- The human body as a
- a comparison of
Merleau-Ponty and Dogen
In the Pali texts of the Theravaada
Buddhist tradition and in many Mahaayaana Buddhist texts, one can find numerous negative
references to the human body. There are, of course, exceptions in the Buddhist tradition,
especially if one takes into consideration Buddhist Tantra and the significance of the
body in Buddhist meditation. Western philosophy, on the other hand, is infamous for its
mind/body dualism. Dogen and Merleau-Ponty tend to be exceptions, although not necessarily
the only examples, to the prevalent tendencies of their respective philosophical
traditions. The human body, for Dogen, is not a hindrance to the realization of
enlightenment; it rather serves as the vehicle through which enlightenment is realized by
the aspirant. Dogen argues that those aspiring to become enlightened strive with their
bodies, practice seated meditation with their bodies, understand with their bodies, and
attain enlightenment with their bodies. Thus the body attains a metaphysico-religious
status in Dogen's thought.(1) Using the phenomenological method in his earlier work,
Merleau-Ponty wants to deliver a fatal blow to the historical tradition of philosophical
dualism and overcome it.
The intention of this essay is to bring
these two thinkers together to engage in a philosophical dialogue on the human body. A
comparative philosophical dialogue has several benefits. It can help us to see not only
the similarities and differences in the respective positions of philosophers, but it can
also enable us to comprehend the value of philosophical insights foreign to our own
tradition. It thus involves us in a comparative realm of meaning, places us spatially
between Eastern and Western traditions, transcends the historical time that separates
philosophers, provides us with a possible common ground on which to understand each other,
and sets us on the path to truth, which emerges in the dialogic exchange between thinkers
who share similar human problems and concerns. If the philosophical dialogue retains a
posture of expectant openness, the dialogic participants can teach us, for instance,
something about the human body. As the comparative dialogue unfolds, each thinker should
be understood to be engaged in a mutual search for the truth. When thoughts are compared
they must not become isolated, static intellectual concepts. They must rather remain
alive, open, dynamic, and potentially creative ideas. A comparative dialogue possesses the
advantage of widening our own horizons by enabling us to participate in the philosophical
tradition of another culture. By means of comparative dialogue, the subjects and ourselves
are drawn together into a common human culture, which enhances the opportunities for
authentic dialogue, sharing of common roots and problems, and a new agreement and
understanding about a common problem.
This essay will bring together Dogen and
Merleau-Ponty on the problem of the human body in a comparative dialogue. With relation to
the latter thinker, I will concentrate my attention on his earlier work, The Phenomenology
of Perception, and on his later work, The Visible and the Invisible, only to the extent
that it throws light on his understanding of the body. Due to Merleau-Ponty's extensive
discussion of the human body a certain amount of selectivity seems necessary in a brief
When discussing the body, Merleau-Ponty is
not referring to an object or a mere physical entity.(2)The body cannot be comprehended by
measuring its properties, the causal relations among its parts, or its causal relation to
other such entities, nor can it be reduced to an object which is sensitive to certain
stimuli. If it is not a thing that can be measured, is it a thought? It is neither object
nor subject. It is, however, subject and object. The human body is a lived body; it is
mine. Since the body is primarily my body, it is personal, subjective, objective, and
inhabited by an intentionality which enables it to express meaning. For Dogen, the body is
both subject and object, and more. What does Dogen mean by more? Dogen answers, "What
we call the body and mind in the Buddha Way is grass, trees and wall rubble; it is wind,
rain, water and fire."(3) Since the mind is all things and vice versa, everything
represents a single and total body. There is an important
consequence of Dogen's position: "If
your own body and mind are not grass, wood, and so on, then they are not your own body and
mind. And if your own body and mind do not exist, neither do grass and wood."(4)
Therefore, the body and mind represent the entire world. Consequently, human beings are
not separated from the world by their bodies. In fact, no one can be absolutely certain
where one's body terminates and where precisely the world begins, and vice versa.
To have a body means, for Merleau-Ponty,
that one is involved in a definite environment, because our body is our vehicle for being
in the world.(5) Although the body is to be distinguished from the world, it is our medium
for having a world and for interacting with it. If to be a body means to be tied to a
certain world, this implies that being a body involves being in the world, a primordial
form of existence which is preobjective. The body is not in space in the same sense that
water is in a vase, because the body is a point from which space radiates and around which
things arrange themselves in an orderly way. Since the body is both being-in-itself and
being-for-itself, the spatiality of the body indicates that it is itself the author of
space, the low and high, the far and near. If the world possesses spatiality for me. it is
because I inhabit it by means of my body, which involves a dynamic, living relationship
and not a conceptual relation. The spatiality of the body is not a position it is rather a
situation, because existence includes space and time in this primordial relation to the
Dogen agrees that the body includes space
and time and occupies a situation. Somewhat analogous to what Merleau-Ponty intends to
state in his philosophy is Dogen's use of the image of a bright pearl to express reality.
