Kant’s Phenomena/Noumena Distinction And Zen’s Reply

Phenomenon and Noumenon

During our philosophical conversation, you suggested that you intuitively got that there is a “disconnection” between what the physical senses can deliver and what True Reality is. You can also come to the same realization, albeit not an intuitive one, via Kant’s argument in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant’s proposal is the following:

  • We, as cognizing subjects, only ever to access phenomena. Those phenomena, in order to appear to us just as they do, require the exercise of the specific cognitive equipment that we happen to have. For instance, we bring the categories of space and time to phenomenal experience in order for the latter to show up in the first place to us. For us, events occur in time and appear in space.
  • Because we can only ever has cognitive access to whatever can fall witin our conceptual net, Kant concludes that we can never have cognitive access to the noumenon, or “the thing in itself” (ding an sich).

Kant is right about the first claim and wrong about the second one. The nondual teaching shows us why.

True Reality: No Need for a Faculty to Apprehend It

Sometimes those on the path of awakening ask, “How could I ever intuit True Reality? What kind of ‘faculty of intuition’ is required on my part?” You can see that this is a post-Kantian style of epistemic questioning. And it’s dead mistaken.

For, since Kant, we’ve gotten used to asking the epistemic question par excellence, “How can I know X?” But that is to ask the wrong question in the case of mysticism.

Zen in particular teaches us that this type of question (namely, “How could I ever intuit True Reality? What kind of ‘faculty of intuition’ is required on my part?”) is null and void. It’s null and void because it begs the question. It assumes that there is a separate self that will need to use some faculty to bridge the divide between itself and Reality. Totally wrong, albeit common.

Rather, True Reality requires no faculty to know itself. This is described sometimes in philosophy as “knowledge by acquaintance.” That is, True Reality knows Itself (always unfathomably intimately and immediately) simply by virtue of being Itself. Knowing is being.

Therefore, the noumenon, if we wish to call it that, is self-revelatory. Once, therefore, we deactivate the physical senses and the mental sense, we need simply to see what’s here. Zen koans exemplify the above with great pith:

  • “What remains?” (I.e., what ultimately remains?)
  • “Beyond good and evil [i.e., beyond all dualities], what is your original face?” (Huineng’s koan posed to a monk)

To put it to you, then: what remains, what is always already right here, in the absence of the operation of the physical senses and mental sense? Or to put it in Dogen’s famous phraseology: “Mind and body fallen away.” That is, of course, one vivid expression of awakening.