Buddhism and Postmodernism

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A review of Jin Y. Park, Buddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayen, and the Possibility of a Buddhist Postmodern Ethics (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2008) xii + 283 pp.

Jin Y. Park teaches in the department of philosophy and religion at American University in Washington D.C. She has been busy of late, editing four books on topics related to the volume under review: Buddhism and Deconstructions (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006); Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (State University of New York Press, 2009); Comparative Political Theory and Cross-Cultural Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Hwa Yol Jung (Lexington Books, 2009); and (with Gereon Kopf) Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism (Lexington Books, 2009). As her first self-authored book, Buddhism and Postmodernity is a remarkable achievement.

An introduction sets out the main argument: that a Buddhist postmodern ethics shifts from the rule-based ethics dominant in the modern paradigm to a dynamic ethics of tension which recognizes, abides within, and acts out of the to-and-fro – centripetal and centrifugal – movement characteristic of identity formation in an interrelational (interdependent) and pluralistic world. This thesis is prosecuted in the three parts and ten chapters of the book.

Part I, “Centripetality: Buddhism and Metaphysics,” has three chapters on the emergence of Buddhism on the stage of post-modernity. Park’s “narrative” proceeds from the early modern western encounter with Buddhism (as a nihilistic philosophy of emptiness) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through Hegel’s various interpretations of Buddhist “nothingness” (in his lectures on the philosophy of religion in from 1824-1831), and the logic of emptiness in light of Heidegger and the continental phenomenology. This section establishes both the consolidation of Buddhism as a contemporary religious and philosophical tradition and is suggestive for the kinds of resources Buddhism brings to present philosophical discussions.

The second part is titled “Centrifugality: Language and Violence.” The three chapters here unpacks the ethical trajectory of the Zen Buddhism as that has played out especially in selected moments of that tradition’s sojourn in Korea and Japan. (I suspect Park focuses on the Zen tradition both because it is the one with which she is most familiar and perhaps also most identifies with personally – although this is never stated in the text – because it is as if not more prevalent in the postmodern West than other Buddhist traditions, and because it is suggestive for a cross-cultural dialogue with philosophies of deconstructive in our postmodern context.) Drawing particularly from the work of the Korean Zen master Pojo Chinul (1158-1210) allows Park to explicate how the Zen tradition is focused less on the “what” questions of philosophy and more on the “how” of existentially and performatively acting out the silence of the Buddha regarding metaphysical matters. Yet Zen Buddhism also seems to have inbred within it a strain of violence, some of it remaining at the rhetorical level, others related to the expressions of gong’an (koan) that are pervasive in the tradition, and even others which seem to deploy narratives of violence for the purpose of self-legitimation. Park thus queries whether the centrifugal manifestations of the Zen tradition can be said to have culminated in its samurai and other social and nationalistic institutions which led the nation to war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with devastating consequences on all sides.

If “centripetality” tells the story of the modern quest for the one universal, coherent, centered, and over-arching meta-narrative, and “centrifugality” recounts the emergence of the plurality of traditions, voices, and perspectives – including that of the Zen tradition – on the world stage, then the final part of the book attempts to resolve the tension of Buddhism and the politics of postmodernity in four steps, correlating with the last four chapters of the volume. First, the problem of the one-and-the-many is laid out, but this time in terms of the question of legitimation, of violence, and of ethics vis-à-vis (Zen) Buddhism in the postmodern world. Is there room for a postmodern Zen ethics and if so, how might such a vision not only overcome the violence inherent in the tradition but also resist what appears to be an inherent drive of any discourse (even smaller ones) toward totalization and hegemonization as a new meta-narrative? The response, second, draws from the Huayen vision of “mutually non-interfering phenomena” (the subtitle to chapter 8). In brief, the Huayen fourfold worldview opens up space for and actually invites the presence (and presentation) of “smaller discourses” (phenomena) at least in two ways: by showing how universal reality is what it is precisely through the non-interference of phenomena (thus allowing for, if not celebrating, the existence of smaller discourses in their particularity), and by identifying how smaller discourses are not incidental to but rather constitutive of meta-discourses (analogous here to reality itself in its universality). Third, then, Park identifies how Chinul himself adapted these features of the Huayen tradition into his Zen framework specifically in order to illuminate the interrelationality between the centripetal and centrifugal aspects of Buddhist belief and practice; the result of the Zen-Huayen dialectic is that both sudden awakening and gradual cultivation are related, as are wisdom and compassion, universality and particularity, the one and the many, and, last but not least, being and ethics – in each case the latter of each pair referring to aspects of mutually non-interfering phenomena that nevertheless are constitutive of the former.

Chapter ten concludes the argument about the ethical not as a set of rules but as the overflowing or excessive state of suspension amidst the centripetal and centrifugal dynamics of postmodern life. What emerges from the Zen-Huayen side is the logic of compassion, which Park then brings into dialogue with Derrida’s ethics of hospitality. These combine in the postmodern context to overcome the aporetic dilemmas of modern ethics, precisely by redefining the sphere of the ethical in relational, affective, and existential terms.

This is a rich volume, many sections of which will require multiple, close readings. Park expertly negotiates the interfaces between the modern and the postmodern, between East and West, between philosophy/religion and ethics, and between deconstruction and re-construction, among the many other domains that Buddhism and Postmodernity covers. She confronts head on the criticisms that the Zen tradition acquiesces to if not promulgates violence not only by providing alternative readings of the relevant material but by acknowledging the challenges pertaining to the social and institutional dimensions of its linguistic canon.

Less convincing, however, is Park’s handling of the perennial criticism that the Huayen fourfold logic and worldview is incapable of advancing a robust ethical posture. After all, if noumena are constituted by and arise interdependently with mutually non-interfering phenomena, then ethical categories of good and evil are ultimately subordinated to ontological categories of interrelationality. At this point, Park seems to appeal to the wider Buddhist tradition’s emphasis on compassion, particularly as that has played out in the Korean Zen practice of Chinul, as a means of balancing out the potentially more ethically detrimental aspects of the Huayen logic. If so, however, then the Huayen seems to have been brought into the discussion primarily in order to provide a rationale for the inclusion of “smaller voices” at the postmodern discussion table, and one wonders if the cost of entry – the questionable value of Huayen ontology for ethics – is too high a price to pay.

But perhaps Park’s response ultimately is that even here, the Zen-Huayen contribution is to accentuate that tension that defines postmodern ethics, rather than to provide any simplistic resolution that would ultimately undermine the urgency of responding compassionately to each moment. If so, then perhaps the next step is for this ethics of tension to be brought into dialogue with other smaller discourses like virtue ethics or narrative ethics, two emerging traditions of ethical discourse that would be sympathetic to Park’s project of finding a way beyond the ethics of modernity. To continue such conversations would be to persist in exploring what Jin Park calls “the possibility of Buddhist postmodern ethics.”

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