God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Chapter 2: Essence and Existence


There is an old pine tree I walk by almost every day. Often I am preoccupied and scarcely see it. Then it's a tree like any other tree. My subliminal naming it "tree" takes the place of any genuine awareness or contact. But some days as I go by it seems to be saying, "Wake up and listen to me. Really look at me, and don't just call me a tree and go on your way." And if I heed this silent message I become aware of this tree as a unique individual. I notice the power of its trunk, and the fissures in its bark. Each branch and needle reaches out. This pine is saying, in its own way, "I am. I am. I am." And if I listen closely to it, this one message has two distinct aspects. The "I" speaks of what it is. It is a tree and not a flower, or a blade of grass. This is what the ancients called essence. The second aspect, its "am", is the fact of its existence. It is. It exists. It stands outside of nothingness and at each moment defies it. The tree exerts and exercises the rich, silent, motionless energy that is existence.

These two words, essence and existence, are the best way to explore the content of the intuition of being. Their surface meanings are easy to grasp. Essence is what a thing is, and existence is that it is or that it exists, and what a thing is is not the same as that it is. There are two distinct attitudes of mind involved, one when we name something and the other when we assert that it exists. The "what" and the "that" form two basic ways in which our mind tries to make sense of the things around us, or put in another way, they are two distinct aspects of things that the mind grasps and tries to come to terms with. (1)

Yet, usually, essence is in the forefront. This is the face things present to us. We distinguish one thing from another and even oppose one thing to another. An elephant is not a carrot, and we don't expect anyone to confuse the two. But we rarely if ever stop and consider the ultimate nature of the whats we are constantly making use of.

What makes an elephant an elephant must be different from what makes a carrot a carrot, or else they would be the same. But what makes a what to be ultimately a what? What makes a what ultimately to be a what cannot be a particular what, or else all whats would be the same, and we know this is not true. In short, what if we asked an admittedly very strange question: what is the whatness of whats, the essence of essences? What makes a what to be a what? It cannot be a particular what, for no particular what or essence can be the foundation of many different essences.

If we seriously ask ourselves about the whatness of whats or the essence of essences we can travel to the brink of the intuition of being by upsetting our facile complacence that says we really know the things around us. And metaphysics is meant to instruct us in these kinds of things, and so we will look at the answer of St. Thomas as Maritain presents it, but just reading the words is no guarantee they will make sense. They are meant to be read in light of the intuition as an explanation of it.

If essences don't contain their own final meaning, the only place left to look for it is in that other fundamental stance towards reality by which we assert that something exists. But this time we have to go beyond the common sense notion of existence applied to each essence as a final boost that brings the pre-existing essence into actual existence.

If essences cannot explain each other, then the explanation must be rich enough to encompass all essences. If we are forced to look to existence for an explanation of essence, then the one thing that existence cannot be is an idea, concept, what, essence or form. In this sense, existence is no-thing. It must possess an ontological richness and density that goes beyond the whole order of essence.

But is it really possible to penetrate beyond the level of essences? If we leave the plateau of essence, don't we, indeed, fall off toward nothingness? Are we finally forced to admit "that existence is an unknowable upon which metaphysics builds without itself attaining to it?" (2) Maritain refuses to stop here. If anything, this kind of perception is but the tiniest taste, or better, the intellectual preparation for the intuition of being itself. Existence is not simply a limit that we asymptotically approach, but it is the most real of all reality. St. Thomas wrote in his Summa Theologicae: "Existence itself is the actuality of all things, even of the forms themselves." (3) The intuition of being is not only a realization of the non-essential nature of ultimate reality, it is a glimpse of the positive abundance and richness of this reality we call existence.

