RELIGIOLOGIQUES, 19 (printemps 1999) Postmodernité et religion

A Correlation Between Heidegger's Being-in-the-World and Masao Abe's Pratitya Samutpada

Charles J. Sabatino, Ph. D.[*]




The following essay will discuss the possibility that the shift in thinking brought by Martin Heidegger opens an area of dialogue with certain themes which have recently been addressed by the Buddhist thinker, Masao Abe. Abe is a contemporary thinker from the Kyoto school of Japan who represents the Madhyamika tradition within Buddhism. In particular, this essay will discuss several ways in which Heidegger's understanding of being-in-the-world as it is worked through in Being and Time, and Abe's interpretation of the Buddhist notion of Pratitya Samutpada may offer a converging approach toward understanding the human. Pratitya Samutpada is commonly translated into English as Dependent Co-origination, or Contingent Co-arising. However, as a way of further supporting the correlation between the two thinkers, Pratitya Samutpada will be translated in this essay as equiprimordiality, a term Heidegger uses throughout Being and Time in his analysis of being-in-the-world.[1] Though there are definite differences in the thinking of these individuals, nevertheless, each approaches human existence not as centered upon subjective and individual presence, but as de-centered, as participating within a larger context which sustains and supports the individual.


1. World as relatedness


Heidegger's theme of being-in-the-world moves in a very different direction than has predominated within most of western philosophy, especially that built upon the foundation established by Descartes. The approach of Being and Time seeks to overcome the dichotomous thinking which tends to interpret human being in terms of self-contained individuals who are detached and separate from their world. As an essential characteristic of human being, being-in-the-world implies that relatedness is not extrinsic to human existence, as though we were individuals who are only tangentially related to others and world. Rather, relationships are understood as a fundamental, integral, and originating aspect of human being. We exist and are present even to ourselves only as already being-in-a-world we share with one another (Mitdasein), not as isolated individuals who then enter into relationships or subsequently take up dealings with the world.

In developing the term Da-sein, Heidegger is seeking to avoid the subject-object model which interprets human being in a manner which disrupts the relational manner in which we find ourselves within the world : as part of the world of one another, not apart from it. Da-sein emphasizes the basic openness to world and others out of which we live and through which we become who we are. In other words, we are already there outside ourselves, so to speak, becoming who we are (coming toward ourselves) out of our involvement with one another and things with whom we share the relatedness which is world. Especially in the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger clarifies that human existence (Ek-sistence) carries the meaning of already standing outside ourselves such that there is not a line separating us from world or from one another. The world, and those within it, are not incidental to our being, but part of ourselves, as we are part of it as well. In the final analysis, each shares in the world of one another; for self and world mutually flow into and out of one another.

Much of the discussion in Being and Time is focused on what Heidegger refers to as the everyday mode of being, using examples that are simple and quite mundane. Doing so is integral to his particular phenomenological approach which would allow the human to manifest itself as we go about the usual routines of day to day existence. Heidegger starts with everyday being-in-the-world, for that is where our humanness takes shape and becomes manifest as we engage the day to day concerns, deal with the tasks at hand, tend to one another, and try to secure what is often a tenuous existence. The usual is not only where we find ourselves for the most part; but it is also how we find ourselves for the most part. Thus, it offers a viable entry point for understanding the human. This entry point accepts and acknowledges that our involvement with one another and engagement within world is integral to who we are. The things we do, the work and careers we pursue, the interests we share with family and friends, are not mere additions to our being. They are the very avenues through which we become human at all.

Heidegger discusses this involvement we have with one another within the world quite graphically in terms of the generally inauthentic manner in which we are caught up in and defined by what he refers to as the "they-self" (das Man). However, in his discussion of the inauthentic, Heidegger is not seeking to cast a moral judgment or indictment upon the human, which I believe is a mistake many who interpret him tend to make. Rather, he is simply indicating the extent to which we do not, and probably cannot, bear the burden of our own personal existence upon our individual shoulders. That is to say, we do not live in a world of our own individual making, but in a world we make and provide for one another, a world that includes a great deal which we count on constantly, though often without counting. As a consequence, we become entangled with one another in a world of shared interests, concerns, goals, etc.; and however different, we are also so much alike. We take our bearings from one another more than we might recognize; and there is little about us which does not involve and arise in some manner from our inter-actions, thus little which does not include others as part of who we are.

