Buddha Nature, Buddha Practice

Carl Bielefeldt


Professor of

Stanford University


Buddha Nature, Buddha Practice :

Reflections on Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)

I should begin by warning you that my title, fixed several
months before I actually imagined this paper, is somewhat
deceiving, particularly before it comes to its colon. This is
not a paper primarily about Buddhist doctrine and practice,
and only partly a paper about the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) Instead, I
want simply to talk here about three books that I have been
reading recently. One of them is indeed the book that I
mention in the title: the collection of essays by the famed
thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen. I have been
reading the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), recently because I have become
involved in a project, sponsored by the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes)
Administrative Headquarters, to translate and annotate the
entire collection. Given this technical task set by the
project, my way of reading the book has been narrowly
philological; and I have rarely looked up from the text, and
the piles of sources and reference works I need to make my
way through it, to ask what it might mean as philosophical
or religious teaching. The Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), of course, is one of
the most famous works of philosophical and religious
teaching in the history of Zen, or indeed I suppose in the
history of Japanese Buddhism more broadly; but for me it
has been largely a set of textual and linguistic puzzles.

Two other books, however, have recently nudged me from
my philological slumbers and prodded me to reflect a bit on
the sort of book I am translating. Being one of the most
famous books of Zen as well as the primary scriptural basis
of the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes), the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) has been the focus of a
long tradition of scholarly and religious study a tradition
beginning in the early Edo period with the first modern
editions of the work, gathering momentum in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the
development of modern Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) scholarship and the
dissemination of the book to the general public, and swelling
in the postwar period to what is now a major intellectual
industry. As you know, in recent years this industry has
been rocked by the movement known as "critical
Buddhism", which has, among other items on its
wide-ranging agenda, raised a set of questions about the
Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), both the nature of the book itself in its
various redactions and the interpretation of the book by Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) tradition.

Unlike other products of postwar Japanese industry, most
study of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) has been produced for and
consumed by the domestic market. In an important sense,
this seems particularly true of the products of critical
Buddhism, both the writings of the movement itself and the
responses prompted by those writings. The "movement"(if
we can in fact call it that) is, after all, almost entirely the
work of two professors, both formerly at Komazawa
University, whose agenda, while wide ranging, has as its
primary focus the reform of Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) doctrine and social
practice. Thus, while the recent debates over the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) have cast up several significant new issues for the
study of the text, much of the work, even at the most basic
textual level, gets its force from and speaks most
powerfully to the politics of the contemporary Japanese
Buddhist especially Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) Buddhist scene. Given my own
work with the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) Administrative Headquarters, I have
naturally been exposed to various opinions about such
politics, but given the philological nature of my work, I have
taken them more as interesting church gossip than serious
intellectual, let alone religious, challenge.

Recently, however, I was asked to review the new volume
by Jamie Hubbard and Paul Swanson entitled Pruning the
Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism.
book, as I am sure many of you know, collects several
articles by Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shiro, the
prime advocates of critical Buddhism, together with various
responses to their work by Japanese and American
scholars. Most of the arguments in the book, I had
encountered here and there in earlier reading and had put
down to the passing passions of sectarian squabble. Still, to
see the arguments thus collected in one volume drove home
to me just how odd and confusing the debates over critical
Buddhism are; and as I read through the arguments, I
found myself becoming both more interested and more
troubled than I had expected interested, perhaps not so
much by the content as by the fact of the volume itself;
troubled, by both the content and the fact. That learned
American scholars from several different fields of Buddhist
studies should have felt moved to contribute to and
produce such a volume made me realize that there may be
more to the "storm" over critical Buddhism than what I had
taken as Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) church gossip; that an American academic
publishing house (the University of Hawaii Press) should
have brought out the volume suggested to me that it
assumed there to be an international audience for what I
had assumed was largely a matter of religious politics
specific to Japan.

Except for the excellent piece by Steven Heine summarizing
the debates over the twelve-fascicle Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), little of
the material in Pruning the Bodhi Tree speaks directly to
Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s text. Yet in much of the material, including some
that is critical of critical Buddhism, we find an approach to
reading Buddhist texts that does not bode well for a book
like the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) or for the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) hope that the
book’s translation will foster an appreciation for Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)
religion. We might call this approach to reading
"philosophical reductionism". I shall return at the end of my
talk to my forebodings about this approach, but first I want
to introduce my third book, which I see standing, as it were,
on the opposite side of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) from critical
Buddhism and offering us therefore a quite different
perspective on the religious possibilities of the text.


Back to Top

* * * * *


My third book is entitled Mountains and Rivers Without
, a long poem by the American author Gary Snyder. I
have been reading this book recently because one of my
graduate students, Mark Gonnerman, who is writing his
dissertation on Snyder, organized a faculty seminar on the
text last year at my university. Snyder is a poet, not a
buddhologist; his book is a work of art, not of Buddhist
studies. Unless you happen to be interested in American
literature, probably few of you know Snyder’s work, and
even those who might be interested in American literature
would hardly think to look there for a guide to reading the
Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes). I myself never thought to do so. Why, then,
do I introduce this third book here?

The publication of Mountains and Rivers Without End in
1996 marked the completion of a project that had occupied
fully forty years of its author’s life. When Snyder came to
read his poem to our university seminar last year, he
mentioned to me, perhaps only partly in jest, that his
reading, in the early 1970s, of my translation of one fascicle
of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) had delayed his work on the project by
a decade a decade spent in brooding over the meaning of
the fascicle and its implications for the vision of his own
poem. Gary Snyder is not a buddhologist, but he is a
lifelong student of Buddhism, both of its texts and its
practices. Whether or not we want to label him a "Buddhist"
poet, the fact that he would want to brood at length over a
Zen text and seek to incorporate its vision into his own
should hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his
life and work.

Mountains and Rivers Without End is a difficult text,
bringing together in a complex structure many shorter
pieces written over the long period of its creation. At first
glance, I suppose, the poem might be seen as a celebration
of the natural world of mountains and rivers, especially the
wilderness of the American west through which Snyder has
wandered for years. But in fact, like Snyder himself, the
poem wanders not only among the high peaks of the Sierras
and desolate canyons of the Great Basin but along old U.S.
Highway 99 and down into the basement of the Good Will
store on Howard Street in San Francisco (as well as many
other spots around the globe). In wandering thus through
town and country, the poem becomes an extended
meditation on the intimate intertwining of the worlds of
nature and culture, a song about the land to be sure, but
also about how we inhabit the land and build it up, not only
with our roads and settlements but with our dreams and
memories, our art and song. The title of the work refers at
once to the mountains and rivers of the natural world and
to an anonymous Sung landscape painting (known as
Ch’i-shan wu-chin, in the Cleveland Museum) that
re-presents that world and re-creates it as cultural artifact.
The work may be seen as coming to its climax, in a poem
(based on the Noh drama Yamamba) entitled "The Mountain
Spirit" in which the spirit of the mountain, having challenged
the poet from the city to speak of real "minerals and stone",
accepts his poem with the whisper, "All art and song / is
sacred to the real, / As such."

If I understand it, then, Snyder’s poem suggests two related
points or perhaps one point viewed from two angles. First,
the natural world is cultural. It is not a given, not simply the
raw stuff of objective reality: the stuff is always already
cooked, the world already mapped as human landscape. We
cannot, as it were, get out of town into the unexplored
wilderness; someone has always been there before us,
leaving a beer can at the campsite. Or to put the point in
traditional Buddhist terms, we might say that pratyak.sa is
always shot through with anumaana, and even the
dharmakaaya preaches the dharma. Second, the cultural
world is natural. The beer can belongs to the land; it is just
as wild as the rock it rests on. The wilderness is
everywhere, in our rooms, in our computers, in our words
on the computer. At some epistemological level, all our
experience is raw, all our anumana is shot through with
pratyak.sa; scripture is itself a separate transmission, not
dependent on words or letters.

Snyder signals this intimate intertwining of the natural and
cultural in his epigraph for the poem, which quotes Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s
mysterious comments on the famous Zen metaphor of the
painted rice cake that cannot satisfy hunger.


If you say the painting is not real, then the
material phenomenal world is not real, the
Dharma is not real. Unsurpassed enlightenment
is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe
and the empty sky are nothing but a painting.
Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying
hunger other than a painted rice cake.


