Existentialism & Buddhism; Literature of Existentialism; Spring 2011

Dominic Manthey

Dr. Homan & Dr. O’Connor

Existentialist Literature

13 May 2011

Existentialism & Buddhism

            Throughout much of Western thought there has been a focus on one’s relationship with the world.  These investigations range from basic ontologies to more elaborate descriptions of existence.  Although markedly dissimilar in certain ways, both the East and the West have dealt with many of the same issues regarding “selfhood.”  The emergence of existential thought in Western culture (starting with Kierkegaard and Heidegger) signifies a new philosophical approach that draws interesting parallels with Eastern thought, particularly certain schools of Buddhism.  This paper will first briefly analyze the departure from traditional Cartesian thought which the existentialists undertook in dealing with the notion of “self” and then investigate some select ideas from Buddhism and their similarities and differences in theory and application.

Long before Descartes, Western thought had a long tradition of “logos.” The first record of the word is from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  The Greeks used this word in a number of ways, but it primarily signified the ordering of knowledge, or some use of one’s faculty of reason.  Regardless of the semantic differences, it was a way of seeing the world and holding forth an object in order for the viewing subject to analyze it.  This subtle yet profound style of thinking presupposed the notion of there being a spectating “self” which can rationally examine the world.  This thinking continued in Western tradition, at times to the pitch of one considering the “soul” or “mind” or “self” as the enumerator and the world being the number. As this philosophical and intellectual inquiry continued, the subject was repeatedly presupposed or at least perfunctorily addressed, which would remain a dominant starting point in much of Western thought.

Widely considered to be the “father of modern science,” Rene Descartes took a predominantly mathematical approach in dealing with one’s relationship with the world.  His philosophy has had an immeasurable impact on Western thought because it posits that, fundamentally, one’s own existence cannot be doubted.  This presupposition of a “self” became essential in the scientific method, and thus much rationalistic thinking. And while the existentialists’ problem with this may be unfairly exaggerated, Descartes’ (along with most of Western thought until the existentialists) lack of attention to “selfhood,” i.e. one’s experiential relationship with the world and the subjective experience of this consciousness, is an issue that nearly all existentialist at least obliquely address, and this is an issue that much of Buddhist philosophy is concerned with.

The existential movement marked a significant re-examination of “self-hood” and one’s problematic relationship with the world.  When Friedrich Nietzsche claimed in Beyond Good and Evil that “there are no moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena,” he was leading a movement of thought back towards examining the structure of consciousness and the subjective experience of existence (275).  Central to Nietzsche’s claims are that there are not “essences” (i.e. universal natures) within objects, but that our perception projects and imbues meaning upon its environment.  The lack of a universal standard in which to judge experience implies a sort of metaphysical nihilism which in turn suggests a new conception of what constitutes an “individual.” This is representative of a central issue in existential philosophy, i.e. that “thinking about human existence requires new categories not found in the conceptual repertoire of ancient or modern thought; human beings can be understood neither as substances with fixed properties, nor as subjects interacting with a world of objects” (Crowell). Although all but completely ignored during his life, Nietzsche and his contemporary Kierkegaard share surprisingly similar ideas to that of Buddhist philosophy, as this paper will address in the second half.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Dutch philosopher, is often credited with being the “father of existentialism,” and his at times sardonic philosophy was a deliberate and influential protest against the more rationalistic systems of Hegel and Descartes.  Coming from a uniquely Christian-religious viewpoint, Kierkegaard examined the individual’s relationship with the divine and saw within that an entity which transcends mere objective categorizations and systematizing.  While Cartesian and modern scientific thinking sought truth through a rigorous system of empiricism involving notions of correspondence and falsifiability, Kierkegaard claimed that “subjectivity is truth” (20).

Kierkegaard’s ideas fundamentally questioned what it meant to be a “self” in a way that most thinkers had not examined before.  The emphasis on an “objective uncertainty” meant that the individual living in authenticity must make a kind of “leap of faith.”  This individual decision, made apart from the public (which includes generally-believed truths, conventional wisdom, and societal expectations), involves a subjective and qualitative characteristic, as opposed to a rational system’s focus on objectively doing what is believed “correct” or “ethical.”  Kierkegaard describes this relationship with truth as “the objective uncertainty, seized in the most passionately inward appropriation” (21).  Again, this personal relationship with the truth stresses a subjectivity that was unprecedented in mainstream Western philosophy up to that point.  And it is his exuberant and challenging re-emphasis on the individual’s experience that is a precursor to Heidegger and Sartre’s investigation of consciousness, as well as an ideological shift towards a slightly more Eastern conception of “selfhood” and “emptiness.”

