From ‘Heidegger, Buddhism, and deep ecology” by M. Zimmerman, in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger

Kyoto in the summer of 2018 – photo by s.f.

“For mystics, the “self” is not an entity that stands opposed in a dualistic way to other entities. Instead, it is the clearing in which entities (including thoughts, feelings, perceptions, objects, others) appear. The idea that humans are not entities but the clearing in which entities appear eventually helped Heidegger overcome not only dualism, but also anthropocentrism, the attitude that humankind is the source of all value and that all things must serve human interests. By maintaining that humans are authentic only when they let a thing manifest itself in ways consistent with its own possibilities, not merely in accordance with its instrumental value, Heidegger countered the anthropocentrism of much of Western thought.


Heidegger maintained […] that the human being is not a thing but rather a peculiar kind of nothingness: the temporal-linguistic clearing, the opening, the absencing in which things can present themselves and thus “be.” If humans are not things, then we have to define “knowing” in a different way than before. Knowing is not a relation between two things, mind and object. Rather, knowing occurs because the openness constituting human existence is configured in terms of the three temporal dimensions: past, present, future. These dimensions hold open the horizons on which entities may manifest themselves in determinate ways – for example, as instruments, objects, or persons. Heidegger’s talk of the a priori character of the temporal horizons of human existence is analogous to Kant’s talk of the a priori categories of the human understanding.
Human understanding, then, does not take place inside a mind locked in the skull. Instead, understanding occurs because human temporality is receptive to particular ways in which things can present or manifest themselves. Here it is important to emphasize that what we ordinarily take to be the ultimate constituents of “mind” – thoughts, beliefs, assertions, and so on – are for Heidegger phenomena that occur within the temporal clearing constitutive of human understanding. Hence, minds do not make thoughts possible; rather, a priori human understanding of being makes it possible for us to encounter and to conceive of ourselves as “minds” with “thoughts” separated from the “external world.” For Heidegger, “thoughts” are not radically other than allegedly external entities, such as trees, cars, and books. Thoughts and cars are both entities manifesting themselves within and thus being understood as entities within the temporal clearing of human existence. […] Refusing to conceive of being as a kind of superior entity, an eternal foundation, ground, cause, or origin for things, Heidegger argued that for something “to be” means for it to disclose or to present itself. For this presencing (Anwesen) or self-manifesting to occur, there must be a clearing, an opening, an emptiness, a nothingness, an absencing (Abwesen). Human existence constitutes the openness necessary for the presencing (being) of entities to take place. […] For Heidegger, neither temporality (absencing, nothingness) nor being (presencing, self- manifesting) is an “entity.” Rather, they are the conditions necessary for entities to appear as such. We never “see” time or “touch” the presencing of things; rather, we see and touch the things that manifest or present themselves.

[…] we humans simply are the temporal openness or nothingness in which entities can appear as entities. In addition to such an argument, however, Heidegger maintained that the mood of anxiety [cf. dukkha] reveals the nothingness lying at the heart of human existence. While contending that anxiety is perhaps the most basic human mood, he also observed that it is such a disquieting mood that we spend most of our lives trying to keep it from overtaking us. Our unreflective absorption in the practices of everyday life – family relations, schooling, job activities, entertainment – keep us distracted enough that we manage to conceal from ourselves the weirdness of being human. Anxiety tears us out of everyday absorption in things; it reveals them to be useless in the face of the radical mortality,
finitude, and nothingness at the heart of human existence.

Why is human existence weird? Because humans are not things, but the clearing in which things appear. Although we are not fixed things, we define ourselves as if we were simply a more complex version of the things we encounter in the world: rational animals. Ordinarily, we identify ourselves with our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, memories, bodies, material possessions, and so on. Such identification gives us a sense of stability and permanence, which covers up the essential groundlessness and emptiness of human existence. There is no ultimate “reason” for our doing what we do. We have to postulate our own reasons for doing what we do; we invent our own identities, although those identities to a great extent are determined in advance by social practices and norms that have
evolved historically. Moreover, as groundless nothingness, humans are essentially dependent and receptive, finite and mortal. The mood of anxiety is so disturbing because it reveals that “at bottom” we are nothingness, that our existence is ultimately groundless, and that we are essentially finite and mortal. In the face of such disclosures, little wonder that most people flee from the mood of anxiety.
[…] if we submit resolutely to what the mood of anxiety wants to reveal to us, we become authentic (eigentlich) in the sense of “owning” our mortal existence. As authentic, we assume responsibility for being the mortal openness that we already are. Assuming such responsibility is essential to human freedom. Instead of existing in a constricted manner – as egos with firm identities – we allow the temporal openness that we are to expand. This expansion allows things and other humans to manifest themselves in more complex, complete, and novel ways, rather than as mere objects or instruments for our ends. Conversely, by fleeing from anxiety into everyday practices and distractions, we conceal the truth about our own mortal nothingness and are thus incapable of allowing things to manifest themselves primordially.


