Zen and the art of hylomorphism…

I just finished watching Erleuchtung Garantiert (EG) (Enlightenment Guaranteed), a 1999 film by Dorris Dörrie, recently best known for her 2008 film, Die Kirschblüten – Hanami. I was struck by a quotation from a book on Zen featured in the film.

Let me first give a brief synopsis of EG. It charts the spiritual growth of two brothers, Uwe and Gustav, as they go from married life in Germany to a sort of lay-Zen freedom in Tokyo. We first meet Uwe, a real estate agent, as a cranky, dissatisfied husband and father of four children, while Gustav first appears as a fairly serene, jolly fengshui design consultant, devotee of Zen wisdom, and husband to a shallow wife. Due to a sudden crisis in his life, Uwe persuades Gustav to allow him join him on his trip to Tokyo, during which Gustav wants to visit Noto Monzen, a Zen monastery. In Tokyo, the two brothers, who for the most part carry on a hilarious repartee, quickly encounter difficulties and scrape by long enough to reach Noto Monzen. There they live a short time as Zen novices, an experience which at times dredges up old grudges from their childhood, but in the end helps them face themselves and find greater peace. The film is superbly well directed, delightfully acted, and rather perfectly diegetically structured.

Now, the quotation that grabbed me. On the flight to Tokyo, Gustav attempts to console Uwe by handing him a book about Zen. Uwe finds a card in the book and reads, “Leben heißt Leiden [Life is suffering].” He hands the book back to Gustav in bemused disdain. Later, however, Uwe is more engrossed in the book, and on the train to Noto Monzen, he reads the following words:

“Wir müssen das Trugbild durchschauen, dass es ein Ich gibt, das von dem dort getrennt ist. Bei unserem Üben geht es darum die Kluft aufzuheben. Erst in dem Augenblick in dem wir und das Objekt eins werden, können wir unser Leben wirklich erkennen.”

“We must look through the illusion that there is an I separate from that there. Our [ascetic] discipline is all about canceling this divide. Only at the moment we and the object become one can we really know our life.”[1]

This immediately struck me like a metaphysical one-two combo.

First, Uwe’s mention of “I and the object becoming one” reminded me that the union of the subject and object is a fundamental tenet of Thomistotelian epistemology (TE). As St. Thomas notes in De Veritate, citing Aristotle’s De Anima III, 8, the soul is in some sense all things (Lat., hoc autem est anima, quae quodammodo est omnia; Gk., εἴπωμεν πάλιν ὅτι ἡ ψυχὴ τὰ ὄντα πώς ἐστι πάντα·).[2] In TE, there is a genuine union of the percept and the perceiving organ. For instance, light is the proper object (or, perceptual mode-of-being) for the eye. Sound is the proper perceptual mode-of-being for the ear. Molar texture is the proper object of the skin. And so forth. The union of object and subject, percept and perceiver, is the act of sensible cognition. As St. Thomas says in De Veritate (cited below in note [1]),

True expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge. Similarly, the sense of sight knows a color by being informed with a species of the color.

Convenientiam vero entis ad intellectum exprimit hoc nomen verum. Omnis autem cognitio perficitur per assimilationem cognoscentis ad rem cognitam, ita quod assimilatio dicta est causa cognitionis: sicut visus per hoc quod disponitur secundum speciem coloris, cognoscit colorem.

The perceiver has the potency for sight, but only when his visual potency is combined with a proper visual object does he engage in active perception (viz., sight, hearing, feeling, etc.). By the same token, proper objects of sensation possess the potency for perception (i.e., perceptibility), but only in combination with a perceiver are they agents (i.e., activating entities) in perception. If we lacked the potency to perceive certain, so to speak, ontological bandwidths of reality, we could never pervceive without activating prosthetic organs properly attuned to those bandwidths. Likewise, if an object lacks a potency for being-perceived, then it could never actually be perceived. An example of this active/potential blend in cognition is the fact that we cannot, without special equipment, perceive infrared or ultraviolet light, but bats and butterlfies can perceive such light. We lack the potency for such perception (unless of course we activate prosthetic devices to amplify our perceptual potencies), but that does not mean flowers and stars lack the potency for being perceived under the mode of ultraviolet and infrared light. Bats and butterflies have the agency for perceiving ultraviolet and infrared light, which activates the potency of that light, but much of what we actively perceive is imperceptible to them. What a star is qua objectum scientia (as ‘an object of knowledge’) just amounts to which of its perceptual potencies are actualized. The role of science is to scrutinize which of these potencies are actually there to be perceived in various objects, and then to taxonomize objects according to their actual natures.

