Buddhist Existentialism: from anxiety to authenticity and freedom

Buddhist Existentialism: from anxiety to authenticity and freedom

by Robert Miller


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This book provides an outline of the Buddhist shunyata principle (the inherent emptiness of all phenomena), and presents a Western philosophical base by which to logically support its integration into the western mindset. Buddhim and Western philosophy are surprisingly compatible. Buddhist Existentialism outlines the influence of existentialists, such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and introduces us to the ideas of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780980502206
Publisher: Shogam Publications
Publication date: 04/15/2008
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Dr. Robert Miller has an MA in Philosophy from Edinburgh University. He did postgraduate research at Cambridge University for a Cambridge M.Litt. on themes in existentialism and Zen Buddhism, and also practiced Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen center. He came to Monash University on a scholarship to do a Ph.D on themes in the philosophy of Kant, religion, and ethics. Since 1990 he has been teaching Philosophy full-time at RMIT.

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Existence itself is not hung up.

– Allen Ginsberg

WE WILL BEGIN by focusing on the meaning of the doctrine of shunyata as developed in Nagarjuna's (243–300 AD) Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy and consider its potential benefits for our wellbeing, enlightenment and re-enchantment. T. R. V. Murti maintains that the Madhyamaka philosophy, with its key concept of shunyata (usually translated as voidance, emptiness, nothingness, openness) is the central philosophy of Buddhism. Most scholars regard Nagarjuna as the most important Buddhist philosopher and a figure in the history of Buddhism second only in importance to Gautama Buddha (563–483 BC) himself. So we are dealing here with fundamental Buddhism.


Some people will say there is something even more fundamental in Buddhism, and that is the philosophy of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. However, it can be argued the idea of shunyata (emptiness, voidance) follows logically on from the Four Noble Truths and so is crucial to the Eightfold Path. This can be explained as follows. The First Noble Truth tells us that all ordinary life in the world is full of duhkha (usually translated as dis-ease, disquiet, troubles, conflict or suffering). The Second Noble Truth tells us that the cause is tanha, which might best be translated as 'grasping' — an unwise grasping and clinging that has both an intellectual (or cognitive) and a passionate (or affective) component.

The affective component refers to our emotional and feeling states, our states of emotional grasping, desiring and wanting and being attached to those wants. An emotional dependency, a clinging and craving, is implied. We normally have an attachment or addiction to possessing and holding securely our various objects of desire in the vain hope of making them stable, permanent and thereby reliable as sources of happiness. We cleave to the objects of desire with a kind of desperation, mistakenly believing we really need them or that we absolutely must have them if we are to be happy and at peace in life.

The cognitive component refers to our intellectual attempts to grasp at the nature of reality in this or that theory or belief-system and so capture and possess reality securely in concepts. One wants to have 'the true view' (as we like to think) or 'the true concept' of reality, make the true judgement and so possess and master the truth of life, holding fast to that object as permanent, fixed and reliable for our happiness and peace of mind.

However, the basic characteristic of human life is that neither the objects of desire nor the objects of thought actually are reliable in the way we would like to think they are. Rather, they are all vulnerable to the ongoing flux of life: to impermanence, to change, to destruction, to doubt and uncertainty, to general defeat and decay. In short, they are not permanently or reliably grounded or fixed. They are not well-founded, as we might say. They are insecure. No wonder then we are so insecure! Our deep disquiet (duhkha) in life arises because we try to rely for peace of mind and happiness on these inherently unreliable and insecure objects that can't really be relied on for peace and happiness and that tend to divert and distract us from what can be relied on for peace or happiness (we will come to that shortly).

Because we try to grasp at everything to fixate it — passionately and intellectually, affectively and cognitively — we find we are forever being frustrated by the fleeting movement of life itself, the groundless flux, the changes everything goes through. We are frustrated and dissatisfied, made restless or discontent, because life and reality does not yield itself to our egocentric grasping ways, our quest for permanence in an impermanent world. Our life in this world will just not stay fixed! (Strictly speaking, not even from one minute to the next). This kind of fretful frustration with the natural movement of life is again duhkha. And of course ordinary life is full of it.

We really need to get it into our head that everything flows and changes and learn how to become in harmony with this flow and change — or let's say, learn how to become in harmony with becoming.

The Madhyamaka philosophy is a teaching that shows us that our belief-systems and the intellectual judgements we make about the nature of self and reality, or about what ultimately really is, are all impermanent and changeable over time because they are all inherently questionable, dubious, non-provable, unfixable, insecure — or in a word: empty (null and void). This emptiness or voidance of all theoretical and conceptual constructions or simulations of reality is summed up in the notion of shunyata. Everything about the nature of reality mediated by language and thought and taken to be a truth is shunyata — voidable, voided.