Zen enlightenment, satori, involves direct insight into one’s radical groundlessness and nothingness. In the light of such a revelation, everyday practices (including working and eating) lose their meaning. Afterward, however, one reenters these practices, but in a way no longer burdened by ignorance about what it means to be human. Likewise for Heidegger, before becoming authentic one exists in accord with everyday practices; upon allowing anxiety to reveal one’s utter groundlessness and nothingness, everyday practices slide away into meaninglessness; afterward, one takes up everyday practices once again, but not in a merely conformist manner.

Instead, being authentic means being free to invigorate and to transform practices in light of the realization of their utter groundlessness. As groundless, things could be otherwise than they are at present. It is important to note, however, that for Heidegger freedom did not mean boundless license for the ego, but instead the capacity for human Dasein to “let things be” in ways other than as mere instruments for the ego. As the Zen tradition puts it, being enlightened means chopping wood and carrying water – but in a manner attuned to the presencing of things as it occurs beyond the dualism of “mind” and “body.”


One phase in this attempt involved conceiving of humans not as minds in skulls but rather as the temporal clearing or nothingness in which thoughts and trees, beliefs and cars can appear as entities. The
other phase in overcoming dualism involved challenging those who privileged theoretical assertions and abstract knowledge over against pragmatic activity. Instead of conceiving of humans as worldless intellects making abstract assertions about external objects, Heidegger defined humans as being always already involved in myriad practices that utilize many different things. These things do not manifest themselves abstractly as “objects,” but instead as tools involved in a complex set of relationships that constitute the “world” of human existence. Human existence, temporally oriented toward the future, is always pressing forward into possibilities opened up within the world. The practical involvements and practices of everyday life precede and make possible the theoretical knowledge so prized by philosophers. Heidegger emphasized the practical dimension of human existence by defining the very being of Dasein as “care.” To be human means to be concerned about things and to be solicitous toward other people. […] he later concluded that the objectifying scientific view did not result from any human decision or weakness, but was instead a proper part of the technological disclosure of entities, a disclosure that was itself a dimension of the “destiny of being.” The famous “tum” in Heidegger’s thinking occurred when he concluded that he could no longer conceive of being in terms of human understanding, but instead had to conceive of human understanding as an aspect of being itself.
[…] Ceasing to speak of temporality or nothingness as a dimension of human existence, he made clear that human temporality arises within a more encompassing “openness” or “region” that cannot be reduced to anything merely human. Later Heidegger emphasized that human existence is appropriated as the site for the self-disclosure or “being” of entities. Instead of conceiving of being from the perspective of human Dasein, then, Heidegger began “thinking” being in its own terms. This move was central to his attempt to abandon any remaining anthropocentrism discernible in his earlier work.

[…] The technological disclosure of entities, then, arose not because individuals were unable to endure anxiety, but instead because, since around Plato’s time, being as such had increasingly withdrawn itself from human view. Correlatively, Western humanity was blinded to the fact that human existence is the clearing for the being of entities. Hence, Western humanity increasingly came to understand itself as a peculiar entity – the clever animal- driven to dominate all other entities for the sake of gaining power and security. Heidegger argued that the emergence of the technological age in the twentieth century was the inevitable result of the clever animals’ craving for power.


By conceiving of being as the permanently present grounding for entities, Plato initiated the 2500-year history of metaphysics. Heidegger sought to transform this history by revealing that there is no eternal or final “ground” for things, that in fact what we mean by “being” is always shaped by historical factors.


Modem science forced entities to reveal themselves only in accordance with theoretical presuppositions consistent with Western humanity’s ever-increasing drive to gain control of everything. While during the industrial age the achievement of such control could be described as a means for the end of improving the human estate, during the technological era – which may be said to have commenced with the horrors of World War I – humanity itself has become a means to an end without purpose: the quest for power for its own sake, which Heidegger described as the sheer “Will to Will.”


