Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Zen Buddhism and Existentialism

I've always found Existentialism fascinating, although I don't agree with what seems to be a consistently negative view of the world and life that comes from it (if you take the literary output as any indication).  I guess I get past that and remain attracted to Existentialism because some of its underlying principles seem to echo Zen Buddhism.

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.

Another similarity is that both systems stress epiphanies as fundamental to a true understanding of the world around us and our place in it. In Zen Buddhism, we have moments of satori or kensho. In Existentialism, there is the 'Existential Moment' in which a person comes face to face with the absurdity of life.  In both cases, it is a kind of enlightenment. It changes us. The difference seems to be that for Zen Buddhists this epiphany can lead to freedom and a sense of serenity, while Existentialists gain a sense of freedom but with a very stiff chaser of angst. It may also be true to say that Zen Buddhists believe we gain knowledge from satori and kensho, while the Existential Moment doesn't seem to impart knowledge. It's merely the way the Existentialist comes to terms with reality; it's about accepting existence, not learning about it.

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!

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I often think Existentialists are just depressed Zen Buddhists!" - I loved this:) I have also felt there is something so much in common between the two...I think they all started with the same mood and the same questions, similar perception of the world, same psychological type, I guess...

Pete said...

Glad to hear this has occurred to someone else!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to make more research and let you know:)

Anonymous said...

I think you didn't get important points about existentialist, both are not the same here is why. zen tries to take away your impulses by saying that doing nothing or going somewhere is the same so is better to do nothing. existential are all about impulses and hardship since they go for authenticity, in other words is like a walking zen but taking risk and still be in the moment. If you want to see a documentary talking about existential characters go see Grizzly Man the director is pretty much trying to get say that in the film.

Pete said...

All very true...although I don't think I was trying to say they are the same. ; )

Anonymous said...

This article talks about nietzsches view on buddhism and it's great :) I think it address's annoymous's statement about buddhism being focused on "doing nothing"

http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk/buddhism.htm

annie smith said...

If you feel this way perhaps its best to discover the work of Victor Frankl he is amazing and has a truly inspiring story and finds the positive in this philosophy .

Unknown said...

Watch any Woody Allen movie (especially Crimes & Misdemeanors) and you'll get the jist of existentialism.