Organizer: Robert M. Gimello, University of Arizona
Chair and Discussant: Miriam Levering, University of Tennessee
The study of Chinese Buddhism is best pursued at the intersection of the fields of Buddhist Studies (Buddhology?) and Chinese Studies (Sinology?). In the former, of late, much attention has been paid to questions concerning the theory of scriptural interpretation, and to related questions about Buddhist notions of canonicity. Numerous conferences, symposia, etc. have been held on this subject and they in turn have yielded a fair number of influential publications-for example, the essays included in Donald Lopez, ed. Buddhist Hermeneutics (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1988), some of the contributions to Robert E. Buswell, Jr., ed., Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1990), and Michael Fuss' Buddhavacana and Dei Verbum: A Phenomenological Comparison of Scriptural Inspiration in the Saddharmapundarika Sutra and in the Christian Tradition (E.J. Brill, 1991). The general effect of such work has been to enhance our appreciation of what Buddhists have "professed" as the principles of scriptural identification and scriptural interpretation.
At the same time scholars working in Chinese Studies have been exploring the ways in which particular non Buddhist texts of classical or scriptural authority have actually been read and otherwise employed at various particular times in Chinese history by various particular kinds of readers. One thinks especially of Daniel K. Gardner, Chu Hsi and the Ta hsüeh: Neo Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon (Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), John Henderson's Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis (Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), and Steven Van Zoeren's Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics in Traditional China (Stanford Univ. Press, 1991).
There is, then, a coincidence of interests between these two fields, insofar as both have been concerned with issues of scripture and its interpretation, but there is also an asymmetry between them insofar as Buddhist Studies has concentrated on the normative and a priori definitions of canon and hermeneutics whereas Chinese Studies, though by no means oblivious of theoretical issues, has given greater emphasis to the actual practice of scriptural interpretation. Moreover, such asymmetry impedes the multi-traditional study of Chinese scriptural commentary. Important and tempting questions about the relationship between Buddhist commentary and, say, Confucian commentary cannot even be broached until students of Chinese traditions are as familiar with Buddhist commentary as they generally are with its Confucian counterpart. The panel here proposed is designed to help redress this imbalance by drawing the attention of those interested in the Chinese Buddhist use of scripture away from the ideal realm of prescription to the more concrete arena of real implementation. Rather than continue the discussion of how Buddhist thought scriptures should be interpreted, we intend, following the lead of our sinological colleagues, to examine how they actually were interpreted. To do this we must delve into the dense and numerous but seldom examined pages of Chinese Buddhist scriptural commentaries.
It is an odd but perhaps understandable feature of the study of Chinese Buddhism that as a field it has attended more to second order literature-to the systematic expositions of doctrine, the "treatises and tractates" that Buddhists often classified as lun (sastra, etc.)-than to the texts of the first canonical order (ching, sutra, etc.). This is odd not only because one might well have expected greater attention to those texts that Buddhists themselves regarded as most authoritative, being the very word of the Buddha, nor only because ching are more plentiful than lun in the Chinese Buddhist canon, but also because the Chinese Buddhist tradition is especially sutra based. One may argue that in Tibetan Buddhism or later Indian Buddhism sutras had faded into the background of thought and piety, having been overshadowed by the more discursive and philosophically cogent works of great historical thinkers like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Candrakirti, Tsongkhapa, et al. However, no such argument can plausibly be made of Buddhism in China. Indeed, it can be shown that Chinese Buddhism came fully into its own-in the Sui and T'ang-only after a decision was made by the whole tradition to turn "back to the scriptures" after generations of intellectual submission to the "treatises." And yet, when we have studied T'ien t'ai Buddhism we have concentrated more on works like the Mo ho chih kuan than on Chih i's (538-597) Lotus Sutra commentaries; when we have studied Hua yen we have focused more on Fa tsang's (643-712) Wu chiao chang than on the much more ample Hua yen ching commentaries by himself, his predecessors, and his followers; and we have been downright prodigal in our attention to indigenous discursive and non scriptural texts like the Awakening of Faith (Ta sheng ch'i hsin lun)!
