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Home arrow Psychology arrow Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought


One: Buber and the Western Reception of Zen Buddhism The marginalization of Zen Buddhism in Western philosophy

Despite Heidegger’s attention to and appropriation of Daoist and Zen Buddhist texts and their language, and his occasional comments about “other great beginnings” and his interest in Zen and praise for Daisetsu Suzuki, he expressed skepticism concerning whether the West could in fact learn from the East. Heidegger emphasized the necessity of now globalized Western metaphysics confronting its own Greek origin and destiny (what he earlier called “the first beginning”) in order to respond to the reductive technological enframing of the world (and disclose “the other beginning” concealed in the first):

I am convinced that a change can only be prepared from the same place in the world where the modern technological world originated. It cannot come about by the adoption of Zen Buddhism or other Eastern experiences of the world. The help of the European tradition and a new appropriation of that tradition are needed for a change in thinking. Thinking will only be transformed by a thinking that has the same origin and destiny. [Western technological modernity] must be superseded (aufgehoben) in the Hegelian sense, not removed, superseded, but not by human beings alone.5

Zen might be significant for Japanese in their own self-encounter and it can be fashionable for the West; it cannot resolve the essential questions of the Occidental history of being that demand a European encounter and confrontation with its own origins. Heidegger asserted in a conversation that: “if I understand him [Dr. Suzuki] correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings" Suzuki, however, advocated recognizing Zen Buddhism as a way of life that is uniquely Japanese and that has a global universal significance that encompasses the West and technological modernity. As we have seen in previous chapters, Heidegger would have appreciated the former tendency in Suzuki more than the latter one indicating a Zen Buddhist response to the problems of technological modernity.

Heidegger portrayed how Western technological civilization has become global such that only the confrontation with Greek philosophy has universal significance whether one is European or Asian. This strategy that critiques the history of the West, and which shapes the negative focus on Western philosophy in Derrida and Rorty, has been interpreted as anti-Occidental since the West is the only topos shaped by the malignancy of the history of metaphysics from physis to techne. It is an assertion of the superiority of the West in negative form; the history of metaphysics led to Occidental-technological civilization, and it alone has genuinely universal import as it masters and destroys the earth and sky on a planetary scale. Arguments that the West has historically played a crucial role in the formation and spread of modernity and technology are reasonable except when the crucial role is taken to mean exclusive and in isolation from the global context in which Western and globalized science and technology have emerged. It is less convincing to understand technological modernity only in terms of the West and conclude that the West must be the exclusive site of genuine confrontation and renewal.

To contextualize Heidegger’s statement in the “Spiegel Interview” about a potential Zen take-over and its fashionable character, it should be noted that Zen Buddhism was fairly unknown in Germany and the West until it was popularized by translations of the introductory works of Suzuki and collections of Chan and Zen Buddhist literature. It was during the postwar period that Zen became popularized in poetic and countercultural circles and German and other Western philosophers began to respond to its growing influence in the West. Heidegger, however, is known to already have an early interest in Zen Buddhism through the collection Zen, Der Lebendige Buddhismus in Japan: Ausgewahlte Stucke des Zen-Textes, which appeared in 1925, and his interaction with visiting Japanese students and intellectuals beginning in the 1920s.6

Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, critical social theorists of the Frankfurt school, expressed anxieties about Eastern influences and, in particular, a facile Western adaptation of Zen Buddhism during the postwar period. Such suspicions are evident in Michel Foucault’s later remarks about the ideological character of California style new age spirituality, which superficially adapted from—without contextually understanding—Zen and Tibetan Buddhist styles and practices.

Adorno wrote in this spirit in his magnum opus Negative Dialectics of, what he considered to be, the “corny exoticism of such decorative world views as the astonishingly consumable Zen Buddhist one" These types of irrational and mystical worldviews are restorative rather than critical and transformative. Adorno maintained that they “simulate a thinking posture” and with “nonconceptual vagary,” linking Zen with Heidegger, “heedlessly run off from the subject to the universe, along with the philosophy of Being, are more easily brought into accord with the world’s hardened condition and with the chances of success within it [rather than] the tiniest bit of self-reflection by a subject pondering itself and its real captivity"7 The appearance of radical freedom and individuality in Zen and the relentless “spiritual materialism” of contemporary spiritual movements corresponds to real unfreedom for Adorno, just as discourses of radical individualism and existential self-individuation reflect the administration of individuals rather than a critical confrontation with it. Zen proves to reaffirm existing society by being yet another consumerist signifier, in exotic Oriental guise, and consumable desire to be satisfied.