If we think through this fundamental involvement we have within the world of one another, we might well acknowledge that there are no independent individuals, at least not if that term suggests being self-contained or self-sustaining. To the contrary, to live is to partake of an often unnoticed network of inter-dependencies which constitute the world from out of which each of us lives. Even the call to authenticity does not draw us away from that network of inter-dependencies. Quite to the contrary, authenticity would have us own (Eigentlichkeit, authenticity, own-ness) and accept responsibility for, how much that world we share with others is part of who we are. Although, as we shall discuss below, becoming authentic does find the world unable to deliver what we seek from it, nevertheless, authenticity does not bring us to deny involvement with world. Being-in-the-world is integral to human existence; and authenticity definitely finds and invites us there, though without the illusion that this can afford the safety and protection we are looking for.


2. Equiprimordiality


The essentially inter-related nature of human existence indicated by being-in-the-world offers a point of convergence between the thinking of Heidegger and the Buddhism of Masao Abe. Abe has spent much of his career interpreting for western thinkers the significance of the Buddhist theme of Sunyata, usually translated as Nothingness or Emptiness. According to Abe, this primary theme is clarified and defined by the further Buddhist notion of equiprimordiality (pratitya samutpada). Everything, including humans, condition one another and are contingent upon one another. Nothing and no one is self-explanatory or self-contained. As such, as dependent in some fundamental manner, each carries an aspect of nothingness and emptiness within. The equiprimordiality of things and the nothingness within each are very basic and related notions within Buddhism, especially the Madhyamika tradition which Abe represents. Together they say that all things arise by dependency on something else, that nothing is independent and self-existing. Granting this ultimate interdependency and relatedness of existence, there is no substantiality to things, hence their emptiness.

Especially to western ears, this notion of nothingness or emptiness sounds quite negative at first sight. However, in looking for some way to appreciate the positive significance it has for eastern ears, we might note how that which is empty is also open. The classical example of this openness can be found in the eleventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching. There we find that the useful and needed aspect of a glass is the empty space within which the water is poured for drinking. Similarly, a room is presented as the particular space within which people then gather to meet, work, talk, etc. Thus, it is the openness of the glass to receive water and the room's openness to receive people that give its purpose. We can begin to appreciate what Sunyata represents by focusing on this aspect of openness. To be open finds us ready to receive and involves dissolving those barriers (which we ourselves create by fear and desire) which separate, get in the way, and close us off from one another and our world. In a way, therefore, Sunyata or emptiness represents the openness within ourselves which is prepared to acknowledge, receive, accept the relatedness which binds us to one another, nature and all that constitutes our world.

Another way to appreciate the positive significance of the nothingness implied by Sunyata is to see it as having relevance to the fundamental need we have for others, and for nature as well. This aspect of need, which is a form of emptiness, acts to draw us toward one another and nature, bringing us to live within a world that is fundamentally shared. We are not isolated or self-sustaining, but live through the influence and involvement of others who participate, at times quite intimately, in our own world. Furthermore, this need for one another is not tangential to our being, but reaches to the very core of who we are. Ultimately we are connected and carry an aspect of one another within ourselves. Thus, need or emptiness represents the essential openness within ourselves which draws us toward one another, opening upon a world which is inter-dependent and inter-relational.

The notion of nothingness implied by Sunyata, therefore, does not carry a negative meaning. That each of us carries an aspect of nothingness within means that fundamentally we are part of and not apart from one another. The very notion of equiprimordiality implies that individuals mutually condition the life of one another. They are not centered within self, but centers for one another, and thus not isolated. With that awareness, according to Abe, we become awakened to the true self; one that no longer excludes nor is excluded; a self whose basic openness within world signifies the fundamental connectedness to one another and nature which is the ultimate reality of our world. It is at this point, which recognizes the fundamental reality of relatedness as forming our world, that I find a convergence between Abe's interpretation of equiprimordiality and Heidegger's interpretation of being-in-the-world.


