Reviews the book `Buddhist Hermeneutics,' edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Griffiths, Paul J.
Philosophy East & West
Vol.40 No.2
April 1990
Pp.258-262
Copyright by University of Hawaii Press


. This volume contains a lengthy editorial introduction and eleven chapters. Ten are revised versions of papers delivered at a conference on Buddhist hermeneutics in the spring of 1984; the eleventh is an English version of a classic study by Etienne Lamotte, first published in French in 1949. In spite of the series in which it appears, the volume does not deal only with East Asia. Four of the contributors (GeorgeBond, Etienne Lamotte, Donald Lopez, Michael Broido) deal largely with Indic materials; two with Tibetan materials (RobertThurman, Matthew Kapstein); two with Chinese materials (DavidChappell, Peter Gregory); two with Japanese materials (ThomasKasulis, Roger Corless); and one with Korean materials (Robert Buswell). The essays taken together therefore provide a conspectus of discussions of Buddhist hermeneutics from all the major culture areas within which Buddhism has been influential. All but two of the contributors received their Ph.D's from American universities and now hold teaching positions in the U.S. (theexceptions are Lamotte, who was Belgian and died in 1983, and Broido, who holds a position in England). The generally high standard of the pieces speaks well of the philological training and conceptual sophistication of those now engaged in the study of Buddhism in the U.S. This volume is now the best resource available in any language on its subject. The inclusion of Lamotte's classic study "Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism" shows excellent judgment. It has been the first refuge for Western scholars interested in these matters for half a century, and it is good to have Sara Boin-Webb's English version conveniently available as the lead piece here. Lamotte clarified for the first time the technical terminology used by Buddhists in their discussions of how to extract meaning from texts. He explained the four refuges (catuhpratisarana) as a set of soteriological categories, designed to lead the practitioner away from reliance upon the words (vyanjana)in which the doctrine is expressed, or upon the person (pudgala)who taught it, since the former need to have their meaning drawn out (neyartha)and the latter has no ultimate (paramartha)existence. Instead, the practitioner should rely upon the true meaning (artha)of the text, a meaning that needs no further elucidation (nitartha)and which is apprehensible only by direct insight (jnana),not by discriminative ratiocination. The Buddhist hermeneutic thus grew out of and has always been controlled by the tradition's soteriological needs. The discussion of intention and motivation (abhisamdhi,abhipraya) so common in these texts must always be understood in this context: for the scholastics of the Buddhist tradition, true understanding of a sutra's definitive meaning consists, finally, in having the same insights, and thus the same transformation of consciousness, as that possessed by its omniscient author. Buddhist hermeneutics thus tends to be based upon a theory of understanding whose ideal goal is a fusion of the cognitive horizons of the hearer/reader with those of the author in a sense more radical than any envisaged by Gadamer. This theme is discussed, with variations, in virtually all of the pieces included in this volume. A second common theme is that of upaya and its application: all Buddhist theorists on this matter agree that at least some of the words of the Buddha preserved in sutra texts are upaya, words not literally true and which are incapable, as they stand, of effecting the realization of nirvana in their hearers. These texts need their meaning elucidated; they are neyartha. In deciding which texts are neyartha and which are not, two strategies seem possible. The first, the radical position, is that the meaning of every text needs to be drawn out; the meaning of none has been so drawn (nitartha).On this view the texts of the tradition become a glittering field of wish-fulfilling gems, towards which the proper attitude is jouissance, a playful taking of pleasure like that advocated by Roland Barthes (Leplaisir de la texte (Paris,1973)), though the pleasure is not akin, as Barthes suggests, to that of sexual orgasm, but rather to the rasa of the clear light of the void, the taste of the ineffable dharmakaya of the Buddha. The more sober, more intellectual and analytical pole, adopted by the scholastics of the Indo-Tibetan traditions more often than by those of East Asia, refuses to regard all sutras as neyartha; instead, some words of the Buddha are, simply, true (nitartha),while others have an intention, a meaning, not evident on their surface, however glittering it may be. The proper goal for one who engages in such a dourly intellectual approach is not jouissance