Buddhist Existentialism (Robert Miller)

  (06 December 08)

Buddhist Existentialism



By Dr Robert Miller of RMIT University.


Dr Miller is the author of Buddhist Existentialism:
from anxiety to authenticity and freedom
(Shogam Pubs., 2008).



It might be best to start with questions like: What is it you want? What are you here for? What do you want from life or philosophy?


Probably most would agree, even philosophers (if you can get them to agree about anything) that probably one thing we want is some satisfactory level of happiness. Maybe happiness seasoned with some crazy joy – that would be nice? Also some peace of mind – we probably wouldn’t say no to that. And beauty – most folk like beauty I suppose. I like what I call a kind of re-enchanted beauty: a sense of the deeply mysterious and interconnected beauty of Life, The Universe, and Everything – the holistic totality of things.


Also, let’s not forget love. Logically, the biggest kind of love would be a love of life as one interconnected whole. So I call that holistic love.


Buddhism Existentialism offers some skilful means for cultivating such states. But something is not going to work very well if you are really not sure you want it to. That would be a bit like going to your GP to get advice about how to improve your health when you really don’t want to. So if the doctor says: “Quit smoking!” you say, “Well okay, that sounds pretty sensible, but I’ll do it next year. Because in fact at the moment I actually like to smoke, drink, and party till I drop.” Well, fair enough, if that’s what you want.


To get a bit more technical: Kant made a distinction between categorical imperatives and hypothetical imperatives. Being quite an absolutist, he thought that there were some categorical imperatives stating things that we must do whether we want to or not, because there is an absolute authority – be it God or human reason, etc – that sets them for us. Other imperatives are hypothetical, meaning that they have an if-then structure. That is, if you want the goal X then do action Y.


Kantianism, Islam, Christianity, etc, seem to be full of such categorical imperatives. I’m not so keen on them, I have to say. They seem a bit arbitrarily authoritarian. I’ve never been too keen on that since my teens. I think I like the hypothetical form better: if you want X then do Y. Buddhist Existentialism fits the pattern: if you want X (eg, greater happiness, re-enchanted beauty, holistic loving compassion, etc) then think and do Y – what one has to do to get them. There will be some practices useful to perform, some useful to renounce – viz., whatever it is that’s getting in the way of these states.


What do we have to renounce, according to Buddhism? To get an answer I checked my Buddhism For Dummies book. No kidding. We’re all dummies, after all. The book puts it straightforwardly on page 51. It says:


“The true meaning of renunciation is the decision to give up suffering.”


That struck me as quite appealing. I mean, who wants suffering anyway, right? Also, it sounds logical: if we want happiness, renounce suffering.


The Buddha seems to have been an existential outsider who got fed up with the common struggling for materialistic gain, and the slightly more bizarre, but still quite common, struggling for spiritual gain. So he sat under a tree one day to take a break. Whereupon he suddenly had a brilliant idea: he decided he would no longer make himself suffer in this way. He decided he would be happy and at peace, right here, right now, so he renounced suffering.


Sitting under his tree there, I imagine the Buddha reflected back on his life and realised that the materialistic family life hadn’t make him happy, and that being the stoical spiritual seeker hadn’t make him happy either. So he decided he’d had enough and renounced both.


“But it’s not that simple.” I hear you say. “Because aren’t there some big things we’re supposed to seek? For instance, to become a materially successful person, or else a more spiritually successful person – a Buddha perhaps. Right now, one may be thinking, “I’m not a Buddha. I’m just a fairly worthless person. Done some good, some bad, much like everybody else. Don’t know much. Pretty weak. Etc. I’m not a Buddha, after all. So I have to become one. One has to work really hard to achieve the good life – which always lies somewhere in the future, apparently.


But I wonder: Who told us that? Who sold us that idea? And why did we buy it? What authority has drummed it into our heads that we have to become something? Who said we are not ideal, or a Buddha, exactly as we are? And how dare they? By what right does anyone tell you that you are less than perfect? Where do they get off telling you something like that?


Also, doesn’t it sound a bit old-style Kantian, where some supposedly authoritative source – God, tradition, commonsense, society, parents, teachers – lays it down as an absolute that such-and-such must be done or achieved or else one is a failure, a flawed being?


So, on the one hand there are these absolutes telling us we must become this or that or else we are less than ideal, while, on the other hand, we have this hypothetical imperative: if you want to be happy – have some crazy joy, peace, beauty, love, etc – renounce suffering and be one with yourself in loving compassion exactly as you are. If adherence to a belief in absolutes is getting in the way – well, why not drop that? Renounce absolutes to renounce suffering. That is, if you want to.


After all, there is no way to prove that absolutes are real, so why not void them? Then maybe we can start to love the immediate beauty of life – just so.


