Zen & The Art of Postmodern Philosophy

zen and postmodern philosophy

Nietzsche views Buddhism as a passive kind of nihilism, a sign of weakness. Contrary to Nietzsche’s opinion of Buddhism, the historical Buddha wanted to “steer clear of notions of permanent existence and nihilistic nonexistence.” Within the context of the historically later Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, classical Madhyamika thinkers, for instance, emphatically rejected a nihilistic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. In his Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna writes, for instance, the following:

In truth, the cessation of a real existing entity is not possible. For, indeed, it is not possible to have the nature of both existence and non-existence at the same time.

This type of statement motivated some critical interpreters to label such assertions nihilistic…

In response to western critics like Nietzsche and others, Nishitani rejects such erroneous claims, and asserts that nihilism is “the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times.” Within our historical time and place, philosophy has failed to provide an adequate response to nihilism, a historical actuality. The failure of philosophy is connected with the death of the traditional notion of a transcendent deity that gave history its meaningful basis in eternity. Devoid of any transcendent foundation, history becomes an errant striving for a viable future and an unbearable burden upon the individual.

Nietzsche’s response to the loss of a transcendent God and ground of historical meaning was to attempt to transcend history in and through time rather than striving to go beyond time…

Nishitani does not think that Nietzsche’s vision is a useful solution because the “will to power” was conceived as a “thing” referred to as “will.” To remain an entity suggests for Nishitani that it did not lose its connotation as other for us and something of which could help us become aware of ourselves at a primary level.

Science is also part of the problem because “Modern science has completely transformed the old view of nature, resulting in the birth of various forms of atheism and the fomenting of an indifference to religion in general.” Moreover, science rejects the possibility of a personal God or a teleological view of the world, and conceives of nature as something indifferent and impersonal.

According to Nishitani, reality is not something that can be reduced: “It is both life and death, and at the same time is neither life nor death. It is what we have to call the nonduality of life and death.”

From Nishitani’s perspective, contemporary atheism goes further by adding a sense of the meaninglessness associated with a purely materialistic and mechanistic world and “an accompanying awareness of the nihility that lies concealed just beneath the surface of the world.” Within contemporary atheism, there is an awareness of nihility in which the existence of God is denied and replaced by nihility. How is it possible to break out of this fundamental crisis of human existence? It is possible to deepen our subjectivity and freedom by practicing zazen (seated meditation) which will help us to become aware of the reality of sunyata (emptiness)? … From Nishitani’s perspective, Zen Buddhism does not represent an eastern form of nihilism.

Nishitani refers to the elemental mode of being as possessing an illusory appearance: “That being is only being in unison with emptiness means that eing possesses at its ground the character of an ‘illusion,’ that everything that is, is in essence fleeting, illusory appearance.”

In his work entitled Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche refers to the overcoming of metaphysics and links it with liberation. In his four-volume study of Nietzsche, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s call for an end of metaphysics in the following manner: “The end of metaphysics discloses itself as the collapse of the reign of the transcendent and the ‘ideal’ that sprang from it. But the end of metaphysics does not mean the cessation of history.” Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche depicts him as the last metaphysician. Rosen disputes this claim because Nietzsche view metaphysics as illusion, and “Metaphysics is rendered impossible by the irrational necessity of the Chaos that lies in the heart of all things.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s call for an end of the western metaphysical tradition creates room for the eventual development and retrieval of an analysis of Being from the perspective of Heidegger. In a lecture from his later period, Heidegger claims that “To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics.” Within the space provided by Nietzsche’s termination of metaphysics, Heidegger anoints and appoints himself to be the initial philosopher after the end of metaphysics, which for some postmodern thinkers also means the end of philosophy or the conclusion of philosophy as it has been practiced in the West.

As part of his argument, Derrida states that not all languages are logocentric because Chinese or Japanese nonphonetic scripts are evidence of cultures developing alternatively to logocentrism.

D.T. Suzuki captures the spirit of play in Zen Buddhism when he writes, “For playfulness comes out of empty nothingness, and where there is something, this cannot take place. Zen comes out of absolute nothingness and knows how to be playful.” To be able to play is to be free, whereas to work is to be limited and confined. The free and voluntary nature of play is a source of joy and amusement. The spirit of play for Dogen represents his transcendence of earthly dichotomies and absolute freedom. In a spirit applicable to the Zen of Dogen, Huizinga writes, “Play lies outside te antithesis of wisdom and folly, equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.”

It is a time for thinkers to wander aimlessly, err, emphasize altarity, stress the importance of difference, communicate indirectly, and embrace irony.

Zen, from one perspective, represents the end of philosophy as the love of wisdom and the use of rational means to find the truth, and many postmodern thinkers share the Zen suspicion of metaphysics and representational thinking, even though some postmodernists might view Zen as an example of eastern logocentrism.

“[Writing] plays within the simulacrum.” In fact, other postmodernists agree with Derrida that we are located in the simulacrum, a copy of a copy according to Plato… The functioning of the simulacrum, a Dionysian machine, is simulation, a phantasm itself, that subverts the same or representative model and renders it false… “It harbors a positive power that deniesthe original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Such a philosophical position manifests an anti-Kantian perspective that is aconceptual and nonrepresentational.

Writing on behalf of all human beings, Deleuze concludes that “We have become simulacra.”

Although there are certainly many similarities between Buddhist philosophy and forms of postmodern philosophy as evident by our previous discussions, the differences are ultimately more significant. Many postmodern thinkers manifest evidence of moving in the direction of Zen, but there is always a point at which they become captives of their own radical skepticism and/or language games.

Proceeding in a direction where the postmodernists would never tread, Dogen claims that the body is both subject and object, and that the body and mind represent the entire world, which implies that we are never separated from the world.

Due the the absence of an end, a definite conclusion is impossible. The most that we can affirm is that a conclusion is inconclusive, and yet we must come to some sort of end. I tend to agree with Taylor who thinks that one must end where one finds oneself. It has not been the intention of this dialogue between representatives of the Zen philosophical tradition and postmodern thought to arrive at a final solution to any philosophical problems. The inconclusive end of this intercultural dialogue terminates with an interlude that anticipates a continuation of the dialogue at a future date. Unable to come to final conclusions or a definitive end, it seems advisable to simply sign out.

– Carl Olson


“The Buddhist Dharma cannot be understood through rational and intellectual study.”

– Dogen

“The relationship of being and nothingness is thus one of mutual implication and intertwining; it is not predicated on antithesis or reciprocal exclusion.”

– Dallmayr

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