Liberating Intimacy - Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in CH’AN Buddhism

Item Code: NAB935
Author: Peter D. Hershock
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 817030542X
Pages: 251
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 Inch X 5.8 Inch
Weight 450 gm
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“This is the best book I have ever read on the Ch’an Buddhist tradition. Hershock articulates and defends his thesis with insight, power, and elegance. Enlightenment is ultimately about intimacy, sociality, and virtuosity. It is a central, yet heretofore ignored, aspect of not only the Ch’an Buddhist tradition in China, but also the Soto (Zen) tradition in Japan. If you understand Hershock on Ch’an, you are well on your way to understanding Zen Buddhism according to Dogen Kigen as well. Moreover, you will leave this work with an enriched understanding of an entire tribe of unsuspecting kindred spirits; specifically, you may want to reread the works of Watsuji Tetsuro, Dogen Kigen, Aristole, Alister Macintyre, Jurgen Habermas, and Richard Rorty. This book ranks with those of Chung-yuan Chang whose early classics on Ch’an Buddhist philosophy introduced western philosophers to the rigor, complexity, and logic, if your will, of the most interesting of all Chinese Buddhist traditions.” - David E. Shaner, Furman University.

“This work makes us re-think our views of the history, philosophy, and practice(s) of Ch’an; and it makes us re-think a number of other fundamental philosophical issues as well. It offers an original and important interpretation of the nature and scope of enlightenment in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in general, and as found in Ch’an (Zen) in particular. It is a significant work, and will take place alongside Collins’ Selfless Persons philosophical thought.” Henry Rosemont, Jr., St. Mary’s College of Maryland/Feudan University, Shanghai.

Liberating Intimacy dramatically reevaluates the teachings and practice of Ch’an Buddhism. Considering Buddha’s insight that everything is empty or absent of a permanent and independent “self nature,” Hershock argues that not only is suffering without any essence and so dependent on time and place, so is end of suffering or enlightenment. He shows that the tradition need not entail a quietistic withdrawal from social life. Far from being something privately attained and experienced, Ch’an enlightenment is best seen as the opening of a virtuosic intimacy through which we are continually liberated from the arrogance of both “self’ and “other”. That is, enlightenment in Ch’an must be understood as irreducibly social - it can never be merely “mine” or “yours,” but is only realized as “ours.” Including new translations from the teachings of Ma-tzu, Pai-chang, Huang-po and Lin-chi, Liberating Intimacy reconciles the almost fierce individualism that characterizes the mastery of Ch’an and its unwavering embrace of the ideal of compassionately saving all beings.

Peter D. Hershock is Project Fellow of the Asian Studies Development Program at the East-West Center.


Having been asked to ascend the high seat in the dharma hall and speak about Buddhist enlightenment, the great Ch’an master Linchi begins by noting that according to the Ch’an lineage no sooner have you opened your mouth to declare anything about this great matter than you opened your mouth to declare anything about this great matter than you have made a mistake. And yet, he adds, if nothing at all is said, the assembled monks, nuns, and laypersons will have no place on which to gain a footing and will undoubtedly remain as stuck as they must have been to make their request in the first place.

Given this, he wonders out loud, “How, then, can I conceal the unifying thread, the social nexus (kang) of the lineage?” (T 1985.496b). How, that is, can he not openly display what both binds all the Buddhist, bodhisattvas, and patriarchs into a single family and what ultimately allows us to truly realize their understanding as our own? In immediate and energetic answer to his own question, Linchi poses a challenge: “Are there any capable persons to enter into context (chan), straightaway deploying their forces and unfurling their banners? If so, come before the assembly and g iv e visible evidence of it!” (T 1985.496c).

Crucially for the nature of the conversation on which we are ourselves just embarking, instead of discoursing on the sutras, speaking about his own entry into the status of a master, or sitting down in meditative repose to manifest in turn the deepening phases of a revolution in awareness, Lin-chi asks for a worthy battle partner - someone to engage in the complete unpredictability of combat (chan). What Lin-chi’s challenge makes clear and what we shall spend the remainder of our time together here trying to adequately understand is that the key to Ch’an enlightenment - the ‘place’ from which it is possible to be fully realized and not merely talked or thought about—is direct, communicative crisis. That is, enlightenment has to do with relationship—not with any one individual’s attainments—and in particular with the kinds of relationship in which everything is at stake and nothing is in principle excluded as impossible. In short, Ch’an enlightenment should not be seen as private and experiential in nature, but as irreducibly and intimately social.