Zen is similarly understood as a “fashion” by Marcuse.8 Sharing Adorno’s suspicion about hip forms of counter-culture and the function of spirituality in a material culture, Marcuse noted in One Dimensional Man (1964) how Zen has been integrated in the regime of one-dimensional living:

The reign of such a one-dimensional reality does not mean that materialism rules, and that the spiritual, metaphysical, and bohemian occupations are petering out.

On the contrary, there is a great deal of “Worship together this week,” “Why not try God,” Zen, existentialism, and beat ways of life, etc. But such modes of protest and transcendence are no longer contradictory to the status quo and no longer negative. They are rather the ceremonial part of practical behaviorism, its harmless negation, and are quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet.9

The suspicions of Adorno and Marcuse are germane to the extent that Zen—and other non-Western traditions from Daoist to Native American—has been appropriated and integrated as a consumer commodity, as can be seen in faddish popular adaptations of Zen in advertising, popular books, knickknacks, standardized architecture, gardens, and technological objects, and even biospiritual practices such as meditation. In the face of such seemingly relentless “spiritual materialism,” there are potential counter-tendencies to the reification and alienation involved in grasping attachment, ruthless self-assertion, and the unending stimulation and steering of desires characteristic of media-driven mass consumer societies.

Adorno’s remarks are correct to the extent that Zen Buddhism, like all cultural tendencies, can become a producible, exchangeable, and consumable object. Its meditative practices and ethos can be reified and turned into military and managerial techniques of discipline and promoting efficiency. But Adorno did not go far enough in his refection to attend to the complexity and alterity of the phenomenon itself in reducing it to Oriental fantasies and reified popular appropriations.10 There can be no genuine transmission and learning from Zen Buddhist practices and discourses under these circumstances. Adorno, Marcuse, and later Habermas, who dismissed Zen as an apolitical sedative in the late 1960s in Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics, have little concrete to say about Zen or other non-Western forms of thinking, experience, and life.11

The tendency to highlight the seductive dangers of Asia and “Eastern mysticism” is conspicuously expressed in the Anglo-American world in The Lotus and the Robot (1960) by Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). This work is a sequel to his earlier 1945 work, comparing Indian mysticism and communism as forces opposed to individuality, The Yogi and the Commissar. In his 1960 intellectual thought-portrait of the East, based on his travels in India and Japan, Koestler expresses deep anxieties about the threat of the Orient, its very way of life, and its mysticism. These same criticisms and fears are visible earlier in the century in the French conservative and nationalist thinker Henri Massis’s work Defense de l’Occident (1927, published in English as Defence of the West in 1928) that initiated a similar debate about the comparative merits of “Western” and “Eastern” civilization in the late 1920s. Massis and Koestler both identified Soviet Bolshevism and the Orient as the two paramount threats to Western civilization. Koestler’s 1960 work was directed against Zen Buddhism, arguing that Zen, in light of the Pacific War and the Japanese militarism for which it is blamed, is “robotic.” Zen training is a cultish depersonalization of the individual that proves useful for military and social-political discipline and mobilization. Eastern mysticism is in his estimation an internal form of the totalitarian destruction of the individual person analogous to the external form of destruction executed by Stalinism in the Soviet Union.12

American pragmatists such as John Dewey and Charles W. Morris were at the forefront of promoting Eastern and comparative philosophy in the United States, including contributing to founding the journal Philosophy East West.

Charles W. Morris argued that the theory of semiotics could be used to see the meaningfulness of the language of contradiction and paradox employed in Zen.13 Nonetheless, the pragmatist Sidney Hook (1902-1989), who was called “Dewey’s bulldog” for performing the polemical and ideological dirty work for pragmatism against its perceived rivals and opponents, is more typical of modern Western philosophy’s attitude toward Asian thought that reduces it to premodern irrational mysticism and empty moral platitudes. Hook mocked Koestler’s fears of Asian “traditional philosophies and religion” in a review “But There Was No Light” appearing in the New York Times in 1961. Playing on the idea of light from the East, Hook denied Eastern philosophies—in particular, in this case, Indian Hinduism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—any “light.” He rejected the idea that they have any contemporary significance for modern liberal rational humanity at all to be embraced or feared, asserting: “It is also hard to believe that a politically sophisticated intelligence such as Koestler’s could seriously entertain the notion that ‘Yoga, Zen or any other form of Asian mysticism’ has significant advice for ‘our deadly predicament.’”14

Hook describes Koestler’s work as offering “a devastating critique of Zen Buddhism in which he makes it appear as at best a hilarious leg-pull, an ‘existentialist hoax,’ and at worst, ‘a web of solemn absurdities’” Hook concludes his review by bemoaning Asians lack of appreciation “of the European contribution to Asia” through colonialism and rejecting Koestler’s pessimism that “the universal values of Western culture will not take in the non-European world.”15 There is in India and Japan, Hook admits, “a commitment to certain moral values as a basis for establishing a world community,” but the modern liberal West has nothing meaningful to learn from these premodern moral teachings from the East. It is the West that will lead and instruct the world into a universal culture of rational humanism and scientific rationality.16

Koestler and Hook are not completely inaccurate. It is historically the case that there is a historical nexus shared by Japanese Zen and Japanese militarism in the first half of the twentieth century. But this complex historical situation should not lead to caricaturizing a long transmission that has multiple diverging tendencies across different East Asian cultures and an ethos and ethical dimension of its own, as explored later in this chapter.17

Notable exceptions to the common tendency to either polemically critique or casually dismiss Zen, expressed in the language of Eurocentric liberal universalism by Koestler and Hook and the critique of capitalist consumerism in Adorno and Marcuse, can be found in the psychologically oriented works of Carl Jung and Erich Fromm who interpret Zen as a vehicle of psychological self-transformation and emancipation. Interpreting Zen’s self-description and practices as fundamentally phenomenological, the psychoanalyst Jung proposed in the seminar notes to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in the second half of the 1930s that: “Zen, the most modern form of Buddhism, is nothing but the education of consciousness, the faculty of realizing things.”18 Fromm, who was also associated with the project of critical social theory and the endeavor to synthesize the works of Marx and Freud for the purposes of a humanistic social critique, responded to Koestler style criticisms of both Marxism and Zen, in this case posed by the sociologist Daniel Bell, rejecting as a cliched prejudice the idea that: “Zen Buddhism (like other ‘modern tribal and communal philosophies’ of ‘reintegration’) aims ‘at losing one’s sense of self’ and thus is ultimately antihuman because they [the philosophers of reintegration, including Zen] are anti-individual”19

Fromm would continue to engage Zen Buddhism as part of the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. Jung was limited in what he could make sense of in Zen Buddhism, despite his earlier statement about the phenomenological character of Zen, and his affirmative stance toward learning and adopting from Eastern works such as The Secret of the Golden Flower (Taiyi Jinhua Zongzhi ^жн) and the Yijing ШШ- discussed in Chapter 2. Jung wrote in a letter concerning the two essays that eventually appeared in The Lotus and the Robot that: “I quite agree with Koestler when he puts his finger on the impressive mass of nonsense in Zen.”20 Zen is indeed irrational and intuitive rather than rational and conceptual for Jung, who continues by stating, limiting Koestler’s negative assessment, this is how Zen provides a sense of the whole that Western rationality and science have repressed. The West has turned to yoga and Zen, Jung contends, precisely because of what it has lost and desperately needs. Jung adds: “It is just pathetic to see a man like Herrigel acquiring the art of Zen archery, a nonessential if ever there was one, with the utmost devotion but, thank God, it has obviously nothing to do with the inner life of man!”21 Jung provides a rationale for the contemporary Western interest in Zen, its own pathological condition and fragmented sense of the whole, yet Jung cannot recognize rationality or logic in Zen discourses to any further degree than Koestler or Hook; its “nonsense,” which presupposes an appropriate distinction and measure between sense and nonsense, serves at best as exemplars of the symbolism of the unconscious and intuitive feeling. Zen statements and performances, as will be examined in Chapter 8, are learning situations that exhibit a sense and meaning of their own. They can be interpreted even if their sense cannot be fixated and exhausted due to their transformative decentering and reorienting emptying strategies deploying surprise, reversal, play, paradox, dialetheist contradiction, and aporia.

There is another philosopher in this period, namely Buber, who disagrees with Zen Buddhism on a number of issues while recognizing its coherence and understandability as a “teaching” (Lehre) that is manifested through a multiplicity of practices and discourses, which appear to make little or no sense from the perspective of the casual (“Western” or “Eastern”) observer. As a teaching, Zen can teach across the boundaries and limits that it puts into play and questions, including the idea of fixed geographical-cultural boundaries of North and South, East and West.

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