electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 7 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 28 October 2008

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Real Zen Buddhism

Finding Life Between Disembodied Ideas and Funeral Practices


Anton Sevilla

Ateneo de Manila University

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About the Author

Borup, Jørn, (2008) Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism: Myōshinji, A Living Religion, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-16557-1, hardback, 314 pages.

A curious phrase makes up the subtitle of this study by Jørn Borup: 'a living religion'. The phrase can be approached from two directions. First, living religion is that which is opposed to idealized Zen Buddhism. Borup critically refers to idealized philosophico-spiritual Zen as 'Suzuki-Zen', from the great number of Zen scholars and writers that find themselves heavily influenced by D.T. Suzuki. These scholars tend to be influenced in a manner that causes them to lean toward philosophical and spiritual analyses of Zen Buddhism that have the danger of becoming far removed from the contemporary reality of Zen Buddhist institution, practitioners, and practices. In response to this idealization, Borup chooses to go beyond the ideal of Zen and engage its present actuality by studying Myōshinji, the largest Rinzai Zen sect, and the actual dynamics within and surrounding this religious institution. His methodology is robust—extensive studies of publications and 'practical texts' in use within the institution, coupled with participant observation and fieldwork, make for a strong ethnographic study. In so doing, he hopes to bring Zen Buddhist studies back to institutional hierarchies, mixed beliefs, pragmatic approaches, financial concerns and blurred barriers, which are realities that constitute the present state of Zen Buddhism.

Along with this notion of living religion as opposed to idealized Suzuki-Zen, the notion of living religion is also opposed to 'Funeral Zen'. For Borup, the view of Zen Buddhism as merely a business of bones—practical, economical but soteriologically lifeless—is equally reductionist as the view of Zen Buddhism as merely a religion of enlightenment and zazen (seated meditation). Borup aims to depict Zen as a living religion that is more than just funerals or practicalities, but includes these pragmatic concerns in its own socio-historically embodied engagement with enlightenment and spirituality.

It is with this two-fold meaning of 'living religion' that Borup approaches this study, aiming to find the vitality between the desiccated notions of both Suzuki-Zen and Funeral Zen, searching for a Zen Buddhism that is organic, embodied, and fundamentally alive. He develops this idea in three chapters, the first chapter dedicated to descriptive analysis on the institution, the second on the participants, and the third on the practices of the Myōshinji sect.

Borup begins with an introduction that sets the tone for his work. By showing the relationship of his approach to Zen Buddhism with his own quest—a search for 'pure' Zen, disillusionment and renewed commitment to more embodied realities—he is able to show the point of departure of his work as well as foreshadow the contours his work is about to take in the next three chapters.

The first of these three chapters discusses the institution, history, and structure of the Myōshinji sect. Borup is at his finest here, keenly melding the legendary beginnings and traditions of Zen Buddhism with the factual history and institutional structure of the sect. His discussion of the political and religious context of the sect ranges from the Tokugawa period to the struggles of the Pacific War and its aftermath, all the way to the present laicized and international character of the sect. In this discussion, he extensively situates the quest for enlightenment within the socio-historical context that forms its embodiment. In this chapter, he clearly depicts a sect that is both rooted in spiritual tradition and situated amidst power structures and changing demands throughout history.

The second chapter discusses the participants in this living religion, Zen Buddhists in their myriad categories: the priest and his family, nuns, lay believers, occasional Buddhists, even the intellectuals, critics, and foreigners. Borup's discussion here is characterized by an adept and critical usage of categories. For instance, monks or household leavers (shukke) and laypersons or householders (zaike), are two categories that are often considered to be cleanly delineated—that a household leaver is one who has left the household life for monastic life, as opposed to the layperson who has not. But Borup shows how these two categories are mutually related and intersecting, where monks often leave the household life in order to return to it. His survey of the various subgroups of the clergy, laity and mixed categories is well-supported by narratives providing nuanced concretizations of each category. In this chapter, Borup is able to expose the reader to an expanse far wider than merely the idealized eccentric Zen Master, but to the reality of all the vaguely delineated and interrelated categories of Zen Buddhists.

The third chapter focuses on Zen religious practice. At 176 pages—almost twice the combined length of the first two chapters—the third chapter is the largest and broadest in scope. Here Borup discusses everything from the basic practices of Zen, religious education, monastic practice, rites of passage, to lay and clerical rituals, such as the idealized zazenkai (Zazen meeting) and the oft maligned Zen Buddhist funeral. His narrative is as engaging as it is demystifying. For any reader who has wondered what really goes on inside a temple and how monks live their lives, this chapter has much in store, replacing speculation with real case studies and factual characterizations.

In this chapter, Borup very clearly portrays the relationship of the various rituals and their implementation with respect to strengthening bonds and establishing power structures. However, the tone of this chapter is noticeably different from the others. While the previous chapters served to depict an 'embodied' quest for enlightenment, successfully melding ideal soteriology with day-to-day social and economic realities, this chapter often tends to depict a corpse of a religion—all pragmata with almost no soteriological substance left. In what may be a valid and necessary critique of the state of Zen practice in Japan, Borup portrays a Zen Buddhism largely without zazen, where the practice recognized by all (even non-practitioners) as the most 'zen-like' is left to 'a few "elitarian" priests as well as lay practitioners' (p. 274), and where rituals merely perform a largely social role, a role that rituals are more effective at the less exclusively Zen Buddhist they are. While Borup insists that, 'This should not be seen as a "Protestant Buddhist" rejection of rituals nor as a humble expression of not having integrated the correct understanding' (p.276) it certainly seems that way, so long as Borup is unable to elaborate on these soteriologically superficial rituals as 'skillful means' toward enlightenment.

While Borup certainly presents many considerable points for any person invested in the soteriological vitality of the institutions and practitioners of Zen Buddhism, one might wonder if his ethnographic analysis is limited by the theoretical framework that he uses. Prior to discussing the religious practices in Zen Buddhism, he discusses his theoretical framework in '3.1 Rituals and Ritualization' (pp.101-103). The main framework he uses is that of Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw in The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory of Ritual. In his usage of Humphrey and Laidlaw's framework, he largely recourses to four constituent facets of ritual action. First, 'non-intentionality' as how an action no longer bears the ordinary relationship between form and purpose. Second, what might be termed as 'continuity' in that ritual actions put the agent in touch with rules and powers that continue beyond him in history (tradition) and in society (community). Third is what may be called 'semantic openness' by which ritual elements can be interpreted in manifold ways. And last is 'meaning to mean' from the terminology of Humphrey and Laidlaw, which would convey the ideal ritual agent's commitment to sincerely carrying out a ritual act. While these four elements do convey necessary facets of Zen Buddhist practices, perhaps the framework (or how it is used here) does not make space for the soteriological meaning of Zen rituals.

Taking a zazenkai as an example, if one were to participate in such, for certain there is non-intentionality, an awareness of continuity with fellow practitioners and the entire line of Buddhas and patriarchs (tradition), one's own interpretation or approach to the sitting, and hopefully there will also be a sincere effort to take part in the shared ritual. But is this all there is to a zazenkai? I think Borup's usage of this framework successfully grasps the socio-historical character of the ritual, but not what the socio-historical character is necessary for. If we were to interpret a ritual from the point of view of the Confucian notion of li (ritual propriety, rei), which is more historically related to Japanese culture, would there not be within this socio-historical character of zazenkai, a shared struggle for emancipation and casting off of body and mind? If there were sharing that occurred in any social or traditional affair but nothing to be shared in, would that not completely desiccate the entire value of the ritual?

This is not to take away anything from Borup's study. On one hand, it would be interesting to see if Borup might indeed have found genuine spirituality and articulated the presence of 'skillful means' in the laicized and de-traditionalized practices through a framework more invested in the depth of what is shared in, through rituals. But on the other hand, even with the use of a largely socio-historical understanding of ritual, his analysis leaves any philosophical Zennist a lot to think about as to the embodiment of soteriology in the actual practices in contemporary Japan, jolting anyone from the idealistic illusion of what Zen rituals should be.

Looking at the entirety of Borup's study, one finds that his chapters are never lacking in organization. Borup does well to summarize each chapter, allowing the reader to weave together the tapestry of narratives to form an understanding of the reality of the institution, the practitioners and the rituals. The study is well-edited, and there are very few typographical errors (even in the Japanese terminology, where typographical errors tend to abound). These make the work reasonably approachable for anyone with interest in the topic.

However, Borup's study can pose difficulties for one who lacks sufficient exposure to Zen Buddhist thought. Borup often employs specialized Zen terminology, such as 'great balls of doubt', 'being-time', and 'actualized kōan', phrases which are often left unexplained. Coupled with the use of some sociological catchphrases like 'pizza-effects' and 'reverse orientalism', the language can occasionally end up very confusing for the uninitiated. Borup's extensive usage of Japanese terminology, which includes both the readings and the characters for many key words and rituals, can also confuse the English-speaking reader.

Despite these difficulties, one cannot overlook the value this study poses for Borup's ideal reader. If, as Borup describes himself in the introduction, one has also begun one's path into Zen with the bias of 'Suzuki-Zen', largely fixated on idealized notions of Zen and single-minded, disembodied, ahistorical quests for enlightenment, then this study can be a perfect antidote. Borup's engaged ethnographic study breathes life into ideals and critically draws the reader back to a living religion, raising questions that will fundamentally enrich one's quest for satori with a compendium of descriptions of socio-historical, practical and embodied actualities, all the while guiding the reader with conceptual notions and Japanese terminology that are certain to be useful to any further academic study.

About the Author

Anton Luis C. Sevilla is an instructor for the Philosophy Department of the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, where he received his MA in Philosophy. He is presently conducting research on Japanese Buddhism as it encounters philosophical systems in both the east and west.

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Copyright: Anton Sevilla
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