Deconstruction and Buddhism: The Mohel and Manjusri

Although I’m not a specialist in Buddhist studies, Buddhist discourses and practices are definitely included among my general research interests.  One of the things I’ve been following for years now is the developing relationship between Buddhism and deconstruction (specifically Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction).  The groundbreaking work to forge that relationship came in 1984 with the publication of Derrida on the Mend, by Robert Magliola.  For Magliola, the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is staged through a comparative analysis that shows a lot of affinities between Derrida and Nagarjuna (a “founder” of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, the path of the middle way).  Subsequently, Magliola’s work has been a key reference point for further discussion.

Along with Magliola’s text, another important resource is Harold Coward’s Derrida and Indian Philosophy (1990), which situates Magliola’s Derrida-Nagarjuna comparison within the broader context of Indian philosophies.  Coward focuses too much on speech (a typical problem for deconstructionists), but there are some good chapters connecting Derrida not only with Nagarjuna but also with nondual Vedanta of Shankara and the evolutionary spirituality of Aurobindo.

It is interesting to note that Magliola and Coward published their works before Derrida’s ethico-religious turn (before the messianic without a messianism, before the apocalypse sans apocalypse, before his allusive piece on religion for a conference on the island of Capri, before the regular reiteration of tout autre est tout autre).  The writings from the last decade of Derrida’s life are much closer to Judaism than Buddhism, making him look more like a “young Jewish saint” (Cixous) than Nagarjuna, or in other terms, more like a mohel than Manjusri.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to say about Buddhism and deconstruction.  Quite the opposite.  Derrida’s religiously oriented writings provide even more points of Buddhodeconstructive contact.  Along those lines, one of my ‘forthcoming’ books is titled The Mohel and Manjusri.

Much has been written in this century on Buddhism and deconstruction.  Some of it still stays with language and semiotics, as in Youxuan Wang, Buddhism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Semiotics (2001).  Other works focus more on ethics and religion, like the essays in Deconstruction and the Ethical in Asian Thought, edited by Youru Wang (2007).  That anthology includes discussions of Derridean and Levinasian ethics in relation to ethics in Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions.

Another notable anthology that highlights ethico-religious dimensions of the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is Buddhisms and Deconstructions, edited by Jin Y. Park (2006).  That book includes an afterword by Magliola, reflecting on how the dialogue between Buddhism and deconstruction has developed in the decades since his groundbreaking work on the topic.  Park has subsequently become the most prolific and influential writer on this topic, with the wide reception of Buddhisms and Deconstructions along with her articulation of a Buddhist postmodern ethics in Buddhism and Postmodernity (2008).  As the latter title indicates, Park is extending the discussion beyond Buddhist connections to Derrida/deconstruction to the wider field of Buddhist connections to postmodern philosophy.  This extension is further evident in her work with Gereon Kopf editing the anthology, Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism (2009).

In close proximity to this whole discussion of Buddhism and deconstruction is the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, which brought continental philosophy into contact with Buddhism starting in the early twentieth century with Kitaro Nishida.  My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who studied under Heidegger for a short time before completing his PhD at Kyoto University (his dissertation is on Bergson and Schelling).  I’m far from catching up on recent research regarding the Kyoto school, but I’m looking forward to checking out the anthology Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conservations with the Kyoto School (2011), edited by Bret Davis, Brian Schroeder, and Jason Wirth.  Quot libros quam breve tempus!

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