Differentialism in Chinese Ch'an and French Deconstruction:
Some Test-cases from The Wu-men-kuan
By Magliolia, Robert

Journal of Chinese Philosophy
V. 17:1 (1990)
pp. 87-97

Copyright 1990 by Dialogue Publishing Company, Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.



p. 87

    Buddhists have long said that the lotus is an emblem of pratiitya-samutpaada ('dependent co-arising') because it so elaborately flourishes flower and seed at the same time. The lotus thus allegorizes the true state-of-affairs (bhuutatathataa) and repudiates entitative and linear theories of causality (in terms of the allegory, the flower or ostensible 'effect' is not produced by the seed or alleged 'cause'). Because this allegorical reading can work just as well to represent a prime concern of Jacques Derrida -- who shows that so-called 'effect' (the 'signifier') is not produced by so-called 'cause' (the 'signified') -- it serves too as a sign for my purpose in this paper. I hope to continue a bit more what has been my ongoing demonstration: that contemporary French 'deconstruction' traces an off/path much like that of Buddhism. But while my previous work has emphasized the comparison to Indian Madhyamika, I plan now to involve more of Chinese Buddhism. [1]

    Comparison -- even if it be cautious, studied, discriminating -- has of course a very limited portée. I have been trying to do much more. I have been trying to show that the Buddhist 'doctrine of the two truths' (samvrti is paramaartha) permits the reinstatement of entitative theories while continuing deconstruction. Derrida and other deconstructionists have recognized all along, of course, that logocentrism (Derrida's term for entitative theory) is necessarily and inescapably entangled in our thinking. After all, when invoking ideas such as purpose, comparison, and the like -- and indeed, from the very moment I conceived this paper's first sentence



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above -- have I not already presupposed the validity of 'logocentrism', of entitative causality? As Derrida sees it, however, the problem is that logocentrism, no matter whether at the macroscopic level of 'logical systems' or the microscopic level of connecting two words in a 'logical' way, is radically defective. Ratio is the only mode of knowing available to humankind, yet ratio by its very own workings exposes its radical inadequacy. Though "Derridean man" is urged to appreciate the 'discontinuous' and ongoing 'decenteredness' of human experience, there are nonetheless, in my opinion, two very unhappy and -- more significantly -- unnecessary consequences to Derridean deconstruction. First, the logocentric becomes little more than a foil, a "fall-guy" if you will, for deconstructive critique -- the host seems to exist just to entertain the parasite. And second, the 'appreciation' which is supposed to celebrate life as 'free-play' often lapses into free-floating anxiety -- when Derrida tells us, for example, that the Bible's Book of Revelation reveals only that there is no 'final' revelation, many readers can assimilate this new 'truth' only via a species of fatalistic stoicism, or worse, a Nietzschean hysteria. The message I sense myself called to 'announce' is that Derridean deconstruction is "correct" as far as it goes, but that some kinds of Buddhism -- while affirming the "Derridean experience" -- can reinstate the integrity of logocentrism in its own right via the 'two truths'; and these kinds of Buddhism (which I call 'differential') can render Derridean 'discontinuity' as blissful (and this without departing from the off/reason which, for Derridean man, is necessarily the "jagged" limit of possible human experience). To rework the traditional metaphor, the lotus can clear the fange of anxiety even if it is forever constituted of water and mud.

    This paper shall broach four motifs of deconstructive thought, viz., 'reinscription', 'lack' (le manque), carnavalesque, and the ever altering 'going-on', as I find they work in some Chinese Buddhist texts. The reader will notice my prime concern shall not be with dismantling logocentric texts and interpretations; rather, my concern shall be to study the 'going-on' of 'meaning' via dissemination, the more important interest of the deconstructive agenda.