This conclusion is bound to raise eyebrows. It has, in fact, become virtually canonical that Ch’an is an iconoclastic and contemplative (as opposed to scholarly) form of Buddhism which has from its earliest incarnations been a Janus—faced quest for an immediate and individual realization of our original nature or Buddha- mind. According to the prevailing caricatures, in one of its visages can be traced a lineage branching off with Hui-neng and his "Southern School" and culminating in the almost militant dispositions of Rinzai Zen. In the other, a continuous line is seen running from Bodhidharma through the "Northern School" and on to the one- pointed quietism of Soto Zen.

As the standard account would have it, in the former lineage the practical emphasis in realizing our buddha—nature is on fathoming the public records (Ch kung-an) of the tradition. Capsules of the enlightening encounter of master and student, these records could arguably be seen as a precedent for seeing liberation itself as public and social were it not for the fact that the behavior of all the relevant parties almost unilaterally seems to be antisocial where it is not simply incomprehensible. That is, the tradition's kung—an collections are rife with instances of shouting, kicking, striking, cursing and apparent abuses of logic—collectively referred to as “shock tactics"—which hardly seem consistent with the Buddhist ideal of compassionate nonattachment, and which certainly seem to be at odds with any claim that Ch’an enlightenment be deemed "irreducibly social." To the contrary, the public cases can often be seen as portraying Ch’an masters as apparently insensitive and in- tractably clever adversaries whose behavior may be intended as "grandmotherly" and in the student’s best interest, but which it is nearly impossible to avoid seeing as anarchic and at times virtually sociopathic. Consider, for example, Nan-chuan's dismemberment of the temple cat, Chu—ti’s severing of his attendant’s finger, and Ma- tzu's propensity for delivering b0ne—cracking kicks and punches.

In the literally more sedate (Soto) tradition, the emphasis is on the much less flamboyant practice of silent meditation—an "inner work" which is said t0 directly express our enlightened nature and vet for all intents and purposes renders the presence of others entirely adventitious. Silent meditation is not antisocial like an unprovoked slap in the face or the dismemberment of the monastery cat, lint it is difficult to not see it as an asocial undertaking. After all, meditation is carried out individually-whether alone or in the company of others who figure not as indispensable partners, but as independent and perhaps parallel travelers on the path to enlightenment.

On the one hand, then, there is a view of Ch’an as valorizing disturbingly confrontational behavior, and on the other hand as fostering a quietist withdrawal from worldly relationship. In neither is there any apparent precedent for claiming that either the enlightenment proper to Ch’an or the preferred practices by means of which it is realized or expressed are inherently social. On the contrary, according to both views, Ch’an enlightenment appears to involve a kind a fierce independence which seems oddly out of keeping with the Mahayana commitment to the liberation of all beings.

Moreover, because of the typically unbroken bias of the Indo- European traditions for seeing knowledge, wisdom, and hence spiritual realization or liberation as the attainments of concrete individuals and not as in any significant sense fundamentally communal, the individuality of enlightenment is itself often taken to be n rational necessity. That is, because human action is seen as a function of conscious choices or intentions formulated on the basis of what we know or understand, and since knowledge and under- standing are taken to be subjectively experienced and (at least ideally) objectively describable transformations of some ’one,’ even if enlightenment were seen in terms of performance and not some exalted state of mind, it would still be the doing of a particular individual. [Note: Here and throughout this work, single quotations are used as a technical device to mark the difference between the emptiness of some focused aspect of our narration—{x}, what we constitute by way of establishing horizons for relevance on that original boundlessness-(‘x’), and the linguistic designation we conventionally use in denoting the ’thing’ thus constituted—("x"). For a discussion of the rationale for this device, see "An ontological digression: inverting the being-value distinction" in chapter one.