3. The presence of death


Heidegger's analysis throughout Being and Time finds that for the most part we live a life which is inauthentic. The need for security and the comfort of belonging find us generally preoccupied with the routines and business of the everyday world, going along with those around us, living as expected, doing what is supposed to be done. There is something freeing in allowing oneself to be carried along with the many, accepting their standards of success and failure, seeking the rewards available for doing so. Even in the most difficult circumstances, the confirmation of others that we are on the right track gives the protection of a familiarity which knows what to expect and thus finds things reasonably under control. It is too unsettling to face the insecurities which lurk beneath it all; much easier to become entangled in the day to day affairs with the impression that all is well so long as we keep up.

In Heidegger's analysis, it is the looming presence of death which shatters the illusion of security and brings us back to an authentic sense of reality. Suddenly, we begin to realize how fragile our world really is. It is all so taken for granted; and yet all so threatened. This occurs as we begin to acknowledge that death is not merely an event which happens to us one day in the uncertain future, an invasion which interferes with what our lives are otherwise about. Rather, the shattering awareness acknowledges death as an essential part of our being. We are always and already dying; and authenticity owns (Eigentlichkeit : own-ness) and accepts that there is no final escape or protection against that threat of loss. Our lives are fundamentally insecure, and remain so no matter what we do. Suddenly, the world we depended on for security fades. We are left facing a helplessness, an aspect of emptiness, which shadows our every moment and puts the lie to that sense of control we had assumed to be real.

Nevertheless, this shattering awareness brought by the presence of death is presented by Heidegger as offering an invitation and an awakening; it is not meant to cast a cloud of gloom over authentic existence. Paradoxically, it acts to heighten awareness and allows us to face ourselves and the world in a very different light. Suddenly, everything changes; and the ever present threat of loss shatters whatever complacency we have settled for. Much of what had seemed important loses its glamour, while aspects of the world which we had taken for granted and not counted at all loom into the foreground. Nevertheless, this awareness brought with authenticity does not negate the significance of our being in the world, but offers an invitation which can bring us there as though really for the first time. Brought face to face with the fragile nature of our existence with one another, a new, though frightening possibility arises, to live in the world without the assurances and guarantees of security which we are so quick to demand and put in place.

This insecurity which shadows the everyday world is quite unsettling. It creates the need, one which is more felt than known or clearly defined, to live among one another in a manner which Heidegger interprets as care. However, as developed in Being and Time, care does not represent the personal responsibility we choose to assume toward certain individuals in our world toward whom we feel a special sense of closeness or empathy. Prior to that, and more fundamentally, care entails the unnoticed ways, generally taken for granted, in which living in the everyday world finds us given over and entrusted to one another, even before choice and without defining it as such. Even in our inauthentic manner of being with one another, we are in the care of one another, providing and being provided for in more ways than we acknowledge. Such is the nature of the human which finds us needing one another and sharing a world.

However, and here is Heidegger's insight into the enticing nature of the inauthentic, we prefer to hide from the vulnerability of being human. Thus care, as our way of being, remains covered over by an illusory sense of security which avoids and denies how fragile our lives are at every turn. We allow the vast array of measures we put in place to protect us to foster the impression that all is safe, at least for the time being. Only the presence of death with its ever present threat of loss reveals how fundamentally fragile it all is, shattering the illusions of security which accompany this inauthentic mode of being. Then the authentic nature of care is revealed, as a response to the fundamental insecurity which is now acknowledged as permeating the world as a whole, an insecurity against which there is no lasting protection.


4. Impermanence


The manner in which awareness of death opens the possibility of authentic existence offers a further connection between the thinking of Heidegger and Masao Abe. In Buddhism, enlightenment comes with accepting the impermanence of all things (Anicca). Everything that comes into being, including oneself and those we care for, pass away. As Abe interprets the principal of equiprimordiality, this coming into being and passing away do not represent two separate processes, one life and another death. Rather, life-death are two aspects of the very same process concerning everyone and everything. To exist at all is already to be dying and passing away.

