Meditations on rights and rites

Brian Black finds insightful commentary on Zen's opposing voices, but no road map to a middle way

May 22, 2008

Is Zen Buddhism really a special transmission outside the scriptures, or are its claims to be beyond words merely empty rhetoric? If Zen claims to be a religion without rituals, without images, and without representations of deities, then how do we explain the many rites and symbols to be found in Zen temples throughout its history in both China and Japan? Is Zen essentially a peaceful religion that promotes harmony and equality, or is it a tradition with inherent militaristic, nationalistic and discriminatory tendencies?

In Zen Skin, Zen Marrow Steven Heine attempts to find a middle way between the extreme views of Zen that these questions imply. According to Heine, studies of Zen have become entrenched by the polarisation of two opposing, even hostile, approaches: the Traditional Zen Narrative, which refers to the traditionalists who represent Zen according to the claims of its own sources; and Historical and Cultural Criticism, which refers to the critics and reformers who highlight inconsistencies and hypocrisies within the tradition.

According to Heine, these two trajectories have become frozen into a partisan debate between apologists and detractors. He offers his book as an attempt to inspire a constructive exchange between the TZN and HCC representations of Zen through an exploration of three issues, each of which comprises one of the book's three main chapters: 1) Zen texts (Zen writes); 2) Zen rituals (Zen rites); and 3) Zen ethics (Zen rights).

In each chapter he brings to attention a number of examples that playfully juxtapose both sides of the story. In his discussion of texts, for example, Heine discusses Zen's claim to be a tradition beyond words. Yet rather than conclude that Zen texts wilfully misrepresent themselves, Heine explores claims to ineffability in relation to the rise of the position of the abbot in the monastic community.

In his discussion of Zen ethics, which he sees as the subject for the most severe disagreements between the TZN and HCC camps, Heine points to social programmes - such as bridge building and irrigation projects - initiated by Zen schools in medieval Japan, while also reviewing support by members of the Kyoto school for Japan's imperialist ambitions before and during the Second World War.

By bringing together discussions about literature, rituals and ethics in one book, Heine portrays Zen as a multidimensional, multivocal tradition. The real Zen, presumably, emerges only when taking into consideration all its various and contradictory features.

Despite its being an excellent contribution to scholarship, I found myself wondering who the audience is intended to be. In his epilogue, Heine concludes that a possible answer to the impasse in Zen studies is repentance. But who is supposed to repent? The only explicit instructions are aimed at practitioners of Zen. Yet when many individuals and temples have expressed regret and remorse for actions and attitudes adopted during the war, it is unclear what it means for "Zen to undergo repentance".

Such recommendations raise questions about the scholar's role in initiating reform within a religious community. Unfortunately, Heine does not adequately address this question. As a consequence, Zen Skin, Zen Marrow contains a number of engaging observations about Zen but without offering a satisfying middle way between apologists and critics. Perhaps he takes on too many issues when less would have been more.

Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up

By Steven Heine

Oxford University Press 232pp, £14.99

ISBN 9780195326772

Published 10 January 2008

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