Home Psychology Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought
Two: Emptying Emptiness Emptiness, not sacredness
Differentiating the mundane and the sacred is the source of endless vexations.42
There are varieties of Chan Buddhism that deny the categories of the sacred, the religious, and the divine in the name of emptiness, a strategy that threatens to make meaningfulness and significance tremble if not entirely disappear. Despite the distinct origins of Western and Buddhist thought, Western interpreters and critics of Buddhism, since the earliest modern encounters, have introduced the issues of nihilism and annihilationism into the interpretation of Buddhism by claiming that sunyat& is an absolute or unconditional void that undermines any—to employ Nietzsche’s language—internally immanent and worldly or—for Christian critics—externally transcendent significance to things. The issue of a “cult of nothingness” nihilistically negating the world for the sake of nothing is more acute in those varieties of Buddhism, particularly Madhyamaka and Chan, which radically prioritize emptiness and the aporetic and paradoxical in relation to the positive reified theses and practices of Buddhism itself.43
The radical Buddhist self-questioning of the foundational premises of Buddhism is evident in numerous Chan question and answer dialogues (wenda ^^) that became the basis of the “public case” or gongan literature and meditative practice. One encounter dialogue, which became the first case of the Blue Cliff Record (Biyan lu ШШШ) collection of gongan, is the legend of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (МЙ^) welcoming Bodhidharma and
telling him of his voluminous meritorious works:
[W]hen the Emperor asked how much merit he had acquired, Bodhidharma answered “none” He asked “What is the first principle of sacred truth?” Bodhidharma replied “Vast emptiness, nothing sacred (kuoran wusheng ШШ)” He asked “Who then is facing me?” He replied “Don’t know”44
This encounter is distinctive of the iconoclastic style of what was retrospectively designated the Hongzhou lineage associated with the “four masters” (Mazu, Baizhang, Huangbo, and Linji) established as orthodox in the Song dynasty.45 Welter argues that such examples of anti-authority and antiorthodoxy themselves become authoritative and orthodox.46 Their radicality consisted in conventional practices of the acquisition of merit through good works and banal ideas of the sacred being problematized by pointing out the emptiness of the agent, the works, and the sacred itself. In a similar manner, the fifth patriarch of Chan Buddhism Hongren ffM, is reported to have dismissed meritorious offerings and the pursuit of blessings (futian 4@Ш), which represent a characteristic activity in ordinary Buddhism, in the Platform Sutra in favor of looking into oneself.47 The emptiness of the self is disclosed through this looking into oneself and perception of one’s nature. No matter how conventionalized and stratified emptiness might become in Buddhist traditions, they can be countered by realizing the emptiness of their own self-nature in self-observation. Or one might pursue Heidegger’s strategy of in each case posing and enacting the question anew for oneself in one’s own hermeneutical situation, abiding or lingering in its very questionability (Fragwurdigkeit). Although Heidegger’s approach to the disorienting and reorienting horror of the abyss of the nothing is absent in Chan texts, they are to an extent analogous in suggesting a kind of exposure to that which is not a something, not even a noumenal or transcendent something, but nothing.
In an exchange from the Zhaozhou Yulu (Recorded Sayings of
Zhaozhou), which became the first gongan in the Gateless Gate (Wumen Guan ^ ИШ), a monk asked; “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not (gouzi foxing Щ ^ШЙ)”? Despite the inherent Buddha-nature that is inherent in every sentient being, the master replied “Not” or “No”48 The Chinese word wu ^ does not only mean “not,” from its early Daoist context implies nothing or emptiness; the wu that is the absolute nothing or void in the phrase xuwu ^^. Reinhard May notes that the Chinese graph might be related to clearing, a place where there were once trees, which he compares to Heidegger’s clearing (Lichtung).49 This interpretation continues to give wu as nothingness a derivative meaning to presence, or that which was present in its givenness or positivity. This is problematic given the primordial character of Heidegger’s nothing as well as, in the current context, of Buddhist emptiness.
Immanence is characteristically interpreted as the givenness and positivity of worldly phenomena or things, which are to be accepted as such or derived from a higher ideal or transcendent source. Here—between vast emptiness and selfempty dogs—the question arises not of the positivity of things and facts about them but of the self-given or immanent emptiness of the phenomena themselves. How are emptiness and the nothing, on the one hand, and, on the other, the immanent givenness, suchness, or thusness (Skt. tathatP; Ch. zhenru Й$Д) of things—empty and “just as they are” (faru ru й^Д^Д)—interconnected?50
Is the “not” an operational negation or can it have another function in its surprising performance or enactment? While nothing presupposes the logical negation that is its measure for Carnap; the opposite is the case for Heidegger. Logical negation and—even more radically—the positivity of things presuppose the empty and the open that allows humans to encounter things at all.51 Heidegger’s strategy of formalizing through the formless and emptying through the nothing discloses the openness that is the fullness of things. It is presupposed by language and experience yet only rarely disclosed in the experience of the nothing, which is not a thing at all but an object-less and non-intentional condition and way disclosed in moodful attunement.52 This condition becomes particularly visible in exceptional situations of uncanniness (Unheimlichkeit), where existence is experienced as slipping away and is left adrift and hanging, as in extreme boredom or anxiety in which sense is shaken to its core and shattered.53
The early Heidegger depicts an elemental disquiet (Unruhe)—a precursor to the constitutive uncanniness—as constitutive of history and life (Leben).54 The young Heidegger employs, while destabilizing, the language of Lebensphilosophie in depicting life as its own immanent ruination and questionability.55 Life is not only encountered as stability, security, and certainty but as dispersal, distance, and ruination (Ruinanz).56 Rather than being a continuum of vital energy or evolutionary progress, disquiet characterizes life and indicates its fundamental motility.57 This constitutive questionability indicates the need to confront life in both its everydayness and uncanniness, since the being of life is both most familiar and strange.58 What is most familiar in its everydayness remains unquestioned, and the uncanniness of everydayness left unspoken. Each is to this extent furthest from their own self.
In uncanniness, the radical absence of ground (Ab-grund) and the nothing— like death anticipated as unanticipatable and inappropriable death—is not another something to be integrated and ordered in everyday existence or a conceptual system. Dasein is relational with itself, others, and its world, and yet the “nothing” is dis-relational; it ex-propriates rather than being something that can be appropriated or mastered. It resists being ordered and assimilated, disrupting the relationality constitutive of ordinary human existence. In aporetic and interruptive limit-situations, the “I” is de-personalized and existence reduced to its being-there (da-sein).5 Without experiences of the “not” and otherwise, the absolutely and fully other, the conceptualization ofnegation would not commence. Negation is only one way in which nihilation occurs and consequently cannot be the absolute measure of the nothing that it becomes in both ontotheological and positivist metaphysics and anti-metaphysics.60 Therefore, exposure to the nothing is not necessarily negative. Finite freedom and worldly transcendence, which signify being thrown (geworfen) into encountering (begegnen) world and things, grant humans the space to encounter and engage others, things, and ourselves. This signifies that we as human beings, as da-sein, can and do “release ourselves into the nothing.”61 Anxiety and boredom indicate this releasement in an extreme and heightened form, as they—and the nothingness they disclose— are presupposed without being recognized in each human comportment.
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