Reading: A Buddhist-Christian Discussion of Metaphysics?
God, Zen and the Intuition of Being



In order to highlight both the similarities and differences between the metaphysics of St. Thomas and a metaphysical reflection on Zen, let us imagine a dialogue between Jacques Maritain and Toshihiko Izutsu, for as imaginary as it is, such a a discussion can give us the flavor of what a Zen-Thomistic dialogue could be like in the future. Izutsu, in his collection of essays, Toward a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, gives us one of the most penetrating modern accounts of metaphysics from a Zen perspective. I apologize to both men if I have put words in their mouths they would be unhappy saying. (97)

Izutsu: Each philosophy is based on a particular reality experience. Zen has its own noetic experience capable of giving rise to an ontology. (98)

Maritain: So does Thomism, and that was what I was driving at in describing the concrete experiences that give rise to the noetic experience of the intuition of being.

Izutsu: Yes, but in contrast to an Aristotelian perspective which asks, "What is man?", Zen asks, "Who am I?" It wants to intuit man in his most intimate subjectivity. (99) Western philosophy is primarily an essentialism. Zen would say it sees things as if in a dream and equates them with their essence. Zen devotes itself to breaking out of this ordinary consciousness split into subject and object, this thing and that, where the apple is the apple, A is A. Zen proposes to go beyond this level of essence, a solidly fixed ontological core which unalterably determines the essential limits of a thing. (100) In a certain way A is not A.

Maritain: And where does Zen want to go? What will it find beyond essence?

Izutsu: "At the ultimate limit of all negations, that is, the negation of all essences conceivable of the apple, all of a sudden the extraordinary reality flashes into our mind. This is what is known in Buddhism as the emergence of prajna, transcendental or non-discriminating consciousness. And in and through this experience, the apple again manifests itself as an apple in the fullest density of existence, in the 'original freshness of the first creation of heaven and earth'." (101)

Maritain: That is very interesting. It is easy to understand why you would look at Western philosophy as essentialistic. Many Westerners imagine St. Thomas as a simple follower of Aristotle and miss his originality. St. Thomas was as much concerned to take essence out of the center of the philosophical stage as Zen is. The ultimate principle of his philosophy was not essence, but existence. But he did not deny the reality of essence. Rather, he transformed it.

Izutsu: What did essence mean to him?

Maritain: It was simply this or that capacity to be. It was the contraction, reception or refraction of existence so as to bring about this or that existent thing. Existence holds the primacy. It is as act to potency, received to the receiver. There can be no meaning to essence outside of its relationship to existence. Essence is simply a certain capacity to exist. Thomists can say A is A, but we can also say A is not A if we understand this to mean the apple is not simply the apple in an identity of essence, but the apple exists, and to exist is itself not identical to the apple.

Izutsu: Let me put it another way. If something becomes itself, "thoroughgoingly and completely, to the utmost extent of possibility, it ends by breaking through its own limit and going beyond its determinations. At this stage, A is no longer A; A is non-A." And "it breaks through its own A-ness, and begins to disclose to him its formless, essenceless, and 'aspect'-less aspect." (102) Then it refinds the everyday world from the direction of essence-less-ness. A is A. Then A is not A. Therefore it is A. Can Thomism say this?

Maritain: Essence is the limit and determination of existence, of esse. And to see a tree or myself in the light of the intuition of being is no longer to see only its essence face. But, having seen how esse in itself is formless or essenceless, it is to see essence exercising the act of existing, transfigured, as it were, by this act of existence. A is A in that essence is essence. The tree is a tree and not something else. A is not A. The tree exists but it is not existence itself, rather one face or articulation of existence. Finally, A is A since this very tree is existing. Existence is actualized in this tree. In a certain way Thomism and Zen share an existential metaphysics, and this common ground should not be underestimated, but there are important differences as well.

Izutsu: What are they?

Maritain: I believe we differ in the way we understand the realm beyond essence and its relationship to existing things.

lzutsu: Yes. I have the feeling that you believe in self-subsisting things, both the ego and the objects around us, while we do not. You believe in a metaphysical suprasensible substance governing the phenomenal world and we do not.

Maritain: Please elaborate your position further.

