The Greatest Philosopher You've Never Heard Of

May 31, 2016
Originally published on May 31, 2016 1:24 pm

Let's be honest. When most of us talk about philosophy — the hard-core, name-dropping, theory-quoting kind — we're talking about a particular lineage that traces back to the Hellenistic Greeks.

But consider, for a moment, the fact that over the last few thousand years there've been a whole lot of smart people born into a whole lot of highly sophisticated cultures. It is, therefore, kind of silly that we limit "philosophy" to mean "philosophy done by dudes who lived in Europe a long time ago." That gripe was the main point of a very pointed piece in The New York Times last month titled: "If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call It What It Really Is."

Of course, given how much my field of physics owes to the rich philosophical tradition of "The West," I do count myself as a big fan. From Plato's Doctrine of Ideals to Spinoza's Ethics, Western philosophic perspectives laid bare core issues that were transformed into really good things, like science and democratic political thought. But as The Times piece shows, it doesn't do much good imagining that Europe cornered the market on creative thinking about being human.

That's why, today, I want to tell you about Eihei Dogen.

Dogen was a 13th century Japanese Zen teacher who is considered by many to be one of the world's most profoundly subtle and creative thinkers. Now some might object that being a Zen master automatically knocks you off the list of great philosophers. Taking that position, however, misses how closely the history of Western philosophy is tied to the monotheistic religions it grew along with. Also, there is quite a bit of debate about how Buddhism stacks up as a religion to begin with (at least in terms of how we in the West think of the word). Buddhism contains no conception of deity and has a highly evolved monastic tradition that contains at least some elements of empiricism in its emphasis on direct experience and investigation.

But what were Buddhists like Dogen investigating — and what does it have to do with philosophy? For Buddhists, a central concern is the act of being a subject. That means the dynamics of the verb "to be" as a lived experience is often the focus of Buddhist philosophical inquiry.

For Western philosophy, this kind of question usually hinges around debates over the mind-body problem. Buddhist (and Vedic) philosophers had these kinds of debates, too, but they also had something their Western counterparts didn't.

While Western philosophers relied solely on reason and logic to source their arguments, Buddhists attempted to develop refined methods for articulate, focused introspection. The term used today is "contemplative practice." Sometimes the word "meditation" is used, though it doesn't come close to doing the concept justice. Like graduate students working on a Ph.D., aspiring contemplatives spent decades refining their techniques. The big difference, of course, is that for contemplatives the techniques were aimed at the stabilization of attention rather than statistical analysis or genetic manipulation. Once mastered, the stabilized attention is meant to be turned on questions about the nature of awareness. (As a side note, the "mindfulness" many Westerners are being introduced to today is a great start, but pretty much represents the bunny hill of contemplative practice.)

Dogen was a master of "zazen," the particular flavor of contemplative practice developed in Zen. Many of his writings are attempts to help his students understand the importance of, and approach to, this practice. But Dogen also tries to explain what is found, what is discovered, in zazen — and it's here that many find his genius.

The problem with discussions of direct experience is it's notoriously hard to report. How do I communicate my experience of a red apple or the blue sky to you? Words are just signifiers or labels. Most importantly they are clearly something different from my ongoing, happening-right-now, completely vivid experience. Couple that dilemma with the depth of what Dogen claims occurs in stabilized zazen and you can see where the problem begins.

To deal with this dilemma, Dogen deploys language that can be both hauntingly poetic and infuriating at the same time. For example, here is one of the most famous of Dogen quotes. It concerns studying "the Way," which, for Buddhists, is something like what Western philosophers might call essential nature"

"To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly."

When I first encountered this quote I had no idea what Dogen was talking about. What I did get, however, was a hint of truth in his lyricism. It was a hint originating from my own experience of the way the world's presence can rise before us. It's like how, when I'm on a hike, the "myriad things" of the world can all simultaneously unify into a totality of experience. Suddenly, I'm free of thinking about what I'm seeing and, instead, I'm just seeing.

Later in the same piece of writing, Dogen discusses the relationship between time and substance. Because his emphasis is the world as experience, his description breaks traditional dichotomies:

"Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death."

In this quote, you can see the Dogen that can be infuriating when you first encounter it. He often embodies that "up is down, but down is up" kind of Zen-ism. Over the years, and with my own practice, I've come to understand a whole lot more of what these kinds of passages mean. In a sense, Dogen is using language as a kind of game to help unpack the inherently existential problem of the self — the problem of being a self as opposed to thinking about it. If you are looking for a Western analogue of this kind of thing, the phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger come to mind. Heidegger, in particular, talked about the need to "jump into the circle" when approaching questions of being.

Like Heidegger and Husserl, I have been coming back to Dogen's writing for decades. As I've gotten older, I've come to see experience and its irreducible nature as a central unsolved problem in the overlap between science and philosophy. Dogen is, without a doubt, first and foremost a teacher of Zen Buddhism. But within his self-selected mission of bringing Zen to 13th century Japan, he also laid out an entirely novel approach to central issues of time, action and human being. As much as many of the philosophers in the Western canon, Dogen, too, deserves to be known.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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