What is more, this curious emphasis on secondary literature has had the effect of unnaturally segregating the study of Buddhist thought from the study of Buddhist cult and popular piety. After all, it was not the treatises and manuals that were chanted day and night in temples, written in blood or in gold, dramatized in performance literature, vividly figured in painting and sculpture, etc. Rather it was the scriptures which were so used, just as they were used as sources of philosophical insight and inspiration. To be sure, most scripture commentaries are not documents of popular piety. Rather they are records of engagement with scripture on the part of an intellectual, usually a monastic, elite. Nevertheless, as their objects were the very same scriptures that also engaged the pious devotion of the wider community outside the cloistered academies, they provide access to those ranges and registers of elite reflection that were most closely associated with popular piety. They afford, for example, opportunities to probe the obscure connections between the chanting or copying of scriptures and their use as sources of doctrinal speculation.
However, we suspect that this inattention to commentarial literature, odd though it is from one perspective, is also explicable from another. The typical Chinese Buddhist scripture commentary (shu, etc.), we believe, is a mysterious document to most modern western scholars of the tradition. We have not known quite what to do with it, not even when and how to read it. Coming to such a text with expectations formed in our acquaintance with commentarial literature of the West (e.g. biblical commentary) or with, say, Confucian commentary on the Chinese classics, we have been puzzled by Buddhist scriptural exegesis. It seems not to fit the shapes or perform the functions we have anticipated. Rare, for example, is the Chinese commentary that provides "chapter and verse" or passage by passage explanations of its sutra. It is seldom of much use, therefore, to the modern translator of the scripture who is stumped by a particular phrase or paragraph. Nor does the typical commentary provide discursive or paraphrastic summaries of the scripture's overall purport. Rather, its purpose seems more commonly to be that of finding in the sutra, or imposing upon it, a kind of architectonic order, as though a commentary were a kind of outline or extended diagram of the scripture. And this, in turn, suggests that the author of a commentary found the deeper meanings of his sutra not on the surface of its narrative or its dialogue, not in the literal sense of any concatenation of propositions found therein, nor in its particular images, but in the implicit structure of the text, in the tacit connections among its parts and in the rhythm and direction of its unfolding. It is no accident therefore that scripture commentaries were eventually accompanied, in some cases virtually replaced, by scripture "charts" (k'o wen), or that so many commentaries have titles including words like kang mu ("network," "grid").
All of this, however-the intentionality, the structure, the mechanism of the Chinese Buddhist sutra commentary-is little understood because we modern scholars, baffled by such texts and naturally drawn to the easier accessibility of the tradition's more systematic treatise literature, have generally avoided the systematic study of commentaries. The panel here proposed is meant to begin rectifying this situation and in so doing to lay the foundations of a more comprehensive view of the practice of scripture commentary wherein, for example, Buddhist commentarial practice need not be considered in complete isolation from the practice of commentary in Confucianism, Taoism, and the secular literary tradition.
All of the papers that would comprise the panel draw their texts from the Buddhism of the Sui and T'ang dynasties, for this was the period when the greatest numbers of commentaries were written. Dr. Mayer of Heidelberg, a recognized expert on the life and work of Hsuan tsang (596?-664), has been studying for some time now a set of five commentaries on the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikaprajñaparamita Sutra, Chin kang ching), one of the most influential of all scriptures in China. Among the five, all written within the span of about two and a half centuries, are represented five different doctrinal traditions-T'ien t'ai represented by Chih i, San lun represented by Chi tsang (549-623), Hua yen represented by Chih yen (602-668) and Tsung mi (780-841), Fa hsiang represented by K'uei chi (632-682), and even Ch'an represented also by Tsung mi. And yet, despite the differences among the five represented "schools," Dr. Mayer finds certain basic structural and substantive similarities which link all five commentaries. These he will present as the rudiments of a basic definition of the whole genre of Chinese Buddhist scriptural commentary. He also exploits another advantage of the choice of the Diamond Sutra-namely the availability of Sanskrit and Tibetan commentaries on the text. Comparison of these with the Chinese commentaries he has studied allows him to propose some general points of contrast between the enterprise of scripture commentary in those other Buddhist cultures and its practice in China.