One bright pearl communicates directly through all time; being through all the past
unexhausted, it arrives through all the present. Where there is a body now, a mind now,
they are the bright pearl. That stalk of grass, this tree, is not a stalk of grass, is not
a tree; the mountains and rivers of this world are not the mountains and rivers of this
world. They are the bright pearl.(7)
Dogen, like Merleau-Ponty, states that the
human body participates in the external world. In fact, the mind, body, and things of the
world interpenetrate one another without the possibility of a lucid demarcation among
them. As we will see, this non-dualistic position is similar to what Merleau-Ponty calls
the flesh. According to Merleau-Ponty, the human body and the perceived world form a
single system of intentional relations;(8) they are correlations, which implies that to
experience the body is to perceive the world and vice versa. Since the body is the medium
of things, its presence to the world enables things to exist.(9) Thus the body and world
are an inseparable, internal relation. The body and world are also inseparably
interconnected for Dogen. Like everything else, the body is dynamic, a position with which
Merleau-Ponty would concur. For Dogen, life is analogous to riding in a boat in which the
voyager uses its sails and tiller to guide and move one to his destination. Although the
sailor can perform certain tasks to assist him in his journey, it is the boat that carries
him. Even though the boat is the sailor's mode of transportation, it is he who makes it a
boat which becomes a world for the sailor. "It is for this reason that life is what I
make to exist, and I is what life makes me. In boarding the boat, one's body and mind and
the entire surrounding environment are all the boat's dynamic working; both the entire
earth and all space are the boat's dynamic working."(10) Thus the body, mind, and
world are non-dual and dynamic.
When I experience my body, according to
Merleau-Ponty, an ambiguous mode of existing is revealed to me because the traditional
distinctions between object and subject are called into question. I can, for instance,
touch an object with my right hand, and my right hand can be touched by my left hand.
Ceasing to be a sensing subject, my right hand becomes a sensed object. Thus the body
possesses the ability to turn back on itself and take itself for its own object,
manifesting its ability to be for itself (subject) and in itself(object). Thus the body
can be both touched and touching.
Since the experience of one's body reveals
an ambiguous mode of existing, which is especially true in sexual experience,(11)
Merleau-Ponty attempts to overcome this ambiguity of the body by turning to ontology in
his later work. The Visible and the Invisible represents an attempt, although it is an
incomplete work, to discern the metaphysical structure of the body. What Merleau-Ponty
calls the flesh, an opening of being or wild being, is not a fact or a collection of
facts; it is neither matter nor spirit. The flesh represents an element,(12) an essential
element, which enters into the composition of everything and thus appears in everything;
it makes everything be what it is. As an element, flesh is the style of all things and
appears in everything and everywhere, but it does not itself appear. Thus there is an
underlying unity between an individual, a lived body, and the world because both are
flesh.(13) In other words, beneath the apparent duality of consciousness and object lies
"wild being," which entails that humans are mixed in with being and gathered up
with things into a fabric of being.
The body and consciousness, for
Merleau-Ponty, are interrelated because the latter is dependent on the body, although
consciousness is not reducible to the body. Thus consciousness is incarnate for
Merleau-Ponty, a position to which Dogen agrees because he affirms that the body
participates in an individual's inner world. Merleau-Ponty refers to the tacit cogito, a
pre-reflective, silent consciousness, an intentional operative, which supports reflective
consciousness, forming the basis of all evidence and certainty that originates in the act
of perception and not the prior correspondence of consciousness with itself.(14) In other
words, the certainty of perception is the certainty of being present to the world, to be
conscious that something appears to me. This beginning consciousness represents a
primitive self-consciousness which is simultaneous with the consciousness of the world.
