I often get asked what I am doing, and as any academic I have had to learn how to present my research in an accessible manner. Below, I have (with permission) posted a letter to the Friends of the International Center, who kindly sponsored my research this past summer. In it, I present my research in accessible language.

Dear Ms. Newmark,
I write to thank you and the Friends of the International Center for granting me the Friends’ Fellowship last year. The fellowship has allowed me to devote all summer to research on my dissertation, Encounter Dialogue: The Literary History of a Zen Buddhist Genre. As a result, I will be defending the dissertation on April 22nd of this year.

My dissertation analyses  how Zen Buddhist encounter dialogue have been interpreted in the twentieth century. Now these two terms, “Zen Buddhist,” and “encounter dialogue” might not be familiar to everyone. Allow me to explain them in turn.

Zen originated as a Chinese school of Buddhism, an originally Indian religion that had spread to China via the famous Silk Road during the first centuries CE. Due to the immense cultural differences between China and India, over the years Chinese Buddhism took on shapes that would become almost unrecognizable to Indian Buddhists. One of these shapes was the Zen school. The Chinese character for Zen means meditation,and its adherents claimed that meditation, and not the words of the Buddha as they were conserved in the hallowed “sutras,” constituted the essence of Buddhism. To justify their access to this essence, Zen Buddhists claimed to have received a “special transmission outside the scriptures” from Shakyamuni himself. This understanding went beyond words and was superior to any understanding of Buddhism formulated in language.

One manner in which the Zen school defended their position was through  “Records of Sayings” literature, which presented themselves as accounts of what the greatest masters of the school had taught. Apart from sermons and biographies, these Records contained a type of text never seen before in Chinese Buddhism. I’ve loosely translated an example, featuring the famous Tang Dynasty master Linji Yixuan, below.

A monk asked, “Master, whose teachings do you follow? What style of Zen are you a part of?”
The master said, “When I was staying with my own master, Huangbo, I asked him a question three times, and then I was hit three times.”
The monk hesitated. The master gave a shout and then struck him, saying, “You can’t drive a stake into the empty sky!”

This dialogue might seem nonsensical. Sure, it contains a historically identifiable character (as far as we know, Linji did exist), and references to Linji’s own biography that can be explained (reportedly Linji’s own master did enlighten him by striking him three times), but it is hard to see how this information solves the riddle that is this dialogue.
Later generations of Zen Buddhists said that the riddle is unsolvable because it is not a real puzzle. Instead, what Linji is trying to do is to crack his student’s intellectual understanding, and to lead him to satori, the Zen Buddhist version of awakening or enlightenment. If only we can let go of our discriminations, such as good-bad, beautiful-ugly, man-woman, we would be able to enter the present moment fully, happy, and perfect. They treasured these dialogues as directions to this goal, and integrated them in the meditative practice that is well-known as koan meditation, where students focus on passages from such dialogues in the hopes of attaining the same vision as the ancient masters.

This interpretation of encounter dialogues as documented demonstrations of enlightened behavior has made them hugely attractive to twentieth-century Western writers who sought to break away from convention. Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, for example, presents the author’s autobiographical alter ego and his friends constantly engaging in nonsensical conversations that clearly refer to the Zen Buddhist tradition. Take the following example, featuring Kerouac’s autobiographical alter ego Ray Smith, and Japhy Ryder, a representation of the famous Beat poet Gary Snyder. During a wild night out, Ray asks a Chinese cook the classic Zen question “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West [to bring Zen Buddhism from India to China]?’ The cook is not impressed: “‘I don’t care,’ said the old cook, with lidded eyes, and I told Japhy and he said, ‘Perfect answer, absolutely perfect. Now you know what I mean by Zen.’” Like many interpreters of encounter dialogue, Japhy interprets the cook’s uninvolved answer as pointing to a sublime, enlightened state where words and silence are no longer separate.

Kerouac’s drawing upon the genre of encounter dialogue says a lot about how popular encounter dialogue remains in the twentieth century. Indeed, very few modern books about Zen, especially those published during the 1960s, at the height of the Counterculture movement, do not treat encounter dialogue as the hallmark of the Zen school. But recent scholarship has disputed the claim that encounter dialogues were all that important. Sure, they were used in koan practice by later generations, but other than that they are largely fictions, written by talented writers to entertain educated readers. Masters like Linji did not act in the way we read in the dialogues, and anyone who has entered a real Zen monastery can attest to the fact that such places do not involve much spontaneous shouting and hitting.

Whether they are fictions are not, encounter dialogues are powerful. Working with students at UCSD, I have felt their force. Their nonsense makes people laugh and think. At bottom, therefore, my project wants to explain why these dialogues, which were composed over a thousand years ago, remain so fascinating to us. Even though they may mean nothing at all, what have they come to mean? What do they mean for me, my students, and anyone else that opens a random book about Zen, comes across Linji shrieking at a student, and smiles?

Again, I feel grateful to the Friends for supporting my research, especially in these dire times for the humanities. Your kindness affirms my faith in the value of the teaching and research of literature.

Sincerely yours,

Ben Van Overmeire

3 thoughts on “My dissertation in plain language

    • Yes, but in less plain language:

      Most studies of encounter dialogue, focused on individual examples or collections, explored the premodern historical context within which these texts were written, for example Song dynasty China, Kamakura Japan, and so on. Rarely have scholars focused on these dialogues as a literary genre in the twentieth century. Beginning with questions such as what are the formal characteristics of this genre, and what effect does this literary form achieve, I argue that encounter dialogues suspend time boundaries, allowing their audience to leap across time and space towards an idealized past. Encounter dialogues achieve this suspension of time boundaries as an effect of their literary form, which is characterized by brevity, omission of details, and a maintained focus on the interactions between the participants.


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