In any case, it is only when we posit an absolute incommensurability between the organ of perception and the objects of perception, as Descartes did, that we lose the right to say perceivers actually know the objects in their environment (as post-Cartesian epistemology has demonstrated in extremis). If there is no genuine (i.e., inborn or natus/naturalis) union of the object and the subject, then, as Locke claimed, all we know are our ideas of objects, our vivid inner (secondary) representations of otherwise colorless, soundless, flavorless, etc. (primary) objects. The “common bond” in which object and subject mutually “find themselves together,” is called intentional being (esse intentionale). The perceiving mind wanders about the world, in both senses: about as in ‘throughout’ (along one’s “world-line” in spacetime), and about as in ‘towards’. The mind persistently and naturally forms intentional bonds with the objects (res extensae) it encounters, and eo ipso knows itself as a knowing being (res cogitans). Perception and cognition are intrinsically intentional, about, directed-at, in-tension-with the objects of its attention. As Uwe read in the book on Zen, “Only at the moment we and the object become one can we really know our life.”

So much for the first punch delivered by Uwe’s quotation. The second thing that hit me is how this convergence of Zen and TE insights–– about the union of object and subject, the I and the that there–– seriously undermines the conventional divide (oh, the irony!) between Western and Eastern wisdom. In both Zen and Thomistotelian, there is a vital emphasis on the immediacy of the world in our perception of it. The immediacy of the real world fills our minds so that we are literally displaced from within ourselves. The immediacy of the world draws us out of ourselves, away from the stifling provincialism of our inner world when it is devoid of objective content. Zen asceticism is a formula of systematic engagement with the world so that we are drawn away from our Ego, away from the illusion that “I” exists on its own, as some autonomous reality. In Zen asceticism and TE (which of course also flourished for centuries in a Catholic spiritual milieu), we find true ourselves only as we find ourselves truly in the world. For a theist, this of course means that we find ourselves among our fellow creatures, joined to them by intentional bonds, which are mediated through our cognitive capacities. The universality of intentional being in discrete entities not only allows us to know objects, but also truly to know ourselves as knowers in the union of our minds with the sensibles before us. We cannot, pace Descartes, know ourselves as existent knowers apart from that which we know, apart from that which actively informs the potency of our minds.

But there is more. Since intentional being is neither purely natural being (esse naturale, i.e., the “thing in itself” when unperceived) nor purely abstract (esse immateriale, i.e., as a pure concept apart from its particular material instantiation), but a link between these two kinds of being, it is the bridge on which we stand behind pure matter and the ideas of the Divine Mind. We can imagine things that do not exist, but they only have esse immateriale, and things, pace Berkeley, can exist without our perceiving them. It is the sheer immateriality of, say “2,” stripped of all particular, material characteristics as this or that instance of “2,” which enables “2” to surface repeatedly, inexhaustibly, and identically throughout material reality. Insofar as every percept is a small surprise which “thrills” and livens our cognitive world–– insofar as every thing is something real which did not necessarily have to exist in our perception, and which may disappear at any moment–– then all perception is a constant parade of the world contingency. None of our perceptual contents exist for us necessarily and absolutely; they all come and go and change. So the world. It does not exist necessarily; it came, is on the go, and always changing. To perceive this is to perceive that its contingency for all possible perceivers is just as fundamental as that of all percepts for us as perceivers. The sublime union of the knower with that known is a goal of Zen practice, but is ultimately and truly the privilege of God alone, in whom all things exist at one with His own being.

Ultimately, Zen and TE are theories of aesthetic existence. Any work of art enjoys the three modes of being I mentioned above: esse naturale, esse immateriale, and esse intentionale. In the mind of the artist, before she produces the work, a work of art is purely abstract immaterial “thing,” still unmaterialized and undifferentiated by matter. (If my concept of a future work of art just is my neural makeup as I ponder it, then why is the actual finished product nothing like a clump of brain tissue?) Once it is produced, the work of art enjoys a natural existence even when no one beholds it. When the lights fade and the doors close in the gallery, the works of art inside persist, as natural objects but not as objects of art. Only when their aesthetic potency is activated in the moment of perception do works of art “mobilize” their intentional mode of being, a mobilization which concomitantly activates the mind of the subject in the intentional union discussed earlier. This is, of course, what the art-lover means by saying she “loses herself in” a work of art, and what accounts for the ancient link between aesthetic and religious rapture: her Ego becomes amalgamated with the intentional being of the objet d’art and, in turn, she may proceed along that intentional bridge towards the beauty of the art itself as it exists from eternity in the Divine Wisdom. To know the beauty of the creation is to know the preeminent beauty of the Creator. These are but the three classical paths of Scholastic theology (i.e., via causalitatis, via remotionis, and via eminentiae) deployed in the world of art.