The “world” constitutes itself by virtue of the spontaneous coordination or mutual appropriation of the appearances that arise – un-caused, from “no-thing” – moment by moment. Later Heidegger used the term logos to name this mutual coordination of appearances; hence, his claim that language (logos) lets things be. This account of the self-organization of uncaused appearances, which is close to Taoism, also provides the key to Heidegger’s proximity to Mahayana Buddhism. […] in calling for another beginning that
would displace the Western metaphysical quest for the ultimate ground of things, Heidegger questioned the validity of the West’s claim to cultural superiority. Belief in such superiority hinges on the conviction that Western rationality, especially as manifested in science and technology, constitutes the ground for things: to be means to be a representation for the rational subject. In deconstructing metaphysical foundationalism, however, Heidegger revealed the groundlessness not only of rationality, but also of the historical project of mastery based on such rationality.


The Buddhist Conception of Nothingness


According to Mahayana Buddhism, overcoming all forms of dualism is a necessary condition for emancipation from the suffering brought about by experiencing the world as divided into ego-subject and objects. In combating such dualism, Nagarjuna emphasized anatma, the doctrine that there is no essence, core, or substance to things. According to this doctrine, all things arise together simultaneously and are radically codependent in the sense of mutually defining one another. This insight regarding internal relatedness or interdependent causation (pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit) not only undermines the notion of individual”substances” or “selves,” but also rejects the dualistic idea that “sentience” is a capacity enabling some entities to “perceive” others. Entities are not perceived “by” the mind, but instead “perception” and “entity” are different ways of describing a unitary cosmic event of luminosity or self-manifesting, an event that cannot be understood as merely “mental.” When we no longer experience the world dualistically as a collection of separate objects perceived by the mind, but instead as a moment-by-moment manifestation of interrelated phenomena, then we experience the whole universe as sentient, as inherently luminous.

The most famous metaphorical expression of this insight, advanced by the Hua-yen school, is the jewel net of the god Indra. Into this infinite net, representing the universe, are set an infinite number of perfect gems, each of which reflects the light given off by all the other gems throughout the expanse of the net. The play of reflected light is codetermined simultaneously by all the gems, no one of which stands in a “superior” or “causal” relation to the others. Mahayana Buddhism holds that the phenomenal world is akin to such an interplay of reflected appearances, in which each thing is aware of its relation to all other things. These appearances have no ground; there is nothing “behind” what appears, no substantial “ground” or “essence” to cause them. All things arise together in an internally cosmic event of reflection, which is sentient though not usually self-conscious. Based on the insight that all appearances are ultimately empty, Mahayana Buddhists draw the conclusion that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, a paradoxical conclusion whose “proof” demands direct insight, which argument alone cannot provide.

The doctrine of the radical emptiness of all forms, derived from the doctrine of dependent coproduction, suggests that every form, every phenomenon, has equal worth. Since there are no essences, there is no hierarchy of phenomenal reality; hence, no one thing is subordinate to or lesser than any other. Each thing is uniquely itself, like a particular jewel reflecting the play of all other jewels in the cosmic phenomenal play arising as temporary-form-within-absolute-emptiness. Insight into the interdependency of all things reveals the falsehood of anthropocentrism: humans are not radically different from or better than other beings, but instead are moments in the play of phenomena. If all things are internally related, there is no internal “substance” or “core” of entities, including humans. Human suffering (dukkha) arises because people posit and identify with a substantial,
unchanging ego at the core of the flux of experience. By identifying
with this supposedly permanent self, we enter into the state of ignorance known as subject-object dualism. Such dualism is characterized by craving, aversion, and delusion, which combine to produce suffering.

[…] both Heidegger and the Zen tradition maintain that once one is released from the constricted self-understanding associated with dualistic egocentrism, other people and things in the world no longer appear as radically separate and threatening, but instead as profoundly interrelated phenomena. Surrendering one’s constricted ego-identity, and thus moving beyond dualism, enables one to become the compassion (Buddhism) or care (Heidegger) that one always already is. “Authenticity” (Heidegger) and “enlightenment” (Buddhism), then, result from the insight into nondualism, the fact that there are “not two,” neither an “ego-mind” here nor “objects”

[…] both later Heidegger and the Soto Zen master suggest that spiritual practices may help put one in the position of a paradoxical “willingness not to will,” thereby preparing one for the releasement that brings one into the world appropriately for the first time.»

