Friday, November 4, 2011


"Now when I say 'I,' it seems hollow to me." Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.

"I am still persuaded that the hypothesis of a transcendental subject is useless and disastrous....Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being...Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being---like a worm...Man is a useless passion." Sartre, Being and Nothingness.

"For poetic vagueness and linguistic extravagance, this is in the best of German traditions...It is as though one were to turn Dostoevsky's novels into philosophic text-books." Bertrand Russell on Sartre in Wisdom of the West.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Why should writers read Sartre today? What can we learn from his work and ideas?"
One might say that Buddhism begins where existentialism, particularly Sartrean existentialism, ends. Or breaks off. In the West, I think European man's experience as expressed by existentialism can be regarded as a first step on the path that Shakyamuni Buddha walked 2,500 years earlier. No, I am not saying that Sartre was Buddhist. From what I can tell, Eastern philosophies and religions never appeared on his radar screen. But the similarities between Sartre's description of nothingness and the Buddhist definitions for emptiness or the void are simply too striking, numerous,  tantalizing, and begging for comparison to ignore. The Buddhist experience is simply the human experience. (If, as Sartre wrote, "Existentialism is a humanism," then the same can be said of the Buddhadharma.) Therefore, the wisdom that one finds in the Dharma will naturally arise wherever human beings are, East or West, in the distant past (See Marcus Aurelius's Meditations), the present or the future. These claims are broad and sweeping, I know. So let me unpack them more slowly.

 Jean-Paul Sartre, a genius, was many things, among them the winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, which he refused to accept. His gifts as an artist (novelist, playwright, essayist) and thinker (he was truly a "public intellectual" and activist) are such that he defies conventional categorizations. Heavily, the influence of Husserl, Heidegger, and (later) Hegel (to name only a few) erupts on his pages. He is both the poster boy for existentialism and an original if sometimes flawed phenomenologist. As an existentialist, his journey to the discovery that consciousness is nothingness takes him through Nietzsche (God is dead) and Kierkegaard (in a world of such uncertainty, man must make a "leap of faith"). But it is as a phenomenologist critiquing and challenging Husserl's Transcendental Ego (which many later phenomenologists regard as a kind of cop-out, a slip back into Berkeleyan idealism; Sartre himself felt Husserl was unfaithful to his own conception of phenomenology, fell into merely being a phenomenalist, and in his account of human existence made it bodiless and sexless, problems that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty corrected by presenting consciousness as embodied) that he achieves an insight perfectly compatible with the Dharma: namely, that shūnyatā (emptiness, the void) is the fundamental reality for all phenomena, and this revelation makes possible our freedom at any moment. What Sartre experienced on the most intense personal level (dramatized in his novels and plays), and as a phenomenologist, is that the self, personality, the I is merely a construct spun from words and concepts---like any other object onto which we project our layers of  interpretations or "conceptual paint," as Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it. In The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction (Volume Two), Herbert Spiegelberg writes:

           "While Sartre admits that whenever we reflect upon an experience we always find it associated with an experiencing 'I,' he claims that in the unreflected experience, for instance that of reading a book, all that is given is the book and its characters but without the reading 'I'...Sartre's main reason for denying the 'I' transcendental status is that he finds it to be unnecessary and hence useless, a reason which sounds more like the logic of Occam's razor than like phenomenology."

 It also sounds, I should note, like David Hume's denial of the self's existence. What all this means is that there is no original text for anything, as Sartre's character Roquetin realizes in the novel Nausea. There are no certainties. There is no safety net. For Sartre, this nothingness, this emptiness, is initially the occasion for despair or nausea. How shall we act---how shall we live---in a world where everything is so unsubstantial? Where the bourgeois (white and black and otherwise) lives blindly---and inauthentically---within the  presuppositions of the Natural Attitude, engaging in "bad faith" because it believes its fictitious constructs to be real. As Roquetin observes in Sartre's novel: 

        "And just what is Antoine Roquetin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquetin...and suddenly the 'I' pales, and fades out. Lucid, static, forlorn, consciousness is walled-up; it perpetuates itself. Nobody lives there any more...the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer...I understood that I had found the key to Existence, the key to my Nausea, to my own life. In fact, all that I could grasp beyond that returns to this fundamental absurdity...The world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence..."

In Sartre's cycle of novels, Roads to Freedom, the character Mathieu Delarue comes to a similar conclusion: "Everything is outside...Inside, nothing not even a puff of smoke, there is no inside, there is nothing. Myself: nothing. I am free."

 Given the nothingness of consciousness, we are condemned to be free in a world that, sans God, is necessarily absurd, where the only meaning we find is the meaning that we ourselves have the courage to create. As a young man in my late teens and early twenties, the existentialist vision exerted a powerful influence on my thoughts, and on the way I interpreted what was happening around me (the Civil Rights, then Black Power Movements; that influence is surely the reason I made Chaym Smith such an existential character in Dreamer). Our social world---and especially the world of racial experience---abounds in examples of Bad Faith and essentialism (racial, gender, nationalistic, ethnic), where men and women flee from reality (for example, that racial identity is an illusion); from the fact that "Existence precedes essence"; from facing the fact that, moment by moment, we choose our lives and the meaning of our lives (the final meaning for which will not be determined until our death when we can act no more, when we become, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, no longer Subjective Aims but instead Eternal Objects.)

 But where the experience of nothingness for Sartre led to despair and nausea, the experience of shūnyatā for a Buddhist is the occasion for joy; it is a guarantee that we can change and eventually realize liberation from suffering. The lack of ontological foundation that leads to Sartre seeing the world as absurd, leads in the East to two thousand years of robust Buddhist humor based on that very absurdity, especially in the Zen traditions. (In Being and Nothingness, Sartre puts it this way: "It follows that my freedom is the unique foundation of values and that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values. As a being by whom values exist, I am unjustifiable. My freedom is anguished at being the foundation of values while itself without foundation.") And where Roquetin feels that in an absurd world where there is no reason for doing any one thing rather than another, a Buddhist guided by the Eight-Fold Path and Bodhissatva vow knows that "one thing" will cause suffering to oneself and others while "another" will not. For Buddhism, man cannot be a "useless passion," for the Dharma teaches us how to understand desire and passion, and how to master them, as opposed to desire and passion exerting mastery over us.

Sartre's philosophical vision is rife with problems. Spiegelberg points out that, "In general Sartre is apt to begin with descriptive analyses but to push them in the direction of hermenutic interpretations far beyond what immediate inspection would seem to warrant." He had a fondness for paradoxical formulations, some of them probably influenced by Hegelian dialectics. His embrace of Marxism (with its assumptions and presuppositions) is often a war with his positions as an existentialist. His personal idiosyncrasies often impair his analyses---for example, Sartre's famous "look" or gaze that fixes the Other has about it the tincture of being a threat; why not instead, Spiegelberg notes, use for analysis the "look" or gaze one receives from a friend or loved one? (And another experience Sartre was fond of using as an example was "shame.") One might say, as I have on occasion, that the Thing (en-soi)---or things of the world---frightened Sartre with their opacity and viscosity and his feeling that they would completely overwhelm consciousness (pour-soi). By contrast, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Sartre's competitor of sorts) does not present problems of this kind, and is a much more careful, reliable, and convincing phenomenologist.

 Much has been published in recent decades about the thematic overlaps and interplay between the philosophy of existentialism and the philosophy of Buddhism. That comparative study still remains fertile ground for exploration.

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