Mar 282012

Heidegger, of all the Existentialist philosophers, stands apart in his philosophy of Being, which turns out to be the Western Mind’s analogue of the Eastern Mind’s Zen. Zen is the practice of, or experience of, or awareness of, Heidegger’s Being. Like Zen, it is difficult to think of or state what Being is. For one, Being is not itself a being, yet it is the source of all beings.

Likewise, Merton says of Zen:

“One might say that Zen is the ontological awareness of pure being beyond subject and object, an immediate grasp of being in its ‘suchness’ and ‘thusness.'”

“Zen awareness is not our awareness, but Being’s awareness of itself in us. A recognition that the whole world is aware of itself in me.”

Two anecdotes come to mind, which I will share here:

The disciple asks: What then is it [i.e., no-thought]?

The master replies: It is nothing like “what is.” Therefore, we can not explain “no-thought.” The reason why I am speaking about it now is because you have asked about it. If you hadn’t asked about it, there would be no need to explain it.

The other one, more widely known goes like this:

“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish. “You are older than I, so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the ocean?”

“The ocean,” said the elder fish, “is the thing you are in now.”

“Oh this? But this is just water. What I am seeking is the ocean,” said the disappointed fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.

The point of these parables is that it is the seeking itself that causes one to be lost. The lesson is to stop searching, for there is nothing to look for. All you need to do is look.

When Heidegger sets out on his ambitious task of what we might now refer to as “finding the ocean,” he both recognizes and ignores the basic Zen lesson we have just outlined.

“Being,” Heidegger says, “cannot be thought. It is pre-conceptual, non-propositional, and hence pre-scientific.” This description fits Zen perfectly.

Being, existence, he says, is not a real predicate. It cannot be added to the concept of a thing. Try it: think of a thing; now think of that thing as existing. You have added nothing. Existence is not predicable.

Likewise, Zen masters refuse to say what Zen is, because in the very moment you would be able to pin it down as such – that is the precise moment when you would lose it. Thus with Zen as well as with Heidegger’s Being, we are attempting to speak of that which cannot be spoken, to think what cannot be thought. And this is the first lesson of the Zen masters, with the practice of the koan. The koan is not a riddle, but a mystery. Riddles can be solved, but a true mystery is beyond (rational) solution.

As Parminides says, “the real is rational and the rational is real.” Which is to say that the set we refer to when we refer to the real is the set bounded by reason. Mysteries differ from riddles in that mysteries, unlike riddles, are not part of this set.

The positivists assert that the set of the real (as defined by the confines of reason) is all there is: that which language itself constructs. But the mystic’s experience is simply the direct experience of the mystery of that which is beyond reason, beyond the rational, beyond language, beyond thought. That is the meaning of Zen’s question: what face did you have before you were born? Heidegger provides the answer for the Western Mind: the face of Being.

And yet, following on the heels of Hegel and his Great Logical System of Systems, Heidegger cannot resist the urge of his Western Mind to formally systematize and logically construct a framework for thinking about that which “cannot be thought” and talking about that which “is not predicable.” In fact, Heidegger says, “our aim in the following treatise is to work out the question of the sense of being and to do so concretely.”

Zen takes a different approach, and remains eternally resistant to any doctrine, philosophy, or system of thought.


What, exactly, is Zen? If we read the laconic and sometimes violent stories of the Zen Masters , we find that this is a dangerously loaded question: dangerous above all because the Zen tradition absolutely refuses to tolerate any abstract or theoretical answer to it. … Zen simply does not lend itself to logical analysis.

Many of the Zen stories , which are almost always incomprehensible in rational terms, are simply the ringing of an alarm clock, and the reaction of the sleeper. Usually, the misguided sleeper makes a response which in effect turns off the alarm so that he can go back to sleep. Sometimes he jumps out of bed with a shout of astonishment that it is so late. Sometimes he just sleeps and does not hear the alarm at all!

In so far as the disciple takes the alarm to be a sign of something else, he is misled by it. The Master may (by means of some other fact) try to make him aware of this. Often it is precisely at the point where the disciple realizes himself to be utterly misled that he also realized everything else along with it: chiefly, of course, that there was nothing to realize in the first place except the fact. What fact? If you know the answer you are awake. You hear the alarm! {I will add to this to think of the fish parable here.}

But we in the West, living in a tradition  of stubborn egocentric practicality and geared entirely for the use and manipulation of everything, always pass from one thing to another, from cause to effect,  from the first to the next, and to the last and back to the first. Everything always points to something else, and hence we never stop anywhere because we cannot. … Nothing is allowed just to be and to mean itself: everything has to mysteriously signify something else. Zen is especially designed to frustrate the mind that thinks in such terms. The Zen “fact,” whatever it may be, always lands across our road like a fallen tree beyond which we cannot pass.

Wu: The No-Thing of Zen

The strength of Zen is that above all else, it insists on the doctrine of “no-thought and no-image.”  In the West, this “wu” is translated as no-thing. But this word comes with baggage and has to be re-imagined. The wu, or no-thing of Zen, simply refers or denotes or points to something beyond “an either-or logical understanding or an affirmation-negation linguistic expression.”

Upon hearing the phrase, “no-thought and no-image,” one may wonder if there could be such a thing. To properly respond to this question, Zen thinks it important to determine whether it is posed with a practical concern or a theoretical concern in mind. The difference allows a Zen master to determine the ground out of which this question is raised, for example, to determine if the inquirer is anchored in the everyday standpoint or in a meditational standpoint. In the case of the former, for instance, Zen would respond by saying that as long as the inquirer poses this question from within the everyday standpoint with a theoretical interest, relying on Aristotelian either-or logic, the inquirer cannot understand the meaning of “no-thought and no-image,” as intended by Zen. This is because to formulate the question, “Is there or is there not no-thought and no-image?” linguistically drives the inquiry into a contradiction, for one cannot predicate “is” on “no-thought.”

This is exactly what Heidegger is saying about Being: that it is “not predicable,” and “cannot be thought.”

Thus, Zen teaches that the True Self is no-thing; I am nothing. Which means that my True Self rests in a transcendence of being and non-being. This is exactly what Heidegger had in mind.

All of this is perfectly in line with Christian concepts…

(more coming…)

 Posted by at 7:02 pm

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