“‘Japanese Buddhism’: Constructions and Deconstructions”: presentation notes

Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy Panel on the Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy, edited by Gereon Kopf

Springer, publication announced for 14 January 2019 <https://www.springer.com/us/book/9789048129232&gt;

panel held at the American Academy of Religions, Denver, Saturday, 17 November 2018

Panelists included Dennis Hirota, Mark Blum, Michiko Yusa in addition to myself, and was presided over by Steven Heine. Gereon Kopf made a brief cameo appearance at the end of the session, allowing us to express our appreciation to him directly.

Notes for presentation on “‘Japanese Buddhism’: Constructions and Deconstructions,” chapter one

I would like to express my thanks to Gereon Kopf for his vision in starting this project, and his perseverance in bringing it to a successful conclusion. Also, my thanks to Steven Heine for chairing today’s session, to the others on today’s panel, and the audience for joining us this morning.

When Gereon first approached me about contributing to this volume, he asked me to deconstruct Japanese philosophy, by which I took him to mean that I should examine the category—to take it apart, tinker about with it and see how it works. I am glad that he seems to have been happy with the essay I produced under those rubrics.

What I found in doing so is that the category of Japanese philosophy is completely rooted in the comparative project, thoroughly, unavoidably and irremediably so.

This is true even when—or rather—especially when it is pretending not to be.

Of course, as Jonathan Z. Smith pointed out some years ago, comparison is a natural and indeed unavoidable aspect of human cognition.

It is I hope obvious, however, that this is not what I mean by the comparative project.

The comparative project is never constrained to simply enunciating similarities and differences.

There is always some broader set of purposes or goals or intentions or preconceptions at work that make it a project going beyond similarities and differences.

Comparative studies in philosophy, for example, often claim that the value of such studies is that it benefits philosophy per se.

That is, that the thought of a non-European society can provide resources of value to the pursuit of philosophy’s own projects.

Were we talking about rubber harvesting in the Belgian Congo, or diamond mining in South Africa, or sugar plantations in Jamaica, instead of something so ethereal and putatively ennobling as philosophy, it would be obvious that the relationship being described is imperialist.

Functionally, intellectual imperialism is no different from other kinds of imperialism. It exploits the Other as a resource for its own ends.

The home discipline—in this case philosophy—has its own set of concepts, categories, and concerns.

These are the consequence of philosophy’s own selective memory of its history.

concepts—basic elements of philosophical thought: causality, knowledge, experience, sense data/sensory quanta, perception, mind, consciousness, being, existence, truth

categories—the subdisciplines of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics

concerns—the privileged objects of philosophic discourse: language, experience, reasoning

This entire structure of concepts, categories, and concerns that makes up philosophy are the end products of a three millennium-long history—a history not shared by non-European systems of thought. “They are not abstract and universal categories of thought, but are, rather, ways of thinking that have been created in order to solve some intellectual issue at some particular point in that historical development.” (ll. 364–366)

In other words, the project that is philosophy is not culturally transcendent, but is instead historically and culturally located. Attempting to treat it as culturally transcendent, to in Hegelian terms sublate it, necessarily fails because of the connotative entailments that follow along behind any act of sublation.

Given that it is the philosopher who is interrogating the Other’s system of thought, it is necessary to also recognize the formative role of the question.

In significant ways the question asked determines the answer given. The question arises on a complex ground of presumptions which limit what a meaningful answer can be. An answer that is not framed in terms of the presumptions appears meaningless. The questioner expects a meaningful reply to the question, and most respondents—especially colonial subjects—want to give a meaningful reply.

To express this in another way—

Whose questions do we want answers to? Those of philosophers? Or those of Japanese Buddhist thinkers?

For example, a Buddhist theory of perception has different meanings whether it is being considered as part of a discussion of the path, or in juxtaposition to contemporary philosophic theories of perception.

By referencing the path, this might seem to suggest that it is the “religious” character of a text that is being obscured in the framing of it within philosophy, and that, therefore, philosophy of religion or comparative religion does a better job of inquiry.

Philosophy of religion, however, as it stands—and therefore as it structures its object of inquiry—is very little more than thinly veiled theology. Theological issues establish the questions to be asked, and non-Christian traditions are interrogated for answers.

Is comparative religion, or, more broadly, religious studies, then better than either comparative philosophy or philosophy of religion as a framework within which to study the thought of the Buddhisms of Japan?

Like its parallel inquiry, comparative philosophy, comparative religion also imposes a set of distorting structures onto its object of inquiry. The three most common forms of this are matrices, narratives and metaphors.

matrix—the same characteristics are expected of all religions, which allows thinking of this approach as a matrix of two axes: characteristics along one axis and “the religions” along the other. The task then is to fill in the blank cells of the matrix. The selectivity involved in the entries on the axis of “the religions” is obscured. And, the number of exceptions or forced answers needed to fill the cells of the matrix demonstrate the dysfunctional character of this approach.

narratives—the invisible hegemonic narrative in comparative religions is the cyclic one propounded by the Protestant Reformers. This is an historiography—a way of writing history—in which a religion is started by its founder, but over time the institution of that religion becomes increasingly decadent, leading to a much-needed reformation back to the original purity of the founder’s teachings. Indeed, in this narrative founders themselves are cast as reformers. And so the cycle can repeat indefinitely.

metaphors—likewise, several metaphors are employed in the comparative study of religion that by imposing their own entailments may obscure more than they reveal.

  • the organic metaphor: religions as living beings
  • agonistic metaphors: religions as armies or corporations in conflict or competition
  • consumerist metaphors: religions as filling the needs of consumers (religious needs theory)

In closing let me say that there is no perfect approach to the study of the thought of the Buddhisms of Japan. I have highlighted the shortcomings of each of those discussed above because they have at time bee presented as if they were the (only) proper approach. Looking at the intellectual history of our field, each approach has made contributions. Only we need to be cognizant of the constraints imposed on the contribution by the approach itself. No theory or method is the solution. Only close attention to the presumptions inherent in the questions being asked can provide correctives. Moving forward, new, well-formed questions that can creatively open new areas and provide new answers are needed.

• in response to my inquiry about a comment he made during the discussion period, Mark Blum wrote that James Heisig had at one time asserted that the best translation equivalents are “philosophy” and shisō (思想), going on to explain:

The word tetsugaku is a new word invented to translate “philosophy” and many Japanese scholars do not or will not use it in reference to traditional Buddhist teachings. Instead they prefer shisō, which translated “thought” in a philosophical sense, and is broader in what it includes. I think tetsugaku implies too heavy a reliance on rationality. (by email, Wed., 21 Nov. 2018)

This is welcome confirmation—“thought” has been my own preferred term for many years now and in many contexts as a means of avoiding artificially cutting up a non-European system of thought into the segments natural to European philosophy. To extend the “cutting up” metaphor, filleting a fish and deboning a chicken involve significantly different ways of cutting the meat. Each is an integrated whole, and applying the concepts, categories and concerns appropriate for a chicken to a fish will only make a mess of things. This is not an argument, of course, but an explanatory metaphor that will, I hope, provide one more means of thinking responsibly about how these projects move forward.


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