A Zen ethos of encounter and dialogue

Buber posed the question of the I/thou to Zen Buddhism and Japanese philosophers who, relying on their engagement with Zen Buddhist and Western philosophical sources, attempted to respond to this question in their own language without being familiar with Buber’s interpretation of Zen Buddhism. The Zen understanding of the I and thou is insufficient in Buber’s interpretation in Hasidism. The question of the I/thou is not only posed within Western philosophy. It takes on its own forms in East Asian philosophies such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Chan/Zen Buddhism.

The I-thou question was explicitly posed and addressed by philosophers associated with the Kyoto school. Nishida Kitaro ЩШШ^Щ (1870-1945) published his essay “I and Thou” (“Watashi to nanji” fA^^) in 1932.56 Nishidas use of I and thou was probably inspired by German theology rather than directly by Buber, whose work was first discussed in Japan in the mid- 1930s. Nishitani’s essay “The I-Thou Relation in Zen Buddhism” explicitly refers to both Buber and Nishida’s interpretations of the I-thou dynamic. He describes the profoundly dialogical character of the Zen koan (^^, Ch. gong’an), highlighting the role of humor and laughter in them in a way that Buber might have appreciated. Nishitani depicts here how the question of the I/thou encounter must be interpreted immanently from its own perspective, as it “cannot be answered at a distance, from somewhere outside the encounter itself. Nor can it be answered with the tools of biology, anthropology, sociology, or ethics, which cannot fathom its depth dimension.”57 He concludes that Buber’s approach to the I and thou “has its own validity”; yet is insufficient. Buber’s account, he continues, “is far from exhausting the hidden depths of the person-to-person, I-and-Thou, relationship. Where it stops is the very point at which Zen exploration begins.”58

How then is Buber’s interpretation of the I and thou, and the dialogical character of Zen Buddhism articulated by Nishitani, insufficient? Buber’s willingness to learn from Zen and engage in conversation and argumentation with it is hermeneutically and interculturally suggestive. Buber fails to adequately consider the transformative and ethical moments operative in Zen Buddhism and the Zen ethos of encounter and dialogical exchange.59 The concluding sections of this chapter will outline a response to the Western philosophical marginalization of Zen Buddhism based on traditional East Asian Zen sources and the modern Japanese Kyoto school, who explicitly posed and addressed questions of the ethics of the I and thou in Zen, in the context of the suspicions expressed by Buber and others in order to consider the reality and possibility of a dialogical Zen Buddhist ethics.

A number of contemporary authors, such as Christopher Ives and Simon P. James, have argued that Zen ethics is best described as a variety of virtue-ethics that accentuates cultivating specific perfections (paramita), characteristics or virtues such as wisdom and compassion, and one’s character as a whole.60 The virtue-ethical paradigm does not adequately clarify the specificity and dialogical character of Zen ethics, as it focuses on the self and its virtues and does not recognize that the Zen ethos is a relational and other-oriented disposition in which perfections and virtues are not cultivated and realized for the sake of the self but rather in loving kindness, compassion, and generosity toward sentient beings in general as well as nature as an interconnected dialogical whole.

While classical Aristotelian virtue ethics focuses on the moral self-cultivation and the mastery of the aristocratic citizen and householder, various forms of Buddhism emphasize an ethical bio-spiritual cultivation that transcends the self, its mastery, and its socially defined virtues in a condition of homelessness and openness that allows for encountering and responding to beings. The aretaic virtue model is accordingly inappropriate for Zen Buddhist ethics insofar as (1) moral practices and virtues are constitutively necessary for but do not exhaust the walking of the path; (2) habits, customs, and traditions can motivate but are neither the goal nor a final court of ethical appeal and judgment; (3) aretaic ethics is arguably complicit with inter-human social domination and the human domination of nature; and (4) Zen ethics can be more appropriately characterized as a relational dialogical “ethics of encounter” between beings that prioritizes the care of the other over the care of the self in loving-kindness, compassion, and generosity.

An alternative way of interpreting Zen ethics is necessary, one that departs and corrects the accounts of Buber and Buddhist virtue ethics; that is, an interpretation of its ethics that is more deeply rooted in the dialogical ethical implications of “encounter” in the Chan and Zen Buddhist transmission. Of particular significance are (1) the “encounter dialogues” between persons and (2) encounters with natural phenomena such as animals and landscapes.

A Zen ethos of nourishing sentient beings and “nature” as a whole is constituted in being experientially exposed to and encountering others, things, and oneself. Given the continuing prevalence of views and practices reducing the natural world to an indifferent background for human activity and selfrealization or natural phenomena to instrumental objects of exploitation defined exclusively according to human desires and projects, there is a definite salience in being reminded that there can be more to life than human desires and projects as well as in being challenged to consider the reality that human responsibility extends beyond communication with and obligations to other humans—even as compassion toward humans and inter-human responsibilities should not be abandoned in the name of saving a romanticized image of nature or the sacred and holy that forgets human suffering.

According to Dogen in the Genjokoan (ШШ^Ш, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point”): “to study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the selfis to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.”61 Buber might have explained this utterance as a theme that is “common to mysticism generally, one in which its tendency to eliminate the barrier between I and Thou, in order to experience Unity"62 Zen, as he remarks, “no longer opposes the ‘I’ to Being, but experiences Unity"63 This misses the fundamental point; the Zen Buddhist destructuring of the barriers and borders between self and other described by Dogen does not aim at mere oneness whether understood as a mystical or metaphysical unity; it concerns the ethical relationship in which the self is no longer privileged over the other, as self and other are no longer unconditionally differentiated rather than subordinated into the one. The removal of barriers is not mere absorption and participation into being; it is the realization of a relational ethos of responsiveness and compassion that crosses the conditional borders and limits posited between beings.

Zen Buddhism cannot then merely be an issue of the care of the “self" to the exclusion of others in focusing on polishing the self in self-cultivation. This model of self-concern is repeatedly rejected in Zen texts; for instance, as a form of gradual enlightenment that continually dusts off the mirror (the self) without seeing the lucidity of things (by stepping beyond the barriers of the self). Awakening is not constituted through the self and its activities; but rather it occurs, as in a flash of lightning, in the self being exposed to, opening itself up to, and encountering others, things, as well as itself. This relational dependently co-arising self is the “genuine self" or “self-nature" of the ordinary mundane mind.

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