[1] Just because I find it a challenging and intriguing claim, I want to add what Uwe reads next:

“Erleuchtung ist nicht etwas, das man erlangen kann. Es ist die Abwesenheit von etwas. Ihr ganzes Leben lang sind Sie hinter etwas hergewesen, haben nur ein Ziel verfolgt. Erleuchtung bedeutet, all das aufzugeben.”

“Enlightenment ist not something one can obtain. It is the absence of anything. Your whole life has been behind something, has pursued only one goal. Enlightenment means giving all that up.”

[2] I have provided the context of St. Thomas’ claim in De Veritate, in Latin and English.

De Anima III, 8. Περὶ Ψυχῆς, ΒΙΒΛΙΟΝ ΤΡΙΤΟΝ, ΚΕΦΑΛΑΙΟΝ Η’.

De Veritate, I, rep.:

If the mode of being is taken in the second way—according to the relation of one being to another—we find a twofold use. The first is based on the distinction of one being from another, and this distinctness is expressed by the word something, which implies, as it were, some other thing. For, just as a being is said to be one in so far as it is without division in itself, so it is said to be something in so far as it is divided from others. The second division is based on the correspondence one being has with another. This is possible only if there is something which is such that it agrees with every being. Such a being is the soul, which, as is said in The Soul, “in some way is all things.” The soul, however, has both knowing and appetitive powers. Good expresses the correspondence of being to the appetitive power, for, and so we note in the Ethics, the good is “that which all desire.” True expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge. Similarly, the sense of sight knows a color by being informed with a species of the color.

The first reference of being to the intellect, therefore, consists in its agreement with the intellect. This agreement is called “the conformity of thing and intellect.” In this conformity is fulfilled the formal constituent of the true, and this is what the true adds to being, namely, the conformity or equation of thing and intellect. As we said, the knowledge of a thing is a consequence of this conformity; therefore, it is an effect of truth, even though the fact that the thing is a being is prior to its truth.

Q. Disp. de Ver. I, resp.:

Si autem modus entis accipiatur secundo modo, scilicet secundum ordinem unius ad alterum, hoc potest esse dupliciter. Uno modo secundum divisionem unius ab altero; et hoc exprimit hoc nomen aliquid: dicitur enim aliquid quasi aliud quid; unde sicut ens dicitur unum, in quantum est indivisum in se, ita dicitur aliquid, in quantum est ab aliis divisum. Alio modo secundum convenientiam unius entis ad aliud; et hoc quidem non potest esse nisi accipiatur aliquid quod natum sit convenire cum omni ente: hoc autem est anima, quae quodammodo est omnia, ut dicitur in III de anima. In anima autem est vis cognitiva et appetitiva. Convenientiam ergo entis ad appetitum exprimit hoc nomen bonum, ut in principio Ethic. dicitur quod bonum est quod omnia appetunt. Convenientiam vero entis ad intellectum exprimit hoc nomen verum. Omnis autem cognitio perficitur per assimilationem cognoscentis ad rem cognitam, ita quod assimilatio dicta est causa cognitionis: sicut visus per hoc quod disponitur secundum speciem coloris, cognoscit colorem.

Prima ergo comparatio entis ad intellectum est ut ens intellectui concordet: quae quidem concordia adaequatio intellectus et rei dicitur; et in hoc formaliter ratio veri perficitur. Hoc est ergo quod addit verum super ens, scilicet conformitatem, sive adaequationem rei et intellectus; ad quam conformitatem, ut dictum est, sequitur cognitio rei. Sic ergo entitas rei praecedit rationem veritatis, sed cognitio est quidam veritatis effectus.

7 Responses

  1. I’m not too familiar with Zen, but isn’t the point of the Anatta doctrine to show that there is no self at all, that the self is an illusion? Or is that doctrine not present in Zen like it is in other branches of Buddhism?

  2. phamilton:

    I’m gonna have to plead ignorance here as well on the finer points of Zen egocide, but I will say two things.

    1. The very lack of “the” Zen position on this issue only bolsters my confidence in tackling at least one obviously prevalent manifestation of it. As with Islam and Protestantism, if no one is ultimately right, who are they to say I am wrong? ;)

    2. The incoherence of Buddhist themselves arguing against the existence of selves should be self-evident. Interestingly, one of the leading exponents of egocidalism, Thomas Metzinger, is himself (sic) a German.

