What does it mean to be human? Barry Magid December 12th 2020

Since it seemed like it’s going to be a long cold winter without any prospects of holiday travel, I figured I’d have some time on my hands, so I ordered Joan Stambaugh’s translation of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and Hubert Dreyfus’s commentary on that called “Being in the World.” Some of you will know the translator, Joan Stambaugh, because she’s also written a wonderful book on Dogen called “Impermanence is Buddha-Nature,” and when you think of it, those two terms, impermanence and Buddha-Nature, stand in sort of an analogous relation to “Being in Time” by Heidegger. I thought I would try to address a few basic things in “Being and Time” that might have some relevance to our Zen practice.

One of the first points she makes as a translator is the decision not to capitalize the word “being” in the text. In German, nouns are routinely capitalized, and so in a way to have a capital B in Being in German is no big deal, but as soon as you capitalize being in English you’ve done something that’s not so innocuous. We immediately hear connotations of either a supreme being or we get some idea of an abstract being in some transcendent way that is beyond or behind our ordinary life and we get the idea that philosophy or practice is supposed to get us in touch with this somewhat supernatural something.

But one of the few short sentences that Heidegger writes at the beginning of “Being and Time,” is where he says, Being is always the being of a being. The only place being is a supposed abstraction is to be found in the being or nature of individual beings. It’s not a separate entity or category above and beyond our life, but it’s something that is a characteristic of the life we’re already living.

But his particular concern is human being. What is particular about human being? And he comes up with a very interesting definition, I think, because he says, Human beings are beings for whom their nature is itself a question. Human beings are beings for whom human being is itself problematic. What that means is that we don’t have any immediately definable essential nature of what it means to be a human being. There’s no equivalent to fish swim and birds fly. Human beings do what? There’s no obvious or natural way to fill in the blank. Rather, for human beings, filling in that blank is the problem that makes them human, trying to live a life where you’ve got to figure out what it means to live a life, what is particular to human beings.

Now, various philosophies and religions at different times have tried not to leave that blank open-ended. I think it’s one of the crucial things that Heidegger and the Existentialists wanted to leave that blank open. A human being is blank and they don’t want to fill it with a simple essential answer, but many people have ventured to do so, and a typical kind of essential answer is that human beings are rational animals, that our rationality is what makes us distinctly human. Someone like Descartes wants to find the foundations of philosophy. He says that he can doubt everything about who he is and what the world is, except for the fact that he’s sitting there thinking and asking this question, so he can begin with the statement, I think therefore I am.

But Heidegger, in effect, wants to turn that around and say, I am therefore I think, among lots of other things. And the thinking is not the essential or unique or distinctive quality. Someone like Immanuel Kant, in trying to devise a universal foundation for ethics, wants to say that he’ll come up with an ethics that any rational person in any time and any culture, just because they’re rational, will have to accede to. He wants to make that rationality a kind of universal kind of quality, and, he says, once we all see that we share that quality, all these kinds of ethical implications will follow.

But then you get a person like Nietzsche who comes along and says, You know, I’d much rather be Achilles than Socrates. I just prefer the life of the hero to the life of a philosopher. I’d like to define the highest virtue as courage, not rationality. Is there a rational argument against that choice? Is there a neutral place to stand and argue about why the life of Socrates is better than the life of Achilles? It’s only from the perspective of Socrates that you can do that, an argument that Achilles would agree to, that disqualifies a preference for that kind of life. So Nietzsche is a kind of philosopher who tries to escape this essentializing argument. He just won’t go along with the program that says man is essentially rationale. He wants to say, No, I’m going to put in some other candidates for what man is. He’s trying to make this move to leave the question open.

How do we approach this in Zen? I think it’s interesting because there are a number of different responses to that in our Zen practice. But there’s clearly a whole strand of thought or tendency, perhaps you can associate it with the Taoist influence on Chinese Buddhism, to say that Zen is an attempt to get us back in touch with what’s natural, what’s simple and basic about being human. And there you get a kind of Zen of “chop wood and carry water.” You have the Zen of being in harmony with nature, as if being in harmony with nature had a self-evident content. But here there’s a strong wish to discover within our practice this simple, natural way of being human.