Consciousness, an opening upon the world, mutually implies the world because its ultimate
correlate is the world and vice versa.(15) Due to the fact that consciousness is conscious
of something other than itself, it is able to be conscious of itself. Thus consciousness
can possess itself only by belonging to the world.(16) This line of reasoning is a trap or
a dead end for Dogen. Rather than a consciousness of the world, and rather than an
intentional consciousness which originates in perception, Dogen wants to go beyond
intentional thinking to non-thinking (hishiryo), a simple acceptance of ideas without
affirming or denying them. Non-thinking is more fundamental than the pre-reflective,
silent consciousness of Merleau-Ponty. It unites thinking, an intentional weighting of
ideas, and unthinking, a negation of mental acts, and possesses no purpose, form, object,
or subject. Non-thinking, the pure presence of things as they are, is realized in zazen
(seated meditation) (17) and is a "thinking" of the unthinkable or emptiness.
There is importantly, however, no bifurcation of the body and mind in the state of
Communication between consciousness and
the world is possible, according to Merleau-Ponty, due to the body, the third aspect of
the dialectic of existence. The body functions as the mediator of consciousness and world;
it opens them up to each other in the sense that the body forms the immediacy of the world
by placing consciousness in direct and immediate contact with the world.(18) Thus there is
a dependency of consciousness on the body and expression in speech, a means by which
consciousness stabilizes itself. If thought, the product of consciousness, is dependent on
perceptible expression grounded in a lived body, then it is fundamentally temporal and
Dogen argues that the human body is the
ground from which consciousness evolves. Since the body and consciousness penetrate each
other and are inextricably interwoven, they are non-dual. "You should know that the
Buddha Dharma from the first preaches that body and mind are not two, that substance and
form are not two."(20) Although the mind ultimately transcends them, it is both
subject and object; it is consciousness and non-consciousness.
BODY AND PERCEPTION
A theory of the body presupposes, for
Merleau-Ponty, a theory of perception. If one presupposes that to see the world means to
be situated so that objects can show themselves, and that to perceive the world one must
dwell within it, then one perceives an object when one inhabits it. "My body is the
fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived
world, the general instrument of my 'comprehension'."(21) Human perception of the
world and its objects is contingent upon the lived body. Therefore, perception is embodied
for Merleau-Ponty and also for Dogen, who writes about seeing forms and hearing sounds
with the body and mind.(22) Merleau-Ponty states that one perceives with one's body, which
implies that the position and movement of one's body not only allows one to see, but also
determines what is accessible to one's view, since one can see no more than what one's
perspective grants.(23) If one loses an arm or a leg, not only is one's world altered, but
one's perception of the world is changed due to the contingency of one's perception upon
In contrast to Merleau-Ponty, what is
important to perceive for Dogen is not simply objects that appear, but rather
Buddha-nature, which represents both beings and being itself. The individual does not
necessarily have to do anything special to perceive Buddha-nature because he should simply
be attentive to ordinary temporal conditions. However, what is to be perceived does not
refer to the perceiver or that which is to be perceived. There is neither a cort nor an
incorrect way to see. It is just see. This type of perceiving refers neither to my own
seeing nor to the seeing of another. "It is 'Look! temporal condition!' It is
transcendence of condition."(24) If is simply seeing Buddha-nature in a flash without
conditions, without intention, and without duality.
As a perceiving being, one finds oneself,
according to Merleau-Ponty, in a particular situation, which entails being intertwined
with a body, an object, and other individuals within a general milieu. A given situation
refers to a sedimented situation, "which enables us to rely on our concepts and
acquired judgments as we might on things there in front of us, presented globally, without
there being any need for us to resynthesize them."(25) The result enables situations
to become immediately familiar to us, which means that sediments are closely interrelated
in the form of a schema of sedimented structures.(26) This fact possesses three important
implications: (1) since a sensation can be sensed only by means of a structure, a
sensation is only possible if it is of a certain type; (2) every type of sensation is
closely related to every other type of sensation to form a unified schema of sensory
structures; (3) if sensations are structural, they are meaningful.(27) In his later work,
Merleau-Ponty argues that the body can prevent perception, even though one needs it to
perceive. It is not entirely one's body that perceives because it is built around a
perception that dawns through the body. Thus perception emerges in the recess of a
body.(28) The body is a perceptible reality which can perceive itself, become visible for
itself, and become tangible to itself because it can touch itself. For the body to
actualize the possibility of becoming a perceiving perceptible is to realize a
potentiality which is inherent in the being of the world.(29) Beneath the perceiver and
perceived or toucher and touched a crisscrossing is a shared, pre-established harmony,
