Monday, November 14, 2011

Buddhism and Existential Angst

In Happiness, I argued against the popular belief that our ultimate goal should be happiness. Our tragedy, I said, is that we’re equipped with high degrees of consciousness, reason, and freedom, which enable us to appreciate what I called Our Existential Situation (OES). This situation is roughly equivalent to our worst nightmare, implying that life for most of us is effectively hell on earth. Our situation as intelligent animals, thrown into the world, as the existentialist philosopher Heidegger said, is defined by ironies, by the world’s being different from how we’d prefer it to be. For example, theistic and New Age fantasies are all wildly off the mark, logically and empirically speaking. Those differences between our naïve, anthropocentric picture of the world and the modern scientific picture of it, are results not of any demonic design, but of the inhumanity of the natural forces that put us here in the midst of cosmic evolution.

In short, this is the worst possible world, from a humane standpoint. A Satanic dominion over the universe would be preferable to dominion by mindless natural forces, because Satan would at least be a person, albeit an evil one, and were personhood at the root of reality, we could at least take comfort that the universe and thus life and our position have meaning. Our purpose would be to serve as Satan’s playthings. Were this the case, we might even succumb to Stockholm Syndrome and come to approve of that demonic plan. As it stands in the Lovecraftian, scientific picture, though, there’s no such meaning and no such cold comfort. We’re alienated from reality and thus from ourselves, because we view the world through the filter of our ideals, which project onto the world what isn’t there, such as the ultimate propriety of our pursuit of those ideals. Our values are either means by which natural forces drive us to perpetuate some stage in a natural process or are free-standing creations of our imagination. Either way, our confidence in their propriety is usually wrongheaded.

Our most popular goal is to be happy, to be successful and contented with the pleasures we earn. This goal is certainly attainable to some extent or other, but we’re aesthetically, if not also ethically, obligated not to seek happiness as our ultimate good. Instead, we ought to be anxious and saddened as a result of our knowledge of OES. The existentialist’s remedy, of hopeless rebellion in the alien face of inhumane nature, is nobler and more aesthetically compelling than the Aristotelian reduction of our ethical purpose to our narrow biological function. Our biofunction is to stop investigating what’s really going on and to merely survive and sexually perpetuate our genetic code. If we do that, as most people in fact do, raising a family and committing ourselves to various delusions that serve that biological end, we become more or less happy, whether we’re rich or poor or whether we’re born beautiful or physically disabled. We then live at peace with ourselves and with the world, despite the fact that that peace is as obscene as the peace of slaves in the Matrix or in the philosopher Robert Nozick’s Happiness Machine (a thought experiment about a virtual reality simulator that caters to our fantasies, enabling a person to live successfully in a dream world that may differ drastically from the real one). 

The Buddhist Critique

So I averred in that article on happiness. There is, however, an interesting Buddhist critique of this grim existentialism, which runs as follows. My talk of OES, of a gulf between the conscious, free, intelligent person and the rest of nature assumes that that person is an independent, self-contained essence, detached from the world. Instead, according to the Buddhist principles of Interdependent Arising (IA) and of emptiness, there are no such essences anywhere in the universe: everything is in flux, ever-changing and interdependent. Instead of things, there are phases of processes. A person’s mind consists entirely of such flowing transitions, from one mental state to the next, with no unified self tying them together. There is no immaterial spirit or essence that is the bearer of particular thoughts and feelings. Therefore, there can be no gap between a person and the rest of the world; on the contrary, a person is interconnected with the world, since both are bound up in natural processes that unite them. For example, we breathe oxygen from the outer environment and exhale carbon dioxide which plants in turn absorb.

According to Buddhism, when nature is understood in terms of cycles and processes that are empty of essences or of thinghood, we can appreciate the source of our anxieties: our delusion of an independent self causes us to crave an unsuitable permanence or stability, an impossible control over those processes for our benefit. We build walls to protect us from the natural flux, including literal walls and conceptual frameworks that amount to fantasies. That defense against free-flowing natural reality and the self-righteous, egoistic justifications of that defense are wrongheaded, for the Buddhist. There is no such thing as an ego, or as a single, autonomous self that can possibly bear the brunt of cosmic indifference or win for itself pleasure rather than suffering. There are only interdependent stages of cycles that unite all that there is in nature.

My existential rant, then, according to Buddhism, is based on a self-righteous delusion--as if there could be anything wrong with nature’s inhumane treatment of sentient beings, given that there are no such beings, because there are no beings at all. Assuming this Buddhist anti-essentialism, the enlightened attitude is bemused detachment as opposed to unrealistic craving. We should carefully observe changes in the processes we encounter, instead of crying like babies when we’re disappointed that we don’t get what we want. If there’s no such thing as a self, there’s no realistic basis for thinking there’s a gap between nature’s inhumanity and our anthropocentric values. Natural forces aren’t alien to us; instead, we’re shot through with those forces, and since there’s no self to protect from careless nature, we ought to observe the flux from an objective, aesthetic distance, watching each thought pop into our minds like so many frames in a reel of animated images.

