02 Aprile 2011

Interview with professor Ohashi Ryosuke/1

Kyoto school, Zen tradition, and the comparison with the West

Ohashi Ryosuke is Professor in Philosophy at Osaka University, holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Ludwig-Maximilians University München.

He received his Phil. Habil (Habilitation) from Würzburg University 1983 - as the first Japanese in Philosophy.



Franco Bertossa is the Director of the ASIA Study Center (Bologna, Italy), Buddhist Meditation and Martial Arts Master, interested in intercultural dialogs between West and Est.


Japanese Translation: dr. Enrico Fongaro. English translation: dr. Manuela Ritte 

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Franco Bertossa: Professor Ohashi, you are leading a seminar followed  by a numerous and young audience. Are you surprised about such an interest for the Philosophy of Kyoto on the part of young Western people?

Ohashi Ryosuke: I was very surprised. I asked myself which part of the Italian youth of today was represented by these young people which took part in this week of study.

Maybe they don’t represent the whole number of today's young Italians, but receiving their questions little by little, I sensed the type of questions they were asking me, I thought - how shall I put it - that they might not represent the average young Italians, that they were probably a minority in number, but nevertheless I had the impression that they perceived clearly the same uneasiness, this type of problem, which surely other young people feel too, even if they are not aware of it in the same way. So, although they are a quantitative minority, if they are the so called peak of the iceberg I thought that probably these young people who took part in this seminar nevertheless do represent qualitatively this sphere of problems which the others also carry latently with them, but usually are not aware of it. And I thought this was probably the same case in Japan. At the beginning, in a few words, I was confused, but then little by little I was reflecting about it and receiving their questions I became convinced that these young people, so to say, represent the “concentrate” of young people´s problems of our times.

FB: Which was the first contact between Japanese thinking and Western philosophy? What characterizes the so called Kyoto School?

OR: Referring to history there was a first contact before the Meiji era (1868-1912), already during the Edo era (1603-1867) when the Jesuit Fathers came to Japan.  So there was a first contact, but a real and proper introduction to “philosophy” as such did not take place before the beginning of the Meji era. The first problem discussed, was exactly the one how to translate the term “philosophy” into Japanese, to such an extent  “philosophy” was something foreign.

At this time there were already several ways of thinking active and represented in Japan: Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and also  Shinto. Then Western philosophy arrived and the first Faculty of Philosophy opened at the University of Tokyo and chose for its purpose the term «testugaku» [study of wisdom] as the translation of «philosophy».

This one was chosen among the many proposals for the translation of the term that had preceded.

And at the inauguration of the «Department of Tetsugaku» the term imposed itself in this way. The first professor of this faculty, Inoue Tetsujiro, outlined a kind of eclectic mixture between Buddhism and Western philosophy, in particular the one of Hegel.

Also Nishi Amane, one of the first translators of the Western philosophical terminology,  thought that Japanese Buddhism possessed philosophical elements and that therefore Western thinking, for example Hegel, could be interpretated from a Buddhist point of  view, giving life to eclectic attempts. But they were anyway »mixtures« which can’t be defined real philosophies.

It was a completely different philosophic event compared to the first attempts of his professors, when on the contrary Nishida Kitaro, the Father of the so called «Kyoto School» came to the fore.

Nishida had chosen to study philosophy and to think in a philosophical way, but at the same time he also dedicated himself to Zen meditation, called Zazen. Philosophy and Zazen are something completely different and indeed Nishida didn’t try a syntheses, a mixture: even if they were two completely different things and exactly because they were two completely different things, philosophy and Zazen could unite in Nishida, as to say in the same person. This was an event which had never happened before. I think you can say that the Philosophy of Kyoto School was born during this event.

I will now try to express in a few words what is the typical character of the Kyoto School’s thought, premised that not all the thinkers which had to do with the Kyoto School also practised Zen. The peculiar character is after all that the Philosophy of the Kyoto School is connecting Zen and philosophy which anyway are considered two completely different things. If I may still add another thought, also observing the history of Western Philosophy you can notice several eras with their own characteristics. It happened for example that at a certain point Greek Philosophy met Christianity, which was something completely unknown. In that era Greek Philosophy was shaken to the foundations, but exactly when passing through something completely unknown, philosophy got to know a decisive change and could go on developing itself.

Now, when we talk about Zen and philosophy concerning the Kyoto School, philosophy has fundamentally to be understood as modern and contemporary philosophy. Referring to modern philosophy, Zen had to present itself necessarily like something which is completely different, because Zen starts exactly at that point where you stop thinking, where there is no thought. Zen’s and Philosophy’s starting points are completely different. On the other hand also Zen Buddhism has gone through many phases and when it met philosophy it was obliged to confront itself with an area of problems which were totally new.


FB: Professor Ohashi, what pushed the Japanese to be involved in philosophy?