And so, while knowledge, wisdom, and perhaps even enlightenment itself may well be thought of as transmissible from one individual to another, the very fact that we see this as a transmission—as the breaching of an original and ultimately un- mitigated disparity—only underscores our prejudice for seeing our selves under the rubric of a basic autonomy. Even we allow the possibility of simultaneous realization, the presumption is that something happens in two distinct places at once and not that it is this very disparity between ’here’ and ’there’ or ’me’ and ’you’ which has been nullilied.3 Given such a disposition, it is only natural that even if we encounter Buddhist texts denying the presence of any objective marks identifying the transformation referred to as "enlightenment," we nevertheless presume it to have an indispensable subjective correlate: the experience of liberation.

Over the course of our conversation, it is hoped that both the bias toward an integrity-based concept of personhood and our pre- supposition of the foundational nature of experience will be so thoroughly undermined that our view of Ch’an will undergo a revolutionary shift in gestalt. In part, this will mean a movement away from the dislocating tension of subjective experience and objective behavior toward conduct itself as the locus of both personhood and enlightenment—that is, a shift toward seeing not individual existence, but relationship or (better still) the movement of our narration as our true, original nature (pen hsing).

Not surprisingly, so embracing dramatic interdependence as our original nature will occasion a radical subversion of integrity and its customary role as the cardinal value directing our inquiries into and understanding of suffering, communication, personal authenticity, and, of course, enlightenment. Eventually, it should be- come evident that—at least as practiced in Ch’an—Buddhist salvation is not a liberation of any individual ‘you’ or ’me,’ but rather of intimacy itself.?

Among other things, the characterization of conduct in terms of ` narration is meant to stress the ineradicably dramatic quality of our worlds—the impossibility of reducing them to complexes of objective events which are meaningful only after the fact, as a result of what we think or say about them. Narration, in the sense in which it will be used here, is not at bottom relating as telling, but as bringing into connection, as healing or making whole. Thus, the suggestion that we see persons as narration is not of a piece with narrative models of the self like that recently proposed by Paul Ricoeur (1993) where what is essential is the definition—the identification—of who speaks, who acts, who recounts about him or herself and who is the moral subject of imputation (p. 16). For Ricoeur, it is imperative that we move away from the philosophy of the subject—the exclusive constitution of the self in terms of what “I am"—but only to the extent that we realize that identifying our selves depends on the presence of and our interaction with others. To the contrary, from a Buddhist perspective what matters in realizing who we are as persons is removing the very presumption of ontological difference, of the distinction of 'self’ and ’other’—in short, of relinquishing all of the horizons by means of which we identify our own ’selves’ and those of ’others.’ As will be argued below, as narration the ideal person is seen by Ch’an not as some ’one' acting in the world, but as that unprecedented conduct (narrative movement) by means of which entire worlds are healed: a bodhisattva, a buddha.

Far from having purely theoretical implications, this gestalt shift necessitates a drastic reevaluation of the claim that Ch’an is a tradition of practice, a "narration beyond words and cultural forms (wen).” In brief, it will no longer prove tenable to consider Ch’an practice as an individual activity reducible to or fully expressed in terms of moral training and meditative discipline—whether Rinzai or Soto style. Instead, it will be argued that Ch’an practice should be seen as an irreducibly interpersonal system for realizing virtuosic nonduality. That is, nurtured on the basis of what shall be termed the techniques of partnership and indirection, Ch’an arises as the continuously improvised relinquishing of our horizons for readiness, responsibility, and relevance—as the social realization of an incomparable and limitless buddha—land, the enlightening reorientation of our narration.

Now, it should perhaps be noted in advance that there is no attempt in what follows to critically evaluate the place of Ch’an in the historical development of Buddhism from its earliest times in India through its flowering in Japan and its transmission to the West. Among other things, this omission is liable to occasion the charge that while I often speak about "Buddhist enlightenment," my doing so without further qualification would seem to imply a failure to recognize that there are a variety of paradigms for Buddhist enlightenment as well as for Ch’an. The particular relevance of this charge, of course, is that some of these alternative paradigms are implicitly critical of seeing enlightenment in social rather than individual/experiential terms—one might mention Dogen’s (later) Japanese Zen critique of the syncretic tendencies of Ch’an and the contrary centrality of psychology in the (earlier) Indian Nikaya tradition. And thus the question naturally arises and (in what follows at least) is simply left hanging as to whether Ch’an-is simply an anomalous tangent. Perhaps more importantly for ‘insiders’ who have a personal stake in the matter, it may be wondered whether the apparent iconoclasm of the Ch’an perspective on enlightenment is supposed to place it at the Zenith—or perhaps even the nadir—of Buddhist thought and practice.

