Notes from BPU Sri Lanka - Third Year

Existentialism (lectured by ven. Vanaratana) 24th of June, 2011

Here is no recording on 24 of June, 2011. If someone has the recording on that day, please give it to ven. Sarana. 

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B.P.G 302  Lectured by ven. Wannarathana, recorded by ven. Mon monk Nai Suriya, 1st of July, 2011

               05. 08. 2011

               12. 08. 2011

      The main development of existentialism happened during and after the Second World War. During this war people saw the great suffering that life brings and they started to doubt their Christian beliefs. This was one of the main causes for emergence of existentialism.

            French based term, existentialism, does not designate a philosophy of a single philosopher. There are many members who belong to this philosophical school. Generally, Danish Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is known as the founder of existentialism. Existentialism can be considered as a turning point of the modern philosophy. According to other philosophies, man should exist with a view to reach the essence of life. Existentialists rejected this idea and emphasized, that existence is more important than the essence of life, as some people are not able to reach the essence of it during their life time. This is undermined by the fact, that all personal attempts may become futile within a minute due to unexpected circumstances. During the Second World War large number of people died unexpectedly. They died without reaching their goals. In such an environment, existentialists pointed out, that it was better to give priority to survival than to seek essence of life. Therefore, the central proposition of existentialism is “existence precedes essence”.

            Many existentialists do not agree upon what is meant by the word 'essence'. By 'essence' is generally meant 'a nature of a thing'. Existence of a man is controlled by its essence. There are some difficulties with regards to the definition of the word 'essence'. Most existentialists do not agree upon the reality of essence, that could be clearly summarized into a system. However, a precise definition of existentialism would be, that existentialism emphasizes individual existence and just then the personal essence. Existentialism attempts to direct our attention to own self as individuals. They believe, that for everyone there should be freedom in choice, because that helps human beings to create their own nature. It is one of their major attempts, to make individuals free in their own path. Basically, existentialists believe, that man is the highest animal.

            Who can define himself through life, he has no meaning without life. Existentialism believes in life and the fight for it. While fighting for life, each man must face important and difficult decisions. “They stress the fact that every individual is only a limited human being. Each must face important and difficult decisions with only limited knowledge and time in which to make these decisions. Human life is seen as a series of decisions that must be made without knowing what the correct choice is. They must decide what standards to except and which ones to reject. Individuals must make their own choices without help from external standards. Humans are free and completely responsible for their choices. Their freedom and responsibility is thrust upon them and they are “condemned to be free”.”[1]  Ambalaṭṭhika Rāhulovāda Sutta mentions, that one should do actions, that do not lead to own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both. People's “responsibility for actions, decisions and beliefs cause anxiety. They try to escape by ignoring or denying their responsibility. To have a meaningful life one must become fully aware of the true character of the situation and bravely accept it.”[2] Every person's precious life time is spent by changing this or that essence. However, without life there can be no meaning. The search for meaning in existentialism is the search for one's self.

            “According to Samuel Beckett, existence is determined by chance. This is the first basic existentialist theme.”[3] “A second existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, and a fear or dread that is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the emptiness of human existence. This theme is as old as Kierkegaard is within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence. Existentialism agrees with certain ideas in Judaism and Christianity, which see human existence as fallen from grace, and humans have lived in suffering, guilt, and anxiety. This dark and depressing view of human life leads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of well-being, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence.”[4]

Existentialism B (lectured by ven. Vanaratana) 2011 “Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world”[5]

            The third point is absurdity, which means meaninglessness of human life. It means, that we have not come to fulfill any mission in this life, we came to this world without any aim. According to some existentialists we have come to this world without willingness. An existentialist would say: “This is my existence, but the absurdity of this existence is its meaninglessness.” The exact meaning of human existence is impossible to be explained as absurd. According to existentialists, everyone of us is thrown into time and place by birth. But the question is why. Also we may question, why everything is not under the control of human being. Kierkegaard's philosophy of absurdity of life is comparable to the story of Sysiphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. This essay written on this topic by Albert Camus concludes,[6] "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."[7]

                                                                              Religion and Existentialism  

           Religion is just choice, that makes one united with his/her essence. Existentialism is a kind of philosophy introduced by various philosophers of various attitudes to faith, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Pascal, Albert Camus etc. of who some believed in God's existence and some did not.  Søren Kierkegaard was a passionate protestant and supporter of Luther King's teaching. But Sartre was also a believer in God in the beginning, though World War II and the constant suffering of the world drove him away from his belief.

            According to many existentialists, the greatest victory is the realization of absurdity of life and accepting it. In short, one has to live a miserable life for which one may not be endowed with a great force. If any supernatural being, creator of world exists, then why do we exist? If such a being does not exist, why don't we commit suicide and make our suffering shorter? Existentialists do not accept the concept of rebirth and as such some of them argue, that there is no life after death.

Buddhist attitude to Existentialism (lectured by ven. Vanaratana) 2011

            In existentialism man occupies a unique position among all beings, because he has the ability to work for his own enlightenment. In contrast to that in Buddhism man is considered as the highest in the hierarchy of beings because of the power he has to cause his own welfare and welfare of others.

            According to Buddhism, man is not a sinner who should pray for his own salvation. The position and ability of man with regards to spiritual attainments cannot be challenged by any supreme being. However, according to some existentialists, man is a product of the creator God and thus he is unable to exceed the God. That is the main cause of suffering. In Buddhism, which is non-theistic, man is given complete freedom with regards to the path for his salvation. In existentialism, no man can be the God, while in Buddhism no God, even the highest Brahma, cannot become a Buddha. It is man, who has the power to develop his brain capacity together with wisdom, enabling him achievement of the highest good, that is Nibbāna.

            The Buddhist concept of man is different from that in other religions. In theistic religions man is helpless without God. It is only in Buddhism, where the man is given responsibility for his own salvation, provided the fact, that it is rare to be so fortunate and be born as a human (dullabhaṃ ca manussatthaṃ).[8]

            Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic teaching. It is based on realism. The reality of the world is impermanence (aniccā), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and soullessness (anattā). In Buddhism these three doctrines are well explained in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta of Saṃyutta Nikāya.[9] According to it, man suffers due to the attachment to things, while the one who understands this reality is explained thus: “Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: 'It's liberated.' He understands: 'Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.'”[10]

            In Buddhism, the whole teaching on impermanence is that all things are conditioned entities. Everything changes in a rapid succession (uppādavayadhammaṃ[11]), which is the reason for suffering. According to theistic existentialists, without the God in case of atheists the reason for their suffering is not given. This rapidly changing impermanent world leads man to suffering, and as such existentialists see it as a place full of suffering without understanding the real cause of it. In Buddhism dukkha covers a wide range of all sorts of suffering, while in existentialism the only kind of suffering is the one connected to feeling. In Buddhism also illness, pain, insecurity, unpleasantness, anguish, anxiety, unhappiness, mental conflicts and unsatisfactoriness are given. In Pāli there are certain words to point out the main kinds of suffering: soka (sorrow), parideva (lamentation), dukkha (pain), domanassa (grief), upāyāsa (disturbance). The concept of suffering or unsatisfactoriness includes insecurity of the whole of our experience.

            Suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) as described in the Pāli texts has a wider meaning than the one given by existentialists. It has been used to give a physical meaning as well as psychological meaning to the existential suffering, namely birth (jāti), old age (jarā), death (maraṇa). It is clear, that Buddhism has analyzed suffering systematically.

            Explaining the dukkha, the Buddha continued as: “And this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, old age is suffering, disease is suffering, death is suffering, separation from what is dear is suffering, association with what is not dear is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering, in short, the grouping of five aggregates is suffering.”[12] This is very precise statement, full of meaning, covering all experience of human life. Firstly, Buddhism describes the physiological suffering and just then the psychological suffering.

            The doctrinal aspect of suffering, according to Buddhism, is the five aggregates of grasping. As existentialists explain, suffering is the nature of the human kind. According to some theistic existentialists, suffering has come to the world as a result of the divine creation.

BONUS: Buddhism as a Way of Practice - Source of part of ven. Vanaratana's note on Pragmatism in Buddhism (from “Essential of Buddhism” from ven. Pategama Gnanarama, free to download from )             Now, with this background in mind, we can probe into the Buddhist canonical texts to see how far it is pragmatic and utilitarian and not as elaborated in these two systems of philosophy, but in the general application of the terms in common use. Buddhism is pragmatic, because it envisages a practicable way for practice. It is utilitarian, because it enunciates  only  what  is  useful  to  practise  for  the  realisation of the goal. Time and again the Buddha proclaimed the  utilitarian  and  pragmatic  values  of  the  doctrine  with emphatic terms. In the very first discourse, where the Four Noble Truths are introduced for the first time, it is stated that those truths have  three  circles  (tiparivaṭṭa)  and  twelve  modes  (dvādasākāra). The knowledge of each Noble Truth is one of the three circles amounting to four modes. Then with regard to the First Truth, it should be comprehended (pariññeyya) and  has  been  comprehended  (pariññāta).  The  Second should be abandoned (pahātabba) and has been abandoned  (pahīna).  The  Third  should  be  realised  (sacchikātabba)  and  has  been  realised  (sacchikata)  and  the Fourth should be developed (bhāvetabba) and has been developed (bhāvita). The analysis of these twelve modes would substantiate the fact that the teaching of the Buddha is not a mere philosophical hypothesis, but a doctrine to be understood  and  practised.  Therefore the knowledge and practice of these twelve modes are known as ‘seeing things as they really are’ (yathābhūtañāṇadassana). The  ethical  summary  of  the  Teaching  found  in  the Dhammapada illustrates its pragmatic nature more explicitly:

“Abstention from all evil,                                  (Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ --
cultivation of good                                           kusalassa upasampadā 
and purification of one’s mind                           Sacittapariyodapanaṃ — 
— this is the Teaching of the Buddhas”.              etaṃ buddhānasāsana).    Dhp. 183

Then again it is stressed:
“Striving should be done by yourselves,            (Tumhehi kiccaṃ ātappaṃ — 
the Tathāgatas are only teachers.                      akkhātāro Tathāgatā 
The meditative ones, who enter the way,           Paṭipannā pamokkhanti — 
are delivered from the bonds of Māra”.             jhāyino māra bandhanā).              Dhp. 276

          Mere recitation of the scriptures without practice is criticised  and  the  person  who  engages  only  in  recitation  is compared to a cowherd who does not derive the benefit of rearing cows:

“Though much he recites the Sacred Texts,        (Bahum’ pi ce sahitaṃ bhāsamāno — 
but acts not accordingly, that heedless man        na takkaro hoti naro pamatto 
is like a cowherd who counts others’ kine.          Gopo’va gāvo gaṇyaṃ paresaṃ — 
He has no share in the holy life”.                       na bhāgavā sāmaññassa hoti)       - Dhp. 19

         In the same tone, it is said that the wise, by degrees, little by little, from time to time, should remove their taints, just as a smith removes the dross of silver. (Dhp. 239).  In Buddhist ethical conduct, until one realises the supreme state, one is called a moral  trainee  (sekha), because  he  is  still  on  the  path  of practice. Only after the realisation of the objective he is called a moral adept (asekha). The Buddha’s call to practise the Dhamma is again found in the Dhammadāyāda-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya:

            “Meditate, O monks, under these foot of trees and in these remote lodgings lest you repent afterwards”.

            In the Alagaddūpama-sutta, it has been stated categorically with the Parable of the Raft that the doctrine should be taken as a means to an end and not to be taken as an end in itself. Herein, we are reminded of William James, who asserted that theories should be instruments to solve the  problems  of  day  to  day  life.  Buddhism  speaks  of  its threefold characteristic: Learning (pariyatti), Practice (paṭipatti) and Realisation (paṭivedha). These three are related to one another.

            There would not be practice without learning and realisation without practice. The self-same pragmatic approach is seen in the description of Gradual Discipline (anupubbasikkhā), Gradual Action (anupubbakiriyā) and Gradual Training (anupubbapaṭipadā).

[1]    From
[2]    Ibid. (taken from the same place as above)
[3]    From
[4]    Ibid.
[5]    From
[6]    For reference, see .
[7]    See “Contemporary Thought” by Joan A. Price, Infobase Publishing, 2008, p. 140
[8]    As is said in Pakiṇṇaka Gantha Saṅgaho – Sīmavisodhanīpāṭha, “Dullabhañca manussattaṃ, buddhuppādo ca dullabho; Dullabhā khaṇasampatti, saddhammo paramadullabho’ti.”
[9]    Saṃyutta Nikāya – Khandhavaggapāḷi – 1. Khandhasaṃyuttaṃ – 6. Upayavaggo – 7. Anattalakkhaṇasuttaṃ
[10]  Translation from Pāli from “The Connected Discourses of the Buddha – A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya” by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA USA, 2000, pp. 902, 903. Here is the translated text as it is in Pāli: »Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako rūpasmimpi nibbindati, vedanāyapi nibbindati, saññāyapi nibbindati, saṅkhāresupi nibbindati, viññāṇasmimpi nibbindati. Nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati. Vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti.«.
[11]  This word appears only in Dīgha Nikāya – Mahāvaggapāḷi – 2. Mahānidānasuttaṃ – Attasamanupassanā and in Aṭṭhakathā related to this section.
[12]  A translation of this Pāli text: »‘‘Idaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ – jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ – saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā [pañcupādānakkhandhāpi (pī. ka.)] dukkhā.« (Saṃyutta Nikāya – Mahāvaggapāḷi – 12. Saccasaṃyuttaṃ – 2. Dhammacakkappavattanavaggo – 1. Dhammacakkappavattanasuttaṃ.)