NIHILISM, NATURE, AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE COSMOS

Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011

NIHILISM, NATURE, AND THE COLLAPSE OF
THE COSMOS
David Storey, Professor of Philosophy, Fordham

ABSTRACT: Though nihilism is a major theme in late modern philosophy from Hegel onward, it is only relatively recently that it has been treated as the subject of monographs and anthologies. Commentators have offered a number of accounts of the origins and nature of nihilism. Some see it as a purely historical and predominantly modern phenomenon, a consequence of the social, economic, ecological, political, and/or religious upheavals of modernity. Others think it stems from human nature itself, and should be seen as a perennial problem. Still others think that nihilism has ontological significance and issues from the nature of being itself. In this essay, I survey the most important of these narratives of nihilism to show
how commonly the advent and spread of nihilism is linked with changing conceptions of (humanity’s relation to) nature. At root, nihilism is a problem about humanity’s relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom and willing after the collapse of the cosmos, the erosion of a hierarchically ordered nature in which humans have a proper place. Two themes recur in the literature: first, the collapse of what is commonly called the “great chain of being” or the cosmos generally; and second, the increased importance placed on human will and subjectivity and, correlatively, the significance of human history as opposed to nature.

KEYWORDS: Nihilism; Nature; Cosmos

We typically regard nihilism as a problem about human life. While Nietzsche and Heidegger are undoubtedly the thinkers most closely associated with nihilism, it has an important history (predominantly in Europe) before them and has led an interesting life (especially in American culture) after them. Nietzsche’s proclamation, “God is dead!”, has been taken as the historical and philosophical fountainhead of European nihilism. As with any idea, however, the history of nihilism is more complex, and over the last half-century a handful of scholars have set out to trace its elusive arc.1 Though nihilism is a major theme in late modern philosophy from Hegel onward, it is only relatively recently that it has been treated as the subject of monographs and anthologies. Commentators have offered a number of accounts of the origins and nature of nihilism. Some see it as a purely historical and predominantly modern phenomenon, a consequence of the social, economic, ecological, political, and/or religious upheavals of modernity. Others think it stems from human nature itself, and should be seen as a perennial problem. Still others think that nihilism has ontological significance and issues from the nature of being itself. In this essay, I survey the most important of these narratives of nihilism to show
how commonly the advent and spread of nihilism is linked, as it is by Nietzsche and Heidegger, with changing conceptions of (humanity’s relation to) nature. At root, nihilism is a problem about humanity’s relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom and willing after the collapse of the cosmos, the erosion of a hierarchically ordered nature in which humans have a proper place. Two themes recur in the literature: first, the collapse of what is commonly called the “great chain of being”2 or the cosmos generally; and second, the increased importance placed on human will and subjectivity and, correlatively, the significance of human history as opposed to nature.
ORIGIN OF THE CONCEPT OF NIHILISM
Nihilism originated as a distinct philosophical concept in the 18th century. As Michael Gillespie reports, “the concept of nihilism first came into general usage as a description of the danger [German] idealism posed for the intellectual, spiritual, and political health of humanity. The first to use the term in print was apparently F. L. Goetzius in his De nonismo et nihilism in theologia (1733).”3 Tracts portraying Kantian critical philosophy as a form of nihilism appeared near the end of the century, but it would fall to F.H. Jacobi to give the first explicit formulation of the concept. Convinced that idealism posed an existential threat to traditional Christian belief,
Jacobi attacked both Kant and Fichte, the former in his essay, “Idealism and Nihilism,” and the latter in a letter to Fichte in 1799. He branded Fichte’s philosophy as nihilism by drawing a stark contrast between a steadfast faith in a God beyond human subjectivity and an insatiable reason that, as Otto Poeggeler puts it, “perceives only itself” and “dissolves everything that is given into the nothingness of subjectivity.”4 Jacobi believed that idealism entailed a lopsided focus on human subjectivity that not only shut out the divine, but severed itself from any external
reality whatsoever, including nature. If things-in-themselves cannot be cognized, and actuality itself is but a category of the understanding, then it seems to follow that things-in-themselves do not actually exist. Idealism shifts, to use Gilson’s formulation, from the “exterior to the interior,” but does not make the move from the “interior to the superior”; in fact, it does not “move” at all, since the exterior—nature—is regarded as a realm of mere appearances. For Jacobi, it is only through a decisive act of will, a recognition of the stark either/or before us and a resolute commitment to God, that humans can find their proper place. As Jacobi challenges Fichte: “God is and is outside of me, a living essence that subsists for itself, or I am God. There is no third possibility.”5
Three things stand out in this passage. First, Jabobi is simultaneously charging Fichte with pantheism and atheism, positions he regards as basically identical. Before mounting his assault on idealism, Jacobi had argued that Spinoza’s pantheism was actually atheism. Jacobi seems to have regarded Fichte’s idealism as a doomed attempt to marry the focus on freedom in Descartes and Kant to Spinoza’s holistic and divinized view of nature. So nihilism is portrayed as emerging, roughly speaking, out of attempts to integrate modern conceptions of freedom and nature. Second, Jacobi’s denial of a “third way” is, as we will see, a common complaint among critics of nihilism, or of philosophies alleged to be nihilistic. Those who cannot accept the basic dualities and either/or’s of existence, so the thinking goes, attempt to sublate them in elaborate monistic philosophies that bend logic and language beyond their breaking points in order to chart a third way–to, in Kierkegaard’s turn of biblical phrase, join what God has separated. The attempt to include everything ends up embracing nothing. Third, it is more than a little ironic that Jacobi’s fideistic focus on the will, intended as an antidote to nihilism, would later be pointed to as a symptom of nihilism by Nietzsche because the will is directed toward a false object (God) and by Heidegger because the triumph of the will in modern thought is the fruition of the ancient seed of metaphysics, the drive to frame being as presence. With this story of the origin of the concept of nihilism in place, let us take a look at some of the most sustained attempts to determine the nature of nihilism.’
A SURVEY OF THEORIES ON THE NATURE OF NIHILISM

Nishitani Keiji. Despite nihilism’s presence at the birth of German idealism (and prominence after its death), it was not to be made a subject of study in its own right until the 1930s and ‘40s, by Karl Löwith and the unlikely figure of Nishitani Keiji. Nishitani was a member of Japan’s Kyoto School, a vanguard of Japanese intellectuals, many of whom travelled to Germany to study with leading European thinkers and endeavored to integrate modern Western philosophy, particularly Nietzsche, Heidegger and the German Idealists, with Buddhist thought.6 Graham
Parkes suggests that since, e.g., the Buddhist tradition never took substance or presence as foundational philosophical categories, it is no accident that one of the first relatively unified statements on nihilism was made by a non-Western philosopher: “Nishitani’s perspective has allowed him to see as more unified than Western commentators the stream of nihilism which springs from the decline of Hegelian philosophy through Feuerbach, Stirner, and Schopenhauer to Nietzsche and Heidegger.”7 In other words, from a Buddhist perspective rooted in the belief that all things are empty, finite, and lacking in “own-being,” the Western notions of being as
standing presence or stable substance are obviously a poor foundation to build on.
The hallmarks of Nishitani’s approach to nihilism in this text are a rigorous analysis of Nietzsche’s treatment of nihilism, a spirited defense of Nietzsche’s solution, the application of Buddhist conceptual tools to the problem, and a critique of atheistic positions such as those of Stirner, Marx, and Sartre. He argues that Heidegger’s significance in the history of nihilism lies in his insistence on its connection to ontology: “Heidegger gives us nothing less than an ontology within which nihilism becomes a philosophy. By disclosing nothing at the ground of all beings and summoning it forth, nihilism becomes the basis of a new metaphysics.”8 One of the most important contributions of Nishitani’s account is his insistence that the deepest significance of nihilism is ontological, not merely psychological or cultural, and that its rise in modern Western philosophy is a symptom of a failure to adequately grapple with the concept of the nothing. Karl Löwith. If Nishitani’s approach to nihilism has the virtue of distance, Karl Löwith’s has the advantage of proximity.9 A student of Heidegger and an eye-witness to the real-world ravages of political nihilism in the rise of Nazism, Löwith provides a detailed account of the prominent role nihilism played in post-Hegelian European thought and culture, and he offers a rich account of the intellectual and cultural trends that culminated in Heidegger’s philosophy. On Löwith’s telling,

Ever since the middle of the [19th] century, the construction of the history of Europe has not proceeded according to a schema of progress, but instead according to that of decline. This change began not at the end of the century but rather at its beginning, with Fichte’s lectures, which he saw as an age of ‘perfected iniquity.’ From there, there proceeds through European literature and philosophy an uninterrupted chain of critiques…which decisively condition
not simply the academic but the actual intellectual history between Hegel and Nietzsche. The state of Being in decline along with one’s own time is also the ground and soil for Heidegger’s ‘destruction,’ for his will to dismantle and rebuild, back to the foundations of a tradition which has become untenable.10
Fichte’s indictment of the present age would be the prototype for a long list of scathing critiques of modern society, from Kierkegaard’s The Present Age to Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations. Once Hegel had, as Löwith puts it, “made the negation of what exists” the principle of genuine philosophy, the task of philosophy would widely become identified with Zeitdiagnose, and the role of the philosopher was to become, as Nietzsche put it, the physician of culture. Löwith shows how this spirit is embodied by thinkers as disparate as Marx and Kierkegaard:

Marx’s worldly critique of the bourgeois-capitalist world corresponds to Kierkegaard’s critique of the bourgeois-Christian world, which is as foreign to Christianity in its origins as the bourgeois or civil state is to a polis. That Marx places the outward existential relations of the masses before a decision and Kierkegaard the inward existential relation of the individual to himself, that Marx philosophizes without God and Kierkegaard before God—these apparent  oppositions have as a common presupposition the decay of existence along with
God and the world.11
Both thinkers, he continues, “conceived ‘what is’ as a world determined by commodities and money, and as an existence defined throughout by irony and boredom.”12 Marx’s assertion of a purely “human” world and Kierkegaard’s espousal of a “worldless Christianity” both share in common the severance of the human from the natural. For Marx, nature is merely the positum there to be negated and appropriated by human labor. For Kierkegaard, as Walter Kaufmann quips, nature is irrelevant to human life: “He sweeps away the whole conception of a cosmos as a mere distraction… Here is man, and ‘one thing is needful’: a decision.”13 Hans Jonas, another of Heidegger’s students, detected a similar problem with Heidegger’s own account of human existence: namely, that it did not place humans within any kind of scala natura that is the locus of value. Löwith’s larger point, though, is that the disintegration of the Hegelian vision resulted in a grab bag of incompatible viewpoints usually consisting of a scathing critique of the present, a longing for a lost age, and/or a radical program for individual or social renewal.

C.S. Lewis. Another vital voice in the discourse on nihilism—and who also saw firsthand the fallout from political nihilism in the world wars of the 20th century—is C.S. Lewis. Though Lewis does not explicitly mention the specter of nihilism in his classic The Abolition of Man, he clearly laments its corrosive effects on Western civilization and insists it arose largely due to a disruption in humanity’s relationship to nature. The abolition of human nature, he hypothesizes, is the unintended consequence of the attempt to bend nature to human purposes and is the endgame of scientific naturalism. Moreover, this attempt to defeat nature and scrub it free of undesirables results, paradoxically, in nature’s total victory. The more of reality we concede to the objective, value-free domain of “mere nature,” the less free we become; or more precisely, the more freedom becomes a curse, because its polestars for navigating the field of possibilities—an objective morality rooted in nature or the “Tao,” Lewis’ catchall phrase for premodern notions of nature as a cosmos to which humans must conform—have been snuffed out. The human is left with nothing but his drives and instincts to decide how to act; he is left, in other words, with nothing but nature to guide him. But since this is not a cosmic nature with a logos, an ordered hierarchy of matter, body, soul, and spirit, but a nature bereft of reason or moral value, and since reason has been downgraded to a tool and morality whittled down to
a matter of preference, it is a matter of the blind leading the blind; a matter, in short, of nihilism. What happens, then, is that whatever someone happens to prefer is called natural. Somehow, the attempt to make everything “natural” ends up denaturing the very notion of nature.

Stanley Rosen and Allan Bloom. Two writers who made similar observations about nihilism were both students of the political philosopher Leo Strauss: Stanley Rosen and Allan Bloom. Both trace the phenomenon to a gradual shift in the reigning conceptions of reason, morality, and nature throughout the modern period. Like Lewis, Rosen describes nihilism as partly the collapse in the belief in objective moral truths, which is abetted by the widespread adoption of a non-normative, instrumental view of reason. Once the will is decoupled from the intellect and no longer choosing from among the ends the intellect presents to it, and once the logos is removed from nature, then there are no longer any objective moral truths that the intellect can apprehend and present to the will as worthy candidates for action. Everything falls to the will, and since the will cannot furnish reasons for acting one way or another—and since reason itself has been relieved of command to do so—then everything is permitted. Rosen defines nihilism in this Nietzschean sense, and asserts that “For those who are not gods, recourse to a [value] creation ex nihilo…reduces reason to nonsense by equating the sense or significance of speech with silence.”14

While nihilism is often regarded primarily as a moral position, e.g., value relativism, Rosen contends that the moral implications are in fact derivative and stem from a “contemporary crisis in reason” rooted in the problem of historicism. Rosen defines historicism as “the view that rational speech about the good is possible only with respect to the meaning of history” and “the inability to distinguish being and time.”15 Historicism was ironically the unintended consequence of an attempted expansion of reason: “the influence of mathematical physics led to the secularization of metaphysics by transforming it into the philosophy of history, whereupon the
influence of history, together with the autonomous tendencies of the mathematizing ego, led to the historicizing of mathematical physics.”16 In other words, while the premodern task of philosophy, generally speaking, was (partly) to discern the unchanging logos within nature, in the modern period it is expanded to tracing the logos within history—but this leads, somehow, to the paradoxical view that all rational speech is reducible to historical, i.e., contingent, conditions. The strange thing is that such a nihilism can equally accommodate the view that “everything is
natural”—since there is no reason or necessity governing human affairs and action, they are merely an arbitrary matter of chance, will, or instinct–and “nothing is natural”—since there are no trans-historical or trans-cultural metaphysical or moral truths and everything, including theses about nature, is a product of history. Rosen insists that the notion of “creativity” played an important part in this process. According to this view, a person’s moral life consists not in obeying the dictates of a conscience common to all or by acting in accordance with his rationally knowable nature, but by being faithful to the oracle of his inner genius, the natural creativity welling up from below. Once creativity, not reason, is enshrined as the center of gravity in human nature, the next logical step is to adopt the view that all speech about being—all philosophy, science, and mathematics—is poetry. Rosen thinks that the influence of historicism on the view of reason and metaphysics, and the effect of the notion of creativity on the view of morality and human nature, are the main causes of the advent of nihilism: “the fundamental problem in a study of nihilism is to dissect the language of historicist ontology with the associated doctrine of human creativity.”17 Heidegger and Nietzsche are the most important thinkers in this drama; Heidegger because of his attempt to think being in terms of time, and
Nietzsche because of his reduction of all human faculties to a creative will to power. Though their diagnoses of nihilism are unparalleled, Rosen thinks their solutions are flawed because both are victims of the modern “rationalistic view of reason”:

By detaching ‘reasonable’ from ‘good,’ the friends of reason made it impossible to assert the goodness of reason…. If reason is conceived exclusively on the model of mathematics, and if mathematics is itself understood in terms of Newtonian rather than Pythagorean science, then the impossibility of asserting the goodness of reason is the extreme instance of the manifest evil of reason.
Reason (we are told) objectifies, reifies, alienates; it debases or destroys the genuinely human…. Man has become alienated from his own authentic or creative existence by the erroneous projection of the supersensible world of Platonic ideas…and so of an autonomous technology, which, as the authentic contemporary historical manifestation of ‘rationalism,’ will destroy us or enslave
us to machines.18
As such, since the good was not to be found by the light of reason, it had to found somewhere else; but since the very notion of good becomes unintelligible when severed from reason, it was nowhere to be found, and thus had to be created. But since the goodness of this creativity consists in its spontaneity and novelty, it must supply its own criterion and guarantee its own legitimacy. Allan Bloom devotes the middle act of his The Closing of the American Mind to what
he calls “Nihilism, American Style.” Despite its popular acclaim, the book contains a sophisticated account of nihilism. Though the tenor of his treatment is similar to Rosen’s and though both thinkers emphasize the connection between nihilism and the modern view of nature, Bloom’s account is unique on at least two fronts. First, he illustrates how nihilism has been democratized, normalized, and neutered in American culture; this watered down, latter day version of nihilism represents, for Bloom, the victory of Nietzsche’s “last man.” Second, where for Rosen the main root of nihilism is the conception of reason that arose out of the scientific revolution, for Bloom it is the major shifts in modern political philosophy. I will briefly illustrate
these two fronts.
In Bloom’s genealogy of nihilism, what was once the province of the German high culture of the 19th and early 20th century—the intellectual skyline so exquisitely sketched by Löwith—has been transfused into American popular culture and slang. The post-World War Two generation came to employ a menagerie of terms—“values,” “lifestyle,” “creativity,” “the self,” and “culture,” to name a few—to replace traditional social and religious norms, but divested them of their original meanings, or at least their implications. “Weber,” Bloom observes, “saw that all we care for was threatened by Nietzsche’s insight [that God is dead]…. We require values, which in turn require a peculiar human creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support.”19 But instead of introducing a mood of despair and a sense of the tragic, nihilism was parlayed into an ethos of self-help, the psychology of self-esteem, a therapeutic culture, and a glib relativism. As Bloom writes, “There is a whole arsenal of terms for talking about nothing—caring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness….Nothing determinate, nothing that has a referent…. American nihilism is a mood, a mood of moodiness, a vague disquiet. It is nihilism without the abyss (CAM 154). What irks Bloom is that Americans embraced the language of value and creativity with such ease, without gleaning their darker implications and ignorant of the turbulent intellectual, cultural, and political history that produced them. Reminiscent of Heidegger’s discussion of idle talk, Bloom notes how the nostrums of nihilism calcify into democratic dogma: “these words are not reasons, nor were they intended to be reasons. All to the contrary, they were meant to show that our deep human need to know what we are doing and to be good cannot be satisfied. By some miracle these very terms became our justification: nihilism as moralism” (CAM 238-9). This form of nihilism is the most insidious because the most unconscious, what Nietzsche called “passive nihilism.” It is the most unconscious because its victims are unaware of their condition and incapable of contemplating alternatives.

As we saw with Löwith, the prevailing outlook in European nihilism is one of pessimism and historical decline; but on American soil, seasoned with the spirits of egalitarianism and perpetual progress, nihilism winds up with a “happy ending” and wears a happy face. Bloom thinks this improbable syncretism is more than a fascinating social and cultural phenomenon and has deep philosophical import because it perfectly embodies Nietzsche’s vision of the “last man,” the contented being who lives only for the present and is incapable of self-contempt or reverence for anything greater: “Nihilism in its most palpable sense means that the bourgeois has won, that the future, all foreseeable futures, belong to him, that all heights above him and all depths beneath him are illusory and that life is not worth living on these terms. It is the announcement that all alternatives or correctives…have failed” (CAM 157). Bloom shares with Rosen the view that “Western rationalism has resulted in a rejection of reason,” and thinks that we live, in John Ralston Saul’s term, in an “unconscious civilization”: “We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part” (CAM 239).

Bloom is convinced that most of this stems from the revolution in modern political thought brought about by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Whereas the ancients, generally speaking, relegated the best regime to the realm of speech and thought, doubtful about its possible instantiation in history, the moderns aimed to put the best regime into practice. One of the most important instruments for doing so was positing a “state of nature,” a primal condition from which humanity extricates itself in order to achieve an optimal way of communal life. A stark contrast has to be created between the natural and social orders in order for the rationality, legitimacy, and desirability of the political order to stick. Nature has to be branded as indifferent if not hostile to human flourishing in order for the project to make sense, and human nature must be redrawn as a- or pre-political. As Bloom puts it, “Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all found that one way or another nature led men to war, and that civil society’s purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature’s imperfection causes war” (CAM 163). Moreover, nature’s obstacles have to be conceived as surmountable through applied science: “if, instead of fighting one another, we band together and make war on our stepmother [nature], who keeps her riches from us, we can at the same time provide for ourselves and end our strife. The conquest of nature, which is made possible by the insight of science and by the power it produces, is the key to the political” (CAM 165). But nature has to be conquered in two senses. Before it can be literally conquered via applied science, it must be theoretically transformed from a great chain of being, a cosmos, into an ontologically homogenous plane of extended matter in motion. Just as nature is reduced to its lowest common denominator, politics comes to be based not on virtue or the good, but on the most basic human drives: the fear of death, the desire for comfort, and the goal of self-preservation. This lowering of the human center of gravity—what Strauss called the “low but solid ground”20 on which the moderns built—is what eventually leads to Nietzsche’s last man .

However, this foundation is highly unstable and its implications are deeply ambiguous. Rousseau was the first to tap the fissure that would grow into the abyss addressed by Nietzsche, and this gap has to do with the new concept of nature. As Bloom writes, “For Hobbes and Locke nature is near and unattractive, and man’s movement into society was easy and unambiguously good. For Rousseau nature is distant and attractive, and the move was hard and divided man” (CAM 169). Rousseau, Bloom writes, realizes just how difficult it is to sever the ontological bond between nature and human nature, and that the attempt to do so creates great confusion: “Now there are two competing views about man’s relation to nature, both
founded on the modern distinction between nature and society. Nature is the raw material of man’s freedom from harsh necessity, or else man is the polluter of nature. Nature in both cases means dead nature, or nature without man and untouched by man…” (CAM 173). One view sees nature as the problem, while the other sees humanity as the problem; but both views, and all three thinkers, share the prejudice that nature is “dead,” i.e., bereft of soul or subjectivity and flatly opposed to the human order of history, politics, and society. Bloom gives an excellent summary of the difference between the ancient and modern views of nature:

[In the modern view,] all higher purposiveness in nature, which might have been consulted by men’s reason and used to limit human passion, had disappeared. Nature tells us nothing about man specifically and provides no imperatives for his conduct…. Man somehow remains a part of nature, but in a different and much more problematic way than in, say, Aristotle’s philosophy, where soul is at the center and what is highest in man is akin to what is highest in nature, or where soul is nature. Man is really only a part and not the microcosm. Nature has no rank order or hierarchy of being, nor does the self (CAM 176).
This is the consequence of the collapse of the cosmos, the same disproportion between humanity and nature that Rosen points to. There are no “natural limits” to the passions, because only the passions are natural, and all claims of reason are taken to be in some way derived from or motivated by them. Humans have longings that formerly would have been correlated with dimensions of the cosmos, but since the higher levels of the great chain have been shorn off, leaving only the “low but solid ground,” Rousseau, determined to reprise the pursuit of wholeness that was formerly headed by reason, had nowhere to go but “back” before society and “down” into the pre-rational nether reaches of human nature. Rousseau was seeking the norms that he would try to incorporate in his political vision, primarily equality. Since reason—which Rousseau, much like Heidegger, interprets as calculation—is responsible for disrupting the equality of the state of nature, it cannot be the source of the ideal order; instead, the sources for bringing about a harmony between humans and nature are freedom and sympathy. In showing that the so-called “natural” bases of human life according to Hobbes and Locke were actually stones laid down by society, Rousseau attempted to drill down to the real state of nature, but ended up opening pandora’s box: “Having cut off the higher aspirations of man, those connected with the soul, Hobbes and Locke hoped to find a floor beneath him, which Rousseau removed….And there, down below, Rousseau discovered all the complexity that, in the days before Machiavelli, was up on high…. It is here that the abyss opened up” (CAM 176-7). This is the fountainhead of what would become Nietzschean nihilism and eventuate in value-relativism.

Donald Crosby. While Rosen and Bloom give a heavily historical account of the rise of nihilism, Donald Crosby offers perhaps the most systematic and analytical account in The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, detailing its different types, reconstructing the myriad arguments in its favor, and exposing its philosophical and theological sources. Like both of them, though, he effectively shows how nihilism is a pervasive power in modern thought that underwrites seemingly contrary philosophical positions, such as voluntarism and determinism, and plagues thinkers as different as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. But he follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in holding that Greek metaphysics and especially Christianity prepare the way for nihilism, and maintains that other traditions, such as process thought, might provide us with resources for confronting it. Moreover, Crosby follows Lewis in
calling for a new conception of nature, insisting, with philosopher of science Ivor Leclerc, that to combat nihilism, “what is urgently needed…is a restoration of the philosophy of nature to its former position in the intellectual life of our culture, a position it had prior to the scientific revolution and continued to have up to the triumph of Newtonian physics in the 18th century.”21

A) Types of Nihilism. Crosby describes five types of nihilism: political, moral, epistemological, cosmic, and existential. Crosby is more concerned with the last two types. He cites Schopenhauer and Russell as unlikely bedfellows representing these views. For Schopenhauer, he says, “All striving is rooted in deficiency and need, and thus in pain. Each organized form of nature, including human beings, everywhere encounters resistance to its strivings and must struggle to wrest from its surroundings whatever satisfaction it can achieve” (SA 28). For Russell, the cosmos is alien and inhuman and the values we cherish have no realization in it. We must learn to accept that the natural world is oblivious to all distinctions between good and evil and that it is nothing but an arena of blind forces or powers…that combined by sheer chance in the remote past to effect
conditions conducive to the emergence of life (SA 27).
Whereas Schopenhauer holds that the cosmos has no intelligible structure whatsoever, Russell’s view is less extreme, in that he holds that mathematics and natural science can provide us with an accurate picture of nature, but one that will not include human values. Russell’s universe is rationally knowable but finally meaningless. Cosmic nihilism is then something of an oxymoron, since it means that there is no such thing as a “cosmos” in the sense of an intelligible and moral order in nature that humans can discover and conform to.
From here, it is a short step to existential nihilism. This view has been advanced most pointedly by writers such as Sartre and Camus. Honesty demands that we face the absurdity of our existence and accept our eventual demise; religion and metaphysics are dismissed as happy hedges against death. The mature person accepts all of this and slogs through, manufacturing meaning through projects chosen for no reason. He cannot provide a reason for living, for the particular life he chooses, or for choosing not to live.

Now Löwith, as noted above, saw the rise of existentialism and nihilism as consequences of the collapse of a view of nature as cosmos or creation. Crosby notes the major shift from the medieval to the modern view of nature: “The medieval method made the needs, purposes, and concerns of human beings the key to its interpretation of the universe; the scientific method tended to exclude human beings altogether from its concept of nature, thereby leaving the problem to philosophy of how to find a place for humans in, or in relation to, the natural order” (SA 202). Moreover, whereas the modern method conceived nature as a uniform plane of being, the medieval method “took for granted…the twin notions that the universe was a domain of quality and value, and that it was a hierarchically ordered, pluralistic domains, consisting of fundamentally different levels or grades of being” (SA 203). Moderns of different stripes all accept the former prejudice. The positivist and the existentialist may have quite different views, but they share the presupposition of cosmic nihilism. My point here is that existential nihilism—the type that garners the most attention, both literary and philosophical—is derivative of cosmic nihilism. Here I think Crosby is wrong in claiming that existential nihilism is the primary philosophical type of nihilism. Cosmic nihilism (a view about the status of nature) is more fundamental than existential nihilism (a view about the status of human beings).
B) Sources of Nihilism. Crosby traces many religious and philosophical sources of nihilism through the Western tradition, but here I just want to focus on two of the more general ones, since they bear directly on our conceptions of nature: anthropocentrism and value externalism. Anthropocentrism, he explains, involves the subordination of nature to human beings and stems from the Judeo-Christian assumption that nature must revolve around us: “we humans are either at the pinnacle of a nature regarded as subservient to our needs and concerns, or we are nowhere. Everything in the universe must focus mainly on us and the problems and prospects of our personal existence, or else the universe is meaningless and our lives are drained of purpose” (SA 128). Once these unrealistic expectations are disappointed and we fall back to earth, the alternatives—dualism and materialism—seem unsatisfying. It is as though we had resided so long on a mountaintop that the lowlands came to seem inhospitable. But Crosby points out that our pique at realizing we are not the center of the universe is conditioned by our clinging to anthropocentric views. Hence while Crosby laments the loss in the transition from the medieval to the modern view of nature that I mentioned above, he approves of, e.g., Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian view: “Nietzsche is correct when he claims that the anthropomorphic assumption is a fundamental cause of nihilism. ‘We have measured the value of the world,’ he says, ‘according to the categories that refer to a purely fictitious world…. What we find here is still the hyperbolic naievete of man: positing himself as the meaning and measure of the value of things’” (SA 129). The premodern cosmos is thus criticized as (at least in part) an unwarranted projection of human interests, qualities, and desires. Whitehead shows how this is echoed in the modern period: “The individual subject of experience has been substituted for the total drama of reality. Luther asked, ‘How am I justified?’; modern philosophers have asked, ‘How do I have knowledge?’ The emphasis lies upon the subject of
experience.”22
This brings us to the second source of nihilism, what Crosby calls the “externality of value.” This notion, he says, “requires that we deny that nature has, or can have, any intrinsic significance; it supposes that the only value or importance it may have is that which is externally bestowed” (SA 131). Originally this assumption took root in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea that the goodness of nature and natural beings lay in the fact that they were created by God. Later, however, once the cosmos is collapsed and God disappears, humans replace him as the value-bestowers in chief. In conclusion, Crosby thinks that though nihilism has considerable problems as a philosophy—especially its embrace of “false dichotomies” such as “faith in God or existential despair, a human centered world or a meaningless world” –it is a necessary halfway house between untenable modern and premodern philosophies and something new (SA 364). In addition to having a useful debunking function and a laudable emphasis on human freedom, it drives home the “perspectival nature of all knowledge, value, and meaning” (SA 366). When viewed against the backdrop of the Western tradition, perspectivism—such as that of Nietzsche—comes off as a great calamity and a crass relativism. But Crosby submits that this reaction is not necessary: “To be finite and time-bound is no disaster but simply the character of our life in the world. The philosophy of nihilism can help us to acknowledge and accept our finite state by forcing us to give up the age-old dream of attaining a God’s-eye view of things” (SA 366). Though Crosby appears to cast Nietzsche as a nihilist, I think this was precisely Nietzsche’s conviction: that nihilism is a painful but necessary and even salutary stage through which humans come to terms with the interpretive aspect of their view of nature, abandon otherworldly visions, and realize that nature is an ever-evolving complex of perspectives, none of which command a total view of reality. Nihilism opens us up to a “constructivist” view of nature; the difficult part, as Crosby notes, is not lapsing into a radical idealism, where nature is dissolved into a positum of the human subject, precisely Jacobi’s critique of Fichte. But here we just need to note that Crosby, one of the most astute contemporary scholars of nihilism, draws the connection between nihilism and nature.
Michael Gillespie. Michael Gillespie offers perhaps the most revisionist account of nihilism, arguing that its roots can be traced from late medieval nominalism to Descartes’ epistemological revolution, Fichte’s absolute idealism, and the “dark side” of Romanticism. The principle source of the concept, he contends, is the rise of the capricious, voluntaristic, omnipotent God unleashed by nominalism. Long before Nietzsche pronounced the death of God, the seed of nihilism was sown by the birth of the God of nominalism. It was not the weakness of the human will that lead to nihilism, but its apotheosis. According to Gillespie, Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism is actually a reversal of the concept as it was originally understood, and…his solution to nihilism is in fact only a deeper entanglement in the problem of nihilism. Contrary to Nietzsche’s account, nihilism is not the result of the death of God but the consequence of the birth or
rebirth of a different kind of God, an omnipotent God of will who calls into question all of reason and nature and thus overturns all eternal standards of truth and justice, and good and evil. This idea of God came to predominance in the fourteenth century and shattered the medieval synthesis of philosophy and theology…. This new way was in turn the foundation for modernity as the realm of human self-assertion. Nihilism thus has its roots in the very foundations of
modernity….23

Not only is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the cause of nihilism—the death of God—wrongheaded, but his cure fails because he is unconscious of the prejudices guiding his valorization of the will to power. Nietzsche’s spirituality of the Dionysian overgod-man, try as it might to escape the gravity of Christianity, remains squarely within the ambit of one of its mutations in the transition from the medieval to the modern period. “The Dionysian will to power,” Gillespie writes, “is in fact a further development of the absolute will that first appeared in the nominalist notion of God and became a world-historical force with Fichte’s notion of the absolute I….Nietzsche’s Dionysus…is thus not an alternative to the Christian God but his final and in a sense greatest modern mask” (NBN xxi). Gillespie’s account is, by his own admission, not entirely original in that it is a modification of Heidegger’s view that Nietzsche was merely the crest of the wave of the will that motored modern philosophy from Descartes onward, but his novel claim is that that power was unleashed by the rupture of the medieval cosmos at the hands of the nominalists.
Here, I want to look more closely at a few of the planks in Gillespie’s account in order to highlight the centrality of two themes we have seen again and again throughout this essay: the collapse of the premodern cosmos and the increased focus on subjectivity and the will.

Gillespie contrasts nominalism with the thoroughgoing realism of medieval scholasticism. Though the latter certainly embraced divine omnipotence, this was usually seen as somehow limited by the perfect order of creation which reflected the perfect order of the divine mind. The divine will and the divine intellect are seen asintegrated. The notion of a completely arbitrary and all-powerful divine will would be seen not as a true representation of God’s freedom but as a reflection of fallen, human freedom. Moreover, for realism the divine will is not entirely inscrutable, since it produces an order that can be understood by observing nature, an intelligible cosmos reflecting it. As Gillespie recounts,

The metaphysics of traditional scholasticism is ontologically realist in positing the extramental existence of universals such as species and genera as forms of divine reason known either by divine illumination…or through an investigation of nature, God’s rational creation. Within such an ontology, nature and logic reflect one another…. On this basis, it is possible to grasp the fundamental
truth about human beings and their earthly duties and obligations (NBN 12).

The “loose end” of this realism that the nominalists would exploit, however, is divine omnipotence. “While no one denied God’s potentia absoluta (absolute power),” Gillespie writes, “scholastics generally thought that he had bound himself to a potential ordinate (ordered power) though his own decision. The possibility that God was not bound in this way but was perfectly free and omnipotent was a terrifying possibility that nearly all medieval thinkers were unwilling to accept” (NBN 14). It is the widespread acceptance of this possibility, Gillespie contends, that formed the foundations of modernity and spurred the rise of nihilism. The compound influence of Ockham and others was to normalize what had been a minority view in the medieval period: negative theology, the general notion that the ontological difference between God and humans (and God and nature) is so great that we cannot achieve any positive or analogical knowledge of his nature. The decoupling of human reason and God and the prioritization of divine omnipotence laid the groundwork not only for a new theology focused on revelation and faith alone (instead of natural theology and the complementarity of faith and reason), but a new understanding of nature. As Gillespie notes, “The effect of the notion of divine omnipotence on cosmology was…revolutionary. With the rejection of realism and the assertion of radical individuality, beings could no longer be conceived as members of species of genera with a certain nature or potentiality…. The rejection of formal causes was also the rejection of final causes” (NBN 21). Denied access to God, reason would now be focused squarely on knowing nature in a more precise, certain, and complete way, and in the process, as we saw Rosen describe above, reason itself would undergo a decisive change. Since reason can no longer discover teloi in nature—including the human telos—it loses its normative status, and its sole task is instrumental, and the ends to which it is put are prescribed not by reason itself, but by the will. Gillespie notes that this is the root of Descartes’ project of doubt: “The will as doubt seeks its own negation in science in order to reconstitute itself in a higher and more powerful form for the conquest of the world. Science and understanding in other words become mere tools of the will” (NBN 43). Doubt is undertaken as a security measure needed to protect against a dangerous and unpredictable nature created and unregulated by a capricious God. God and nature can no longer be looked to for practical guidance. Humanity must seek its proper ends within itself.
But since its reason can no longer recognize itself as an instance of a natural kind that fits within an ordered cosmos (in the sense of both intelligible and purposive), its reason cannot do the job, and all that is left is the will. In Gillespie’s view, all of this signals a drastic shift from a model of God as “craftsman” to a vision of God as “artist”:

The nominalist emphasis upon divine omnipotence overturned [the] conception of natural causality and established divine will and efficient causality as preeminent. God was thus no longer seen as the craftsman who models the world on a rational plan, but as an omnipotent poet whose mystically creative freedom foams forth an endless variety of absolutely individual beings…. This ‘cosmos’ is devoid of form and purpose, and the material objects that seem to
exist are in fact mere illusions (NBN 53).

As I mentioned near the start, the first philosophical usage of the term nihilism occurred when F.H. Jacobi alleged that Fichte’s absolute idealism was nihilistic. As Gillespie writes,

In [Fichte’s] interpretation of Kant…it became his goal to break the enslaving chains of the thing-in-itself and develop a system in which freedom was absolute…. Such a system in Fichte’s view could be established only by a metaphysical demonstration of the exclusive causality of freedom, and this in turn could be achieved only by a deduction of the world as a whole from freedom (NBN 76).

Freedom must be conceived not as a mere postulate that must be assumed because of a nature thoroughly determined by efficient causality (i.e., nature according to Kant via Newton), but as the principle of this nature in the first place. Fichte exacerbated the fault line between freedom and necessity broached by nominalism and wedged wider by Descartes: “Nihilism…grows out of the infinite will that Fichte discovers in the thought of Descartes and Kant. Fichte, however, radicalizes this notion of will…transforming the notion of the I into a world creating will” (NBN 66). This world-creating will is not, however, the will of the individual ego, but the source of all manifestation that alienates itself in nature: “Reality is merely a by-product of this creative will that seeks only itself…. The I of the I am is not a thing or a category but the primordial activity which brings forth all things and categories” (NBN 79). Nature is not an independent order: it is a spontaneous, free creation of the will, a negation of the absolute I. For Fichte, the moral struggle of humanity is the story of the I becoming reconciled to itself. Nature is nothing but the obstacle in the finite self’s path toward recollecting its original infinitude; or, put differently, nature is nothing other than an instrument for the perfection of humanity.

CONCLUSION
In presenting these accounts, I have highlighted their tendency to see the origins and nature of nihilism as tightly bound up with the concept of nature. This was done to bring to light the gamut of influences informing Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s engagements with the problem of nihilism. The sources are several: Greek metaphysics, Christian theology, late medieval nominalism, modern science, politics and culture, the advent of the philosophy of history, and German Idealism. The diagnoses are different: some see nihilism as a historically contingent phenomenon; some think it is rooted in human nature; and some think it issues from the nature of being itself. What they all have in common, though, is the notion that nihilism has something to do with a disruption in the relationship between humanity and nature, and many of them hold that overcoming or at least attenuating it involves developing a new conception of nature. There must be an alternative, in other words, to the positivism and scientific naturalism that rule the day because such a universe has no place for meaning and value; it offers no ground or justification for human values, and mocks human intuitions about the value of nature. Moreover, a common thread in the accounts is that nihilism involves the emergence of the view that the human will is the source of all meaning and value, and that the latter are in no way discovered but are purely created.

In closing, my hope is that this narrative of the origins, development, and nature of nihilism might serve as a conceptual and historical backdrop for the contemporary project in environmental philosophy to “re-enchant the world” by recovering the meaning, value, and purpose that modern conceptions of nature by and large drained from the world. The search for a new cosmology or an alternative, non-reductive nihilism springs from a recognition of the nihilistic consequences of scientific naturalism.
Fordham University
Collins Hall, Philosophy Dept.
441 East Fordham Road
Bronx, NY 10458
dstorey@fordham.edu

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NonDualism & Christianity

http://jacquesvigne.com/JV/english/b1p3ch4.html

Indian Wisdom, Modern Psychology and Christianity.
Part III. Chapter 4
The Non-Dualism Hidden at the Core of Christianity.

In this period of the turn of the millenium, some fundamental metaphysical conceptions such as non-duality are no more limited to their area of origin. Nevertheless, if this notion takes root rather easily among us, it may be that it was expected from inside by the Western tradition and by Christianity.
Non-dualism corresponds to the spiritual paths which do not distinguish God’s substance, or the Absolute, form the created and which affirm they are one. Dualists systems put on top a personal God, non-dualist systems a non-personal absolute. In this sense, dualism is usually associated with the path of devotion, and non-dualism with the path of knowledge. Vedanta, ancient buddhism and Zen are non-dualism. These non-dualist schools influenced modern psychology; there are relationships, for instance, between Zen and Gestalt. In a wider sense, one can discern a non-dualist background in many new emerging movements, from spiritual ecology up to the notion of unified field in physics via Heidegger’s philosophy of being. In this sense, an in-depth review of the potentialities of non-dualism in the West and of its real realationships with Christiantly seems to be proper in this book. We will first evoke a short history of non-duality in the West, and then will focus on the real relationships between non-dualism and Christianity before considering a few possibilities for the future.

Elements of the History of Non-Dualism in the West
Many things have happened since Vivekanands, at the end of the XIXth century, came to the West to speak of non-duality as a possible basis for universal spirituality. Hatha Yoga has become a common practice in the Western nations, even in the countryside. Some movenents inspired by non-duality such as Transcendental Meditation have grown to the dimension of a new religion. In Tanzania, they have been given 25% of the country to develop it both on spiritual and economic lines. In France, there are about two millions Buddhists, according to the latest estimations, which seems more than the practising catholics, whose number is about 2% of the population, i.e., 1200000. Jacques Brosse evoked the relationship between Zen and the West in one of his recent works (1). My friend Jean-Marc Mantel organized a conference on meditation in Jerusalem where delegates of the three religions of the Book talked and where the possibility of non-dual realization of the Absolute and the transcendence of religious barriers by the simplicity of an inner elevated experience was also emphasized. The coming of a non-dual and impersonal spiritual path in this sacred City is a new trend.
In India, Swami Abhishiktananda’s ideas are going their way. I visited in Poona a Christian ashram whose superior, Sara Grant, has been able to write a booklet : ‘Towards an Alternative Theology-Confessions of a Non-dualist Christian.’ (2) Her full-fledged studies of theology at Oxford do not prevent her from defining herself as a non-dualist Christain now. A disciple of Swami Abhishiktananda, Vandana Mataji, who received religious training in the Order of the Sacred Heart, was able to say in the Parliament of Religions in Calcutta in September 1993, to put it in a nutshell : ‘For me, it is hardly essential to know if I am rather a Hindu Christian or a Christian Hindu.’ For this, she received the ovation of an audience consisting of about five thousand people. Father Bede Griffith has also reflected and published on how to reconcile non-duality and Christianity.
This article is not written for those who are in the kindergarten of spirituality, but it is drafted for those who know how to ponder and who, through their evolution, have been able to create an inner distance from the emotional reflexes linked to the devotional or institutional conditioning. These three fields, emotional, devotional and institutional, are usually knotted together, and this very knot is an obstacle to a serene meditation on deep subjects. This should be kept in mind.
As for me, I have been following a Vedantic path for the last nine years that I mainly spent in India. My basic training is Christian and I think I have studied more the mysticism of this path than many active Christians. What I will give in this article are my impressions, my intuitions. I do not think that one can write in this field with the precision of a mathematician. Those professional theologians of the past who appeared to be able to do it seem rather dangerous to me because they freeze the vitality of inner experience and their work can easily be exploited by a centralized power as a penal code to determine which are the lawful ideas and which are not. Having said thus, it is not vital for me to tell what I think since the end of the Yoga I practice is not to think, but to attenuate this talkativeego which is only a small spot on the sun of the Self…
Let us come now to the history of the hidden non-dualityin the West. Since Christianity has imposed itself, and has therefore imposed devotion as the only way of salvation, non-duality and the path of knowledge have been able to discretly survive thanks to the teaching of Platonic and neo-Platonic Philosophy. I say survive, because Christian apologetics have made constant efforts to make people believe that the search for Unity was merely an intellectual process, keeping for Christianity the prerogative of genuine spiritual experience. Actually, the path of knowledge is a complete path is itself, able to transcend intellect as well as devotion can do, and to reach an intensity of being analogous to the union with Jesus. The experience of Vedantic sages of India shows it to us still today. On the other hand, intellectual deviation is possible in the devotional path as well, just correctly expounding the theology of grace does not make one automatically filled with the love which should gush out of this grace.
However, a really mystical non-dualist teaching has been able to be integrated with Christianity thanks to a trick : the translator into Latin of a text which has been strongly influenced by the neo-Platonician Proclus had the good idea to attribute it to the first disciple of Saint Paul in Athens, Denys the Aeropagite (3); consequently, it has been read and meditated upon by most medieval mystics, including Saint Thomas of Aquinas. The rejection of false conceptions one can have of God is an essential element of the path of knowledge and at the same time has deeply influenced eastern Christian mysticism. (4) Another author with a strong non-dualistic tendency, Evagrius Ponticus, was ‘smuggled’ into the Christian tradition for a couple of his texts under the name of Saint Nil of Sinai. The change of attribution was identified by Father Irénée Hausherr. One was reproaching to Evagrius his link with Origen’s thought and equally to have been able to write a whole book on inner life where he did not speak of Jesus.
As to Meister Eckhart, specialists usually make great efforts to bring him back in the direction of the official doctrine under the pretence of putting his ideas again in their context. It is the contrary, though, which seems obvious to me : if, in the heavily dualistic atmosphere of his epoch, Eckhart dares claim non-dual experiences, it means that the latter was fundamental for him. So one should interpret his writings in a not less but more non-dual sense than he has been able to write. It is the same for those other Christian mystics who have let appear non-dual experiences in their texts. If there have been only a few mystics to follow the path of knowldge in the west, it does not mean that they did not need it, but that they were discouraged by the heaviness, the monolithism of an Old Testament-like monotheism.
There have been in the West atypical experiences of the Self which have come out spontaneously among poets and philosphers. Louis Gardet devoted a good hundred pages to this subject (5). Heidegger also acknowledged that his view is common with Zen non-dualism when he discoverd the latter : ‘If I understand well Zen, that is what I tried to say in all my writings.’ (6) He also clearly describes the basis of the path of discrimination when he writes : ‘One should separate the authenticity of Being from the factitious character of existence.’ (7) Nevertheless, one should have much more than metaphysical intuitions to practically establish and transmit a complete spiritual path. Another example of non-dual intuition can be discerned in Camus’ book ‘The Plague’ :‘Can one be saint without God?’ That is the only concrete problem that I know today.’ (8)
In India, the unity of substance between man and the Absolute is so natural that the same is used to designate both : for’ ‘atman’ means both ‘self’ and ‘the Self’ (there are no capitals in Sanskrit). The leading thread of this path of knowledge is the ancient questionning of the Upanishads : ‘What is this knowledge by which everything can be known?’ To put it differently, that comes to affirm that there exists an experience through which Homo sapiens can become ‘fully sapiens’, a crowning of consciousness at the level of individual experience when it is becoming universal. In India, it is widely acknowledge that devotion which reaches its peak (parabhakti) is one and the same with knowledge (jnana); this idea could inspire Christian non-dualists.
The very title of my article echoes Raimundo Pannikar’s book: ‘The Unknown Christ of Hinduism’ (9). He has taken back Justinius the Martyr’s idea regarding Christ disseminated at the core of pagan religions and he tried to show the presence of an ‘unconscious Christ’ in Hinduism. Nevertheless, I have the impression that my task is easier than his. For non-dualism refers to an individual experience, but which is unconditionned since coming after the rejection of conditionings, while the word ‘Christ’ is bound to refer to Jesus, a personage which lived in a context very different from India.
To my eyes, the role of comparative mysticism is to feel the weight of one’s own cultural a priori which is almost impossible to see directly : one needs a mirror to observe his own face. For that, one requires a fundamental sympathy which is that of a genuine searcher for truth; ‘Non entratur in veritatem, nisi per charitatem’ : ’One does not enter truth , if not through charity’ (Saint Augustin, 10).
I find that the richness of our time is the plurality of religious groups; for instance I feel that the birth of an advaitic ashram in Rome is a sign of the times. Rafael, who started this center, teaches not only Shankaracharya but Plotinus as well, in its direct mystical significance and revives a tradition of religious pluralism which had been eclipsed for fifteen centuries in this capital. The more groups there are, the more chances people will have to find the path which actually suits them; and their interaction will be stimulating : from the rubbing of two stones springs the spark of consciousness. It is true that a religious monopoly can bring a seeming peace, but it may be the peace of the graveyard.
We will now consider the relationships of non-dualism with Christianity. We will first review several divergences which are sometimes presented as essential, but which will appear to us superficial after some reflection. Afterwards, we will see a few deeper differences. There is a famous Zen koan which says : ‘What is the significance of the coming of the Patriarch (Bodhidharma) from the West?’ Perhaps one will find in this article elements of an answer to this new possible koan in this turn of the millenium : ‘What is the significance of the coming of non-dualism from the East?’

Non-Dualism and Christianity : Twelve Points of ‘Parallel Divergences’
By this paradoxical designation of ‘parallel divergences’, I gather here twelve points where the differences between non-dualism and Christianity seem more due to misunderstandings than to irreconciable oppositions. This will also give an opportunity to discard a couple of specious arguments advanced by a few Christian theologians ignoring most of the philosophy and practice of non-duality. One should realize that in India, most people follow a devotional, therefore dualistic religion, but the already ancient interaction with the non-dualistic conceptions enables spiritual people and sages to readily pass from one to another; this contributes to the fecundity and vitality of Hindu thought and religious practices. Let us come to the various points of objections.
1) ‘Non-duality is a vague doctrine’, this idea is often heard. For instance, it could be the most prefered basis for drug-addicted people to interpret their experiences, etc… There are several answers to this : first, the ‘vague’ is often only in the mind of the Christian theologians who have acquired a superficial knowlwdge of a few non-dualist ideas, most often through the writings of other Christians and who do not have any experience of meditative practice corresponding to this path of knowledge. Fortunatly, there are exceptions who become more frequent nowadays, but not without tension with the rest of the Christian community. Non-dualists like Shankaracharya with advaita vedanta or Nagarjuna with Madyamika Buddhism have established philosophical systems whose coherence does not fall short form that of a Saint Thomas of Aquinas. It is true that most mystics do not like to imprison their experiences in rigid and overdetailed systems. Jesus, Buddha, do not have elaborated complex philosophies supposed to answer every question in detail. The Desert Fathers do not have a very explicit theology, but the radiance of their advice inspires us till now.
The notion of enstasis-‘staying inside’-(a word used by Mircea Eliade while speaking of Yoga) is not more hazy than that of ecstasis. On the contrary, one can note that the notion of ecstasis surmises the union with a God whose existence has ever been difficult to prove while enstasis only requires a return inside, and everyone can have a direct perception of what inside can mean. The term ‘enstasis’ indeed does not seem so well fitting : the non-dualist meditator searches and experience of the whole which abolishes differences between inside and outside, between enstasis and extasis; therefore, one could instead call this alternate state of consciousness ‘holostasis’.
2) ‘The non-dual experience of nirvana is a state of torpor which results in no real change in the individual’.
There are two important distinctions to make : first between the experience of ‘snoozing’ during a spiritual practice.This is called by M  Anandam yee ‘shyunya’ and the true experience of emptiness, ‘Mahashunya’. The other distinction is between a temporary dissolution of the mind and the ego (manolaya) and its definitive destruction (manonasha). The first is more or less effective according to its depth, but the second corresponds to the great experience which is definitive if we consider the benefit it provides. One can not even speak of transformation of ego, since before there was an ego, but after there is no more. In the path of devotion as well, every love experience is not transforming : it depends upon its authenticity and its depth.
3) ‘Non-duality teaches a truth for a select few, while dualism is a democratic teaching for the masses.’
Certainly, in Vedanta, there is a distinction between empirical truth (Vyavaharika) and absolute truth (paramartha). Nagarjuna also speaks of the two truths (satyadvaya) and in Japanese Buddhism one speak of ‘provisional law’ versus ‘definitive law’. I think this is a concrete attitude which respects the differences of level between people and which allows us to integrate various spiritual paths by simply hierchising them, not by choosing one and destroying the other. In this, there is no question of sociological discrimination : everyone is allowed to experience the absolute truth, but he will have to make an effort which few want to do. There is no possibility of non-dualism without this practical distinction between the two truths. Christ himself respected this distinction : if not, why has he not organised the Last Supper in the Temple courtyard, or has he not appeared to the crowds after his Resurrection?
The concept of rational unity between all the levels of inner development is an idol, and one should stop sacrifying to it. It is an attempt towards uniformization which hinders both beginners, who would like for instance to use violent trance to communicate with God, and the advanced mystics who emphasize upon knowledge and the spontaneous cessation of the sense of ‘I am the doer’. The real problem is that hierachy is afraid not to understand well the ‘definitive law’ and not to be able to check those who follow it naturally. Buddha tells the following story :
“Two brothers go the mountain to cut wood and come back heavily loaded. All of a sudden, the younger sees a big heap of copper coins and drops his wood to take as many coins as he can. The elder thinks : ‘I have worked so hard for this wood that I will not loose it. I will come back afterwards to take the coins.’ Further down on the path, the younger brother sees silver coins which he takes instead of the copper ones, while the elder remains attached to his wood which he had gathered by the sweat of his brow. Later, the same occurs again with golden coins. When afterwards the elder comes back to take the coins, they had disappeared.’ (11).
4) ‘Non-dualism is a doctrine which is cold and devoid of love because it does not acknowledge the supreme value of the human person.’
Here is an essential question and we will develop it in more detail. It may have been in the thirties that personalism asserted itself most; in Judaism, there has been Martin Buber’s book ‘I and You’ and in Catholicism, the foundation of the Journal ‘Esprit’ (‘Spirit’ or ‘Mind’) with especially Mounier and Berdiaev. The historical background of this epoch was rather ominous : democracies had paled before the ascent of totalitarisms and, actually, it was urgent to pass onto the crowds tempted by the over-simplification of mass movements that the human person was inalienable. By listening or reading certain western authors, one has the impression that the average Indian should be half schizophrenic under the pretext that he has not the notion of external person. For those who have lived in India, this idea appears of course fanciful. The ordinary Hindu has a personality and an ego as everyone. He may care more than westerners to be in harmony with his family and his clan (Gotra), and this is, to their eyes, a sign of psychological maturity. One who wants to be independent, which means to remain alone far from the family is seen as a kind of asocial element, as a failure; but for the spiritual life exists the possibility of renunciation where one cuts the links with the family. In this sense, it is a strong process of individuation, but which does not stop there, because it continues by a new widening, that of an opening to the Universal Consciousness, whatever name can be given to it.
Upon close scrutiny, the notion of the Christian person, difficult to clearly distinguish from the individual, is rather hazy. It is beyond the usual ego, it is ‘pure presence’, it is ‘strictly ineffable like the divine person’ (12) : one may wonder what is left of the person, except the result of a kind of pure act of faith claiming that the person must continue to exist. Lossky says : ‘by renouncing his own contents, by giving them freely, by stopping its existence for himself, the person manifests fully in the unified nature of all. By renouncing his particular good, he dilates infinitly and gets enriched by everything in everybody.’ (13) That describes exactly ego dissolution in the vedantic experience, and this process has hardly any reason to save the person as such.
Obviously, the belief in doomsday obliges one to keep a sort of shadow of individuality who can answer ‘present’ to the last call. Likewise, in Hinduism, there is something of the person, or of the ego, which passes from one life to another to convey individual karma; but Hinduism also acknowledges that beyond that, full Liberation is possible : then, karma and person dissolve in the Self. The candle light disappears into the sun, the process follows its logic until the end. Personalist theologians are so much attached to their idea that they feel obliged to correct the Fathers themselves: it is amusing to note that one of them, quoting Gregory of Nysse, ‘The concepts create God’s idols, the enraptured only feels something,’ needs to correct ‘rather someone’. (14) Gregory of Nysse, as a full-fledged mystic, had the intuition of the ultimately impersonal character of the Absolute. That is why he has said ‘something’ like the ‘tat’ (That) of the Upanishads when they evoke the Supreme. This annoyed those theologians who have less elevated experiences and who run after the person as someone could run after his own shadow, hoping one day to grasp it.
If Christ has become nothingness, has emptied himself (‘kenosis’ in Phil II-7), why could other human persons not do the same ? Should it not be the least to do ? This represents a logical process. Is it not written : ‘If the grain of wheat which fell into earth does not die, it will not bear fruit. ? Can we say, in thruth, what remains of the grain after it dies? Science itself, following its recent discoveries in neuropsychology, questions the notion of person and comes to a rather Buddhist concept of ‘agregates’ whose impermanent association gives the impression of personality. (15) This should not lead to nihilism or weakening. Plotinus says : ‘The man who denies his own individuality does not lessen himself but on the contrary grows to the dimension of universal reality.’ Recently, another exponent of the path of knowledge, Nisargadatta Maharaj, said : ‘The highest charity is to give the consciousness of ‘I am’.’ An idea which underlies the insistence on the notion of person is, ‘There is happines only in relation’. Hindu dualists take the simile of a lump of sugar : one must be different from the lump of sugar to be able to enjoy its taste : but it is less respectful of the Absolute to consider it as a lump of sugar and to want to make it an object of tasting. That leads us to speak of the question of anthropomorphism in dualism. The descriptions of the union to God as a marriage or as intercourse betwen lover and beloved are no more satisfying after a certain level of evolution. They sound too much like the projection of an unpurified desire, and psychiatrists rightly note that one gets delirium according to one’s desire. The dualists’ idea according to which we will experience more and more of God’s love and that indefinitely, sounds to me very anthropomorphic. This is the wish of lovers, but reality seems rather different. When we read more and more books, we know more and more things, so, by analogy, when we make more and more spiritual pratices, we should get more and more results. But can we reduce spiritual path to a geometrical progression? Can we not defintitely be attracted by the Eastern notion of sudden change of level in counsciousness? Is it not necessary beyond a certain level, just as the passage from Newtonian physics to Relativity has been needed to integrate new experiments? Strange enough, by going beyond the anthropomorphic notion of person, one comes back closer to man and to his direct experience. Nisragadatta Maharaj says : ‘There is no other God that this sense of presence.’ (16) Meister Eckhart boldly affirms in a famous sentence : ‘If I were not, God would not be either.’ (17)
What matters really is not the projection of desires, like laser into superior mists, but the letting of those desires, their complete giving up, in order that ‘That’ could reveal itself. This is not easy : that is why so many spiritual disciplines have been evolved. Personalists criticize non-dualism by saying, ‘Non-dualism employs techniques, dualism rests on love only.’ The first reflection which comes to my mind is that love is a technique too, or an ‘art’ if the term ‘technique’ makes one afraid. He who follows the path of devotion must gradually learn to play with his emotions, and not to be played by them in order to be able to fully direct them towards the Divine. Vedanta is not against Yoga as a practice of purifying the mind, but it repetitively underlines that ‘That’ reveals itself freely. The Realization of the Self is beyond the meditations which aim to unite us to a given divine form (upasana).
Dualism has a tendency to harden, to thicken the ego by granting it a substance of its own different from divine substance. One can wonder, from the viewpoint of depth psychology, if a relationship does not exist between dualism, the violently affirmed transcendence of Judaism and Islam (see ‘Qul Allahu Akbar…’ Say : ‘God is the Highest’ in the daily Muslim prayer) and the trauma of circumcision. This agressive occurence, even if it appears at different ages in the two religions, may represent a cut in the world of primeval unity. Is not this cut so effective because it acts on sexual force, because it creates an awakening of this inner energy which India calls Kundalini? By the way, this could be a theme of reflection for those interested.
One cannot speak of going beyond the person with precision if one does not clearly distinguish two exits from the ego, upwards and downwards. The latter can correspond to schizophrenia which is a state below the ego or in a more attenuated way, to a kind of modern thought which is reductionist, even nihilistic, and that Jean Wahl had aptly called ‘trans-descendance’. That is why I would prefer to speak of ‘transpersonalization’ rather than ‘depersonalisation’ which has a pejorative, even pathological undertone. Likewise, it seems to me better to speak of the path which liberates the person, which is ‘transpersonal’ regarding the path of knowledge, rather than speaking of ‘impersonal’ path, a word which is associated for most people with coldness and rejection. Speaking of this, one should note that the transmission of so-called ‘impersonal way’ like Vedanta or Zen is made in a very personal way, between master and disciple, through a vital relationship which extends for years. (16) In this sense, this relationship is less impersonal than the institutional transmission which is the most common in Christianity. A true practicioner of the path of knowledge has an intense devotion for the Being. He practices in this direction. Nisrgadatta Maharaj speaks of the ‘explosive illumination of the ‘I am” (20).
Jacques Maritain, who was a srict Thomist, tries to make an opposition between the path of devotion and that of knowledge : the first is meant to correspond to the mystic of fire, and the second to that of mirror. The simile is obviously pregnant with apologetic undertones, insinuting that the path of knowledge is frozen, and that is shows nothing else than his own face, which means the most external aspect of ego. First, one should note, fire fulfills it’s vocation only when the fuel has been completely consumed, which means when duality is consumed and only unity remains. Besides, when it is intense, the mysticism of knowledge is more than a fire, it is a laser which separates the Real from the unreal. On the other hand, those who need to rest on God with human face-therefore who looks astonishingly like them may be more like the mystic of mirror than those who directly dive in the formless Absolute. Is the other which has the same aspect with us really ‘other’?
Which sort of images evokes Saint Augustine’s famous ‘Deus intimior meo’ ‘God more intimate to myself than myself’. One could glimpse a kind of ultimate center under the various layers of personality and conditionings, or else, a ground of the human being which widens more and more by opening oneself into the Being. Both representations, the grain of conciousness or the limitless space,are regularly used to evoke the Absolute in Vedanta. (21).
A last objection to impersonal non-dualism is that one who does not believe in the person cannot respect him. It seems to me that, on the contrary, more so, since he is no longer prevented by the filter of his own person to appreciate the other objectivity, as he is. Only when two persons, which means practically two egos, are related, there are manipulations and conflicts.
The notion of person, in its concrete form of personality, is of course useful in the field of education so that adolescents and children could assert themselves as such. It is equally useful from the sociological viewpoint, in order for the individual not to be crushed by the mass or by the state machinery. More deeply, this notion is closely related with physical love, the smallest physical detail being invested by the lovers with strong emotions. For a mature mystic, this notion of person, which at the beginning had been a help, becomes an obstacle.
In conclusion the idea arises of ‘personalist stage’ : the human person is the very type of the empirical, provisional (vyavaharika) truth which disappears when one comes close to the Absolute, like the moth in a candle flame. Inasmuch as one believes in it, one is submissive to it, one is dominated by it. When one starts questioning it, the sun of Realization begins dawning. Non-dualism does not contradict any doctrine, it gives all of them their place instead and integrates them in its worldview. Those who still keep in their mind, as an aftermath, that ‘personal’ means life and ‘beyond personal’ means death, can meditate on this Zen koan for a long time : ‘The living enters the coffin, and the death carries it.’
5) One often objects to non-dualism that it is coldly technical, that it does not have the notion of gratuity because it does not have the concept of grace.
Even in Yoga which is the most technical part of Hindu spirituality, the notion of grace is present. Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras speak of ‘surrender to the Lord’ (ishwara-pranidhana, 1-23) as a possible way to reach the Absolute. Vedanta, being non-dualist, does not have the notion of God’s grace, but strongly emphasizes Guru’s grace and the notion of gratuity. Knowledge reveals itself on its own, without being the automatic reward of our spiritual endeavours. It is on this very point that Vedanta has differenciated itself fom Purva Mimansa, the school which imediately preceeded it. In Mahayana Buddhism, the notion of ‘spontaneous realization’ is equally at the forefront.
Christian prayer accepts the notion of the automatic efficacy of prayer up to a certain extent, and in this resembles Yoga : ‘Knock, and it shall be open.’ This efficacy not only depends upon God’s good will but also exists in spite of his reticence, as we can see in the parable of the bothered man who ends us yielding to the beggar to get peace. The Orthodox, unlike Catholics, even acknoweldge that grace has been wholly given, and that from the beginning of humanity. This grace is paradoxical, as it is well said in the apocryphal words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola : ‘One should act as if everything depended upon man and nothing upon God, and one should trust God as if everything depended upon God and nothing upon man.’ (22) One can interpret the proposition of theology : ‘Man is deified through grace, and not through nature’, by seeing under the term ‘nature’ the ego, for this seems to be his own nature for the ordinary man : ‘I am myself, and nothing else’. Then, this affirmation is not different from what Vedanta says : the force which transforms the ego comes from beyond the ego, from the Self in non-dual language.
The dependency of Christians upon God’s grace easily gives a tragic dimension to their spiritual life, inasmuch as they cannot eventually grasp why and how it comes. Philaret of Moscow says for instance : ‘Man is suspended between two abysses, like on a diamond bridge which is God’s will; above him is the abyss of divine darkness towards which he is called, below is the abyss of non-existence, from which he has been extracted and to where he can only fall if he renounces his vocation, without being able, though, to ever come back to pure non-existence.’ (23) One who follows the path of dualism has not only a bet to make, that of God’s existence, he must also bet that he will go to paradise and not to hell..From the viewpoint of spiritual psychology, the sense of absurdity and existential angusish may be the other side, the ‘shadow’, in the Jungian sense of the term, of the belief in the grace of a God who is completly good.
The question of grace is linked to that of transcendence and immanence. One often reproaches non-dualism for falling into complete ‘immanentism’, into pantheism by saying that the Absolute, the world and man are only one. It is true, non-dualism has no difficulty to integrate pantheism as a stage of spiritual development. It does not feel obliged to violently reject it as monotheism does. However, the very movement of non-dualism is transcendent and apophatic : it is the ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this) of the Upanishads. It is interesting to know, by the way, that one speaks of non-dualism and not of monism, to be able to keep its character of ineffability to the Absolute, beyond the pairs of opposites, beyond even being and non-being. In Christianity, except perhaps for a few mystics, one is rather afraid to question, to go beyond the very being of God. In this sense, non-dualism is more transcendent than dualism.
7) Another frequent objection against non-dualists is that they would neither be able of action in the world, nor of demonstrating a scientific mind since they consider that the body as well as the world are illusions.
Let us start speaking of the body. Christians repeat that Incarnation only can give the body its ultimate dignity by returning it to its primeval vocation of temple of the Spirit. One should first say that, for non-dualists, body is not only the temple of the Spirit, but is is Spirit itself, since there is only one ‘substance – Spirit’ which is the ground of everything. In non-dualism, one acknowledges that the mind is based on the body, and it is repeated that we are lucky to have had a rebirth in an human body, and we should not waste it. We have seen that Vedanta accepts Yogic practices as a means to purify the mind. While speaking of this, it is interesting to note that it is precisely in the non-dualistic atmosphere of India that body techniques aiming to the spiritual and which are gathered under the general term of Yoga, are more developed : it may be because a good number of Hindus felt the limitations of the exclusive explanation of spiritual progress through God’s grace.
Indeed, affirming the reality of the body is common sense : the ordinary man is convinced of the reality of the body, and I am sure that if one could speak of metaphysics with animals, they would equally support this reality. Doubt regarding this basic fact comes from the skillfulness of human counsciousness to progress; the desequilibrium of doubt is the step of thought. This disengagement from body consciousness is not a question of body asceticism, but of understanding. In this sense, Christian ascetics, with their macerations, seem to have paid less respect for the body than neo-Platonicians who used to say that the latter was not so important vis-a-vis consciousness, but at least would not torture and martyrize it. I have more closely examined this question in the chapters 2 and 3 of this part.
Let us come now to the second point of the objection : ‘the unreality of the world according to non-dualism’. Certainly, there have been Buddhist schools which have supported the complete irreality of phenomena, like Vijnanavada. However, in Vedanta, the manifested world, maya, is described as neither real nor unreal, in practice challenging any description (anirvachaniya). Additionally, the world is unreal vis-a-vis the Absolute, (paramartha), but is has relative reality (vyavaharika), as we saw above when we spoke of the two truths.
If we want an example of the capacity of action of Vedantins, we may mention the Ramakrishna Mission inspired by Vivekananda’s ideas on practical Vedanta, which is said to be the biggest humanitarian organisation in the world. Although it is mainly spread in India, one should remember that India represents almost a billion inhabitants nowadays. This fact shows well that Vedanta and action are not incompatible.
On the other hand, it seems that Western science has not developed because of the Church, but in spite of it. Controversies on evolution which still continue today seem hardly to have troubled modern Hindu thought. The idea of an impersonal Self seems more readily assimilable to the notion of unified field developed by contemporary physics than a personal, creator God, ‘Deus ex machina’ of dualist doctrines. Scientists had to put aside this conception of God to be able to evolve. Every really religious man considers that God is in the world and that he is more real than him; if not, he is only a materialist who mayf ollow a few rituals from time to time. Nil of Sinai says : ‘Blessed is the monk who sees every man as God after God.’ (24) and also : ‘The monk is one who, while retiring from the midst of man, is united to them and sees himself in every body. (25)
What is important is not to give up the world, but to give up one’s ordinary conception of the world, to see God in it, to deify it as the Orthodox say, or as is written in the beginning of the Isha Upanishad : ‘By the Lord (Isha) enveloped must this all be whatever moving thing there is in the moving world. With this renounced, thou mayest enjoy…’ (Hume’s translation). Abbot Alonios had this non-dualistic intuition of the disappearance of our ordinary conception of the world thanks to the stoppage of the mind : “If man does not say in his heart, ‘there is in the world only myself and God’, he will not obtain rest.” (26) Isaac the Syrian, though his direct experience, had equally reached a conception close to the ‘creation by seeing’ (drishti shrishti) of Hindu thought : ‘The world dies where the current of passions stop.’ (27)
Saint Thomas acknowledges that the world may not exist when he writes : ‘It may be that everything which is not God does not exist.’ (28) Gregory of Nysse sensed the paradox of a world which is both real and unreal when he said : ‘The paradox of the world is to have its existence in non-existence.’ (29) Meister Eckhart does not hesitate to affirm the ultimate unreality of the creation as an obvious fact : ‘All creatures are pure nothingness. I do not say that they are minute or that they are something : they are pure nothingness. What has no being is nothingness. All the creatures have no being because their being depends upon God’s presence. The only difference between Christian classical theology and Vedanta is that the first says that man has lost his state of deification and must find it again, while the second says that man only believes he has lost it.
One can criticize the Vedantic notion of the world as ‘anivachaniya’, beyond any description. Is this not an easy solution, an escape which leaves the problem unsolved? This is true. But every metaphysics and theology leaves certain problems unresolved. Christians themselves acknowledge that ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing) is inexplicable. How has God been able to descend from the intemporal to the temporal to accomplish the act of creation ? If he is Almighty, how can we explain man’s freedom ? Out of love, they say. But if God is really complete, how is it that He needs love? And if man was perfect before the fall, is it not illogical that he chose the evil? Globally, the problem of evil is more difficult to solve in a dualist system where the world has been created by a compassionate God. For non-dualists, evil does not come from sin, but from ignorance, from maya which has no beginning, but has an end at the time of liberation. This conception of evil as ignorance is more in keeping with the spirit of modern psychology than that of evil as a fault.
The notion of an elected people which seems granted if seen from inside Judaism and Christianity will rather be a matter of scandal seen from outside. This God who has chosen a few percent of humanity to make them the elected people and who has rejected the others, if not to hell, but at least to a lower level, seem to be more an inferior being than a God in the eyes of these ‘others’. In this sense, these metaphysics which refrain to refer to an elected people and a personal God certainly represent a progress towards a possibility of real universal tolerance.
In India, one has tried totally pure non-dualism (advaita vedanta) as well as Vaishnavite dualism : Ramanuja created qualified non-dualism (vishishta advaita) trying to reconcile certain Vaishnavite religious beliefs with non-dualism. Most historians of philosophy confess that his attempt has been shabby, not because he was a bad thinker, but because his very initial aim was trying to put a circle square. (31) Just as Christian mystics did not like so much mitigated monastic rules, mystics of contemporary India hardly refer to mitigated (qualified) non-dualism when they speak of Vedanta, but rather to Advaita.
A last objection which has been often put by theologians regarding non-dualism is that it does not have the benefit of a revealed Word, by the very fact it does not acknowledge a personal God. Moreover, non-dualism would not have the possibility of a progressive revelation of God in history.
First, one should say that in Hinduism, the Vedas, including the great words (mahavakyas) of Upanishads are considered as revealed to ancient sages (rishis). They have not heard them from a personal God, as the Prophets did, but they have ‘seen’ them directly : it is the very meaning of the word ‘rishi’, the seer.
Non-duality has no special difficulty to accept the notion of evolution. This evolution take place within empirical truth and does not change anything of the Absolute. On the other hand non-dualism does not believe that our world goes towards a paradise on earth or that God reveals Himself more and more in it. There are indeed clear improvements in certain fields, but regressions also occur in others. People’s minds are more refined, but at the same time prone to suffer for more subtle motives. The very notion of a wholly compassionate God makes still more striking the scandal of evil. The belief that happiness on earth will follow a continuously growing graph like the industrial production of a country which develops well sounds a bit too much like ‘metaphysics of the industrial revolution’. The non-dualist deos not need it to motivate his work on himself or at the service of others.

