Existentialism Meets Buddhism
The philosophies of Existentialism and Buddhism are more common than you think.
Posted Dec 19, 2017
A good portion of my writing focuses on Eastern practices such as mindfulness, and how they can improve one’s life. Another topic I focus on is existential philosophy and how beliefs derived from that school can also make life more fulfilling. In this post, I’d like to discuss similarities between the two.
I was struck recently by how the two philosophies, born of different worlds, came to many of the same conclusions. Existential philosophy is a Western idea, originating in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Buddhism is much older, said to have originated in the fifth century B.C.E. Despite their disparate origins and development, there are several striking similarities.
Being in the moment: Heidegger, a famous existential writer, wrote a book translated as “mindfulness”. He talks about Being, living in the moment, throughout his writing. Buddhism, as well as other Eastern philosophies (Taoism, for instance) also focus on the importance of immersion in the moment. As I’ve written a dozen times, empirical studies indicate the benefits of mindfulness for everything from physical ailments to mental health disorders. Mindfulness is essential to both philosophies, as it leads to the power to change, which is discussed next.
Individuals can change: To put it existentially, existence precedes essence. Essence is the idea of a finished product, where existence suggests becoming, being, and the ability to take control over one’s life. In Buddhism and other Eastern thought, the idea is that nothing exists except in the moment. Though some sects of Buddhism believe one possess a “Buddha Nature”, it is almost impossible to realize it for extended periods. In both philosophies, the idea is to “become”.
The inevitability of death: Though this is a more integral part of existential thought, (the fear of death and the need to face it permeates existentialism), Buddhism also focuses on meditating on one’s death. Being aware of death is central to Tibetan Buddhism, which spurred the famous, “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, and the more recent, “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”. Yoga has a pose called, “Savasana”, which is translated as “corpse pose”. Though yoga is not Buddhist, it further demonstrates the fact that Eastern thought (in this case Hindu) has come to similar conclusions as western existentialism.
Suffering is part of life: What’s more, they both focus on how the view of suffering can be transformative. In Buddhism, suffering is addressed in the Four Noble Truths. Suffering is part of existence, and can be overcome by following the Eightfold Path. Some of this philosophy focuses on acceptance of what cannot be changed (see Acceptance: It Isn’t What You Think).
In existential thought, suffering can provide life meaning. Camus’ most famous essay focuses on “The Myth of Sysyphus”, and how even knowing his work is pointless and considered torture by the gods, he embraces his life. Camus ends his essay with the idea that, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (Camus, p.123).
Viktor Frankl, another existential writer, focuses on the meaning of suffering. When confronted with a patient who suffers because of the death of his wife, Frankl challenges the client’s meaning, pointing out that by bearing this suffering, he spares his wife the suffering of his death. In both of these existential writers’ views, the view of suffering alters its experience.
There are similarities between many philosophies and religions. Many focus on making your life happier and becoming a better person. The same is true for these two philosophies. In fact, I once read a book about how different philosophies can help one with mental health (Plato, Not Prozac). I am of the belief that for many mental health issues, a change of philosophy is the cure.
Copyright William Berry, 2017
Camus, A., 1955. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays., Vintage Books, New York, N.Y.
Frankl, V; 2006; Man’s Search for Meaning; Beacon Press; Boston, Ma.