Perhaps the most telling symptom of existentialist philosophers is their ever-divergent theories on the fundamental characteristics of human life and their steadfast refusal to assign an explicit meaning or reason to our existence at all. Contrary to criticism which therefore labels the movement cynically nihilistic, existentialism justifies life with reasoning similar to that of Zen Buddhism. Specifically, the notions of hopelessness and absurdity can be gleaned from Buddhism in a manner helpful to the understanding of existentialist viewpoints on the same.
Though these two perspectives elicit no fewer contrasts than comparisons, their juxtaposition highlights the workings of the futile human quest for meaning.
One key factor in the existentialist framework is the acceptance of hopelessness. As Camus presents metaphorically in The Myth of Sisyphus, there simply is no real goal towards which we strive. Though humanity is characterized by consciousness, we can assume no more noble or consequential meaning than other animals. Our lives are a series of undergoings which do not merely affirm the gradual completion of our "human-blueprint." In Camus' presentation, it is the perpetual acceptance of the present moment that exposes the possibility of contentment. "For if there is a sin against life," says Camus, "it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life (Camus, 153)."
This "contentment" is analogous with the primary principle of Zen practice. The essential purpose, in fact, of Zen meditation itself is to free the individual from attachments entirely. Buddhism theorizes that the...
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...ialism, the same success lies in the acceptance of absurdity. When the individual realizes that the eternal quest for transcendence is unending by nature, abandonment is not necessary, but instead, appreciation of the merit of the immediate. Buddhist monks create intricately detailed sand mandhalas and, when finished, destroy the masterpiece without remorse. This "impermanence" characterizes the beauty of human existence despite the ultimately temporary nature of human life.
Alpert, Dr. Richard/(Ram Dass). Grist for the Mill. New York: Celestial Arts, 1988.
Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian, 1989.
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