which takes place within the individual forming an underlying unity of perception. The
body actualizes itself and achieves a pre-established harmony, for Dogen, in the process
of zazen, which is not entering into realization, but is already realization even when one
begins to sit.(30) Zazen, a fundamental form of spiritual life, represents the
non-thinking mode of consciousness where body and mind are cast off(31) and one takes a
leap to enlightenment. By casting off body and mind, one severs one's defiled thoughts,
which originate in one's discriminating consciousness.(32) To advocate casting off body
and mind, Dogen does not mean that one should reject one's body. He wants to affirm that
one should not be attached to the body. He still recognizes that the path to realization
is through the body. An assertion that Merleau-Ponty does not make because he adheres to
his phenomenological convictions,(33) even though he recognizes that the body is material
and spiritual, is that the body can manifest the absolute. Even though Dogen acknowledges
the impermanent nature of the body and the necessity of the aspirant for enlightenment to
become detached from his body, he asserts that the body manifests Buddha-nature, beings
and being itself. Dogen writes, "The Buddha-body is the manifesting body, and there
is always a body manifesting Buddha-nature."(34) This revealing is at the same time a
concealing, because Buddha-nature eludes the grasp of knowledge. By the power of the
Buddha-nature to subsume and transcend existence and nonexistence, the manifesting of
Buddha-nature by the body negates the body and transcends it. Thus, to grasp the essence
of the body truly is intuitively to grasp emptiness, the dynamic and creative aspect of
TIME AND BODY
Just as the body inhabits space, it
also dwells in time for Merleau-Ponty. Like a work of art that is indistinguishable from
the existence that expresses it, the body inhabits time, and its temporality is
indistinguishable from it.(35) In a sense, within my body I am time. "My body takes
possession of time; it brings into existence a past and a future for a present; it is not
a thing, but creates time instead of submitting to it."(36) The primordial
significance of the body is to be discovered on the pre-objective level of experience not
as a mere object among other objects, but rather as radically temporal. Thus the essential
intentionality of the body is its temporality, which is also its being.(37) Dogen's
position on this point is remarkably similar to that of Merleau-Ponty. Our body and mind
are time, for Dogen, just as all dharmas (things) are manifestations of being-time (uji).
"Entire being, the entire world, exists in the time of each and every now."(38)
Thus the mind, body, being, world, and time form a unity. Not only are entities time, and
not only is time in me, but activities are time: "As self and other are both times,
practice and realization are times; entering the mud, entering the water, is equally
The unity of time is manifested most
lucidly, for Dogen, when applied to Buddha-nature, whose being is time itself, a position
diametrically opposed to that of Merleau-Ponty, "As the time right now is all there
ever is, each being-time is without
exception entire time."(40) Within
the Buddha-nature, both future and past signify the present. Dogen emphasizes the now
moment because there is never a time that has not been or a time that is coming. Dogen
writes, "...all is the immediate presenting here and now of being-time."(41)
Thus time is a continuous occurrence of "now." This position has important
consequences for Dogen's philosophy, because the Buddha-nature is not a potentiality to be
actualized in the future, but it is a present actuality. In other words, every moment of
illusion and enlightenment contains all reality.(42) Therefore, Buddha-nature is both
illusion and enlightenment.
Time, a transitional synthesis of the
world, is literally, for Merleau-Ponty, the presence of the world in which the multiple
ways of being in the world are gathered together and dispersed. The present moment
contains both past and future; although they are never wholly present, past and future
spring forth when one reaches out toward them. In fact, the body unites time.
Merleau-Ponty writes, "In every focusing movement my body unites present, past and
future, it secretes time, or rather it becomes that location in nature where, for the
first time, events, instead of pushing each other into the realm of being, project round
the present a double horizon of past and future and acquire a historical
orientation."(43) Just as space enables one to be present to others, time makes it
possible to be mutually present to other beings. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty's position,
Dogen denies the continuity of time because each instant of time is Independent and
distinct of every other moment of time.(44) The discontinuity of time means, for Dogen,
that each point of time is independent of each other moment of time.(45) Present time, for
example, cannot be conceived as a linear, evolutionary process. Each moment of time past,
present, or future is distinct from every other, whereas Merleau-Ponty argues that past
and future are supported by an objective present. Since each moment of time constitutes a
discrete reality for Dogen, all moments are lived times. Dogen asserts that time does not
pass because in one moment all time is viewed simultaneously.(46)
Consequently, the past is retrievable, the
future is not beyond grasp, and the present is not merely transient. Rather than being a
form of bondage, time becomes an opportunity for human creativity and transformation.
