Zen Master Dogen observed: 'The ocean is experienced differently by a fish swimming in it, a heavenly being looking at it from heaven, and a person out at sea in a boat' (Kasulis 1981: 85). They are distinct forms of consciousness, which cohabit the same [basho] Space, the ocean, which is perceived respectively as a 'jewelled palace', a 'necklace' of shining flecks of light, and a 'great circle' (ibid.: 85). In this sense basho can be considered as a sort of 'container', or 'envelope'16 for various kinds of experiences. Now the question of this section is: 'Is there anything in common in the experience of the ocean of the heavenly being, the person at sea and the fish?' The answer is yes. Although they are all different forms of consciousness, they share pre-reflectively the genjokoan: 'the presence of a thing as it is'.17 Similarly, Husserl (1973) used the famous expression 'back to the things themselves' (Zurück zu den Sachen selbsf). To put it simply, to return to the things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign language, as the discipline of geography would be in relation to a forest, a prairie, a river in the countryside we knew beforehand
(Merleau-Ponty 1962: ix)
This refers to a non-conceptual, pre-reflective (or pre-noetic) mode of consciousness that most of the time remains unconscious. In zazen18 it is known as 'consciousness without-an-object (see, for instance, Merrell-Wolff 1973; Kasulis 1981).
Interestingly, in Zen thought, consciousness without-an-object is a state which can be achieved through the practice of 'without thinking'. The latter is a category rather distinct from both thinking and not-thinking. In the opening section of the Shobogenzo, Dogen wrote:
Once, after Master Yakusan Gudo was sitting [in zazen], a monk asked him: 'When you are sitting immovably, about what do you think?' The
Master replied, 'I think about not thinking [about anything].' The monk responded, 'How does one think about not-thinking?' The Master replied, 'Without thinking.'19
The relationship between thinking, not-thinking and without thinking has been further clarified in phenomenological terms by Thomas Kasulis. In his Zen Action/Zen Person (1981), he formalized the relationships among these three categories as follows. Thinking is a noetic attitude of either affirming or negating something. This includes what we typically regard as consciousness - that is 'any mental act whereby we explicitly or implicitly take a stance toward some object, whether that stance be emotional, judgmental, believing, remembering, or assumptive'. Not-thinking is a noetic attitude of negating, denying, or rejecting attitude toward all the mental acts. A classic example is a person who makes the effort to stop thinking about his or her personal problems because he cannot fall asleep. A prevalent misconception of Zen meditation is that this is a form of not-thinking. Dogen clearly rejected this view by asserting that zazen is not a conscious effort of blanking one's mind or turning off all conceptual processes. Without-thinking has a completely distinct noetic function from the previous two because it neither affirms nor denies, accepts nor rejects, believes nor disbelieves. In short, it is a pre-noetic (or pre-reflective) mode of consciousness.
Kasulis observes how in ordinary life, pre-reflective experiences are often only fleeting breaks in the continuity of thinking. He gives the following example:
After mowing the lawn, an exhausted man leans his arm on the lawn-mower and rests. For a moment or two, his eyes gaze downward and he thinks and feels nothing specific whatsoever. Since for that moment he is not doing anything, we cannot even say that he is making implicit thetic assumptions: for that brief period, it is not even an issue whether the grass or even he himself is real. He simply is as he is, with no intentional attitude at all. This does not imply, however, that the experience is devoid of content - even the simplest reflection on that moment would reveal, for example, that he had been gazing on the green of the grass rather than the blue sky. Still, the content was not originally an object of consciousness: the grass was there - it assumed meaning - only through reflection on the original experience. In other words, prereflectively there had been a continuity of consciousness or awareness even with the lack of intentional directionality. Even though the reflection on the act later revealed a content of which one had been conscious at the time of the act, there was, prereflectively, no assumptive, unconscious intentional attitude to constitute that content into a meaning-bearing object.
In this sense, without-thinking is a prior condition to thinking or not-thinking. As a consequence:
The more fully one is aware of the prereflective, the more certain one is that the present moment is overbrimming and more than can be circumscribed. Reflective thinking, on the other hand, objectifies the contents of previous experiences, thereby limiting them to a number of significant components. Continuing to reflect, each further bit of analysis uncovers more the experience and makes it richer.
Nishida conceived the phenomenon of consciousness without an object in terms of 'pure experience' (junsui keiken). According to him, this is a primordial and pre-verbal sense of self, which is prior to thought and self-awareness (Nishida 1990). In his early work A Study into Good (Japanese: Zen no Kekyu), which was published in 1911, he wrote:
I wanted to explain all things on the basis of the pure experience as the sole reality . . . Over time, I came to realize that it is not that experience exists because there is an individual, but that an individual exists because there is an experience. I thus arrived at the idea that experience is more fundamental than individual differences, and in this way I was able to avoid solipsism.
