The finger pointing toward the moon: A philosophical analysis of the Chinese buddhist thought of reference

Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35 (1):159-177 (2008)
Abstract
In this essay I attempt a philosophical analysis of the Chinese Buddhist thought of linguistic reference to shed light on how the Buddhist understands the way language refers to an ineffable reality. For this purpose, the essay proceeds in two directions: an enquiry into the linguistic thoughts of Sengzhao (374-414 CE) and Jizang (549-623 CE), two leading Chinese Madhyamika thinkers, and an analysis of the Buddhist simile of a moon-pointing finger. The two approaches respectively constitute the horizontal and vertical axes of this essay. The simile of a moon-pointing finger originated in Indian Buddhism and later received much attention in Chinese Buddhism. In light of the Chinese Buddhist interpretations of the simile, I set forth six theses to make explicit the philosophic implications there involved. They are: (1) words in no way correspond with the ineffable Real and cannot say or properly express the Real; (2) words can point toward the Real by means of the forms meant or properly expressed by them; (3) the forms are plainly different from the Real and so are to be negated; (4) one who takes the forms for the Real not only misunderstands the Real but is also ignorant of the function of language; (5) the forgetting of words and their forms can dissolve the entanglement of language and thought and even lead to the intuition of the Real; (6) the intuition of the Real depends upon extra-linguistic factors as well as language. In elaborating the theses, I resort to passages in Sengzhao’s and Jizang’s works to disclose their linguistic thoughts in relation to the theses. A main concern here is to show how one can speak the unspeakable, how one can refer to an ineffable reality without committing self-contradiction. This is done in relation to their views, the theses as well as a free interpretive analysis. I construe the notion of indication as involving the imposition-cum-negation method and argue that one can use words to indicate the ineffable without at the same time describing it. The ineffable is indescribable, but it can be intimated through indication. Meanwhile, I also discuss Zhuangzi’s notion of word-forgetting as it plays a role in the simile and in Jizang’s philosophy of language. One of the purposes of this essay is to show that while valuing the therapeutic and evocative functions of religious language, Chinese Buddhist thinkers also understand the language indicatively. Without taking note of the indicative function of religious language, one cannot form an adequate picture of the Chinese Buddhist -- especially, the Chinese Madhyamaka -- philosophy of language.
Keywords indication  Jizang  Sengzhao  simile of a moon-pointing finger
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