Merleau-Ponty agrees with Dogen by referring to the ecstatic character of temporality,
which implies that one can reach out beyond the present into past and future time. To
inhabit space and time, according to Merleau-Ponty, is to encounter other bodies in a
common world. My body and other bodies form a system of competing or cooperative inter
subjective beings. My body perceives the body of another person and recognizes that it
possesses the same structure as my body. "Henceforth, as the parts of my body
together comprise a system, so my body and the other person's are one whole, two sides of
one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the
ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously."(47) Dogen would
be sympathetic to Merleau-Ponty's position to a certain extent. Just as there is no
separation between body and mind for Dogen, there is no division between oneself and
others in the state of non-thinking, since isolation from others only arises upon
reflection.(48) Dogen expresses the unity of being and time as follows: "The time has
to be in me. Inasmuch as I am there, it cannot be that time passes away."(49) Again,
"`Time being' means time, just as it is, is being, and being is all time."(50)
The common denominator of being and time is impermanence,(51) which is characteristic of
all existence. Dogen argues that Buddha-nature is impermanent; it is that aspect which
eternally comes into being and passes out of being. Dogen's non-dualistic equation of
being and time results in a radical temporalization of existence and a radical
existentialization of time.(52) Although time is immeasurable, intangible, and elusive,
both thinkers radically temporalize being, oppose a quantitative view of time, see time as
a lived reality, and propose a non-dualistic equation of being and time and body and time.
Merleau-Ponty disagrees, however, with Dogen's contention that things and events of the
universe are time. This position leads Dogen to a non-dualistic assertion that mountains,
oceans, pine trees, and everything else are time.(53) The universe, for Dogen, is not
something fixed and motionless; it is a being in time.
METHOD AND REALITY
To alleviate any possible mistaken
impression that Merleau-Ponty and Dogen are in total philosophical agreement with respect
to their thinking about the lived body, it could prove useful to indicate briefly some of
their major distinctions with respect to their methodology and understanding of reality,
since there are considerable philosophical differences between them. The phenomenological
method of Merleau-Ponty is an attempt to grasp what is or what appears to one's
perception. By attempting to grasp what is fundamental to one's experience of the world,
the phenomenologist is akin to an archeologist, who must often dig deep to discover the
artifacts of a civilization.
Just as the archeologist returns to the
artifacts of a civilization in order to understand it, so the phenomenologist returns to
the things themselves, which is to return to that world which precedes knowledge.(54) Once
the phenomenologist makes a discovery, or once something appears to one, it is essential
that one describe what appears to one without constituting it. "The real has to be
described, not constructed or formed."(55) When a thing appears, there must be
something to which it appears. This something is consciousness, which for Husserl is the
fundamental structure intentionality of consciousness, but its major function, for
Merleau-Ponty, is to reveal the world as present. Thus Merleau-Ponty widens the concept of
intentionality to include consciousness, the world, and our relationship to others. For
Merleau-Ponty, intentionality is pre-conscious, pre-objective, dialectic, and an
ontological relationship. When we penetrate into our existence we discover our fusion with
the world and others. When things appear to our consciousness we must stand back and not
prejudge these appearances. This does not mean that we bracket-out the world or refrain
from any judgment, because nothing would appear to consciousness if the world were held in
suspension. "The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of
its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my
explicit perceptions."(56) The world and the one who perceives it cannot be separated
from each other. Thus reflection is not an introspection accomplished by an isolated self;
it represents an extrospection, a reestablishing of one's direct contact with the world in
which one finds oneself and things interrelated in the world, a system in which all truths
cohere. Therefore, Merleau-Ponty does not find a place in his thought for Husserl's
eidetic reduction, a method used to capture the facts in their primordial uniqueness,
because Merleau-Ponty is not attempting to find universal essences, which have only a
provisional character imposed on us by the nature of language,(57) but is rather trying to
grasp the living stream of existence. One does not think the world; rather one lives
through the world, is open to it, does not doubt one's communication with it, and
recognizes that one does not possess it.(58) In contrast to Merleau-Ponty, the primary
method for Dogen is zazen (motionless sitting in meditation). The practice of zazen is
one's passport to freedom. "To sit cross-legged is to make a leap straightaway
transcending the entire world and find oneself exceedingly sublime within the quarters of
the Buddhas and patriarchs."(59) Thus zazen is not a
practice prior to enlightenment; it is
rather Practice based on enlightenment. "It is entering into realization."(60)
Since there is no distinction between acquired and original enlightenment and since
