- Beyond Personal Identity: Dōgen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self
Beyond Personal Identity by Gereon Kopf is in many ways a brilliant work of comparative philosophy that does an outstanding job in taking on the challenge of relating the complex thought of Japanese giants Dōgen and Nishida to various Western conceptions of the person. Kopf succeeds in developing his own philosophical approach to the main issues of nonduality and present-oriented self-awareness, while staying true to the respective thinkers involved in the examination. He is clearly bucking recent trends in the field of Buddhist studies that have emphasized increasingly social-historical methods, but has pulled off a major coup by adhering to his vision of the role of scholarship. Along with Dan Lusthaus' Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-Shih Lun (Curzon, 2003), which deconstructs the issue of idealism, this work goes a along way toward rehabilitating philosophical approaches to Buddhist doctrine by analyzing text as text rather than trying to relate-and in some cases reduce-text to a reflection or expression of its reconstructed context. At the same time, Kopf's work, understandably as it is his first book, has some basic limitations, which I will address with constructive criticism.
The main value of this book is that it takes the reader on a fascinating journey through a wide variety of Western and Buddhist notions of what constitutes the person and the person's relation to the world. Kopf's "theory of personal identity investigates three central questions: How is it possible to identify a person (myself and others) as an individual human being? How is it possible to distinguish between two individual persons? What guarantees the constancy and identity of an individual person over time?" (p. 7). Chapter 1 is primarily dedicated to critiquing Western notions that have substantialist implications, either deliberately and directly or indirectly in an embedded fashion by favoring an essentialist view that personal identity persists over time. Here Kopf demonstrates a mastery of contemporary philosophical materials and of how to examine them critically.
The four chapters in part 2 of the book simultaneously unveil Kopf's theory of the tripartite structure of the person-selfhood, otherness, and continuity-and the reasons why he considers that Dōgen and Nishida overcome the flaws and lacunae in Western views of a false sense of constancy. The reason for the fourth chapter (chapter 5) is that Kopf goes into more depth on the third part of the structure, that is, the matter of how the person seems to maintain its identity over a prolonged period, by dividing this into the issues of "continuity of experience" and "temporality." In each chapter, he makes it clear how Dōgen and Nishida appropriate the basic Buddhist doctrines of no-self, dependent origination, and impermanence in formulating their unique perspectives. He convincingly shows that Dōgen's notion of [End Page 569] the dharma-stage (jū-hōi) as articulated in the "Genjōkōan" and Nishida's notion of the discontinuity of continuity stake out the distinctive Zen view. According to Kopf, "the Zen Buddhist notion of immediate now and non-relative present should not be mistaken for a merely atemporal oneness, which melts all individual time-moments into an undifferentiated oneness, but rather as the dialectic of linear temporality and mystical atemporality" (p. 198).
In part 3 Kopf fleshes out the meaning of the Zen phenomenology of temporal existence as the central component of a philosophy of personal identity-or, rather, of transpersonal nonessentialist experience-by providing a highly original interpretation of Dōgen's doctrines of the "presencing" (genjō) of "total-working" (zenki) in light of Nishida's paradox or self-contradictory identity of "walking eastward by walking westward." He concludes with a stimulating comparison of Derek Parfit's survivalist philosophy, which represents a Western approach to present-oriented experience, with the Zen view that "the experiential 'I' discovers in its process of self-awakening that it does not...