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Notions Of Selflessness In Sartrean Existentialism And Theravadin Buddhism

4133 words - 17 pages

Notions of Selflessness in Sartrean Existentialism and Theravadin Buddhism

ABSTRACT: In this essay I examine the relationship between Sartre's phenomenological description of the "self" as expressed in his early work (especially Being and Nothingness) and elements to be found in some approaches to Buddhism. The vast enormity of this task will be obvious to anyone who is aware of the numerous schools and traditions through which the religion of Buddhism has manifested itself. In order to be brief, I have decided to select specific aspects of what is commonly called the Theravadin tradition as being representative of Buddhist philosophy. By choosing to look primarily at the Theravadin tradition, I am by necessity ignoring a vast number of other Buddhist approaches. However, in my view, the Theravadin sect presents a consistent Buddhist philosophy which is representative of many of the major trends within Buddhism.

In this essay, I shall briefly examine the relationship between Sartre's phenomenological description of the "self" as expressed in his early work (especially Being and Nothingness) and elements to be found in some approaches to Buddhism. The vast enormity of this task will be obvious to anyone who is aware of the numerous schools and traditions through which the religion of Buddhism has manifested itself. In order to be brief, I have decided to select specific aspects of what is commonly called the Theravadin tradition as being representative of Buddhist philosophy.

Several comments should be made about this choice. First of all, it should be emphasized that the scope of this essay is such as to only be able to examine Buddhism as a philosophic system with psychological implications. Buddhism is, of course, much more than that. It is a religion. It should, therefore, be remembered that my description of Buddhism is an intellectualization of an extremely subtle religion which was designed to be properly understood only through direct spiritual experience. Secondly, Buddhism is a religion of many sects which differ from each other in various manners. By choosing to look primarily at the Theravadin tradition, I am by necessity ignoring the viewpoints of a vast number of schools which are considered Buddhist in nature. In my view, the Theravadin sect presents a consistent Buddhist philosophy which is representative of many of the major trends within Buddhism.

Sartre's method for explaining his position on the "self" is the phenomenological one, utilized before him by Husserl and Heidegger. Phenomenology may be defined as the descriptive analysis of subjective processes. It differs from psychology in that while psychology sets up causal or genetic laws to explain subjective processes, phenomenology merely describes. Sartre points out the intentionality of consciousness (a process earlier described by Husserl and Brentano). Consciousness is always consciousness of something. For Sartre, there exist non-conscious beings...

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