practice and realization are identical, zazen is not the cause of enlightenment. Zazen
enables one to cast off body and mind. Thereby one is able to sever disordered thoughts
emanating from one's discriminating consciousness.(61) Egoism is overcome, and all is
emptiness. It does not necessarily follow, for Dogen, that an aspirant should cease
Practicing zazen upon gaining enlightenment. On the contrary, zazen must be continued
because awakening must continually be confirmed in seated meditation.(62) When the moment
of enlightenment dawns for the aspirant, there is a simultaneous attainment of the way
(doji-jodo). An important implication of this position is that once one gains
enlightenment, everything in the universe attains enlightenment simultaneously.(63)
The essential art of zazen consists of
thinking of not-thinking, which is accomplished by non-thinking.(64) One must cease the
Involvement in worldly affairs, all
movements of the conscious mind, and making distinctions. The aspirant must simply sit
silently and immobile and think of non-thinking, which is the essence of sammai (Sanskrit,
samaadhi: concentration). Non-thinking, a mode beyond thinking and unthinking, functions
by realizing both thinking and unthinking.(65) It is thinking of emptiness, a thinking of
the unthinkable, which implies that non-thinking is objectless, subjectless, formless,
goalless, and purposeless. There is nothing comparable to Dogen's position in
The methods of both thinkers are radically
different, although their methods share an experiential emphasis and foundation. The
method of Merleau-Ponty enables him to elucidate a bodily scheme which operates within its
own field of existence. In a more radical way, Dogen's method, which leads to a state of
non-thinking, involves somatic transformations of one's body, enabling one to achieve a
true human body (shinjitsu nintai) which is an expression of Buddha-nature. Furthermore,
for Merleau-Ponty, philosophy, an interrogative approach to problems grounded in history,
does not provide final answers. Dogen's method does provide final answers because it
enables one to realize Buddha-nature, reality itself. Buddha-nature, for Dogen, is neither
a process nor an entity. It is not something to be achieved; it already is. Dogen modifies
a famous passage from the Mahaaparinirvaa.na Suutra: "All sentient beings possess the
Buddha-nature without exception." The Buddha-nature is not a potentiality possessed
by sentient beings. It is rather all-inclusive in the sense that it includes both sentient
and insentient beings. Since Dogen equates all existence and sentient beings, the
Buddha-nature includes plant life, animal life, and the inanimate world.(66) The
Buddha-nature is, however, the possession of neither sentient nor insentient beings; it is
beings and being itself. The absolute inclusiveness of the Buddha-nature does not imply
that it is immanent in all existences; rather all existences are immanent in it.(67)
Although Buddha-nature already exists for
Dogen, in contrast, Merleau-Ponty thinks that philosophy is an act of bringing truth into
being and not a reflection on some preexisting truth or reason, because the only
preexistent Logos is the world itself.(68) It is the duty of philosophy to bring the world
into visible existence. Thus philosophy, for Merleau-Ponty, is the art of relearning to
perceive the world. Philosophy must reject any idea of eternal truths, refuse to speculate
about the absolute, and acknowledge that it cannot become an absolute knowledge. Since
reationality is contingent, and since we cannot experience or have access to eternal
truths, we must refuse to strive to know that which is impossible to grasp, although it
can be admitted that we, as lived bodies within the world, are condemned to meaning.
AND BOUNDARY SYMBOL
In conclusion one can ask: What does
the philosophical dialogue on the body by Merleau-Ponty and Dogen teach us? These thinkers
help us understand that the individual is capable of expressing himself in language,
exercising freedom, intuiting, and thinking; none of these activities of the individual
are possible without a body. Therefore, to be a human being is to be embodied, which
entails being pre-theoretically and pre-cognitively "with" things and others or
in the midst of objects and other embodied beings. Even though we may experience the body
as a biological and physical organism, it is fundamentally the locus for one's life and
experience. Without reviewing the significant differences of their respective positions,
both thinkers arrive at very similar positions at several points, using, oddly enough,
very different methodologies: phenomenology for Merleau-Ponty and seated meditation for
Dogen. Although their methods are different, both thinkers have placed us in a comparative
realm of meaning concerning the human body. In order to avoid a static result for our
dialogue, I want briefly to take the problem of the body in a slightly different direction
without claiming that Merleau-Ponty or Dogen would necessarily agree with the following
comments. I not only experience the body as mine, but, just as fundamentally, I recognize
my body as radically other than me.(69) If I can recognize that I am both my body and that
I am also not my body, this realization expresses that I am radically limited by my body,
which irrevocably determines my life by its limitations. In the sense of potential
frustration, anguish, pain, fear, dread, and death, I am at the mercy of my body.(70) One
does not have to be a medical student to know that there are bodily processes over which I
have no control, which indicates that the body possesses a biological life of its own.
