Heidegger and Zen

Heideggeroids are known for their word play and inability to generate concrete expressions. This is especially true of scholarship on division II of Being and Time and later Heidegger. I’m sometimes suspicious that the scholar I’m reading has no idea what he or she is talking about. Accordingly, Heideggeroids usually substitute bad neologisms and jargon for a clear understanding of the phenomenon.

A Heideggeroid might respond by saying they are only following the Master’s lead. But Heidegger can be excused for his cryptic writing style because he understood the phenomenon to be described. Because he had such an intuitive understanding of the subject matter, he also realized the difficulty of capturing the rich manifold of human experience in the web of language and concepts. And not just any web, but one deeply embedded with metaphysical presuppositions that had long since oozed into the vernacular understanding by means of leaky philosophical systems. All his life then, Heidegger struggled with the same problem that has faced Zen for centuries: how do you think about thoughtless experience?

Rigorous phenomenology reveals that reflective, thinking consciousness sits on the surface of our total cognitive system. The idea of a vast, subpersonal ocean of mental activity is well-accepted by theorists today. Moreover, meditaters have understood since its original development that the thinking mind is part of a greater whole.This idea was also “in the air” during Heidegger’s time (through psychology and psychoanalysis). Indeed, one could say that the “they-self” is Heidegger’s attempt at describing unconscious processes in nonpsychologistic terminology. However, if we admit that the nonconscious mind is a legitimate form of human mental experience, albeit not filtered through language and socially constructed concepts, how do we include it into our phenomenology?

Close study of the mind reveals that it is the unconscious libidinal energy that grounds the rational, self-reflexive ego. Without the emotional undercurrent of the unconscious, the thoughts that float on top would lose their connection to the ongoing stream of bodily experience. You can see then the dilemma that phenomenology faces when confronted with the fundamental reality of the they-self.

It is my opinion that Heidegger, inspired by contact with the Eastern world and his own experience with nature, was a deep meditater. Indeed, I think any phenomenologist will miss the boat entirely unless they are thoroughly trained in meditation. Meditation allows you to fall into the thoughtless they-self without forgetting about the experience. This is the difference between a trained phenomenologist and a layman. Both are equally prone to falling into the they-self, but the phenomenologist expects it and is ready for it. The layman does not “wake up” or “return” to consciousness and then ponder about the time lost. The layman will not exercise the metacognition necessary for noting his return from the they-self, he will simply think a thought and then return to his absorption in the world. The phenomenologist however will not just return from his fall, but realize that he has “found himself”. The layman is never aware of his lostness in the way the phenomenologist is.

I suspect Heideggeroids are in the same position of ignorance. They read Heidegger’s words and learn how to string his neologisms into semi-coherent sentences but they fail to grasp the original, wordless experience of absorption. Because they do not understand the full target of phenomenology, they wind up sounding strange and esoteric in their speech and writings. But it’s time to wake up from this lostness into jargon. Heidegger already did the heavy phenomenological lifting for us. If we are to continue the task of phenomenology then, I think Heideggerians would profit more from heavy meditation rather than reading the Master. After all, a return to the “things themselves” does not mean a return to dusty German texts; it means a return to the primordial phenomenological datum: lived experience in all its manifold richness.



Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

5 responses to “Heidegger and Zen

  1. Andreas

    Good writeup. I would have liked a list of references to Heidegger’s work on or related to Zen. Where to start?

  2. Gary Williams

    Perhaps the first place to start would be Heidegger’s little book On the Way to Language. There are also several edited books of articles on Heidegger and Asian thought (easily found on google) but I haven’t read them in their entirety, so I can’t comment on the level of scholarship. Most of my thinking about Heidegger and Zen comes from my own studies and experience. You could also check out this site for essays on this subject (which I have not read):


    But really, I think a lot of Heidegger’s works are related to Zen. I am of the opinion that Heidegger was trying to describe the experience of mindfulness in his accounts of authenticity and “the silent call” of “coming back to oneself” out of the “lostness” of the they-self. To me, this sounds like interplay between self and noself during meditative moments. I don’t know what else he could be talking about.

  3. I invite you to read my recently posted blog “The ‘Leap'” at http://beyondheidegger.blogspot.com. It might clear a few things up for you, add to any confusion you may have, or you may not have any time to read it. Read it anyway, I think you will enjoy it.

  4. Kevin

    “A Heideggeroid might respond by saying they are only following the Master’s lead. But Heidegger can be excused for his cryptic writing style because he understood the phenomenon to be described.”

    So you say.

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