    The first motif can be called 'reinscription', or 'the sameness which is not identity'. Jacques Derrida, and several of his contemporaries, argue



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that the second term of a relation inevitably carries within it, but in a veiled manner, the first term. (This is necessarily true even of deconstruction: as was briefly mentioned above, deconstruction carries logocentrism within it.) Let us track some meanderings of reinscription in a 10thcentury Ch'an Buddhist case and some of its commentaries:

首山和尚,拈竹篦示 云,汝等諸人,

"Shou-shan holds up his bamboo stick, and says:
'You monks: If you call this a bamboo stick, there's an
impingement [a "coming into/onto," as a goat's horns can].
But if you don't call this a bamboo stick, there's a parting
[a "turning one's back"]. Tell me, all of you, what do you call it?'"

From the Wu-men-kuan [a]
For Chinese text accompanied by Chinese and Japanese commentaries (trans. in English), see Zen and Zen Classics, Vol. 4, trans. and ed. R. H. Blyth (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 6th prtg.1974).

One way or another, the commentaries agree that the key words of the case are ts'u [b] and pei [c], both of which are lexically ambiguous in the first place, and much more so semantically, because of the shifting range of contexts that can be evoked. The interpretation of this case afforded by D. T. Suzuki and Zenkei Shibayama (two very influential modern Japanese masters) can be taken as representative of logocentric Ch'an (which we'll call 'centric Ch'an', to indicate that it affirms a mystico-intuitive center). The centric Ch'anists argue that ts'u and pei should be glossed to mean "assert" and "deny" respectively (i.e., the horns become "involved," they "come onto"; turning one's "back" is "to deny"). But what is characteristic of the centric position here is the intention it attributes to the contradiction: the contradiction is meant, Suzuki and Shibayama



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insist, to compel us into non-rational enlightenment. Simply put, we are to jettison metaphysics and leap to a mystical unitary awareness. Differential Ch'an, on the other hand, uses reason to force the initiate into what can be called the 'off/rational'. (The off/rational does not depart from reason: instead, it is 'deconstructed reason', and as such is closer, historically, to the early Madhyamika Buddhism.) We shall henceforth trace some differential tracks through the above case.

    If we treat the case rationally, that is to say, metaphysically, it can become a treatment of what is called nowadays in the West the "correspondence theory," and which was called in former times the debate between "realism" and "nominalism." Thus Jimbo's commentary takes ts'u to mean "to become too attached to" (i.e., "to become entangled in"). If one becomes too attached to the NAME, the WORD-SIGN "bamboo stick," one 'falls for' the correspondence theory, and slights the real bamboo stick, which is, after all, other than its name. Jimbo takes pei to mean "to refuse to admit": if one refuses the ability of the NAME, the WORD-SIGN "bamboo stick," to correspond to its referent, one cannot seize the real bamboo stick at all. It is at this juncture, however, that REINSCRIPTION intervenes. For a secondary meaning of ts'u in the larger Chinese dictionaries is not "impingement -- become entangled in" (as horns can do when they bang into) but "impingement -- give offense to" (as horns can do when they bang into!). [2] But we already know that pei has as its primary lexic meaning a "parting -- turning one 's back on, a giving offense to." Perhaps it is with this recurrence in mind that Inoue recognizes ts'u and pei can have the 'same' meaning (see Blyth, p. 281).

    In this respect R. H. Blyth -- though not familiar with the deconstructive/differential relevance of his claim -- is quite right when elsewhere he says of Wu-men's Chan (Wu-men being, of course, the redactor of this case): "You must do one thing, and at the same time do-it-and-not-do-it" (see Blyth, p. 282). In short, the meaning of pei, which "does one thing," is REINSCRIBED in ts'u, but in a veiled way, so that ts'u both "does one thing and doesn't do it." The differential interpretation of the case thus becomes:



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(primary lexic meaning:
"become entangled in,"
"excessive attachment to")


"If you call this a bamboo
stick, there's

an impingement ----------------------


(secondary, or veiled
lexic meaning: "GIVE

(primary lexic meaning:
"turn one's back on,"

"But if you don 't call
this a bamboo stick, there's
a parting (OFFENSE)."

