Existentialism and Zen


Recently I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “Nausea” in German. It was published in its original French version in the year 1938 and introduces some of Sartre’s main philosophical ideas. People  sometimes ask if Zen Buddhism is a kind of nihilism or existentialism, as the zen adept often speaks of emptiness (shunyata), the non-substantial nature of anything and anybody. So let’s have a look at the protagonist Roquentin’s view on life. I translate from the German version (“Der Ekel”, Rowohlt 1963).

“Nothing has changed, but everything exists in a different mode. I cannot describe it. It is like nausea and still its the opposite; finally an adventure befalls me, and when I ask myself, I see that it is me whom it befalls, that I am I and that I am here … something will happen.” (p. 6) “I don’t know if the world has suddenly shrunk or if it is due to me that all sounds and forms suddenly combine to such a unity. (…) I go home after an empty Sunday – and it is there!” (p. 62) “Here I sat, bend forward, my head downwards … and suddenly I had this enlightenment. It was breathtaking. Never before had I felt what it meant: to exist. (…) One cannot say two words without speaking about this existence and in the end still doesn’t touch it. When I believed that I thought of it, I thought of nothing, I had an empty head or at best one word in my head, the word: “to be”.  (…) If one had asked me what this existence is, I would have answered in good faith that it is nothing, at best an empty form that attaches to things from the outside without changing their nature.” (p. 113) This culminates in: “When I say ‘I’ now, it seems to be unsubstantial … I am forgotten … Suddenly this ‘I’ becomes paler and paler, and now it is over – it dies down. Clear, immobile, abandoned the mind (consciousness) rests between the walls; it extends into eternity. (…) This is the significance of one’s mind: to know its own needlessness.” (p. 178)

What Sartre’s protagonist describes is an awakening experience similar to reports we get from Buddhists who talk about their own enlightening moments. Not being captured by Buddhist terminology, there is no doubt for Sartre that they are happening to an unsubstantial “I”. They come all of a sudden, they create an impression of a unity of all phenomena whose nature is empty, they shake one’s life to the bone while the (logic, idea-connecting) thought process actually comes to a halt.

The characteristics “clear”, “immobile” and “eternal” could directly stem from those Mahayana sutras like the Mahaparanirvana Sutra that deal with the Tathagata, the Buddha-Nature, and speak of an atman (self) as correcting the prevalent belief of Buddhists in an anatman (non-self). The self here is the true nature of phenomena without being a self in the sense of an “I”,  it is the antidote to the danger of falling into a kind of nihilism when sticking solely to the  concept of anatman. It just means that the interpreters of the dhamma have detected a logical problem and defect in the Pali Canon or, if you want to believe that, certain adepts have left out an important teaching of Shakyamuni himself. A lot of Buddhists make the mistake of justifying rebirth with an underlying stream of life or existence that they derive from the concept of Buddha-Nature but see as somehow  identical to their personal existence which actually ends with braindeath. But Buddha-Nature knows no “re”, no coming back, as it is eternal and devoid of any individual signs (which makes the whole reborn tulku and lama business in Tibet a make-belief Buddhism). “Behind the existing which stumbles from one present to the next, without past, without future, behind those sounds which molder from day to day towards death, the melody remains the same, unchanged.” (p. 184)

Sartre’s protagonist was sitting when it first happened to him – but in a position that you will not find recommended in any handbooks for meditation. Still his view on life changed, and the basic nausea or disgust that he felt made room to a non-distinguishing, all-encompassing moral when he later on in this philosophical novel is the only one to console a guy in a library who has touched and stroked the back of some male pupils while teaching them and was immediately scolded and offended by the other adults in the room. The protagonist knows that he is “meaningless for all eternity” (p. 137) and naturally does the most ethical thing that this moment requires. In this act we can see the struggle ended that had troubled him before: “I feel responsible and guilty. (…) My thoughts, that is I; therefore I cannot stop thinking. I exist because I think … and cannot stop me from thinking. (…) I myself extract me from nothingness on which after all I put my hope.” (p. 108) But whereas his doing speaks otherwise, the protagonist still considers all sense-giving efforts of mankind to be fruitless and an illusion. “Nothingness was only an idea in my head (…) it hadn’t come before existence, it was an existence like many others and appeared after them.” (p. 143) In the aftermath of enlightenment, rationally analyzing it, in a style that we know of koan, even what was detected or experienced before is doubted, is destroyed, to go farther, to find the pure deed and doing itself. Ideas and concepts of the mind are not to be trusted, but with existence comes a certain responsibility.

Sartre developed a kind of insight that could be called “Dogen without Buddhism” or “Secular Buddhism without Buddha”. By acknowledging the “I” as an individual struggling for meaning and insight that are not there per se, he allows this “I” to see through itself by its needless mind and detect a clear, unmovable, eternal entity (Dasein). Enlightenment is manifested in the acts of the awakened which blast the common limits of people’s ethics.

%d bloggers like this: