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.

What should Buddhists make of these developments? Buddhism, itself, has a tradition of deconstructing what it calls ‘wrong views’, regarding most philosophies and belief systems as unrecognised expressions of underlying mental states. That suggests a tantalising affinity between Buddhism and these sophisticated intellectual approaches; but for Jeff Humphries, a literary theorist who practices Zen, there is a fundamental difference. The limitation of critical theory, in his view, is that while meanings are deconstructed, these academic readers do not examine or deconstruct themselves.
In answer to deconstruction’s query, ‘does a text exist?’ Humphries poses the Buddhist question, ‘Does the reader exist?’
While Buddhism shares analytical approaches with deconstruction, it escapes the nihilism of critical theory because liberation comes in the realisation that this self, like the objective world it observes, is dynamic, shifting and ungraspable. What’s more, Humphries finds an ally in literature itself with its aims of teasing us out of thought and holding 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.’ Reading and writing, he suggests, can be spiritual practices when literature is regarded through a Buddhist perspective.
This perspective grows from considering the element in literature that defies exposition. For Humphries, 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, and also 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 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.’

reviewed by Vishvapani