On Footnotes

What is a “footnote”? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a note of reference, explanation, or comment usually placed below the text on a printed page” and secondarily as “one that is a relatively subordinate or minor part (as of an event, work, or field)”.

The “blog” section of my website – the area where I generate and update articles – is now titled “Footnotes”. I’ve selected this name in recognition of separate areas of investigation that I expect to meet in my articles. More particularly, I am citing comments by Alfred North Whitehead and Kodo Sawaki.

In 1929, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the English mathematician and philosopher who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, published Process and Reality. The book is one of the twentieth century’s

A. N. Whitehead's Process Philosophy (introductory notes ...
Alfred North Whitehead

most startling, sophisticated and complex works of original philosophy. In Process and Reality, Whitehead commented that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” It is not Whitehead’s only pithy, clever and cutting comment in the book.

“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965), one of Zen Buddhism’s most highly regarded teachers is attributed with the comment that “All of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.” Not Sawaki’s only profound comment, either.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space
“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi

While I currently have no evidence that Whitehead and Sawaki were aware of each other’s work or perspectives, the similarity of the two comments is striking enough that it can’t be ignored. Separated as they were by only 20-years in age, certainly we may consider the two thinkers to have been contemporaries. Their respective comments were directed to different genres of philosophy – Buddhist philosophy and Western Philosophy – but the intents of the comments are identical. It would be pleasant to believe that Sawaki and Whitehead would have been in agreement on each other’s outlook. Based upon a relatively modest exposure to their respective writing, through and the traditions they came from, I expect they would have found agreement on a great many other matters.

The sameness of the comments is an elegant and profound underscoring of the similarities and differences between the Buddhist (and perhaps more broadly, Eastern) philosophy and the European (and perhaps more broadly, Western) philosophy. The emphasis on action and practice in the east; the emphasis on theory and words in the west.

“Footnotes” seems to be the most apt explanation of what my articles (blog posts) are all about. My articles are explanations and expositions; they are also subordinate parts to the subjects that they cover and to the living of a life. For all of that, I hope that they are valuable in themselves.


External References and Links

  1. http://www.sanshinji.org/sanshin-style-blog/kodo-sawakis-no-frills-zazen
  2. Photo Credit Sawaki: https://braymeditationspace.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/the-buddha-mudra/
  3. Photo Credit Whitehead: http://www.philosopher.eu/texts/1248-2/
  4. Uchiyama, Kosh and Okumura, Shohaku. The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. Wisdom Publications. Boston. 2014.
  5. Whitehead, A.N. Process and Reality. 1929