“Ah, but it’s not that simple.” I hear you say again. “Because even if I void my belief that I have to become something, still, reality is not as it should be. The world is in a very bad way. The past has been terrible and the future looks bleak – what with global warming, economic downturns, and the fact that we are all getting older and are going to become worm’s meat soon. Also, it is obvious that reality doesn’t always go the way I want. In fact, it rarely does. I often get what I don’t want and don’t get what I want.”  


Does this refrain sound familiar? But again I wonder: Who sold us that idea? And why did we buy it? What authority has drummed it into us that such a divisive and hostile metaphysical view is an absolute?


Do all cultures believe the same thing about reality? Seems not. Even a quick look at a few cultures from the present and past shows this. Some believe in many gods, some in a good God and an evil God; some in multiple lives, some in only one life; some believe in souls, some do not; some believe the world is naught but a dream, some believe it is material and real; some believe there is a permanent self while others believe it is ephemeral; some believe in karma, others don’t; some believe the self is separate from the rest of reality, but some believe it is interconnected with the rest of reality, not self-existing. Some believe in freewill, some don’t. Some believe in dualism, some in non-dualism. Some believe there is a deceiving God tricking us all the time, or trickster spirits, and consequently that we don’t know anything at all. Others believe everything is fated and happens exactly as it should in accordance with divine providence. Others reject this. And so on and so forth.


How could you even begin to prove, right here and now, that any one of these beliefs is the absolute? Isn’t it obvious you can’t even get started? Because, after all, if there is a deceiving spirit or natural process like a faulty programme, let’s say, then you wouldn’t even be able to trust any of your reasoning about it. So you couldn’t even begin to debate the point, could you? You’d just have to be assuming you are not misled right from the start, without being able to prove it. So there’s a big presupposition involved, even to begin thinking at all. Obviously, then, nothing can get proved.


That’s very interesting, because it means that metaphysical beliefs are all dubious, merely speculative – quite poetic really. Therefore, there is no particular reason to believe in any of them if you don’t want to, is there? I mean, if people could actually prove that one of these beliefs is the true one, well maybe then we’d all have to believe it. But they can’t. So we have this existential freedom, you see, to debunk any particular metaphysical poetry we don’t want.


To recap: on the one hand there are metaphysical beliefs that, supposedly, we must accept as absolute truths. On the other hand, we have decided to renounce suffering, and we find that these absolutes are a block to that because they create a relatively pessimistic notion that life and reality is less than ideal exactly as it is.


Well, if you want X, do Y: if you are resolved to renounce suffering and stop making yourself unhappy, then drop all less than fully positive or optimistic metaphysical beliefs, as no one can prove them true anyway. Be done with them! Otherwise, you see, you are only being pessimistic or depressive about reality for no good reason. It’s just going to be a kind of arbitrary dark poetry or make-believe you’re involved in.


For instance, we’re probably telling ourselves we are not always already Buddha, that we are less than perfect beings. And we’re probably telling ourselves that life and reality is lacking in some way too. If we adhere to such relatively dismal beliefs is it any wonder we are short of happiness?


The remedy is to see that absolutes are marvellously voidable. That is, they are naïve empty beliefs devoid of real substance. Seeing they are voidable – what Buddhist tradition calls shunyata – there’s no obligation to adhere to them. Rather, adopt instead: non-adherence mind. Let the old absolutes go. After all, they were not very nice forms of make-believe – quite unpleasant in fact.


Become acquainted then with Emptiness. Let us empty our heads of spooks! – Absolute beliefs. Then one can just sit there with no particular belief in mind. That seems to be remarkably soothing. I mean, you know what a relief it can be to void your bowels, so why not void your mind as well? As I like to put it: To be content, be without content.


I am, of course, talking Emptiness Meditation. It’s a free form of enjoyment, so I generally recommend it. It is quite apt – that is, if you want to be happier in yourself. Otherwise, don’t bother with it.


“But how do you do it?” I hear you ask. It’s like that function on your PC, you know, where you can click on an icon, drag it to Trash can, and dump it. Except, I’ll call it the Void can. So: you’re sitting there and up comes this icon for – “angry judgmental God”, let’s say – and you click on it and drag it to Void. Or maybe it’s the icon for “I’m quite a weak and pathetic person as I am, unless I achieve such-and-such”; or the one for “the world’s in a terrible state: there’s too much suffering and it should not exist” – and so on. Whatever idea comes up it presupposes an underlying absolute that’s not absolute at all, but voidable. So drag it to Void. Then the screen of the mind goes quiet and clear again.


This is a good step for preparing to write something genuinely new on it – eg, loving compassionate approval of yourself, others, and reality as an interconnected good whole as is. But one must be very open-minded first. Open your mind! Be opened, clear, and void. Being a Socratic type, this openness is mainly what I always propose first.


