Why They Say Zen is Not Buddhism: Recent Japanese Critiques of

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  • Why They Say Zen Is Not Buddhism

    Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature

    Paul L. SWANSON

    EARLY IN AD 817, Saich, the founder of Japanese Tendai, enteredinto a debate with Tokuitsu over the idea of Buddha-nature anduniversal enlightenment. Tokuitsu, a Hoss monk who lived inthe Kant region, had written a tract called On Buddha-Nature(Busshsh), to which Saich responded with Vanquishing misunder-standings about the Lotus Sutra (Hokke kowaku). For the next four yearsthe two scholars engaged through essays and arguments in what grew tobe one of the most important doctrinal debates in Japanese Buddhist his-tory. In short, Saich championed the idea of universal Buddhahood, theekayna ideal espoused in the Lotus Sutra that all beings are destined forthe highest enlightenment of a Buddha, while Tokuitsu supported theYogacara interpretation of ve gotra, or ve different potentials latent insentient beings, including that of the icchantika who have no hope ofever attaining Buddhahood.1

    What, one might ask, does this debate have to do with the contem-porary study of religion and our understanding of Buddhism in Japan?Just this: we are in the midst of a very provocative rethinking ofJapanese Buddhism by some prominent Buddhist scholars and thinkerswho claim that Chan/Zen, the tathgata-garbha (seed, matrix, orwomb of the Buddha) tradition,2 hongaku shis (original or inher-ent enlightenment), and related ideas are not Buddhism. This is tan-tamount to saying that most, if not all, of Japanese Buddhism is notBuddhist.

    In a sense what these scholars are saying is not all that new: thetathgata-garbha tradition and Buddha-nature ideas have always beenopen to the charge that they posit an un-Buddhist substantialist or atman-


  • like existence. This looks very much like the debate between Saich andTokuitsu transferred to our times and context. What is the meaning ofBuddha-nature? What is the correct understanding of the teaching of theBuddha? Which, if any, of the many and varied strands of Buddhist tradi-tion should be accepted as correct and proper, and which rejected as con-trary to the Buddha-Dharma? What are the wider social implications ofaccepting or rejecting certain interpretations of the Buddhist tradition?

    It is usually assumed that Saich won the debate with Tokuitsu.Certainly Saichs view of universal Buddhahood became the accepted pre-supposition for most of Japanese Buddhism, and in fact represents thedominant religious ethos in Japan. The idea of universal Buddhahood ledeventually to hongaku shisa way of thinking that came to include suchideas as the inherent enlightenment of all things (including non-sentientbeings such as grasses and trees, rocks and mountains); the identity ofsamsara and nirvana; nondifferentiation of the indigenous kami and theBuddhas and bodhisattvas; and the transcendence of all dualities, includ-ing good and eviland this ethos grew to be pervasive and unquestionedin much of Japanese religious activity and thought. However, there havealso been times, though few and far between, when the idea and implica-tions of hongaku shis were questioned. Now is such a time.

    The current attack is led by two Buddhist scholars at KomazawaUniversity (associated with the St Zen sect): Hakamaya Noriaki andMatsumoto Shir. The main focus of their attacks is the hongaku shis tra-dition (strictly speaking, the idea that all things are inherently or orig-inally enlightened) and the implications of this kind of thinking (such asthe ideal of wa, harmony or conformity) that function as largelyuncritical assumptions in Japanese society at large. In what follows I pro-pose briey to examine the development of this tradition in Japan, itssignicance for Japanese religion and society, and the recent critique ofthis tradition by Hakamaya, Matsumoto, and other Japanese scholars.


    The term hongaku (Chin. pen-cheh) has no Sanskrit equivalent;3 it makesits rst appearance in the Awakening of Mahayana Faith (T Nos. 1666,1667), a text almost certainly compiled in China,4 and in two Chineseapocryphal Buddhist texts, the Jen-wang ching (T Nos. 245, 246)5 andthe *Vajrasamdhi Sutra (T No. 273).6 In the Awakening of Mahayana



  • Faith, hongaku is used in contrast to shigaku, the inception or actual-ization of enlightenment, that is, the process by which one realizesenlightenment in this life; hence the English rendering original enlight-enment. The Awakening of Mahayana Faith teaches that

    original enlightenment indicates [the essence of Mind (a priori)] incontradistinction to [the essence of Mind in] the process of actualizationof enlightenment; the process of actualization of enlightenment is noneother than [the process of integrating] the identity with the originalenlightenment.7

    This idea of original or inherent enlightenment, along with the Awakeningof Mahayana Faith in general, had an immense inuence on the develop-ment of East Asian Buddhism.8 To give but a few examples: Fa-tsang(643712), the Hua-yen patriarch, is well known for his inuential com-mentary on the Awakening of Mahayana Faith;9 the idea was pervasive inthe Chan tradition; and it contributed to the development of the concept ofthe Buddha-nature in non-sentient beings in the Tien-tai tradition.

