Talking Across the Divide – Discovering our Common Humanity[1]

Gereon Kopf

Today,[2] our human community is seemingly irrevocably divided by many religious, ideological, and political boundaries. These boundaries are indicative of identity politics. Even though, most people agree that there a multiplicity of religious, ideological, national, and political identities divisive rhetoric is often framed in the juxtaposition of a self and an other. For example, we are used to divide the world into “East” and “West,” the “North” and the “global South,” “good” and “evil,” dualism and non-dualism, positivism and nihilism. This rhetoric ignores the multiplicity of cultures and succumbs to identity politics. As post-orientalist theorists such as J. J. Clarke point out, this rhetoric creates counterfactual “quasi-entities” and reifies “cultural enclavism”: This rhetoric “constitutes the ‘other,’ that which stands opposite to us as strange and alien, and it is this very otherness, which confirms our own self-image and defines our own self-identity” (Clarke 1994, 14-15). In addition, the boundaries created by this rhetoric obstruct our view onto our common humanity. It is my belief that this rhetoric is based on an exclusive sense of identity. I believe that a sense of identity based on Buddhist philosophy and NISHIDA Kitarō’s (1870-1945) “self-identity of the absolute contradictories” (J.: zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 絶対矛盾的自己同一) (NKZ 9: 124) can provide an alternative model of intercultural encounters and multiculturalism. In this paper, I will provide such a new vision of a multicultural world and an analysis of why intercultural, interreligious, and inter-ideological encounters often fail.

            The term “self-identity of the absolute contradictories” (J.: zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 絶対矛盾的自己同一) (NKZ 9: 124) is an abbreviation of a longer phrase used by Nishida in his later career, starting with his 1936 Philosophical Essays Vol. 2 (Tetsugaku ronbunsho dainikan 哲学論文書第二巻) (NKZ 8: 267-590), “self-identity of the absolute contradictories of the many and the one” (J.: ta to ichi to no zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 多と一との絶対矛盾的自己同一). Ironically but not completely accidentally, Nishida began citing and evoking Buddhist texts in the same volume especially in his essay “Acting Intuition” (“Kōteki chokkan” 行為的直観) (NKZ 8: 541-571). This term, as convoluted as it might be, implies two fundamental critiques of the exclusive and essentialist conception of identity in particular and, as he argues in his “On Self-Awareness” (“Jikaku ni tsuite” 自覚について) (NKZ 10: 477-564), essentialism in general: Nishida proposes that 1) the self is neither monolithic, self-caused, nor permanent and 2) the foundational juxtaposition in metaphysics is not that between self and other but between the universal one and the multiplicity of particulars/individuals (Kopf 2014, 2019). Both insights he inherits, of course, from Buddhist philosophy.

            The deconstruction of the self has been central to Buddhist philosophy from its early inception. In his Buddhist Psychology, Geshe Tashi Tsering brilliantly maps how self-centered consciousness creates the world of experience and, by implication, our worldview. The key to the construction of our world(s) of experience and to Buddhist psychology in toto is the self-centeredness or attachment to the self identified by the Yogācāra philosopher Vasubandhu (~500) alternatingly as “thought consciousness” (S.: manavijñāna) or as “defiled mentation consciousness” (S.: kliṣṭa-mano-vijñāna). This ego-consciousness constructs the world of experience as its object. Tsering outlines how this self-centered consciousness constructs the world of our experience by means of the “three poisons” (C. sandu 三毒), also known as the “three unwholesome roots” (S.: akuśala-mūla-traya), “ignorance” (S.: moha), “attachment” (S.: rāga), and “aversion” (S.: dveṣa). Ignorant of its own “emptiness” (S.: śūnyatā), the self differentiates the world that is experienced as separate from the self into “good” and “evil,” “like” and “dislike” (Tsering 2006, 48-49).

