Zen Buddhism and Existential Phenomenology: The Dancer and the Dance
by Joe Dees
There can be little disagreement that existential phenomenology and Zen Buddhism have been within the past three- quarter century two of the greatest infuences upon the developmental trends of contemporary thought. The "way" of Zen and of EP (these abbreviations shall hereafter be used), and in some cases of both, arereadily apparent within the works of many of the recent seminal thinkers in art, whilosophy, religious studies, sociology, psychology, poetry and prose literature. We are here concerned with delineating congruities within these two influences which may perhaps form the grounds of their common popularity; we shall listen to their respective songs and strive to hear the mutual harmonies with which they have so effectively resonated within our times, ourselves, our (progressively blending) societies, and our shared world. We shall consider them in relation to time, self, society, world, perception, language and metaphysics. First, however, we wish to show some historical and general similarities between them. Zen and EP are both syntheses of two formerly independent philosophical trends. The two trends synthecized within Zen are Taoism and Buddhism; the two synthecized within EP are, of course, phenomenology and existentialism. The two syntheses share an aversion to closed systems; Zen's first principle is the primordial inexpressibility of the all-encompassing, and EP refuses to be statically defined, although it is grounded in Being-in-the-World. Since the first principle of Zen is a totality (reminiscent of the Tao) in Zen, it can be seen that these are basically two ways of saying the same thing. They also, according to some adherents, consider themselves in the same terms as disciplines. D.T. Suzuki describes Zen as "radical empiricism"; William James, a strong influence upon Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, gave his method the exact same label.
For EP, the meaning of the Being-in the-World (or Dasein) is temporality; "it's" meaning is evolved within, stretched along, and perdures through time. Since Dasein is primordially temporal (within time), Dasein self-conceives finitude. This is because eternity would of necessity be equivalent to the absence of time - it's correlative opposite absolute - because time needs to be relativistically compared with itself to possess a meaning. This meaning is relative to the Dasein (lived time). This comparison may be seen as a juxtaposition of moments, but this is to erroneously spatialize time; time is actually continuous in that time and its beholders flow through and correlate each other spatiotemporally. The present 'as such" could be a victim of infinite regress into infinitesimality, nut lived time is the interpenetration of past and future: a moving consciousness-node. At the same time (excuse the pun), the temporality we live is "all the time in the world" for us, for before birth and after death the Dasein is not in the world and thus cannot apprehend its primordial temporality through and by means of it. In this sense, each life is a personal eternity. Each moment is now, each now is different from the previous "now" moment, yet arises from it and is connected with it via relevance and similarity, and all the nows are a flowing totality through which the Dasein *becomes* (more on that word later) rather than providing a static cage for inert being. Zen poetically expresses these same themes within two concepts; The Eternal Now (Nirvana) and the Wheel of Becoming (Samsara). When one becomes enlightened (the experiences of Satori and Samadhi), Nirvana and Samsara and seen to be one and the same. There is no need in Zen to trivialize this understanding by lengthy commentary; the enlightened one intuitively grasps the phenomenal common ground underlying the disparate conceptual exegeses of it.
For both EP and Zen, the self as *essence* does not exist. Essence is in-itself, and both the existential phenomenologist and the Zen acolyte refuse to grant the self an existence independent of the world. This refusal is expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous dictum, "Existence precedes essence", which itself may be derived from Martin Heidegger's exposition of Dasein as "in each case mine", and as lying "in its existence". Since freedom is a result of temporality and choice, it is the ability to change in time according to intention. Thus not only is essence particular (a contradiction demonstrating an absence, since an essence is a universal), but since essences are changeless, a human essence can only appear after further change is impossible (that is, after death). Therefore, the essence of Dasein is established only after its historicity is entirely consigned to the past, or, as G.W.F. Hegel says, "essence is what has been". We create our meaning through interaction with the world; thus, only when we are finished living can our meaning be complete. This evolution of human meaning through time is known as becoming. Hui-Neng also expressed this understanding within his Shen- Hsiu refuting gatha, an insight that crystallized into the central Zen tenet Wu-Hsin, the Zen Doctrine of No-Mind. Wu-Hsin has an important corollary, namely, Sunyata (Void or Emptiness), or No-World. This may be interpreted as an original lack of meaning. Neither the world nor the mind has meaning apart from each other; only within their interpenetration is Suchness (Tathata) revealed. Thius Tathata is itself Sunyata, for Suchness is seen to be Empty of intrinsic meaning or essence apart from its intentional apprehension and the meaning-giving (Sinngebung) function of consciousness-of. EP also sees the world (before our imposition of meaning upon it) as brute facticity, and devoid of extrahuman meaning. The Dasein and the Lebenswelt (lived world) are correlatives; each is necessary to imbue the other with meaning, for one furnishes the Being, and the other furnishes the perspective relative to that Being which constitutes Meaning. The Dasein is still part of the world whose meaning(s)(s)he creates, and that thus contemplates itself in a part-beholding-the-whole fashion. Why fight the creation of meaning (netural to the correlation as it is) by polishing the nonexistent mirror of the original face?
