One: Phenomenology and Buddhism Phenomenology as movement and way
What is phenomenology? Phenomenology ordinarily signifies the investigation (logos) of that which appears (phainomenon). The word is commonly understood, outside of phenomenology as a philosophical movement, to be experiential description from the first-person perspective. Critics of phenomenology, including contemporary ones as diverse as Daniel Dennett, John Searle, and speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, construe it as being intrinsically subjective, idealistic, and trapped within the first-person point of view.2
The word “phenomenology” has an older history in modern physics and philosophy as the observational description of physical phenomena (as seen in Kant’s use of the term) and the immanent experiential unfolding of selfunderstanding (as evident in Hegel’s use of the word in his Phenomenology of Spirit). Phenomenology, as inaugurated as a philosophical task and style by Husserl and transformed through multiple variations in subsequent figures inside and outside of the disciple of professional academic philosophy, has never exclusively signified description from the first-person perspective. Husserl formulated phenomenology as a descriptive and structural-analytic method that uncovers the conditions and structures of the first-person perspective as well as those of the interpersonal second person and impersonal third person. Instead of reaching an isolated abstract ego, or engaging in psychological self-introspection that only reflects the self, Husserl’s descriptive and analytic approach to experience in the first-person perspective discloses through the reductions—which Husserl acknowledges are incomplete and in need of being repeatedly enacted—the very belonging and relationality of all experience and consciousness in the phenomenon of intentionality in its passivity and directedness toward the object. Phenomenology has aimed at disclosing the real through the analysis of the living experiential subject.
It was Husserl’s teacher Franz Brentano (1838-1917) who he credited with rediscovering the medieval idea of intentionality as the directionality of consciousness.3 The basic phenomenon of intentionality encompasses the dynamic relations between the subject and the objective world. Husserl elucidated phenomenology accordingly in the Logical Investigations as an attempt to return to the things themselves (“zu den Sachen selbst”). Husserl clarified in Ideas that this task signifies: “returning from talk and opinions to the things themselves, questioning them as they are themselves given, and setting aside all prejudices alien to them.”4 It is this undertaking that led him to the phenomenology of transcendental subjectivity, which concerns the conditions and constitution of meaning and meaningfulness. It does and cannot ignore nor exclude alterity, facticity, reality, or the passivity of the subject, as more careful assessments of Husserl’s published and previously unpublished works and the phenomenological tradition have recognized.5
Immanuel Kant maintained in the Critique of Pure Reason that the transcendental idealist is the genuine empirical realist.6 Husserl’s meaning- holism, one of multiple anti-Cartesian themes unfolded in his phenomenological reconstruction of Descartes’s Meditations in the Cartesian Meditations,7 is in agreement with Kant’s sentiment while not allowing him to accept the dualism between what appears and does not appear to consciousness in Kant’s critical philosophy. Husserl’s conception of “transcendental idealism”—a label that has produced much misunderstanding of his thinking even among his own students—addresses how sense and meaning are possible for subjects qua subjects who are conscious of objects. In the classic formulation of intentionality as consciousness being in each case the “consciousness of something,” the “of” operates as a relational term. The analysis of the constituents and the relationality of consciousness, a holistic arc or circuit between the intentional and nonintentional that makes Cartesianism and dualism in general impossible, has been interpreted as an overlapping concern in Husserl and—in particular, for instance, Abhidharma and Yogacara—Buddhism.8 Intentionality signifies that experiences are directed and oriented toward and informed by things and the world without appealing to the doctrine of realism. Husserl rejected realism in the sense of a metaphysical or mystical postulation of an unexperienced and uninterpreted, or non-constituted and non-mediated, reality (i.e., of the “de re” separated from the “de dicto”):
Consciousness describes how the world becomes manifest: The attempt to conceive the universe of true being as something lying outside the universe of possible consciousness, possible knowledge, possible evidence, the two being related to one another merely externally by a rigid law, is nonsensical. They belong together essentially; and as belonging together essentially, they are also concretely one, one in the only absolute concretion: transcendental subjectivity.9
Phenomenology after, and in a significant sense already with, Husserl has been anti-phenomenological (in the ordinary sense of the word we began with above) to the extent that it has radically questioned the naivete, prejudices, and self-certainty of subjectivity and the first-person perspective. It has challenged the everyday privileging of the subject’s point of view in the natural attitude, lifeworld, the everydayness of being-there, or the self-certainty of the ego oblivious to the other. Phenomenological interpretation is not the imposition of subjectivity or the first-person perspective onto things that its critics fear; it is a way for the first-person perspective to open itself to the encounter with its world, others, and itself.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty noted how phenomenology is not a philosophy of essences detached from their existence and facticity: “But phenomenology is also a philosophy which places essences back into existence, and does not expect to arrive at an understanding of humans and the world from any starting point other than that of their ‘facticity.’”10 Phenomenology, according to Merleau- Ponty, is the only philosophy that places subjectivity back into the body and the world. By thematizing the relational and reversible between of subject and object, evident in touching/being touched, phenomenological inquiry does so without either naively trusting or losing sight of the first-person perspective and its roles in knowing and acting.
The phenomenological orientation toward what stands outside the subject is evident throughout the history of phenomenology. Phenomenology, Heidegger remarked, is attentiveness to the self-appearing of things: “To let what shows itself be seen from itself, just as it shows itself from itself [sich von ihm selbst her zeigt].”11 Heidegger would in his later thought, which moves from the methodological priority of the question of human Dasein (being-there) as that being that poses the question of being in Being and Time to that of the question of Sein (being) as the orienting point of his thinking, question the paradigm of transcendental subjectivity for the sake ofencountering things in letting releasement (Gelassenheit) that releases and liberates the subject as much as the thing.12
Emmanuel Levinas, an exemplary instance of an anti-phenomenological phenomenologist, problematized the priority of the subject, and the individualistic language of self-constitution, for the sake of the encounter with, or more precisely exposure to, the other that is prior to and in a significant way constitutes the sense of self and world. It is in this sense that ethics precedes the ontological and transcendental philosophizing of being and the subject in Heidegger and Husserl.
Early or “classical” phenomenologies begin with the experiential encounter with phenomena in order to analyze the structures of consciousness and transcendental subjectivity (Husserl), organic existence (Scheler), pre-reflective and reflective existence (Sartre), ways ofbeing-there (Heidegger), forms of living as an embodied being and as reversible flesh (Merleau-Ponty), and the asymmetrical and non-identical relations ofthe other with the self(Levinas). Phenomenology has accordingly not been limited to a specific content or doctrine, as every facet—and in particular his transcendental understanding of phenomenology—of Husserl’s project has been questioned, rejected, and reinterpreted, in the variations— hermeneutical, ontological, existential, life-philosophical, deconstructive, and naturalized among others—of phenomenology for over the past 100 years.
The underlying tendency of these philosophers, to speak summarily, is articulating an alternative to the self-absorbed naivete ofsubjective understanding without falling into the illusions of an objectivism that presupposes the first- and second-person perspectives that it seeks to forget and suppress.
Phenomenology is accordingly both a historical phenomenon to be revisited and an experiential encounter with appearances and, as later phenomenologies has demonstrated, non-appearances (such as the invisible and inapparent) that can renew and transform our conception and practice of phenomenology.
Husserl conceived of phenomenology as a way to revitalize universal (i.e., for him, Western) philosophy by returning to the phenomena to be thought and renew European culture in the journal Kaizo (Й^, Renewal or Reconstruction)
articles (published in Japan in 1923-1924), and The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (1936).13 These works, as elucidated in this chapter, concerned with crisis and renewal encompass Husserl’s fundamental ethically oriented concerns and remain relevant to our conflict-ridden age shaped by struggles between universalism and particularism.
There is, nonetheless, a questionable dimension of universalism and cosmopolitanism that has historically privileged the West and been employed to subjugate and marginalize others. There is an overinflated conception of Europe and the Occident, which Husserl interpreted as the sole cultural unity that is genuinely universal and infinite. The priority of the Occidental, and philosophy construed as a unique attribute of the West, problematically resonates in Heidegger, Levinas, and other figures shaped by the phenomenological movement.
Notable exceptions to the tendency to define philosophy as intrinsically European include Merleau-Ponty.14 Merleau-Ponty noted that: “[philosophy’s] center is everywhere, its circumference nowhere.”15 Philosophy cannot be constrained to Greek origins and borders, the Occidental history of metaphysics and ontotheology, a European homeland, and Western modernity. Accordingly, at the same time that it has prevalent Eurocentric propensities, phenomenology has been and continues to be—through its emphasis on immanently elucidating experience and attentively encountering and responding to the phenomena—a significant bridge between Western and non-Western forms of thinking. It is not accidental that phenomenology was enthusiastically adopted and transformed in East Asia and throughout the globe along with its encouraging and informing Western research into non-Western sources and discourses.
Phenomenological interpretation has itself proved to be “reversible,” transversible, and not confined to the borders of its Occidental origins. Despite its troubling and question-worthy Eurocentric moments considered in this chapter, phenomenology has stimulated and continues to inspire philosophical dialogues across diverse perspectives and traditions in order to be exposed and responsive to that which is to be encountered.