The Buddha did not only advocate the concept of “no-self” (S.: anātman) as a direct negation of the Upaniṣadic conception of an uncaused, eternal “self” (S.: ātman) but equally refused to reject the notion of the self. Asked about his silence in response to the question of whether or not we have a “self,” he famously answered that “if I had said that there is a self, he would have formed the view of the self. If I had said that there is no self, he would fall into ignorance and madness and would be even more confused” (T ). Much later, the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra (C.: Dazhidulun 大智度論) interprets Buddha’s silence as a rejection of all forms of dualism claiming that “the claim ‘the five skandhas are impermanent, empty, and without a self’ means that in the perfected wisdom, the five skandhas are neither permanent nor impermanent, neither empty nor non-empty, neither with a self nor devoid of a self” (T 1509.25.17). Finally, the famous “Ten Ox Pictures” (C. shiniutu 十牛図) also named “Ox Herding Pictures” (C.: muniutu 牧牛図) of Kuoan Shiyuan 廓庵師遠 (12th century) deconstruct the self-centered worldview of everyday ego-consciousness (picture 1) and replaces it with the vision of “buddha nature” (C.: foxing 佛性) or the “buddha-womb” (S. tathāgatgarbha, C.: rulaizang 如來蔵)[3] and intersubjectivity (picture 10), that is the encounter of self and other, master and disciple, buddhas, and ancestors. (Kopf 2021).

            Philosophically, early Mahāyāna philosophy replaced the notion of “self” with that of tathāgatgarbha. The goal of this conceptual move is threefold. First, it replaces the self as the center of our worldview with Buddha. To understand reality, we need to learn to view the world the way the Buddha does. Our self constitutes an obstacle to “seeing things as they are.” As Vasubandhu suggested in his theory of the “three self-natures” (S. tri-svabhāva), the world, which we experience as “object” (S. parikalpita), is constructed “vis-à-vis” the experiencing subject (S. paratantra) and, therefore, its “ultimate nature” (S. pariniṣpanna) is devoid of self-nature. Second, to move beyond the self-centeredness, we have to give up or transform our thetic modality of interaction, which Buddhist texts refer to as “attachment,” desire-to-possess, and “aversion,” desire-to-avoid/reject. Only then, can we embrace Buddha’s perspective. Third, the universally shared oneness cannot be reified as an essence but it is, philosophically speaking, “empty” of self-nature. Following this line of thought, Yin Shun (1906-2005) has claimed that, as Scott Hurley has pointed out in his insightful work, the tathāgatgarbha theory is pivotal for establishing a “humanistic Buddhism” (C. renjian fojiao 人間佛教), that is, a Buddhism beyond all boundaries. Chengguan 澄觀 (738-839) stratified the metaphysical implications of such an “empty tathāgatgarbha” in his “fourfold dharma world” (C. shifajie 四法界), especially the “mutual non-obstruction of the universal and the particular” (C. lishiwuai 理事無礙) and the “mutual non-obstruction among particulars” (C.: shishiwuai 事事無礙).  Finally, Dōgen 道元 (1200-1253) described this relationship of non-obstruction between universal and particular as well as among particulars as “expression” (J.: dōtoku). Identifying the relationship of “[a]ll buddhas and ancestors” with the individual practitioner as “expression” (DZZ 1: 302), Dōgen suggests that “[i]n me, there is expression and non-expression. In him, there is expression and non-expression. At the bottom of the way, there is self and other; at the bottom of the non-way, there is self and other” (DZZ 1: 304). This quote is fascinating in many ways. Here, I would like to focus on Dōgen’s claim that, regardless of and beyond all identity politics, all human beings express the oneness of tathāgatgarbha as well as innumerable other individual experiences or expressions fully but not completely in our actions (Kopf 2014). This seemingly innocuous claim has far reaching implications on how we should treat each other. Not only do we all share and participate in “buddha-nature” we are also equally fallible and need the community, saṃgha, of all human beings to reach our goal expressing “all buddhas and ancestors.”

            This is one Mahāyāna Buddhist interpretation of the deconstruction of the self. I am sure that the majority of the audience/readers are familiar with these basic Buddhist concepts. But how do they help us overcome the numerous boundaries created by identity politics? The various thinkers within the traditions of “humanistic Buddhism” (C.: renjain fojiao, V.: nhan gian phat giao[4]) such as Yin Shun and Thich Nhat Hanh have provided us with many practical guidelines on how to practice wholesome deeds. I cannot add to their insight and wisdom. What I would like to do is to provide an analysis of what prevents us from encountering people across the boundaries and as individual and full but incomplete expressions of tathāgatgarbha just as we are. Inspired by Kuoan Shiyuan’s “Ten Ox Pictures” I have developed  the “Ten Wolf-Encounter Pictures” (十遇狼図), which are accompanied by ten descriptive poems.[5] It is the story of a monkey that grows up in a monkey clan and sees the world through monkey eyes until her/his world is threatened by an ominous encounter with a wolf. I see this fable as an allegory for our human shortcomings but also as an inspiration of how to overcome them.