What, then, is the essence of essence? It is a certain capacity to exist. Maritain calls essences "positive capacities of existence" (4) and says: "the very intelligibility of essences is a certain kind of ability to exist." (5) The revolution inaugurated by St. Thomas was the transformation of essence which had been considered the ultimate principle of metaphysics because it indicated the central intelligibility of something. He brought this conception of essence into relationship with a higher principle, which was the act of existence: "...potency (essence, or intelligible structure already achieved in its own line of essence) is completed or actuated by another act of another order which adds absolutely nothing to essence as essence, intelligible structure, or quiddity, yet adds everything to it inasmuch as it posits it extra causas or extra nihil." (6) What is at stake here is a transformation of the whole essentialist perspective. Essence is displaced from the center of the metaphysical stage and the much more mysterious reality of existence takes its place. Essence is a certain capacity to exist. It stands in relationship to existence as potency to act, and essence is the potentiality for a certain degree of existence. Existence is what actualizes these different potentialities so that there are actually existing things. Existence is an act or energy whose richness exceeds the whole order of essence and founds it. It admits being realized in this and that way because it exceeds every particular manifestation. "Existence is perfection par excellence, and as it were the seal of every other perfection... Doubtless of itself it says only positing outside of nothing, but it is the positing outside of nothing of this or that." (7) The intuition of being is a perception of the transessential amplitude of existence in relationship to essence. What existence posits is not an accidental quality added to a somehow pre-existing essence. Essences do not exist in themselves. They do not have any actuality. They only exist in relationship to existence as potentialities for existence. The ultimate root of their intelligibility lies not in themselves but in what Maritain called the superintelligibility of existence.

Talk about essence and existence should not hide from us the fact that they are intellectual realities. We do not bump into an essence in the street, nor do we have some vision of existence. We are part of a world of existing things, existents, beings, and our minds find in these existents the two dimensions of essence and existence. Essence and existence are found there because they are actually there. They are not merely intellectual constructs. At the same time, the way they exist in the mind is not the same as the way they exist in things. This point becomes critical when we try to understand the nature of the intuition of being. There is a dynamism involved in this intuition that has its origin in the confrontation of the mind with existing things. The mind attempts to go beyond the level of essences. It sees that there is another dimension which it can provisionally label as existence and it tries to give a positive content to this dimension of existence and not simply to assert that it is beyond essence, and this positive content can best be called an insight into being as being. What is being? It is not simply essence, nor is it purely existence. It is that which exists. Because we can assert about each existent, that it is a being, then the notion of being cannot be univocal, that is, applied to everything in the same way, for then they would all be the same, which goes against our experience. At the same time, being is not attributed to things equivocally. Each thing is actually a being through and through.

Put in another way, what makes things similar must be being as well as what makes them different. Being is that which is. It comprises inseparably essence and existence. Our minds read in existing things the fact that being is more than this or that particular being. It discovers that essence, in short, is one particular capacity for the act of existence. This is an insight into the fundamentally analogical nature of being. When the mind turns towards the notion of existence as the source and plenitude against which all essences are measured, each essence is then seen as a refraction, a reflection, of this reality which is to be. The mind desires to grasp and disengage in its naked intelligibility this reality of existence. It wants to see this sun which contains all the colors of the spectrum of essences, but it cannot do it. Perhaps its very attempt to grasp existence is doomed to failure, for it is an attempt to turn existence into another essence, a super-essence, but existence is of a different order than this. The moment of the intuition of being is a moment where the mind is suspended between two worlds. It has overcome the diversity of essences and has seen how they converge towards the pinnacle which is the very act of existence in itself, disengaged from any limitation and reception by essence. But it cannot fully follow these converging paths. The unity it discovers is an imperfect and relative unity due to the spiritualizing power of the mind. (8) It rests on the foundation of the many whats we see that actually exist. It grasps in each existent the act of existence that actualizes and fills this capacity to exist. It moves from this limited act of existing to an intuition that the act of existing overflows all the possible modes of reception. We can grasp how existence is the actuality of all the forms, but we cannot grasp it in its deepest self where we would see that it is perfectly one and the source of all things. We grasp existence as transcending the limitations it has by being received as the existence of this or that particular capacity to exist, but we do not grasp it as totally unreceived and unlimited in itself.

