There’s a tantalising affinity between Buddhist views of the insubstantial nature of the self and modern insights into the illusions created by literary texts. But there are also profound differences between deconstruction and Buddhist spiritual practice. A book by a critic who practices Zen is a helpful guide
Reading Emptiness: Buddhism and Literature
by Jeff Humphries
An 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 perceptions resonate with the ideas explored by many literary critics of the last half-century in debunking conventional ideas about substance, meaning and reality. A novel or a play creates an artificial world, they realise, and establishes a sense of value and meaning. But that reality is an illusion and the values and meanings are constructions. Critics like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, saw their job as revealing the illusion and deconstructing the thought-world of a text. For others, this insight also illustrates a broader pattern in how we make sense of the world beyond the text, for example in the ways of thinking that validate social structures and gender roles.
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 well versed in literature and critical theory, though his Buddhism is perhaps overly influenced by Zen. 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.’
by Jeff Humphries
SUNY Press, 1999, p/b