Instead of suffering from resentment, like the boy who holds his breath when his mother refuses to buy him his coveted toy, we can relish all changes, including painful ones, as ever more data to scrutinize with a connoisseur’s eye for artistic detail. The enlightened Buddha’s nirvana is like an art critic’s peace from being able to freely judge an artwork from a distance, with no reality-based pressure to cling to one judgment or another. Unlike, say, the artist who worries about not receiving the praise she craves, who complains when her art doesn’t suit the critic’s taste and thus when she loses the job offer she desperately wants to be able to afford a larger apartment, and so on and so forth, the art critic--we can assume with some simplificationenjoys the freedom that comes from aesthetic detachment. And it’s this detachment that the bitter, angst-ridden existentialist seems to lack. There’s no need for any suffering at all, including so-called dutiful or heroic suffering in defiance of what’s actually a non-existent abyss between what there really is and what we ultimately want. In short, from a Buddhist perspective, my account of OES is based on egoistic conceptions, and thus my prescription that’s supposed to replace the politically correct one of happiness, is itself deluded.

Buddhism and Existentialism

The obvious response to Buddhism is to insist that there are beings, including selves, after all, and that therefore existential angst can be justified. Indeed, there may be a mere semantic dispute here. What non-Buddhists call the self, the Buddhist may call a phase of a process. Moreover, while nothing in nature may be absolutely independent, some things or processes may be more or less independent; hence, the usefulness of concepts that posit similarities between things (or processes) that hold despite their differences. What are commonly called selves have more in common with each othertheir cognitive faculties, their genotypes and phenotypes, and so onthan they do, say, with asteroids or with peanut butter. To explain those distinguishing features, we categorize their bearers as instances of a type, and we theorize about them, generalizing for the sake of understanding. For example, we say that humans are persons and are thus different from other animal species in certain respects. Were we to end our inquiry with the Buddhist principle that everything is interdependent and united, we wouldn’t understand any of the patterns in nature; that is, we wouldn’t yet be generalizing about the differences and similarities we observe. In short, scientists and ordinary people alike generalize, making use of concepts to explain patterns, and in the case of our patterns, this requires talk of the self. Finally, even if the Buddhist is correct that everything is interrelated at some level of explanation, relative independencies can emerge at higher levels. At the quantum level, particles may be mostly entangled with each other in superpositions, but regularities emerge as subatomic interactions develop complex forms, like the chemical elements, the stars and planets, and all the myriad species on Earth, including people.

But I don’t want to rest with those head-on answers. Instead, I want to grant the Buddhist’s anti-essentialist assumptions for the sake of argument, and question whether those assumptions really divide the Buddhist much from the angst-ridden existentialist. I begin by asking why the Buddhist is interested in ending human suffering. After all, as is apparent from the Four Noble Truths, the whole point of Buddhism is to end our suffering, or dukkha, meaning all varieties of disappointment. But on the assumption that everything is interdependent and part of a cosmic process, why the Buddhist’s compassion for the deluded stages of that process--naively called persons--which suffer from futile cravings? Shouldn’t the Buddhist fatalistically infer that that suffering is a necessary part of the cosmic process, which the Buddhist should objectively observe along with all of the other parts?

At first glance, it looks as though the Buddhist presupposes that some interdependent processesnaively called personshave special value due to their capacity for disappointment and their autonomy which allows them to change their course for the better, to become enlightened and end their miseries. In fact, Buddhists also take on board, along with Hindus, the theodicy of samsara and moksha, which is to say the ideas that the cosmos of which we’re a part is a bad place to inhabit, obligating us to liberate ourselves from the cycle of rebirth. Enlightenment, or nirvana, is freedom from nature by way of emptying ourselves of the flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the shores of our minds, borne by the waves of natural forces. When we detach from our desires, we no longer feel disappointed when we fail to get what we want, because we no longer want anything; our suffering ends and we enjoy something like the art critic’s bliss of academic freedom.

That theodicy has much in common with what I call Our Existential Situation. In both cases, there’s a condemnation of the cosmos. Buddhism’s focus on ending dukkha might even presuppose that condemnation: suffering ought to be ended, because suffering inherits the badness of the rest of nature, being a stage of interdependent natural cycles, spun by inhumane forces. But these normative judgments of the prison of samsara and of the obligation to liberate ourselves don’t sit well with the Buddhist’s metaphysical principle of IA. If everything is interlocked as stages of a cosmic process of evolution, there’s no metaphysical basis for speaking of liberation from that process. Most people may be deluded, entranced by fantasies that bind them to degrading, punishing natural forces, while a minority manage to free their minds and enjoy the peace of carelessness and the pleasure of objective, aesthetic study of natural reality. However, both groups would surely be different stages in the same cosmic process. Enlightened Buddhists don’t transcend nature in the sense of reaching a supernatural vantage point overlooking the whole universe, but merely discover an alternative natural way of life.