No matter how we strive, our intuition is an intuition of both essence and existence, this time as disengaged from this or that particular existing thing and thus manifesting the transessential amplitude, of the act of existence, but only in an imperfect way, always turned toward the existent from which it has been born. The intuition of being touches the act of existence and releases its transcendence in relationship to all essences, but it cannot penetrate to the perfect unity of existence.

If essence finds its ultimate meaning in relationship to existence, why does Maritain insist on speaking of an intuition of being rather than an intuition of existence? Being is that which is. It is what is, essence existing. Why not simplify things and speak only of existence?

Imagine each existing thing as a bar magnet with essence as one pole and existence as the other, and imagine all the magnets being arranged in a circle with the existence pole of each pointing towards the center. What makes all these individual beings alike? It is not their essences, for that is what makes them different. Neither is it their individual acts of existing, for those acts, which are the actualization of various capacities, are different from each other. But each of these beings is made up of both essence and existence and each of them is oriented toward the same center.

We ordinarily look at the circle of beings from the outside and are confronted with the diversity of things. We see beings especially as being different from each other, as essences. But if we ponder the meaning of essence and ask what is the essence of essence, we begin to be led inside the circle. Each being points towards the center. The notion of being must in some way be richer than that of any individual being. It has to embrace essential differences. A stone and a flower are both beings. By the intuition of being we enter into the circle of beings and form a new concentric circle of being as being. We discover the common inner consistency of each being, that is, its relationship between its essence and its existence and the common orientation they all possess towards the center of the circle.

This discovery is an intellectual act of the highest intensity. Maritain called this intuition of being, a process of eidetic visualization by which we leave behind the empirical existence of the individual and grasp the intrinsic nature of being as being. In doing so we have reversed our perspective and look at things no longer from the point of view of essence, but rather from the point of view of existence. Or, more precisely, we see beings not as essences existing, but existing essences. We see beings with their face of existence turned towards us.

But despite the mind's supreme effort to reconcile the two basic facts of essence and existence, its success in the intuition of being is imperfect and relative. Being as being is an imperfect unity glimpsed by the mind but shattered when we leave the mind and look at concrete existing things. Beings do not have a secret kernel of being as being hidden within them. They are this or that being. But there is a deeper reason why our intuition of being is in need of completion. It has not reached the center of the circle. Existence has not been completely disengaged from essence and discovered in all its purity. We have glimpsed being as being, that inner relationship of essence to existence, that can be realized in each individual in essentially different ways, but the whole weight of this intuition is attracted towards the center of the circle, towards existence itself. The intuition of being is drawn towards becoming an intuition of existence, but it never attains this goal but is suspended in a sometimes painful tension towards it. Appendix I can serve as an amplification of this theme of essence and existence.


It is within the context of the intuition of being that the question of the existence of God must be placed. Without this intuition, the conceptual statements that are framed to prove the existence of God will remain flat and unconvincing. Logic alone does not have the ability to make us see. St. Thomas could never have imagined a metaphysics without God at the center of it, and God was not superimposed on his metaphysics because of religious reasons, but was the very heart of the intelligibility of his metaphysics. We start with the most basic facts of everyday existence, and by means of the intuition of being we follow them inwardly and see that they point towards existence itself. Existence as received and contracted, this or that existing being, is not possible without there being existence unreceived. The intuition of being is the opening of our eyes to how every existing thing points to existence itself. St. Thomas gives his five ways leading to the existence of God, and Maritain adds a sixth, and there are others, but they must share the common essential ingredient of an intuition of being which vivifies them. Once the basic insight is in place, it is possible to grasp why St. Thomas gave God the attributes that he did.

