Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Zen Buddhism and Existentialism
In fact, I often think Existentialists are just depressed Zen Buddhists!
For example, both systems rely on the experience of the individual as a road to truth. Of course, I suppose existentialists might disagree with the idea of there being 'truth' of some kind out there. As a corollary to this, they both reject the role of the supernatural or canned 'moralities' as substitutes for our own direct perception of reality.
Another similarity is that both schools of thought seem to believe our reality is very much driven by what we make it. I guess the major difference along these lines is in how we deal with that reality. Zen Buddhists feel that we create much of our own sorrow through undisciplined thinking. So, by disciplining our minds, we can avoid delusion and shape our reality in a positive way, although we are not actively trying to root out unhappiness. For Existentialists, I get the impression they feel there is a certain sorrow or emptiness innate in life and/or that we have to work against the emptiness of existence to create happiness or serenity.
Maybe these differences - despite some of the similarities it has with Zen Buddhism - is why Existentialism seems so depressing and bleak. Again, I guess I'm going mainly by what I find in novels written by the movement's leaders (e.g., Camus, Sartre). The moment of 'enlightenment' - for them - leads to darkness or nausea (to steal the title from Sartre's first novel) not something innately positive. Not to say it's hopeless for them, they do seem to feel you can create that meaning through passionate action.
So while there are a lot of similarities that strike me, I guess there are also as many differences. This makes the comparison that much more interesting for me. Of course, I'm no scholar when it comes to Existentialism so I may have this all wrong. But these thoughts struck me as I was reading a short story by Sartre (The Wall). More on that in a later post!