    In Japan hongaku thought took on a life of its own. Its inuence wasfelt in the Shingon school, particularly through Kkais extensive use ofthe Shakumakaen-ron (T No. 1668), an apocryphal commentary on theAwakening of Mahayana Faith attributed to Ngrjuna. The develop-ment of hongaku shis was especially extensive in the Tendai school. Afterthe Tendai school was introduced into Japan by Saich it underwentmany developments,10 one of which was the growth of an identiablyindependent branch called hongakumon. Texts devoted to hongaku shismade their appearance in the late Heian and Kamakura periods, some ofthem being attributed to prominent Tendai gures like Saich, Genshin,and Rygen. These texts include the Honri taik sh, attributed toSaich, which interprets the most important Tendai teachings in terms ofhongaku shis; Hymns on Inherent Enlightenment (Hongaku-san),with commentary attributed to Rygen (Ch-hongaku-san) and Genshin(Hongaku-san shaku); and texts such as the Shuzen-ji ketsu, attributed inpart to Saich, which contains details on the oral transmissions (kuden) ofhongaku ideas, practices, and lineages.11 Such oral transmissions and theaccompanying lineages form an important part of the hongaku tradition.

    It is no accident that these developments took place contemporane-ously with, and indeed were a part of the growth of, the syncretistic honji-suijaku/shinbutsu shg movement, the tendency to emphasize the unity



  • of Buddhist and Shinto deities and practices. The inuence of hongakushis can be seen in the growth of Shugend (the way of mountain asceti-cism), in Shinto, and in all of the Buddhist schools. Building on theMahayana idea of the identity of samsara and nirvana, hongaku shisevolved into an ethos (to use Tamura Yoshirs words) of absolute non-duality and total afrmation of the mundane world. The ideal is per-haps best expressed in the phrases smoku kokudo shikkai jbutsu andsansen smoku shikkai jbutsu (the grasses, trees, mountains, and rivers allattain Buddhahood), phrases that pop up almost incessantly in Japaneseliterature, art, theater, and so forth.12 This religious ethos constituted thestatus quo for most of Japanese history, and continues to dominate todaydespite attempts by the State in the early Meiji period to forcibly sepa-rate Buddhist and Shinto elements (shinbutsu bunri).

    A few exceptions to the dominance of the hongaku ethos in Japanstand out. Noteworthy is the work of Hchib Shshin in the twelfth cen-tury.13 Shshin was critical of hongaku shis, saying that one should notunderstand it to mean that sentient beings are already enlightened, andthat such an interpretation denies causality and is the heresy of natural-ism (jinen ged).14 It is often pointed out that what are called the newKamakura Buddhist schools arose in reaction against the hongaku stanceof the Tendai establishment, but I think it more likely that as these newmovements became established sects, they soon reverted to what Haka-maya and Matsumoto criticize as a hongaku ethos. In the Tokugawa periodMyry Jisan (16371690) and Reik Kken (16521739) of theAnraku school urged a revival of the keeping of the precepts based on theSsu-fen l (Jpn. Shibun-ritsu), in response to what they perceived as adecadence encouraged by hongaku shis. This movement was exceptional,however, and the hongaku ethos has survived as an unquestioned assump-tion in much, if not all, of Japanese Buddhism.


    The current controversy concerning hongaku shis, as we noted, centersaround Matsumoto Shir and Hakamaya Noriaki, but is not restricted tothem. It is not insignicant that these gures are all rst-rate textualscholars and philosophers, as well as faculty members of the St-Zen-afliated Komazawa University. Theirs are not casual criticisms leveledbroadside by outsiders, nor are they based on slipshod scholarship or half-



  • baked social commentary due to a lack of familiarity with the Buddhisttradition and its texts. These are rst-rate academic studies prepared bycommitted Buddhists.

    Matsumoto Shir, a specialist in Madhyamika Buddhism, published acollection of his essays in 1989 called Prattyasamutpda and EmptinessCritiques of the Doctrine of Tathgata-garbha. I begin with a rsum ofthe main points made in these essays.

    The Doctrine of Tathgata-garbha Is Not Buddhist

    The rst essay, provocatively titled The Doctrine of Tathgata-garbha IsNot Buddhist, leaves no doubt as to Matsumotos position or intent.15 Ift