There is no intellectual intuition of God Who is Himself existence. The limited and received existence of the beings of our experience demand there be a center to the circle on pain that there would be no beings. As soon as we disengage being as being from the empirical being of this or that existent, we must posit existence in itself. Essence must be finally understood as a certain capacity to exist, and essence-existence or being must be finally understood in relationship to unreceived existence.

Here we have reached the limits of conceptual or essentialistic understanding. God does not possess a capacity to exist. He is without essence in this sense. There is no reception or contraction of His existence by His essence. He is His existence. All essences are measured in relationship to Him. God is not a being among beings. He is not something among other things. It is possible to call Him no essence, no-thing, if we keep clearly in mind that this is not nothingness or no nature, but no potential or capacity. (9) He is not nothing, for existence is all actuality and reality. We cannot contain God within our concepts. We can say true things about Him basing ourselves on the very structure of the things that exist around us, but the way He exists in Himself is beyond our comprehension. Maritain writes that the concept of being:


"is one in a certain respect, insofar as it does make incomplete abstraction from its analogates, and is disengaged from them without being conceivable apart from them, as attracted towards, without attaining, a pure and simple unity, which could alone be present to the mind if it were able to see in itself - and without concept - a reality which would be at once itself and all things. (Let us say the concept of being demands to be replaced by God clearly seen, to disappear in the face of the beatific vision.)" (10)

In the intuition of being we glimpse the transessential nature of existence, but this is simply a weak reflection of what existence itself must be, of what God, esse subsistens, is like.

"The analogical infinitude of the act of existing is a created participation in the unflawed oneness of the infinity of the Ipsum esse subsistens; an analogical infinitude which is diversified according to the possibilities of existing. In relation to it, those very possibilities of existing, the essences, are knowable or intelligible." (11)


All this talk about essence and existence can sound very far removed from the concrete experiences that Maritain discusses which can give rise to the intuition of being. In fact, Maritain in trying to make clear the nature of this intuition is walking a tightrope. He is keenly aware of the glaring failing of scholasticism, of Thomistic philosophy institutionalized, which is its repetition of conceptual statements even when the intuitive fires and personal experiences that originally gave birth to them have ebbed away. On the other hand, his experience of Bergson and contemporary philosophy had sensitized him to the difficulties in developing an authentic metaphysics if the initial intuition were understood simply as a concrete grasping of empirical existence. No matter how powerful such an emotional and introspective grasping of the individual would be, it would not, itself, reach the intelligible level of being as being. In actual life, the relationship between concrete experience and metaphysical intuition can be natural and uncomplicated, as can the relationship between this intuition of being and the existence of God.

It can start with an awareness of the fact of existence:

"...I suddenly realized that a given entity, man, mountain, or tree, exists and exercises that sovereign act to be in its own way, in an independence from me which is total, totally self-assertive and totally implacable." (12)

But at the same time this implacable existence makes me aware of my own existence as riddled by "loneliness and frailty" which is "the death and nothingness to which my existence is liable."

Then this same intuition which had moved from "sheer objective existence" to "my existence spoiled with nothingness" inexorably arrives at "absolute existence" for "Being-with-nothingness as my own being is, implies in order to be, Being-without-nothingness."

Thus Maritain attempts to illustrate the diverse moments of the single intuition. And there are other concrete approaches that can bring us to this same intuition. Let me sketch another of these concrete approaches in more detail. The experience of human love with its emotional upheavals and intense joy and pain can become a pathway to the intuition of being. Love can change not only our behavior but our way of perceiving. If, for Maritain, the intuition of being can start with the perception of "the tremendous fact, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes disgusting and maddening, I exist ... " (13), it can also begin for the one who loves with an inner awareness: you, the one I love, you exist. You stand out with a richness, a density of being, that I have never experienced before. You are more real than all the things of the world. Somehow, someone is really real with a reality that rivals my own interior awareness of myself. Now the existence of things does not simply stand over against me with the implacable being of something that knows nothing about me, but I sense, for the first time, that being can be open to me and turn towards me, that being is not simply what makes me be myself and different from others, but somehow, in some obscure way, is the foundation of unity. In short, all the acts of the one I love, her gestures or smiles, are suffused with a mystery of being that I cannot fathom, still less express in conceptual terms, but which draws me towards her with an expectancy of hope mingled with fear, that this gateway into being will prove an illusion.