Professor Gregory of the University of Illinois, author of recent and very well received book on Tsung mi, is continuing his work on that multifaceted figure with a study of his several commentaries on the scripture of greatest influence upon him, the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Yüan chüeh ching). Of special interest to Prof. Gregory is the question of how scripture commentary was employed by Tsung mi as a device for implicit criticism and revision of the scholastic and practical traditions to which he was heir. Focusing again on the structure that Tsung mi's commentaries impute to the scripture, Gregory shows how that structure is taken by Tsung mi to be a confirmation both of his reliance upon the Awakening of Faith and of his adherence to the principle of "sudden enlightenment," which was his doctrinal fulcrum.
Prof. Nguyen of George Mason University is not only a specialist in later Indian and Tibetan Mahayana, on which he wrote his recent Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, but also a scholar of East Asian Buddhism. His subject is the exegetical corpus of the great Korean expatriate monk Wonch'uk (613-696), a disciple of Hsuan tsang. Focusing chiefly (but not exclusively) on Wonch'uk's commentary on Heart Sutra (Po jo po lo mi to hsin ching), and comparing it with that of the Hua yen master Fa tsang, Prof. Nguyen will treat especially of the way in which scriptural commentary was practiced as a method of sectarian doctrinal formation and polemic.
Robert Gimello of the University of Arizona will compare four classical commentaries on the Buddhavatamsaka Sutra (Fo hua yen ching)-Chih yen's Sou hsüan chi, Fa tsang's Tan hsüan chi, Li T'ung hsüan's (635?-730?) Hua yen ching lun, and Ch'eng kuan's (738-839) Hua yen ching shu. Focusing on the overall organization of each of these four commentaries, and especially on the basic exegetical rubrics set forth in their opening chapters, he will show that although three of the works-Chih yen's, Fa tsang's, and Ch'eng kuan's-comprise a single continuous tradition of Hua yen exegesis, they nevertheless differ from one another in significant ways. He will also demonstrate that their differences describe a pattern in the T'ang evolution of scriptural commentary wherein the repeated revisioning of the Sutra's structure and the subtle redefinition of its fundamental purport (tsung ch'ü) move through three distinct stages-commentary as tool of doctrinal innovation, commentary as sectarian polemic, and commentary as encyclopedic ecumenism. The fourth commentary, Li T'ung hsüan's, will be shown to be structurally and substantively quite discontinuous from the other three. Its eccentricity will be explored to highlight the differences between commentary as a monastic scholarly enterprise and commentary as means of shaping the spirituality of a larger religious community that encompassed both lay and monastic practitioners.
The four presenters of papers feel fortunate to have secured the collaboration of Prof. Miriam Levering of the University of Tennessee. As Chair and Discussant, she would bring to the panel not only a wide ranging expertise in Chinese Buddhism generally but also the particular perspective of one who specializes in post T'ang Buddhism. This will allow her to comment on what the presenters have to say about Sui T'ang Buddhist commentary in light of later developments. More important still, Professor Levering has a long standing interest in the comparative and theoretical study of scripture and its uses in various of the world's religious traditions; witness the book she edited-Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (New York Univ. Press, 1989). We are confident that her work in this area will open the panel to wider ranges of interest by drawing connections between the Chinese Buddhist commentarial tradition and the theory of scripture and commentary universally conceived.
The panel would serve its intended purpose if it were to leave its authors and the other participants with clearer understandings of the nature of Chinese Buddhist scriptural commentary as a religious and intellectual practice, and of the texts produced in that practice as a genre of Buddhist literature. That is to say, it would be worthwhile if it were to provide the beginnings of answers to such basic questions as: What was it that medieval commentators understood themselves to be doing? What kinds of texts did they produce? What purposes, intended or not, were served by their efforts? How did scripture commentary in Buddhism differ from or complement scripture commentary in other Chinese traditions?
Alexander L. Mayer, Heidelberg University
This paper will be an effort to identify the most basic and generically characteristic features of Chinese Buddhist scriptural commentaries. It will focus especially on their analytical complexity and on the interrelation of their form, content, and context and will be based upon a two fold presupposition: that Buddhist scriptures were composed in such a way as always to necessitate commentaries and that the commentarial tradition of Buddhism has been the chief vehicle for the tradition's dissemination and differentiation.