but analysis (pravicaya);she must write treatises justifying a particular method of distinguishing between definitive and interpretable texts. This is serious business, and it is always carried out, when attempted at all, by imposing on the texts of the tradition a well-defined pre-understanding of reality and truth (andthus of what the omniscient Buddha must have meant), a pre-understanding given to the interpreter by his lineage. This theme, too, is present in more or less explicit fashion in most of the contributions. Among the contributors dealing with Indic materials, George Bond (pp. 29-45) explores the use of hierarchical path-structures as hermeneutical devices in the Nettipakarana; his is the only contribution to deal with Theravada texts. Donald Lopez (pp.47-70) discusses the application of the idea of upaya to the history of the interpretation of the Mahayana sutras in India and Tibet: all are the word of the Buddha, but only some are of definitive meaning. Lopez's contribution is especially valuable for the use he makes of contemporary Western hermeneutical theory. He is the only contributor to make any serious attempt to engage Jacques Derrida (see especially his use of the Derridean notion of supplement on pp. 59-60). Michael Broido's contribution (pp.71-118), perhaps the most technical and challenging in the book, explores the interpretations given in the Vimalaprabha to the injunctions to engage in such forbidden acts as killing and stealing found in the Kala cakratantra. He provides the Sanskrit and Tibetan texts of Kalacakra III.97c-98d, and of the Vimala thereon (pp. 113-118), as well as an English translation of both (pp.75-79). His translation is perhaps not entirely beyond question (seeespecially his translation of III.98d), but the text is a difficult one, and his work is a major contribution to our understanding of Tantrika hermeneutics. Broido, in this and related studies, has done more than any other scholar in recent times to elucidate the meaning of technical hermeneutical terminology in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Broido argues, interestingly, for a propositional-attitude-ascription notion of interpretation (pp.82ff)as a necessity for making sense of linguistic acts. He suggests, also, that Buddhist interpreters made use of a related notion, that of intention-ascription, in extracting meaning from texts. This seems quite correct, and is very convincingly argued; but Broido goes on to deny (especiallyon pp. 85-86) that the historical development of Western hermeneutical theory, arising as it did from the necessity of extracting meaning from revelatory texts, has any relevance for our understanding of Buddhist hermeneutics. This for the simple reason that there are few or no revelatory texts in Buddhism. Broido is here working with an inappropriately narrow view of what constitutes a revelatory text. Most of the hermeneutical efforts put forth by Buddhists were devoted to interpreting the word of the Buddha; and while the word of the Buddha is not quite the same as the word of God, the two have enough in common, both functionally and substantively, that they can properly be considered under the same rubric. Thus the comments made by Broido on this matter (p.108 n. 70. especially) are quite mistaken. This does not, however, significantly affect the great value of his contribution. The first of the two contributions based on Tibetan sources, Robert Thurman's "Vajra Hermeneutics" (pp.119-148) , concentrates on the beginning of Candrakirti's Pradipoddyotana, making use of Tsong-kha-pa's comments thereon. Thurman's analysis of the "six parameters" (mtha' drug)and "four modes" (tshulbzhi)breaks new ground; but he, perhaps more than any of the other contributors, falls into the error of extending the meaning of 'Buddhist hermeneutics' too far. The hermeneutical differences that he alludes to between, inter alia, Chih-I and Fa-tsang, are not differences in hermeneutical theory or method, but rather differences in substantive philosophical conviction, conviction about what is the case. There are reasons why Thurman has yielded to the temptation to make Buddhist hermeneutics coextensive with Buddhist thought: the tradition itself perceives very intimate links between its theory of interpretation, its theory of understanding, and its entire soteriology. But there are better reasons for avoiding the temptation. Thurman's essay would have been better had he observed Broido's strictures (pp.82-83)on these matters. The second of the two contributions based on Tibetan sources, Matthew Kapstein's study (pp.149-174)of Kong-sprul's and Mi-pham's treatment of the yukti-catustayam, the "fourfold principle of reason," is, by contrast, methodologically very careful in distinguishing actual interpretations, particular readings given to texts, from rules governing the production of such readings, and both from the hermeneutical theories that ground