But this sense of heightened reality of the one I love, which removes her from my ordinary consciousness, brings with it another awareness. The one I love is lovable without her even knowing I love her. She is lovable independent of my thoughts and intentions about her, and what is more surprising she is, in some deep sense, lovable independent of her own consciousness and actions. She literally does not know how lovable she is. In some obscure way I sense that her lovableness is a quality of her very existence rather than simply her consciousness. She is lovable whether she knows it or not, intends it or not, and alas, whether she loves me or not, simply because she is.

Somewhere in the midst of this experience of love the possibility of the intuition of being can present itself. Certainly the concrete experience does not have to be illuminated by metaphysical insight, but the possibility is there. Perhaps it depends on that profound inner questioning that seizes the one who loves and makes him say over and over again: I know that I love and this is the most real experience that I have ever undergone, but why do I love? Why do I love you? Why are you lovable? I sense in some way, obscurely and in no way conceptually, the ultimate root of your lovability comes from somewhere else. The "why" becomes a search for the origin of this love. If the one I love possesses her lovability from another, what would this source be like? If the spark is so delectable, from what consuming fire does it originate? If you are lovable by being, what must Being be? If you are lovable, what must Love be? I have no experience of this source of lovableness, but I can sense how it stands like the sun in relationship to all the things that are illuminated by it. The one I love is a person suffused with loveliness, and thus the source of this beauty must be in some fashion a person who is the fullness of love.

The question of whether God's existence can be proved is surrounded by two difficult problems. The first is the difference between intuition and metaphysical statements that we have been examining. Repeating the careful logic of St. Thomas' ways for demonstrating God's existence has done little to convince people of their truth. The intuition of being in some degree is necessary to fire these concepts and let them become ways of seeing. Not even impeccable logic can make up for this lack of intuition.

The other difficulty is the fact that even a genuine certitude in the existence of God founded in metaphysical insight and carefully elaborated by metaphysical science is not identical to the kind of knowledge that we crave about God. Metaphysical understanding is one thing, and the desires of the heart often quite another. This second theme will recur more than once in Parts II and III. But for now we should continue exploring the implications of a metaphysics founded on intuition.



  1. The what being what was called by the classical Thomists apprehension, and the that, the act of judgment itself.
  2. Maritain, Existence and the Existent, p. 32.
  3. Saint Thomas, QIV, a. 1, ad 3um.
  4. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 26.
  5. Maritain, Existence and the Existent, p. 45.
  6. Ibid., p. 45.
  7. Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, p. 217.
  8. Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics, p. 62.
  9. This no-thing-ness which is a valid way to build a bridge to Zen language must be carefully understood not in the sense of some currents of modern philosophy as a nihilism, or lack of nature or essence, but only as a lack of potentiality. Maritain in his essay, "L'Aséitié Divine" in Approches sans entraves writes: "The notion of essence or of nature does not necessarily embrace potentiality. The latter is an absolutely necessary condition of every created essence to be in potency in regard to existence. It is not necessary that this fundamental thesis of St. Thomas, that the essence of all created things is in potency in regard to existence, impede us from another aspect of things, that is, that essence is act and perfection; it is an act. It is a perfection. It is the intelligible constitution of things; it is an act, it is a perfection, which is yet potency in relation to another act, in relation to the act of existence." (p. 98)
  10. Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, p. 213-214.
  11. Maritain, Existence and the Existent, p. 45.
  12. Maritain, The Range of Reason, p. 88.
  13. Ibid., p. 88.


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