You are on page 1of 11

Franklin Fehrman

25 July 2015
Heidegger and Zen Buddhism
I. Introduction
In reading Heideggers Being and Time, with any former familiarization with the
concepts and tenets of Zen Buddhism, one finds in Heideggers magnum opus a western
facsimile, albeit with its subtle differences. Further, upon doing any cursory research online, one
finds a fount of previously published articles extrapolating on the various parallels and
distinctions between the two philosophical corpora. This paper seeks to cite and reference
previous exhortations, but also to pave new philosophical ground. For instance, two papers
approach specifically and contrast Heidegger with two Zen patriarchs of the Soto Japanese sect
of Buddhism. For this paper, I will restrict my comparisons to general Buddhist terms from the
Chinese and Indian traditions of Buddhism, but in approaching Zen Buddhism, I will cite not
only Zen master Dgen, but also the Zen masters who dealt with the phenomenal world. Not to
say that the Soto sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism is unseemly, but for one, my background is
grounded in the Rinzai sect which highlights the practical nature of Zen, and secondly, while the
Soto sect tends toward transmission of enlightenment, or freedom-towards-death in anticipatory
resoluteness, in poetic lectures and meditation, the Rinzai sect patriarchs combine meditation and
hermeneutic speech with practical approaches and the others that I cite include a certain physical
and verbal snap to attunement both in words and actions that I feel facilitates their teachings in
alongside the Heideggerian conception of angst and attunement.
II. Heidegger on Being and Time

Fehrman 2
Before going into the various similarities between Zen Buddhist and Heideggerian
concepts that overlap at times, and stay separate at others, let me first make mention of an
implicit similarity between the two: that of the hermeneutical approach to phenomenology of
Heidegger and what is called the Zen circle in Master Seung Sahns teachings. This approach to
phenomenology of Heidegger is a way in which the Being of Da-Sein, reveals itself. That is, it
remains either concealed, buried over or distorted, but which at the same time can reveal itself in
moments to Da-sein but then fall back again into distortion of the everyday world in which DaSein finds itself. The Zen Circle of Sahn seems to belie a similar hermeneutics in the sense that
one ends up the same place as one began, going from attachment to name and form at the 0
mark to attachment to thinking at the 90 mark, to attachment to emptiness at the 180 mark
back to the beginning at a new thematic, no-attachment thinking at the 360 mark (Mitchell 6).
Before going ahead, let me at this time clarify the term Da-Sein. Da-sein is the formal
indication of the entity that is ontologically distinguished from all other entities by the fact that,
in its very existence, the challenge and meaning of existence is an issue for it (Schalow and
Denker 71). That is, existence is couched in the experience of the individual.
What Heidegger did in Being and Time was to address the question What is Being?
Finding that this question had not been properly answered throughout the history of the Western
tradition (though coming close in the Ancient Greek position), he approaches the question from
phenomenological existentialism, or from the phenomena closest to Da-sein as it is in its own
existence. What he is looking for is a fundamental ontology, or the existential analytic
description of constitutes the structure of a being such as Da-sein is. Da-sein is essentially
disclosing itself to itself in the forms of understanding, attunement and discourse. As Da-sein
exists or is thrown into existence, in its everydayness, it falls prey to the they of the World.

Fehrman 3
Its everyday mode of being is characterized by idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity. These show
the kind of movement of falling prey with the essential characteristics of temptation,
tranquillization, alienation, and entanglement (BT 168). Further, the whole constitution of the
structure is marked as care, which Da-sein has access to through a situation known as angst. That
is, whilst Da-sein has lost itself in the everyday, public world of the They, a factical rarity
(BT 178) occurs to Da-sein when in a brief flash of clarity, it can see its whole fundamental
structure. In this act of disclosing the truth of itself to itself, Da-sein sees that it has the ability to
disclose, that it is thrown into the world, that it projects itself into the future as its own
potentiality of being, and that it is for the most part falling prey to the everyday public world it
factically exists in. This rare and brief flash of clarity, if brought before its own Death, can
engender what is known as an authentic existence.
Authentic existence as being-towards-death for Da-sein also unveils the temporal horizon
on which Da-sein is being-there. This authentic existence as being-towards death means that Dasein can face its own death in at least a reasonable amount of clarity with fleeing the its
ownmost-potential-not-to-be-bypassed that represents Death. That is, Da-sein projects many
possibilities into the temporal ecstasy of the future, but there may be many multitude of avenues,
but inevitably, all roads lead to Rome for Da-sein. Da-sein lost in the everyday world, calls
itself back to itself in a call to conscious which leads to a guilt from performing an illusory way
the whole time. This guilt leads Da-sein to a resoluteness to be in truth to itself as much as
possible.
Only by resolutely Being-itself, a finite whole, Dasein must anticipate its death
(Melchert 666). An authentic being-towards-death constitutes the whole structure of care, and
this authentic being-towards-death is the anticipatory resoluteness. Further, as intimated above,