[…] For Heidegger, the self-manifesting or presencing of entities cannot be explained in causal terms. We can describe things in causal terms only after they have first manifested themselves as things. Likewise for Buddhism, causality is a conceptual scheme for relating phenomena, but these phenomena themselves are not “caused,” for all phenomena arise
Simultaneously in mutual coproduction. Heidegger’s account of the
dance of earth and sky, gods and mortals, the dance in which things
manifest themselves in the event of mutual appropriation, bears remarkable similarities to the Buddhist account of the moment-by-moment coproduction of self-luminous phenomena. To some extent, later Heidegger’s thought and Buddhism alike are both versions of what we might call “phenomenalism.” For them, there is “nothing” behind the appearances that constitute the furniture of our worlds.

[…] later Heidegger’s cosmic dance is similar to Buddhism’s cosmic coproduction. Mahayana Buddhism manifests cosmocentrism by noting that enlightened humanity exhibits compassion equally for all beings, not just for humans. Later Heidegger moved closer to the cosmocentrism of Mahayana Buddhism and away from his earlier anthropocentrism not only by calling for humanity to let all beings be, but also by no longer conceiving of the”clearing” as a human capacity or faculty.


Heidegger’s own student, Karl Loewith, also argued that his mentor remained trapped within an anthropocentrism that blinded him to the cosmocentrism of ancient Greek thinkers such as Heraclitus.» Nevertheless, later Heidegger’s notion of the “event of appropriation” (Ereignis), which gathers mortals together into the luminous cosmic dance with gods, earth, and sky, bears important similarities to Buddhism’s mutual coproduction and Lao Tsu’s tao, both of which are regarded as nonanthropocentric. Ereignis, sunyata, tao: these may be different names for the acausal, spontaneous arising and mutually appropriating play of phenomena.


Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology


The deep ecologist Arne Naess, a noted Norwegian philosopher and naturalist, has been influenced both by Heideggerian and by Mahayana Buddhist phenomenalism. Naess argues that our everyday “experience” of what it means for things “to be” is shaped by gestalts that organize the concrete contents or phenomena. There are no “primary” qualities, substances, or “essences” of things; indeed, there are no “things” at all, if by “things” we mean solid, unchanging, isolated material objects. “Things” thus conceived are only useful constructs for dealing with the constantly changing and internally related phenomena constituting “experience.” Naess says that “there is a similarity between this view and those expressed by the Buddhist formula sarvam dharmam nihsvabhavam. Every ele-
ment is without ‘self-existence.’ “


Reasoning vainly attempts to give ground to what is groundless: the flux of phenomena emerging moment by moment from the inexhaustible field of absolute nothingness. Insight into this nothingness undermines the constricted ego-pole “in here” defending itself against threatening others and objects “out there.” Such insight reveals the ego and its objects to be gestalts whose contents are constituted by an infinite number of self-arising phenomenal events. Seeing into one’s own original Buddha nature means being simultaneously (I) those concrete contents, (2) the organizing gestalt, (3)the awareness of the contents/gestalt, and (4) the nothingness in which they all (including consciousness) manifest themselves. “Awakening” means
shattering all dualisms, including the one between presencing and
absencing, being and nothingness. […] Phenomenalist ontology holds that human existence is a specific modality of the luminosity characterizing all phenomena.w Human awareness brings this cosmic luminosity to self-awareness. Buddhism, Heidegger, and Naess all assign to human existence the special role of apprehending the groundless, empty play of phenomena. Humans exist most appropriately when their luminous openness is unconstricted by dualistic ego-consciousness. Freed from such dualism, people can enter into a new, non-domineering relationship with all things. Humans can encounter birds and trees, lakes and sky, humans and mountains not as independent, substantial, self-enclosed entities, but rather as temporary constellations of appearances: self-giving phenomena arising simultaneously.

[…] Buddhism, Heidegger, and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one for spontaneous compassion toward other beings, human and nonhuman alike. One “lets things be” not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things.”

From ‘Heidegger, Buddhism, and deep ecology” by M. Zimmerman, in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger

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