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The Buddha Eye:An Anthology of the Kyoto School, edit by Frederick Franck
Reviewed by Steven Heine

The Buddha Eye, one of a new series of works on contemporary Japanese thought, the   Nazan Studies in Religion and Culture, is an important and interesting collection, although some qualifications must be noted concerning its title. The term "Kyoto School," used here for the first time in the title of an English language book, generally refers to the philosophical writings of Nishida Kitaroo (Nishida tetsugaku), which seek a logical exposition of the "place" (basho) of "pure experience" (junsui keiken) as the unified ground of reality. "Kyoto School" also includes the influence of Nishida's thought on noted disciples such as Tanabe Hajime, and associates such as Watsuji Tetsuroo and Suzuki Daisetz, who were based in Kyoto University and nearby institutions. Finally, it covers the "second-generation" followers who have applied Nishida's metaphysical standpoint to various areas including ethics, aesthetics, logic, social theory, and the philosophies of religion, history, and science.

But The Buddha Eye deals only indirectly with Nishida, omits Tanabe and Watsuji, and also contains pieces by writers who have no association with the Kyoto School, like the medieval Zen poet Ikkyuu and modern Pure Land thinker Kiyozawa Manshi. Thus, it is really an anthology of one branch of the Kyoto School: the Suzuki-oriented approach to Buddhist studies expressed through interreligious dialogue in light of Rinzai Zen. A quarter of the essays are by Suzuki: most of the remaining ones are from the journal Eastern Buddhist, founded by Suzuki, including three by its editor, Nishitani Keiji. In this regard, it is important to note that the Suzuki-orientation represents but one of the major contemporary Japanese approaches to Buddhist studies. The other, for which one might use the term the "Tokyo School," as it is centered in Tokyo and Komazawa Universities, has received far less exposure in the West; it stresses historical and philological studies, perhaps reflecting the scholastic tradition of the Sootoo Zen sect.

There is a significant discrepancy in methodology between the Suzuki approach to Zen and that of Nishida tetsugaku. Franck remarks that the two main characteristics of the Kyoto School are: "... its staunch faithfulness to, and rootedness in, the Mahaayaana Buddhist tradition, coupled with a complete openness to Western thought and a commitment to bring about a meeting of East and West, a 'unity of differences' " (p. 2). While this may be true of the essays selected for The Buddha Eye, Franck's characterization would be misleading if applied to Nishida tetsugaku. In Nishida's works, Mahaayaana and Zen doctrines of nothingness are not necessarily a matter of ideological commitment, but form a deep and subtle background to his uniquely independent philosophical investigations. Furthermore, comparative thought is used not for the sake of East-West synthesis, but as a philosophical tool to enhance the complexity and logical consistency of his arguments. In The Buddha Eye, a potentially fruitful analysis of the relation between the Suzuki-oriented approach and Nishida tetsugaku, as well as the entire context of the Kyoto School, is not attempted.

The Buddha Eye does offer an organized and representative collection of some of the most significant essays by contemporary Japanese thinkers dealing with Zen (and, briefly, Pure Land), including Abe Masao, Ueda Shizuteru, Hisamatsu Shin'ichi and Takeuchi Yoshinori, in addition to Suzuki and Nishitani. Franck's characterization highlights the fundamental strengths and drawbacks of the Kyoto thinkers' philosophical aims and techniques. The most stimulating and intriguing aspect is an open-ended and flexible comparative stance which places this group at the forefront of cross-cultural philosoph-ical endeavors. The essays demonstrate that the Kyoto thinkers are consistently well-grounded in a wide range of Western traditions, including nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers and theologians such as Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Schleiermacher, and Buber; mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysus; as well as classical Greek and Biblical sources. For the most part, Buddhist doctrines and Western thinkers are not simply lined up side-by-side, but insightfully and creatively explored so as to illuminate both poles of the comparative interchange.

The essays seem to fall into three general categories. First, those which explicate various aspects of Japanese Zen, such as Takeuchi's exposition of Nishida through a philosoph-ical analysis of Bashoo's haiku and Rinzai's "fourfold consideration" of the ultimately void relation between subject and object. Second, the majority of writings, which attempt to clarify misconceptions about the Zen understanding of nondifferentiation through a contrast with Western views that seem to approach but, from the standpoint of the authors, fall short of achieving it. Thus, Nishitani refutes Buber's doctrine of "I and Thou" on the basis of Zen nothingness, for which, he writes, "there is neither self nor other; hence there is no person and no personal relationship left" (p. 55). Similarly, Abe argues that, as opposed to the Pauline view of being "baptized into Christ," the essence of Zen "is not identification with Christ or with Buddha, but identification with emptiness" (p. 67). A third category, which has one main representative, delves beyond the compara-tive framework established in the second classification to resolve a philosophical issue that no previous system of thought has directly addressed. Nishitani's "Science and Zen" points to the need for a philosophical overcoming of the nihilism that lies at the root of the technological world view in order to prevent the apocalyptic conflagration it may cause. Although Nishitani maintains that the Zen view of nature could serve as a basis for this, he stresses, perhaps reflecting a Heideggerian influence, that the transformation must develop from within the philosophical ground of the technological tradition itself.

The central limitation of the Kyoto approach occurs when the two traits cited by Franck-a commitment to Mahaayaana and the pursuit of East-West synthesis-become contradictory rather than complementary. In Nishida tetsugaku, the complex hermeneutic issues underlying the difference between philosophical and religious discourse are sensitively and lucidly treated. Frequently, however, the authors of the essays in The Buddha Eye tend to supercede the boundaries of philosophical criticism, and to confuse the distinction between logical analysis and theological affirmation. Rather than attempt, as Nishida does, to formulate a cogent philosophical reasoning unbound by any particular tradition, the implicit assumption takes over in their writings that Zen has philosophical priority over any other standpoint: Western traditions are not clarified by such an endeavor, but become manipulated so that they are easy to deflate; they are criticized on the basis of the fact that they are not Zen. At other times, a tendency toward the notion of "perennialism" is evident: all traditions, at least all esoteric or mystical traditions, are fundamentally the same. Nishitani's compelling piece on "Science and Zen" stands as a notable exception to these tendencies.

The appearance of this volume in the Nanzan series raises key questions about the role of Kyoto thinkers in forthcoming trends in comparative philosophy. Will they begin to receive attention from Western philosophers, who may be far less informed about Oriental thought than the Kyoto thinkers are about the West, forcing them to come to terms with the East? Will this have the dialectical effect of recharging the Kyoto thinkers to overcome their philosophical biases in pursuit of a truly universal methodology? It seems that the lack of overall philosophical consistency in the current work may not be conducive to such developments. Furthermore, Franck's introductory comments on each essay, while generally helpful, lack the philosophical depth necessary to establish a viable basis for commanding the attention of a new readership. It is likely that The Buddha Eye will remain the domain of those already interested in the material-scholars of Buddhist and Japanese studies as well as Western theologians concerned with cross-cultural dialogue, such as Merton, Graham, and Franck himself.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Thich Nu Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-3-2001

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