Zen Meets Kierkegaard

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

A Love Knowing Nothing: Zen Meets Kierkegaard

Mary Jeanne Larrabee
DePaul University

I present a case for a love that has a wisdom knowing nothing. How this nothing functions underlies what Kierkegaard urges in Works of Love and how Zen compassion moves us to action. In each there is an ethical call to love in action. I investigate how Kierkegaard’s “religiousness B” is a “second immediacy” in relation to God, one springing from a nothing between human and God. This immediacy clarifies what Kierkegaard takes to be the Christian call to love. I draw a parallel between Kierkegaard’s immediacy and the expression of immediacy within a Zen-influenced life, particularly the way in which it calls the Zen practitioner to act toward the specific needs of the person standing before one. In my understanding of both Kierkegaard and Zen life, there is also an ethics of response to the circumstances that put the person in need, such as entrenched poverty or other injustices.

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One thought on “Zen Meets Kierkegaard”

  1. Interesting thesis, especially the suggested similarity/equivalence of SK’s “second immediacy” with “immediacy experienced by the Zen Buddhist who has ‘realized’ the true reality through enlightenment.” Both, indeed, involve a leap and ethical living as a precondition or preparation.

    I think the characterization of love for SK is accurate, though I might want to understand the “closed eyes” as indeed “looking away from the dissimilarities.” In other words, it is not difference in qualities that make a person an individual, and it is not in recognizing differences that one engages the individual; rather, it is precisely engaging this actual person, who would remain this individual even if identical in every way to others. I particularly appreciate the discussion of God as a “middle term” that does not obviate immediacy: “God stands singularly in each individual, the lover and the neighbor, and in this ‘middle’ that intersects the being of each there is opened the ‘space’ in which nothing stands between.” However, I think the treatment of concepts and of “knowing” requires more detailed treatment. Surely, “seeing” my neighbor’s “need” may require some prior knowledge. When I see him with a cast on his leg, my knowledge that yesterday he didn’t (or did!) is a part of seeing his present need. “Can you read at once the hunger on the neighbor’s face? Can you see the sorrow around her mouth? Can you capture at once the loneliness beneath his layers of bravado? This love calls for an attunement…” and such attunement includes prior knowledge of this person’s situation and typical gestures (and even with such knowledge, such “reading at once” is as likely to be projection as seeing the individual).

    The treatment of the aesthetic mode of being seems flawed to me, or perhaps just unclear, with implications of unthinking submission to the desire of the moment. If the Young Man of Either/Or and of “In Vino Veritas” (I think they are meant to be the same) is paradigmatic of this mode, then the aesthete is certainly capable of detailed deliberation and planning, even designing of his pleasures, including self-denial of intervening pleasures (“love is a harsh mistress” he says somewhere desisting from the attraction of a young woman that might distract from his pursuit of Cordelia). Priority is given personal pleasure in its immediacy, not necessarily on immediate indulgence.

    The treatment of Zen is thin and while the suggested relation between enlightenment and second immediacy is fascinating, and I think it should be pursued, the derivation of an SKian ethic is strained. The “sense of global connectedness with others” would seem (and I think historically has), fostered more a sense of the “generalized other” than of “this individual.” Moreover, in the absence of anything resembling a social ethic in any pre-modern/Western branch of Buddhism together with the lack of a clearly social ethic in SK, the derivation here might best be taken as proposed parallel strategies for constructing grounds for a social ethic in both, rather than a substantive claim that such grounding exists. An effort that I very much support.

    Having said all that, I’ve been toying with writing a piece to the effect that SK (or at least some of his pseudonyms) was a Buddhist. A bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there are many passages (Fear and Trembling, Anxiety, etc.) that could well pass as doctrinally valid interpretations of Buddhist themes.

    Thank you for this, Dr. Larrabee.

    –Steve Evans (Not the one in Dr. Larrabee’s bibliography)

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