The insight of Buddha, his awakening, was how resistance and refusal to accept this impermanence acted as the source of human suffering. We become attached to how we want things to be, holding on to our expectations of what they should be. It is very human to embrace what we find acceptable, and shun what displeases us. However, these tendencies, although quite human, create conflict when life goes other than we prefer, as so often it does. Granting the impermanence of all things, nothing can be kept or held onto; and the shadow of loss is present within the very core of human existence. That loss does not arrive merely with the final act of death, but is ever present with the death and passing away of each moment as well.

Enlightenment comes as we learn to accept what is, along with this process of passing away, without judgment, without anger, without resentment.[2] However, that entails letting go of what we otherwise prefer or claim to have a right to. At issue here is not an intellectual understanding which knows in principal that all things pass away. This intellectual affirmation remains abstract and does not reach the center of oneself. The awakening that counts comes not with knowing, but personally owning and accepting that the vulnerability and impermanence of every moment leaves one with nothing one can claim or keep safe, neither oneself nor those we love.

However, and here is the paradox of Buddhism, while this impermanence of self leaves us with nothing to which we can cling and hold fast, it also finds us fundamentally connected to everything. We are not self-contained beings, but arise and pass away along with and as part of one another. The vulnerability lying at the core of ourselves is shared and connects us not just to one another, but to nature as well. At the core of our being, we are not so different, especially from one another.

The conditioned nature of existence means that our lives are not within our own hands. We exist within a world of inter-dependencies, involving and being involved, and act as centers one to another. Masao Abe uses the image of a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere to describe the fundamental interdependency implied by equiprimordiality. With that image, a very different sense of self emerges than we are used to, one which is no longer held as separate, distinct, and apart from everyone and everything else. It offers a sense of self whose security comes from accepting the insecurity of it all, trusting that the emptiness within self which ties us to one another within the world implies an openness which connects. As mutually conditioned, our lives depend, are at risk, vulnerable, thus insecure. Accepting this with trust brings the only real security. However, it is not a security we can struggle to establish for ourselves, but a gift offered out of compassion (Karuna) to one another. While all things pass and slip away, nevertheless, there is a wealth which manifests itself each moment, a fullness which, while sustaining the self, would draw us beyond and outside the confines of self. Nevertheless, we can be at peace within that larger fullness only as we learn to let go and accept the passing away of the self we otherwise cling to.

Clearly there is a difference between Abe's thinking and that of Heidegger. The fundamental impermanence of all that exists which is basic to Abe does not give the same priority to being as the existential difference which it has in Heidegger. At least in Being and Time, the possibility of death, however accepted as present, manifests itself through the insecurity experienced in anxiety which finds us remaining threatened. Abe's acceptance of impermanence and of the presence of death appears to go further than Heidegger. Nevertheless, the possibility of authenticity does own the ever presence of death as indicative of one's being in the world, and as such does show a greater affinity with Abe's thinking than we tend to find in most western philosophy.


4. Co-responsibility for world


The possibility of authentic existence involves assuming personal responsibility for one's own life. In working through what this entails, Heidegger associates the invitation to personal responsibility with the experience of finding oneself guilty. Here too, there is a bridge between Heidegger's thinking and that of Abe. The guilt emerging with authenticity is not to be interpreted quite as we usually understand that term. We find ourselves guilty not because we have done something wrong or broken a moral code. Quite to the contrary, we may well have lived our lives generally as expected. However, therein lies the source of guilt. The lure of the inauthentic is that it affords ready access to the path of least resistance which allows us to follow along with everyone else. We assess innocence and guilt, right and wrong, pretty much as everyone else does. Even in following the rules we superficially agree with what have become the social norms, without examining further the real impact or meaning of how we generally live. We define our personal responsibilities in terms which gain the security and approval of doing what everyone knows to be the right thing. Doing so affords the comfort of belonging and fitting in with those around us. In other words, as we begin to accept personal responsibility for our lives in authentic existence, we become aware that our lives have not been our own. Guilt arises with the recognition that it can be otherwise.