Martin Heidegger’s philosophy also re-examines what it means to be a “being” in a more profound and subtle way than had ever been done in Western philosophy.  While much of the ideologies up to that time took for granted that there was a seeing “self,” or “subject,” that operated almost mechanistically with the external world, Heidegger thought this view was far too narrow and ignored the organic nature of mind, body, and environment.  As Takeshi Umehara stated in his analysis of Heidegger’s philosophy: “Being is not simply that which exists…all traditional metaphysics and ontology have ignored this difference by regarding ‘beings’ as ‘being itself’” (273).  This attempt to find where exactly the “self” is located (if such a thing does exist) brings about the distinction between “things” which we perceive as existing and actual existence. It is this actual existence that is more arduous to define, as is evident in the West’s long disregard for it and the East’s seemingly endless discourse on it.

Martin Heidegger goes further in his examination of the “self” by putting limitations on our perception of it: “The ‘I’ must be understood only in the sense of a non-committal formal indication of something which perhaps reveals itself in the actual phenomenal context of being as that being’s ‘opposite’” (122).  The perception of our very “selfhood” is just an indicator of something, but is not the actual “being” itself.  It is this indicator which signifies a “self” that is a mental construction and is not, in essence, the true “self” because the objectification of the self is not possible.  Jaspers would later state, “I am Existenz if I do not become an object of myself” (162).  This raises many questions about personal identity and the authentic. Heidegger also describes an authentic consciousness being sincerely aware of the one inevitable possibility of its death, or eventual “nothingness.”  This idea draws another interesting parallel with Buddhist ideas of impermanence.

Finally, the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre reveals a fascinating re-examination of the “self.” In Sartre’s work a certain conception of the “self” is described which seems to lie within the very instability of experience itself.  In his “Being and Nothingness,” Sartre states “there is already a relation between my future being and my present being. But a nothingness has slipped into the heart of this relation; I am not the self which I will be” (223).  This nothingness comes into being from a human consciousness; it is a fundamental part of one’s choice.  The ability to not do something, or to create a decision which transcends the “facticity” of a situation, leads towards an understanding of a kind of “self” that is completely free between the moment a decision is made and when the decision is actualized. It is this area between the two definite poles where a person has become a more authentic kind of “self,” but precisely because they are not the “self” which they seem or recognize themselves to be.  Thomas Flynn states in his overview of Sartre’s philosophy, “we are free because we are not a self (an in-itself) but a presence-to-self (the transcendence or “nihilation” of our self)…we are “other” to our selves…whatever others may ascribe to us, we are ‘in the manner of not being it,’ that is, in the manner of being able to assume a perspective in its regard.”  It is this conception of a more fluid “self,” or a “self” that is always becoming or “intending” and creates meaning that is such an intriguing step in Western thought. This new approach of dealing with one’s relationship with the world, of “surpass(ing) this being-and that not toward being but toward emptiness, toward nothing,” which brings this paper to the discussion of the long and complex tradition of Buddhist thought (Sartre 222).

Buddhism is an ancient Eastern religion that has long dealt with the relationship of a “self” in the world.  Whereas much of existential philosophy is descriptive (or at least claims to be), Buddhism, like most religions, works at creating a system with a set of principles that aim at alleviating the pain caused by certain phenomenological misconceptions. In this way, Buddhism has always maintained a serious focus on the “self” and its problematic relationship with the world, as opposed to the Cartesian method of simply beginning with a presupposed ‘self’ and continuing on from there.

The Buddhist method is considered a path towards enlightenment, and with its set of prescriptive beliefs, it would seem to the trained Western mind to be a conventional religion, i.e. derived from faith. However, Buddhist philosophy does not have such over-simplified dichotomies such as religion/science and reason/faith.  An integral part of the Buddhist tradition is the incorporation of certain ritual practices and various meditations.  Mark Siderits states that the Buddhist path to salvation demands “insights (which) require the use of philosophical rationality” (6).  While this may seem surprising to many people familiar with most religions, it is Buddhism’s emphases on the individual and the individual practice of meditation that are key to remember.  Through practices of meditation (which range from attempts at clearing one’s mind to more serious philosophical dialectics), Buddhists are expected to deal with each concept individually and choose to believe them or not. Unlike many religions, followers are not supposed to blindly believe counter-intuitive claims, but rather “they are expected to examine the arguments…and determine for themselves if the arguments really make it likely that these claims are true” (7).  However, as we will see, Buddhism tends to begin from a more non-rational foundation and then supplement it with rational discourse.

