Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Talmudic Vimalakirti; or, reading as a Jew

I am not one of those Jews who thinks that Judaism and Buddhism can be smoothly integrated. For one thing, I'm a strictly original-texts kind of a girl, and it takes a lot of textual gymnastics to make the two traditions come together, even given the oddments of Judaic literature (like the parallel stories of Korah and Devadatta, or the bits of Pirke Avot) that turn up in the Tripitaka (for more on this, see the work of Prof. J. Duncan M. Derrett of SOAS). For another, the Buddhism with which I'm most closely involved is the early Chinese Mahayana tradition (fifth and sixth centuries): before Chan (Zen) was even founded, before most of Japan had even heard of the Buddha, much less taken over and organized the hell out of the whole religion.

Lest I sound ungrateful, let me observe that the fact that the history of Chinese Buddhism is also the history of Japanese Buddhism, combined with the fact that the Japanese are, on the whole, extremely careful scholars who also care deeply about publishing beautiful books, has provided me with almost all the reference books I regularly use in this part of my research. However, there is a slight tendency to project the later sectarian divisions of the Japanese sangha backward onto Chinese history, with the result that it can be very tricky to figure out what's actually going on when you think you've found the image of the third Chan patriarch on the wall of a sixth-century Chinese cave temple. I'm just sayin'.

For my current research, I'm re-reading the three most popular Buddhist scriptures of the pre-Tang period (roughly speaking): the Vimalakirti-nirdesa sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the three Pure Land sutras. I have read them before, of course, as part of the basic literacy required to be a specialist in Buddhist art of the period; but my work doesn't often involve close work with the scriptures, as the sculptures I study are often just as reflective of popular Buddhist ideas and practices as with the abstruse points raised in the sutras themselves. Hence, re-reading.

I was reading the end of the Vimalakirti-nirdesa (the "Expositions of Vimalakirti," an extended treatise on the doctrine of non-duality) the other day and came to an extended description of the actions of the bodhisattva. The Buddha says that the bodhisattva does not exhaust the conditioned, nor dwell in the conditioned [i.e. that the bodhisattva realizes that the phenomenal world is impermanent, and thus does not dwell in/become attached to it, but also realizes that other beings are still tied to the phenomenal world, and thus does not abandon it or them, but remains to bring others to wisdom]; then he goes on to explain what "not exhausting the conditioned" means. This is a long description of attributes, including things like "Thinking of the paramitas as one's father and mother" and "using the sword of wisdom to cut down the thieves of earthly desire."

My first reaction to some of the above was "Why are the paramitas one's 'father and mother' and not one's 'mother and father?' And why is earthly desire called 'thieves' and not a 'thief?'" Granted, the sutras are already kind of Talmudic ("The bodhisattva does not exhaust the conditioned. Now, what is meant by not exhausting the conditioned?" etc.) But the instinct to look not only into the words of the text, but the order of the words and the choice of the words, is basic to a lot of Talmudic reasoning. So on some level, it seems I'm a JuBu after all.

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