Buddhism and the phenomenological movement

Even though there are relatively few direct textual references to Buddhist and Asian philosophy in his publications, there are additional indications of Husserl’s interests in Eastern philosophy in other sources. There are also early comparisons between the phenomenological method of epoche (reduction) and the Buddhist meditative disclosures of the conditions and constituents of experience and consciousness. An early example from 1921 of the latter occurs in an article by the Polish Indologist and philosopher Stanislaw Shayer (1899-1941), the first director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Warsaw, on the Mahayana teaching of liberation. He described epoche (bracketing) as the method of the Buddha in reducing positive knowledge to its minimum and the fundamental tendency of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhist epoche is more radical, as a critique of the obscuring conditions of consciousness aimed at redemption (releasement and emancipation), than the transcendental philosophies of Kant and Husserl that intend to elucidate the genesis and conditions of consciousness for the sake of a foundational grounding of knowledge.47

A decade later Dorion Cairns (1901-1973) observed the interest in Indian philosophy of both Husserl and his assistant Eugen Fink (1905-1975) in his record of their conversations.48 Fink was Husserl’s research assistant from 1928 until 1938. Cairns worked with Husserl and Fink in Freiburg during the years

1924-1926 and 1931-1932. He subsequently became an early advocate and translator of Husserl’s works in the United States.

Cairns remarked in his Conversations with Husserl and Fink that Fink claimed: “the various phases of Buddhist self-discipline were essentially phases of phenomenological reduction"49 Fink noted he reports the affinities between Husserl’s phenomenology and Buddhist philosophy. Fink’s recognition of the transcendental dimension of Buddhist self-analysis is more in accord with Husserl’s statements in the 1925 review than the 1926 “Socrates-Buddha” in which Husserl identifies Buddhism with a higher form of the natural attitude.50 Just as the reduction gradually elucidated the structures of experience, so Buddhist meditation revealed the aggregations that condition experience. Both point toward and structurally analyze the role of the perceiver (the “I”) and consciousness in constituting a sense of the world, revealing intentionality and interdependence (dependent origination; Skt. pratityasamutpdda) as its basic conditions. In these remarks, it is clear that the intentionality disclosed in the reductions is not merely subjective; it reveals the correlational character of consciousness and world.

On the one hand, the practice of the phenomenological method appears to have strong affinities with meditative practices that suspend or bracket the ordinary interests of the mundane world of the “natural attitude” to immanently describe, articulate, and analyze the—transcendental or quasi-transcendental— preconditions and structures of experience, consciousness, and the self or nonself. On the other hand, the framework and goals of Husserlian and Buddhist phenomenologies are radically divergent. Husserl aimed at achieving the traditional Western philosophical idea of a rational grounding of the sciences on the basis of a conception of philosophy as a rigorous science, the science of sciences, or “first philosophy.” Given this particular overly narrow conception of philosophy, Husserl can define philosophy as characteristic of the Western tradition from the Greek Pre-Socratics through the emergence of the new sciences with Galileo and Descartes to his own time. The narrowness of his conception of philosophy did not permit him to recognize genuine philosophy among the Indians and Chinese, as will be examined later in the chapter.

Fink elucidated Buddhism at a number of points in his own works in a way that goes beyond the limits of his mentor. He was particularly interested in the encounter with suffering and the correlated concept of samsdra in Buddhism, addressing Nietzsche’s portrait of Buddhism and Christianity as “religions of the suffering, the sick and the weak.”51 According to Fink, the Buddha’s encounter with the poverty, sickness, and death of others surpassed Prince Siddhartha’s intentions, compelling him to pursue the path or redemption and awakening.52 Such encounters with suffering and accordingly the “nothing” in the midst of life, Fink noted, are not contingent or merely ontic experiences; they disclose a more primordial reality as well as the deep philosophical sensibility contained within Buddhism.53

Fink argued that Buddhism does not treat the nothing merely negatively, as merely derivative ofbeing or as a negation as will be discussed in detail in Chapter 8 in relation to Heidegger’s elucidation of the nothing, but as a fundamental “principle” of being.54 Fink thereby challenged the dominant Schopenhauerian and pessimist elucidation of Buddhism that dominated its German reception.55 It is this nexus of issues that concern Fink and motivate his reflections concerning the phenomenological reduction and Buddhist notions such as “nothingness” (the historically characteristic European way of [mis-]interpreting emptiness or sunyata), suffering, and the structure of worldly existence as samsara.56

