Martin Heidegger Talks Philosophy with a Buddhist Monk on German TV (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, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Love Let­ters of Han­nah Arendt and Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger

Heidegger’s “Black Note­books” Sug­gest He Was a Seri­ous Anti-Semi­te, Not Just a Naive Nazi

“Hei­deg­ger in the Kitchen”: Alain de Botton’s Video Essay Explains the Philosopher’s Con­cept of Being

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