Buddhism’s relationship with reason and logic is complex, and this appropriately suggests a brief comparison with Soren Kierkegaard’s own unique conception of faith. As stated earlier, Kierkegaard had a staunch view on a Christianity that was experienced on a personal, subjective basis.  William Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s religious position as one that is opposed to any sort of rationalistic system which by its very nature cannot account for the personal relationship with the divine, and that an authentic Christian “had (to) constantly renew that choice, with all the energy and passion of his being” (151).  The philosophies of his time were seeking to codify much of theology, and Kierkegaard feared that practitioners would confuse the acceptance of dogma with the actual qualitative experience of faith.  In comparison, Buddhism has a long tradition of meditation, particularly on concepts of death and impermanence, which seek to evoke a personal attitude or feeling.  In Kierkegaard, the passion and the angst are often focused on, while for the Buddhists, who are ever-vigilant for Nirvana, believe that a true appreciation of reality (and the nothingness that is inherent in it) will consist more of compassion and tranquility.  While both philosophies attempt to use philosophical treatise to support their beliefs, they each have an underlying emphasis on personal, subjective truth. Both Buddhism and existentialism seem to prefer utilizing reason as a means for observing the world, but neither ground the “self” in the conceptual (and limiting) world of reason.

Unlike Kierkegaard, Buddhism does prescribe a sort of ethic, or path. The Noble Eightfold Path involves having the right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, exertion, mindfulness, and concentration. While most Existentialists would take great pains to avoid prescribing behavior, the Buddhist “Middle Way” hopes to create more of an existential attitude than an a priori or normative code of behavior.  The Buddhist metaphysical views hope to create awareness, or an awakening to the reality of suffering (duhka). Like Kierkegaard, it does not believe that reality can be grounded in pure reason, but rather in following the “Middle Way” the “perfect wisdom transcends conceptual knowledge…(it) goes beyond the indirect awareness achieved through concepts and theories to an immediate, direct realization of the fullness of experience” (Koller 266).  Instead of the Cartesian dualistic way of thinking which demands of Kierkegaard to take a leap beyond its system of reason, Buddhism seeks to evoke a non-dualistic consciousness which is first grounded in the subjective and then supplemented with rational discourse. This primacy of the subjective creates obvious challenges as soon as someone attempts to discuss it.

One of the most important concepts in Buddhism is the “Doctrine of Emptiness.”  This doctrine states that physical objects do not have essences, i.e. that there is no intrinsic nature within external phenomena which the mind tries to uncover.  At the same time, Buddhists deny the ultimate existence of wholes. They claim that what the human mind conceives as wholes are just ‘conceptual fictions’ that are based off of the mind’s remembrance of past ‘fictions.’  While this may lead to a sort of metaphysical nihilism, it in fact, as Siderits claims, is best interpreted semantically: “the doctrine (is) the rejection of the idea that the truth of a statement must depend on the ultimate nature of reality…the rejection of ultimate truth” (182).  When compared with Nietzsche’s claim that material objects are devoid of ultimate essences, there seems to be a large similarity with regard to the attention and power placed upon the subjective experience of reality, instead of the objective world of phenomena becoming the focal point. Ultimately, both of these conceptions are a criticism of the idealistic conception of noumena, i.e. that objects contain an absolute, transcendent nature.

Another Eastern scholar, Koller, describes this concept as follows: “…things exist as processes, continuously arising and ceasing in dependence on each other” (272). In his conception, emptiness is actually just the convenient designator for an interdependent arising of phenomena where nothing can be ultimately discerned in complete distinction from something else because ultimately there is no causation as we know it.  Even Jacques Derrida seems to share a similar focus when he speaks of the indeterminacy of language and ideas, and that there is a near infinite circularity whenever a definite definition is sought.  There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding, or a short-changing, when reality is dealt with on a rationalistic basis, and Derrida’s de-emphasizing of presence can be seen as an extension of philosophic thought which, like Buddhism, recognizes the inconceivability of our existence which is void of absolute concepts such as causation. Again, Buddhism is seeking to create an attitude (much like existentialism), which Nishitani, a Japanese scholar, calls “the recognition of the ‘infinite openness’” (qtd. in Thomspon 242).

In the Eastern view, the mind’s limitations are focused upon and, more importantly for religion, the problems and suffering caused by its limited ability.  Buddhism’s belief in the lack of essences is central to their path towards enlightenment (or Nirvana), which is unlike any state that Nietzsche hoped to achieve through his philosophy.  However, a later Japanese philosopher, Nishitani (who studied with Heidegger), developed upon the idea of Emptiness and gave it a more philosophical grounding. Nishitani thinks that “European thought has become trapped on the ‘field of nihility,’ stopping short of an understanding of… ‘emptiness” (qtd. in Thompson 238). He notices how Western civilization (cf. Nietzsche) had “found that there is no truth, but we continue to seek it” (238). Similar to Kant’s theory of aesthetics, which was part of his radical “Copernican Turn,” Nishitani thought that the human mind searches for teleology even when none exist (“purposiveness without purpose”). Nishitani believes that emptiness asserts a non-duality, and that Western philosophy must eventually embrace this concept as not merely an expression of the true reality of phenomena, but as something not separate from phenomena; thus, in a paradoxical way, resolving the age old philosophical debate between phenomena (appearances) and noumena (things-in-themselves) (241). This illusion is the real, in a sense, and emptiness becomes defined as a ‘non-cognitive knowing of the non-objective thing-in-itself” (242).  Similar to Heidegger, Buddhism examines the ‘self’ and works to alleviate the misconceptions that dualistic Cartesian thought creates due to its simplistic (although useful) view of reality.

