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Antinomianism, ethics, and Chan Buddhism

Chan/Zen Buddhism has been interpreted by a number of proponents and critics as antinomian, amoral, and antagonistic to ethical judgment. Ethical conventions and categories are rejected as dualistic, categorizing, judgmental forms of thinking to be overcome in a subitist vision of awakening. The concept of “antinomian" stemming from the Greek avT vo^oq (against the law), emerged from the Christian tradition and is a polemical term used against those who professed the absolute priority of faith to the point of undermining ordinary ethical concepts and conventions. The problem of antinomianism is not only a recent concern, and it is not only one that applies to modern nationalistic appropriation of Zen in imperial Japan. Criticisms of what we now call “antinomianism" (that is, the radical undermining of the ethical) belong to the Chan tradition itself—e.g., the response of the Tang dynasty master Guifeng

Zongmi (780-841) to the Hongzhou lineage of Chan associated with

Mazu—and other forms of Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.

Zongmi maintained that ifeverything is true or pure “just as it” is in its non-dual suchness, then all ethical distinctions and spiritual undertakings are undermined. Zongmi was concerned with whether the priority of ordinary mind as the Way in Mazu’s teaching undermined the disciplined cultivation of the Buddhist path and whether anti-conventionalism entailed the destruction of religion, morality, and ethical life. Zongmi described how Chan non-dual practices do not entail the negation or absence of Buddhist ethical distinctions such as the difference between the wholesome and unwholesome. Zongmi’s definition of wisdom is of knowing both the human and the non-human realms, and Buddhist illumination consists in knowing oneself, and finding the self’s source or root (ben ^).64 The awakening of faith is not an end in itself. It should open up rather than close off the mindfulness that consists of being awakened by and tracelessly responsive to the suchness or as-is-ness of others and things or “freely manifesting oneself in response to things without any bounds.”65 The ethos of Zen is to be responsive to the things and others within their mutual encounter.

The Sino-Korean Neo-Confucian tradition criticized the Chan tradition and its ethos. The Korean Seon (Chan) Buddhist monk Gihwa Bfil (Hamheo Deuktong Й^^#Й) (1376-1433), like Zongmi, wrote commentaries on The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment and was concerned with justifying the ethical character of Chan Buddhism and presenting Buddhism as a more perfect teaching than Confucianism and Daoism. Gihwa’s Hyeonjeong non (Exposition of

the Correct) is a response to the Neo-Confucian critique of Buddhism articulated by Jeong Dojeon (1342-1398) in his Array of Critiques of Buddhism (Bulssi

Japbyeon from 1398.66 Gihwa distinguished two forms of Buddhist

“ethics” in this work: (1) an elementary “shallow” level of precept-following

and (2) a non-dual

practicing of the six perfections (pdramitd; luidu ЙЖ) associated with the recognition of the mutuality of generosity (ddna; bushi %Ш) and dependent origination (paticcasamuppdda;yuanqi ШШ). There is no “antinomian” rejection of ethics or morality in the works of these and other Chan/Seon Buddhist thinkers; there is a sense of the completion and perfection of the ordinary conventional morality of customs and rules in overcoming their preliminary and limited character in a spontaneous other-oriented and altruistic ethical practice.

Emptiness (sunyatd; kong) can be understood as enacted in rituals and practices of emptying that reveal the way in which things, others, and oneself can be encountered in their suchness just as they are (tathatd; zhenru Й$Д). The practice of emptiness, which will be further examined in Chapter 8 in relation to Heidegger and Chan, is enacted through a rich variety of Chan linguistic and behavioral strategies and provocations. These practices decenter and recenter conventional morality and religion in the rhetoric of Chan Buddhism to the extent that they point toward the possible encounter with and liberation of things in their truth and purity, their suchness.

The dramatic and drastic gestures and rhetoric, which can be conventionalized and lose their transformative power, of the most radical forms of Chan (such as the Hongzhou lineage of Mazu and the Linji lineage) point toward the turning point in the experience of awakening that occurs through the monastic context and Chan Buddhist ritual behaviors, including those that provoke the question of the meaning of the ritual and insight into its emptiness. This radicalism aims at transforming one’s comportment and disposition in the world; it is not understood as “radical” in the sense of completely overturning ordinary moral and political practices and institutions.

While the standard literature opposes antinomianism to morality, as a system of fixed rules and conventions, emptiness can be better understood as a practice of emptying of the conventional that reveals—through shocks, surprises, reversals, and other means and tactics—the field of emptiness in which things, others, and oneself can be encountered in their suchness. The destructuring of the ordinary mind and its idols for the sake of the ordinary mind, including the image of Huineng Ж Ш tearing up the sutras and the provocative utterance by Linji Yixuan (d. 866 CE): “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (feng

fo sha fo ШШШШ). The aporetic ethics and religiosity of utterances such as “kill the Buddha,” which breaks the first precept not to do harm and strikes at the source and primary figure of Buddhism and the associated conventionally understood Buddhist soteriological path, is expressed in the most radical forms of Chan. It is associated with the images of “wild” Chan masters such as Mazu and Linji, who redirect practitioners toward the ordinary mind and its intrinsic openness for encountering and responding to the world from within the midst of the world. Zen is nonsense from the conventional perspective, and it must be misinterpreted from this perspective, but it is not mere “nonsense.” Its sense must be, as argued in the following chapter, performatively enacted each time again in the confrontation with ordinary conventional meaning and the reification of language and concepts in releasing and responsively encountering the “just as it is.”

 
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