|Martin Heidegger and Nishitani Keijii|
My work always takes place between disciplines. I firmly believe that the most interesting things happen at the borders of what is stable and safe. I do not see myself as a master of any of these areas, but a bridge-builder. By walking across the frontiers of philosophy, literature, arts and martial disciplines I have tried to find ways that connect and enrich these different practices. The most powerful foundation I have found so far to all of them is the body.
The body is, in my opinion, the neglected foundation of the self in the Cartesian, rationalist and idealist traditions of philosophy. Since Descartes conceived the body as a machine, controlled by the soul, and focused the ‘sum’ in the ‘cogito’, the body became a problem, a burden, an obstacle, and it is still seen as such for most schools of philosophy to this day.
For the martial arts there is only the body. Self-development through the body is one of the roots of the Sino-Japanese martial disciplines. I am aware that in my research on philosophy of the mind my conceptions of the body are very different to those of my colleagues because of my martial arts background.
This drew me to Japanese culture and philosophy, how they understand the European schools of philosophy, and more specifically to the Kyoto School. Not very surprisingly, they were very interested not only in German idealism and romanticism but in figures critical of the Enlightenment tradition, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger or Jünger. Some of them, like Tanabe Hajime and Nishitani Keijii even became students of Heidegger. But I also noticed a deep difference. All these philosophers belonged to the Zen Buddhist tradition.
Authors like Nietzsche - and following him Heidegger - had a different conception of the body than the Cartesian one. The body is present in many passages of Nietzsche’s work, but is not fully developed as a theme. The same notions of the body are present in Heidegger’s text, but they are barely mentioned.
Nishitani Keijii was one of the most important philosophers of the Kyoto School. He was student of both Heidegger and Nishida Kitaro, the founder of the school. He was deeply influenced by Nietzsche, too, and he made a revealing study of Nietzsche’s conception of the body in his book The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism. This book is revealing not only of Nietzsche’s position, but also of Keijii’s interests and problems. In his works the body is not much mentioned, but fully present; the difference to his German counterparts is his perfection and consistency. This is because in the Zen sect the body-mind relationship is a central theme. It is fully developed theoretically and practically in a holistic method. This methodology leads to a certain conception of the body, where it is the body itself who speaks. When Keijii mentions the body he uses, in a very Heideggerian way, a neologism. He renames it the ´mind-and-body´ (in the English translation, obviously). He himself states that this ´mind-and-body´ is the same as what Nishida Kitaro called the ´Historical Body´. Therefore, in the Kyoto School’s interpretation the body-mind relationship is not essential but existential. This means, there is not one essential relationship, but a process that can lead to certain unity (or fail in the path of obtaining it).
Influenced by this perspective the artist and monk Omori Sogen developed an interesting and unique practice. He was personal friend of some of the Kyoto School philosophers, and a Zen adept himself. He linked his shodo (Japanese calligraphy and painting) with his kenjutsu (Japanese traditional swordmanship) and his Rinzai Zen Buddhism meditative practice. He believed that there was a deep connection between each of these disciplines, and that practicing them together in a unified method would enable him to master all of them. On the top of this, he was a firm believer in the internationalization of his disciplines. He was the founder of the Daihonzan Chozen-ji in Hawaii, the first Japanese Zen Buddhist temple outside of Japan.
|Omori Sogen and Terayama Tanchu|
When in 2005 I met Terayama Tanchu sensei, Omori Sogen’s disciple and leader of his school after he passed away in 1994, something caught my attention. By a friend´s invitation, I attended a Shodo workshop, and what I found was very different to what I had expected. We did bodily preparation that included breathing exercises as one of the key components. I recognised the exercises immediately from my experiences in martial arts. When the master painted, I was shocked by the precise use of the body and the breathing technique. As far as I was aware, he was using what is called ibuki, a basic breathing technique used in martial practice, the same projected in fighting.
Afterwards, when a couple of months later I joined the school and practiced zazen and kenjutsu, everything became clearer for me. The breathing techniques ibuki and Nogare were the base of the whole practice, the bodily foundation of the ken, the zen and the sho. And the starting point for any theoretical explanation.
Back in Europe, I tried to make sense of all these experiences for my own practice. The obvious analogue in philosophy was Michel Focault. He was deeply influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche, and was very interested in the Japanese experience, to the extent that he practiced zen under Omori Sogen. Sadly he passed away while developing these interests, although they are already very present in his late work the History of Sexuality. Certainly, Foucault was developing the tools to be able to think of a new conception of the body.
Trying to trace a new history for a different body, I look back to the key moment of the early European modernity. Guided by Bakhtin, I found an alternative to Descartes in Rabelais´ idea of the ‘carnavalesque’. The excessive body, the eating, the scatology, the full embodiment. Guided by Ortega y Gasset, I found yet more inspiration in Velázquez, the fencing painter, the painter who painted with a bold attitude, whose body movements can be seen in his brush marks, the painter who painted the dwarfs of the court in a carnavalesque, yet realist, manner, portraying the dignity of their disgraced bodies. The potential for a new body has always been there, and with it the possibility of a conversation between the European and the Japanese traditions, a debate fruitful for both of them. It could be antedote for the deadend that both analytic and continental philosophies have been in for the last century.
This problem was already noticed by people such as Ernst Jünger, a friend and peer of Heidegger. His criticism of the machine and dehumanization, which influenced the more widely known work by Walter Benjamin, was profusely read and discussed by the philosophers of the Kyoto School.
Nishitani Keijii on philosophy and Omori Sogen on art and religion are unique figures for a European researcher. They lived in a key historical moment for Japan and the world. They had a very strong relationship with European philosophy. They were in contact with key philosophers like Husserl, Heidegger or Foucault. They were very aware and well trained on their own tradition. They had an extremely original and successful practice, and they noticed what they personally, and Japanese culture more widely, could provide to the world. Their work presents a great opportunity to build those necessary bridges between Japanese and European philosophy.
The Cartesian Problem of the Body by Juan Enrique Ordóñez Arnau is licensed under a Creative Commons