"Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.
The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.”
Nishitani Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (1990) Appendix: ‘The Problem of Atheism, 1: Marxist Humanism’
So arising out of Zen Skin, Zen Marrow*, a book I picked up just because it looked interesting and seemed to be discussing the moral and political dimensions of Zen (which rarely happens from within the movement), I’ve now discovered a movement in Japanese academic philosophy - the Kyoto School - which applied Buddhist and Zen ideas to Western existentialism (or, perhaps more importantly, its immediate precursors; and also vice versa). That is, I’ve always seen the connection or resemblance between Western postmodern thought and Buddhist non-dualism, and perhaps rather more in the cultural than rigidly philosophical sense; this is, however, a series of Japanese thinkers before and after the Second World War applying ‘Eastern’ thought to Nietzsche and Heidegger (and yes, there are obvious, doubly compounded political issues with that). So it’s both a little unexpected and well out of my depth.
Nishitani appears to be chiefly a writer on religion, from this kind of Buddhist-existential perspective (his main work is titled Religion and Nothingness) and the quote above is from a brief appendix to a work I’ve not been able to give more than a cursory look over, but which does intrigue me (I’ve read quite a bit about Nietzsche and nihilism in, of all places, a book called James Joyce’s Negations, but I haven’t read Nietzsche himself yet - although he is in an existentialism reader I have on my shelf; Nietzsche also features prominently at the start of Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement). I’m unsure as to how enthusiastically I would agree with the above: if put bluntly, it seems basically accurate; yet I’m wary of taking on too much the perspective that materialism does not deal sufficiently with human life, given that its non-material existence has no rational basis (hence my general distrust of spiritualism)**.
Yet at the same time it is essentially my position on the limitations of political thought as applied to individual psychology, and also of the seemingly necessary disjunct between the philosophy of Zen and the politics of socialism: not that they necessarily contradict each other, but that it is a category error to force them together. Suffering and oppression are not the same thing; it doubtless requires a certain privilege to be able to focus on the former, although oppression enhances suffering and is necessarily one of its (myriad) causes. To say, however, that there is an essential problem with the human condition is not to abandon socialism, unless it is of the very dogmatic Marxist kind that sees every aspect of social progress as flowing scientifically from the rearrangement of economic relationships. It may be more strongly heretical - perhaps from both perspectives, the rationalist socialist and the transcendent Zen - but more and more I wonder if better self-understanding is not an essential, or at least important, prerequisite for collective action? (And how do I distinguish that from a simple truism that I’m too introvert to have shared before?)
*if that seems an obvious echo, or complement, of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - a very good collection of stories and koans - it’s because it is: referring to the sequence of four transmissions passed on by Bodhidharma to his disciples, in decreasing order of superficiality from ‘skin’ to ‘marrow’ with ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ being the intermediate levels, although it is argued (naturally) that such a value judgement is not meant to be taken as an absolute.
** though thinking back on it, Marx - or ‘Young Marx’ at least - does address this issue quite directly in Theses on Feuerbach, arguing for a kind of materialism that is on the verge of non-dualism in folding together all aspects of human life, if still primarily concerned with removing the last vestiges of idealism from that as a philosophical project.