Hopeless and Absurd - Existentialism and Buddhism
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 desire for meaning in life is the ultimate spoiler of existence. Much like Camus' Sisyphus, we can only escape suffering by letting go of hope. Whether it is hope for a better position in society, or hope for a lover's companionship, the attachment to desire ignores the eventual reality of impermanence. Death assures our mandatory individuality. Though we may accumulate relationships and material possessions throughout the course of our earthly life, we are nonetheless subordinate to the limits of time.
Mortality stipulates ultimate loss. The only way to live free of crippling "dread" and "anxiety" is to free ourselves from expectations as well as ego-driven involvement in the affairs around us. As with Buddhism, existentialism does not require estrangement from society. Both suggest that actions will reflect the free choice of the individual. Though individuals tend to seek an exterior justification for their choices, the existentialists regard freedom as the unavoidable responsibility of complete independence. In this manner, the Buddhist tradition also acquits so-called "human nature" of blame for infractions on the part of the individual. The only way a person can act is by directing them self in a...