If we stress the principle of IA, we’re left with an amoral perspective on what is empirically just a series of interrelated processes. Once again, then, I ask why the Buddhist is preoccupied with ending disappointment and short-circuiting its causes, namely delusion and craving. An authentically Buddhist answer would seem to appeal to aesthetics rather than to morality, which is why I compared the Buddha to an art critic. Above all, Buddhists are empiricists: they observe that everything is mixed together in a great flux of transitions. Enlightenment gives them the freedom simply of extreme objectivity, of detachment from biases and personal inclinations. A Buddha perceives natural reality as a process rather than as a host of independent things. And in that objective frame of mind, the enlightened Buddhist creates a taste, an aesthetic style of appreciating natural art, as it were, a new bias that befits a Buddha’s radical shift in perspective, rather than a passively-received bias that flows in and out of the deluded mind. In Nietzschean terms, the Buddha is, to this extent, an Übermensch, a hero who overcomes harsh natural obstacles and creates original values. On my existentialist view, this enlightened creativity is a rebellion that gives our lives meaning and holds off the insanity with which esoteric knowledge of OES threatens us.

The Buddhist may interpret the need for compassion differently, but he or she seems forced to admit that compassion is gratuitous, given the metaphysics of IA. The enlightened Buddhist merely chooses to become a Bodhisattva, a liberator of others from their delusions and thus from their sufferings. That is, an enlightened person faces a choice: to enter nirvana and renounce not only her desires but those of everyone else, to live alone somewhere on a mountain top, or to teach others how to achieve the same inner peace. That choice, I’m suggesting, is caused by an enlightened taste for one path or the other. Nothing forces the enlightened person to care about other people’s sufferingleast of all individualistic morality that holds one process (the self) to be metaphysically (as opposed to aesthetically) more valuable than another (say, dirt or an asteroid), contradicting the monistic assumption of IA. Some enlightened people prefer the natural process of life on this planet that includes less craving and disappointment, owing to the Bodhisattva’s work. Likewise, some art critics prefer one style of art to another.

Given this aesthetic interpretation of Buddhist compassion, there’s another commonality between Buddhism and my existentialism: the choice to confront the horrors of nature by a renunciation of what’s naturally expected of us. My problem with happiness is that emotional contentment is aesthetically and ethically unsuited to creatures with dark esoteric knowledge. These creatures should be anxious and melancholic, not at ease with themselves or their position. The cause of happiness, I said, is ignorance of Our Existential Situation, or some delusion that stands in for knowledge. Likewise, the Buddhist renounces the so-called pleasures that derive from egoistic delusions, as so many forms of what is ultimately disappointment.

The difference, then, is that the Buddhist opposes dukkha, whereas I oppose the popular notion of happiness. But this difference may not be as significant as it seems. In the first place, my condemnation of happiness as an indignity isn’t the same as a rejection of pleasure following from the achievement of any goal whatsoever. The problem isn’t pleasure or success of any kind, but just that which depends on ignorance of OES. There may well be a kind of pleasure or contentment in renouncing a conventional way of life, a sort of rebel’s or Gnostic’s glee of being an insider rather than a hapless member of the herd. This wouldn’t be happiness, but gallows humour, a way of coping with the melancholy that accompanies a commitment to existential philosophy. Just as the Buddhist’s notion of dukkha is broad enough to interpret vulgar pleasures as forms of suffering, I interpret vulgar happiness as an obscenity and an abomination, owing to its dependence on pitiful fantasies.

Moreover, enlightened Buddhists certainly aren’t happy in a materialistic sense; they’re contented with the peace that follows from their mystical vision of cosmic connectedness. But while they don’t suffer, neither do they feel joy or any other satisfaction caused by the achievement of what’s personally desired. In fact, their personality disappears with the attachment to their desires. They become empty, which is to say alienated from the world in so far as that world is egoistically conceived. In this respect, a Buddha isn’t a Nietzschean Übermensch, since while a Buddha may accept the natural flux as it is, without weak-minded illusions, a Buddha still withdraws from the world, disengaging from her desires. In any case, a Bodhisattva seems even less happy than a Buddha. After all, compassion for other people’s plight is a form of suffering. Empathy is the feeling of someone else’s pain as yours. If empathy informs a Bodhisattva’s taste for compassion, this sort of enlightened Buddhist is similar to the existentialist who responds to the duty to renounce opportunities for personal contentment, out of awe at the magnitude of our tragedy. Both suffer for their knowledge, the Bodhisattva who understands the absurd needlessness of suffering caused by egoism, and the existentialist who appreciates the grotesqueness of pleasures that require ignorance or intellectual cowardice. Both affirm that the vulgar form of happiness is the flowering of delusion and is thus aesthetically if not also ethically degrading.

