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Journal Article

Buddhist Hermeneutics

Robert A. F. Thurman
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Vol. 46, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), pp. 19-39
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1462752
Page Count: 21
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Buddhist Hermeneutics
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Abstract

"Hermeneutics" as a philosophical discipline of rational interpretation of a traditional canon of Sacred Scriptures authoritative for a religious community has usually been considered peculiar to the West. This notion is anchored only in the misconception that "Eastern" thought is somehow "non-rational," or "mystical," hence excused from the burden of reconciling the tensions between some forms of authority and philosophical reason. Buddhism in particular has been misconceived in this way, due to its emphasis on meditational experience and non-dualistic wisdom. These misconceptions are quickly cleared away when we examine the role of authority in Buddhist teaching, appreciating the predominantly pedagogic concerns of Śākyamuni during his long tenure as a teacher who sought to encourage the individual disciple's ability to think for himself; the role of analytic reasoning in Buddhist practice, wherein a practitioner's first task is to sift through the complexities of Doctrine to discover its inner meaning as relevant to his own experience and its systematic transformation; the role of hermeneutical strategies in guiding the practitioner's analytical meditations, wherein the first two stages of wisdom (prajñā) are cultivated through a refined discipline of philosophical criticism of all false views (dṛṣṭi), such as naive realism, nihilism, etc., as to the nature of ultimate reality and of the self; and finally the role of transcendent experience, wherein the transcendence of verbalization is approached not as a non-rational escape into mysticism, but as an affirmation of empiricism, a rational acknowledgement of the fact that reality, even ordinary reality, is never, in the final analysis, reducible to what we may say about it. These four functions in Buddhism are traditionally expressed in an ancient rule of thumb known as the "Four Reliances": "Rely on the Teaching, not the Teacher; rely on the meaning, not the letter; rely on the definitive meaning, not the interpretable meaning; rely on wisdom, not on consciousness." To examine the traditional usage of these Reliances, we must trace the work of the Buddhist hermeneuticians, who, far from maintaining any "golden silence" beyond the silvery speech of philosophers, have kept alive over two and one half millennia an illustrious line known as the "Golden Speech" (Ch. jin ko) tradition, whose members include from among the sage-scholars of India, Tibet, China, and Japan, Śākyamuni himself (himself the first hermeneutician of his own Holy Doctrine!), Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Asaṅga, Chih I, Candrakīrti, Fa Tsang, Śāntarakṣita, and Tsong Khapa. This latter, working in the 14th and 15th centuries, was one of the greatest scholars of any of the Buddhist cultures, and his masterwork, Essence of the Eloquent, composed in 1407, provides a golden key with which the door to this tradition can be opened.

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