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Asura's Harp: Book Review

Review written by Zuiho
Visiting Scholar
Research Institute of Buddhist Culture
Ryokoku University, Kyoto

Asura's Harp: Book Review

Shin Buddhism is perhaps the most misunderstood Buddhist tradition. Fortunately, in the recent years high quality information has become widely available. For example, the whole literary production of Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, has been translated into English, and is freely available in the Internet (search word: “shinranworks”). The Head Translator of this massive project was Dennis Hirota, Professor of Shin Buddhist Studies at Ryukoku University, Kyoto. Ryukoku University is related to the largest section of Jodo Shinshu, which has Nishihonganji as the main temple.

Professor Hirota has recently published a highly informative book on fundamentals of Shin Buddhism, called Asura’s Harp. Where does this name come from? It appears in the opening sentence of the book, as quoted from Tan Luan (476-542), the Chinese Pure Land Master whose writings provided the basis for doctrinal system of a number subsequent Pure Land masters, including Shinran. Shinran has quoted the same passage in his most important publication, the Kyogyoshinsho. The passage is as follows:

“Great bodhisattvas, having awakened to formless reality, constantly abide in profound samadhi. For this very reason, they are able to display freely in all worlds numerous and diverse bodies, supernal powers, and ways of communicating truth. All of this arises by virtue of the Vow of the Buddha Immeasurable Life to lead every being to enlightenment.
This Primal Vow may be likened to the harp of god Asura, which, though untouched, spontaneously sounds forth in music.”

The book is highly recommendable for all who seek reliable information on Shin Buddhism explained in the Western philosophical framework, and for the scholars of comparative religion. The book can be bought by Internet using at first “Asura’s Harp” as the search sentence. Most of those selling the book are German companies, including German Amazon. Buying the book requires some rudimentary German though the buttons are in the same locations as in English Amazon. The price is 25 euros. In Japan Maruzen Internet Shop sells the book at 4757JPY. Ordering presumes some knowledge of Japanese language. For those who are somewhat uncertain with those languages the best choice may be to order book from a local bookshop. Then the following information is necessary

Dennis Hirota
Asura’s Harp,
Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path,
Univärsitetsverlag WINTER, Heidelberg
ISBN 978-3-8253-5264-6
ISBN 3-8253-5264-1


Other Reviews

Asura’s Harp
Dennis Hirota
Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg. 2006. 156 pp. ISBN 3-8253-5264-1.

Asura’s Harp discusses the understanding of language and its role in religious awakening in a major stream of Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It focuses on the Pure Land Buddhist thought of Shinran (1173-1263), one of the most consequential thinkers in Japanese history. Unlike monastic traditions that seek the eradication of delusional attachments through transcendence of ordinary thought and speech, Shinran teaches that human existence is inevitably characterized by linguisticality and that the genuinely practicable path lies in engagement with language. Asura’s Harp presents a groundwork for conversation between contemporary Western thought and one of Asia’s most prominent traditions of Buddhist praxis.

Hirota gives a clear and provocative analysis of Shinran’s understanding of language and its role in religious life. A distinctive characteristic of his approach is that it resonates with issues in present-day Western theories about linguistic expression. By doing so, Hirota allows us to see Shinran’s texts with new eyes, opening us to a new perspective not only on Shin Buddhism, but also on the nature of religious expression across cultures and traditions.
—Thomas P. Kasulis, The Ohio State University

Dennis Hirota’s nuanced and self-reflective exploration of Shinran’s thought on language, human finitude, and human transformation, all done with a comparative appreciation of major modern Western thinkers, creates a new horizon of purpose and possibility for both Buddhist Studies and philosophical anthropology. It invites us to inaugurate a new period in hermeneutical reflection in which Shinran will continue and extend, as it were, the contributions of thinkers like Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur to our understanding of ourselves as humans.
—Charles Hallisey, University of Wisconsin, Madison