Nirvana and Angst

In short, Buddhism has much in common with my Lovecraftian existentialism. But what of the main point of the Buddhist’s critique, that existential angst is egoistic and therefore foolish? Is angst compatible with an acceptance of Buddhist anti-essentialism? Certainly, if everything were really one and all concepts that differentiate were misrepresentations, angst would rest on confusion, since angst presupposes a gap between the self and the world from which the self is alienated. But Buddhist monism isn’t so extreme. The principle of IA implies not that everything is one, but that everything is interconnected as transitions in a flux. One transition must still differ from another for their interdependence to be possible.

So the more relevant question is whether one part of a process can be alienated from another. And the answer is obviously that there can be such alienation. After all, on the Buddhist’s own assumptions, the cosmic flux includes a phase consisting of deluded people whose consequent disappointments amount to ways of being alienated from reality. To preserve our fragile egos and our pride and vainglorious ambition, we pretend that each individual is absolutely independent, and even that each is imbued with an immaterial spirit and thus deserving of his or her successes (and failures). If no one is so independent, the egoistic lifestyle becomes absurd. The Buddhist seems led to say, then, that egoism is the unenlightened person’s means of avoiding a confrontation with the reality of everything’s interconnectedness in the cosmic process. This confrontation produces either angst or, if the person is properly prepared, enlightenment and nirvana.

I would go further, though, and suggest that angst and nirvana are fundamentally the same. Nirvana is said to be transcendent peace and freedom from suffering, due to hyper-objectivity and attentiveness to everything’s interrelatedness, and to an antipathy to egoism. But the Bodhisattva’s compassion makes for a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, this mostly-enlightened Buddhist is free from ego-based suffering; on the other, this person feels compassion for the unenlightened herd, which can mean only that the Bodhisattva feels their egoistic pain. This is quite comparable to the two-sidedness of an existentialist’s life experience. On the one hand, the existentialist is naturally compelled to satisfy her animalistic appetites, to achieve certain goals for the sake of her survival; on the other, this person is barred from happiness by her appreciation of OES and is forced to endure angst. This cognitive dissonance is in each case the curse of dangerous esoteric knowledge, whether of IA or of OES. While the enlightened Buddhist finds that knowledge uplifting, she must admit that were everyone to affirm Buddhist principles, modern civilization would be undone. Buddhist mysticism is destructive to the ego, just as Lovecraftian existentialism destroys optimistic delusions. 

In addition, nirvana and angst are both forms of alienation. The Buddhist may feel mystically at one with the cosmos, but by refusing to take ownership of anything, including her thoughts and feelings, she casts herself adrift. She’s an outcast, surrounded by egoistic animals that chase after their mirages of power and pleasure. As I said, the Buddhist is alienated from the egoistically-conceived world. Most people think of the world in anthropocentric terms, and so the Buddhist is alienated from all of these people and from the social games that vain persons play. The existentialist is just as alienated, refusing to pragmatically submit to optimistic delusions, and horrified by the tragic ironies that dominate our absurd lives.

Furthermore, as I suggested, nirvana and angst force the mystic to make aesthetic rather than moral choices. The Buddhist and the existentialist are each like an art critic: they’re alienated observers, objectively scrutinizing all of nature as a sort of meaningless, postmodern artwork. From what the philosopher Thomas Nagel called the view from nowhere, or what Spinoza and other philosophers call the God’s eye view or the perspective from eternity, which is just merciless objectivity, we learn the grim truths that mock all of our dreams and illusions. Nirvana and angst are both uncompromising, mystical perspectives that compel the Buddhist or the Lovecraftian existentialist to renounce the fruits of false hope.

The difference between nirvana and angst lies only in the interpretation of what’s perceived from the viewpoint of alienating objectivity. The Buddhist is trained to think in terms of liberation from a world of suffering, whereas the existentialist regards certain suffering as ennobling. The Buddhist meditates to escape from the debris blown through her mind on cosmic winds, while the existentialist uses angst as the song inspired by her muse, by the Lovecraftian cosmic god, for example, which is just a symbol for the inhumane cosmos. Again, though, the Buddhist escapes suffering only by severing herself completely from human life. As long as she remains at best a Bodhisattva, she suffers from compassion and must regard her altruism as an absurd, purely aesthetic decision, a matter of taste. Likewise, when confronting the remorselessly-alien cosmos, without the comfort of crutches, the existentialist can judge only by the light of aesthetic and primitive ethical standards. Equally alienated from society, the Buddhist and the existentialist must live on with the sense that life is absurd. Just as the judgment of art becomes farcical when art represents nothing, the evaluation of life becomes arbitrary without the benefit of comforting myths. Compassion is as meaningless as psychopathic misanthropy, given IA, which might explain why Buddhist societies, such as in Japan or in Sri Lanka, sometimes endorse killing. And whatever the alienated existentialist does to rebel, she does with a grave sense of irony and of the ridiculousness of all human efforts. 

