Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenmenr and

Social Virtuosity in Ch'an Buddhism.

By peter D. Hershock. Albany:State University

of New York Press, 1996. Pp.236

Brook Ziporyn

Philosophy East & West Volume 48, Number 3

July 1998

P. 366~368

Copyright University of Hawai'i Press



P. 366

    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

p.367

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 available, and
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,

p.368

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.