  3. Moroever:

    While I certainly must give Metzinger a closer reading/hearing, I suspect that his brand of egocidalism is, on the one hand, driven by a postmodern/cogsci denial of a “pure sef in se” and, on the other hand, ultimately in search of divine simplicity as “all that there is BEING all that there is.” I have already addressed the former impulse in this post and have alluded to the latter impulse as well. Let’s see where we can go from here.

  4. “The sublime union of the knower with that known is a goal of Zen practice, but is ultimately and truly the privilege of God alone, in whom all things exist at one with His own being.”

    Are you sure of that, or am I misunderstanding you. Is not God emphatically NOT one with the material universe? Would that not amount to pantheism?

  5. Hi. I’ve recently been trying to understand Thomist Metaphysics, in particular Hylomorphism. At the same time, I am seeing parallels between the aforementioned metaphysics and aspects of eastern wisdom. Searching for more on this subject has led me to your blog.

    I am not formally educated in either metaphysics or eastern wisdom, so forgive my inevitable errors.

    It seems to me that the Buddhist concept of emptiness, and the accompanying insights (‘form is emptiness’ for example) can be characterised as informal expressions of the same truth pursued formally by Aquinas.

    In light of Thomist Metaphysics (or my reading of the subject?) the absence of an independent ‘self’ within all things may be equivalent to the recognition that all created beings are ‘contingent’, ie. depend for their existence upon a separate act of existence.

    Likewise, I wonder if the realisation that ‘form is emptiness’ is an expression of the mutual interdependence of substantial form and first matter within material substances? ie. without substantial form, first matter has no characteristics. And without first matter, substantial form is immaterial. Given (and of this I am uncertain) the underlying East Asian metaphysics of objects being conceived as forms out of emptiness, it might follow that the equivalence of form and emptiness is indeed a recognition of hylomorphism in material beings.

    So, what if the experience of the various great Buddhists in east asian history is better characterised as the transformative effect of an unprecedented insight into the metaphysics of creation? And what then, if the end of such insight is a positive recognition of the self-existent one?

    I may be drawing a very long bow, but it makes so much sense to me. I find the characterisations of all buddhism as nihilist or suicidal unsatisfying. And many of the modern western interpretations of it seem – as you mention in comments – more the last resort of a postmodern attitude than a deep and positive pursuit of the truth.

    Well, these are some of my thoughts, and I’m grateful to have a place to share them, if this is the right place after all.

  6. Interesting post but I’m bound to say that if you look within the writing of Shankara( 788 – 820 A.D.) on Advaita Vedanta you will find even closer parallels to the TE philosophy. I’ve often felt that Zen achieves practical wisdom despite the general Idealism that vitiates Buddhism from a conceptual point of view.

    The preamble to Shankara’s chief work Brahma Sutra Bhasya is aporetic in form. How can it be that the inert object comes to be within me the conscious subject as it actually is? How does it travel from out there and remain as it is? Unity (connaturality) is the answer. The ‘vritti’ or mental modification is related to the object because the object is an ‘upadhi’ or limiting form of pure consciousness. Perception is underwritten by a unity of being. The technical term for this is ‘adhyasa’ or superimposition , the object is as it were placed in the mind of the subject or in another image the mind goes out to the object and takes its form. Now even though the veridical is taken as the default position, illusion, confusion and delusion occur. Enter the rope/snake analogy which in its own way is the worst sort of snare and delusion in that it tends to end up as a parallel or homology. Here the greater understanding in the TE tradition of how analogies work would be exceptionally useful to the traditional interpreters of the superimposition theory did they but know of it.

    And all this comes from the original pulse of Realism which is the theoretical precipitate of the experience in dhyana (meditation) of connaturality. So there should be parallels.

  7. From a Theravada perspective, the “purpose” of the anatta teaching is to invite inquiry into the question of the “ownership” or “mine-ness” of any phenomenon: is there any thing that you can claim “ownership”, to the point of being able to demonstrate total control over that phenomenon? One may find that neither one’s body nor one’s mind is susceptible to such ownership or control. Of course, we can and do have some ability in this area, but it’s not total, or we would choose to not get sick, age, or die.

    “Anatta” is not about denying a “self”, because a self can be defined in a myriad of different ways (as body, as mind, as “soul”, as “spirit”, etc.), and some of these ways have no direct relevance to one’s spiritual practice. What does have relevance is the insight into what one directly experiences, and that would fall into the realm of form (or matter, including physical matter and well as spiritual, or subtle, forms of matter) and mind. (Nirvana can also be experienced, or realized, but that’s another issue.)

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