Thus, the Buddhist’s case against my version of existentialism isn’t so clear-cut. The two positions are closer to each other than might at first be apparent.


  1. I crave permanence and stability, as unsuitable as that is. Yet I understand self to be illusion (albeit only conceptually, I doubt my emotions/subconscious accept this truth).

    If we recognize independent self to be illusion, then the source of anxiety cannot be the delusion, because it ceases to be delusion if we recognize and embrace an illusion, right?

    For example: I know Amy and Lila are fiction, but I can enjoy a fantasy rooted in the desire to be with them. Someoee would suffer if they thought them to be real people they just hadn't figured out how to hook up with.

    Yet even in knowing (intellectually or whatever) the self to be artifice, I still desire the things associated with it (permanence) and want to pursue that inappropriate ideal, and am made anxious by the difficulty (seeming impossibility) of achieving it, or even shedding usual human lifespan boundaries.

    All I can figure is, there is another source of suffering/anxiety, or that attachment still exists in parts of the mind besides that of the purely logical which has managed to detach. I guess detachment of the emotional centers is what would cause the cessation, and what is probably the purpose of all that meditation and stuff they do.

    I wonder sometimes, when a buddhist says wrongheaded or unsuitable, is that a logical analysis, or a moral one? Suitability in particular seems a clearly subjective label.

    While there is no distinct ego, or self, the memes of ego and self do exist, and in these ideas, we do create something called self. In our idea of a distinct self, illusion as it is, it exists in the subjective sense. Perhaps our suffering comes from that of demeaning subjective things and the elating of physical things.

    The religious are saddened by the idea that Jesus may not have lived and may not be there to save them for example. I'm not, because my delight in some facets of his character doesn't rely on that, but simply in admiration of his memes. Much like I'm not upset Superman will save me, because I never believed that and delight in his existence as a literary figure.

    I gotta admit, kinda digging the bemused detachment thing in a sense. It's how I feel sometimes except for when I get caught up in annoying reality. I guess I see things from both ways, we recognize the idea of self, yet also see its subjective artifice.

    1. It's kinda like these superhero vs. superhero arguments. I don't seem to end up siding with one, rather I enjoy the thoughts the conflict of differences brings forth, and think of different scenarios in which one triumphs over the other, and ultimately how they might team up to take on Galactus.

      The solution may not be to stop with the buddhist principle, and that might be the point too. Even though a lot of interpretations of buddhism seem to be so strict as to deconstruct the self, when one views it in the light of the 'middle path' concept Siddharta promoted (not overtly indulgent or ascetic).

      One could see Buddhism as merely a tool to not take reality too seriously, but not to take Buddhist pursuit of non-self too seriously either to the point of killing it, because killing the sense of self is comparable to starving to death which was preached against.

      Reading you say that we should be anxious and melancholic, oddly, in the context of appreciating reality more validly, makes me feel happy to think about though. In that sense, it swerves anxiety so it isn't anymore... is that a failure? I have sometimes felt sad about not being anxious, just as some feel anxious about not being sad, yet sometimes there isn't that reaction. Maybe it is bemusement about not suffering when one objectively observes the anxiety reaction?

      Maybe it's the sense of outsider glee you're talking about. Loving as how I read it follows the thought process so naturally. But I wonder if this is a false divide between happiness. What you're calling happiness seems something more specific that might be better described with an adjective: like maybe 'happiness at all costs' or 'deluded happiness' or whatever. Ignorant bliss? For we can have glee in pursuit of knowledge just like raging at ignorance.

      I question: why wouldn't it be happiness? Is gallows humour not valid delight? Perhaps happiness in general is a coping means, or a reaction selected for, and why is the popular kind rooted in delusion more valid than a delight felt in realistic 'black humour' or whatever? Should we look down on it because we don't laugh as thoroughly as innocents do?

      Even if it's not as explosive or wholesome a laugh, perhaps it's a more sustainable one, and a more valid one?

      I'd argue one interpretation could be that the complete Buddha is not meant to be obtained, that pursuing eternal complete emptiness and complete lack of joy is an extreme that the middle path preaches against. That it is a theoretical concept one can go towards when one is too rooted in the world to see it well, but that wisdom's been preached to stop short of complete death of self. To pursue a translucent self instead of transparent or opaque, maybe?

      I find both parts to be drawing, sometimes I like to avoid silly suffering, yet I enjoy the appeal of noble suffering too. Or see a beauty in it. I see the similarities well due to this talk, and the sides of the coin they differ on can be flipped to bring multiple ways of seeing satisfaction in reality.