If we continue our treatment further, and elevate the above to a sort of paradigm, it can become an analogy for the workings of the Buddhist 'two truths'. Buddhist bliss becomes the 'free slide' to and fro, and performed at will, between 'doing it/not doing it' [because there is a subversion of coherent meaning(s), this is DIFFERENTIAL] and 'doing it' [because there is a retention of coherent meaning(s)], this is LOGOCENTRIC. In short, Buddhist bliss becomes the free slide between the differential mode and the logocentric mode. And each mode, while bearing its own integrity, is 'shot through' with the 'sameness' of the other mode, the 'sameness' of reinscription (and of the Buddha-nature!). (See my Derrida on the Mend, pp. 119-128, for detailed discussion of the 'two truths'.)

    We are now positioned to broach another demonstration of Buddhist reinscription, and it comes via Wu-men's famous addition to our case.


For Wu-men adds -- "It can't be obtained with words, it can't be obtained without words," or, a bit more loosely, "Without words, without silence!" And then of course he finishes with the same kind of demand made in the original case: "Tell me what [the bamboo stick] is, at once, at once!" The demanded 'answer' must take the form of the third lemma (see Derrida on the Mend, pp. 104, 105, 117, et passim, for my discussion of the



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tetralemma), viz., -- "The 'truth' or 'answer' = with words and without words." Centric Ch'an, as is to be expected, here renders the paradox the occasion for a leap to the non-rational. But again, differentialism proceeds differently. It limits itself to logic but finds that logic really leads to an unexpected 'alternative solution', an off/reason (if time permitted, we could show that the several 'traditional solutions' to paradox surreptitiously 'cheat' against logic in order for the answer "to come out right").

    We begin by noticing that paradox is usually treated in either of two ways. The first is that of centric Ch'an, already mentioned. Centric Ch'an takes the scope of both Y and -Y in the absolute sense: "X = 'all and only Y' and 'all and only-Y,'" a logical impossibility, so the two logically preempt each other, and the mind is exploded into non-reason. The second customary way to handle paradox is to limit the scope of Y and -Y, so they have a relative sense: "X = 'part Y' and 'part -Y.'" Several Buddhist masters follow this synthetic or mediating approach. To represent its operation on a paradox familiar to western readers, e.g., "prison is liberation," a mediating solution would say that "physical prison is spiritual liberation." Or, to cast this same solution in purer form: "physical prison is spiritual non-prison." Notice there has been a shift in the meaning of "prison" brought about by the introduction 'from outside' of the adjectives. The adjectives accomplish a gratuitous shift in the meaning of "prison," so that in the first term prison is spatial and in the second it is spiritual. Quite obviously, this solution is not claiming that "physical prison is physical non-prison." We find we are really talking about two entirely distinct matters!

    Differentialism, when tracking the logic of paradox, finds itself led to neither of the two customary solutions, but to REINSCRIPTION. Indeed, in the West Derrida is well-known for his assaults on traditional paradox, and on mediation in general. He regards them as mere 'dialectical' variants of what has already been deconstructed. In the Buddhist East, it is R. H. Blyth, translator of the Wu-men-kuan and perceptive commentator in his own right, who represents for us that movement in Chan which stresses literality -- the logical literalness which refuses mediation. "The most important thing" about paradox, he reminds us, "is that



