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Reviews the book `In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism,' edited by Janet Gyatso
by Alan Fox

In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Edited by Janet Gyatso. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Pp. 307.

This book is the outgrowth of a panel of papers on the theme of "memory," presented at the 1987 Annual Meeting of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion. Four of the contributors to this volume, including Western phenomenologist Edward Casey from SUNY Stony Brook, participated in that panel, though the papers were obviously further developed since that inceptional presentation. The book focuses on the crucial but heretofore almost entirely overlooked topic of memory and remembrance as it appears in the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

There are eleven papers here, plus an editor's introduction, and though some of them seem to overlap somewhat, none makes any of the others completely redundant or unnecessary. The result is a very thorough and novel treatment of a crucially important subject for Buddhologists, and is further a fine example of comparative philosophy.

Memory is a problematic notion for traditional Buddhist thought, since it has often been associated with both unwholesome and wholesome states of mind. In addition, the fact of memory creates problems for non-substantialist theories of selfhood (e.g., Buddhism), since so many substantialist systems use memory as evidence of inhering substance. Memory also contributes to the illusion of selfhood, since it contributes to the belief that I am the same person from moment to moment or lifetime to lifetime. On the positive side, there are aspects of remembering that are referred to as smrti, which are associated with meditation and mindfulness and which in fact are deeply embedded in the mythological story of the Buddha's own enlightenment. This is evident at least in the fact that the first phase of the Buddha's accomplishment of bodhi entailed the remembrance or awareness of past lives (anusmrti).

And yet, even though memory is important and controversial, for the most part it is only minimally treated in the traditional literature, a fact that is both noted and variously explained by a number of the essays in this volume. That makes this volume especially unique.

The book is structured nicely. The editor's introduction integrates and relates the papers to each other, and lays out certain common themes and basic problems. The introduction is nicely balanced by the last paper in the book, written by the Western-trained phenomenologist Edward Casey. This is arguably the most philosophically illuminating essay in the volume, and it distinguishes the volume as a fine example of comparative philosophy.

This is in part because the author makes specific reference to all of the other papers, locating congruences and disagreements between the various traditions, both Asian and Western. Casey also makes connections with a broad range of philosophers within the Western tradition, including Hume, Locke, Husserl, Heidegger, Freud, and others. But it is also the most philosophically interesting because the Western phenomenological tradition, of which Casey is a representative, has thought long and hard on the problem of memory, and has a lot to say about it. In Casey's own words:

"For phenomenology, building on primary memory [or memory of the present moment as it is occurring] as a proto-phenomenon, has been adept at picking out a spectrum of memorial acts, ranging from 'secondary memory' (i.e., recollection) to recognition, from reminding to commemorating" (p. 276). He then correlates this spectrum or palette with the full range of Buddhistic practices and ideas discussed by the rest of the papers in this volume. For this reason alone, the book is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Other authors include Donald Lopez, Jr., who surveys the literature and argues that the Buddha's legendary memory of past lives serves an iconic or mythological function in that we are directed toward its meaning, not its historicity or facticity. Lopez also includes a useful critique of Mircea Eliade's reading of Buddhism, and is successfully cross-disciplinary.

Padmanabh S. Jaini provides a brief but thorough treatment of Abhidharmic

textual references to smrti, raising the question as to whether smrti is present in all mental events or only in "wholesome" ones. Gyatso also includes a reprint of an older article by Nanaponika Theta, one of the few examples of scholarship on the topic prior to the publication of this volume.

In addition, Collett Cox surveys the range of Abhidharmic thinking on smrti, especially in terms of the "four applications of mindfulness"; Paul Griffiths writes on Classical Yogacaric conceptions of memory; Alex Wayman catalogues various Buddhist terms for recollection and memory; Rupert Gethin discusses the matika, or "lists of elements," which are described as acting "as a creative medium for Buddhist literature and thought, representing a technique of oral composition as well" (p. 164); Janet Gyatso compares C. S. Peirce's semiotic theory with Rdo Grubchen's analysis of Buddhist dharani practice; Paul Harrison discusses the idea of buddhanusmrti, or "calling to mind" of the Buddha; and Matthew Kapstein examines the idea of Memory in the "Great Perfection" (Rdzogs-chen) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

In all, this is an important book, not only for those interested in the problem of memory in the Buddhist tradition, but also for those interested in the growing field of comparative philosophy. In the Mirror of Memory is itself a memorable milestone.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa


Updated: 24-9-2000

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