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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.