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I and Thou (Talk 1 of 4)

Talk on Martin Buber's Philosophical Work "I and Thou"

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jan 11, 2006
In topic: Philosophy
"For Buber, we are created moment by moment by what we encounter." Buber's philosophy is discussed as a "philosophy of relationship and dialogue." "Buber is saying there is no such thing as a person without a person-in-relation."
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I and Thou (Talk 1 of 4)

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

January 11, 2006


Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum, and Cynthia Schrager



Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou), was written and published in the same year as Freud published Das Ich und das Es (The Ego and the Id).  So, as Walter Kaufmann points out in his introduction to his English translation,Martin Buberused a similar title to Freud’s.There is a stark contrast between these books, however. Freud was talking about the shape of the psyche. His is an archeology of the psyche: the ego, the id, and the super-ego. For Buber, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the psyche in those terms without talking about the relationship between beings. Buber’s is a philosophy of relationship and of dialogue. Freud is saying, Let’s look and see what a person is. And Buber is saying, There is no such thing as a person without a person in relation. So Buber’s whole book is really about relationship, dialogue, and different qualities and aspects of that dialogue.

According to Buber, we are created moment after moment by what we encounter in that moment. How do we encounter that which creates us every moment? Do we encounter it and make it into an object, something we hold at arm’s length? Or do we encounter it wholeheartedly? I-You really means we are encountering something wholeheartedly, completely letting ourselves be called into question by what we encounter. I-It, on the other hand, is an encounter that’s at arm’s length, an instrumental encounter, a self-protective encounter. But either way, we are encountering something moment after moment, and we are becoming what we are in relationship to that encounter.

So it makes no real sense to speak of who we are and what we are apart from our encounters and our relationships. And we will see in the second half of the book that when we encounter what comes to meet us wholeheartedly, then we are in the religious realm. God and religion for Buber is a wholehearted encounter with experience.

Whether it is in a church or on the meditation cushion, that wholehearted encounter is what religion really is. And I think that is very similar to Zen practice when we say that zazen is not just zazen. Zazen doesn’t just happen in the zendo. Whenever we completely meet what is there, that’s Zen practice. And I think it is especially close to Dogen’s style of Zen.

In his introduction, Kaufmann says: “Our first loves leave their mark upon us. In the crucial years of adolescence I loved Hesse’s novels and experienced Buddhism and Indian wisdom as a great temptation to detachment. Buber taught me that mysticism need not lead outside the world.” Kaufmann continues, “It was from Buber’s other writings that I learned what could also be found in I and Thou: the central commandment to make the secular sacred.” That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Mysticism that’s not outside the world, not detached. The “central commandment to make the secular sacred” is also very much the same in our own practice.

So that’s what I and Thou really is. It’s a kind of mysticism and a deep religious absorption that has to do with completely encountering what we meet in the world. It’s the opposite of withdrawal and mystical detachment. 

Interestingly enough, although Buber was Jewish, he was not an observant Jew, and this philosophy of dialogue was something that Protestant theologians immediately found attractive. So there were a lot of Jews who were very skeptical of Buber, because he was so much embraced by Protestant theologians. Buber’s writings may have been the main source for Paul Tillich and the movement of Protestant existentialism.

Buber was a good bridge between Buddhist teachings and theistic religions. I think it is really important, if you are practicing Buddhism in a western culture, to have some appreciation for how there can be such a bridge. In forms of Buddhism other than Zen there is a doctrine that there is no God; but in Zen, there is less of a hard and fast doctrine in that way. I think that Buber can show you a bridge between those two types of religious views.

Also, reading Buber has tremendously influenced the way that I understand what sangha means in Buddhism. Sangha means dialogue. It means real encounter. The difference between sangha and worldly relations is that sangha is the effort to make our relations I-You relationships instead of I-It relationships.