such rules and exhibit their interconnections (pp.149, 166-167 nn. 2-3). He shows, with convincing detail, that for Mi-pham all understanding is hermeneutical: one's interpretation of reality, yathabhutam, is a proper precondition for one's understanding of buddhavacana, and vice versa. Exegesis guarantees and supports proper spiritual practice, just as proper spiritual practice makes possible proper exegesis. David Chappell's piece "Hermeneutical Phases in Chinese Buddhism" (pp. 175205) is perhaps the least satisfying contribution. He discusses the hermeneutical methods used by the Pure Land and Ch'an schools in the early phases of the acculturation of Buddhism into China, and applies to them a schema of three stages: crisis, integration, and systematic propagation. The use of the p'an chiao system to organize and rank texts is identified with the third stage. Disappointingly, Chappell appears to have an entirely functional understanding of hermeneutics: for him, someone's hermeneutic has been explained when one has explained what motives govern that individual's choice of and use of texts. Chappell provides no critical-theoretical emphasis on the methods by which one extracts meaning from texts, and thus no real insight into hermeneutics as a theoretical discipline--which it undoubtedly was in China. Peter Gregory's study (pp.207-230)explores the changes in Hua-yen hermeneutical practice in the period from Chih-yen (602-668CE)to Tsung-mi (780-841CE), with special reference to changes in the status attributed to the Avatamsakasutra itself. He shows that Tsung-mi's substantive philosophical position--his emphasis on ontological categories such as the dharrnadhatu and the tathagatagarbha--was interestingly different from Fa-tsang's, and this meant that his p'an-chiao system, his classification and grading of texts, also had to change. Gregory's study shows once again how close the relationship between a Buddhist thinker's substantive philosophical position and his hermeneutic is; like Thurman, he sometimes mistakes the one for the other. Robert Buswell's piece (pp.231-256)is the only one to deal directly with Korean materials. He explores the hermeneutical devices employed by Korean Son (Ch'an)thinkers to distinguish their position from the "sudden teaching" allotted an inferior position in the Hua-yen p'an-chiao system. Especially useful is his discussion of the live-word/dead-word dichotomy used by Korean Son theoreticians. Live words are instrumental; dead words are theoretical. The former cannot create theory; they can only remove barriers to awakening. These are context-sensitive properties of texts. A dead word for someone in some context might be a live word for someone else in some other. There are no words that live for everyone, and so, presumably (thoughBuswell does not say this), no nitartha texts. Korean Son thinkers are clearly among the radical hermeneuts of the Buddhist tradition. Of the two pieces treating Japanese materials, Thomas Kasulis's discussion of Kukai (pp.257-272)also stresses the instrumentality of language rather than its referentiality. All utterance, according to Kukai, is a "manifestation of the universal resonances constituting the universe" (p. 264), but some utterances are more effective than others in leading their hearers toward the realization of Dainichi. On this basis Kukai developed a classification of states of awareness correlated with philosophico-religious theories, and so also, though more tangentially, with the texts in which these are expressed. Kukai is perhaps rather more dramatic than the Nettipakarana; but at a fairly high level of generality his hermeneutic is identical. Roger Corless's study (pp.273-289)of Shinran's hermeneutic explores Shinran's use of the Sukhavativyuha and demonstrates that his hermeneutical method is a direct outgrowth of his own spiritual realization: having seen that all salvation comes from Amida, that nothing is gained by entering into the ritual complexities of the Tendai of his time, and that the only proper response to the grace of Amida is to chant the Namu Amida Butsu--having seen all this it naturally follows that the Sukhavati and the other sutras can have been doing nothing other than expressing just this. And so Shinran must develop and apply a hermenetuic that shows this to be the case. This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in hermeneutical theory. Those without training in the history and languages of the Buddhist traditions will find some of it heavy going--but certainly no heavier than Lacan, Barthes, or Derrida. I hope that in the future some of those who have contributed to this volume will turn their attention more explicitly towards engaging the Buddhist traditions with those of contemporary Western hermeneuts. There are some suggestive pointers in this direction, particularly in the contributions by Lopez, Broido, and Kapstein, but much more needs to be done.