Encounter Dialogue: the Literary History of a Zen Buddhist Genre

This study focuses on “encounter dialogues,” short and pithy interactions between masters and students that became the literary hallmark of the Zen school of Buddhism. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, various authors used these dialogues to represent what they saw as the essence of Zen. Despite the great variety in contexts where it appears, encounter dialogue has demonstrated a remarkable generic consistency over time, a consistency captured in the term “utopian riddles.” As utopian narratives, these texts consistently portray a non-existing-but-ideal world that acts as a critique of contemporary society. As riddles, the dialogues never disclose their ultimate referent, instead postponing it in a game that maintains and produces power and authority.

The successive chapters of my dissertation present analyses of some of the most popular works of encounter dialogue from the Song dynasty (CE 960-1279) to the present day. In the first chapter, I read the Song collection The Record of Linji, arguing that encounter dialogue played a key role in the inward turn Buddhism took during the Song, a turn that would define the religion until the advent of the twentieth century. Then, I move to 1930s Japan to examine a little-studied work of popular fiction, namely Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi (1939). I argue that Yoshikawa uses encounter dialogues to construct a utopian Japan that acts as a resistance against capitalist modernity. In the third chapter, I discuss Daisetz Suzuki, the most influential writer on Zen in the twentieth century. In Suzuki’s work, encounter dialogues become tools for accessing a perennial mystical experience. This contrasts with the role these texts play in Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Empty Mirror (1973), where Suzuki’s experience is exposed as utopian. Finally, the fourth chapter shows that encounter dialogues script and restrict performances of gender and enlightenment, but that some performances subvert these categories and take encounter dialogue outside the institute of the Zen school. Overall, the dissertation provides a literary examination of an important Buddhist genre and its role in shaping the modern perception of Zen.