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Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightedment, by Sung Bae Park
Reviewed by Donald W. Mitchell

Enlightenment, this hope has been realized. Park has done a skillful analysis of faith in the Zen tradition based on a careful and impressive selection of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese texts. He has argued convincingly that much of modern Western Buddhist scholarship has failed to discover the important linking that faith provides between practice and enlightenment. I would say that Park has done much more than this. He has shown once and for all that one simply cannot understand the phenomenon of Zen Buddhism without understanding how faith functions in practice and enlightenment. He challenges all Western scholars to reexamine their picture of Zen with a new appreciation for this part of the picture which has been hitherto so often ignored. Therefore, I strongly feel that this book is a must for those interested in any field having to do with Zen.

The picture of Zen that Park gives us is developed in three parts with six chapters each. In Part One, on faith, the primary distinction of the book is stated. It is the distinction between patriarchal faith ("I am Buddha") and doctrinal faith ("I can become Buddha"). Doctrinal faith has a dualistic, subject-object construction ("I have faith in") and is liable to backsliding. Patriarchal faith has a non-dualistic, essence-function construction (faith as a function of Mind) and is non-backsliding.

In Part Two, on practice, and Part Three, on enlightenment, dualistic doctrinal faith is shown to be preliminary to practice and enlightenment while non-dualistic patriarchal faith is shown to be practice and enlightenment. Especially interesting in this regard is Park's discussion of the relation of these two forms of faith to Bodhidharma's wall meditation and enlightenment, to gradual practice and sudden enlightenment, to kooan practice, and to the enlightenment experience of "brokenness." In these two parts of the book, Park clearly shows that practice and enlightenment are distinct but not separate from faith. He demonstrates that these former two phenomena can only be understood when related to patriarchal faith, and cannot be truly understood when only distinguished from doctrinal faith as many Western scholars are prone to do. By this demonstration, Park has made an invaluable contribution to the fuller understanding of Zen Buddhism.

After saying all this about the particular thesis of Park's work, it is also important to look at the book from the broader viewpoint of the history of religions. If we do so, it is evident that the text has important implications for the understanding of faith in the larger Mahaayaana context. In this context, Park relates faith to the notions of Buddha-nature, the two truths, skill-in-means, Pure Land Buddhism, the relation of wisdom to compassion, the revolution of the basis in Yogaacaara, and Hua-yen Buddhism. Park's analysis is insightful and helpful in all these cases. His analysis of each is always integrated nicely in his sustained overall presentation of the relation of faith to enlightenment and meditation. I was most impressed with his explanation of faith in the Hua-yen tradition. Much has been written lately on Hua-yen but little or nothing on the function of faith in that tradition. Park argues that "patriarchal faith is the foundation of Hua-yen Buddhism." Whether or not he shows it to be the foundation, he has certainly shown it to be more foundational than previously believed. In this he has made another major and timely contribution to Asian scholarship.

A study of faith in Zen and also in the larger Mahaayaana tradition is not all that Park offers us in this book. Many of his chapters provide comparative remarks that relate the Buddhist views he is examining to Christian theology. The most striking similarity is between the dynamic of faith and doubt in Koran practice and models of dynamic faith in the theologies of Kierkegaard and Tillich. The most obvious difference is between the Christian subject-object faith in God and the Buddhist essence-function patriarchal faith. However, while it is clear to me that the former has a parallel in Buddhist doctrinal faith, it is not clear that the latter does not have a parallel in a more mystical Christian faith. When it is no longer I who lives (believes?) but Christ within me, one wonders if faith, the "seed of wisdom" as Thomas Merton as well as Zen calls it, has not developed into something like patriarchal faith? Indeed, Park attributes to Christian faith the subject-object, internal-external characteristics that lead him to conclude that Christian faith is "always subject to backsliding." However, in Christian spirituality the "Night of the Spirit," or "Night of Faith," transforms the person such that his or her faith can no longer be called doctrinal or intellectual. I am suggesting here that a comparison of the "arousing" of patriarchal faith in Buddhism and the "development" of faith in the mystical Christian tradition may be fruitful.

When one evaluates this book in terms of its significance for the study of the phenomenon of Zen, Mahaayaana Buddhism, and Buddhist-Christian studies, it is clear that it is a ground-breaking work. It is not only one of the relatively few books in English on faith in Buddhism, but it is a very well-written work that embodies the true spirit of Chunil's integration of meditation and scripture study. Besides this stylistic consideration, I believe that Park's thesis about the important place of faith in Zen is correct and is a major contribution to a fuller understanding of Zen Buddhism. This consideration, and the fact that Park pursues his task within the broader context of Mahaayaana, and with insightful comparative remarks, also makes this book a major contribution to Asian and comparative scholarship.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Thich Nu Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-3-2001

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