Existential Buddhism: Authentically Buddhist?

Every now and again I find myself investigating the relationship between my Buddhist practice — what I’ve been labeling, for better or worse, Existential Buddhism — and what I suspect the Buddha actually taught.  My personal path values presence, relationship, compassion, authenticity, flourishing, and living a fully-realized life.  There are significant elements in Buddhism, however, which lean in a somewhat different direction — towards celibacy, monasticism, asceticism, non-attachment, and the extinguishing of desire.  Is my Buddhist practice really Buddhism at all, or is it some hodgepodge of Buddhist, Existentialist, Scientific Rationalist, and Perennial Philosophic ideas that have gone through some sort of intellectual blender to create (at best!) a kind of neo-or quasi-Buddhism?

In thinking about this question, I revisited a piece I wrote almost a decade ago [ref] Segall, S. (2003). “On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist.” In Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. Albany: SUNY Press. [/ref], and found the questions and answers I struggled with then still meaningful today.  I presented the issues in a dialogue between two imaginary characters — Bertie, who represented my rationalist side, and Ananda, my Buddhist side.  Their dialogue went something like this:

Bertie:  I think you’re being dishonest with yourself.  I want to return to an earlier question as to whether what you’re espousing is really Buddhism or not.  I think what you’re doing is adopting some Buddhist ideas about mindfulness, emptiness, impermanence, and non-self that happen to dovetail with Western ecological insights, quantum physics, cognitive science, phenomenology and existentialism.  I think you’re melding them together, however, into a philosophy that’s no longer authentically Buddhist at its core.  The aim of your philosophy seems fundamentally different from the aim of the Buddha’s philosophy: Your philosophy is about engagement with life and living one’s life in a philosophically justified way.  The Buddha was interested in disengagement from life and the ending of rebirth, not about finding a meaningful life in the world.  In many ways your belief system seems more Jewish than Buddhist: it celebrates and blesses creation and places the highest value on ethical life.  In contrast, Buddhism seems disenchanted with creation and seeks annihilation.


Ananda:  And I think you’re mistaken in thinking there’s this thing called “Pure Buddhism,” and that I’m adulterating it with Western ideas.  There’s no such thing as Pure Buddhism.  Buddhism has always been a philosophy in active dialogue with pre-existing cultures and philosophies.  Tibetan Buddhism is the end product of a dialogue between Indian Mahāyāna and Tantra, Chinese Ch’an, and Pre-Buddhist Tibetan BÁ¶n beliefs and practices. Zen is a distillation of the dialogue between Indian Mahāyāna and Chinese Taoism filtered through the lens of Japanese culture.  What could be more different than the spare aesthetic of Japanese Zen and the colorful profusion of Tibetan Vajrayāna?  Which is more truly Buddhist?  The Buddha’s original teachings, to the extent that we can discern what they were, arose as a protestant-like response to Brahmānic practice, and incorporated much of the pre-existing Vedic cosmology and prescientific understanding of the natural world into itself.  Western Buddhism is just the latest version of an ongoing philosophical and historical dialogue, and it’s only natural that it be a dialogue with the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as with Scientific Rationalism and Existentialism.


Bertie:  Perhaps, but I still think you’re evading my main point: Your philosophy is a philosophy of full engagement with the world and Buddhism is a philosophy of withdrawal from the world.  You’ve turned Buddhism on its head to suit your own purposes.


Ananda:  I don’t think so.  I think the real Buddhist message is mindfulness in each moment, non-identification with the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, cravings and aversions that arise in each moment, and the realization in each moment of the transience and interdependence of all phenomena.  This mindfulness and insight leads to a life in which one no longer pursues self-aggrandizement, permanence, the accumulation of goods, or the pursuit of transitory pleasures; as a consequence, one lives compassionately and wisely in harmony with the world doing what each situation requires.  It doesn’t require withdrawal from the world, but the release of one’s grasp on it.  That’s Buddhism.

Many cultures of awakening derive from the Buddha’s teachings — diverging from them in some places, incorporating new elements in others  — all of them deserving to be designated as a ”Buddhism.”  Existential Buddhism is one of many authentic branches on the Buddhist tree.

Ananda thinks so, too.

Bertie, on the other hand, still wonders.

6 Replies to “Existential Buddhism: Authentically Buddhist?”

  1. I think the real Buddhist message is mindfulness in each moment, non-identification with the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, cravings and aversions that arise in each moment, and the realization in each moment of the transience and interdependence of all phenomena.

    I did a little doubting about ‘Mindfulness & Driving a Car’ in my post here. But far better than my post, are the two links to Chapman and Wallis great articles on Mindfulness — “the real Buddhist Message”. I’d love to hear Bernie or Ananda respond to those posts.