EP has never been called a quietism - in fact, it has been criticized for being too loud. However, the idea still persists that Zen is a quietism, in spite of the apparent contradiction of this statement with the facticity of Zen's influence). The activity of Wu-Hsin is designed to not allow the vicious circle of contradictory concepts to preoccupy one's mind and interfere with the actualization of one's projects in the world. There is, however, an important difference. Whereas the spirit of existentialism, the prescriptive counterpart of the descriptive phenomenology, is basically seen as a rebellion against social injustices, Zen's world-view is biased towards the promotion of social cohesion. Both stances are useful, and an accentuate-the-positive- eliminate-the-negative synthesis suggests itself as the employment of complementary means to a common end (a just and peaceful world).
In EP intersubjectivity is the yardstick of "objectivity" (in quotes because of the impossibility of apprehending any object from all perspectives and because the object as an ideal independent of the subject is a falsely dualist conception). Not to realize that the world is shared and that the foundations of one's own created meaning rest firmly on the ground of the empirical world is not to understand the essence of meaning as a correlative (with the primordial character of 'aboutness'). Meaning, like the freedom which makes it possible, must be measured against its referential field, the lived world of nature and society. Mitdasein (being-with) is for Martin Heidegger a lived reality, as is Dasein's manner of Being-in-the-World, Care. Zen also perceives the valuelessness of solitary existence (which is existentially inauthentic), and insists upon interaction with both nature and society as necessary for self-actualization. This is a rejection of passive self-thought. Quietism interferes apprehension and enlightenment; this is why Boddhisatvas reject trancendence in favor of engagement. Within EP, existence is a symbiotic enterprise simply because to express there must be others to whom one's expression is directed - expression od the existent self is directed towards the other. Within both Zen and EP, social interaction is the meaningful choice.
For EP, perception is the realization of sense experience; this realization of its facticity as a phenomenon involves the imposition of a significance to this realization. Since one is part of the perceived, this meaning is both (and correlatively) externalized and internalized. This is another aspect of Being-in-the-World as a correlative -- authentic perception of the world involves the creation of meaning for one's perception(s). Since Dasein is temporally finite, this meaning is of necessity contingent, not absolute. The fact of human meaning's contingency does not, however, detract from its world-referential structure; it simply establishes that structure as a point-of-view (in geometry, a point occupies no space yet possesses position). Perception, therefore, is not only valid, it also comprises the ground for the manifestation of Care. The realization of its particularity, however (absence of universal god's eye world-view), entails the further realization of its incompleteness. Thus possibility outstrips actuality even in perception and choices are perpetually being made in the inposition of meaning (determination as negation of alternatives). These choices still reflect the imposed-upon, and are relational to them, and gain further validity (in the sense of multiplicity of shared perspectives) from corroboration; shared perception and shared meaning are less contingent than their solitary apprehension and creation. The existential leap is an outgrowth of the phenomenological apprehension of the lived world tempered bynthe reflective realization of its contingent nature as interpretive. In Zen, this leap is analogous to Satori. The preceding exposition upon EP and perception is intuitionally encapsulated in the Zen statement, "When I bagan to study Zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers; when I thought I understood Zen, mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers; but once I came to full knowledge of Zen, mountains were once again mountains and rivers were one again rivers". These mountains and rivers, however, possess a deeper and less naïve meaning after Satori.
In EP, language is the "means by which" and the "condition without which" of intersubjectivity. Language is the meaning of corroboration and the common ground by which expression is achieved (not FROM whichthat would be the Being-in-the-World interpenetrated by the Being-of-the-World). The danger is in confusing the sign (word) with what it signifies or refers to in the world; this mistake places the primary importance falsly upon the means rather thatn the end (corroboration of phenomena and the differing yet similar perspectives concerning them). Zen sees a deeper problem. The use of language tends to falsely dualize a separate reality of language even before this 'reality' becomes an inauthentic primordial (which is EP's concern). To say, for instance, "This is a stick" is to linguistically separate "This" and "stick" both by the use of two different descriptive terms and by the use of a mediating (therefore bifurcating) relational term, for to state the identity of the "two" is to implicitly acknowledge the necessity of such an equivalence. Koans are linguistic guards against this kind of thing; among other things, they expose words for the 'entrapping tools' they are. By using words against themselves through the direct apprehension of their ambiguity and absurdity rather than by the multiplication of their semiotic web (as self-defeating (chuckle!) gesture), Zen makes admirable use of William of Occam's dictum that simplest is best.
