Rouzer discusses Chinese Buddhism

Pictured is a statue of a bodhisattva, someone who has achieved spiritual enlightenment and helps others. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pictured is a statue of a bodhisattva, someone who has achieved spiritual enlightenment and helps others. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Last Thursday, Paul Rouzer, professor of Asian languages and literatures at the University of Minnesota, presented a lecture entitled, “Bodhisattva as Jerk: Performance, Exhibitionism and Social Discomfort in Chinese Buddhism.” A Bodhisattva, for those as ill-acquainted with Buddhism as myself, is an amalgamation of the words bodhi, translating as spiritual awakening, and sattva, meaning a being, essence or spirit. Together, they indicate one who has achieved enlightenment and who employs this knowledge to assist less enlightened beings. Rouzer detailed the less angelic aspects of such figure’s characters to a focused audience with an infectious passion.

The lecture pivoted on the concept of “skillful means” or upaya, a term encompassing the various methods a Bodhisattva might righteously use to spread enlightenment. These means range from innocent to deceitful, the latter being justified under the logic that with nirvana being the only state of absolute truth, anyone not located in that state is not privy to the absolute truth and as such samsara, or provisional truth, is all they can be expected to employ. As Rouzer drily concluded, skillful means allow Bodhisattvas to get away with a large amount of less than saintly conduct. In his lecture, he focused on exploring the skillful means used within East Asian Buddhist texts. Such a particular focus made the immense breadth of his topic more accessible. As he described, “This is an immense project and I have been concentrating on finding ways into it; in this talk I will focus on one in particular.”

The first text he considered was Vimalakirti Sutra, translated as the “sutra of the words spoken by Vimalkitri” with a principle message of non-duality. This is a prevailing theme of Buddhism, which considers dualistic thinking to lie at the root of many of our shortcomings. As Rouzer stated, “rational forms of thought eventually get caught in dichotomies.” In fact, the pedantic pun, which lies at the basis of this story, is that “dualism becomes dualism.” The cunning protagonist Vimalkirti performs a series of events in order to present the dangers of dualities and the methods by which we might and should circumvent their presence. Ironically, he bases these methods in performances, magic, competition and humiliation, all of which fall under skillful means. Rouzer said of Vimalkitri’s behavior, “he shows the use of dualism to defeat dualism through infinite regression.” Indeed, Rouzer’s lecture gave intimate insight into the profoundly complex, considered and often mathematical language of Buddhism. To this insight, he would often add snide commentary on such a method’s inherent obnoxiousness, as he said of Vimalkitri in particular, “there is something quite annoying about this method.”

Rouzer then considered the Chinese Zen Master Linji and the stories of his teachings, using them to detail the broader context of competition and humiliation as central mechanisms of Buddhist teaching at the time. When describing his philosophy of Chan or Zen, Linji declares, “Perhaps there are some valiant generals here who would like to draw up their ranks and unfurl their banners. Let them prove to the group what they can do!” It’s a provocation that’s emblematic of the theatrical combat performed by Boddisattvas. As Rouzer said, “Zen encounter was a peculiar form of discourse.”

Compellingly, at this point in the lecture, Rouzer presented modern manifestation of this discourse. He introduced it, saying, “Talking about zen language as both a provocation and masterful dialectic can bring us to a more modern representation of its character.” As an exemplar of such representations, he offered Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysian Chinese filmmaker whose “films often have an identifiably Buddhist edge … and are pointedly avant-garde.” Rouzer gleefully showed his audience excerpts of the film Xi You, or Journey to the West, which chronicles a monk traversing the streets of Marseille at a painfully slow pace. The film, as Rouzer said, “has a satiric aspect; it exaggerates the serenity of the Buddhist monk in popular culture. It’s a fascinating merging of buddhist provocation and avant-garde.”

Indeed, the film was fascinating, as was Rouzer’s lecture, despite it being at times inaccessibly scholarly and descriptive. His manner of delivery was imbued with such enthusiasm and knowledge as to overcome the intimidating and intricate content.

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