Heidegger for dharma wallahs: the granddaddy of existentialism

This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney in October 2015.

Well, you asked for it: a talk on that notoriously impenetrable philosopher, Martin Heidegger, whom I’ve mentioned on various occasions as someone who can help us express something that’s foundational to the dharma, but rarely articulated.

Heidegger is a granddaddy (if not the granddaddy) of phenomenology and existentialism. The aspect of Heidegger’s thought I’m referring to comes in his magnum opus, Being and time, published in German in 1927. The standard English language version is the 2008 Harper Perennial edition, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson.

Heidegger felt that western philosophy had got off on the wrong foot in assuming that the world was made up of enduring self-sufficient entities, starting with human beings. Humans thus came to be understood as independent entities – the thinkers and doers (that is ‘subjects’) who do and know things in, with, to and about other living and/or inanimate entities (all considered as objects).

If you think about existence in these terms, Heidegger writes, then you produce misleading ideas about how humans in fact manifest, and the way we think we know about the world around us, and act in it.

A more dynamic sense of being human

He ended up avoiding the whole idea of the human person in these terms. Instead he replaced her/him with two almost synonymous concepts: being-there or being-here (Dasein) and being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein). In English language discussions of Heidegger, the first and most important of these two – Dasein – is usually left untranslated, as any translation doesn’t quite convey what is going on here.

Essentially, Heidegger is saying that humans are more event-like (or happening-like) than entity-like. Our life process is inseparable from our ever-changing surroundings and contexts – what we care about, how we go about our projects, and what happens to us. We don’t exist essentially, that is, independently of all these life processes.

We’re not static bodies living in glass cases! And we don’t learn about stuff by going to school and reading books about them! We come to self-awareness and learn stuff by being ‘always already’ fully engaged in life. Eternal truths and revelations have no place in this picture.

Each of us is ‘thrown into’ a particular life-world (a particular family, culture, linguistic community, class, moment in history, etc.) which is always already our unchosen world, and in time we ‘project’ ourselves out at it in our ‘concernful’ activities. Note that ‘project’ also refers to throwing.

A favourite expression of Heidegger’s is ‘average everydayness’ – this is where we must be able to account for our lives within the worlds in which we’ve already been thrown, and then make our own. What are we doing and what are we understanding as we go through a normal day in this world – especially before we start to verbalise and theorise about it?

A favourite image for this kind of being is the artisan (a traditional cobbler, for example) in his workshop. His tools of trade and raw materials are at his fingertips, ‘ready-to-hand’. He doesn’t have to think about them as he works with them, they’re integral to his own will and body – his being-in-the-world. While at work he’s indistinguishable from them and the work he’s doing. It doesn’t make sense to understand this artisan independently of his workshop and what he’s doing and using. He’s a process playing itself out.

So this is a much more dynamic picture of how we live, and what we are, at any particular moment. And Heidegger elaborates it. What drives this process (which is us) is what we care about: our projects keep us moving forward, engaging with our world, and with other Daseins in particular ways. We don’t exist as static, semi-permanent essences independently of this engagement. The Buddha saw care (appamāda) as the primal ethic of the dharma; Heidegger saw care (Sorge in German) as the core dynamic element in our authentic being-in-the-world.

Authenticity and our existential givens

A human life is a trajectory as well as a process. We’re all going die, so Heidegger invents a term for that, too: we’re ‘being-towards-death’. (You gotta love dem hyphens!) Constant awareness of this aspect of being is in fact one of his two criteria for living authentically: engaging with the world always mindful that the engagement itself is finite, and that our possibilities for realising our projects – what we care about – are finite too, limited by our life-span, our energies, our talents, and our real-world opportunities and contingencies.

This idea of authenticity puts a powerful brake on childish and narcissistic grandiosity, obviously. It’s been preserved in the concept of finitude – a biggie in some contemporary moral philosophy and literature.

Heidegger’s second criterion for authentic living is resisting social expectations – what he calls ‘the they’ (das Man), as in: ‘They expect us to get a good job, buy a house, and raise a family.’ To live authentically, we need to insist on our own priorities, no matter how much pressure is put on us to conform to social expectations.

Heidegger and the dharma

This whole conception of being human chimes in with (and articulates) the Buddha’s, and the way our lives appear to us in insight meditation practice – what the Buddha called ‘embodied attention’ (yoniso manasikāra). The only real difference between the Buddha’s account and Heidegger’s is that the Buddha couched our lack of entity-like status in negative terms, whereas

Heidegger accounts for our true event-like being in positive terms. The two accounts are just two sides of the same coin.

In insight meditation, one of the three characteristics in every experience that we encounter is our old friend, anattā – often mistranslated as no-self. It actually means not-self: it’s not denying the existence of self as an event or happening, but is pointing to the fact that we can’t find a solid entity-like self in any aspect of our experience when we pay close attention to it. Later dharmic developments elaborated not-self into the meditative realisation of emptiness (shunyata), referring to emptiness-of-self.

That’s because our lives and experiences thereof arise and pass away – they’re event-like, not entity-like. We can’t find a self in any solid, identifiable aspect of our being, because that’s just not how we exist anyway. We are the process, not the solid bits; that’s how we’re to get to know ourselves and how our lives are unfolding. As Nāgājuna put it:

Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me

So quite pragmatically, the Buddha directs our meditative attention to the five bundles (khandhas – body, feeling-tone, perceptions, inclinations, and consciousness), or to the four focuses of awareness (satipatthānas), as the sum total of who we are and what’s going on.

And what do we find? Just process – arising and passing away – nothing solid.

But not nothing either. The whole practice addresses our moral agency – how we manifest in our several life-worlds as we cultivate what we care about. It challenges us to account for what we really care about, for what drives our choices and directs our energies.

At the same time, the Buddha rejects the kind of disengaged ‘knowledge’ that Heidegger also rejects. The meditator is always already fully engaged, right there in the thick of it. Our authentic knowing (our consciousness) concerns what is happening right now. This knowing frees us from the static, habitual perceptions that enthral us. It sets us free.

For more on this, read chapter 7 of Stephen Batchelor’s book, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age, on experience.