While Sartre also emphasized ‘nothingness,’ Buddhism does so in a somewhat different fashion. Philosopher Kenneth Inada discusses a cognitive force called “epistemic nullity.”  For him, when emptiness is truly realized, it creates an experiential relationship with the world which “in a sense nullifies any reference to a form or element as pre-existing perception or even post-existing.”  Instead of  creating a constant succession of preconceived notions based merely on prior perceptions of what, according to Buddhism, are ultimately ‘convenient mental constructions,’ epistemic nullity “points at a positive content of our experience…the possibility of total experience…because there is now nothing attached to or persisted in” (140).  Similarly, Sartre emphasized the individual’s ability to “nihilate” and to transcend the mere facticity of a situation with the ever-intending nature of the mind.  This extends even to the very conception of the ‘self.’

Perhaps the most fascinating comparison with existentialist thought is with the Buddhist conception of “non-self.” If the ‘self’ is considered to be the essential and necessary component of a person which accounts for their identity over time, then, according to Buddhist philosophy, there is no such thing.  The Buddhists explain this by breaking experience up into 5 skandhas.  These include rupa (anything physical), feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. Buddha claims that all 5 of these are impermanent or ‘subject to destruction.’ Because of this, none of them can contain a “self” which is the essence of a person.  This may confuse a Western thinker because if the theory of re-incarnation is thrown out, then making immortality a criterion for a “self” would be unnecessary.  However, Buddhists claim that “the conclusion that the mind endures at least a lifetime is an illusion. For what we call the mind is really a continuous series of distinct events, each lasting just a moment” (Siderits 41-42).  Even our mind and its perceptions are different every moment. Therefore, the notion of a “self” that my mind holds upon reflection is nothing more than a ‘conventional designator,’ or a signifier for what was once my experience but is no longer. When compared with Heidegger, the Buddhists seem to have arrived at the same conclusion by stating that the self, when objectified in cognition, is precisely not what I am.  Interestingly, the Buddhists arrive at this conclusion centuries earlier, yet they focus more on the subjective experience in hopes of ameliorating that problematic relationship that is caused by such misconceptions and misidentifications. And with the Buddhist attitude towards a changing, ultimately fictitious ‘self,’ we find a similar sentiment in Heidegger’s discourse on “being-towards-death,” where the absolute impermanency is meant to evoke a lucid attitude quite similar to that of Buddhism, particularly Zen.

Ultimately, Buddhism and existentialism remain irreconcilable philosophies. They defy tidy comparisons and convenient generalizing by their very natures.  However, both have an aggressive focus on the troublesome relationship of a ‘self’ within a world and seek to describe or resolve these issues through philosophical treatises. We can see humanity’s endless fascination with a ‘self’ and its problematic relationship with the world in philosophies as varied as Kant, Buddhism, and even Derrida.  Although much of Western philosophy is inseparable from its rich history of dualistic and systematic thinking, when the Existentialist movement began, it marked a refreshing turn in thought and discourse towards a new conception and a new vocabulary for a ‘self’ and a world which the East had long been discussing.

Works Cited

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, 1958. Print.

Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford.edu. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010. Web. 14 March 2011.

Flynn, Thomas. “Jean-Paul Sartre.” Stanford.edu. Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, 2004. Web. 18 March 2011.

Heidegger, Martin. “Being and Time.” Existentialism. Ed. Robert Solomon. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press. 117-123. Print.

Inada, Kenneth. “A Buddhist Response to the Nature of Human Rights.” Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach. Ed. Larry May, Shai Collins-Chobanian, and Kai Wong. New Jersy: Pearson Education, Inc, 2006. Print.

Jaspers, Karl. “Philosophy.” Existentialism. Ed. Robert Solomon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 163. Print.

Kierkegaard, Soren. “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” Existentialism. Ed. Robert Solomon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 17-23. Print.

Koller, John. Asian Philosophies. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2007. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. 1886. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 1992. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness.” Existentialism. Ed. Robert Solomon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 218-223. Print.

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007. Print.

Thompson, Evan. “Thinking/Planetary Building: An Essay on Martin Heidegger and Nishitani Keiji.” Philosophy East and West 36.3 (1986): 235-252. Web. 14 March 2011.

Umehara, Takeshi. “Heidegger and Buddhism.” Philosophy East and West 20.3 (1970): 271-281. Web. 12 March 2011.


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