The story of how Buber came to the I-Thou philosophy is really moving. The story goes: once a troubled young man came to see him, but Buber was busy with his books and his scholarship. He received the young man but wasn’t entirely listening to him. He didn’t engage with him, and the young man went away. Later Buber found out that after his encounter, the man had committed suicide. Buber did not think that the man committed suicide because of him, but that he was suicidal when he came seeking support.  When Buber didn’t really meet him, the man committed suicide. Henceforth, Buber believed that every single encounter with a person is crucial and that you can’t afford to live without paying attention and giving yourself to every encounter.

Let’s just go over the first lines of I and Thou. I have some comments I’ll share with you.

The world is two-fold for man [human beings] in accordance with his two-fold attitude. The attitude of man [human beings] is two-fold in accordance with two basic words that he can speak.

The basic words are not single words but word pairs. One basic word is the word pair I-You. The other basic word is the word pair I-It, but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It. Thus the I of man is also two-fold. For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.

So this is stark and bold. It’s like somebody stands up and says, Okay! There are two ways of being a human being. End of story! Not three, not four, not five—two! This is a little extreme. There are probably two thousand or two billion ways of being. The world is two-fold? This is the way Buber lays the foundation for what he wants to talk about; he makes this extreme statement: the world is two-fold.

It sounds strange to us when he says that the two-fold nature of the world for human beings has to do with words. Why does it have to do with words that are spoken? Buber is coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which a word is not just a word. We might say, A word is just a word. How important is a word? But don’t forget that in the Hebrew bible, God literally speaks the world into existence through words. This is how God creates the world. God speaks the words, “Let there be light” and there was light.

So the word has a mysterious position in western religion. The Christian bible says, “In the beginning was the word and the word was God and the word was with God.” The description of Jesus is the “word made flesh.” So we see that when we say the word here it’s something really big. It is something bigger than we would ordinarily think. But at the same time, “the word” also implies language and communication, perhaps on a much deeper level than we might ordinarily think. Maybe we could say here that word means: encounter. Word means: approach to life. Word means: a relation to experience and what we are.  It doesn’t just mean language. And the thing about word is that it is dynamic; it is active. You speak a word or you write a word. It’s a state of being that is dynamic and active.

So the two words are really two modes of being a person. The two words are word pairs, and both word pairs are relationships. In other words, whatever we do, we are always in relationship, and there are two ways of being in relationship: I-It and I-You. So there’s no “me” without a relationship. That encounter, that relationship, can be either I-It or I-You.

 This reminds me of the Buddhist teaching that there is no fixed self; there’s no self apart from what creates the self in every moment. The question then becomes: how do we engage in that relationship that necessarily happens on every moment? Do we objectify and hold it at arm’s length, or do we fully participate, fully open our self to that relationship. And, of course, the I-You is to be fully open to the relationship. The I-It is to hold at arm’s length what we are facing on a moment by moment basis.

Buber continues:

Basic words do not state something that might exist outside them; by being spoken they establish a mode of existence. Basic words are spoken with one’s being. When one says You, the I of the word pair I-You is said, too. When one says It, the I of the word pair I-It is said, too. The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word pair I-It can never be spoken with the whole being. There is no I as such, but only the I of the basic word I-You or the I of the basic word I-It.

So there is no separate self outside of constant moment-by-moment encounter or relationship. There is no subjectivity without relationship. 

               So when a person says I he means one or the other. The I [that is] meant is present [whenever the person] says I. And whenever [the person] says You or It, the I of the one or the other basic word is also present. Being I and saying I are the same. Saying I and saying one of the two basic words are the same. Whoever speaks one of the basic words enters into the word and stands in it.

When Buber says “saying” here, the sense of it is that we speak our lives.  Every moment we’re speaking our lives. So to live is to be active. There is no way to live without making choices and actively choosing the life that we live moment after moment. Living I-You with our whole being. As we say in Zen:  living whole-heartedly, completely present, being completely there. I-It is never whole-hearted engagement in the present moment.

To me, the great example of this is our practice of zazen. Zazen, by definition, is whole-hearted being, just fully being our life without any separation or grabbing or evaluation or judgment.