Karl Jaspers and Seung Sahn
In this paper I will be making a comparison between the thoughts of Karl Jaspers and Korean Zen master Seung Sahn on the nature of consciousness and transcendence. The essays in question by Jaspers are his essays “On the Origin of My Philosophy,” written in 1941, and his lectures on the significance of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and “the Encompassing,” given in 1935 (p. 158). The other text being studied is The Compass of Zen, a compilation of Seung Sahn’s lectures on the three main branches of Buddhism. The Compass of Zen was begun in the 1960s as a basic text to explain the “bone,” or common essence, of Buddhism to Sahn’s Zen students. The 1960s brought a sharp rise on interest in Buddhism among Americans, and The Compass of Zen is often used as a primer to help Westerners understand its teachings. Thus, Sahn has combined teachings from all over Asia (the three main branches of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Zen Buddhism) into one text. Jasper’s philosophy is similarly based on the desire for a “universal historical view.” He considered the three main sources of philosophical thought to be India, the Orient, and the Western tradition beginning with the Greeks. He writes that it is important to understand many different types of philosophies because they all spring from the basic human desire for understanding. As he writes in Kaufmann’s anthology, “there is more than one universal truth in man.” Both Jaspers and Sahn are trying to create a universally applicable philosophy of inner reflection (meditation) to gain transcendence (enlightenment, nirvana, moshka, satori); in practical terms, inner peace.
Jaspers’ philosophy is based in the idea that philosophy is ruined by attempts to put it into categories; a rejection of prophets, leaders, and idols; “only as an individual can man become a philosopher” (P. 163). Without the obligation to follow a set of beliefs, man is responsible only to the duty of working towards his own transcendence. Unlike Jaspers’ individualistic approach to attaining transcendence, Buddhism teaches that there is no separation between the self and the other, as we all originate from a common essence. Even if you do attain enlightenment, it is your responsibility to remain on Earth and work to eliminate the suffering of all beings. This is known in Mahayana Buddhism as “the great Bodhisattva way” (a Bodhisattva is one who has attained enlightenment). Sahn gives the example of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who vowed upon his enlightenment: “when all beings are saved from suffering, I will become Buddha. I vow that. If even one being cannot become Buddha, and is still in a suffering realm, I will not enter Nirvana” (p.39). This is considered the highest virtue a Buddhist can have.
Jaspers writes that an understanding of the world is very uncertain: “we are so exposed that we constantly find ourselves facing nothingness” (p.165) However, total understanding cannot come from a worldly...