Late Zen

Craig Sisman C.Sisman at
Fri Sep 10 06:47:58 EDT 1999

Late Zen

Apologies for this rather late post in the Zen thread.  Apologies also for
the perhaps over-provocative posting that started it all - to ensure a
response I did over-generalise and over-state my case somewhat. However no
offence was intended, indeed, as I wrote the posting my tongue was placed
affectionately in my cheek

In any event there was a response and a fascinating one at that.
I'd like to touch on a few of the issues that were raised:

I accept the point that a lot of woolly nonsense has been written, and
continues to be written, about Zen.  However such sloppy pronouncements are
not only made by non-Japanese 'orientalists' - native Japanese also produce
'orientalist' (or more accurately 'essentialist') statements about Japanese
culture and 'Zen'.
(As an aside: shouldn't this indigenous production of 'orientalist'
discourse itself be a valid area for research?)

I have to say that I am uncomfortable about the use of the term
'orientalist' - its over use as a label to demonise writers from 'the bad
old days' could itself be seen as an example of sloppy scholarship. The
writers and texts involved are much more heterogeneous - indeed there is no
homogenous view on Zen either inside or outside Japan. For example, there is
an influential Japan-based school of Zen which argues that monastic Zen in
contemporary Japan has betrayed the Zen tradition and is not 'true Zen',
that the monastic lifestyle no longer provides that perfect example of
Buddhist practice. By contrast, a group of contemporary Japanese Buddhist
scholars have argued that Zen, in any of its guises, is not an authentic
from of Buddhism (due to its 'corruption' by indigenous world-views which
pre-existed its introduction to Japan). So there are lots of competing
voices regarding what is and is not authentic Zen as well as what is and is
not authentic Buddhism. (It is interesting to note that some forms of social
anthropology have tended to assume that the more 'popular' a cultural form
the more 'authentic' or deserving of study it is - therefore social
anthropologists study funerary rites rather than sazen). 

Anyway, I would like to suggest that we drop the phrase 'orientalist' as a
term of abuse, just as contemporary social anthropologists seem to have
dropped using 'ethnocentric' as a term of abuse. To borrow from the language
of Zen, orientalism, like enthocentrism, is just another form of
'essentialism' and, unless we are 'enlightened', we are all, to some degree,

I am still somewhat mystified as to why previous treatments of Zen and film
have aroused such passion and ire - so much so that the normally generous PB
High was surprisingly prescriptive regarding what would and would not count
as an acceptable piece of research on Zen. I think the real issue is not the
absence or presence of 'academic rigour' or of a specific methodology - it
is rather the challenge to say something meaningful in language about a
practice which has such a radical mistrust of language as a mode of
representation. Perhaps the idea of a (silent) Zen film is, paradoxically,
easier to realise that a film about Zen or a piece of scholarship about Zen.

Anyway, thanks for your responses

Yours playfully (in the best Zen tradition)


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