things from that standpoint, and employs language as an instrument for expressing its thoughts. It is argued instead that language itself, not our subjectivity, at once conditions and enables our apprehension of things.

Before turning to language in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, I will mention three aspects of a common understanding of engagement with sacred texts, whether the words of the Buddha or the revelation of God in scripture: teaching, faith, and truth.

First, regarding the teaching, it is often assumed that the significant contents of religious texts are truths regarding the sacred, human existence, and the proper conduct of life, and further, that this teaching can be set forth in a series of propositions.

Second, the reception of the teaching is often understood in terms of "faith" or "belief." To have faith is understood to mean accepting that what is written in sacred texts accords with what is the case, even though we may be unable to verify this correspondence through direct experience.

And third, this notion of accord between the assertions of the teaching and the way things actually are is often taken to be the meaning of truth. In other words, truth is a matter of correctness. It comes to us as though a kind of possession transmitted by means of language.

Language in Japanese Pure Land Buddhist Tradition

The Pure Land path - as a textual tradition teaching Amida Buddha and his vow of compassion - is often regarded as exemplifying this commonsense model. In this view, people who have faith in the teaching accept as true that they can attain birth into Amida's Buddha-field in the afterlife through saying the nembutsu. We find in Buddhist traditions, however, another kind of functioning of language, offering a correspondingly distinct paradigm of religious engagement.

Pure Land Buddhist thinkers in Japan focused on the issue of authentic practice. In the formulation of the Buddhist path as the three pillars of teaching, practice, and awakening, one first encounters the dharma as teaching and embraces the aspiration for buddhahood. Then, in accord with the teaching, one undertakes practices and disciplines, and by incorporating the teaching into one's existence through practice, one is able to attain enlightenment. Practice forms the nexus by which the dharma taught in the tradition comes to be embodied in the practitioner's life.

As long as the practitioner's will is tainted by ambition or self-attachment, however, even though the aim may be enlightenment, the practice becomes futile. Yet it is to purify one's existence of such self-will that practice is necessary. This contradictory circularity in religious endeavor is not restricted to Buddhism, of course. In a sermon on the genuine poverty that the Bible teaches as blessed, Meister Eckhart indicates a negative example: "That man has a will to serve God's will - and that is not true poverty! For a man to possess true poverty he must be as free of his created will as he was when he was not" (The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, trans. Maurice O'C. Walshe [Crossroad, 2009], 421).

In the Pure Land tradition, self-will aimed at religious attainment is termed "self-power," and Shinran characterizes it as "calculative thinking" (hakarai). The question, of course, is how it may be possible to cast off self-will without becoming entangled more deeply in the web of one's own intentions. For Pure Land Buddhists, the way leads not through dispelling discriminative thought and speech by meditative praxis but precisely in and through language. Here we may draw on resonances with recent philosophical thought. I will touch on three aspects. Regarding the first two, I refer to the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

A Buddhist Paradigm of the Functioning of Language

First, there is the recognition of the linguisticality of human existence. In contrast with the modern notion of the transcendent ego-self that stands apart from the world of objects and employs language as a tool to communicate its inner thoughts, Gadamer depicts language as encompassing and informing the entire sphere of human existence. Further, just as existence as human is social, so language is thoroughly social in its acquisition and use, and because it functions as the medium of human apprehension, our grasp of things is wholly conditioned historically and culturally. In Buddhist terms, the finitude of human subjectivity that Gadamer portrays is understood in terms of discriminative thought and perception, craving and abhorrence. When the Pure Land tradition speaks of "the foolish, unenlightened person possessed of afflicting passions," this may be understood in terms of the linguisticality of human awareness.

Second, the Pure Land path may be summarized by borrowing a phrase of Shinran's in Tannisho: "the attainment of Buddhahood by the person who is evil" (akunin jobutsu). Even while habituated to false discrimination and afflicting passions, a person may, through the language of the path, encounter what is true and real. It is in our home ground of language that wisdom-compassion emerges to engage us. This cannot, however, be in the manner of our usual, ego-centered notions of faith and practice. Gadamer identifies the vital quality of language that allows it to lead toward awakening when he speaks of its "I-lessness." He means that when we consider our everyday engagement with language, we see that our ordinary experience is quite removed from the abstract image of the isolated individual marshaling words like counters to represent already-formed ideas. Rather, "to speak means to speak to someone." Speaking is not self-centered but belongs "in the sphere of the 'We.'" Thus, "the spiritual reality of language is that of the Pneuma, the spirit, which unifies I and Thou" ("Man and Language," Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge [[[Wikipedia:University of California Press|University of California Press]], 1976]).

Gadamer describes our typical experience of language as dialogical. Our conversations are a dynamic process, possessing their own flow like a game that carries its participants along, so that "it is no longer the will of the individual person" asserting private ideas that dominates. Thus, what is necessary for participating in the interaction of language is "that we free ourselves from the customary mode of thinking that considers the nature of the game from the point of view of the consciousness of the player."

The language of the Pure Land path likewise functions, not as a monological exposition of creeds for intellectual assent, but in the manner of coming near through dialogue. Thus, Shinran speaks of the Primal Vow "calling to and summoning us" in the Name of Amida, and of the practitioner's saying the Name in response to that call. This dialogical engagement uproots us from our customary mode of egocentric, calculative thinking in a moment of beckoning and heeding, and the interchange continues, so that "to say Namu-amida-butsu is to praise the Buddha . . . to repent all the karmic evil one has committed since the beginningless past . . . to give this virtue to all sentient beings."

Truth as an Event of Disclosure

Finally, truth in the Pure Land Buddhist path is not a matter of the correctness of assertions. Rather, it is an event of disclosure in and as language. Thus, Shinran states that the truth of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, which teaches Amida Buddha's Primal Vow, is shown not by literal correspondences but by its emergence from Shakyamuni's deepest samadhi. He emphasizes that Amida "comes forth" into the world of forms "from suchness" or formless reality, and that out of "dharma-body as dharma-nature," form is manifested, giving rise to the Primal Vow and the Name.

Further, he uses the term jinen - "naturalness," unwilled spontaneity - to indicate reality in its working as wisdom-compassion to bring all beings to awakening: "Supreme Buddha is formless [beyond conceptual understanding], and because of being formless is called jinen. . . . In order to make it known that supreme Buddha is formless, the name Amida Buddha is expressly used. . . . Amida Buddha fulfills the purpose of making us know the significance of jinen."

Engagement with the Pure Land Buddhist path is not the common notion of belief but entrance into a mode of existence in which the self and the things of the world are experienced as finally porous and ungraspable. It is the emergence of our universe in which our language is at once inescapable and untrue, and of which Shinran nevertheless can say, "My thoughts and feelings flow within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension."

Dennis Hirota is Professor Emeritus of Shin Buddhist Studies at Ryukoku University, Kyoto. He was Head Translator of The Collected Works of Shinran (1997) and has published several books on Japanese Buddhist thought, including No Abode: The Record of Ippen (1997), Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path (1995), Shinran: shukyo gengo no kakumeisha (1998), and Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path (2006). He is currently completing a book on Shinran's thought in the light of Heidegger.