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  • Beyond Personal Identity: Dōgen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self
  • Carl Olson
Beyond Personal Identity: Dōgen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self. By Gereon Kopf. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2001. 298 + xx pp.

This work of comparative philosophy focuses on the problem of the self by comparing Western existential and phenomenological thought with Zen thinkers such as Dōgen and Nishida. In addition to such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, the author also includes a discussion of such Western philosophers as Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Lock, and Hume. The author demonstrates a knowledgeable command of his subjects and the central focus of the book.

After discussing the problem of personal identity in the first part of the book, the author uses the second part of the book to place phenomenologists into dialogue with Zen Buddhist thinkers. The second part of the book includes the following topics: selfhood, otherness, continuity of experience, and temporality. In the final part of the book, the author considers the Zen conception of personal identity by discussing a Zen phenomenology of experience and personhood as presencing. Within the context of this final part of the book, Kopf wants to develop terminology that derives from both phenomenology and Zen Buddhism in order to consider the Zen notion of no-self as a process of presencing. This approach gives the author an opportunity to explore the philosophical implications of Zen Buddhist terminology and rhetoric and to suggest a way to theorize and discuss the self beyond personal [End Page 200] identity. Overall, each of the three parts of the book provides a different perspective: a discourse on personal identity, a comparative philosophical perspective, and a Zen viewpoint.

This work of comparative philosophy embodies an internal tension between the position of the author and the impermanent nature of the non-self in Zen Buddhism. Kopf acknowledges his basic position in the following way: "It is my thesis that the framing of the question of personal identity already implies the notion of an enduring self" (p. xviii). In contrast, Dōgen rejects the notion of an enduring self or personal identity. The author's stated thesis and that of Zen Buddhism suggests that continuity is a crucial issue for this book.

In chapter 4, Kopf elucidates his understanding of the continuity of experience: "The notion of continuity reflects the assumption that the 'I' of human experience is not without a history: It finds itself in the context of past experiences, which the experiental 'I' encounters in memories, as well as in a given situation" (p. 124). In short, a person finds oneself thrown into a situation. After discussing Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, the non-self doctrine in early Buddhism, how the Mahāyāna thinker Vasubandhu attributes continuity of experience to the habit energy produced by karmic activity, and how Nāgārjuna collapses the distinction between sam.sāra and nirvan.a, the author considers the positions of Dōgen and Nishida. The former defines the continuity of experience by two diachronically diverse dharma positions instead of three moments of time. This position suggests that Dōgen views continuity as the process from the present to the present and not as a process that operates from the past into the future. According to Nishida, the I-Thou forms a nonrelative contradictory self-identity, and it exists in the world of expression. This implies that the self is simultaneously continuous and discontinuous.

In his chapter on temporality, Kopf distinguishes between abstract time, phenomenal time, lived time, and actual time, which is a fourth dimension suggested by Dōgen and Nishida. Abstract time is rejected because time is inseparable from existence. Grasping time as a dynamic event, the author discusses phenomenal time, in which the self realizes its own temporality and historicity. In contrast to the threefold structure of abstract time, phenomenal time possesses a twofold structure of past and future, whereas lived time embodies an internal unity in which the present unifies the past and future. A fourth dimension of time—actual time—is suggested by the work of Dōgen and Nishida. Actual time expresses a "modality of...


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