Heidegger And Zen

https://www.academia.edu/1816669/_Zen_in_Heideggers_Way_published_in_Journal_of_East West_Philosophy_

“Zen in Heidegger’s Way”
David Storey, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College

Abstract: I argue that historical and comparative analyses of Heidegger and Zen Buddhism are motivated by three simple ideas: 1) Zen is uncompromisingly non-metaphysical; 2) its discourse is poetic and non-rational; and 3) it aims to provoke a radical transformation in the individual, not to provide a theoretical proof or demonstration of theses about the mind and/or the world. To sketch this picture of Heidegger’s thought, I draw on the two texts from his later work that command the most attention from commentator’s seeking resonance with Zen, and discuss how his treatments of death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality in Being and Time square with Zen philosophy. Finally, I critique Heidegger’s ambivalence about the possibility of overcoming language barriers and reticence to prescribe concrete practices aimed at triggering the profound shift in thinking he clearly believed Western culture to be so desperately in need of.
In the introduction to an edition of essays by D.T Suzuki, the foremost ambassador of Zen Buddhism to the intellectual West, William Barrett mentions an anecdote that has generated a significant amount of scholarship about Heidegger’s connection to Buddhism. Barrett reports: “A German friend of Heidegger told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of Suzuki’s books; ‘If I understand this man correctly,’ Heidegger remarked, ‘this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings’”i (Barrett, 1956, xi). The truth of this story is unverifiable and irrelevant, but Barrett considers its moral undeniable:
For what is Heidegger’s final message but that Western philosophy is a great error, the result of the dichotomizing intellect that has cut man off from unity with Being itself and from his own being….Heidegger repeatedly tells us that this tradition of the West has come to the end of its cycle; and as he says this, one can only gather that he himself has already stepped beyond that tradition. Into the tradition of the Orient? I should say he has come pretty close to Zen (Barrett, 1956, xii).ii

In the spirit of this controversial claim, and in light of a host of similar and possibly apocryphal anecdotes, many scholars have undertaken historical and comparative analyses of Heidegger and Asian
philosophy (especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism) apparently on the gamble that where there is smoke, there is fire. The existence of this “fire” is predicated, I submit, on three simple ideas: 1) Taoism and Zen are uncompromisingly non-metaphysicaliii; 2) their discourses are highly poetic and decidedly non-rational; and 3) they aim to provoke a radical transformation in the individual that forever alters his comportment toward himself, others, and the world, not to provide a theoretical proof or demonstration of theses about the mind and/or the world. In this essay I will focus specifically on what role, if any, the Zen tradition plays in Heidegger’s early and later thought, with occasional references to Taoist themes.
The exploration of the nature of the Heidegger-Buddhism connection project has, roughly, taken at least one of two paths: influenceiv or resonance. While the hunt for an esoteric reading of any thinker is at best dangerous and at worst foolish, we are obligated to approach Heidegger armed with his own hermeneutical principle of retrieve, which William Richardson describes thus: “to retrieve, which is to say what an author did not say, could not say, but somehow made manifest” (Richardson, 2003, 159).v Dismissing the question of influence as moot and judging the evidence to be either indirect, inconclusive, or non-existent, commentators such as Graham Parkes have instead argued for a “pre-established harmony” between Heidegger’s thought as a whole and core tenets of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. This claim presupposes the accuracy of William Richardson’s thesis that Heidegger’s works constitute a coherent, unified whole–a thesis verified by Heidegger himself.vi Fashioning Being and Time as the last hurrah of metaphysics, the project whose residual metaphysics Heidegger came to recant, the argument for pre-established harmony sees in the existential analytic the fledgling formulations of a notion of selfhood and world that is quite alien to the Western tradition and rather congenial to Eastern thinking, a notion perhaps best described as nonduality. This residual metaphysics is repeated throughout Heidegger’s works along the lines of the ontological difference between Being and beings, and constitutes an ambivalence over which scholars are still squabbling. This ambivalence, I hope to demonstrate, is demonstrated by Heidegger’s reticence to prescribe any concrete practices for triggering the radical shift in thinking he labored to galvanize. Heidegger appears to warn us that blithely attempting to step outside of and transcend one’s tradition, situation, and heritage, a prospect so tempting and even advantageous in today’s world, might very well land us in even greater inauthentic peril than we were beforehand. However, by circumscribing the limits of his tradition and designating which practices are off limits and which are not, Heidegger, I argue, ultimately reifies “the West.”
In other words, neither the branches of the Western Enlightenment (Rationalism from Descartes to Hegel and Romanticism from Rousseau to Nietzsche) nor the roots of Greek philosophy provided Heidegger with what he was looking for, and I suggest that Asian philosophy in general and Zen in particular offer a corrective in the way of praxis to the very lopsidedness of theoria that Heidegger labored to amend. To sketch this picture of Heidegger’s thought, I briefly point out texts from both his early and later work that recommend comparison with key issues in Zen. First, I will draw on the two texts from Heidegger’s later work that command the most attention from commentator’s seeking for Eastern resonance. Second, I discuss how Heidegger’s treatment of death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality in SZ squares with Zen philosophy. Finally, I submit a critique of Heidegger’s aforementioned ambivalence about the possibility of overcoming language barriers and reticence to prescribe concrete practices aimed at triggering the profound shift in thinking he clearly believed Western culture to be so desperately in need of.
1. Two Dialogues
A. The Nature of Thinking: “Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking”vii
It is easy to plumb Heidegger’s later works and cherry pick passages that could have been plucked straight from the Tao Te Ching. The subtle, poetic flavor of this primary work of Chinese Taoism easily lends itself to later Heidegger’s notion of “poetic dwelling.” Since both Taoism and Zen operate from a decidedly non-metaphysical comportment, and prefer poetic and paradoxical forms of expression that intentionally thwart logical analysis and discursive reasoning, it is easy to see why many scholars have been struck by their similarity to later Heidegger’s experiments with language. Indeed, Otto Pöggeler, one of Heidegger’s most able and respected German commentators, charges that the Tao Te Ching played a crucial role in the development of Heidegger’s later thought.viii
Be that as it may (or may not), the stylistic similarities between two thinkers or two philosophical systems can all too easily seduce us into passing over the real and irrevocable differences that force them apart. This is especially dangerous in Heidegger’s case, since the recurrent character of his later attempts at reformulating the question of Being are aimed precisely at unseating the very notion of there being a master narrative, a complete system, a coherent body of doctrine. As David Loy observes: “It is not possible to discuss Heidegger’s system because, like Nagarjuna, he has none. For Heidegger thinking is not a means to gain knowledge but both the path and the destination” (Loy, 1988, 164).ix All is always already way, and that seems to be all that we are allowed to say about the matter—there can be no calculation or meaningful organization, sequence, or pattern to the various way-stations, moments, or thoughts that occur along the way. Reflecting on one of his own “moments”—Being and Time itself–Heidegger remarked: “I have forsaken an earlier position, not to exchange it for another, but because even the former position was only a pause on the way. What lasts in thinking is the way” (Dialogue, 1971, 12).x Compare D.T. Suzuki:
All Zen’s outward manifestations or demonstrations must never be regarded as final. They just indicate the way where to look for facts. Therefore these indicators are important, we cannot do well without them. But once caught in them, which are like entangling meshes, we are doomed; for Zen can never be comprehended (Barrett, 1956, 21).xi                                                                                                                                                   The Zen analogue to Heidegger’s notion of “preoccupation with beings” (CP) or “entanglement” (SZ) is tanha, popularly translated somewhat misleadingly as “desire.” A more proper rendering would be “attachment” or “clinging” to phenomena. To seize upon the flux and freeze Being/Tao in its tracks, to attempt to master, fix, or cling to it with language or logic, is, Heidegger believes, the mistake and mis-calculation of Western metaphysics. Being just sort of “does its own thing,” and we are inexorably caught up in its sway. Our best bet is to release ourselves to this Being-process, not in the sense of demurring or “giving way” to it, but offering or ourselves up to it as servants.
Two of later Heidegger’s works stand out due to their formal character: the CP and the DL. The dialogue is an ideal site for interrogating and pinning down the core of Heidegger’s later thought, and thus apprehending what kinship it may have with Taoist and Zen thought, because it is flexible enough to contain both rational and poetic discourse. That is, it suffers neither from the constraints of monologic—the metaphysics of subjectivity (inaugurated by Descartes and repeated by Sartre) laced within SZ that Heidegger eventually came to recant—nor from the vagary of poetic saying, yet provides a space in which both can have their say. Peter Kreeft usefully qualifies this as “a highly disciplined, exacting kind of poetry,” a kind of saying that, Heidegger thinks, is more rigorous than and indeed makes possible rational discourse itself (Kreeft, 1971, 521).xii In this section, I draw on these two dialogues in order to show the congruence of Heidegger’s later thought with some basic Zen tenets.
The CP is held between a scientist, a scholar, and a teacher. These three figures speak, respectively, for three basic comportments toward or from Being. The first is the Dasein who is blind to the phenomenon of the world. This is the objectifying stance criticized in SZ, the monological Scientist curious about and transfixed by phenomena, asleep to his own unheeded intentional comportments to the world. The Scientist disenchants the world by dissecting it with analytical reason and foisting his own conceptual straightjackets on things with a view to seizing their “essence,” and thus takes things, literally, only on his own terms. In Division II of SZ this comportment is described as “making-present.”
The second comportment is the Scholar, who represents Dasein as awakening to and reflecting on the existential-ontological structures that govern its engagement with the world and, by rendering itself transparent to those structures, seizing itself in its freedom unto death, toward its ownmost end and ultimate possibility. This is the “authentic” comportment championed in Division II, which enacts a non-conceptual way of thinking and assumes a place in and towards Being, yet draws up short at the transcendental horizon of temporality. The “way in which escstatical temporality temporalizes,” what makes the projection of Dasein’s existence possible, indeed, whether and how “time manifests itself as the horizon of Being” is what calls for interpretation (Heidegger, 1962, 488).xiii Yet interpretation, by definition, cannot overstep that very horizon, because meaning and sense can only be made and registered on this “side” of the temporal “border.” The project to think toward being thus fails, and Dasein is cast back upon itself in its having-been, and this calls for a new approach. This is the state of the Scholar, who has pushed rational discourse to its limit, and is left wanting and waiting for some clue as to how to proceed on the way towards Being.
The third figure, that of the Teacher, embodies a disposition unrepresented yet certainly hinted at in SZ: Gelassenheit. Whereas the prior two positions were subjectivistic insofar as they thought toward Being, the Teacher endeavors to think from Being, to keep silent about and wait for the temporalizing of ecstatic temporality—here called the “regioning” of “that-which-regions”—but not in such a way as to be frustrated by the lack of an answer, to be stymied about failing to find the words or concepts with which to interpret or locate the meaning of Being. The Teacher’s discourse is thus properly characterized as trans-logical.
Gelassenheit is not “giving up”; still less it is “cracking the code” of Being. As the translators note, “[Gelassenheit] is thinking which allows content to emerge within awareness, thinking which is open to content…meditative thinking begins with an awareness of the field within which these objects are, an awareness of the horizon rather than of those objects of ordinary understanding” (Heidegger, 1966, 24).xiv More specifically, Heidegger is claiming that all thinking necessarily begins this way, and so a thinking that explicitly acknowledges this fact enjoys a more primordial relationship with Being, and therefore with thought itself. This necessity is neither logical nor causal, nor it is contained in the nature of a substance called “human being.” Indeed, Heidegger makes it clear at the start that “the question concerning man’s nature is not a question about man” (Heidegger, 1966, 58).xv To go against this grain and attempt to calculate, plan, plot, represent, or frame Being in any totalizing manner is thus at once a perversion of both Being and thinking. This is surely why, as Peter Kreeft points out, “Heidegger uses a word designating what Being does (“regions”) rather than what it is” (Kreeft, 1971, 543).xvi
To be released toward things is to wait upon Being.xvii “Waiting” itself is defined two ways in the CP. These two definitions are tightly bound to the two conceptions of time contrasted in SZ. The first is the ordinary practice of “waiting for” things, events, occasions, etc. This waiting toward things is grounded in a making present which neutralizes the future qua possibility by interpreting it merely within the narrow scope of the desires, goals, and objectives of the present, following the rigid dictates of the schedule, the calendar, or the scheme. This fixing of the future is at once the constriction of the present, robbing the present of its possibility and significance by interpreting the “now” as a solipsized point in a succession of nows that is separated from the object that Dasein awaits. The ecstatical structures are thus dissociated and/or repressed, Dasein disperses itself among and invests itself in its worldly entanglements, and it fails to hold itself together precisely by rushing around trying to fix and control things; Dasein is ready for nothing because it is trying to be ready for everything, foreclosing its possibilities by trying to plan for all of them. The structures of involvement delineated in Division I of SZ—the “for-the-sake-of-which,” the “in-order-to”, etc.—correlate roughly with this notion of “waiting for.”
The second definition of waiting, “waiting upon,” is practiced without the expectation of the fulfillment of an intention. Indeed, it is characterized by the lack of any such intention. This cessation of intentional relations is indicative of an erosion of any notion of a “subject” with will, desire, self-sameness, and a shift in the locus of identity and the seat of action towards Being and away from Dasein. As the Scholar remarks: “the relation between that-which-regions [i.e., Being] and releasement, if it can still be considered a relation, can be thought of neither as ontic nor as ontological,” only, adds the teacher, “as regioning” (Heidegger, 1966, 76).xviii There is thus a shift in the language Heidegger uses to describe the matter of the conversation: not the “meaning of Being” (SZ) but the “nature of thinking.”xix To wait upon Being thus connotes service. The active connotations of freedom, authentication, individuation, and seizing one’s destiny that color SZ give way to more passive notions of serving, waiting, allowing, etc. Put differently: there is a shift in emphasis from existentiality to facticity, from man’s projecting to Being’s throwing.
Yet those so released are not merely “slaves” of Being. The Scientist observes that releasement “is in no way a matter of weakly allowing things to slide and drift along,” and “lies beyond the distinction between activity and passivity” (Heidegger, 1966, 61).xx Heidegger is not condoning an ascetic denial of world and will along the lines of Schopenhauer’s pessimism; releasement is most definitely not a renunciation that “floats in the realm of unreality and nothingness” (Heidegger, 1966, 80).xxi Similarly, Suzuki dismissed the
popular view which identifies the philosophy of Schopenhauer with Buddhism. According to this view, the Buddha is supposed to have taught the negation of the will to live, which was insisted upon by the German pessimist, but nothing is further from the correct understanding of Buddhism than this negativism. The Buddha did not consider the will blind, irrational, and therefore to be denied; what he really denies is the notion of ego-entity due to Ignorance, from which notion come craving, attachment to things impermanent, and the giving way to egoistic impulses (Barrett, 1956, 157).xxii                   Anticipatory resoluteness still has a place within releasement: “one needs to understand ‘resolve’ as it is understood in Being and Time: as the opening of man particularly undertaken by him for openness…which we think of as that-which-regions” (Heidegger, 1966, 81).xxiii Again, we are not permitted to think of openness as something “out there” ontologically separate from Dasein, since we have been told explicitly that terms such as ontic, ontological, relation, and thing either no longer apply in the former sense, or no longer apply, period.
The type of comportment Heidegger champions is thus active in so far as it calls for an adjustment in Dasein’s attunement, but not in the sense of operating upon any object in the world-horizon with a view toward engineering a different and desired state of affairs. Heidegger thus refers to it as a “trace of willing”; it is passive insofar as it holds itself steadfast in light of the knowledge that none of its actions can directly “get through” to Being and, more importantly, it ceases to resent or repress this inescapable fact (Heidegger, 1966, 51).xxiv As Peter Kreeft points out, a higher acting is concealed in releasement than is found in all the actions within the world…. Not only do we become supremely (though effortlessly) active as a result of releasement, but we must exercise the most strenuous activity in order to reach its inactivity, much as the Zen monk must beat his head against the stone wall of his koan with all his energy until his head splits and his brains spill out into the universe where they belong (Kreeft, 1971, 553).xxv Heidegger is clear on this point:

“Releasement toward things and openness to the mystery never happen of themselves. They do not befall us accidentally. Both flourish only through persistent, courageous thinking” (Heidegger, 1966, 56).xxvi

On a similar note, Joan Stambaugh remarks that “Heidegger’s idea of Austrag (perdurance, sustained endurance) bears a striking resemblance to Dogen’s ‘sustained exertion,’ the ‘highest form of exertion, which goes on unceasingly in cycles from the first dawning of religious truth, through the test of discipline and practice, to enlightenment and Nirvana.’ These two related ideas both implicitly have to do with time” (Stambaugh, 1987, 285).xxvii American Zen roshi Richard Baker once remarked that satori, or enlightenment, is an accident, and that meditation makes one accident prone. Meditation (zazen) is the preparation, the work that renders the self receptive to satori but does not directly trigger it. Speaking about the notion of “waiting upon,” Kreeft notes:

“Like a Zen master, Heidegger does not tell us what to do, only what not to do. And in response to the natural question complaining of the resulting disorientation, he intensifies instead of relieving the disorientation, again like a Zen master” (Kreeft, 1971, 535).xxviii

In a crucial but qualified sense, there is a process of spiritual “development” in Zen, but it not a teleological process. Zen practice is not the cultivation of positive qualities or characteristics; it is not about conditioning, but about deconditioning—hence, what not to do. The Zen analogue of releasement is “non-attachment,” and its purpose is not to crush and stifle the thought-process, but to let all phenomena—sensory perceptions, emotional tensions, concepts, etc.—simply go, to liquidate one’s cognitive assets, to exhaust the discursive mind, and gradually cease to identify with any bodily (gross) or mental (subtle) “substance”, until the bodymind itself is “dropped.”
Before leaving the CP, it is important to mention the discussion of ego, experiment, and the Being-process contained therein. Heidegger’s end of philosophy is really just the end of philosophy as the mirror of nature,xxix the end of a conception of science that regarded itself as unconditioned but was actually, according to Heidegger, only a historical emergence:
Scientist: ‘When I decided in favor of the methodological type of analysis in the physical sciences, you said that this way of looking at it was historical…. Now I see what was meant. The program of mathematics and the experiment are grounded in the relation of man as ego to the thing as object.’ Teacher: ‘They even constitute this relation in part and unfold its historical character…. The historical consists in that-which-regions…. It rests in what, coming to pass in man, regions him into his nature’ (Heidegger, 1966, 79).xxx

Thus the “ego” and its project of measuring, classifying, and discovering the world emerged over time, yet it tries to burn its birth certificate and cover up its contingency by grounding itself in some transcendent Other.
Two passages from WIM? powerfully capture the relationship between reason and the nothing, the egoic and the trans-egoic, the logical and the trans-logical: “If the power of the intellect in the field of inquiry into the nothing and into Being is thus shattered, then the destiny of the reign of ‘logic’ in philosophy is thereby decided. The idea of ‘logic’ itself disintegrates in the turbulence of a more original questioning” (Heidegger, 1977, 105).xxxi Compare Suzuki: “[Zen] does not challenge logic, it simply walks its own path of facts, leaving all the rest to their own fates. It is only when logic neglecting its proper functions tries to step into the track of Zen [or, for Heidegger, tries to soberly and seriously dismiss the nothing] that it loudly proclaims its principles and forcibly drives out the intruder” (Barrett, 1956, 21). Heidegger:
We can of course think the whole of beings in an ‘idea,’ then negate what we have imagined in our thought, thus ‘think’ it negated.” In this way do we attain the formal concept of the imagined nothing but never the nothing itself… the objections of the intellect would call a halt to our search, whose legitimacy, however, can be demonstrated only on the basis of a fundamental experience of the nothing (Heidegger, 1977, 99).xxxii

I want to emphasize that Zen, as Suzuki indicates, has a decidedly more “laissez-faire” attitude toward reason: it is only when reason purports to extend its validity claims beyond its proper sphere that problems ensue. Heidegger’s antagonism toward calculative thinking, I am claiming here, is somewhat exaggerated and fails to recognize the positive aspects of reason, aspects which, in fact, allot him the space to sight his quarry.
Heidegger initially regarded this birth of the ego as a deliberate choice made by a particular culture yet, as Michael Zimmerman points out, he eventually came to abandon this view and saw the rise of calculative thinking as but another regioning of that-which-regions.xxxiii This “Being-centric” view is operative as early as 1929 when Heidegger speaks in WIM? of “the direction from which alone the nothing can come to us,” and declares that “the nothing itself nihilates,” and that this is the basis of any affirmation or negation, i.e., any logical predication, on the part of humans” (Heidegger, 1977, 98, 103).xxxiv Zen could not agree more with the latter part of this sentence, yet I need to point out a crucial difference. Heidegger approaches the emergence of the ego from what we might call its decidedly phylogenetic dimension—as a kind of thinking in whose grip the West has unfolded and by whose limitations its has been constrained. Zen, however, focuses on the ontogenetic dimension through a set of pointing out instructions that get the individual to realize and disarm the self-contractions, interpretative projections, and karmic patterns that distort his experiences of himself, others, and the world.xxxv Zen is concerned with acquainting the individual with the genealogy of his or her own ego and breaking the spell of self-separateness. Moreover, Zen would find later Heidegger’s tendency to ascribe agency to Being/Nothing itself as bizarre and as harboring a residual dualism.
B. The Nature of Language: “The Language Barrier” and “Planetary Thinking
While Zen generally avoids philosophy—at least in its representational mode—and focuses on transformative practices, this is not to say that it has no philosophical heritage or support. If we were forced to distill a systematic Buddhist apologetics from the Eastern philosophical tradition that serves as the philosophical roots of Zen, it would probably be “negative dialectic.” The negative dialectic was put forth as a philosophical-pedagogical method by the second century Mahayana Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna, and it is the founding idea of Zen methodology to this day. Like Heidegger’s later writings, which scrupulously guard against any lapse into lazy metaphysical thinking by vigilantly reframing the question of the meaning of Being, negative dialectic is supremely practical in that it refuses to let any positive statement about the Absolute/Emptiness/Being stand and coagulate into a stale and rigid dogma, because the experiencexxxvi in question—satori, i.e., Enlightenment–is meaning- and content-less. I am referring to Heidegger’s nearly constant efforts to shift the terms of the debate to combat and dispel the forgetfulness that comes to obscure the originary experience of Being out of which metaphysics arises and by which it is possible in the first place. Richardson gives one such example:
the effort to lay bare the foundations of ontology was called in the early years ‘fundamental ontology,’ but after 1929 the word disappears completely. In 1949 we are told why:

the word ‘ontology’…makes it too easy to understand the grounding of metaphysics as simply an ontology of a higher sort, wheras ontology of a higher sort, which is but another name for metaphysics, must be left behind completely (Richardson, 2003, 15).xxxvii

As Zimmerman points out, Nagarjuna likewise feared that his message would be distorted into a “metaphysics of experience” and struggled to resist this reifying tendency: “Nagarjuna warned that conceiving of absolute nothingness as such a transcendental origin would lead to a metaphysics of sunyata and, inevitably, to a new kind of dualism” (Zimmerman, 1993, 253).xxxviii Ken Wilber summarizes Nagarjuna’s position:
above all, for Nagarjuna, absolute reality (Emptiness) is radically Nondual (advaya)—in itself is neither self nor no-self, neither atman nor anatman, neither permanent nor momentary/flux. His dialectical analysis is designed to show that all such categories, being profoundly dualistic, make sense only in terms of each other and are thus nothing in themselves (Wilber, 2000, 719.xxxix