    2. I'm glad you got something out of reading this article/rant. The Buddhist perceives the ego as an illusion, but an illusion isn't nothing at all; instead, an illusion is just not what we think it is when we look at it in a naive frame of mind. As I understand Buddhism, the idea is that suffering is caused by the egoist's mistaken belief that the ego is godlike in its independence, whereas in reality everything is interdependent and thus one. When the ego strives to be godlike, it inevitably fails because the ego doesn't stand apart from everything. Power games are futile, from this enlightened Buddhist perspective. But the point is, as you say, that the ego isn't nothing at all; interrelations require things to be related to each other. But these interdependent things become illusions when we hold mistaken beliefs about their substantial independence.

      As for happiness, my criticism comes down to an ethical or aesthetic one. The problem with happiness that requires ignorance about our tragic existential situation is that this delusive happiness doesn't afford the opportunity for secular virtues to develop, which are needed to create an awe-inspiring postmodern religion; moreover, this happiness promotes its own vices, as in the case of the parasitic glee from consuming a purportedly endless stream of products, which ignores the harm to the planet and to the low wage labourers.

      What I find objectionable about vulgar happiness is that it's sustained by vices and ignorance, not by virtues and philosophical knowledge that undermines a carefree lifestyle. The detached Buddhist may claim to be carefree, but as I say in the blog, I detect some similarities between this detachment and angst; in particular, each is at home in a mystical perspective.

    3. I really, really, really enjoyed reading your "rant." It is interesting to see someone engaged in that constant process of self-scrutiny and judgment from which it seems no deprive. I would love to read your rant on the meaning of the story of Abraham.

  2. "I question: why wouldn't it be happiness? Is gallows humour not valid delight? Perhaps happiness in general is a coping means, or a reaction selected for, and why is the popular kind rooted in delusion more valid than a delight felt in realistic 'black humour' or whatever? Should we look down on it because we don't laugh as thoroughly as innocents do?

    Even if it's not as explosive or wholesome a laugh, perhaps it's a more sustainable one, and a more valid one?"

    I totally agree with everything tycol said, especially this quote.

    1. Well, this depends on how you define your terms. I think of happiness as an attitude of contentment with how your life is going. This is different, say, from joy or pleasure felt on a particular occasion which may cause you to smile or laugh. So people who are unhappy, in that they're pessimistic, melancholy, or somehow opposed to elements of life, can still feel pleasure on certain occasions. For example, they can still be amused by comedy and they may even laugh out loud. But in the back of their mind will be a negative rather than a positive attitude. Their humour will conflict with their grim outlook. Gallows humour is not delight, since the background attitudes differ.

      You might want to check out my Aug 2012 article, "Comedy and Existential Cosmicism."

  3. When I was a teenager I garnered a decent rudimentary knowledge of Taoism and Buddhism. In my Philosophy 101 class at university, I suffered through quite a lot of silliness, until we got to Kant, and then Nietzsche. I can't claim to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but Nietzche always sounded like a westernized misfit that was cribbing off eastern philosophy. I wrote a test essay to that effect and it wasn't appreciated, so it's good to see that I'm not the only one that sees the close connection.

    I've always considered myself to be a Nihilist and thought odd the baggage that most identified Nihilists carried around. Why is there so much emphasis on angst and destruction, when contentment and life are equally valid?

    Indeed, when I saw the Dali Lama speak a month ago, he started by saying it was important to understand that Buddhism was fundamentally Nihilistic and went to describe it precisely as I understood.

    It is great that you compare existentialism and Buddhism as an aesthetic decision, I had never thought of it like that before. Yet, I'm not sure I agree. At the end of the day I can only see angst as dukkha, NOT as a choice about state of being in a cosmic, valid philosophy sense.

    Much of your view supposes that Nirvana is a detachment from worldly concerns, but it much more than that. It is conjoining of spirit with the essence of Creation and all life itself. A mere instant in the presence of someone close to Nirvana is enough to recognize that they are unimaginably engaged with other beings as process (to use your terminology) and are detached from expectation of outcome. Many Buddhist koans and stories are explicitly designed to remember the difference and chastise the supposedly Zen monk who in reality hides from the world instead of letting it fill him.

    That said, I knowingly choose angst over search for contentment at this very moment, precisely because of concern about the alienation you note. I feel I'm too young to usher in that alienation and when I'm older then things will change and angst will hopefully give way to acceptance and contentment. I just don't see how it can be a wise choice to stay angsty for eternity.

    1. I don't think we ought to feel angst forever, but neither do I think detachment is the answer. Detachment is objectivity, which in turn is the curse that alienates us from everything, including our feelings, other people, and social conventions. I know that Buddhists are supposed to feel compassion as well as detachment, but this has always struck me as inconsistent. Someone who's truly detached will be beyond good and evil. Objectivity lets us see the horrors of natural reality and makes us instrumentalists, whereas our feelings and a leap of irrational faith are needed for us to choose which ends we hold sacred.