Picture 1:

猴子嬉树                   monkeys playing in the trees

猴在树顶                    high up in the trees

相互嬉戲                    the monkeys’ play is unencumbered

全無干擾                    there is no present danger

這是猿界                    it is the monkey world

We grow up in our families as well as in communities, religious and otherwise. In these communities we learn a specific way of looking at the world, which we adopt and internalize. The language, in the literal and the metaphorical sense, that we internalize shapes the way we think and experience the world. This way, we create our “life-world” (G.: Lebenswelt). The more homogenous our community is the more homogenous our Lebenswelt becomes. In any case, our Lebenswelt is monolithic, we take it for granted, we take it to be THE world. MUTAI Risaku 務台理作 (1890-1974) refers to this phenomenon as the “small world” (J.: shōsekai 小世界) (MRC 4:59). This adoption and internalization of the communal worldview and language constitutes the “socialization of the self” (被社會化).

Picture 2:

練習独立                    practicing independence

从树到树                    From tree to tree

小猴跳跃                    the little monkey jumps

脱离父母                    leaving the parents

練習独立                    practicing independence

No matter how tight a community is, its members will claim some kind of individuality whether it is within one’s place within the community or whether it is vis-à-vis the community. This desire to define oneself constitutes the “search for uniqueness” (尋找自我). But this search is not a one way-street. Feminist as well as Confucian philosophers and thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) or WATSUJI Tetsurō (1889-1960) define even the notion of independent self as relational. We define ourselves in-relationship to others and to a group. When we distinguish ourselves from the community we are socialized in, we paradoxically use their language and adopt their Lebenswelt. E.g., atheists define themselves vis-à-vis theists using a monotheistic framework to define themselves. However, when we try to establish uniqueness, we put our self in the center of this Lebenswelt.

Picture 3:

從樹看狼                    seeing the wolf from the safety of the trees

身处树上                    the top of the trees

感到安全                    feels peaceful and safe

虽闻狼嚎                    even though wolves howl in the distance

猴是树王                    monkey is the king of the trees

Socialized in one Lebenswelt, we assimilate, to use the language of Jean Piaget (1896-1980), the objects of our experience into this our world. This form of consciousness is called “constructing-the-other-for-oneself” (對自成他). Steeped in our ignorance we mistake our world to be the one true world, we categorize and assess the objects of our experience in relationship to ourselves: the phenomena we like, we are attached to, the phenomena we dislike, we develop an aversion to. Buddhist philosophy is especially helpful to understand this experience. Following Tsering’s map of human emotions, our treatment of the objects of aversion is characterized by “jealousy,” “cruelty,” and “resentment” (Tsering 2006, 49).

Picture 4:

猴遇見狼                    monkey encounters a wolf

为探新界                    to explore new worlds

猴子离树                    monkey leaves the trees

忽然之间                    when, all of a sudden,

猴遇見狼                    a wolf shows up

Our self-centered world is shattered when we realize that the other does not necessarily follow the rules of our world. This awareness is triggered by “the encounter with an independent other”  (自偶遇他). It faces us with alternative “life worlds” (G.: Lebenswelten), with new ways of looking at the world. Consequently, our world and its center our self, is shattered. This brings about an existential crisis: Are the beliefs, ontological, epistemic, and moral, that I followed my whole life wrong? How do I deal with the existence of other beliefs. Interreligious but also intercultural encounters can prompt such an existential crisis and uncertainty.

Picture 5:

狼狩獵猴                    wolf chases the monkey

凶残狠狼                    the ferocious wolf

追杀小猴                    chases the monkey

猴试逃脱                    who escapes into the trees

谁又称王                    who is the king now?

When we encounter an independent other, we are faced with three options: 1) withdraw into our own world and pretend the outside does not exist, 2) adopt the worldview of the other, or 3) accept the ambiguity that both might be right and both might be false. Besides uncertainty, such an encounter of the other also creates fear. Not only is our word view challenged, all of a sudden, we are overwhelmed by otherness. This is called “knowing-the-other-forgetting-the-self” (知他忘自). We freeze and, like under Jean Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) gaze, we lose our agency and become the object of the other.

Picture 6:

舉案齊眉                    mutual respect

休戰達成                    a truce is reached

各有領域                    each has their territory

狼统地面                    wolf roams the land

猴统树林                    monkey rules the trees

In such an encounter, we can also experience mutual respect. What looks like a “truce between self and other” (自他停戰) also implies that we appreciate the accomplishments of the other. A lot of theories of interreligious dialogue are based on this principle. The participants are willing to learn about each other yet stand firm in their beliefs. Similarly, Stephen Gould characterizes the relationship between science and religions as “non-overlapping magisteria” implying science deals with the workings of nature, religion with the meaning of life and moral theory (Gould 1997). Such an approach divides our Lebenswelt into two unconnected and irreconcilable realms and thus implies or even endorses dualism.

Picture 7:

營救狼崽                    rescuing the wolf cub

然有一天                    then, one day,

河变洪流                    the river becomes a torrent

猴来營救                    monkey comes to the rescue

共同强大                    together they are stronger

The deadlock between self and other can be overcome by the “presence of a third” (Kopf 2018). The third, in this case a child, as Mengzi proposed with his allegory of the child in the well (Mengzi 2a, 6)­­, makes us “realize an underlying commonality” (找同存異)  and awakens our compassion. We realize that we are not only different but also similar, as they are similarities and differences between us the member of our community.

Picture 8:

一起旅行                    travelling together

共同合作                    they now work together

互相学習                    and learn from each other

拜访狼家                    visiting the home of the wolf

猴明狼世                    monkey understands the wolf’s world

As important as the insight into the underlying commonality is, it must be cultivated. E.g., the Chan and Seon masters Guifeng Zongmi 圭峰宗密 (780-841) and Jinul 普照知訥 (1158-1210) emphasized the importance of “sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation” (Gregory 1987, 280). A self-cultivation practice that transforms the thetic modality of attachment/aversion and dissolves the boundaries between self and other is the practice of pilgrimage conceived of as “putting oneself in the shoes of the other” (换位思考). Such a practice transforms our attachment and aversion and creates an athetic modality by means of “attunement” (Nagatomo 1992) to the other and the third. The Buddhist scriptures call this athetic modality “mutual feeling response” (C.: ganying daojiao 感應道交) (T 1911.46.004). The importance of this attunement to others is one reason why Buddhist texts emphasize the saṃgha. In a political context, Trinh Minh Ha calls this practice “walking with the disappeared” (2018).

Picture 9:

看水見狼                    looking in the water – seeing the wolf

返回家後                    upon returning home

猴飲甘泉                    monkey drinks from the spring

猴望水时                    in the water, however,

狼脸映出                    wolf’s face is reflected

This practice transforms the self. The result is neither a “self” nor a “no-self,” but a self-in-relationship. Nishida explains: “I and Thou are wholly other. There is no universal that contains both I and Thou. The I becomes and I by recognizing the Thou. The Thou become a Thou by recognizing the I. In the depth of the I is the Thou; in the depth of the Thou is the I. The I unites with the Thou in the depth of the I. The Thou unites with the I in the depth of the Thou. Because they become completely other, they unite internally” (NKZ 6: 381). Similarly, Dōgen’s re-reads the famous words attributed to Bodhidharma, “you attained my marrow” (T 2035.49.291), as “you attain me, I attain you” (DZZ 1: 333).The boundaries between self and other are dissolved: what we call “self” constitutes but one expression of the self-other-relationship, what we call “other” also constitutes one such expression. This insight is called “knowing-the-other-understanding-the-self” (知他明自).