Later, I will show how this so-called “apophatic” approach most certainly does not mean, however, that language is abandoned in Zen; fingers can and must be pointed, so long as they are not taken for the moon itself.
Consider Suzuki’s account of the Buddha’s own historical situation:
At the time of the introduction of Zen into China, most of the Buddhists were addicted to the discussion of highly metaphysical questions, or satisfied with the merely observing of the ethical precepts laid down by the Buddha or with the leading of a lethargic life entirely absorbed in the contemplation of the evanescence of things worldly. They all missed apprehending the great fact of life itself, which flows altogether outside of these vain exercises of the intellect and the imagination (Barrett, 1956, 20).xl                                      Five words should be highlighted here: addiction, satisfaction, lethargy, absorption, and vanity. What is Suzuki portraying but an intellectually soporific climate of metaphysical abstraction and ascetic detachment that, shall we say, induced a collective forgetfulness of Being? This suggests that Heidegger’s basic claims—whether about the status of the question of the meaning of Being in Western culture, the Being-process itself, or the nature of thinking/language—need not and cannot be confined and applied exclusively to the West.
In the “Letter on Humanism” Heidegger writes that “‘subject’ and ‘object’ are inappropriate terms of metaphysics, which very early on in the form of Occidental ‘logic’ and ‘grammar’ seized control of the interpretation of language. We today can only begin to descry what is concealed in that occurrence.”xli In the DL, Heidegger works to chip away at this Euro-/logo-centrism by making language itself the object of the dialogue, rather than “the meaning of Being”(SZ) or “the nature of thinking” (CP). The dialogue takes place between an Inquirer—Heidegger himself—and a Japanese Germanist whom we now know to have been Tezuka Tomio. The DL is based on a real conversation that took place roughly thirty years prior to Heidegger’s reconstruction. In “An Hour with Heidegger,” Tomio recounts his conversation with Heidegger: “When I mentioned ‘the open’ as a possible translation of ku (emptiness) [or, in Sanskrit, sunyata]… [Heidegger] was pleased indeed! ‘East and West,’ he said, ‘must engage in dialogue at this deep level. It is useless to do interviews that merely deal with one superficial phenomenon after another’” (May, 1996, 62).xlii
Referring to previous discussions with one “Count Kuki,” Heidegger confesses: “The danger of our dialogues was hidden in language itself, not in what we discussed, nor in the way in which we tried to do so” (Heidegger, 1971, 4).xliii The Japanese replies: “The language of the dialogue constantly destroyed the possibility of saying what the dialogue was about” (Heidegger, 1971, 5).xliv The connection to Nagarjuna’s negative dialectic should be obvious. David Loy succinctly sums this up: “any theory of nonduality, if it is to retain the prescriptive aspect of the nondual philosophies, must be paradoxical and self-negating” (Loy, 1988, 176).xlv Whether or not Heidegger’s thought can rightly be classified as “nondual,” a topic I will return to, is certainly problematic; as Loy notes, he certainly “affirms a paradox of thinking and no-thinking,” yet his focus on the “descriptive aspect” and failure to include a “prescriptive aspect,” as I will discuss below, is what ultimately sets him apart from the nondual traditions of Zen, Nagarjuna’s Madyamika, and Taoism.
One exchange in the DL details an actual historical example of how the metaphysical handicap of Western languages bungled the interpretation of Heidegger’s ideas. The Japanese asserts that “we in Japan understood at once your lecture [WIM?] when it became available to us in 1930…. We marvel to this day how the Europeans could lapse into interpreting as nihilistic the nothingness of which you speak in that lecture. To us, emptiness is the loftiest name for what you mean to say with the word ‘Being’” (Heidegger, 1971, 19).xlvi The “nihilistic nothingness” alluded to here is basically the “Sartrian” nothingness which Heidegger took to be a serious distortion of his work; indeed, the very title of Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, is emblematic of this confusion. As William Barrett discusses in detail in his study of existentialism, Irrational Man, this crucial difference—between “no-thingness” and “nothingness”—is very much the iron curtain between East and West” (Barrett, 1958 233-4, 285).xlvii The passage quoted above also draws out a more general but hardly vague or insignificant point: Heidegger’s philosophy powerfully influenced the Japanese intellectual culture of the time, a culture thoroughly versed in and informed by the Zen Buddhist tradition.xlviii The Japanese have produced no less than seven translations of Being and Time.
It is worthwhile comparing Heidegger’s non-Western no-thingness with what Suzuki has to say about “emptiness” or sunyata, which he claims is one of the hardest words for which to find an English equivalent: “[Sunyata] is not a postulated idea. It is what makes the existence of anything possible, but it is not to be conceived immanently, as if it lay hidden in or under every existence as an independent entity. A world of relativities is set on and in sunyata…. The doctrine of sunyata is neither an immanentalism nor a transcendentalism” (Barrett, 1956, 261).xlix This is entirely consonant with later Heidegger’s abandonment of the language of “transcendence,” since this would imply some sort of “progress.” One cannot get “closer to” or “further from” sunyata via some process of intellection. Referring to a passage from The Diamond Sutra, Suzuki writes that Zen “means nothing less or more than a non-teleological interpretation of life” (Barrett, 1956, 265).l
While Heidegger admits that his naming of language as the “house of Being” was “clumsy,” he nevertheless maintains that “Europeans dwell in an entirely different house than Eastasian man,” and that “a dialogue from house to house remains nearly impossible” (Heidegger, 1971, 22).li Heidegger’s position with regard to the possibility of “inter-house dialogue” is never made entirely clear, since, by this time, he has positively abandoned the allegedly metaphysical pitfall of attempting to occupy a definite position. This ambivalence over the potential overcoming of the language barrier is repeated in a message Heidegger sent to an East-West Philosopher’s Conference held in honor of his thought in 1969:
Again and again it has seemed urgent to me that a dialogue take place with the thinkers of what is to us the Eastern world…. The greatest difficulty in the enterprise always lies, as far as I can see, in the fact that with few exceptions there is no command of the Eastern languages in Europe or the United States…. [These doubts hold] equally for both European and East Asian language, and above all for the realm of their possible dialogue. Neither side can of itself open up and establish this realm (Quoted in May, 1996, 12-13).lii

In The Question of Being, Heidegger stresses that we are “obliged not to give up the effort to practice planetary thinking,” and that “there are in store for planetary building encounters for which participants are by no means equal today. This is equally true of the European and of the East Asiatic languages and, above all, for the area of possible conversation between them” (Quoted in Thompson, 1986, 235).liii  As we saw above, in the DL Heidegger suggested to his Japanese counterpart—in the midst of their conversation–that such a conversation is nearly impossible, yet here he proclaims that it is all but necessary. Heidegger’s skepticism over the possibility of trans-linguistic mutual understanding seems strange, especially since there are cases in which the Japanese clearly had a better intuitive grasp of his ideas than Western thinkers. Fencing off different language worlds as incommensurable is perhaps just as dangerous as divvying people up according to a standard of authenticity/inauthenticity, because it naively treats “language worlds” as present-at-hand things, solipsized bubbles with clearly defined and impenetrable borders that develop in isolation from each other. Moreover, it is never made clear how such a transcendental insight can even be obtained by a being imprisoned within the confines of one such language world.
The Japanese in the DL—who, we must recall, actually bothered to undertake the task of learning an Occidental language—remarks that “while I was translating, I often felt as though I were wandering back and forth between two different language realities, such that at moments a radiance shone on me which let me sense that the wellspring of reality from which those two fundamentally different languages arise was the same” (Heidegger, 1971, 24).liv From this, Heidegger concludes that the Japanese did not seek to yoke both languages under a “general concept,” which would be precisely to try and draw one language—the Eastasian—under the rubric of another—the Occidental. In light of this, the two speakers agree that the “same” referred to above can only be “hinted” at. And though Heidegger’s “exacting poetry” is geared toward just such a hinting and is meant to thwart the metaphysical designs of such a “general concept,” he says at the outset of the DL that he desires “the assurance that European-Western saying and Eastasian saying will enter into a dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source” (Heidegger, 1971, 8).lv
This lingering attachment to language is what demarcates Heidegger from Zen. As John Caputo points outs,
The essential being (Wesen) of Zen is an experience which is translated directly, from mind to mind, from master to disciple. Language for Zen is like a finger pointing to the moon; it must be disregarded in favor of a ‘direct pointing’ without fingers, or words…. That is why where Bodhidharma says, ‘No dependence upon words and letters,’ Heidegger says that language is the house of Being: ‘Where words give out no thing may be.’ (Caputo, 1986, 216).lvi

There is certainly some truth to this, though I do not think the difference is as stark as Caputo maintains. For one thing, from the Zen perspective, to be dependent upon words and to use words are quite different things. Interestingly enough, Heidegger remarks in the DL that “language is more powerful than we,” indicating that so long as we trade in tokens of whose meaning, weight, and origin we are ignorant, we are dependent on language. Do we not then achieve a kind of liberation from and attain a new relationship to language once we have awakened to its limitations and strive after a more authentic saying? Zen masters employ not only abrupt and abrasive pedagogical techniques such as slapping a student’s face or hitting him with a stick, but also an enigmatic, elusive, dissonant grammar, something very much like an “exacting poetry.” From Heidegger’s perspective, as I showed above, the naming of language as the house of Being is not to be taken too literally, and the quote Caputo cites to bolster his claim could easily have been uttered by a Zen master, in the sense that “no thing” denotes “emptiness” or “no-mind.” David Loy captures the Heidegger-Zen relationship more adequately:
Heidegger, if not a philosopher, is still a thinker, which the Zen student is not…. both affirm a paradox which might be called ‘the thinking of no-thinking.’ But they emphasize different aspects of it. In meditation, one is concerned to dwell in the silent, empty source from which thoughts spring; as thoughts arise, one ignores them and lets them go. Heidegger is interested in the thoughts arising from that source (Loy, 1988,175).lvii

As we saw in the CP above, Heidegger thinks that Being needs human beings, and this claim recurs in the DL: “the word ‘relation’ does want to say that man is in demand, that he belongs within a needfulness that claims him…. Hermeneutically, that is to say, with respect to bringing tidings, with respect to preserving a message” (Heidegger, 1971, 32).lviii This is what Heidegger calls the “hermeneutic relation of the two-fold.” Where Zen is content to lets thoughts go, Heidegger labors to preserve them in some form. Yet Zen would also concede that defending, preserving and transmitting the dharma is the utmost responsibility of those who have realized it; after all, that is the essence of the bodhisattva, the awakened being who vows to remain in samsara until all sentient beings are enlightened. This sounds suspiciously like “bringing tidings,” even though the final “message” is always a stranger to words and a frank declaration of what is always already the case. Suzuki elaborates:

“Zen would not be Zen if it were deprived of all means of communication. Even silence is a means of communication; the Zen masters often resort to this method…. The conceptualization of Zen is inevitable; Zen must have its philosophy. The only caution is not to identify Zen with a system of philosophy” (Barrett, 1956, 260-1).lix

Indeed, as Heidegger and the Japanese agree in the DL, to be silent about silence itself would be truly authentic saying. This is surely what they are after in defining “dialogue” as “a focusing on the reality of language,” alluding to the sense in which silence is a positive mode of discourse, perhaps even its primordial mode.

II. The Meaning of Being: Early Indications in Being and Time
In this section I briefly explore how four themes in SZ—death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality—relate to Zen. Though there is no direct evidence that Heidegger was significantly influenced by Eastern thought in his pre-SZ phase,lx this does not rule out the possibility that his early formulations demonstrate what Parkes calls a “pre-established harmony” with basic Taoist and Zen ideas. Reinhard May makes the strong claim that Heidegger’s notion of thinking-poeticizing received its (‘silent’) directive…from ancient Chinese thought—for metaphysics, so conceived, was never developed there. Being neither indebted to an Aristotelian logic, nor receptive to an ontology involving a subject-object dichotomy, nor, above all, being conditioned by any theology, ancient Chinese thought was completely remote from the assertion of ‘eternal truths,’ which belong according to Heidegger ‘to the residue of Christian theology that has still not been properly eradicated from philosophical problematics’ (Heidegger, 1962, 229).                                  While May’s claim is backed up by an impressive body of evidence, that evidence is largely circumstantial,lxi and it therefore fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Heidegger was directly influenced by Eastern thought from the beginning.
What are the elements that contributed to Heidegger’s novel conception of death, and where did he obtain them from, if anywhere? In the footnotes to H249 in SZ, which outlines the investigation of death, Heidegger encourages the reader to consult Dilthey’s and Simmel’s writings on death, and to “compare especially Karl Jaspers’ Psychologie der Weltanschauungen…especially pp. 259-270…. Jaspers takes as his clue to death the phenomenon of the ‘limit-situation’ as he has set in forth—a phenomenon whose fundamental significance goes beyond any typology of ‘attitudes’ and ‘world-pictures’” (Heidegger, 1962, 495).lxii We are to understand by this that the full import of the “limit-situation” exceeds the bounds of any psychology, and is only properly approached from an existential-ontological perspective, which cannot itself by the subject of a typology and/or conceptual schematization, since it is the ground of all such categorizing. Nevertheless, as Parkes points out, “the concern with totality, an experiential relation to death, and the idea of death’s ‘entering into’ experience figure importantly in the existential conception of death that Heidegger would elaborate in SZ,” and all of these components are contained in the cited passages from Jaspers. Moreover, on page 262 of the same work, Jaspers commences a brief discussion of the Buddhist conception of death, framing it, Parkes observes, as “thoroughly nihilistic and pessimistic—an account apparently influenced by the (rather unreliable) interpretations given by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: ‘Death and transitoriness give rise in the Buddhists to a drive for the eternal reign of the peace of nothingness’” (May, 1996, 265). The Buddhist path, Jaspers claims, is essentially a death cult bent on renunciation, quietism, indifference, and pessimism.
There are two points we should note here: one, Jaspers commits the classic Western fallacy, misinterpreting Buddhistic nothingness in precisely the same way most of Heidegger’s European interpreters would misunderstand his treatment of the Nothing in WIM?; and two, at this early stage, Heidegger was already aware of an Eastern interpretation of death, albeit a misinterpretation, and was at this time engaged in forging his own conception, a conception without precedents in the Western tradition. As Parkes relays, it was precisely the originality of Heidegger’s approach to death and nothingness within the Western tradition that prompted Kyoto School member Tanabe Hajime to attend his 1923 lecture course entitled “Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity,” and pen the first commentary on Heidegger’s work ever published.lxiii “Heidegger,” Parkes reports, “had ample occasion to be impressed by the visitor from Japan, having gladly acceded to his request for private tutorials in German philosophy” at a time when his existential conception of death was still fomenting (May, 1996, 82).lxiv In light of these circumstances, Parkes wagers that since Heidegger had written on Jaspers’ idea of death as a Grenzsituation, and read his discussion of the Buddhist attitude towards death, it is probable that this topic came up in his conversations with Tanabe. And if it did, Tanabe would have explained to him that the attitude toward death of the later (Mahayana) schools of Buddhism [e.g., Zen] is…positive and life-promoting—just as their understanding of nothingness is by no means nihilistic (May, 1996, 85).lxv                                                                         The point here is that this understanding of nothingness, which Heidegger would hint at in SZ via the existential conception of death and sketch more explicitly in WIM? two years later, is found in none of the Western sources from which he drew, but was all but obvious to a Japanese thinker with whom he was in close consort. Ultimately, it is not important whether we regard this as a matter of direct influence or independent congruence, but the similarity cannot be denied.
Heidegger’s discussion of death is similar to the Buddhistic conception of death in several respects; ultimately, however, is it markedly different. Heidegger writes that temptation, tranquilization, and alienation are distinguishing marks of the kind of Being called ‘falling.’ As falling, everyday Being-towards-death is a constant fleeing in the face of death. Being-towards-the-end has the mode of evasion in the face of it—giving explanations for it, understanding it inauthentically, and concealing it (Heidegger, 1962, 298).lxvi             Earlier on in Division I, he defines this “falling” clearly: “Fallenness into the ‘world’ means an absorption in Being-with-one-another, in so far as the latter is guided by idle talk, curiousity, and ambiguity.” The translators are specific: “The idea is rather of falling at the world or collapsing against it” (Heidegger, 1962, 220).lxvii So far, Zen is in basic agreement. The majority of the time humans stumble through life, invest their energies and hopes in objects, and flee from themselves by pretending to be familiar with themselves. Humans become addicted to and entangled with substances, and begin to interpret their sustenance and even salvation exclusively in terms of them. For Buddhism, the basis of all suffering (dukkha), including the fear of death, arises from tanha—from clinging to, investing oneself in, and ultimately identifying with transitory phenomena, with entities in the world. Heidegger’s notions of fallingness, entanglement, and dispersal are nearly identical.
As such, the so-called “Great Death”—the dissolution of the ego—is deferred, and the self contracts, attaches itself to passing phenomena, and opts to die less radical and less painful deaths as all of the entities it clings to pass away. The Zen analogue of falling is ignorance. Out of a perceived lack, humans hustle about trying to attain security, comfort, and stability by hanging onto what they wrongly perceive to be real, persisting, genuine objects. The so-called “cycle of birth-and-death” (samsara), stripped of its mythological connotations of reincarnation, actually means being dependent on both outward objects and the sense of self-separateness, the ego. This is what Zen calls the “co-dependent arising” of phenomena, the self-contraction that immediately generates karma, the chains of causation and patterns of influence that induce suffering. Karma is the Zen analogue of facticity; it refers to the various circumstances into which people are thrown, the “debts” they inherit and the limits by which they are bound. As such, people interpret their death in terms of release from such bondage, that is, they hope to be reborn with a clean slate, purged of all concupiscence. So by identifying with their karma—their feelings of lack, desire, limitation, etc., all of which are erroneously tied up with birth—they create a conception of death, which entails a futural rebirth, etc., ad infinitum.
The way out of samsara is to realize that the cycle is an illusion that is projected when the self objectifies both karma and nirvana, birth and death, bondage and freedom. For Zen, birth and death do not primarily denote physiological events; indeed, these are derivative, in much the same way that Heidegger claims that there are inauthentic, derivative modes of interpreting death or “end”, such as “stopping”, “getting finished”, “perishing”, and “demise” (Heidegger, 1962, 289-292).lxviii As such, Zen agrees with Heidegger that an “existential analysis is superordinate to the questions of a biology, psychology, theodicy, or theology of death,” (Heidegger, 1962, 292) even though it has a very different idea of what properly constitutes an “existential analysis” and a conception of psychology that is very different from the Western one Heidegger is reacting to.lxix For Zen, birth and death are epiphenomenal concepts that are generated by the consolidation of the ego.
Heidegger makes clear that to free oneself for death, to awaken from the dream fabricated by “the They-self” that blinds Dasein to its final possibility and represses it as a possibility, is to gather oneself together from out of one’s dispersion in worldly attachments and to concentrate oneself resolutely in anticipating death. This stance is “anticipatory” only with respect to Heidegger’s notion of “primordial temporality,” not toward death as a future “now” that will eventually “occur.” Heidegger also appears to claim that adopting either an optimistic or a pessimistic attitude toward death are equally repressive, since all of these latter stances fix death as an imminent, actual, forthcoming event-in-the-world, i.e., as something present-at-hand. This squares with Suzuki’s claim that Zen is neither an immanental pessimism nor a transcendental optimism.
All of the inauthentic responses toward death, Heidegger claims, arise from treating death as an object, in which case fear, not anxiety, is the dominant state-of-mind. Fear is in all cases the repression of anxiety. And while each temporal ecstasis always comes together with all of the others, and though all of them are explicitly held together in the “moment of vision” or “authentic present,” Heidegger ascribes a certain primacy to the future: “Ecstatico-horizonal temporality temporalizes itself primarily in terms of the future” (Heidegger, 1962, 479).lxx Just as the inauthentic comportment toward death robs death of its significance and objectifies it, inauthentic temporality, governed by what Heidegger calls a “making-present,” represses the past and the future by treating them merely as receding and forthcoming “nows.” In both cases, Dasein must collect itself from its dispersion and absorption in its proximate concerns. This emphasis on futurity, possibility, and anticipation is what distinguishes Heidegger’s concepts of death and time from the Zen perspective.
Referring to the “within-time-ness” characteristic of inauthentic temporality, Heidegger claims that the “‘now’ is not pregnant with the ‘not-yet-now.’” That is, in falling, we have uprooted ourselves from the “stretching-along” characteristic of authentic temporality; we orient ourselves merely in terms of the present instead of the future, which is to say, we fail to orient ourselves. Speaking from the Buddhist perspective, David Loy asks: “what if there is a ‘now’ which is pregnant with the ‘not-yet-now’?.” He notes that Heidegger rejects the mystical notion of an “eternal now” on the grounds that it is derived from the traditional conception of time and is therefore a mere abstraction. Loy questions whether or not Heidegger’s alternative of authentic temporality is really adequate:
The problem with both of Heidegger’s alternatives is that both are preoccupied with the future because in different ways both are reactions to the possibility of death; thus both are ways of running away from the present. Inauthentic existence scattered into a series of disconnected nows is “a fleeing in the face of death”; authentic life pulled out of this dispersal by the inevitable possibility of death is more aware of its impending death, but still driven by it. This means that neither experiences the present for what it is in itself, but only through the shadow that the inescapable future casts over it. What the present might be without that shadow is not considered in SZ (Loy, 1988, 15).lxxi

