Thursday, February 8, 2007

Reading Emptiness

Reading Emptiness
Buddhism and Literature
Jeff Humphries
SUNY Press, 1999, p/b

reviewed by Vishvapani

old chestnut of Buddhist discussion groups is the question, ‘do bodhisattvas exist?’ Bodhisattvas, the fabulous figures of the Mahayana pantheon, remind some of theism (or perhaps polytheism) and because we are told that they are not ultimately external to us we are tempted to interpret them reductively as projections of our minds. As Jeff Humphries acutely suggests, the best answer (although it doesn’t always quite do in a study group), is another question: do we exist?

Buddhism tells us that in reality we do not exist as we think: we lack abiding substance, and mistakenly identify our physical and mental processes as ‘selfhood’. Bodhisattvas emerge in the space created by the apprehension that nothing has inherent existence, and the universe we experience is a mental construct. This universe beguiles us, yet, as the Avatamsaka Sutra says,

‘"In all lands there only exists verbal expression, and the verbal expression has no basis in facts. Furthermore facts have no basis in words." Thus do enlightening beings understand that all things are void, that all worlds are silent.’

Such apprehensions of the lacunae between sign and signified resonate with modern literary theory’s concern to deconstruct conventional ideas about substance and meaning. Derrida and de Man argue that a text creates meaning through establishing patterns of reference and hierarchies of value, yet these doom it to self-referentiality. Historicists like Foucault, suggest that our ways of structuring the world derive from economic and political forces.

In seeking to unravel these structures or constructs critical theory has developed powerful analytical tools, but Humphries, a literary theorist who practices Zen, suggests that it leads to nihilism. The error, in his view, is that while meanings are deconstructed the reader remains unexamined, regarded as a unitary, Cartesian self. How can such a reader help feeling superior, or avoid baffled solipsism? So, in answer to deconstruction’s query, ‘does a text exist?’ Humphries proposes the Buddhist question, ‘Does the reader exist?’ While Buddhism shares analytical approaches with deconstruction, it escapes nihilism because liberation comes in the realisation that this self, like the objective world it observes, is dynamic, shifting and ungraspable.

Humphries finds an ally in literature itself with its intentions to tease us out of thought and to hold up a mirror. Indeed, *Reading Emptiness* is fired by the belief that ‘the closest thing we have to the Middle Way in the West is the practice of literature – both reading and writing.’ This is a challenge not only to western views of literature, but to Zen Buddhists who have imbibed Dogen’s strictures against language. Reading and writing, he suggests, can be spiritual practices when literature is regarded through a Buddhist perspective.

This perspective grows from regarding the element in literature that defies exposition. For Humphries this is so because a text is not an inanimate object, but the product of a mind, so that in reading one mind encounters another, and sees its own representation. Both consciousness and literature are mysterious, and there is nowhere ‘objective’ from which to analyse. The encounter of reader and a text is a paradigm of the meeting of self and world, which is also, though less overtly, an encounter with the mind’s representations.

Humphries prefers the Eastern aesthetic that sees art as an intensification of nature, to the western tendency to oppose the two. He is attracted to the Japanese ideal of wabi-sabi, or rustic naturalness, represented in bonzai. He favours a relaxed, intuitive, yet engaged approach to reading in place of the attempt to achieve interpretive mastery.

This is fertile ground, and Humphries is a stimulating guide in the first part of Reading Emptiness which is a series of excellent, closely argued essays. (The second is a less interesting discussion of Lafcadio Hearn, the American decadent and Japanophile.) Humphries is admirably well versed in literature and critical theory, though his Buddhism is perhaps overly influenced by Zen. But his is a fine mind that has manifestly been formed by Proust, Derrida and Dogen. Buddhism offers him a path out of the maze of theory, back to the romance of reading, now reconceived as Zen contemplation: ‘let go,’ he tells us, ‘and you are like a great tide riding a high wind.’

© Vishvapani, 2006

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