Hey, it’s Buddhism For Dummies, right? So be a dummy, i.e., be dumb, silently dumbfounded with wonder – occupying what Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn calls “don’t know mind”. Sounds pretty Socratic to me. The open mind, the non-adherence mind. After all, if you don’t know anything then you don’t know anything is less than ideal.


I have no particular objection though if some say that they prefer to have some more misery in their lives. I’d say, “Okay, in that case, I recommend you cling on to the most pessimistic metaphysical beliefs you can find and brood on them.” That should do it! It shouldn’t be hard to achieve either, because our culture encourages it and there’s a truckload of relatively pessimistic beliefs to choose from.


Personally, I don’t like to tinker with anything less optimistic and non-divisive than that we are all Buddha already – even God, if you will. And that everything relatively good and bad is ultimately good in one good whole – i.e., poetically considered as a totality sub specie aeternitatis – as Spinoza put it.


Now, unfortunately, old-school Existentialism is woefully divisive and thoroughly dualistic. Hence it’s a relatively angry and pessimistic philosophy of life. The dominant mood is one of angst – an indignant existential anxiety about the vagaries of the human condition. Moreover, we are told we ought to feel this rather intensely all the time – even “rage” about it. That would be quite hip you see. Be an “angry young man”, be a rebel – with or without a cause.


The word “authentic” is repeatedly used – the implication being that if one is optimistic about Life, The Universe, and Everything, then this is somehow “inauthentic”. One is failing in one’s duty to be a right kind of person outraged by the general scheme of things. One has to “keep it real” as they say – according to their old-school idea of the “real” anyway.


However, Existentialism also prizes freedom of choice. Such writers – eg, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, etc – always stress this. They encourage us to stop fleeing our freedom, but make constant use of it in creating our art and living our lives. This too, apparently, will be called “authentic”.  


So arises a self-contradiction in old-school Existentialism. For if we are free to make choices, and can choose anything, there are no given rules or absolutes we’re obliged to obey. On the other hand, they also imply there is an absolute rule: viz., we are to be “authentic” – which apparently involves being divisive, dualistically combative, terminally angst-ridden, and so forth.


Supposedly Existentialism was new. It was in some ways, but arguably, in a more deep and important way, it was actually just another version of the old, Western, Biblical tradition.


How so? In two aspects: first, it retained the Judaeo-Christian idea that this world is rather nasty and evil, or inherently corrupt or fallen, or in a very bad way – not right, not good, hence less than ideal or divine.


Secondly, it presupposed and reinforced dualism, the dominant philosophy in the West. By dualism I mean the make-believe in ontological separations: eg, between the sacred and profane; the spiritual and worldly; the good and the evil or bad, or between the so-called supernatural and the natural, etc.


Such divisions derive from the usual interpretation of the Bible: the idea that the good, namely God, is separate from the so-called fallen world outside the Gates of Eden – hence from this world with all its evils, plagues, and death, and, of course, from humanity. God is ontologically separate from Man – from you and me. There is this big gap. One cannot be God, for God is an ontologically perfect and distinct entity. Likewise, whatever is present here and now, in front of our eyes, cannot be divine or good either – especially not the stuff created by that less-than-divine creature called Man.


So we tend to feel estranged or disconnected from the truly worthy, the good in itself. We are not IT – that seems to be the dominant feeling. And since we feel so strongly that we are not IT, we believe we must struggle and suffer to become IT – eg, to get “reconnected”. So the idea arises that we must work hard to attain to the good life.


Existentialism was another twist in this Biblical tradition, so was not as new as its rebellious posture might lead one to think. It retained the make-believe dualism. This is obvious, eg, in Sartre’s famous distinctions between the so-called being-for-itself of human consciousness and the so-called being-in-itself of external reality; or between the personal for-itself and other people. The dualism between the for-itself and the in-itself is said to generate a sense of nausea in life, while the dualism between self and others is said to generate conflict and the sense that “hell is other people”. Hence arises anger, indignation, angst, gloom, insecurity, etc.


Paradoxically though, the remedy for Existentialist world-weariness can also be found in Sartre’s philosophy. For at the core lies the motto of Existentialism: existence precedes essence. It means, he says, that we find ourselves here-and-now in existence and define ourselves afterwards.


So what we start from is a nothing (something as-yet undefined) that chooses what to think or do about its inexplicable presence to itself. Because we are as-yet undefined we must choose – freely in the sense that no view is simply “given” as being the true or correct one.


Unfortunately, Sartre finds this another reason to feel anguished; for it implies, he thinks, that we are personally responsible and accountable for the choices we make.


Here he makes his biggest mistake. His dualism is so automatic he forgets that what does the choosing is an as-yet undefined nothing. It doesn’t get defined until after a choice has been made. If a choice gets made to define people dualistically as beings with an ontologically separate freewill, then and only then can one say that we are responsible for the choices we make about how we are to define ourselves.


