Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 01, 2023, from

5. Medieval philosophical anthropology: Zen Buddhism

Like the Pure Land Buddhists, Zen Master Dōgen believed there is a fundamental flaw in the usual interpretation of Buddhist practice as the means to enlightenment. Rather than arguing that practice must be abandoned, however, he instead maintained that practice or self-discipline is an end in itself. He rejected the popular theory that his was a degenerate age in which enlightenment was no longer possible. Instead, Dōgen maintained everyone is already enlightened, but that enlightenment was not being manifested or expressed in their actions. The goal, therefore, is to authenticate what we already are.

Trained in the Zen (Chan) Buddhist tradition in China, Dōgen was sensitive to the limitations of language and mistrustful of certain types of thinking. Like other Buddhists, he understood the problem to be egoism. By hypostatizing the ego, one falls into a desire for reality to be a specific way. One seeks permanence in both self and in one’s own worldview. Therefore, it is easy to project interpretations on experience, interpretations that shape the experience to meet our presuppositions, expectations and desires.

Dōgen believed that experiential immediacy is possible. In Zen meditation, one quiets the mind and merely lets phenomena appear. Dōgen called this a state of ‘without-thinking’ as opposed to either ‘thinking’ or ‘not-thinking’. Thinking, for Dōgen, included any form of sustained conceptualization whether fantasy, cogitation, believing, denying, wishing, desiring or whatever. Not-thinking is the effort to blank the mind and empty it of all awareness. In without-thinking, however, there is the awareness of brute phenomena but no sustained act of bestowing meaning. There is no consciousness of a self having an experience. Furthermore, since no meaning at all is projected on the event, it is free of the distortions found in ordinary, ego-driven forms of experience. Dōgen simply called this ‘the presencing of things as they are’.

Dōgen claimed this form of meditation was not a means to enlightenment. Instead, precisely because it is egoless, it is enlightenment itself. Yet, this meditation–enlightenment event is always accessible. It is, as it were, at the root of all experience, even thinking and not-thinking. In this respect we are all already enlightened but we have not authenticated that fact. Of course, to authenticate it, we must return to a state of without-thinking.

Without-thinking is, therefore, a not-yet-conceptualized immediacy. Since it is without concepts, however, it is intrinsically meaningless; but it is impossible for humans to live a life without meanings. Enlightenment must not only be authenticated in meditation. It must also be expressed in everyday life. How can this be possible?

Dōgen claimed that meaning is always contextual. He noted that the ocean has a different meaning to a fish swimming in it, a person in a boat out at sea and a deity looking down at it from the heavens. To the fish, the ocean is a translucent palace; to the person it is a great circle extending to the horizon in all directions; to the deity it is a string of jewel-like lights glittering in the sunshine. If the deity were to interpret the ocean as a circle or the person in the boat were to interpret it as a palace, however, they would not be expressing what is actually in front of them. Their interpretation would be false. Therefore, the key to truth in meaning is the appropriateness of the context.

According to Dōgen, meditative without-thinking is the ‘touchstone’ for determining whether the context is appropriate. Context is continually shifting and giving rise to new meanings as we live out our lives. What is ‘tree branch’ at one point may be ‘firewood’ at another and ‘weapon’ in a third. Dōgen referred to these points as ‘occasions’ of ‘being-time’. For Dōgen, the problem with egoism is its resistance to accepting flux. Egoism tries to make a set of previous meanings into a fixed worldview, into my reality. Therefore, one projects contexts that are not actually present in the current phenomena. Through meditation, however, one can break the closed cycle of self-verifying projections. One can return to the presence of things as they are before meaning, before they are embedded in any particular context. Then, as one returns to the expressive world of everyday action, it is easier to verify the appropriateness of the contextualizing process that generates meaning (see Meaning and verification).

The philosophical anthropologies of Pure Land and Zen address the common problem of egoism, but their solutions to the problem are fundamentally different. In Pure Land Buddhism, recognizing the inefficacy of egoism leads to a psychodynamic of despair, entrusting and naturalness. In the Pure Land philosophy of human being, the ego is rejected in favour of a model of dependence or interdependence. It is a process of self-effacement and surrender. By contrast, Zen overcomes the negative effects of egoism not by self-effacement, but by self-analysis. One studies the dynamics of consciousness and grounds oneself in pure, but meaningless, presence. Pure Land and Zen agree that self-discipline is not a means to enlightenment. Yet, for Pure Land this entails the rejection of self-discipline; in Zen, on the other hand, it entails the acceptance of self-discipline as an end in itself.

These two philosophical anthropologies exemplify how Kamakura philosophers generally focused on the nature of praxis as part of an analysis of human existence. In the Heian period, the pressing philosophical question seems to have been the nature of the cosmos. In the Kamakura period it shifted to the nature of the self. Shinran and Dōgen produced particularly impressive analyses of human motivation and the structure of consciousness, and their models of the self remain influential in Japanese culture up to the present. It is significant, however, that their focus was primarily on the inner self instead of the social self. The social dimension was to become a major concern in the next major period in the development of Japanese philosophy.

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. Medieval philosophical anthropology: Zen Buddhism. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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