Fehrman 4
the primordial unity of the structure of care lies in temporality (BT 301), more specifically as
being-ahead-of-itself in relation to the future. As regards the present, we receive an impression of
an authentic temporality of present by interacting with things-at-hand in the world, which by the
current relation to those items we also receive an understanding of the past or a having-been. The
authentic temporality of present is referred to as moment. (BT 311). Couching the revelatory
condition of the structure of Da-sein as care, in its ontological meaning of temporality we find
the horizon of manifestation in which Da-sein creates its own possibilities but also falls into a
world that it has already factically contrived.
Thus, is the exposition, if very, very briefly of Heideggers existential philosophy. In the
following treatise we will approach a few of the ideas and themes of Heidegger and see if they
have any sort of analog to ideas and concepts existent within the current of Buddhism in general,
and Zen Buddhism specifically. But before outlining the different analogs, we may point out not
so much as to why Heidegger is so commonly compared to Buddhism, but why he is compared
to the Zen tradition of Buddhism more often than other traditions of Buddhism.
III. Zen Buddhism and Releasement
It is because at the heart of Zen Buddhism is a draw towards what can be considered in
the West as a sort of transcendental nihilism. In the Zen tradition there is a draw to the
Unconscious consciousness (Steffney 325) while in the moment, Da-sein can be jarred from its
public everydayness in its own call to care through angst. This call to care, is attested by a call to
consciousness which itself is silent. Therefore, in its silence exists a certain type of awakening in
non-thought, or that which is revealed to Da-sein is revealed in a silent awe. Buddhism, as it
made its way through India picked up a cosmology as it interplayed with local Hindu customs
and a sense of Karmic cycling of lives and its inherent Brahmic caste system. This cosmology

Fehrman 5
does not pop up in the Zen Buddhist tradition which is more interested in attaining a noattachment thought (Mitchell 7).
So what is Zen Buddhism? According to D. T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen Buddhism to
the West (Umehara 276):
Zen is discipline in enlightenment. Enlightenment means emancipation. And
emancipation is no less than freedom. We talk very much these days about all kinds of
freedom, political, economic, and otherwise, but these freedoms are not at all real. As
long as they are on the plane of relativity, the freedoms or liberties we glibly talk about
are far from being such. The real freedom is the outcome of enlightenment. When a man
realizes this, in whatever situation he may find himself he is always free in his inner life,
for that pursues its own line of action. Zen is the religion of jiy (tz-yu), self-reliance,
and jizai (tz-tsai), self-being (Suzuki, 1973, 6).
For our purposes this is a good place to launch into the parallels between the two systems. We
can think of the attachment in Zen Buddhism as being akin to the falling prey of Heideggers
thought. In the falling prey Da-Sein takes for reality what it experiences in the illusory state of
a consensual, public world of agreement amongst other beings, the mitda-sein, or the they.
But whereas the angst as it occurs to Da-sein, pulls Da-sein back into its own authentic
self in a revelatory way, for the practitioner of Zen to experience satori, or enlightenment,
requires the practitioner to practice a meditation known as zazen, or [Za]Zen (meditation) means
to see your original nature and not be confused (Sogen 20). The Zen analogue of releasement
is non-attachment, and its purpose is not to crush and stifle the thought-process, but to let all
phenomenasensory perceptions, emotional tensions, concepts, etc.simply go, to liquidate
ones cognitive assets, to exhaust the discursive mind, and gradually cease to identify with any
bodily (gross) or mental (subtle) substance, until the bodymind itself is dropped (Storey 9).
This satori, or disclosedness of the nature of Being in question within itself and delivered
from attachment, forms a resoluteness. The Being of Dasein, delivered from its inauthentic self
in angst from a call to care reveals to Da-sein its own authentic existence. One of the differences

Fehrman 6
here between the no-self releasement in Zen Buddhism and the authentic, resolute self of
Heidegger is that the no-self releasement can exist in the Heideggers sense of a lost self. Here,
the uncircumspect mind that Heidegger would say is lost becomes similar to the state one finds
in the satori or Samadhi of unconscious consciousness:
For instance, in the case of a fire, we become unconscious of ourselves and
involuntarily give full play to our hidden power. Even apart from such emergencies, it
often happens when we are so engrossed with our work that we forget the passage of time
and are unaware of our hunger. We are then living unconsciously in no-self. If this
unconscious selflessness is authentic selflessness in the literal sense of the word, we may
surely call it Samadhi (Sogen, 2001, 103)
IV. Freedom Toward Death in Heidegger and Zen Buddhism
Heidegger finishes his design of the whole structure of Da-sein in Div. II Ch. I. and he
does this not only to bring his discussion towards temporality, Death and the being-toward-death
that discloses to Da-sein its ownmost nonrelational possibility not-to-be-bypassed (BT 244),
but he also sees Death as another way for Da-sein to experience an authentic mode of Being. In
anxiety towards death, one expects it to happen, and therefore anticipates it, Being-towarddeath is the anticipation of a potentiality-of-being of that being whose kind of being is
anticipation itself. In the anticipatory revealing of this potentiality-of-being, Da-sein discloses
itself to itself with regard to its most extreme possibility (BT 242). This extreme possibility is
death, and in order to maintain it, in regards to anticipation towards a more authentic way of
being, Da-sein uses its old attunement angst as way to position itself to be in a constant state of
awareness, or, anticipation of death. As Heidegger puts it:
What is characteristic about authentic, existentially projected being-toward-death
can be summarized as follows: Anticipation reveals to Da-sein its lostness in the theyself, and brings it face to face with the possibility to be itself, primarily unsupported by
concern taking care of things, but to be itself in passionate anxious freedom toward death
which is free of the illusions of the they, factical, and certain of itself. (Heidegger, 1996,
245)

Fehrman 7
This freedom toward death, if maintained with the combination of anticipation in respect to
expecting death, and a resoluteness as we received from our call to conscience and its inherent
being-guilty that leads Da-sein to pursue the authentic being in its disclosedness, results in the
anticipatory resoluteness of Da-sein, which I will now equate with a type of nirvana, or
liberation from despair (Dorell and Berguno 163). Further, from this vantage of point of
nirvana being a sort of semi-permanent form of authentic being, its counterpart, samsara, or
never-ending suffering (ibid. 162) can now be seen in a Heideggerian light in the inauthentic
flight from death (BT 235). In this light we could say that Da-seins everyday conception of
Death is a sort of suffering couched in uncertainty.
Couched precisely in the same framework as Heidegger as we illuminated above, Zen
Buddhism equates attachment to Being-in-the-World to the falling prey of Da-seins
everydayness. Thus, freedom from death is proposed by the Buddha in much the same way as
Heidegger:
kyamuni Buddha grasps human existence in terms of death. How to eliminate
the suffering of death? Buddha does not see the solution in the immortality of the soul or
in eternal life in the Socratic or Christian sense. Buddha regards such doctrines as
dogmatic. They meant to him nothing but an escape from the utter finitude of human
existence. The attachment to existence which is latent in man is the most decisive cause
of fear of death. Man will attain freedom and purity through emancipation from the
suffering of death, that is, through deliverance from the attachment to his own existence.
(Umehara, 1970, 277)
Hence, with our exposition of death we strike the very vein of gold that ties the two theories
together. And just as Heidegger uses being-toward-death as the rounding out of his conception of
the whole being of Da-sein but also as the grounds from which his conception of temporality
may sprout, we see the same analogue in Zen Buddhism.
V. The Temporality of Zen Buddhism

