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

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.”

Cours­es on Hei­deg­ger’s phi­los­o­phy can be found in our col­lec­tion of Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion of 950 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Talks About Lan­guage, Being, Marx & Reli­gion in Vin­tage 1960s Inter­views

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

Exis­ten­tial­ism with Hubert Drey­fus: Four Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

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

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  • Leonardo says:

    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.

    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…

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

  • Rob says:

    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!)

  • Doug says:

    thats that europa league for you

  • Michael Howard says:

    Real­ly … and that ‘insight­ful dis­tinc­tion’ of lin­guis­tic expres­sive­ness mas­quer­ades as the epit­o­me of 20th cen­tu­ry occi­den­tal phi­los­o­phy.

    The west real­ly has much to learn from the ori­ent then! I’d agree with Herr H. on this ‘Big prob­lem of the West.’ In oth­er words, it’s nar­cis­sis­tic and too full of itself to see beyond its nose.

  • Nick says:

    that whole col­lec­tion in which Poggel­er is cit­ed is real­ly very good, high­ly rec­om­mend (Gra­ham Parkes, Hei­deg­ger and Asian Thought). Mehta’s arti­cle is espe­cial­ly good.

  • photue says:

    Có thề Hei­deg­ger đãt đến Trí tuệ trong nhà Phật nhưng chưa có một Bi tâm?

  • walter bocelli says:

    Hei­deg­ger is a tra­di­tion­al philoso­pher, has no thought for the evo­lu­tion, nor for the ontoge­ny. His Being is only for man, the only crea­ture capa­ble of thought. Igno­rance, delib­er­ate or not, the fact is that his Being does not take into account nor bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion or cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion, or devel­op­men­tal. How­ev­er deep, his phi­los­o­phy is reduc­tive. That does not stop to say, even for its part, the exis­tence of Truth, and to affirm con­cepts as ” no human being is with­out reli­gion. “He him­self does not exclude the pres­ence of the divine and ulti­mate­ly invokes the gods for sal­va­tion of the world.

  • Nadja S says:

    For any­one inter­est­ed in Hei­deg­ger’s core-shat­ter­ing world, I would rec­om­mend first of all William Richard­son’s “From Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy to Thought”. I use this work as the frame­work for my read­ings of the works of the great H him­self. Delve into the Con­tri­bu­tions to Phi­los­o­phy, the strangest book I ever read. H and Bud­dhism draw onto the same pri­mor­dial pre-divine source.

  • Tape Doctor says:

    In the 1200s, the Zen Bud­dhist monk Dogen deliv­ered a rel­a­tive­ly short ser­mon on the nature of being and time which is one of the great onto­log­i­cal ques­tions Hei­deg­ger dealt with in his hideous­ly long tome Being and Time pub­lished in 1927. Dogen’s com­plete ser­mon can be read in under 15 min­utes and he reached the same con­clu­sion as Hei­deg­ger and only 700 years ear­li­er:

    Hei­deg­ger also read the writ­ings of Daisetz T. Suzu­ki, the pre­em­i­nent Zen schol­ar who wrote so tire­less­ly to bring Zen to the West. Bar­ret wrote about what Hei­deg­ger said about Suzuk­i’s writ­ings: IN THE INTRODUCTION to an edi­tion of essays by D.T Suzu­ki, the fore­most ambas­sador of Zen Bud­dhism to the intel­lec­tu­al West, William Bar­rett men­tions an anec­dote that has gen­er­at­ed a sig­nif­i­cant amount of schol­ar­ship about Heidegger’s con­nec­tion to Bud­dhism. Bar­rett reports:

    “A Ger­man friend of Hei­deg­ger told me that one day when he vis­it­ed Hei­deg­ger he found him read­ing one of Suzuki’s books; ‘If I under­stand this man cor­rect­ly,’ Hei­deg­ger remarked, ‘this is what I have been try­ing to say in all my writ­ings’” (Bar­rett, 1956, xi). The truth of this sto­ry is unver­i­fi­able and irrel­e­vant, but Bar­rett con­sid­ers its moral undeniable:For what is Heidegger’s final mes­sage but that West­ern phi­los­o­phy is a great error, the result of the dichotomiz­ing intel­lect that has cut man off from uni­ty with Being itself and from his own being.… Hei­deg­ger repeat­ed­ly tells us that this tra­di­tion of the West has come to the end of its cycle; and as he says this, one can only gath­er that he him­self has already stepped beyond that tra­di­tion. Into the tra­di­tion of the Ori­ent? I should say he has come pret­ty close to Zen (Bar­rett, 1956, xii).

  • nieznany says:

    “For Hei­deg­ger, consciousness—“a know­ing rela­tion to Being” through language—is the exclu­sive pre­serve of humans.”

    I think it’s mis­lead­ing to present Hei­deg­ger as a the­o­rist of con­scious­ness. The point of his creation/use of Dasein as a tech­ni­cal term (and, lat­er, the “clear­ing,” “Lich­tung,” “Er-eig­nis,” etc.) was large­ly to get away from the prob­lems cre­at­ed by the classical/modern philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness over against the world, or the sub­ject rep­re­sent­ing the object to itself.

    Also, at this point any arti­cle about Hei­deg­ger ought to at least men­tion his sub­stan­tial Nazi involve­ment and anti-Semi­tism.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks, niez­nany, I would­n’t say that Hei­deg­ger is a “the­o­rist of con­scious­ness” in any broad sense but only meant to char­ac­ter­ize his com­ments in this exchange.

    As to your com­ment about his Nazism and anti-Semi­tism, I ful­ly agree. We’ve since cov­ered the sub­ject here:

  • nieznany says:

    Thank you for the link and for devot­ing a post to the issue.

  • Dugald sinclair says:

    “Bud­dhism makes no essen­tial dis­tinc­tion between humans and oth­er liv­ing things,animals and plants”
    Real­ly ?
    Its actu­al­ly the first essen­tial dis­tinc­tion Bud­dhism makes,which rather makes any need to con­tin­ue eval­u­at­ing his views rather point­less

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