      The question of whether angst is dukkha (suffering based on ignorance and egoistic grasping, I take it) is an interesting one. Is it possible for an enlightened person to suffer? I think so, and that's the message of existentialism. But Buddhism and other Eastern mystical traditions teach that suffering is never wise nor moral. On the contrary, as I argue in "Happiness is Unbecoming," I think those who are happiest are the most ignorant of the natural circumstances of life. The more we know, the more reason we have to suffer, if only on other people's behalf. The so-called compassion of an enlightened Buddhist strikes me as just the sort of empathy that should be painful to bear. If the Buddhist doesn't care about the outcome, whence the compassion? Again, there's this conflict between detachment and altruism/compassion. But I'm likely just missing a step in the Eastern argument here.

  4. 'A person’s mind consists entirely of such flowing transitions, from one mental state to the next, with no unified self tying them together.'
    Even if we take the existentialist and Buddhist position of existence preceding essence, we may still, erroneously, be essentialist regarding the self--which Buddhism corrects. What we take for a self is a biological entity that is the result of a literal enfolding of the physiosphere, creating a neuronal feedback loop, 'the ghost in the machine'--a reified self generating a reified world we take as 'Real.'
    Now, 'reified' or not, failure to successfully nurture this abstract self can result in psychosis or profound social incompetence. Which points out, I feel, a glaring logical misstep in Buddhist philosophy. If the point of Buddhism is a deconstruction of self, and all mental states are flowing transitions with no unified self tying them together, then why is 'nirvana' not pure dis-integration? madness?
    Either all Buddhist philosophy is a pure crock (not the case, in my opinion) or there is some sort of unified self or unifying force that 'ties it all together'--which would be God or Spirit or Brahman--exactly what Buddhism explicitly denies, but which it implicitly implies.

    1. I think we're on the same wavelength here, Michael O'Donnell, regarding the possible misstep in Buddhism. Your comment reminds me of what I say about how the emergence of the autonomous self results in alienation, in the first section of "The Psychedelic Basis of Theism" (link below, if you're interested).

      Indeed, Buddhist detachment seems like a form of madness, but it's the same form that should afflict the scientist and every other rigorously objective person. The more objective we are, the more alienated we should feel and that should lead to the existential emotions (horror, angst, dread, loathing, etc). Why instead are Buddhists supposed to overflow with compassion? How does compassion sit well with detachment and with knowledge of natural reality, as opposed to egoistic delusion and ignorance? I find all of this quite mysterious.

  5. Hi Benjamin-

    I have really been enjoying your insightful blog since I discovered it recently. With that said, I believe you have mischaracterized traditional Buddhism here and are thus addressing a straw man. I think your critique is valid for a modern, naturalized or secular Buddhism, but not for the traditional Buddhism of the Pali Canon (Theravada), Mahayana Sutras, or Tibetan Vajrayana.

    I think this mischaracterization stems from a misunderstanding of Anatta and your cherry picking of the teaching of IA. The Buddha did not teach that there is no-self. This is a common mischaracterization. The Buddha taught that certain aspects of experience are not-self. The distinction between no-self and not-self is a crucial one.

    As you are aware, the mind, the body, and even consciousness (along with the other 5 aggregates) are not the self. However, there is a self. The self is Buddha-nature, the eternal aspect of experience in which all other phenomena arise. This Buddha-nature, sometimes called Tathagatagharba or Dharmakaya is the essential aspect of reality.

    Buddhism has a vast swath of teachings, thus it is important to not take any single teaching out of the context of the others as you have done with IA. While you do not mischaracterize IA itself, you have removed it from it's important metaphysical context.

    Traditional Budhists do not subscribe the the belief that the naturalized human experience is the only modality of experience. In other words, there most definitely are higher perspectives available. What you characterize as 'self-alienation' is better described as alienation of the conventional human perspective for the attainment of higher perspectives.

    There are many stories in the Buddhist Sutras and Tantras of Bodhisattvhas and Enlightened beings with psychic and supernormal powers. They have a very different worldview which you have not taken into consideration.

    To the Buddhist, reality is more akin to mind, as in the capacity to know, experience, and intend. Within mind, there is an infinite potential for experience.

    I am willing to provide you with primary sources if you would find that helpful.

    1. Thanks for your clarifications. I don't claim to be an expert on Buddhism, but I'm pretty sure it's controversial what traditional Buddhism actually teaches, which is why there are multiple Buddhist sects and numerous ways of assimilating those teachings in different cultures.

      There's also a semantic issue here. What you say in your third paragraph makes Buddhism sound like the mysticism of the Upanishads. As I understand it, ultimate reality in Buddhism is beyond the subject-object distinction, so it makes no sense to speak of it as a higher self. In fact, the Buddha was wary of personifying ultimate reality, since that would make for egoistic temptations.