I have chosen as my case study the Vajracchedika Sutra (VCC: Chin kang ching), a member of the larger genre of Mahayana scriptures known as Prajñaparamita and a text which, having been translated six times into Chinese, played an important role in the history of Chinese Buddhism. It also survives in Sanskrit, together with important commentaries by Indian interpreters like Asanga and Vasubandhu, with Indian commentaries which were variously integrated into the Chinese commentarial tradition.
Scholars have estimated that over 800 commentaries on the VCC were written by the end of the T'ang dynasty. Most of these were lost during the Sung and later periods. Nevertheless scores survive even today and this paper is based on an analysis of five of the most important of them-by Chih i (538-597) of the T'ien t'ai tradition, Chi tsang (549-623) of the San lun tradition, Chih yen (602-668) of the Hua yen tradition, K'uei chi (632-682) of the Fa hsiang tradition, and Tsung mi of both the Hua yen and the Ch'an traditions. In addition to the fact that each of these is important in its own right, all five as a group are representative products of the sort of disciplined intellectual engagement with scripture that was so common and routine among the monastic intelligentsia.
In the analysis of these five examples, I will concentrate especially on one of their most salient common features, i.e., their organization of themselves and the scripture to which they pertain into orders or frameworks consisting of complex stemmata of categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, etc. This characteristic pattern of internal organization requires that the reader deal with each particular passage or segment of the text only within its overall interpretive framework. Thus, when the commentaries speak for example, to the paramount theme of the sutra-the Buddha's insight (chih hui)-they all aver that such insight is inaccessible to all who have not themselves experienced the same. Failure to experience such insight, they all say, is a function of various false assumptions, but these are enumerated one after another in such a way as to demonstrate that they are all derive from a single underlying problem, viz., the failure to grasp the ultimate simplicity that consists in freedom from all concepts. This primary theme is always shown to be interwoven with the complementary theme of positive spiritual merit the most effective means for the production of which is the very exposition of the sutra itself. Both themes are shown to be developed, in the course of the constitutive dialogue between the Buddha and the Bodhisattva Subhuti, in a series of consecutive refutations of misapprehensions of the sutra's own messages as to insight and merit. From analyses of examples like this the paper will draw some concluding general observations about the connection between form and substance in Chinese Buddhist scriptural exegesis.
Peter N. Gregory, University of Illinois
Medieval Chinese Buddhist scriptural commentary served many functions, only one of which was the exegesis of the text. For someone consulting them as a means of understanding an obscure or problematic scriptural passage, they are often of frustratingly little help, and the perplexed researcher is left wondering what the commentator's agenda was. When we turn our gaze away from the scriptural text to the commentary itself, however, such texts open up a window to the sectarian dynamics of medieval scholastic traditions and their discursive world.
This paper will examine the structure of Tsung mi's various commentaries on the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment (Yüan chüeh ching) with an eye to discerning their overall purpose. It will address such questions as the following:
In what ways did Tsung mi use the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment to give the added authority of the Buddha's word to a non scriptural text, the Awakening of Faith (Ta sheng ch'i hsin lun) which Tsung mi held in high regard?
What was the extent of Tsung mi's indebtedness to the Hua yen tradition, or how did his identification with this tradition mask his departures from it in order to serve an entirely different sectarian agenda? Tsung mi's analysis of the structure of the scripture, for example, replicates his theory of "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation" (tun wu chien-hsiu) and thereby validates the sectarian claims of the Ho tse tradition of Ch'an to represent the paramount expression of Buddhism.
To what extent was Tsung mi's interpretation of the scriptural text an imposition of meaning?
How do his commentaries shed light on the sectarian dynamics within the Ch'an during the latter part of the T'ang?
Cuong Tu Nguyen, George Mason University
In even a quick scan of the Chinese Tripitaka one cannot help but notice that a significant segment of Buddhist literature has been almost completely ignored in modern Buddhist scholarship. I refer to the commentaries on Buddhist scriptures (sutras). The Taisho edition of the Canon includes no fewer than seven volumes that consist only of commentaries composed in various literary styles.