Since my body is a temporal and biological process, it can proceed without my being aware
of it, although Merleau-Ponty and Dogen want to make us aware of our bodies and their
philosophical significance. Dogen would agree to some extent with Merleau-Ponty when he
states, "The body can symbolize existence because it brings it into being and
actualizes it."(71) The body, although it is observable, is the hidden form of our
being. As an expression of total existence, the body expresses a unity. Bodily actions are
gestures of humans which are not mere signs; they are symbols of themselves and express
significance and meaning beyond themselves. Even though human beings are rooted in time
and the world, their bodies symbolize transcendence of biological and natural existence.
To be in the world and to be at the mercy of unseen biological forces of the body
represents a human limitation. Although humans experience their incarnation as a
limitation, this experience is already an overcoming of this limitation.(72) Thus the body
restricts our freedom and affirms it. Just as the dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Dogen
takes place on the boundary of Eastern and Western philosophy, our body is a boundary
symbol, which expresses that we are on the border of freedom and bondage. Our incarnation
points to our ambiguous situation. As embodied beings, we are not totally free nor are we
entirely bound. Our embodiment affords us the possibility of freedom, an absence of
inhibiting coercion, and a capacity for continual creativity. A person on the boundary
eludes normal classification and structure. Such a person overcomes, at least potentially,
sexual distinction, the cosmic rhythms of life and death, the spatial polarities of here
and there, the temporal polarities of past and future, the ethical opposition between good
and evil, the dichotomy of human relationships, and the ordinary distinction between body
and self. Such a boundary person seems to be an ideal candidate for an intercultural,
philosophical dialogue. One's "between-ness" affords one the freedom to listen
to both sides and decide for oneself.
1. Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen Kigen
Mystical Realist (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1975), p. 128.
2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology
of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 236.
3. Francis Dojun Cook, trans., "Hotsu
Mujo Shin, " in How To Raise An Ox (Los Angeles, California: Center Publications,
1978), p. 120.
4. Ibid., p. 121.
5. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 82.
6. Ibid., p. 130.
7. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"One Bright Pearl: Dogen's Shobogenzo Ikka Myoju," The Eastern Buddhist 4, no. 2
(October 1971): 113.
8. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
9. Gary Brent Madison, The
Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981), p. 30.
10. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Dogen's Shobogenzo Zenki 'Total Dynamic Working and Shoji, Birth and Death',"
The Eastern Buddhist 5, no. 1 (May 1972): 75.
11. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 167.
12. For a more complete discussion of the
notion of element, see Madison, Phenomenology, pp. 176-177, and Remy C. Kwant, From
Phenomenology to Metaphysics: An Inquiry into the Last Period of Merleau-Ponty's
Philosophical Life (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1966), pp.
13. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible
and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University
Press, 1968), p. 136. Three articles that discuss Merleau-Ponty's notion of flesh at
length are: Raymond J. Devettere, "The Human Body as Philosophical Paradigm in
Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty," Philosophy Today 20 (Winter 1976): 317-326; Atherton C.
Lowry, "The Invisible World of Merleau-Ponty," Philosophy Today 23 (Winter
1979): 294-303; Francois H. Lapointe, "The Evolution of Merleau-Ponty's Concept of
the Body," Dialogos, April 1974, pp. 139-151.
14. Merleau-Ponty, Phenonzenology of
Perception, p. 403. James F. Sheridan, Jr. notes the danger of this type of approach
to the problem of consciousness in Once More from the Middle: A Philosophical
Anthropology (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1973) when he writes, "The
temptation to found the conscious upon the pre-conscious, the deliberate upon the
pre-predicative always leads us to run the risk of committing the error of making the
indefinite fundamental and our formulation of the relation between indefiniteness and
definiteness as the articulation of experience or as a development from the implicit to
the explicit suffers from that temptation" (p.12).
15. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 297.
16. Madison, Phenomenology, p. 55.
17. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Dogen's Fukanzazengi and Shobogenzo zazengi," The Eastern Buddhist 6, no. 2
(October 1973): 123. For a comparison of Martin Heidegger and Dogen on thinking, see my
article entitled, "The Leap of Thinking: A Comparison of Heidegger and the Zen Master
Dogen," Philosophy Today 25 (Spring 1981): 55-62.
18. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, pp. 138-139.
19. See John D. Glenn, Jr.,
"Merleau-Ponty and the Cogito," Philosophy Today 23 (Winter 1979): 310-320.
20. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Dogen's Bendowa," The Eastern Buddhist 4, no. 1 (May 1971): 146-147.
21. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 235.
22. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Shobogenzo Genjokoan," The Eastern Buddhist 5, no. 2 (October 1972): 134.
23. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 203.
24. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Shobogenzo Buddha-nature I," The Eastern Buddhist 8, no. 2 (October 1975): 103.
25. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 130.
26. Samuel B. Mallin, Merleau-Ponty's
Philosophy (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979), p.113.
27. Ibid., pp. 20-21.
28. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the
Invisible, p. 9.
29. Lapointe, "Evolution," p.
30. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"The King of Samdhis Samadhi: Dogen's Shobogenzo Sammi O Zammai," The Eastern
Buddhist 7, no. 1 (May 1974):
31. See T. P. Kasulis, Zen Action/Zen
Person (Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of Hawaii,1981), who notes that the term
"molting" is to be preferred because it is a recurrent event (p. 91).
32. Waddell and Abe, trans., "Dogen's
Bendowa," p. 134.
33. See Remy C. Kwant, The
Phenomenological Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne
University Press, 1963), pp. 96-111.
34. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Shobogenzo Buddha-nature II," The Eastern Buddhist 9, no. 1 (1976): 98. A fine
article on Dogen's understanding of the Buddha-nature is presented by Abe Masao,
"Dogen on Buddha Nature," The Eastern Buddhist 10, no. 1 (May 1971): 28-71. The
key to understanding Dogen's concept of Buddha-nature lies in his notion of guujin
(throughness), according to Masanobu Takahashi, in The Essence of Dogen, trans. Yuzuru
Nobuoka (London: Kegan Paul International, 1983).
35. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, p. 153.
36. Ibid., p. 240.
37. Richard M. Zaner, The Problem of
Embodiment: Some Contributions to a Phenomenology of the Body (The Hague: Martinus
Nijhoff, 1964). p. 181.
38. N. A. Waddell, trans., "Being
Time: Dogen's Shobogenzo Uji," The Eastern Buddhist 12, no. 1 (May 1979), p. 118.
39. Ibid., p. 121.
40. Ibid., p. 118.
41. Ibid., p. 123.
42. Kim. Dogen Kigen, p. 117.
43. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
Perception, pp. 239-240.
44. Waddell and Abe, Shobogenzo Genjokoan,
p. 136. See also Hee-Jin Kim, "Existence/Time as the Way of Ascesis: An Analysis of
the Basic Structure of Dogen's Thought," The Eastern Buddhist 11, no. 2
(October 1978): 43-73.
45. Waddell and Abe, "Shobogenzo
Genjokoan," p. 136.
46. Kim, "Existence/Time," p.64.
47. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
48. Kasulis, zen Action/Zen Person p.91.
49. Waddell, trans., "Being
50. Ibid., p.116.
51. Abe, "Dogen on Buddha
52. Kim, "Existence/Time," p.52.
53. Waddell, trans., "Being
Time," pp. 120, 126.
54. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
55. Ibid., p.xi.
56. Ibid., p.xi.
57. Ibid., p.xv.
58. Ibid., p.xvii.
59. Waddell and Abe, trans., "The
King of Samadhis Samadhi," p.118.
60. Ibid., p.121.
61. Waddell and Abe, trans., "Dogen's
62. Reiho Masunaga, trans., A Primer of
Soto Zen: A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki (Honolulu, Hawaii: East-West Center
Press, 1971), p.103.
63. Abe, "Dogen on Buddha
64. Waddell and Abe, trans., "Dogen's
Fukanzazengi," p.123 and p.128.
65. Kim, Dogen Kigen, p.77.
66. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, trans.,
"Shobogenzo Buddha-nature III," The Eastern Buddhist 9, no. 2(October 1976):72.
67. Waddell and Abe, trans.,
"Shobogenzo Buddha-nature I," p.100.
68. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
69. Richard Zaner, "The Alternating
Reed: Embodiment as Problematic Unity," in Theology and Body, ed. John Y.
Fenton (Philadephia Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1974), p.61.
70. Ibid., p.62.
71. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of
72. Madison, Phenomenology, p.70.
The article proofread by Chen, ch'ang-ji.