Fehrman 8
We start our excavation of the Zen Buddhist conception of time in the concept of
transiency. Transiency is the state of all beings in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. It can be
thought of the everydayness of beings in a state of constant change, or as we said above,
samsara. Then, truly, once an anticipatory resoluteness or nirvana, was attained, a clear
conception of the very nature of transiency, or time would disclose itself to Da-sein. The very
self-awareness of the finitude of being makes man free from attachment to fame, money, and
sex (Umehara, 1970, 278). Here the causal relation between time and being and a certain
demarcation between Heidegger and Buddhist thought.
For Heidegger, time or temporality was akin to a horizon in which all of the different
constitutive parts of Da-sein were temporalized. Further, as we alluded to in our brief
treatment of Heideggers philosophy above, the primary ecstasy is that of the future. The future
because Da-sein projects itself through its own possibilities and especially through its beingtoward-death, which truly validates time, and therefore comes to the other two conceptions of
time, present, and past. But in all three ecstasies we find an entanglement of the three temporal
ecstasies in and throughout the four main constituents of care: understanding, attunement, falling
prey, and discourse. The horizon of time is experienced by the being of Da-sein. Therefore there
still exists in Heideggers Being and Time a duality not found in Zen Buddhism.
In Zen Buddhism we find a conception of a unity. Dgen reminds us that we do not live
in time, because we are time. Heidegger sees time as the unfolding of or the meaning Being, but
Dgen claims that time is not a condition for being; it is Being (Dorell and Berguno 167). The
debate over the problem of time was addressed also by the founder of Mahyna Buddhism,
Ngrjuna. He argued the nonexistence of time based on the failure of past, present and future to
be contingently related (Kalupahana, 1974, 188). If, he argued, time was to be based on an

Fehrman 9
existential structure, then it cannot be obtained without such structure because he has already
refuted such a structure (ibid). Dgen as a successor to Ngrjuna, retranslates the argument
that from a Being, we also get time into simply combining the two in unity, as such.
VI. Conclusion
In the foregoing treatise we have sought to delineate the terminology and philosophy of
both Heidegger and Zen Buddhism. At once delivering the terminology, at times we were able to
use the terms interchangeably when we attended to the conception of Death and attachment
found in both systems. What was lacking from this paper was a proper treatment of the concept
of care which could be considered as an analogue to the Buddhist conception of compassion, but
we forewent that path as the parallels between the two would have been strained; Heideggers
conception of care does not intimate a sense of compassion from a standpoint of an eternal love
for all things. This marks the only difference between this work and that comparative analysis of
Dorell and Berguno.
Perhaps what Heidegger was attempting in Being and Time was not just a philosophical
treatment of metaphysics he thought lacking in the Western tradition, but perhaps a channel of
enlightenment by way of existentialism. Perhaps by going back to the things themselves, was a
way of turning inside ourselves and revealing our true nature to ourselves in much the same way
as a student of Zen finds the truth of nirvana within their own silent meditations. Whether
Heidegger had been exposed to Oriental sutras and scriptures is within the realm of possibility
and outside the scope of the research for this paper. Perhaps as the full corpus of Heideggers
work continues to be translated into the English tongue, we will find reference points into the
esoteric mind of the man himself. For now, we can compare and contrast Heideggers work with
the historical Buddhist works and find an uncanny resemblance.

Fehrman 10
WORKS CITED
Critchley, Simon, and Reiner Schmann. On Heideggers Being and Time. London: Routledge,
2008. Print.
Dorell, Catherine, and George Berguno. A Comparative Analysis of Zen Buddhism and
Heidegger. Existential Analysis, Vol. 15, No. 1: 162-171. Jan. 2004. Web. 23 July 2015.
Earhart, H. Byron, ed. Religious Traditions of the World. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.
Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1996. Print.
Kalupahana, David J. The Buddhist Conception of Time and Temporality. Philosophy East &
West, Vol. 24, No. 2, Time and Temporality: 181-191. Apr. 1974. Web. 23 July 2015.
King, Magda. A Guide to Heideggers Being and Time. Albany: State University of New York,
2001. Print.
Lin-Chi. The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999. Print.
Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Mitchell, Stephen. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn.
New York: Grove Press, 1976. Print.
Schalow, Frank, and Alfred Denker. Historical Dictionary of Heideggers Philosophy. Lanham:
Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010. Print.
Sogen, Omori. An Introduction to Zen Training. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2001. Print.
Steffney, John. Transmetaphysical Thinking in Heidegger and Zen Buddhism. Philosophy East
& West, Vol. 27, No. 3: 323-335. July 1977. Web. 23 July 2015.

Fehrman 11
Storey, David. Zen in Heideggers Way. Journal of East-West Thought, Vol. 2, No. 4: 113-137.
2012. Web. 23 July 2015.
Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.
Umehara, Takeshi. Heidegger and Buddhism. Philosophy East & West, Vol. 20, No. 3: 271281. July 1970. Web. 23 July 2015.
Yasutani, Hakuun. Flowers Fall. Trans. Paul Jaffe. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996.
Print.
Zorn, Diane. Heideggers Philosophy of Death. Akademia, Vol. 2, No. 2: 10-11. 1991. Web. 23
July 2015.