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it should not be explained away" (Blyth, p. 283). Otherwise, he says, the sage is a "mere punster" and his mondo just "pseudo-Zen riddles." But how does reinscription work in terms of paradox? To track to the 'alternative solution', let us consider the form of the paradox again. X = Y and -Y. Let us recall further that we are granting -- at least, for the purpose of understanding Ch 'an -- that somehow Wu-men's paradox is 'delivering' the solution. That is, that somehow the 'solution' is there to be activated. We are taking the Buddhist "at his word." Next, we review what is to be excluded. As logicians, we bracket out that the paradox is contradictory, because de facto this would render it invalid (and we are giving the benefit of doubt, as just said). As logicians who are following the route of 'logic only', we exclude that paradox can deliver truth as a non-rational unity. Lastly, we exclude synthesis and mediation because when applied to paradox it is in final analysis both trivial and vitiating (as already shown). What remains is to take the paradox literally, i.e., at its word as expressed in rational terms. If "X is Y and -Y" (and recall that we are not dealing with members of a class here, we are not dealing with a "categorical syllogism": we have been forcibly dropped down so that all terms are singular), then Y and -Y are the 'same'. If 'the answer' is "prison" and the answer is "non-prison," "non-prison" becomes "prison" 'all over again'; or, just as well, reading the equation in the other direction, "prison" becomes "non-prison" all over again. Thus the recourse of off/reason, the hard dreadfulness of REINSCRIPTION. The differentialist solution to Wu-men's paradox is "'with words' and 'with words,'" or, reversing direction, "'without words' and 'without words.'" This is a special kind of redundancy whereby the first term hides itself in the second term, and usurps it. To put all this a bit more clearly, the differentialist solution to Wu-men's paradox is "'with words' and (veiled) 'with words,'" or, moving in the other direction, "'without words' and (veiled) 'without words.'" A Buddhist 'sameness which is not identity'.

    As time begins to foreclose on this paper, I would like to "wind down" via a more abbreviated treatment of three more deconstructive motifs -- which we can provisionally call (1) lack (le manque), (2) carnavalesque, and (3) the differential 'going-on'. Again, our case is from the 13th century Chinese collection, the Wu-men-kuan.



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"Wu-tsu says: 'To give an example ... If the cow goes through the window - head, horns, four feet -- all go through! Why doesn't the tail?'"

For Chinese texts accompanied by Chinese and Japanese
 commentaries, again see Zen and Zen Classics. Vol. 4.

If there be one concern, almost to the point of obsession, which characterizes French theorists nowadays, and the postmodern English and American elite who work in the continental tradition, it is DESIRE. Jacques Lacan, René Girard, J. F. Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Derrida himself -- despite their quarrels they all talk incessantly about this force called desire. Their obsession is of special interest to us, of course, because Buddhism is the world's specialist in desire The 'Four Noble Truths' define human being exclusively in terms of desire, its provenance, power, and -- depending on whether one is Hinayanist or Mahayanist -- respectively its cessation or its transformation (transformation from t.r.s.naa, "thirst," into karu.naa, "compassion"). What is more, the Buddhist interpretations of desire very well suit what is the precise nature of controversies over desire in the West today, and for this reason I have been devoting much of my publication to this 'intersection'. Ironically, American deconstructionists blindly 'fulfill' their own 'prophecy' about repression, because I find they repress Buddhism with precisely that unconscious fear which they most scorn in logocentrists. In any case, 'on with our case', beginning with some shorthand on le manque, or 'lack'. Jacques Lacan's deconstructive innovation, simply put, is that he turns Freudian theory upside down. In Freud, libidinal content is the signified, and from its privileged site in the unconscious, it commands the signifiers in the many psychological strata layered above it. In Lacan, the unconscious is the signifier, a gap or lack: it is the form of emptiness forever filling its maw with new signifieds, new content, because (and this is the important point) -- by definition, structurally -- a signifier cannot 'place' its 'match' (only a signified can). And here is the precise relevance of our Buddhist case. For if we choose to off/track through the mondo discursively (instead of



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giving it a paradoxical reading, since the option is always ours), what strikes us at once, of course, is that the scenario reverses matters. The cow's head, housing the brain is it does, should determine direction and outcome. And if there's to be any resistance, it should be occasioned by the cow's horns and body, but Wu-tsu says that everything anterior to the tail follows the head's lead. The tail stops passage, interrupts the script -- but not because it is physically in command of the site (it is, after all, a small appendage). Head and body cannot lead the tail, but the tail can't wag the rest of the cow, either. The tail of the cow is much like Lacan's signifier, which subverts the lead of the signified but then cannot find, command, and control an adequate signified (a mirror, after all, cannot define or control what it reflects: Lacan's signifier remains a signifier, -- it does not become a new signified). Given the structural insatiability involved, it should be clear that another name for Lacan's manque is DESIRE, and this he often calls it. The early commentators on Wu-tsu's case interpreted the cow's tail likewise -- that is, even the smallest desire could hold up the 'passing over' to enlightenment. I said earlier, however, that Buddhism can bring some advantages to the deconstructive problematic. A clue as to how it can help is provided, I think, by the following verse, written by Wu-men in responding to Wu-tsu's case:

過去墮坑漸 回來卻破壞
者些尾巴子 真是甚奇怪

"If the cow goes through, it falls info a ditch;
if it goes back, it is destroyed.
This special bit of tail
Is really marvelous!"

