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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Comments (15)
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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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