OR: Generally speaking, you have to consider that at the beginning of the Meiji era for the first time the Japanese got into direct confrontation with the whole of Western culture. Inside this “whole”, which consisted of culture, civilisation, technical products and so on, there was also philosophy. The East also had its own spiritual tradition and the Japanese understood immediately that Western philosophy represented the centre, the essence of Western civilisation. For the Japanese of that era, who were educated  inside the Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and Shinto tradition, the meeting with Western Philosophy, which in their eyes embodied  the immense knowledge legacy of the West, therefore offered inexhaustible reasons of interest. From this point of view it is interesting noticing that the meeting between the Japanese and philosophy was in part different to the meeting between the Japanese and Christianity. Christianity had already been  known to the Japanese since the fifteenth century. Now, I don’t know if it was like this at those times, but starting from the Meiji era until nowadays only about one percent of the Japanese had become Christians, a percentage that is no longer growing. On the contrary, it is extremely common to find in Japan people who are interested in philosophy for various reasons.

In other words, the Christians remain one percent, a kind of closed reality and the meeting with Christianity has not given birth to a “Japanese Christianity”. On the contrary, on a philosophical level the meeting has given birth to the Kyoto School which was something new and  a kind of philosophy which had not yet  showed up inside the history of philosophy. I believe that this fact is directly connected to the way of being of philosophy as such.


FB: From what you told us we can conclude that anyway the Japanese philosophical thinking is deep-rooted in Zen.  Does what characterises and has characterised Japanese philosophical thinking have a strong root in Zen Buddhism?

OR: Once a student asked Nishida where his philosophy came from, if it came from Zen or Western Philosophy. Nishida’s answer was: «From both». The problem is now to understand which kind of relation is set up between “both”, but anyway for Nishida his philosophical thinking originated from both, philosophy and Zen. Therefore it is not only an influence of Zen on philosophy but Nishida’s philosophy is like having one foot in Zen and one in Western philosophy.

It seems as if until Nishida human beings had either both feet in philosophy or both feet in Zen, but in Nishida’s case one foot is in Zen and one in philosophy. One leg here, one there, but both legs find  their connection somewhere in the body: I don’t know, maybe in the navel or in the heart or in the head. But anyway it’s a remarkable problem, namely how to connect philosophy and Zen. It’s almost what happened to Augustine, who on one side studied Platonic philosophy and on the other became Christian. I think that in that sense there could be some affinity between Augustine and Nishida. Maybe more than half of the members of the circle of the Kyoto School didn't practise Zen like Nishida, for example Tanabe Hajime, but even if they didn’t practise Zen in an active way, they certainly had a foot in Buddhism, for example in Zen Buddhism. The other foot was in philosophy. This is maybe the most characteristic element of the Kyoto School.


FB: Zen is teaching  to be one and the same with nature, but nowadays after Hiroshima and after Chernobyl, is it still possible to feel to be one and the same with a flower contaminated by radiations? Does perhaps  Zen itself have to take into account  the criticism to technology made by thinkers like Heidegger?

OR: First of all I think that in every era, in every time can be said something like what is expressed in Zen sayings: “Heaven, Earth and me have the same root” or “All things and me are one and the same”. But in the moment that we talk about becoming one and the same with a contaminated flower at the era of Chernobyl or of Hiroshima, the problem is to understand the meaning of “becoming one and the same”. If becoming one and the same means becoming identical, then I will also get contaminated, I also get ill, like a bird infected by bird flu. It’s not only the fact of liking the other or something similar, but I will also get ill, I will also feel pain. I believe  that this is something which Buddhism has been asserting since ancient times. Let’s assume that I too get ill, then the problem is: turning in which direction can I recover my health? If we merely get contaminated in the same way, then we get ill in the same way, we fall in doubt in the same way.  But in which way can I come back then to an uncontaminated, pure condition? For instance in psychiatry a doctor can give advice to the patient.

Usually we think that the patient is “ill”, but maybe there are also cases in which he is just more sensitive than others, he perceives something at a depth that is unknown to others. Also if  in this case it is just a question of coming back to be a common and uninteresting “healthy” human being, then I think that the treatment proposed by the doctor wouldn’t have much sense. On the contrary, one question is “being one and the same with all beings” beginning from a condition of awakening, and the other is “being one and the same with all beings” without knowing awakening. At a superficial level they seem to be two similar things, but in reality I believe that they go in two completely different directions. You have to understand which is the way of being of this “be one and the same”.

As far as Heidegger is concerned, he develops a criticism to technology and faces the problems which are connected to it. But in which situation will we be when the problems which are connected to technology will be resolved? Heidegger talks about returning to the beginning, to the Anfang, to the experience of Being ; but beyond this answer made of words, what is in a concrete way for me here, for the actual world, that situation which Heidegger is talking about? In this regard Heidegger doesn’t express himself in a clear way. If he had done so, he should have clearly said in which direction the possibility of the solution of the problem of technology is.

If we don’t have such a clear answer, the problem of technology remains. I think that Zen, on the contrary, clearly gives its answer.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

ASIA Study Center publication 2007,
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