So old-school Existentialism was divisive. But the point is: it doesn’t have to be. On the contrary, if we find ourselves an undefined nothing and define ourselves afterward, then we can just as soon define ourselves non-dualistically, viz., as an integral part of one good whole.


In other words, surprisingly perhaps, we can elect to use existential freedom to choose to reject dualistic freewill. While we are at it, we can reject categorical imperatives or absolutes, including the absolute value of so-called “authenticity” that Sartre illicitly smuggles into his philosophy while at the same denying there are any absolutes!


Ah, now we are getting somewhere: we are in a position to create a Positive Existentialism in which there is no duality. Rather, if the whole is good, then every bit of it is good too, because it is all one vast tapestry or web – sometimes called Indra’s Net, in Buddhism.


If we affirm the whole as ideal, we affirm every part of the whole as ideal. Therefore, let’s call this holistic affirmation, saying a great big Yes to the interconnected web of reality – no exclusions.


But what do you want? Do you want this? Probably you can have it if you want it. For we are free to choose. It’s a hypothetical: if you want X, think and do Y. If you want to feel alienated from the whole movement of life and have an angry angst and pessimistic nausea about it, then I recommend you make-believe in old-school Existentialism and brood on things in a dualistic way. On the other hand, if you want to feel at one with the whole without exclusions, then reject dualism and think of reality as one good interconnected whole.


Indeed, one can go a step further and make-believe that one’s true or essential self – what Kant would call the Transcendental Self – is the one transpersonal mind or unitary source of reality – called Buddha-mind or God or Absolute Self or Spirit, if one likes to give it a name.


If the ultimate in personal optimism is the make-believe that one’s true self is Buddha-mind or God, perhaps the ultimate in loving compassion is the make-believe that everyone else is this too. It is a matter of love, in the end, to adopt the most loving view – i.e., take the most charitable view of people and things, as they say. One may then opt for the poetry then that everyone’s real Self is the timeless source of the totality of Being – at any rate, until or unless someone can prove that this is false. And when are they going to be able to do that?


In saying there is this good totality one is not wishing to deny, of course, that all sorts of relatively bad stuff happens within it. Rather it’s a case of taking the good with the bad – or more precisely of adopting the make-believe that the bad plays an integral part in the total good. For without the bad as a contrast various forms of the good would be impossible. For example, without obstacles there would no triumph in overcoming obstacles; without risks and hardships there would be no courage; without suffering there would be no compassion or healing – and so on. Thus, at the ordinary level of things, we seem to need the relative bad with the relative good, but we can also play with the make-believe that the total process is good as an interconnected whole in the one Absolute Transcendental Transpersonal Self or Mind.


The appropriate attitude when bad stuff happens is compassion and helping where it’s possible. However, this compassion need not slide into anything like depression, despair, or gloominess, because it’s guided by the holistic idealism, where we see everything as ultimately good and purposeful in the one good whole, even the relatively bad bits. So while one can be actively compassionate one does not have to become antagonistic or angst-ridden, engaging in some kind of fashionable dark rage against the way things are.


In sum, in Buddhist Existentialism there can be a robust happiness in life seasoned with crazy joy without burying our heads in the sand with, eg, shallow entertainments, travelling, drug taking, busyness, escapism, etc. One can be aware of the many trials and tribulations happening every day in the world, but we can have a cheerful compassion about it, not the typically counterproductive dualistic hostility that usually goes on.


What’s required for this? A daily practice of Emptiness and Holistic Meditation by which we attune ourselves to the free and interconnected beauty of what is from moment to moment.


Let’s try that, and maybe our emotional and spiritual state will improve.


Very thorough, i hope many people take this on board and stop their self pity and suffering. its a waste of precious time

Posted by Eternity

Absolutetly brilliant!!!

Posted by Steven

yes, I think that what you are sdaying is interseting and i will take this on board, abolutes hey, now what is the most perfect way that i can argue or debate or tell you your peice is terrific, the habits of the mind.

Posted by sarah

you are AWESOME! just letting you know youve been posted to /r/buddhism. keep the good thoughts a flowin! its scary how short sighted we can all get, at the end of the day its all a very clever and absurd dreamland where everyone is semi blind. its gonna take a lot of work but well survive :) one day were all gonan realise it together and rip the roof off with our joy

Posted by samuel jenks

I found this amazing . I need to re-read . I have had issues with traditional existential angst and anger due to a personal situation that has had mad it almost impossible to meditate or embrace the spiritual that has always surrounded me . This Dualistic notion or binary has hindered my growth . I in my anger turned to fuzzy logic . Im embracing this and finding Robert Miller was an act of Synchronicity . Long story . I feel peaceful and ready to meditate . Thank you .

Posted by dressed in air

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