Nishida's notion of 'pure experience' is based on his own experiences in a Zen monastery, but to a lesser extent has been influenced by the philosophy of 'pure positivity', which emerged from the works of Wilhelm Wundt and William James.20 The uniqueness in Nishida's attempt was to go beyond a common understanding of experience by returning to its root-sources, which are individual, trans-individual and universal.21 He was certain in this way to connect to transcendental philosophy and metaphysics. Such an attempt was only partially achieved by Husserl's phenomenology, which paid only little attention to altered states of consciousness by limiting its investigation to ordinary states of consciousness. In this sense, Nishida's observation may be beneficial in terms of gaining new philosophical insights about the nature of the near-death experience, which can be considered as a form of pure experience.
Although his language is not always very accessible, Nishida identifies pure experience as
An animated state with maximum freedom in which there is not the least gap between the will's demand and its fulfilment . . . In a selective will, freedom has already been lost; yet when we then train the will, it again becomes impulsive. The essence of the will lies not in desire concerning the future but in present activity.
(Nishida 1990: 8)
It has five main characteristics: (1) subject and object occur simultaneously; (2) it is a strict unity of concrete consciousness; (3) it is constructed out of past experience; (4) it does not consist of meaning or judgments; and (5) it is passive.
First, during a pure experience, subject and object, and knowing and its object occur simultaneously and they 'are one'. This coincides with the direct experience of something. As Nishida put it: 'When one directly experiences one's own state of consciousness, there is not yet a subject or an object, and knowing and its object are completely unified. This is the most refined type of experience' (ibid.: 3). For example, in our everyday life the moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound is prior not only to the thought that the color or the sound is the activity of an external object, or that one is seeing it, but also to the judgment of what the color or the sound might be. The significance of the first moment of seeing something has been highlighted by Bachelard in his The Poetics of Space (1969). He wrote:
One must be receptive to the image at the moment it appears: if there be a philosophy of poetry, it must appear and re-appear through a significant verse, in total adherence to an isolated image; to be exact, in the very ecstasy of the newness of the image.
He considered this moment as 'a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche' where 'the image comes before thought'. He argued that the essence of this very moment reveals the phenomenology of the soul rather than the phenomenology of the mind (ibid.: xx). Pure experience, in these terms is both Erlebnis ('immanent lived experience') and Erfahrung ('experiential apprehension of the object') as has been previously observed for the near-death experience. This basically means that it incorporates both the noema and the noesis of the experience, which Husserl identified as the moment of consciousness. The noema is the meaning (Sinn) belonging to the object while the noesis corresponds to the constitutive pole, a subjective, lived experience. He largely analysed the relation between these two. As Varela has pointed out:
The concern with the noetico-noematic structure of consciousness makes of the object a subjective meaning for consciousness and relates the immanent and intimate lived experience of consciousness to the external world. Intentionality is this correlation of the lived conscious experience and the object envisaged which dismantles the traps of subjectivism as well as those of objectivism.
Second, pure experience is represented by a strict unity of concrete consciousness, when the activity of thinking is not yet activated. The primordial state of our consciousness and the immediate state of developing consciousness may at all times be states of pure experience. The consciousness of a newborn infant where the initial sensations are the universe itself is a clear example (Meltzoff and Moore 1999). At this earlier state it is a single system, whose nature is to develop and complete itself.
Third, pure experience is unavoidable because present experience is unavoidable. Whatever the object of an experience may be, whether a physical thing, memory, or concept, that experience occurs in the present. This phenomenon validated the Western phenomenological views on temporality, that both past and future are enfolded in the present (Heidegger 1962; Husserl 1991).
Fourth, pure experience is free of thoughts, judgment and other categories, which arise only when there is a break in the unified field of pure experience. This is because it is intuitive. For instance, when we establish a judgment like 'a horse is running' there must be a preceding intuition, 'a running horse', which Nishida indicates as 'pure experience'. As he put it:
As long as consciousness maintains a strict unity it is a pure experience: it is simply a fact. But when the unity is broken and a present consciousness enters into a relation with other consciousness it generates meanings and judgements.
For him, thought remains a kind of pure experience only if it is an immediate, unwilled response to what is directly given in experience. This means that thought is not essentially distinguishable from pure experience such as direct perception (although the nature of the object of thought might differ from that of the object of perception).
The notion bears strong similarity to the notion of immediate apodicticity in phenomenology, which is prior to the positing of the relation between subject and object. Apparently, Nishida was not well acquainted with the work of Husserl, but they were both influenced by the work of William James (1890; 1902). The main difference between the two is that Husserl proposed a method called epoche in order to attain apodicticity, whereas Nishida stressed the valence of practical activity. According to Husserl, the everyday self has an innate tendency to think under the command of a natural standpoint (naturlische Einstellung) that things in the world outside the self exist as objects and the self exists as a subject opposing to them. He stated that when we suspend such an innate tendency by a disciplined approach (epoche), suspending all judgments concerning the relationship between the being of the self and that of thing, a stream of immediate, apodictic perception will be disclosed, a stream operating at the foundation of the world as experienced in the natural standpoint. In contrast, Nishida's experience of immediate apodicticity is by means of cultivation and practice (Yuasa 1993). Nishida's pure experience can be seen as an ecstatic state, and therein we find an analogy with the experience of Samatha meditation (Becker 1992; Austin 1998; Wallace 2003).
Finally, pure experience is passive in the sense that it occurs spontaneously and it is unavoidable.
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