Fink’s focus on the phenomenon of suffering in Buddhism as the disclosure of an ontological condition has a source in Max Schelers understanding of Buddhism in his 1916 essay “The Meaning of Suffering” (“Vom Sinn des Leidens”). Scheler denies the idea, maintained in previous Western interpretations, that Buddhism is a form of pessimistic resignation and negation of the world. Buddhism has a far different imperative then that seen in Schopenhauer. Scheler describes Buddhism in this text, in which he praises Neumann’s translation, as a profound philosophical meditation and practical instruction on pain and suffering, elucidating its essence and origins, and as the highest exemplar of a definitive ideal comportment toward the reality of suffering.57 Meditative techniques of encountering pain and suffering are not systematically established in Christianity as they are in yogic and Buddhist practices. Scheler’s late works would no doubt not be what they were without the stimulus of his interpretation of Buddhist sources. At the same time, Scheler stressed the unique transcending power visible, on his reading, in the Christian unity of the horror of suffering and active responsive love toward the sufferer—manifested in the passion/ redemption of Christ—in contrast to what he judged to be the impersonal, passive, and less emotive compassion and sympathy articulated in Buddhism.58

The few references to Buddhism in Heidegger’s writings mostly have a negative sense in contrast with his appreciation and creative employment of Daoism. These references mostly occur in the 1930s and appear to adopt Nietzsche’s negative understanding of Buddhism as passive nihilism. Heidegger in one of his central works unpublished during his lifetime, Contributions to Philosophy (Of Event) written between 1936 and 1938, remarked that his philosophical project cannot be identified with Buddhism. It is not a nearing to being (Sein) that overcomes our attachment to and prioritizing ofbeings (Seiende):

The less that humans are beings, the less that they adhere obstinately to the beings they find themselves to be, all the nearer do they come to being (Sein). (Not a Buddhism! The opposite!). Beings in their emergence to themselves (ancient Greece); caused by a highest instance of their essence (Middle Ages); things present at hand as objects (modern era).59

Heidegger’s thinking as made clear in this passage and throughout his oeuvre concerns a uniquely Western decision and destiny of being.

But why is the movement from beings to being, a transition away from metaphysics to the thinking of being, the opposite of Buddhism? There is a significant clue in the circumstance that most of these references to the Buddha and Buddhism occur in the context of his account of Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s association of Buddhism with the negativity of nihilism.60 This attitude contrasts with Heidegger’s adaptation of a Daoist notion of nothingness and emptiness that is already discernible in “What is Metaphysics?” in 1928.

Heidegger’s unreceptive references to Buddhism might appear surprising given his more positive appropriation of Daoism and his later remarks that praise Buddhism as a traditional form of life in a conversation with the Thai monk Bhikkhu Maha Mani in fall 1963 and Buddhists such as Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), famously stating after reading his book that he and Suzuki were endeavoring to say the same thing.61 Heidegger’s stance toward Asia and Asian philosophy is inconsistent, as argued in other chapters of this work. Heidegger’s relation with Zen Buddhism, including his odd anxiety—expressed in the Spiegel Interview conducted in 1966—of a Zen Buddhist or other Eastern philosophical “adoption” or “take over” (Ubernahme) of the West, will be examined further in Chapter 7.62 A passage from an earlier work helps clarify what Heidegger meant here. Heidegger posed the question in the post-Second World War Bremen and Freiburg Lectures whether the guest of nihilism is from the East or the West. He answered that both have opened the door for it and are incapable of responding to it.63 That is to say, no adaptation or take-over from the East can remove this “uncanny guest” and answer the crisis of nihilism, and the danger of “European Buddhism,” diagnosed by Nietzsche in the previous century, namely that “the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why’ finds no answer.”64 The hesitations of Husserl and Heidegger have not prevented the emergence of a fruitful dialogue between phenomenology and Asian philosophies. The interpretive encounter between phenomenology and Buddhist and Indian philosophy has been a productive one in intercultural and comparative philosophy. There have been a number of significant works after Husserl examining the affinities between Husserl’s phenomenology and Buddhist and Indian philosophy.65 The diverse and fecund intercultural engagement between Western and Eastern philosophy is also visible to a certain extent with comparative and intercultural philosophical research adopting the thoughtful engagement between Heidegger and Buddhism. While Husserl frequently appears to be the preferred partner of dialogue with South Asian Buddhism, Heidegger often has this role with East Asian Buddhism, including the thinkers of the Kyoto School (Kyoto-gakuha ~ЖШ^Ш).66 In many instances from “East” and “West,” recent and contemporary approaches to Buddhism as phenomenology have overcome the constraints and Eurocentric tendencies of the primary figures of classical phenomenology. Such exclusivist tendencies do not center on the phenomenological dimension of the thinking of Husserl and Heidegger. But they are evident in the non-phenomenological elements of their thought; in particular, in their philosophies of history with their strong conceptions of a closed or autonomous immanent development of Western philosophy as the teleological history of reason (Husserl) or the metaphysical history of the concealment/unconcealment of being (Heidegger) from ancient Greece to Western modernity.

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