Picture 10:

衆生共存                      the co-existence of all beings

在湖底部                    at the bottom of the lake

無數面現                    numerous beings appear

有帝釋網                    it is Indra’s Net

衆生共存                    the co-existence of all beings

Of course, in the same way as individual is not isolated without context, the relationship between self and other does not exist in a vacuum. Chengguan and Dōgen have convincingly argued that self and other are located in Indra’s net. Furthermore, the boundaries between self and other as well as the walls between communities and species have been broken down and overcome. Self and others meet, human beings and non-human animals mingle. At this point in our journey we realize that all beings, sentient and insentient, “co-exist together and complement each other” (共存互補). The awareness of this larger community, a community that embraces “all beings”[6] including “grass and trees” and “insentient beings,” all of whom  have/are buddha-nature” (T 1853.45.040; T 2223.61.0011) and “become buddhas” (T 1937.46.890; T 2299.70.300), marks the non-thetic modality by means of which we express tathāgatgarbha.

In some sense, these pictures outline a path from self-centeredness to an existential modality of selflessness imagined by the Huayan Buddhist image of Indra’s net. If we recognize that we are all full but incomplete expressions of tathāgatgarbha we will be able to live in a cosmopolitan world (Appiah 2007) and in harmony with particular eco-systems as well as the wider cosmos in toto.  We will be able to cherish the saṃgha of “all beings”­­––sentient beings including human beings and non-human animals, plants, and insentient beings alike––cultivate wholesome deeds, and express tathāgatgarbha. In my incomplete understanding, this is the teaching of the Buddha.

Works Cited


DZZ    Dōgen zenji zenshū 『道元禅師全集』[Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen]. 2 vols. Ed. Dōshū Ōkubo 城大久保道舟. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1969-1970).

MRC   Mutai risaku chosakushū『務台理作著作集』 [Collected Works of Mutai Risaku]. 9 vols. (Tokyo: Kobushi Shobō, 2000–2002).

NKZ    Nishida kitarō zenshū 西田幾多郎全集新版 [Complete Works of Kitarō Nishida]. 20 vols. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1988).

T          Taishō daizōkyō 『大正大藏經』 [Buddhist Canon – The Taishō Version], ed. by Junjirō Takakusu and Kaigyoku Watanabe (Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai. 1961).

Other works

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2007. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York W. W. Norton & Company.

Clarke, J. J. 1993. Jung and the East: a Dialogue with the Orient. New York: Routledge.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Natural History Vol. 106, 16-26.

Gregory, Peter N. 1987. Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1967. Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kopf, Gereon. 2014. “Philosophy as Expression: Towards a New Model of Global Philosophy,” Nishida tetsugakkai nenpō (The Annual Review of the Nishida Philosophy Association), Vol. 11, 181-155.

_____. 2018. “Self, selflessness, and the endless search for identity: a meta-psychology of human folly,” Self or No-Self, ed. Ingolf U. Dalfehrt (Tübingen: in Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 239-262.

_____. 2019. “Emptiness, Multiverses, and the Conception of a Multi-Entry Philosophy,” APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies Vol. 19, No. 1, 34-36.

_____. 2021. “‘The Self that is not a self’––Ueda and Kuoan’s Ten Ox Pictures,” in Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru. Doerdrecht: Springer International Publishing.

_____. 2022. “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach.” In Philosophy of Religion Around the World: A Critical Approach, edited by Nathan Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. London: Bloomsbury Academics.

Nagatomo, Shigenori. 1992. Attunement Through the Body. Albany: SUNY Press.

Tsering, Geshe Tashi. 2006. Buddhist Psychology. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.

Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. 2016. Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared. New York: Fordham University Press.

Ziporyn, Brook. 1996. Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[1] Paper presented in Hsinchu City on 11/06/2021 at the proceedings of the 19th International Symposium on the Theory and Practice of the Teachings of Dharma Master Yin Shun.

[2] I would like to thank the providers of the online resources The SAT Daizōkyō Text Database (, the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism ( for their invaluable service.

[3] See Charles Muller’s Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (佛性).

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh translated this term into English as “engaged Buddhism” (Hanh 1967, 42).

[5] The idea, story, and poems are mine. The poems were illustrated by Amber Takano. I thank Qianran Yang, Irene Lok, and Ching-yuen Cheung for checking my Chinese. I introduced the pictures and poems in a recent essay titled “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach” (Kopf 2022).

[6] Dōgen re-reads the famous phrase from the Mahāparinirvāṇa sūtra, “all have/are” (C.: xiyou 悉有) (T 374.12.407) as “all beings” (J.: shitsū 悉有) (DZZ 1: 14).