Zen Buddhism and Existential Phenomenology (Pt. I)

From: joedees@bellsouth.net
Date: Sun 24 Nov 2002 - 20:54:36 GMT

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    Zen Buddhism and Existential Phenomenology: The Dancer and the Dance

    by Joe Dees

    There can be little disagreement that existential phenomenology and Zen Buddhism have been within the past three- quarter century two of the greatest infuences upon the developmental trends of contemporary thought. The "way" of Zen and of EP
    (these abbreviations shall hereafter be used), and in some cases of both, arereadily apparent within the works of many of the recent seminal thinkers in art, whilosophy, religious studies, sociology, psychology, poetry and prose literature. We are here concerned with delineating congruities within these two influences which may perhaps form the grounds of their common popularity; we shall listen to their respective songs and strive to hear the mutual harmonies with which they have so effectively resonated within our times, ourselves, our (progressively blending) societies, and our shared world. We shall consider them in relation to time, self, society, world, perception, language and metaphysics. First, however, we wish to show some historical and general similarities between them. Zen and EP are both syntheses of two formerly independent philosophical trends. The two trends synthecized within Zen are Taoism and Buddhism; the two synthecized within EP are, of course, phenomenology and existentialism. The two syntheses share an aversion to closed systems; Zen's first principle is the primordial inexpressibility of the all-encompassing, and EP refuses to be statically defined, although it is grounded in Being-in-the-World. Since the first principle of Zen is a totality (reminiscent of the Tao) in Zen, it can be seen that these are basically two ways of saying the same thing. They also, according to some adherents, consider themselves in the same terms as disciplines. D.T. Suzuki describes Zen as
    "radical empiricism"; William James, a strong influence upon Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, gave his method the exact same label.


    For EP, the meaning of the Being-in the-World (or Dasein) is temporality; "it's" meaning is evolved within, stretched along, and perdures through time. Since Dasein is primordially temporal
    (within time), Dasein self-conceives finitude. This is because eternity would of necessity be equivalent to the absence of time - it's correlative opposite absolute - because time needs to be relativistically compared with itself to possess a meaning. This meaning is relative to the Dasein (lived time). This comparison may be seen as a juxtaposition of moments, but this is to erroneously spatialize time; time is actually continuous in that time and its beholders flow through and correlate each other spatiotemporally. The present 'as such" could be a victim of infinite regress into infinitesimality, nut lived time is the interpenetration of past and future: a moving consciousness-node. At the same time (excuse the pun), the temporality we live is "all the time in the world" for us, for before birth and after death the Dasein is not in the world and thus cannot apprehend its primordial temporality through and by means of it. In this sense, each life is a personal eternity. Each moment is now, each now is different from the previous
    "now" moment, yet arises from it and is connected with it via relevance and similarity, and all the nows are a flowing totality through which the Dasein *becomes* (more on that word later) rather than providing a static cage for inert being. Zen poetically expresses these same themes within two concepts; The Eternal Now (Nirvana) and the Wheel of Becoming
    (Samsara). When one becomes enlightened (the experiences of Satori and Samadhi), Nirvana and Samsara and seen to be one and the same. There is no need in Zen to trivialize this understanding by lengthy commentary; the enlightened one intuitively grasps the phenomenal common ground underlying the disparate conceptual exegeses of it.


    For both EP and Zen, the self as *essence* does not exist. Essence is in-itself, and both the existential phenomenologist and the Zen acolyte refuse to grant the self an existence independent of the world. This refusal is expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous dictum, "Existence precedes essence", which itself may be derived from Martin Heidegger's exposition of Dasein as "in each case mine", and as lying "in its existence". Since freedom is a result of temporality and choice, it is the ability to change in time according to intention. Thus not only is essence particular (a contradiction demonstrating an absence, since an essence is a universal), but since essences are changeless, a human essence can only appear after further change is impossible (that is, after death). Therefore, the essence of Dasein is established only after its historicity is entirely consigned to the past, or, as G.W.F. Hegel says, "essence is what has been". We create our meaning through interaction with the world; thus, only when we are finished living can our meaning be complete. This evolution of human meaning through time is known as becoming. Hui-Neng also expressed this understanding within his Shen- Hsiu refuting gatha, an insight that crystallized into the central Zen tenet Wu-Hsin, the Zen Doctrine of No-Mind. Wu-Hsin has an important corollary, namely, Sunyata (Void or Emptiness), or No- World. This may be interpreted as an original lack of meaning. Neither the world nor the mind has meaning apart from each other; only within their interpenetration is Suchness (Tathata) revealed. Thius Tathata is itself Sunyata, for Suchness is seen to be Empty of intrinsic meaning or essence apart from its intentional apprehension and the meaning- giving
    (Sinngebung) function of consciousness-of. EP also sees the world (before our imposition of meaning upon it) as brute facticity, and devoid of extrahuman meaning. The Dasein and the Lebenswelt (lived world) are correlatives; each is necessary to imbue the other with meaning, for one furnishes the Being, and the other furnishes the perspective relative to that Being which constitutes Meaning. The Dasein is still part of the world whose meaning(s)(s)he creates, and that thus contemplates itself in a part-beholding-the- whole fashion. Why fight the creation of meaning (netural to the correlation as it is) by polishing the nonexistent mirror of the original face?


    EP has never been called a quietism - in fact, it has been criticized for being too loud. However, the idea still persists that Zen is a quietism, in spite of the apparent contradiction of this statement with the facticity of Zen's influence). The activity of Wu-Hsin is designed to not allow the vicious circle of contradictory concepts to preoccupy one's mind and interfere with the actualization of one's projects in the world. There is, however, an important difference. Whereas the spirit of existentialism, the prescriptive counterpart of the descriptive phenomenology, is basically seen as a rebellion against social injustices, Zen's world-view is biased towards the promotion of social cohesion. Both stances are useful, and an accentuate-the-positive- eliminate-the-negative synthesis suggests itself as the employment of complementary means to a common end (a just and peaceful world).


    In EP intersubjectivity is the yardstick of "objectivity" (in quotes because of the impossibility of apprehending any object from all perspectives and because the object as an ideal independent of the subject is a falsely dualist conception). Not to realize that the world is shared and that the foundations of one's own created meaning rest firmly on the ground of the empirical world is not to understand the essence of meaning as a correlative (with the primordial character of
    'aboutness'). Meaning, like the freedom which makes it possible, must be measured against its referential field, the lived world of nature and society. Mitdasein (being-with) is for Martin Heidegger a lived reality, as is Dasein's manner of Being-in-the-World, Care. Zen also perceives the valuelessness of solitary existence
    (which is existentially inauthentic), and insists upon interaction with both nature and society as necessary for self-actualization. This is a rejection of passive self-thought. Quietism interferes apprehension and enlightenment; this is why Boddhisatvas reject trancendence in favor of engagement. Within EP, existence is a symbiotic enterprise simply because to express there must be others to whom one's expression is directed - expression od the existent self is directed towards the other. Within both Zen and EP, social interaction is the meaningful choice.

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