The German word Schuld means both guilt and responsibility. This might help us appreciate the complex aspect of human experience which Heidegger was trying to address with that issue. The authentic person's awakening to responsibility is cast in terms of guilt because it arises with acknowledging how the inauthentic way of living allows us to escape the burden of owning full responsibility for our lives. To a great extent, it is "they" and not strictly ourselves who are the basis of how we tend to think about things and thus act upon our world. This protects us from facing challenges which would make discomforting demands, or call for significant change. It is easier to go along with what has already been thought through and decided. Inauthenticity allows us to take the easier route.

Inauthenticity allows us to define narrowly just how implicated we are within the world. One can assume just so much responsibility. It is comforting to believe that, in spite of our involvement within the everyday world, we are responsible only for our own individual part of the world, as though we were not part of all that we benefit from. This protects us from having to "own" that we are personally implicated and very much a part of much more than we had assumed. However, authenticity shatters that complacency and awakens a sense of awareness which finds us at least seeking to be more responsible than we have been willing to admit. We are implicated and responsible, because involved, more intricately than we prefer to acknowledge. Thus our guilt.

The invitation to own personal responsibility, and the accompanying guilt, which comes with authenticity opens a new perspective toward what it means to live within the world with one another. Authenticity accepts our being in the world with one another much more fundamentally than the inauthentic allows for. In spite of the fact that authenticity awakens with an awareness of the presence of death and finds the world unable to give the security we seek, still there is no escaping how deeply we are enmeshed with one another as being-in-the-world together. The invitation of authenticity is not to detach ourselves from world but to accept or own (authenticity, Eigentlichkeit, ownership), how much the world that is not oneself pertains to oneself. Even the inauthentic needs to be owned and accepted as an essential part of oneself, and not as something one can leave totally aside. For better and worse, inauthenticity is part of our human way of being with one another. It forms a basic part of one's own destiny.

In discussing destiny toward the end of Being and Time, Heidegger is not referring to something fatalistic or deterministic. Destiny has to do with what Heidegger refers to as our "thrownness" (Geworfenheit) into world at a particular time and location. That simply means that we are situated in this setting rather than that; and our own individual existence takes its bearings from the status of the world within which we find ourselves. Our own personal destinies are very much caught up with what is happening : the political and social issues, the priorities, tasks, and endeavors which are pressing in our time. These present the framework within which we each live and make our personal choices. The possibility of authenticity does not bring us to escape our time or world, but to engage it, choosing how and where to do so. The challenge of authenticity is to own responsibility for our being-in-the-world; though it is a world which is no longer seen as merely one's own or merely individual.

Here is the connection to Abe's interpretation of equiprimordiality. Granting the conditioned nature of existence, individuals are very much implicated (implicare : to enfold within) in the life of one another. The lines that separate us are no longer clearly drawn. We are interwoven, tied up with one another, and each carries the "touch" of others within. This necessarily complicates issues involving responsibility and guilt. It does not deny individual responsibility, as though we were mere products of social upbringing, or other environmental forces. If anything, the law of Karma which is fundamental to Buddhism, would have us accept greater responsibility for our actions and choices than most are prepared for. According to the law of Karma, we are responsible for bringing on ourselves life events which we otherwise think happen to us because of external causes. More than we tend to realize, our own attitudes and dispositions, fears and needs, invite, attract, and thus contribute to circumstances which we otherwise believe arrived from elsewhere. We are responsible.