Izutsu: Let us say instead of subject or object actually existing or a separate absolute being, there is an actus charging the entire field with its dynamic energy. (103) "Concrete individuals are actualizations of the limitless, aspectless aspect of an ever-active and ever-creative Act." (104) What you take as the experience of an individual existing thing we see as the "total concretization or actualization of the entire field." (105) It is the absolute at this very moment in this very place. (106)

Maritain: It is interesting that you would use the word actus, which is a word we apply to God in the sense of pure act, act without potentiality. I think we are at the crux of the matter. We believe the ego in the sense of the human person to have its own act of existence, just as we believe the tree or the butterfly does. We believe God to be existence itself, and thus a subsisting being. Are you saying that concrete things are nil or the absolute is a mere nothingness?

Izutsu: There is no nihilism in Zen. When we speak of the absolute as Nothingness, it is not mere emptiness. When we speak of the non-subsisting character of the tree, we are not idealists. Nothingness is the "plenitude of being, for it is the urgrund of all existential forms." (107) In everyday awareness things are closed, seen essentialistically, if you will. Then in the process of enlightenment they are reduced to absolute undifferentiation or nothingness, and when they emerge from this nothingness they are ontologically transparent or open. Both subject and object are abstractions from the field of actus. "Nothing is to be regarded as self-subsistent and self-sufficient." (108) Zen wants to see the nonarticulated field articulating itself. Let me recount a famous koan in the Mu Mon Kan: "Listen! Once a monk asked Chao Chou, "Tell me, what is the significance of the first Patriarchs coming from the West?" Chao Chou replied, "The cypress tree in the courtyard!"

"This cypress tree is not simply or only a cypress tree. For it carries the whole weight of the Field ... Out of the very depths of nothingness - Eternal - Present being actualized at this present moment..." (109) Don't look for nothingness by itself as a subsisting absolute. Don't look for the concrete subsisting individual. The cypress tree is the absolute and the absolute is the cypress tree. There is no transcendental absolute beyond the concrete thing. "The cypress tree in its concrete reality is the absolute at this very moment in this very place." (110)

Maritain: So when we speak of the enduring personality or existing thing or God, it appears as if we are locked in an essentialitic perspective and have not made contact with that nothingness which is beyond subject or object.

But you must understand that when we speak of God as substance or as esse subsistens we make no claim to capture Him in our concepts or to know His essence like we might know the essence of man. While He must have an essence in the sense that He is not mere nothingness, He has no essence we can grasp as a contraction of existence. He is no-thing. He is not this or that. There is no potentiality or capacity in Him. He is actus and the most intimate subjectivity if we purify these terms of all limitations. I am not you nor am I the tree, says our ordinary awareness. We do not reject this ordinary awareness, but go beyond it and transform it. I see that my root, my most formal and actual reality, is my existence, just as existence is what is most actual and formal in the tree. But existence in each is not absolute existence, though it comes from Existence itself and is sustained each moment by Existence. But the existence in myself and the tree are analogous. We are various capacities and reflections of what it means To Be. And these capacities find their ultimate meaning in relationship To Be, but as limitations of it, so they become a certain this or that. So that at the heart of my I, I find existence, that existence that allows me to affirm that I am, that existence which is directly issuing from the fountain of To Be. I am not an I without the relationship to Am. I Am. The Am is not a core or pith within the I. It is the very act and reality by which the I exists. The cypress tree Is. There is no inner part which is Is rather than tree, but the tree is as directly and always in the present moment issuing forth from the hand of God. On the philosophical plane we know that God exists by seeing His handiwork, these existing things, but they do not directly show Him to us. We are limited existents, in which existence is received by essence.

Izutsu: But why do you see separate existing things no matter how intimately connected, while we admit no separation?