There can be no doubt that an examination of contrasting paradigms for understanding enlightenment is crucial for any historical analysis of Buddhist thought. In fact, our impending conversation might be seen as a single step in developing the foundations for such an undertaking. But it is also the case that little doubt should exist regarding the dangers involved in engaging Buddhism from such a synoptic—and hence generally ’objective’—vantage. Briefly, it is all too easy to indulge the common prejudice of seeing late—appearing traditions as either degenerate or progressive forms of earlier ones and setting up some kind of evolutionary sequence among them. It may be that we then take a revolutionary perspective on Ch’an and judge it foremost or take a fundamentalist position and judge it retrograde. But in either case we will have done both Buddhism and Ch’an a great disservice by insisting on what the Buddha himself warned against—taking a stand on either ‘is’ or ‘is—not.’

As Buddhism moved in turn from India to China, Korea, Japan, and on to the West, it has undergone what I feel is best seen as a largely discontinuous process of differentiation that resists hierarchic evaluation. In short, I would contend that in all of its forms and phases Buddhism is irreducibly responsive. Buddhism is not a body, of doctrine or a central set of insights or even the enactment of a particular psychosomatic technology, but the ever—changing virtuosity of enlightening conduct. In a word, Buddhism is, in all its forms, an improvised expression of emptiness. Thus, it’s not that Dogen’s Zen view supersedes or even replaces the Ch’an view as I articulate it, any more than Ch'an superseded or replaced the Indian Nikaya. In fact, whenever the supposition of abiding forms/identities is truly absent, the analysis of history in progressive/regressive terms loses all justification.

And so, our c0nversation’s lack of any explicit reference to alternative construals of enlightenment should not be seen as amounting to the dogmatic assertion of the superiority of early Ch'an, or even an absence of appreciation for the varieties of Buddhist theory and practice. To the contrary, it should be seen simply as a function of eschewing the synoptic vantage for the purpose of realizing an internal relationship with the unprecedented responsiveness that is uniquely Ch’an.

An interestingly related concern is that there is in the Buddhist canon very little direct precedent for the vocabulary being advanced here as uniquely suitable for understanding the meaning of the sociality of Ch’an enlightenment. It cannot be denied that terms like “narration,” “sociality,” “societality,” “virtuosity,” “intimacy,” “indirection,” and “partnership” are inextricably bound up with present concerns and lives and reflect a sensibility in no way directly groundable in canonical Buddhism. Far from being a philosophical liability, however, this seems to me an altogether felicitous eventuality insofar as it forces us to admit what is in any case unavoidable - that much of what we say about Buddhism does not and cannot have its sole and ultimate foundation in what is past, but arises as the world of the canon and ours are brought into lively integration or concourse. That is, the vocabulary is one that is improvised at the confluence of Ch’an and our contemporary world - indigenous to neither and yet curiously at home in both.

In this sense, very little of what we shall be doing is commentarial or exegetical in nature. Borrowing an analogy suggested by the novelist Robert Pirsig, our present conversation is not a philosophological (sic) exercise comparable to what a musicologist does to and with a piece of music. Rather, it should be entered into as original Buddhist philosophy - an unapologetically improvisational endeavor in which we are all along pushing the envelope of our theoretical and practical virtuosity.


Preface ix
Part I. Theoretical Foundations of Ch’an Enlightenment
1. Suffering: Divergent Conceptions of the Context of Enlightenment 1
2. Culture and the Limits of Personhood: Common Rituals and Uncommon Tales 23
3. Dramatic Interdependence and Improvisation: Sociality as Orientation 41
4. Communicative Conduct: The Paradigmatic Locus of Ch’an Enlightenment 63
Part II. Practice: The Embodiment of Enlightenment
5. Intimacy and Virtuosity: Entering the Gates of Ch’an Practice 85
6. Opening the Field of Virtuosity: Practicing Tun-wu, Wei-hsin, and K’ung 117
7. The Techniques of Unmaking: Energy and Awakening in Ch’an 145
8. Morality and Character in the Mastery of Ch’an 177
Notes 199
References 227
Index 231
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