Martin Heidegger Talks Philosophy with a Buddhist Monk on German Television (1963)

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Martin Heidegger is often called the most important philosopher of the 20th century. I’m not in a position to evaluate this claim, but his influence on contemporary and successive European and American thinkers is considerable. That influence spread all the way to Thailand, where Buddhist monk and university professor Bhikku Maha Mani came to think of Heidegger as “the German philosopher.” (A conception, writes Otto Poggeler in an essay on Heidegger and Eastern thought, that may have “perverted the monk’s wanting to talk” to the philosopher, “since philosophy never lets itself be embodied in an idol.”) The Buddhist monk, also a radio presenter who later left his order to work for American television, met the German philosopher in 1963 for an interview on German TV station SWR. Maha Mani asks his questions in English, Heidegger responds in German. See the first part of the interview above, the second below.

This was not at all the first time the German philosopher had dialogued with an East Asian thinker. In a study on the Buddhist and Taoist influences on Heidegger’s work, Reinhold May writes that Heidegger’s “direct contact with East Asian thought dates back at least as far as 1922” when he began conversations with several major Japanese thinkers. Nonetheless, Heidegger apparently had little to say on the correspondences between his ideas and those of Eastern philosophers until the 1950s, and the little that he did say seems marginal at best to his main body of work. May’s claims of “hidden influence” may be highly exaggerated, yet Heidegger was familiar with Buddhist thought, and, in the interview, he makes some interesting distinctions and comparisons. In answer to the Bhikku’s first, very general, question, Heidegger launches into his familiar refrain—“one question was never asked [in “Occidental” philosophy], that is, the question of Being.” Heidegger defines “the human being” as “this essence, that has language,” in contrast to “the Buddhist teachings,” which do not make “an essential distinction, between human beings and other living things, plants and animals.” For Heidegger, consciousness—“a knowing relation to Being” through language—is the exclusive preserve of humans.

In the second part of the interview (read a transcript here), Bhikku Maha Mani asks Heidegger what he thinks about the contradictory Western tendency to identify people without religion as “communists” and those who live “according to religious rules” as insane. Heidegger responds that religion, in its most radical sense, simply means “a bonding-back to powers, forces and laws, that supersede human capability.” In this respect, he says, “no human being is without religion,” whether it be “the belief in science” of communists or “an atheistic religion, namely Buddhism, that knows no God.” Heidegger goes on to explain why he sees little possibility of “immediate and simple understanding” between people of different religions, philosophies, and political groups. While it may be tempting to view Heidegger’s work—and that of other phenomenological, existential, or skeptical philosophers—as working in tandem with much Eastern thought, as perhaps “the” German philosopher himself would caution, the differences are significant. In the interview above, Heidegger largely faults Germany and “all of Europe in general” for a general lack of human harmony: “We do not have any clear, common and simple relation to reality and to ourselves,” he says. “That is the big problem of the Western world.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.



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  1. Leonardo says . . . | May 9, 2014 / 5:40 am

    When I was un undergrad in philosophy in Torino, as the inevitable course on Heidegger came, I wasn’t very happy. It took me one full year to start to enter into the world created by his thought. And I loved it. However I never gave that exam, since by then I estimated that to appropriately talk about Heidegger, it would have taken at least ten more years. Instead I opted for an exam on James’ Principles of Psychology (quite a switch…).

    Many years later, I realize that many things of James remained in my brain, but some things of Heidegger remained in my heart. I admired the humanism of both of them.

    Heidegger can appear extremely contorted, and sometimes even evanescent (as I said, I think it takes at least one year of intense study to start to understand his thought), but if you are willing to give it a chance, you will hopefully realize what a incredible philosopher he was. In the sense that he managed in the painstaking task of rethinking the whole history of western philosophy – and not in summary, but in detail – and finding one fundamental question that indeed was never asked, for real: that of what is the being. Then he started to ask that question, and if you keep how he got to that question, you realize that the extraordinary intrication of his writing does not respond to an intellectual, elitarian velleity. Rather this complexity is due to the difficulty of trying to use a language that had indeed been forged by that tradition in which the being had always been given for granted.

    Postilla
    I always saw a curious, although maybe not justified, parallel between that enterprise, and psychology. The philosophy of Heidegger tries to use language to explore the nature of that being that the western thought had always assumed and encapsulated in the language itself. Psychology tries to understand our thoughts and feelings using those same objects. Of course you’re going to have many problems…

  2. john campbell says . . . | May 9, 2014 / 10:29 am

    That was an insightful and thoughtful comment. Thank you Leonardo. You saved me a year.

  3. Rob says . . . | May 9, 2014 / 11:08 am

    Leonardo! Congratulations to your insights in Heidegger. You `ve understood that he is an humanistic thinker, he wants to think a deeper humanism (letter of humanism). He said, that u can forget his thinking and read Hölderlins Hyperion, a work that describes an early greek feeling that highest beauty, morality, truth must be one – and only art and poetry can bring this feeling of godly harmony back.
    I´m from Germany n I´ve read most of the works of H. He is harmless and not a Nazi. Most of our people said much worse things than him. H. denied bilogical rassism n christian antisemitism. He criticised parts of the Jewish elite in context of modern atheistic mathematical-scientific thinking, a new modern religion of science that he saw as dangerous! (Forgive my english!)

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