Why The Existential Buddhist?

Why is this blog called The Existential Buddhist?  Why not something else? After all, there aren’t a lot of references to existential philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, or Kierkegaard on this site, nor is there a lot of hyphenated existential jargon.   So why The Existential Buddhist?

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:

  1. What is one supposed to do with this human life?
  2. What does it mean to live authentically?
  3. What does it mean to be responsible for one’s life?
  4. What is our relationship to the natural world?
  5. What is our relationship to our fellow human beings?
  6. What does it mean to be ethical in a world without a Creator or Judge?
  7. 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)

11 Replies to “Why The Existential Buddhist?”

  1. Fantastic cartoon! Sums up that feeling of losing the present to the past.

    The idea of observing the body-mind complex was never more clear to me than after reading I Am That>. The world’s existence simply being your own personal observation is a radical idea. Descriptions aren’t enough, but Nisargadatta whets your appetite for the actual experience.

    Steve Pavlina experiments with this idea through what he calls subjective reality.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking, influential words.

    1. Akshay,

      Glad you liked the post! I’m not a believer in the mind-only school of thought within Buddhism, by the way. I don’t think that the world’s existence depends on my personal observation (except in quantum terms). When my personal consciousness ceases the universe goes on. There is a world independent of our personal consciousness, but bodies, consciousness, and world are seemlessly integrated, and the only way we know the universe is through our consciousness.

      1. Seth,

        Thanks for your reply. Discussing philosophy, zen, and reality always bring this George Bernard Shaw quote to mind: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

        It’s hard to understand how Nisargadatta, Maharshi and Krishnamurti saw the world. I believe they spent their entire lives trying to show us. Your last statement, “the only way we know the universe is through our consciousness”, echoes their thoughts and mine. Personal observation is encompassed within that consciousness and can be used as a tool to view the world. If we assume others are doing the same, we accept that everyone is creating of reality what they see from their lens.

        The world independent of our personal consciousness is our playground and each of us brings our personal, historical and contextual consciousness to it.

  2. This “existential Buddhism” you describe is the type I embrace also. It is cool to read such a good description of it!
    I must say, though, I have never been too attracted to the Zen philosophizing about Buddhism. But I am not versed enough to describe why.
    To much “being here and now”, “seeing true reality”, “Buddha Mind”, “Mindfulness” and such. Maybe it is the all-to-quick jargonism or maybe the idealism. It sounds like you are in the Zen circles but does your philosophy also make you a bit unorthodox in Zen circles?

  3. Sabio,

    I’m unorthodox wherever I go. I’m usually the most conservative person when among a group of liberals, and the most liberal person when among a group of conversatives. If I waited to join a group of people just like me I’d have to wait a very long time. I find I’m well tolerated, however, most places I go.

    More seriously, I find the Zen group I sit with very congenial. I don’t mind bowing and chanting — although the meaning of these activities for me may (or may not!) be different from the meaning it holds for other people in the group — and I don’t feel any pressure to believe in any particular set of beliefs. It is just a pleasure to have a regular place to sit with others every week as an anchor for my practice. The meetings with teachers are sometimes helpful to my practice. The Dharma talks are usually a pleasure to listen to. I guess I don’t find the Zen vocabulary off-putting in the same way that you do. I rather like it, because I believe I have a direct referent in my own experience for what most of those terms mean. Zen tends to be very experience-near and (comparatively) not too hung up on theory and metaphysics. So I tend not to worry, for example, whether “original nature” is truly “original” or not, because I understand the experiential referent for the term. Why make a problem where none exists?

    You might try reading Zen interpreters like Charlotte Joko Beck for Zen without jargon.

    For many years Toni Packer was the “teacher” I was most comfortable with. Toni was to be Phillip Kapleau Roshi’s Dharma heir, but she jettisoned Buddhist ritual, (and later Zen ritual) and, inspired by Krishnamurti, developed her own non-method and her own role as a non-teacher. She is the guiding spirit at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry in Springwater, NY. There are no Buddhas there, and no chanting, incense, robes, or bowing. Some folks have referred to her stripped-down minimalist way as “Quaker Zen,” which may have been intended pejoratively, but which I kind of like as a description. You might enjoy Toni! You can discuss things with her like you would with a friend, without any pressure to believe in any particular belief system. She only asks that you find things out for yourself.

  4. I’ve lived in upstate NY most of my life and never heard of Toni Packer. It’s amazing how online interactions connect people offline. Thank you for the rec.

  5. Great stuff- THANKS! You’ve inspired me to share a humble offering in the form of unsolicited advice: Get comfortable with uncertainty, as in NOT “knowing” anything (with the thinking mind). Be cozy with randomness and probability, rather than trying to actually answer the exquisite questions you have proposed here. When life comes to practical matters, simply work with and make decisions based upon whatever seems most probable to you. The quantum world, which composes every sub-atomic particle of every thing, being and person operates in this fashion. Many theorists speculate that there is much more beyond that. As a tediously debated example, consider the evolution/creation/intelligent design thing: Personally, evolution seems to be the most probable likelihood by far, but I’ll never put down a creationist for sticking to her or his cherished belief, even if their belief involves labeling “non-believers” as “infidels”. To each, their own.

    Thanks again!

    1. Glad you liked the post, Jeff.

      The Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn used to admonish his students to keep “Don’t Know Mind.” It looks like you’re making the same suggestion.

      By the way, once on a radio program an interviewer misheard the words “Don’t Know Mind” and asked Seung Sahn what this “Doughnut Mind” was all about. Seung Sahn liked the mis-hearing “Doughnut Mind” because, after all, doughnuts have emptiness at their center!

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