These comments come from the Gabylong_o.GIF (526 bytes)畵餠 ("Painted Rice
Cake") fascicle of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes). But the fascicle that so
preoccupied Snyder during his writing of Mountains and
Rivers Without End is the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) 山水經 ("Mountains
and Waters Sutra"). This is hardly surprising when we
remember that this fascicle is itself explicitly concerned
with the theme of the intertwining of the buddha dharma
and the natural world. The very title of the text expresses
this theme. As Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen explains in his opening line, "The
mountains and rivers of the present are the realization of
the way (or the "Words"; dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) genjlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) 道現成) of the ancient
buddhas." The text is not to be understood, then, simple as
a suutra on mountains and rivers: the landscape is itself a
suutra, teaching us the meaning of the dharma. The natural
world around us is somehow, it seems, a subjectivity,
expressing, and even, as we shall see, itself pursuing the
spiritual life.


Back to Top

* * * * *


While reading Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without
, I went back to Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) to try to see what
the poet saw in the text’s vision of the natural world that so
preoccupied him. I cannot say that I have fully understood
either Snyder or Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, but here I want to suggest three
layers of reading the Zen master’s text that might make it a
rich source for the poet. The first of these, we can call the
"metaphysical" layer.

There is a haunting refrain running through Mountains and
Rivers Without End:
"Walking on walking, / under foot
earth turns / Streams and mountains never stay the same".
Here the natural world becomes a kind of walking,
"underneath" the walking human foot. The mind leaps
immediately to the words of Fu-jung Tao-ka’i 芙蓉道楷
quoted at the start of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes): "The blue mountains
are constantly walking." Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen goes on to comment at
length on this saying, playing with the famous Buddhist
doctrine of impermanence, in which the seemingly solid
mountain is reduced to a stream of momentary mountain
dharmas. He then extends this kind of metaphysical analysis
to the human sphere, to the life of the individual and the
history of the buddha dharma, both of which are constantly
"walking" with the mountain.

In the final poem of Mountains and Rivers Without End,
entitled "Finding the Space in the Heart", Snyder has a little
passage immediately familiar to anyone familiar with
Buddhist texts.


Sound swallowed away,

no waters, no mountains, no

bush no grass and

        because no grass

no shade but your shadow.

No flatness because no not-flatness.

No loss, no gain. So

nothing in the way!


No mountains and rivers remain in the space cleared by the
Heart Suutra. Like Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen in the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), the poet
clearly senses the emptiness implied in his constant
walking. As the Zen master puts it in his usual literary
style, walking has been going on "since the very time before
any subtle sign, since the age of the King of Emptiness (ku1.jpg (4177 bytes)long_o.GIF (526 bytes) nahan 空王那伴)." Or again, in his opening lines,
mountains and rivers are "living in the present" because
they are "the state prior to the kalpa of emptiness (ku1.jpg (4177 bytes)klong_o.GIF (526 bytes)
空劫)"; they are liberated because they are "the self before
the germination of any subtle sign." Or more simply, later
on, mountains are "constant" because they are constantly

For the poet, the Zen master’s logic of impermanence and
emptiness opens up images of nature at once restless and
still, a dynamic world always recreating itself in time
through the constant thrust and erosion of peaks and
gorges, and yet a world at peace in the present, stretching
itself on space as the vast, vacant expanse of the landscape.
There is opportunity here for language to play with the
sharp consonants and smooth vowels of such a world. But,
as we know, the same logic of impermanence and emptiness
has dangers for language. It can empty the words of their
referents and render them merely "conventional". It can cut
off the poet’s art and song from the Mountain Spirit’s "real
as such". It can end in the Zen master’s silence, or perhaps
in a shrug and a muttered "thus".

Here the poet finds a friend in Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen. As we know from his
comments in the Gabylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) fascicle, the walking world is a
world of art as well as of nature. As we know from the title
of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), it is a talking world, speaking the
language of scripture. Indeed, in this latter text (and
elsewhere in the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)) Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen goes out of his way to
chastise those Zen types who hold that language does not
get at nature and that a saying like Yun-men Wen-yen’s
雲門文偃 "The East Mountain moves over the water" does
not really describe the mountain. These types, says Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen,
are not Buddhists, they are not even human, they are
dumber even than animals. In fact, he concludes in a turn
on the "liar’s paradox", if they claim language is false, they
falsify their own claim. Rather, we should realize that
Yun-men’s saying is the very "bones and marrow of the
buddhas and patriarchs". The mountains do indeed "walk
across the waters", and "the tips of their feet set the waters
dancing". For those with eyes to see them, the mountains
actually "mount the clouds and stride through the heavens".

With what eyes should we see mountains "striding through
the heavens"? To the artist, such language may appear as
elegant image of towering ranges on the horizon; to the
philosopher, it can be a coded signal that the temporal
stream of mountain dharmas has a transcendental status, in
the emptiness beyond our earthly categories of
understanding. But to those with an eye for Buddhist
cosmology, it can also be a reminder that mountains walk
not only back and forth in time but also up and down
through the hierarchies of the dharma realm. This is true
not only of mountains. Indeed, such movement "up and
down" is particularly clear in the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes)‘s treatment of
water. Water, Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen says, does not just flow down from
the mountains: it flows across the sky; it reaches
everywhere throughout the dharma realm, from the highest
heavens to the deepest hells. Water extends into every
buddha land, and "countless buddha lands appear in a single
drop of water".

In language like this, we are moving toward my second layer
of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) text, what I shall call, with some
trepidation, the "mystical" reading. By "mystical" I mean
here a view of the natural world that sees it not simply as
empty dharmas but as the expression, or embodiment of a
sacred order, that sees the mountains and rivers of this
apparent world as participating in, or communicating with,
higher realms hidden from view, in the heavens and beyond.
Here, the dharmas come together in a cosmic whole; here,
emptiness comes alive as Vairocana, whose body, speech,
and thought generate and enliven all things. As conscious
processes of the living cosmic body, the walking and talking
of mountains and rivers become more than metaphors, and
"grasses and trees become buddhas". As Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen says in the
Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), the mountains do not merely walk; they have
their own "way of life" (kakkei 活計). Their way of life is
their "investigation" of their own walking, their study of
themselves. In studying themselves, "mountains become
buddhas and patriarchs." "Mountains and rivers become
wise men and sages."

Through this vision of mountains and rivers as conscious
being engaged in spiritual activity, Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen brings the Sung
Ch’an nostalgia for the natural landscape into conversation
with the mystical hierarchies of his Heian Japanese esoteric
Buddhism. In the process, he brings his religion out of the
cloistered world of philosophy into the imagination of the
gods. He creates a space for the Mountain Spirit, a realm of
archaic meanings from which she appears to the poet to
demand a song, a realm that makes the song not merely
pretty or true but "sacred to the real as such". The poet
sings her a Zen song.


Mountains will be Buddhas then

         when bristlecone needles are green!

         Scarlet penstemon

                    flowers are red!


The color is familiar in China, Korea or Japan, where
buddhas see that bamboos are green; but the bristlecone
pine grows only in the New World. The heavens of hidden
meanings stretch all around the globe, as gods come and go
at will; but the range of this Mountain Spirit is the White
Mountains of the Great Basin. She seeks a song about her
own range, her own buddhahood; and the poet, camped in
her range, responds. This is the way the dharma travels, by
converting the gods in their own range and addressing the
people where they actually live. The sophisticated systems
of the sastras circle back to the ancient patterns of the
people; the ma.n.dalas migrate and settle down in sites long
sacred to local lore pools and falls, caves and crags, groves
of pine and crytomeria.

The ideal of local lore brings me to my final layer of the
Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), what I shall call the "mythic". By the mythic, I
mean an approach that reads the landscape through the
historical narratives of a community, that sees the
countryside as the storied sites of song and legend, the
places where memories take place. The world of Mountains
and Rivers Without End
is such a storied place,
crisscrossed by the myths of many peoples. In one central
poem, we find the ancient native American cultural hero
Kokop’ele, the hump-backed flute player, travelling with,
perhaps travelling as, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan
Tsang across a landscape that is at once the Great Basin of
the American west and the Tarim Basin of Central Asia.
"Logicians of emptiness" at Naalandaa join in the ghost
dance that liberates the land and returns it to its
inhabitants. Later, the poet sings to the Mountain Spirit.


Ghosts of lost landscapes

         herds and flocks,

                    towns and clans,

great teachers from all lands

tucked in Wovoka’s empty hat,

          stored in Baby Krishna’s mouth,

                    kneeling for tea

in Vimalakirti’s one small room.


In practice, of course, what I am calling the mythic and the
mystic often intersect, as gods descend into human form
and heroes pass into the pantheon. But Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, as a Zen
missionary seeking to convert his countrymen from their
esoteric ways, was likely loath to over-populate his
landscape with the familiar divinities of the Mahaayaana
mystical pantheon. Rather, like the Chinese Ch’an literary
tradition he sought to introduce to Japan, he favored the
mythic powers of the patriarchs and historical legends of
the masters. The very title of the Shlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)blong_o.GIF (526 bytes)genzlong_o.GIF (526 bytes), of course,
refers to the tradition of these patriarchs and masters,
whose legends and sayings provide the inspiration for most
of the essays in the book. The mountains and rivers of the
Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes) are the haunts of the ancients, from the
historical Buddha ^Saakyamuni himself, through the sages
of early Taoist lore, to the Ch’an master Ch’uan-tzu
Te-cheng 船子德誠, who live as a boatman on, and one day
disappeared into, the Hua-t’ing River. Indeed, such is the
intimacy between sage and mountain in the text that at one
point their relationship is described in effect as a mating:
the mountains are said to love their masters, and therefore
the sages enter the mountains, charming the trees, rocks,
birds and beasts, and giving the mountains delight.


Back to Top

* * * * *


Such, then, are my three layers of the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes). If you
can grant me for the moment something like these three
possibilities for the text, the question remains how they are
related. I have been using here the metaphor of "layers", but
in my own mind the disparate readings are more like
"seams" of meaning running through the text, twisting and
crossing each other along the way. In my mind, Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s
mountains are not built up from a bedrock of metaphysics,
overlaid with the sedimentary deposits of mysticism and
mythology. I do not have, and would tend to resist, a
cosmogony of the text that posits a pure philosophy
preceding the appearance of the gods and the time of the
heroes. For me, the legends of the masters who practiced in
the mountains are as important for understanding the
meaning of these mountains as any abstract analysis of
their being. This way of reading puts me at odds, I suppose,
with almost everyone with the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) tradition that would
ground the text in the doctrine of the universal Buddha
nature, as well as with the critics of the tradition who would
dig out the original Indian emptiness buried beneath the
rubble of East Asian cultural accretion. Being thus at odds,
I want to come back to my other book, Pruning the Bodhi
Tree, and say just a few words in closing about the vexed
subject of critical Buddhism.

The subject of critical Buddhism is both vexed and vexing
in part because it covers such a wide range of issues and is
argued from so many angles. The editors of Pruning the
Bodhi Tree,
have made a noble effort to organize their
material into three loosely coherent categories, dealing with
broad themes of methodology, substantive debates over
Buddhist texts and doctrines, and social issues; but in fact
the arguments are such that they often bounce back and
forth between and beyond such categories, and the effect
on the reader is rather like trying to watch several different
games simultaneously games of philosophy, philology,
history, ethics, religion, politics, and more. Rather than
blunder into all these games, I want here only to raise a
question about the one troubling feature of critical
Buddhism I introduced at the start of my talk: its tendency
toward what I called there "philosophical reductionism".

There is an argument appearing in the writings of both
Profs. Hakamaya and Matsumoto that goes something like
this. "We are Buddhists. As Buddhists, we must take a
stand on the essential teaching of the religion and reject all
that violates such teaching as not true Buddhism." Both
authors, as we know, take their Buddhist stand on the
teachings of pratiitya-samutpaada and ^suunyataa and
from that stand reject all forms of "topical Buddhism" or
hongaku shislong_o.GIF (526 bytes) or dhaatuvada, as expressions of the
"indigenous thought" of Asian cultures Hinduism, Taoism,
Shintlong_o.GIF (526 bytes) and the like that has found its way from the outside
into the Buddhist tradition. On these grounds, it seems, not
only Snyder’s poem (which is clearly dedicated to mixing
the dharma with various traditions of indigenous thought),
but also Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s essay (at least large parts as I am reading
them) must be rejected. They will be in good company, in a
pile along with most texts of the tradition.

I do not want to argue about whether and why Buddhists
should take pratiitya-samutpaada and ^suunyataa as the
essential teachings of their religion, let alone whether and
why these particular teachings are likely to be more
conducive than other alternatives to the social reform
sought by the professors of critical Buddhism. Much more
could be, and has been, said on these issues than appears in
Pruning the Bodhi Tree. But my own question here is
more simple-minded: Why, as Buddhists, must we start by
taking our stand in an essential teaching and rejecting most
texts of the tradition? To be sure, there is plenty of
historical precedent for this way of being a Buddhist,
especially perhaps in the so-called "selective"(senchaku
選擇) styles of Japanese Buddhism often associated with
some reformers (including Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen) in the Kamakura period.
But since most people, even in the Kamakura period, have
not been Buddhists of this sort, clearly we cannot stand the
argument on precedent.

One of the nasty corollaries of the argument for taking a
stand on orthodox doctrine is that those who do not are not
Buddhists. Thus, "objective historians", who rest on mere
precedent and accept as Buddhism whatever Buddhists
have actually said and done, are dismissed as outsiders,
non-believers uncommitted to the dharma. But what about
the rest of us, Buddhists who may not know what the
essential teachings are, let alone what to do about them,
and search the tradition in faith for guidance? What about
those of us, perhaps like Gary Snyder, who may be
struggling to make the dharma come alive in our own
historical situations and who look to the tradition for the
ways that Buddhists like Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen have done this in the past,
in their own situations?

In fact, perhaps not surprisingly, there is much in critical
Buddhism that reminds us of Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, in his emphasis on the
need to read Buddhist texts with the "eye of the way"(Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen
道眼) and his slashing attacks, like those we have seen in
the Sansuikylong_o.GIF (526 bytes), on everyone who lacked this eye. But the
eye of the way was not for Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen a natural gift, either of
reason or intuition; it was a gift of the tradition itself. Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen could be sure that he himself had the eye in large
measure because of his faith in the historical lineage of the
buddhas and patriarchs; it was first of all the historical fact
of his membership in this lineage that gave him the
confidence to judge the tradition, and it was through
participation in this lineage in its historical forms as he had
received them that he sought to bring the dharma alive in
his community. In this sense, for Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen, history came first
and philosophy second.

Faith in a particular version of sacred history was a
common starting point for many Buddhists in Dlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)gen’s day.
It is not so common today and is surely not the starting
point for the professors of critical Buddhism. Although
they must of necessity sometimes argue for their vision of
orthodoxy from the historical precedents of particular
texts, their selection and interpretation of the texts rests
less on faith in the dharma as an historical tradition than on
belief in the dharma as a philosophical system. Where does
this belief come from? Surely some of it comes from the
fact the professors are specialists in doctrinal texts rather
than, say, texts of ritual, history or literature that
themselves seek to define the dharma as an intellectual
system. But I suspect that the professors’ belief (and likely
their choice of specialization) is more deeply rooted in the
modern need to define Buddhism as a coherent system of
beliefs, so that it could take its rightful place among the
religions (thus defined) of the world. In Japan, this need has
been felt since the Meiji period, when Buddhists there first
came into contact with the new "science of religion" and the
nascent western buddhology already at work on such a

As you might guess by now, I am not myself drawn to such
work, what we might call the "Protestantization" of the
dharma that weeds out the rich overgrowth of art and
literature, myth and ritual, and in the process cuts off most
possibilities for being Buddhist. But my larger point here is
not to condemn this work so much as to remind the
professors that their call to take a stand on orthodox
doctrine and reject the rest, whatever value it may have in
challenging and reforming the Slong_o.GIF (526 bytes)tlong_o.GIF (526 bytes)shu1.jpg (4177 bytes) belongs to a
particular historical context and is but one more example of
how Buddhists must always struggle to bring the dharma
alive in their own situations to remind them of this and to
suggest that, if they look around for other Buddhists in
other situations, both in the past and the present, they may
find more friends than they think, even among those who
take refuge in the buddha nature or sing at night to the
Mountain Spirit.