Nothingness, Language, Emptiness: Heidegger and Chan Buddhism

To pursue emptiness is to lose emptiness.1


In the intertextual discourse of comparative philosophy in East and West, Martin Heidegger and Chan (Ш; Jp. Zen) Buddhism have been depicted as disclosing “primordial experience” through the dismantling of the sedimentations and reifications that constitute and entangle language and conceptual thinking. In Heidegger, this destructuring (Destruktion) discloses an originary experience of being (Sein); in Chan, aporetic strategies reveal original mind (benxin ^ t) and self-nature (zixing ЙЙ).2 The movement of dereification occurring through encountering nothingness (das Nichts) in Heidegger’s thinking and emptiness (kong 2) in Chan Buddhist discourses. Such indispensable yet traceless moments occur through the “releasement” of things and attending to, being responsive to, or mindful of the phenomena themselves in their upsurge and self-disclosure in Heidegger or in the one suchness (yiru —$Д; Skt. tathata) of the myriad things (wanfa ЖШ) in Chan.3

Analogously to phenomenological philosophy, which was explicated in Chapter 6, Chan Buddhism has its own phenomenological character (as Carl Jung noted) and faces its own issues of the reification of the processes and means of communication that potentially undermine rather than open up responsiveness to things and compassion toward others. The history of Buddhism recurrently demonstrates how Buddhist discourses of anti-essentialism and destratification can themselves undergo reification and become essentialized and conventional. This tendency toward decay through being transmitted holds of the most radical

Buddhist discourses and practices, as the history of Chan Buddhism itself reveals. The incessantly stylized and restylized figure of Linji Yixuan (d. 866/7) was, for instance, progressively redepicted as more unconventional and more orthodox during the Song dynasty, precisely as masters became less able and likely to act in a wild and radically unconventional manner.

The greatly exaggerated and caricaturized spontaneity, radicalism, iconoclasm, and antinomianism of Chan transpired in the context and under the conditions of traditional Buddhist practices, institutions, and doctrines, Chinese social-political conditions, and monastic disciplines and rituals.4 As spontaneity only occurs in and through these relational and accordingly interpretive contexts, the view that Chan/Zen dismantles fixated words and concepts for “pure” or “mystical” experience or intuition has been appropriately criticized as a naive misinterpretation and reification of historical realities on the part of Zen’s fearful critics and overly enthusiastic proponents (as seen in Chapter 7). Historiographical analysis has illustrated the many ways that Chan deployed and becomes entangled in its own rhetoric, propaganda, and ideology.5 The content and form of Chan encounter dialogues already are an indication of the modern mythology surrounding the “anarchistic” and “counter-cultural” character of Zen Buddhism. They do not only divulge a free spontaneous and natural play of reversibility and reciprocity, but a responsibility for the other’s awakening even as the master asymmetrically cannot take the place of the student. Awakening is in each case one’s own. The radicalness of Chan spontaneity, naturalness, and iconoclasm transpires in contexts of ritual and monastic discipline in which they receive their transformative character and impact.6

Chan sources explaining Chan monastic disciple and ritual, such as the Baizhang Chan Monastic Regulations (chixiu baizhang qinggui that contains rituals for the well-being of the emperor and officials, make the traditional Buddhist and Chinese social-political contexts of Chan practices clearer. The idea and rhetoric of a purely non-causal and non-karmic spontaneity is criticized in Chan traditions from the Tang dynasty Buddhist scholar and monk Guifeng Zongmi (780-841). Zongmi condemned what he saw as its

immoral antinomian consequences ofspecific teachings in Daoism and Hongzhou Chan, to the warning of the fox gongan (^^; Jp. koan) concerning Baizhang W i and the monk who denied karmic causal conditioning, and our worldly complicity, and ended up conditioned by it in being reborn as a wild fox.7 As language itself is self-destructuring without a primordial entity or original experience standing outside of and separate from the self-reproduction and selfdestructuring of language, there is nothing outside of communication and the communicative event. Critics of Western discourses of mysticism appropriately reject the thesis that Chan and Zen belong to the category of “mysticism” and disclose an unmediated and non-relational “pure” intuition or experience.8

I propose an alternate interpretation of Chan Buddhist aporetic tendencies that recognizes the legitimacy of both deconstructive and historiographical analysis of Chan/Zen’s exaggerated self-presentation and their later Eastern and Western appropriations. Chan ought not be conceived as one unified ahistorical reality in either its practices or doctrines, and diversity and contestation are constitutive of its official history. Tang-Song Chinese Chan can be distinguished from the more metaphysical, mystical, and modern Japanese-centered approach attributed to the modern interpretations of Zen that emerged from D. T. Suzuki and the Kyoto school, which tend to interpret Zen as a unique culmination and discontinuous transcendence of previous forms of Buddhism.9 Unlike other works, which examine the later writings of Heidegger a propos Daoism and Japanese Zen, this chapter explores his early thought of the 1920s in relation to Tang-Song Chan Buddhism.10

The very idea of “Oriental nothingness,” articulated in the Kyoto school, presupposes the intercultural encounter between East and West and relies on an intertextual philosophical practice drawing on diverse sources and traditions. Returning to an earlier Chan discourse of emptiness does not offer access to a more primordial origin, but a different perspective of contesting and emptying perspectives, as this interpretation draws Chan further into intercultural philosophizing.

In relation to Heidegger’s distinctive thinking of nothing (das Nichts), it is a misinterpretation of the discourses of Chan and Heidegger—which suppresses their hermeneutical in the name of their ontological character—to explain either as positing something beyond communication that transcends its own existential occurrence and performative enactment (Vollzug).11 The enactive articulation of Buddhist emptiness and Heidegger’s nothing offers an alternative interpretation to Nishitani Keiji Щ^ЙД. Nishitani contended in Religion and Nothingness (Shukyo to wa nanika M *>', or “What is Religion?,” 1961)

that: “in Heidegger’s case, traces of the representation of nothingness as some ‘thing’ that is nothingness still remain.”12 Heidegger, according to Nishitani, remained imprisoned in the Western paradigm of interpreting nothingness through thingliness. “Existentialists,” such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, have not yet reached the fullness of Buddhist emptiness (sunyata) that is in need of being liberated “from the bias of self-existence as the groundlessness (Grundlosigkeit) of existence lying at the ground of self-existence” or as some separable substantive existence “lying outside of the ‘existence’ of the self.”13

Given the enactive indicative interpretation of the nothing and emptiness articulated in the present chapter, one can conclude that there is neither “Being” (Sein) and nothing nor “mind” (xin A') and emptiness in a non-relational sense. There can be no unmediated access in language and experience to static nonlinguistic entities that subsist beyond the event and enactment of interpretation, individuation, and appropriation, as would be revealed in a form of pure intuition or mystical experience. What is at issue then in Chan words such as nature, mind, and emptiness, and in Heidegger’s basic concepts such as being, existence, and nothingness, is living communication and the communicative event of saying that which cannot be directly—in a purely determinate and representative language—said.

Heidegger’s nothing and Chan emptiness, which adopts and transforms the Indian notion of sunyatd, both challenge conventional experience and language through what already informs and potentially reorients and transforms experience, language, and practice. Chan relies on and is enmeshed in experience, language, and practice, while stressing that these too are conditional, interdependent, and empty. Heidegger’s being is disclosed within language, history, and experience, while remaining concealed in, different than, and irreducible to such disclosure. The history ofbeing (Seinsgeschichte) is being’s disclosure as well as its concealment and withdrawal in its occurrence. The epochality and concealedness of being is a historical-ontological insight that Koichi Tsujimura, because he misses Zen’s own form of communicative performativity, finds problematically lacking in Zen.14

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