Heidegger would likely respond that Loy is simply lapsing back into inauthentic temporality by pointing to what the present is “in itself,” but this simply calls us back to Bodhidharma’s warning: “No dependence on words.” In short: I am suggesting that there are two kinds of “eternal now.” The first, criticized by Heidegger, is a “conceptual” eternity that is opposed to time and is indeed both derived from the ordinary experience of time and driven by death. This we might call “ego-” or “other worldly-” “eternity”; on this point, Buddhism and Heidegger are in complete agreement. The second kind, however, is what we have all along been calling nirvana. When Zen masters say that birth is no-birth, that death is no-death, they are neither kidding nor speaking metaphorically. The radical claim, to be verified only in experience by following the meditative injunction and checking one’s results in a community of the experienced, is that birth and death, that past, present, and future, all dissolve when the ego dissolves. One is no longer afraid of or anxious over death, not because one is resolved, but because one realizes that there is no-thing to be afraid of or over anxious over, and, more importantly, that there isn’t even anyone to be afraid or anxious. Moreover, this entails that the entire dualistic business of finding oneself stuck or thrown into a world with finite possibilities (an imperfect, “this-worldly” samsara), speculating an endless eternity out a feeling of desire/lack (an “other-worldly” heaven) and, finally, violently laboring to transcend the present by resolutely striding into the future, are all the desperate flailings of the ego trying to deny its groundlessness. In this way, we might say that through his treatment of death, fallenness, facticity, and temporality in SZ, Heidegger comes very close to Zen’s radical nonduality, yet draws up short. And though he later recanted the residual metaphysics of subjectivity that he came to believe encumbered SZ, even his later works bears the marks of a residual—though unmistakable—dualism. As John Steffney sums up:
Although Heidegger’s attempt to think from Being, which became evident with his famous ‘turn,’ is admirable—the attempt to think from Being toward Dasein, not from Dasein toward Being—Zen would say that this reversal would have to be further radicalized, for both the attempts to think ‘toward’ Being or ‘toward’ Dasein are equally dualistic (Steffney, 1981, 52).lxxii
III. Heidegger’s Ambivalence
This is why I have suggested throughout that no matter which way Heidegger happens to be turning, leaning, or thinking—toward Being or from Being—and no matter how he is framing his question—the meaning of Being, the nature of thinking, or the nature of language—he is unquestionably in transit, on the go, in between two radically different ways of understanding human existence. Though he clearly had some minimal exposure to Eastern thought even from an early point in his career before the composition of SZ, and probably was, as Pöggeler claims, significantly influenced by it in his later career, I conclude that he remains tethered, albeit tenuously, to Western thinking. In the DL he remarks that the transformation of thinking he envisions is to be understood as a movement from one site—that of metaphysics—to another—which, obviously, is left nameless. Heidegger is perpetually adventuring in the wasteland between these two “poles”; as Steffney puts its, “because he could not break—entirely—through the matrix of ego-consciousness with its inherent bifurcations, his thinking was never genuinely trans-metaphysical. It was at best quasi-metaphysical” (Steffney, 1977, 352).lxxiii
While there are indications that he regarded the positive task of a dialogue between Western and Eastern thought—“planetary thinking”–as important and essential for the future, it appears that he was more concerned with the negative task of clearing away the calcified vestiges of metaphysics still enclosing the Western mind. One could even argue that they are two folds of the same task. In 1953, Heidegger wrote that “a dialogue with the Greek thinkers and their language…has hardly even been prepared yet, and remains in turn the precondition for our inevitable dialogue with the East Asian world” (Quoted in May, 1996, 103).lxxiv Clearly, Heidegger wanted to make absolutely sure that such a dialogue would, as it were, not get off on the wrong foot.
In closing, I suggest three basic criticisms of Heidegger’s overall approach: Heidegger reifies “the West,” he neglects to provide an account of human development, and he refuses to prescribe any practices to cultivate the primordial experience of Being he clearly felt Western culture to be so desperately in need of. The first can be traced to comments made in the famous Der Spiegel interview of 1966, in which Heidegger proclaimed that “a reversal can be prepared itself only from the same part of the world in which the modern technological world originated, and that it cannot come about through the adoption of Zen Buddhism or any other Eastern experience of the world…. Thinking itself can only be transformed by a thinking which has the same origin and destiny” (Quoted in May, 1996, 8).lxxv In light of my discussion of the language barrier and planetary thinking above, it is unclear precisely why this “origin” is properly framed as ancient Greece, rather than “the same” from which language springs. By drawing this line in the sand, Heidegger sets up a rigid distinction between East and West that echoes throughout his later works. Zimmerman sums up this phenomenon:
In making such a distinction between East and West, Heidegger not only tended to downplay the impact of Eastern thinking on the German philosophical tradition, but also seemed to be thinking metaphysically in accordance with a binary opposition between ‘East’ and ‘West,’ an opposition that seems to privelige the West as the origin of the technological disclosure of things that now pervades the planet (Zimmerman, 1993, 251).lxxvi                                                                           In short, Heidegger treats “the West” as something present-at-hand. However, Heidegger makes explicitly clear in the DL that he is not envisioning some sort of return to Greek thinking. It remains to be seen, then, in what sense we should approach his thinking as “Western.”
Zimmerman continues: “in calling for another beginning that would displace the Western metaphysical quest for the ultimate ground of things, Heidegger questioned the validity of the West’s claims to cultural superiority” (Zimmerman, 1993, 251).lxxvii True enough, yet the deeper question is about superiority per se, which we might generally construe as the problem of “verticality”—of hierarchy, ranking, and teleology. Caputo’s poststructuralist reading of Heidegger wants to level the ontological playing field. Referring to Heidegger’s colorful ruminations on the destining of the West in ancient Greece, Caputo writes that there is a dream-like, indeed I would say Camelot-like quality…to this discourse…. when [Heidegger] talks about the transition to the end of philosophy to the ‘new beginning,’ then he gives way to the hope which is the other side of nostalgia. Thinking becomes recollecting and aspiring; time is a circle in which what comes about in the primordial beginning traces out the possibility of what can come again. Such thinking is nostalgic, eschatological, a higher-order, more sublated version of metaphysics.” “Derrida was quite right, I think, to delimit Heidegger’s talk about ‘authenticity.’ It is Platonic and politically dangerous to go around dividing people up into the authentic and inauthentic (Caputo, 1986, xxii-iv ).lxxviii                                                                                                                        Zen agrees with the first criticism, but not with the second. Though I quoted Suzuki above as saying that Zen is a “non-teleological view of life,” this is not to say that it does not recognize degrees of spiritual development. Suzuki writes that it is impossible not to speak of some kind of progress. Even Zen as something possible of demonstration in one way or another must be subjected to the limitations of time. That is to say, there are, after all, grades of development in its study; and some must be said to have more deeply, more penetratingly realized the truth of Zen…. This side of Zen is known as its ‘constructive’ aspect…. And here Zen fully recognizes degrees of spiritual development among its followers, as the truth reveals itself gradually in their minds… (Barrett, 1956, 364)lxxix lxxix                                                   There is no “phallo-centrism” or “patriarchy” at work here, imposing some arbitrary standard or telos on an unsuspecting multitude; no vicious dichotomizing of people into authentic and inauthentic; no nasty elitism. On this matter, Zen is in complete disagreement with this de-mythologized version of Heidegger and the postmodern tradition that follows it. Heidegger fails to offer any account of human development because of his insistence in SZ that the existentiales are “permanent”—i.e., facticity, untruth, inauthenticity, “the They”, etc., cannot be overcome. Since the existential categories smack of the same metaphysical foundationalism of, say, Aristotelian teleology, Heidegger abandoned the discourse of authenticity and existentiality, which is to say, he abandoned structures, period. Yet Zen allows that we cannot help but acknowledge what I would term “fluid” structures of the selflxxx—referred to variously as karmas, yanas, skandas, sheaths, etc.—which certainly do coagulate and linger, yet which may ultimately be undone. And the more a person has sloughed off these inauthentic trappings, the more evolved, the more mature, the more developed he or she is said to be. This judgment, moreover, is made by a community of practitioners who have already, as it were, walked the path. Only in this very qualified sense are individuals deemed authentic or enlightened. Ultimately, for Zen, all humans possess buddhanature, yet they can fail to realize it, and it is this ignorance that creates the illusion of ignorant and enlightened.lxxxi
This relates directly to Heidegger’s ambivalent relationship toward rationality and modernity. For example, near the outset of SZ, Heidegger repeatedly refers to Dasein’s pre-conceptual understanding of Being, the basic, average, everyday way in which people go about their business and pursue their worldly engagements within a background called the world which they rarely attend to yet tacitly assume in all of their dealings. That is, they either never stop to thematize Being, it never arises as an issue, or they actively repress its emergence, yet they would be unable to even be engaged in the world without some dim, pre-thematic grasp of Being. In the final paragraph of the treatise, however, Heidegger remarks that “Being has been disclosed in a preliminary way, though non-conceptually” (Heidegger, 1962, 488).lxxxii While both the former and latter modes of disclosing Being are non-conceptual, there is a substantial difference. The pre-conceptual is thoroughly in the sway of the ontic and entangled with phenomena, while the latter has conceptually reckoned with its own existence and realized the poverty of both the average everyday (pre-conceptual) and the rational-scientific (conceptual) comportments and been propelled to interpret its own being, and Being itself, in an entirely different yet still non-conceptual nature, that is, trans-conceptual. Richardson’s attempt to thin this thicket does not lend much light: “Taken in its totality, Dasein is not a subject, but it is a self—a non-subjective, rather trans-subjective, or even pre-subjective self, sc. transcendence” (Richardson, 2003, 101).lxxxiii We are thus forced into speaking of Dasein as the “between,” yet this dialogical cipher still moves within a notion of duality.
The attempt to get back to Being—to re-awaken to the forgotten meaning of Being, re-peat a heritage, re-tap some dormant reservoirs, to return to the roots and origins—that inheres in Heidegger’s early and late work lends itself to the idea that the modern world, and the mode of cognition by which it was constituted, namely, monological reason or calculative thinking, is a great mistake, a collective entanglement with entities in the world, and that we should therefore seek to regress to some sort of pre-modern, pre-rational form of society. While there are a plethora of passages in both SZ and in later works such as the DL which contradict this Romantic, mythological reading of Heidegger, it is necessary not to overlook this very real ambivalence in his thought. This ambivalence, I think, derives from Heidegger’s failure to differentiate the non-conceptual, the non-rational, the non-discursive, into its pre- and trans- modes. Michael Zimmerman, appropriating Ken Wilber’s “pre-/trans- fallacy,” notes that one must first be an ordinary egoic subject before existing authentically as the transpersonal clearing, within which something like ‘personhood’ can manifest itself. In other words, before one can become ‘no one,’ one must first be ‘some one.’ Recognizing the constructed nature of the egoic subject is possible only insofar as such a subject has been constructed in the first place (Zimmerman, 2000, 140).lxxxiv                                                                                                                  Put differently: it is one thing to have mastered reason, experienced its inherent limitations and empty claims to totality and self-consistency, and transcended it, what Heidegger calls meditative thinking, or thinking from Being; quite another to have never bent oneself to its rule. The former is trans-conceptual thinking, the latter is pre-conceptual.
The relevance of this strain in Heidegger’s thought to Zen is crucial. Zen readily admits the bankruptcy of reason’s attempts to calculate existence and treat entities as, in Kant’s terminology, transcendentally real, or in Heidegger’s parlance, as present-at-hand, yet this emptiness of phenomena is at once the emptiness of the ego. There is, for Zen, quite literally a world of difference between the pre-egoic—which is a jumble of drives, perceptions, and intentional comportments that have not yet congealed into a relatively stable self—and the trans-egoic—which, after attaining the sense of personal identity and assuming the notion of a soul substance persisting over time, confronts its own nothingness and transcends the illusion of a separate self. The space between is the very same rational-ego whose ignorance about its own being is deconstructed in SZ. However, Zen goes further than Heidegger in denying what duality lingers in the subjectivist metaphysics of his early work and the ontological difference of the later works through the doctrine of an-atman (no-self).
The key difference is that Zen has an attendant set of psychophysical practices that train the mind.lxxxv This is a training regimen that has successfully been passed down for centuries. It has taken root and flourished in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and American cultures. The nature of mind—“no-mind”—is directly communicated from teacher to student. The sangha is the intersubjective space in which this exchange takes place. The key here is that the process does not consist in the dogmatic imposition of a set of allegedly eternal truths, i.e., facts about the world, which belong to the domain of the mythos and the logos, apprehended through faith or reason. The individual is not asked to uncritically swallow the assertions of “the They,” but is instead invited to perform the experiment, to test his findings in a community of the adequate, and to confirm/refute those findings based on his own empirical research. Heidegger resists signing off on any such set of practices, because they seem to suggest a calculative, scientific, and technological kind of thinking that does violence to and covers up the mystery of Being, that commercializes and thus de-sacralizes a secret: “the program of mathematics and the experiment are grounded in the relation of man as ego to the thing as object” (Heidegger, 1966, 79).lxxxvi However, the truth of Zen is something to be experientially verified in the laboratory of one’s own awareness by performing the experiment called meditation. This is why Suzuki described Zen as a “radical empiricism” (Barrett, 1956, 140).lxxxvii
The overblown tendency to destabilize, unsettle, and disturb which permeates Heidegger’s work as a whole makes it all but impossible for any such healthy institutional incarnation or individual transformation to occur. This deconstructive tendency is so bent on the negative tasks of inverting stodgy hierarchies, delimiting conceptual binaries, liberating excluded middles and drilling holes through master narratives that it never constructs anything. It is hard enough handing “no-thingness” down, and harder still when one refuses to prescribe any methods by which to transmit it or to consider the legitimacy of “foreign” methods. Such is the world of difference between handing down no-thingness and passing on nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Endnotes