Maritain: I don't believe that the differences reside in what could be called the metaphysical structure of reality. We are seeing the same things, but through the spectacles of different methods, and these different methods are what the differences in language reflect. We are both attaining metaphysical insight, but Thomists go by the way of ideas or essences, pushing them to their limits, to their ultimate foundation in esse, to an eidetic visualization or intuition of being. Thomists proceed by ideas in the very act of transforming them and seeing their trajectory swallowed up in the abyss of Esse beyond all ideas or essences. Zen, on the other hand, it appears to me, goes by the way of the negation of all essences. The void becomes the very means by which you know the absolute, and therefore you can discern no essences in it because you had to eliminate them in order to come to this intimate contact with existence. When you discover esse in the I or in the cypress tree, it is esse without essence or limitation, for all essence has been necessarily left behind. And so what we would call the existence of the tree you experience as existence in all its analogical amplitude. There is no way to distinguish the esse of the I from the esse of the tree or the Esse of the Absolute. Thus, whether you approach the I or the tree, you will arrive at the same place in which esse is articulating itself in either one, while at the same time it cannot be a self-subsisting esse. In short, Zen can make no distinction between the esse of the soul, the esse of things and the esse of God, but the critical point is why? Is it because in reality there is none, or because the very elimination of conceptual thought makes it impossible to make these distinctions?

Izutsu: This is a serious matter. You are saying that our method of stopping all conceptual thought is what eliminates the distinctions which are actually there and which you discover because you have not suppressed essences.

Maritain: I am saying both methods have their limitations. Since Thomists go by way of essences, they often end in essentialism. They don't have to end up there, but because human nature is what it is with its weakness of intuitive powers, the mind lets essences concretize and become opaque to all else. While we are aware of this problem, we have put very little energy into finding effective methods to overcome it.

Zen, on the other hand, has faired much better in maintaining the intuitive roots of metaphysics. It has done this by devoting itself to experience rather than to conceptual knowledge. But there is a price for Zen to pay just as we pay ours. While it may be true that in some very important lived fashion Zen has an awareness of the distinction between things, in the post-experience reflection there is no way to conceptualize these distinctions, or at least there has not yet been a way. Zen has not articulated a metaphysics which would account for what we feel to be actually existing distinctions, for their elimination has been the price that Zen has paid for attaining the experience in the first place.

Izutsu: Isn't it asking a great deal of Zen to admit such a possibility?

Maritain: Here we come to the heart of the possibility of a real dialogue between Zen and Thomism. If Thomism cannot admit the possibility that Zen has outstripped it in metaphysical experience, it will remain with the ever-present problem of essentialism and the threat of the periodic oblivion of the insights of St. Thomas. But if Zen cannot admit the possibility that some of their post-experience formulas might reflect the very method of attaining the experience, as well as the experience itself, what room is there for genuine dialogue? If Zen has an actual experience of the esse of the soul, as we would put it, and through this esse the analogical infinitude of the act of existence, and God as the source of this esse, and thus an experience of God in and through this contact with the esse of the soul, this is all of the highest importance for Thomists as an inspiration to examine their own experiential roots. If St. Thomas has an articulated metaphysics of esse, could it not equally inspire Zen to clarify its own language, at least when it is aiming at metaphysical articulation?

Izutsu: Aren't you really asking more of Zen than of Thomism? Aren't you striking at the time-honored formulas of Zen which are intimately connected with Zen experience itself? When I say, "There is no longer I as a subjective reality, nor thou, or it, as an objective entity, there remains only Is..." (111) I do not think Thomists can follow me, for Zen "the undifferentiated cannot ex-ist in its original non-differentiation; that in order to ex-ist it must necessarily differentiate itself, i.e., concretely crystalize itself as something - whether subjective or objective." (112)

Maritain: This is precisely what the metaphysics of St. Thomas is trying to deal with. If ex-ist means not only to stand outside of causes and stand outside of mere nothingness, but to manifest or articulate a particular face of Is, then it belongs to the created existent in which Is is limited by essence. But we would say that in its most fundamental sense ex-ist is Is.

Izutsu: Yet we experience it otherwise and our words are a reflection of our experience, as I said, while yours are bound up with concepts.

Maritain: I admire your experience and the strength it takes to attain it, yet you must consider the possibility that the very way of attaining your experience will color what is experienced. To admit this, does it really effect Zen experience itself? The experience remains the same, but I wonder if some of your paradoxical language does not spring from attempting to articulate these distinctions. We agree that essence-less-ness is not mere nothingness.

Izutsu: Yes. In sunyata no fixed essence is established. (113)

Maritain: And the task at hand is to try to agree about the nature of this essence-less-ness, the positive meaning of No-thing-ness.

Izutsu: We are on the road, but it will be a long and difficult one.


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