We are implicated in the life and world of one another, and thus are not alone in our responsibility. It is very much a part of Buddhist thinking that we find and own within ourselves the problems and conflicts we see taking place within our world. However, we have to do so without moral or righteous judgment, for the problems of the world as seen through Buddhist eyes are not primarily issues of morality, right and wrong, but issues of human pain and suffering. This is something we all share, and to which we all contribute in some way. More important than judging one another is getting in touch with the human suffering and pain which is the source of destructive human behavior. The task is to examine how much we ourselves, often unknowingly, fuel those ills and increase suffering. An example of this is available from the findings of recent social studies that the abuse individuals receive while growing up, and environmental conditions such as poverty and violence, definitely contribute to the possibility that they will in turn take part in harmful behavior. Certainly, these individuals are to be held personally accountable for their own behavior. Only in owning responsibility can they begin to become free from those prior conditions and find the possibility of growth, healing and change. Nevertheless, others are involved and implicated in their responsibility. To the extent that any of us ignores conditions that breed resentment, or do not tend to the destructive tendencies in our own lives; or when we continue to reap benefits from policies which harm others, then we do contribute fuel to the world's suffering. As implicated and involved, we are co-responsible for what occurs in our world. Thus, no matter how responsible we are for our individual actions, others also share in that responsibility, as we do in theirs.

The notion of guilt is not a particularly Buddhist one. The compassion which awakens responsibility toward others draws the enlightened individual in a different direction than does the invitation to authenticity which does involve an ownership of guilt. Nevertheless, both approaches accept that we share a fundamental co-responsibility for world and for one another. This finds us, once again, not separate and apart, but very much involved and part of the world of one another, thus very much co-responsible.


Concluding remarks


A fundamental consequence of being-in-the-world is that very little, perhaps nothing, pertains strictly to oneself. Our lives are not strictly in our individual hands, but very much interwoven with those with whom we share the world, as family, friends, and citizens of an increasingly inter-dependent world order. Whether looked at from the perspective of Heidegger's discussion of being-in-the-world, or Abe's interpretation of equiprimordiality, being human implies a fundamental need for others within the world of inter-relationships. We are part of one another and not separate. Being-in-the-world is fundamentally a shared reality.

Granting this shared perspective, both Heidegger and Abe leave us in a somewhat precarious situation. Considering the fragile nature of our being-in-the-world, there is no escape from vulnerability. Any sense of security we have must come from some other direction than assurances which protect us from one another. Although seldom noted, life is built more on trust than assurances. That is driven home to us in moments of crisis, when suddenly the usual routines of the everyday break down, and the supports of our world are gone. Then we are struck by how much we had depended on without much notice. The world we share finds us given over to, contingent upon, dependent on, at risk with, one another. There is no security, except from a sense of trust which accepts the insecure.

Neither Heidegger nor Abe actually speak of trust; and perhaps it is inaccurate to refer to it in these concluding remarks. Nevertheless, there is trust involved for authenticity to accept the presence of death, and enlightenment to accept the impermanence of all things not as something we shy away from, but as something to embrace. This paradoxical manner of thinking which invites trust in the face of the insecure is another item these two thinkers share.



Selected bibliography


Abe, Masao. A Study of Dogen. Ed. Steven Heine. Albany, NY : SUNY Press, 1992.


________. Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue. Ed. Steven Heine. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1995.


________. Zen and Comparative Studies. Ed. Steven Heine. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1997.


________. Zen and Western Thought. Ed. William LaFleur. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1985.


Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY : SUNY Press, 1996.


________. Letter On Humanism. Ed. W. Barrett & Henry Aiken. New York : Harper & Row, 1962.


________. The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington, In. : Indiana University Press, 1982.


________. Zein und Zeit. Tubingen : Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1972.

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[* ]Charles J. Sabatino est profeseur-assistant en philosophie et religion au Daemen College (Amherst, New York).

[1] Equiprimordiality is consistent with the basic Buddhist meaning of Pratitya Samutpada, which understands that all existent beings are bound together within a context of mutual and reciprocrocal interdependency and relatedness. Heidegger uses the term equiprimordiality (Gleichursprunglichkeit) in discussing the manifold ways of being-in-the-world (constituting the structure of care) through which Da-sein discloses and opens up world as a relational context. Even Da-sein and world are equiprimordial in that the disclosure of each is through the other. See Being and Time, especially pp. 149-168.

[2] We can find further evidence of the correlation discussed in this essay by noting that this theme of letting go of any claim we might make upon Being plays a major role throughout Heidegger's later writings. See Heidegger's Gelassenheit (Pfullingen : Neske, 1959); translated into English by John Anderson and Hans Freund as Discourse on Thinking, (New York : Harper & Row, 1966).