      I agree that while nirvana is negative in that the ego is barred from experiencing it, it's supposed to be positive in that it involves a union with an ultimate reality that's timeless and free from suffering. But I think traditional Buddhism distinguishes itself from Hinduism by its atheism, which is its denial that ultimate reality is personal. Then again, I suspect there are Buddhist sects here or there which teach all of the variations on these themes. I'm more interested in synthesizing some Buddhist teachings with existential cosmicism, based on my critique of the former.

    2. I agree that there are semantic issues over how the word self is used. You are correct in saying that ultimate reality is beyond subject-object distinction. A more skillful phrasing on my part might be to say that when clinging to all things which are not-self ends, what is left is Buddha-nature. Like you say, calling that 'you' or not is semantics.

      Here's a link by a highly respected monastic and translator of the Pali Canon who affirms that the Buddha taught not-self, as opposed to no-self:

      The key point, and what I'm trying to argue against in your article is this mischaracterization:

      "Enlightened Buddhists don’t transcend nature in the sense of reaching a supernatural vantage point overlooking the whole universe, but merely discover an alternative natural way of life."

      Escaping the cycle of rebirth does not imply an extinction of experience. "One" attains the higher perspective which is that of Buddha-nature itself; mind free from obscurations caused by clinging. However, as reality is more like mind than matter from the Buddhist perspective, obscurations don't merely apply to conventional psychology. Obscurations apply to how you relate to the "physical" world itself. That's why it is written about that monks attain supernatural powers (Siddhis) such as levitation, etc. I'm not arguing the veridicality of this, but this is the worldview.

      The conventionally enlightened "You" can die, but experience does not end. The Buddha taught against the view of annihilationism, traditionally called Ucchedavada.

      If talking about Traditional Buddhism is too controversial, one needs only to look at modern Tibetan Buddhism, which is living traditional Buddhism really. The traditions within it are rife with supernatural aesthetics, meditations on god aspects, stories about other realms, etc. Tibetan Buddhism is polytheistic if anything. Interestingly, the Gods themselves have not attained enlightenment, which is why they are still bound to form.

      Most Buddhism(s) are not the secular, psychological tool-kit you see here in the West. To say that Buddhism and Existentialism are two sides of the same coin is a mischaracterization of the Buddhist big picture, in my opinion.

      Thank you for hearing me out. Great blog.

    3. It sounds like you're focusing on Mahayana Buddhism, whereas I'm focusing on the more naturalistic Theravada kind.

      When I say that Buddhism can be compared with existentialism, again I'm focusing on Theravada Buddhism, and that kind of Buddhism does indeed seem to be more like psychology than religion. There is no single "Buddhist big picture." As your article points out, the Pali canon doesn't answer whether a self exists or not, so it's left to interpretation. Thus, as a non-Buddhist my approach Buddhism is somewhat eclectic, since I compare only some aspects of Theravada thought and practice to existentialism. If I misrepresent certain kinds of Buddhism, my comparison may not be useful to those Buddhists. At any rate, I think Buddhism should be interesting to existentialists, whereas existentialists have built more on Christianity.

    4. An excerpt for you from the Samadhanga Sutta (Theravada -- Pali Canon):

      "If he wants, he wields manifold supranormal powers. Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one. He appears. He vanishes. He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting crosslegged he flies through the air like a winged bird. With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful. He exercises influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds. He can witness this for himself whenever there is an opening."

      "If he wants, he recollects his manifold past lives,[3] i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus he remembers his manifold past lives in their modes and details. He can witness this for himself whenever there is an opening."

  6. Great text overall. What I think is missing to make Buddhism stands out is a deeper analysis of the nature of Duhhka, or suffering. In Buddhism, suffering is caused by ignorance. Ignorance of what? Well, that what the practice is aimed at figuring out. Dukkha could be seen as consciousness waiting to understand itself. It is something that is not yet seen. Once that consciousness reveals itself onto itself, there is a rise in the level of awareness, a lowering of suffering and a lowering of the sense of separateness with the world. Dukkha is like little Christmas gift waiting to be unwrapped. So, this whole process of life is a process of cosmic understanding. There will always be Dukkha as this is what drive this whole universe. So, the person on the path to awakening isn't working on unwrapping the Dukkha that this person carry. As while Dukkha is at the origin of the sense of self, we don't have any ownership of it. The process of understanding being selfless, it will simply unravel itself in whatever direction seems to lead to more underderstanding. Hence, discussing about morality in Buddhism is indeed quite different that the way it's done conventionally in Western philosophy as it is acknowledged that there is no absolute morality but only relative morality. So, speaking and acting in a way that lead to a better unravelling of Dukkha, no matter where that Dukkha is to be found, is what stands as morality in Buddhism.

    1. Your explanation of suffering is interesting, but it seems to lead you into a teleological account of nature. You're saying that suffering is meant to be unraveled through self-awareness, that that's the purpose or destiny of suffering. Suffering is a means to its dissolution. This reminds me of Kazantzakis's Saviors of God, which I talk about here: