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Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch'an Buddhism. By peter D. Hershock. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Pp.236.

Reviewed by Brook Ziporyn
Philosophy East & West Volume 48, Number 3, July 1998; P. 366-368.

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 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, 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.

Sincere thanks to Tinh Tue for typesetting of this article


Updated: 1-8-2000

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