Zen and Zen Classics, Vol. 4, p. 256, provides the Chinese text.

The concept of literary carnavalesque, originally coined by Mikhail Bakhtin, is now enjoying great currency in France. Carnavalesque refers to that contention, oftentimes fierce, between rationality and blind sensual pleasure (the pleasure of sensual sounds, rhythms, of double-entendre, etc.) which seems to cleave in two any and every famous specimen of literary language. While it may be proposed that this strife, this carnavalesque, operates in Wu-tsu's original case ("tail" is a Freudian



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pun in Chinese too!), Wu-men's responding verse renders the Rabelaisian quality so overt that the naughtiness Bakhtin's term seems to require is surely preempted. In his short history of the traditions which accrete around Wu-tsu's case, R. H. Blyth supports those interpretations which actually privilege the symbolism of the "tail." In such interpretations, the "tail" comes co represent the blind spot, the 'flaw', the unforeseeable, even the 'drive to know', -- whatever is at work in a given circumstance to deconstruct the ego: "We at least may throw it away, but Nature, expelled, always returns, through that same window. What is Nature? Nature is the tail. What is the tail? It is this very question, 'What is the tail?' Nature, the cow, is always pressing onward, but nature (the tail) always remains behind. This is the meaning of the word atavism. And in a way, the tail is the best part..." (p .254).

    In Derridean terms, we could call the "tail" whatever is destabilizing the 'script' pretending at the moment to control the site. Since each new deconstruction tends co establish itself as a new script and must be deconstructed in turn, human experience is for Derrida an unending process -- a 'trace' of discontinuous deflections, each of them imprévu and transitory. My 'message' to westerners is that 'trace', this Divine going-on, can be blissful, and that the tail which keeps it going on is -- in Wu-men's words -- "marvelous." Derrida speaks of the 'between', the intervalle -- always situational and sliding -- which constitutes both the logocentric and deconstructive. On that forever cutting and keen "razor's edge" which constitutes the Buddhist 'two truths', the 'differentialist between' is a Derridean between with a difference, a blissful difference. Wu-tsu's cow rides the window's edge between the 'two truths', logocentrism and deconstruction, because to come down on just one side arrests liberation.

    In their Anti-Oedipus (Anti-Oedipe), which has been called the single most influential French book of the 1970's, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, philosopher and psychoanalyst respectively, argue that what they designate "desiring/production" is the mechanism of all human behavior. If we understand that they are correct, indeed auspiciously so, but that "desiring/production" is 'thirst' unless it becomes 'compassion', our conclusion can cite their 'conclusion' with double hope:



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"For the new earth ('in truth, the earth will one day become a place of healing') is not to be found in the neurotic or perverse reterritorializations that arrest the process or assign it goals, it is no more behind than ahead, it coincides with the completion of the process of desiring/production, this process that is always and already complete as it proceeds, and as long as it proceeds...." [3]

National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan






1. For some of my preliminary work on 'differential Ch'an', see Chapter Three of R. Magliola, Derrida on the Mend (Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1984), pp. 98-104, 123, 124, 126-128.

2. For example, see Tzu-hai [d], Vol. 2, 14th ed. revised, Taipei, 1975. Calligraphy. VTzu-Hai [d], Vol. 2, 14th ed. revised, Taipei, 1975.

3. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. R. Hurley, M. Seem, Helen Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 382. I have changed the translators' rendering of the French from "desiring-production" to "desiring /production," lest the reader mistakenly take the word "production" as the grammatical object of "desiring."






a. 無門關
d. 辭海