There is no metaphysical study in EP; any 'metaphysics' is actually ontology, the study of the structures underlying existence and experience. The thing independent of Dasein's lived world is eschewed as a purposeless study in that things are not existent in and of themselves, but are dependent, as phenomena, upon our imposition of meaning into our perceptions. Transcendentals (unapprehended - not apparent or immanent) are not of the phenomenal world (phenomenon - what appears to perception). In the same way, the concept of a personal deity is a pseudoleap possessing not even contingent support from the phenomenal field. It is an unsupported article of belief, not an extrapolation from knowledge. The very concept of such a deity as having a persona or any human-derived attributes is an illegitimate anthropomorphization(humanity creating gods in its own image - even to determination of sex). The Zen perspective on metaphysics is well reflected in the shocking (to the believer) statement which is the title of a book by Sheldon B. Kopp; "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him". My interpretation of this statement is , "If an ideology or metaphysics strives to render the lived world into an appendage of the transcendental, eschew it". Sheldon's equivalent is a different way of saying the same thing, and appears on the front cover of his book. As he puts it, "No meaning that comes from outside of ourselves is real. The Buddhahood of each of us has already been attained. We need only recognize it. A grown-up can be no one's disciple, for the most important things that each of us must learn no one else may teach us." The apprehension of a God in Zen is western wishful thinking. This is one of the most significant goals of Zen - to help people to learn to stand on their own two feet.
There is much work to be done in the field of comparative philosophy, and one of the richest comparisons still to be made in depth (although both D.T. Suzuki and Stephen Batchelor have substantially addressed it) is that of Zen and EP. We have barely scratched the surface within this preliminary study, but we shall nevertheless risk a few imporessions on their conjoint future. EP is an intellectual revolt against the sterile intellectualism of the scientistic formalist who threatens to destroy subjectivity by objectifying everything; Zen is an intuitional revolt against the transcendental mysticism of the everyday Hindu. They seem to be on converging paths. Why? The two could be naturally complementary, as are the intellectual and intuitional aspects of the brain. This complementarity is, however, not the final stage if such is the case, for as the individual is the synthesis of the two as a concrete bearer of reality, so would the truth each is in its own way approaching be found between them. Zen already involves intellection, and EP intuition. This truth is lived - they agree on this. The continuation of the present convergence would thus most likely involve dynamic interpenetration. Both of them are growing more popular as they converge. This would suggest that their respective zeniths of popularity - or the points at which they are each appropriated by the greatest number of individuals as ways to the understanding of life - will coincide with their synthesis in a Hegelian sense (with the truths of each prteserved within their commin supercession). That this is perhaps better understood as synthesis in F.S.C. Northrup's terminology rather than in Hegel's is a realization to which one comes when one contemplates the number of various schools of thought comprising each of them. Not the two, but the many converge. This involution cannot help but stimulate evolution, and as yet unsupposed insights which will at the same time be widespread and readily accessible. The effect snowballs, the East and West rush towards their appointed meeting, and - purely subjectively - I nod, smile, and perhaps even applaud a little. Such a fertile playground is grist for the mill of a future synthecizer in the spirit of Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, and the revolutions themselves are temporally closer as time goes on. The next cannot come soon enough for me.
CONCLUDING AESTHETIC POSTSCRIPT
"What we cannot speak anout", says Wittgenstein, "we must pass over in silence'> What we can speak of, we must and will, and the only way to find out is to try, replies EP. Zen answers that we cannot speak about the foundations from which the speakers themselves spring except imperfectly and incompletely. At that moment, the silence casts light upon, rather than passes over, this primordiality. EP might just agree already; or so Albert Camus seems to be saying. In the beautiful words of an intuitive intellectual:
"The secret I am seeking lies hidden in a valley full of olive trees, under the grass and the cold violets, around an old house that smells of wood smoke. For more than twenty years I rambled over that valley and others resembling it, I questioned mute goatherds, I knocked at the doors of deserted ruins. Occasionally, at the moment of the first star in the still bright sky, under a shower of shimmering light, I thought I knew. I did know, in truth. I still know, perhaps. But no one wants any of this secret; I don't want any myself, doubtless; and I cannot stand, apart from my people. I live in my family, which thinks it rules over rich and hideous cities built of stones and mists. Day and night it speaks up, and everything bows before it, which bows before nothing: it is deaf to all secrets. Its power that carries me bores me, nevertheless, and on occasion its shouts weary me. But its misfortune is mine, and we are of the same blood. A cripple, likewise, an accomplice and noisy, have I not too shouted among the stones? Consequently, I strive to forget, I walk in our cities of iron and fire, I smile bravely in the night, I hail the storms, I shall be faithful. But perhaps someday, when we are ready to die of exhaustion and ignorance, I shall be able to disown our garish tombs and go and stretch out in the valley, under the same light, and learn for the last time what I know."