Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

1. Language

The practical, soteriological nature of Buddhism makes it wary of what Wittgenstein called the bewitchment of the mind by language. Yet the view that Buddhism disregards language is an oversimplification, especially in Japan. Japanese Buddhism has a positive appreciation of language, particularly of its non-referential usage. Buddhist thought first came to Japan in the form of sūtras and commentaries written in Chinese characters. Written language was still so novel, and categories of thought so limited, that the content of these texts could be read as manifestations of new realities rather than as ideas referring to Buddhism. Some of the earliest literature composed in Japan, such as the poetry collection Man’yōshū, mentions kotodama, the spiritual power of words that makes things present. Although scholars articulated this theory of language only much later and aligned it with Shintō (see Motoori Norinaga), it may apply to the early understanding of Chinese Buddhist as well as indigenous words. Words had the power not only to manifest things in the world but also to change them; before Buddhist texts represented a doctrinal and ethical system, they provided incantations to heal illness and bring prosperity to the land.

The ritualistic use of language continued through the centuries and was often central to the expression of doctrine. Practitioners often used single words or phrases as the condensed form of a doctrine or lengthy sūtra. Kūkai, for example, recited the Sanskrit formulas for the Womb and Diamond Mandalas to better envision these pictorial representations of the cosmic order. He proposed that intoning mantras could make the basic sounds of the cosmos audible. He used dhāraṇī or magical formulae not only as a means of purifying body and mind and allowing him to understand the point of every Buddhist scripture, but also as the means by which his patron bodhisattva could fulfill all wishes. Even when later Pure Land School teachers such as Shinran suspected discursive language and discouraged belief in worldly benefit through magical transformation, they taught that the sincere invocation of Amida Buddha’s name has the power to actualize the salvation of all sentient beings. Buddhists of the Nichiren schools chanted the name of the Wondrous Lotus Sutra, namu myōhōrenge kyō, as a condensation and realization of all doctrines contained in it. Rinzai Zen teachers advocated the practice of kanna or ‘contemplating the [crucial] phrase’ of a dialogue, or of compressing the already condensed Heart Sutra into a single word. As long as the words are ‘live’ and not dead repetitions, Zen teachers conceived such practices as shortcuts to enlightenment that immediately put the practitioner in a frame of mind to realize the point of Buddhist doctrines.

The transformative as well as expressive nature of language is evident in perhaps the most important collection of premodern Japanese philosophical literature, the Shōbōgenzō(Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), by the thirteenth-century Zen master Dōgen. One chapter begins: ‘As for the Buddha Way, not to voice it is impossible.’ This statement does not command one to proclaim the teachings of Buddhism, but rather connects one’s attainment of truth with its expression in the world. Such expression includes but is not limited to language. Another chapter of the Shōbōgenzō states, ‘All buddhas and patriarchs are able to voice the Way’, that is, to express truth in all their words and actions. By virtue of their realization of non-duality or no ultimate opposition, they can directly express the Way and not merely refer to it. They can also experience as the words of the Buddha ‘the preaching of non-sentient beings’, the ‘sounds of the valley streams and the forms of the mountains’. This idea, explained further below (see §5), seems to collapse any ultimate distinction between sign and signified. Words express themselves, as do valley streams and the forms of mountains. This ‘expressing’ or ‘voicing of the Way’ does not stand for or represent something other than itself, and language used representationally is not privileged to express reality. The limitation placed on the power of representational language here is accompanied by an expanded meaning of ‘expression’ or ‘voicing of the Way’ that includes both linguistic and nonlinguistic forms.

Citing this article:
Maraldo, John C.. Language. Buddhist philosophy, Japanese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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