For me, Buddhism is a way of living that addresses existential concerns rather than a dogma that addresses religious concerns. I’m not primarily interested in gods, cosmologies, mythologies, devotions, prayers, or rituals. I am interested in existential questions that matter to how we actually live our lives. Questions like:
- What is one supposed to do with this human life?
- What does it mean to live authentically?
- What does it mean to be responsible for one’s life?
- What is our relationship to the natural world?
- What is our relationship to our fellow human beings?
- What does it mean to be ethical in a world without a Creator or Judge?
- How can one justify one’s actions when religion has lost its authority?
We find ourselves thrown into existence in a world shared with others, moving through time towards sickness, old age, and death. What are we supposed to do with this life? Maximize sensual pleasure? Exert power over others and control them? Create aesthetic beauty? Worship and serve God? Demonstrate care and concern for others? Make money? Discover truth? Philosophies and religions squabble and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Which one should we adopt? The one our parents believed in? The one claiming to be the word of God? The one that’s most consistent with science? Is there a meaning inherent in life? Can one dwell in groundlessness?
Buddhism offers a way to explore existential issues using an experiential process rather than relying on dogma, creed, or disembodied logic. One feels one’s way through questions by living them out as koans. Meditation deepens our experience of them. We sit silently with questions, listening, feeling, breathing. We might ask “What does it mean to be fully present in this moment?” or “Who is the I that is sitting here with this question?” We watch the ripples and undercurrents in our minds as we inquire. We are not looking for “answers” but to penetrate to the heart of what it means to be an inquiring, wondering being. In doing so we rediscover awareness, our Buddha nature, our place of clear seeing. We discover a process that is the activity of an integrated body/mind/heart without an Imperial Self that controls it. We discover our vibrant connection to things as they are.
The Buddha suggested many times that we set aside metaphysical questions and focus on addressing the source of our existential uneasiness and dissatisfaction. He told us to be a lamp unto ourselves. For me, this is the core of Buddhism. For many, maybe most Buddhists, Buddhism is simply a religion with all its rituals, devotions, cosmology, celestial beings, and attempts to earn merit and a better afterlife. I’m not opposed to ritual and devotion, and it can be fun to speculate about cosmology and what happens after death. But that’s not what interests me the most about Buddhism. That’s why this blog is called The Existential Buddhist.
(Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson)