Tag Archives: zen

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

A Paradox of Mindfulness Meditation

It seems to me that the essence of Zen Buddhism is learning the art of controlling the mind through noncontrol. This skill can be learned through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which is usually performed by sitting upright and either  closing your eyes or staring at a wall without narratizing in thought.  Mindfulness meditation thus involves learning how to inhibit the neural triggers which initiate explicitly narratized thought routines; an art most of us are not adept at. Take a moment to test this yourself. Quiet yourself and focus purely on an intentional object, such as the wall in front of you, the objects making sound around you, or the rhythms of your own breathing. See how long you can go before a thought intrudes into your mindspace in the form of narrative commentary. Often, a meditator’s thoughts are metajudgements on hus progress, infinitely regressing:

meditative experience (bare intuition) <– [thought about success conditions of meditation] <– [thought about  [thought about success conditions of meditation]], etc.

As you can see, there is no way to mentally “check” if you are succeeding at meditation without breaking the thoughtless flow of meditative experience itself. Mindfulness meditation is something you either do or do not do. There is no in between. The instant you narratize about yourself meditating, you cease to meditate. This curious failure condition of meditation is central to the skill of controlling the mind through noncontrol. It is impossible to mentally force the success conditions of meditation through sheer willpower. No amount of brute thinking power will get you to the state of Zen mindfulness because the success conditions are constituted by a lack of narratized thought control. Curiously then, Zen is one of the few skills that cannot be mastered by force of will. The only way to successfully meditate is to learn how to turn off your narratizing mind. Obviously, if you try to do this through the power of thought, you will fail. One must master the art of control through noncontrol and inhibit the commentary of thought at the root source. Noncontrolling control or action by nonaction is difficult to describe in words precisely because it isn’t structured in terms of narrative control. The best I can say is that mindfulness is learned just like any other skill: through practice; the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology, Zen


All the Buddha’s teachings just had this single object —
To Carry us beyond the stage of thought.
Now, if I accomplish cessation of my thinking,
What use to me the Dharmas Buddha taught?

-Ancient proverb


Filed under Random, Zen

Reductionism or Holism? MU!


This picture was drawn by Douglas Hofstadter for his classic dialogue “Prelude…Ant fugue” in his masterful Godel, Escher, and Bach. In the dialogue he asked a simple, yet highly illuminating question: what does the picture say?

On the top level, it says “MU”, alluding to the Zen parable of Joshu and the dog. In this parable, a monk asks Joshu “does a dog have Buddhe-nature?” Joshu, with immediate fervor, replies “MU!”, which basically means that Joshu denied the legitimacy of the question. He “unasked” the question. The relevance of the parable is made clear when one attempts to answer the above question: what does the picture say? One cannot simply assert that it says “MU”, although on the top and bottom levels it says as much.(You can’t see it in the above copy, but the individual letters are made out of tiny iterations of “mu”). That would be too simplistic of an answer, although it is trivially “true”.

The beauty of Hofstadter’s diagram is only apparent after you let the meaning of the parable sink in. Do all questions have definite answers? Can we really ask questions like “Is the key approach to the mind reductionist or holist?” and expect simple answers? Is it wiser to instead “unask” such questions? Perhaps that question should be unasked as well!

I love this diagram on multiple levels, which is fitting I think, so I thought I would share it with you all. Please spend the time to ponder on the question of what the picture reallysays, and see if you come to the same conclusion as Joshu.

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Filed under Philosophy