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Encounter, Dialogue, and Learning: Martin Buber and Zen Buddhism


This chapter examines the marginalization of Zen (Ш, Ch. Chan; Jp. Zen) Buddhism in Western philosophy during the middle of the twentieth-century and elucidates how Martin Buber’s approach to Zen is partial yet significant and suggestive for a more appropriate intercultural hermeneutics and conception of philosophy. Buber’s recognition of the dialogical and ethical dimensions of Zen Buddhism diverge from stereotypical Western views of Zen awakening while requiring us to go further than Buber’s portrayal to arrive at a better understanding of Zen as exhibiting its own transformative dialogical ethos of encounter, dialogue, and learning.

Buber was trained in the discipline of philosophy, and his primary works are in the philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and ethics. He wrote extensively on Judaism and comparative religion. Buber belongs to a select group of modern Western philosophers, including Leibniz and Misch, who argued for a hermeneutical openness toward non-European forms of thought. Leibniz, Misch, and Buber explicitly asserted that the West can and is indeed in need of learning from the East. There is neither a fundamental incomprehensible abyss between two monolithic realities with their own substantialized identities, an East and West that can never meet nor interact but only be anticipated (the Heideggerian model), nor the presupposition of the intrinsic Western preeminence in that which can be taught and learned (the Hegelian model). Leibniz (albeit in an earlier form), Misch, and Buber recognized and did not deny the uniqueness of the development of scientific rationality and technology in Western civilization; the achievements of Western reason did not lead them to leap to the conclusion that only the West has a fully developed rationality. This thesis is not limited to its most prominent proponents such as Hegel, Weber, and

Husserl; it is also at work in twentieth-century Western critics, such as Arthur Koestler and Sidney Hook, who endeavored to exclude Zen Buddhism from Western culture and philosophy as a mere consumeristic fad or as a threatening nihilistic “Oriental” menace.

These features of Buber’s writings about East Asian philosophy and religion, the region that is the orienting focus of this work, are however insufficient on their own; more is required for an adequate intercultural hermeneutics than interpretive openness and readiness to communicate and learn. Still, Buber’s approach to interpretation, if not always his execution given the conditions of his understanding of East Asian sources and realities, is a gust of fresh air and an inspiration given the characteristic monotonous Eurocentrism of modern Western philosophy, which the present book has sought to contest in a historical way, and it points toward the prospect of a more adequate intercultural art of interpretation and thinking.

While it was Confucian China that could teach the West through an “exchange of light” (“car cest un commerce delumiere”) in Leibniz’s writings on China, it was the notion of “non-doing” (wuwei ^^) in his early writings on Daoism and China that could reorient the West for Buber by indicating an alternative vision to the restless activism and consumption of modern technological civilization.1 This was Buber’s position during the first few decades of the twentieth-century. His later writings concerning East Asian philosophy and religion continue to advocate openness to learning while being more reserved in appreciating their content and structure.2

There are a number of questions we ought to consider here: What kind of learning is called for here in the claim that the West should learn from the East? Does it mean that one must adopt a Daoist or other Eastern philosophy? Can the sensibility revealed in Daoist and Zen Buddhist sources help answer the problem of technological modernity posed by Buber and Heidegger discussed in Chapter 4? Such questions find further clarification in the references to Zen Buddhism that Buber and Heidegger made in the 1950s and 1960s. It should be noted that Daoism and Zen Buddhism are not carefully enough distinguished from one another in Buber’s and Heidegger’s remarks. Their responses to these traditions shed further light on the affinities and distances between Heidegger and Buber in how they encounter East Asian thought and culture: Heidegger focused on experiences of the Way, emptiness (die Leere), the gathering of heaven and earth, and responsive letting be, and Buber emphasized the paradox, the image, and the teaching in narrative language as well as in the dialogical encounter and learning between “I and Thou” in Daoist and Zen Buddhist sources.

Buber’s dialogue with Zen is more extensive than that of Heidegger. We will return to Heidegger in Chapter 8 and focus on Buber’s encounter in the current chapter, in which we will consider how Buber called for a dialogue with and learning from Zen Buddhism in the postwar years. He elucidated his dialogue with Zen from the perspective of his understanding of Hasidic Judaism and Daoism: “In many formulations of Zen we can see the influence of Daoistic teaching, that truth is above antithetics.”3 In addition to identifying a specific kind of anti-conceptual dialectic at play in both Daoism and Zen, Buber clarified the skeptical understanding of reality as dream in Zen through Zhuangzi’s dream of the butterfly or the butterfly’s dream of Zhuangzi.4

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