In that way of thinking the whole problem that Heidegger wants to raise, the idea that to be human, is to engage with this unanswerable open problem of what it means to be human. A certain strand of Zen would just say that only a neurotic intellectual European would come up with that kind of question for themselves. Being natural, being in harmony with nature, living this simple life, chopping wood, planting trees, planting your vegetables in the garden, sitting a little zazen in the morning and in the evening. What could be more obvious, more simple, more naturally human? Right?

I think that it’s important to recognize that we all have a kind of strong basic pull or longing to find that kind of solution to the question, and there’s a whole strand of our practice that if we don’t necessarily want to say colludes with that, at least it offers that as a kind of simple available answer. And if we take that to be an answer, then we probably will end up feeling like this modern life that we’re leading, going to work, living in cities, being intellectuals, doing all these complicated things that we do, are one way or another alienations from the simple, natural life that is out there for somebody. And this can lead to a certain kind of fantasy or idealization of monasticism, which once in a while will present itself as a kind of return to natural simplicity.

Now actual institutional monasticism may or may not feel like that kind of simple life. As it actually is lived, it might feel a lot more like a highly regimented, highly ritualized, quite arbitrary form of life that is structured by an enormous number of culturally determined and arbitrary set of rules, and it might feel more like being an Orthodox Jew and having six hundred kinds of rules about what it means to keep kosher and follow the halal, than it does to be simply chopping wood and carrying water. But, you know, it has a lot of appeal. If you become a monk you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to wear in the morning or how you're going to fix your hair. You don’t have to worry about what you're going to do in the day because you’re just going to look at the schedule on the wall and it’s all taken care of. So this has certainly at least a superficial appeal for the idea that there’s a simple, natural answer to the question, What does it mean to be human?

But there is another side of Zen that I think does tend to keep the blank wide open. And that’s the side where it seems that these enlightened old masters are breaking out of all sorts of ordinarily given categories, at least categories of common sense and ordinary ways of talking. They do all sorts of wild and crazy stuff, and they say all sorts of things that on the surface don’t make a lot of sense. Try to ask them a simple question and they hit you upside the head or they say something that doesn’t sound like an answer at all. What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming to the West? Three pounds of flax.

See, you get a whole dimension of Buddhism that says, Don't think that who you are or what this life is, can be bounded by rationality. And there’s also a strong tendency to say, don’t think it can be bounded by your usual class and cultural norms or expectations. You get at least occasional stories of a Zen teacher being rude even to the Emperor, and if not venturing to slap the Emperor, at least not behaving in the expected ways that someone would respond to status and authority and power.

So on that side there’s this powerful antinomian, anti-establishment, anti-rational behavior associated with Zen. To some extent that got exaggerated and caricatured in what was called Beat Zen in the 50s and 60s by somebody like Alan Watts, but there’s no question that that side of Zen was an enormous part of its appeal. To my generation growing up in the 60s, where Zen looked positively counter-cultural, it became hard for those counter-cultural types to come to terms with the discipline and rigor and formalities of Japanese culture if they actually encountered a life in a Zen monastery or Japanese teacher, but it certainly was a powerful dimension of what we thought Zen was and what attracted us to Zen.

And now, as we practice today, I think that we have to try to examine our own particular answers to what we think is Zen’s answer to that question, What does it mean to be human? Is it simply Dogen’s answer that to sit zazen is to experience the awakened way? Do we feel that monasticism is the closest thing humanly possible to a natural state of being in harmony with our nature and the nature of the world? Does Zen suggest an open-ended answer to the question, where any form of life whatsoever that recognizes the reality of impermanence and interdependence is a Zen life? Does that take any particular form? Is it a monk? Is it a doctor? Is it an artist? Is it somebody who goes to work every day, working in an office but recognizes the finitude of their life and their own vulnerability and their dependence on others and others’ dependence on them? Does Zen have anything to do with a particular form of life at all?

How do you answer that question?

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