  2. Sabio, its hard to know what to make of the Wallis article, since I think Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness seems just fine to me: perfectly comprehensible, and anything but an empty signifier. To me, the Wallis article is just empty and pointless invective –animus without evidence. Many of his statements are exaggerated or simply erroneous. It would be a waste of my time to deconstruct it sentence by sentence — I would hardly know where to even begin. My own personal experience with mindfulness, as a practitioner, as a former MBSR instructor, as a psychologist who has used it as a therapeutic adjunct, and as someone who has read and analyzed hundreds if not thousands of research articles on the subject, is that mindfulness is life-transforming in just the way that Kabat-Zinn and others have described it. It certainly has been convincingly transformative in my own life. I wonder what has turned Wallis so sour on it?
    As far as David Chapman is concerned, his own understanding of what he insists on calling “Consensus Buddhism” is also erroneous in many ways. He clearly has not studied for any length of time with any of the great vipassana teachers, and I find he mischaracterizes their teachings to the point of unrecognizable caricature. For example, he recently wrote about how charnel ground and death meditations are not a part of Western Buddhism, but Ruth Denison had me doing just that on my very first vipassana retreat, and Larry Rosenberg has written an excellent book on the subject, as have other major Western Buddhist writers. Again, I don’t want to dissect David’s mischaracterizations of Western Buddhism line by line. It would seem a terrific waste of my time… but there you have my opinion in brief.

  3. @ Seth
    I am sorry that both articles are “empty, erroneous, vindictive, mischaracterizing and useless”. This points to a large epistemological problem for all of us. For example:
    a) You know far more about Buddhism than I will ever begin to know
    b) Likewise for Wallis and Chapman.
    c) In all my ignorance, I have no way to know whose knowledge is more accurate, more complete, more detailed.
    d) You devoted much of your life and identity to MBSR. I don’t doubt that it was very powerful for others and yourself.
    e) I know it is very difficult to be objective about things we have committed huge time and identity. That goes for me, David Chapman, Mr. Wallis and you.
    f) I can’t help but think you Chapman and Wallis all sincerely believe what you write.
    g) I have my intuitions about what directions I favor.
    h) We all know that intuitions are highly untrustworthy but often all we have.

    The dilemma should be very clear. Fortunately it is not a dilemma that will stop my making money, eating, drinking or feeding my kids. 🙂

    Thank you for your acerbic assessments. I am sure they will affect my sea of confusion in ways I can’t imagine over time.

  4. Sabio, I don’t doubt David’s sincerity, or his knowledge of his own particular Buddhist school. I also think he is reasonably well versed in the history of Asian Buddhism in the nineteenth century and how it was affected by its encounter with modernity, as well as the history of its transmission to the West. What I disagree with is his construct of what he has labeled “Consensus Buddhism.” I think he’s constructed a straw man which he then proceeds to knock down — but the straw man only exists as his own construct, one that construct doesn’t map very well onto the Western Buddhisms I know best — the vipassana movement and American Zen. I think he could probably make the points he wants to make without mischaracterizing others. I’m also sure he doesn’t think he is doing any mischaracterizing.

    Wallis, on the other hand, seems merely spiteful and malicious. How else could you characterize his hyperbolic description of mindfulness as a “neo-Carnegian-quasi/pseudo-Buddhist-qua-self-actualization hall-of-mirrors?” That’s not argument — it’s invective. I did an internship with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program back in 1996. I would match the depth of his understanding of the Dharma — and the way he manifests that understanding in his life — with anyone out there. There’s nothing “pseudo” or “quasi” about what he has been offering Western society, and the value of his program. and similar programs derived from his, has been validated over and over again in a vast research literature. That’s not to say that every claim made by every practitioner is true. I’m sure if I searched the popular literature and blogosphere I could find plenty of unsubstantiated claims. Bit it offends my sense of fairness to tar the core concept and its original promulgators with that brush.

    Sorry to have created so much cognitive dissonance for you! It reminds me of my experience as a novice therapist. I had supervisors and master clinicians I admired suggest very different strategies and techniques to employ in therapy. When I was in the office with a patient, I could almost heard their voices in the background, all giving different advice. With all that background noise, it was a wonder I could ever hear the patient at all!
    I know you’re not a great believer in dialectical/dialogical thinking, but after a while you discover what’s of value in each of these imperfect voices and learn to integrate them is some way to make the therapeutic process your own. I’d guess you probably went through something like that yourself in integrating and sorting through your allopathic and alternative medicine experiences. Its the same with the Dharma – many noisy and competing voices, but the path you eventually construct becomes, hopefully, uniquely your own.

  5. @ Seth
    I may be more sympathetic to dialogical thinking than you imagine. Indeed, in my life I have watch this phenomena of contrast opinions shaping some fit within myself. Whether it is the best or not is another question. We are sloppy creatures. I appreciate your input to my slop! 🙂

    Curious, have you met Glenn Wallis?

  6. Never met him. Just looked up his bio. Oh, he’s that Wallis! He is w-a-y more knowledgable about Buddhism than I will ever be … very impressive. I still don’t like his attitude though — or his opinion.

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