This lack of interest is certainly unfortunate, particularly in view of the fact that in recent years serious attention has been paid to the issue of the theory of interpretation or hermeneutics in Buddhism. Scholars have discussed interpretive principles and concepts prescribed by traditional Buddhist thinkers who were concerned to classify and clarify doctrines contained in scriptures with a view to illustrate certain doctrinal issues or to justify the roles of their particular sects in Buddhist history. This has shed light on several issues of truth, authenticity, history, and interpretation in Buddhism. However, we have yet to examine closely how traditional Buddhist thinkers applied hermeneutical norms in the task of commenting on the sutras themselves. Nor have we sufficiently considered the bearing that sutra commentary has had on belief and practice.
Anyone familiar with Buddhism in East Asia should notice that sutras (believed to be the Buddha's ipsissima verba) are regarded not only as embodying truths about reality but also as playing significant roles in Buddhist practice. For instance, sutras, but never sastras (philosophical treatises) are chanted in both daily and special rituals, on routine and exigent occasions. Moreover, the tradition of composing commentaries on sutras continues even today. Almost every eminent monk at some point in his career has composed commentaries on certain scriptures.
This paper directly addresses the issue of scripture commentary as an example of textual and scriptural interpretation, from both literary and religious perspectives. I will take as a case in point the commentarial works of Wonch'uk (613-696), particularly his commentary on the Heart Sutra (Hsin ching). The paper will review the interpretive concepts or devices employed in Wonch'uk's work and, where relevant, will draw comparisons between his commentary and that of the Hua yen scholar Fa tsang (643-712). My hope is to shed light on the issue of textual/scriptural interpretation itself and on textual/scriptural interpretation as an element of sectarian justification or apologetics.
Robert M. Gimello, University of Arizona
The Hua yen ching is arguably the longest of all Buddhist scriptures. Its length alone, not to mention its composite nature and the sheer welter of its themes and imagery, has always imposed great demands upon those who would read it, requiring that they rely to an even greater extent than is necessary with most other scriptures upon the aid of commentary. And those same features of the text further require that the commentary provided be less in nature of exegesis or textual explication, as such things are conventionally understood, and more in the nature architectonics. That is to say, the job of the Hua yen commentator has usually been to find in that immense and disparate canon, or to bring to it, an encompassing and thus unifying pattern of organization, a framework or skeleton of meaning rather than a discursive argument or a narrative sequence or a discursive or an evolving allegory. He typically undertakes to "map" the text rather than "explain" it-or rather, for him explanation consists in mapping.
For this reason all the normative commentaries on the text follow the same general format. They all begin with an introductory chapter of substantial length in which the commentator sets forth a series of basic categories or rubrics (fen ch'i, inter alia)-e.g. chiao/i, ching/hsing, li/shih, yin/kuo, etc. Taken together, these constitute the template or "overlay" beneath which the apparently amorphous sutra will be scrutinized and shown to possess a pattern or structure after all. It is in such introductory chapters that commentaries come closest to distilling from the scripture its "essential message" (tsung ch'ü) or sketching its overall structure. Thereafter, and at great length, they proceed to "diagram" the text, showing how its major categories of discourse contain sub categories, which in turn contain sub sub categories, etc. It is always in these structural patterns-in the langue of the text-that the commentators find their interpretations, rather than in the particulate exegesis of its parole.
This paper will compare the identification of such patterns of meaning in the four most important early commentaries on the Hua yen Sutra-Chih yen's Sou hsüan chi, Fa tsang's T'an hsüan chi, Li T'ung hsüan's (635?-730?) Hua yen ching lun, and Ch'eng kuan's, (738-839) Hua yen ching shu-with an eye towards the ways in which these four authors "constructed" different kinds of scriptural meaning by designing different maps of the scripture. In this way it will be shown that the major "stages" in the early development of Hua yen thought, particularly in the area of "doctrinal classification" (p'an chiao), were achieved by means of such "structural exegetics." Special attention will be paid to the discontinuities between Li T'ung hsüan's "practice oriented" reading of the sutra and the more theoretical orientations of the other three. Among the latter, it will be suggested, one can find a progression through three distinct modes of interpretation-from commentary as tool of doctrinal innovation, to commentary as sectarian polemic, to commentary as encyclopedic ecumenism.
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