The aim of this philosophy is not to leave us utterly bereft of all thought or views, or lacking in concepts or beliefs about reality, for then we would not be able to function! Rather, the aim is to empower and enable us, by way of our reasoned inquiry and self-developed critical understanding, to be non-addicted or non-attached in relation to our language, thoughts, views, concepts and beliefs about the nature of reality. In other words, just as it may be said to be en-lightened (or wise) to have desires if the desires do not have us, as it were, so we may have language, thoughts, views, concepts and beliefs, if they do nothave us. That is, if they do not so possess and obsess us that we are emotionally attached or addicted to them and can't shrug them off or drop them. We won't be such emotionally troubled addicts as long as we are able to critically 'see through' and readily 'let go' of our habitual thoughts and desires in a special act of meditation (that we will get to in due course).

This idea fits neatly with the Noble Truths. For the Third Noble Truth is that the Buddha has found a cure for our suffering and that this cure is non-attachment to the objects of thought and desire. No wonder Buddhism is often referred to as 'the way of non-attachment'. The Madhyamaka applies this non-attachment in a very radical manner to language, human views, belief-systems about the nature of reality, thought-forms and judgements.

The Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna is a classic example of what is called a critical dialectic. It reflects critically, systematically and radically on virtually every kind of theory or view that human beings have ever taken of the nature of reality. It probes and undermines all such theories by raising various arguments and pertinent questions against them. It shows no inquiring rational person can take any theory of reality to be true, dogmatically fixed or self-certain. For our various belief-systems are, for example, overtly or subtly self-contradictory (internally incoherent) in some way, or they require leaps of logic beyond what can be properly or rigorously established or proved. In short, a little critical reflection shows our belief-systems are full of holes. This is where the light gets in.

In what follows, I will refrain from going into the actual content of Nagarjuna's own critical dialectic and text and the specific arguments he uses to undermine all views. There are two reasons why I am refraining from this here. First, because the arguments as they actually occur in the text are quite difficult to summarise and explicate in our modern setting. They are expressed in rather obscure ways for the Westerner and layperson to follow. For many of the views criticised were views popular in Nagarjuna's own time and place, but they are not so familiar or relevant to most of us today. Secondly, I think much the same thing — the radical undermining of addiction to language and belief — can be presented in an easier way for Westerners and laypeople to follow. For we have in our own philosophical tradition, comparable arguments that arrive at a similar result. It will be easier for us to look to those more familiar philosophical arguments to arrive at 'detachment from views,' rather than at Nagarjuna's own specific and complex arguments.

We will look at those more familiar Western arguments in the next chapter, so I will reserve the actual argumentation that can effectively undermine and dispose of the validity of views until then. For the time being, I will focus instead on the general intent lying behind critical dialectics and consider how and why this kind of approach is relevant to the cessation of duhkha. In other words, I will attempt to show in this chapter how and why such a critical dialectic can have a soteriological (a liberating, beneficial and enlightening) effect on our lives.


The central theme here is that we ourselves, with our 'unskilful' ways of fixated believing and desiring, create our own existential problems in everyday life. As American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) once said, 'existence itself is not hung-up,' by which he meant to imply we create our own existential hang-ups. We are, so to speak, our own worst enemies in this regard. We generate our troubles in our 'monkey-minds' and then project them on to life and reality, all the while thinking that they are inherent to reality — or inherent to what I will call Existence Itself. We claim that life and reality, the external factors in life, are to blame for our troubles, as if Existence Itself were hung-up or as if the hang-ups are somehow built-in and therefore unavoidable in human existence. Existence Itself, however, is void (shunyata) of hang-ups. This is the basic Buddhist idea. The hang-ups are only in our imaginary and dubious interpretations or conceptual constructions of life and reality, our fundamental reality-assumptions, superimposed by us onto life and reality. The troubles exist only in and by those constructs or assumptions; the language games we play with reality. But we can undermine them. Good!

One might put it that the 'gospel' (the 'evangel' or good news) in the Buddhist teaching is that, if we can undermine and let go of the dogmatism and fixity of our linguistic constructs and assumptions so we cease clinging to them, or cease grasping at life and reality through them, we can learn to dissolve our hang-ups, our troubles, our disquiet. We will then be, as it were, restored to the aesthetic quality (of feeling and mood) of Existence Itself, as it is 'originally,' in itself, as it is, devoid (shunyata) of such constructs and hang-ups.

Our hang-ups are duhkha. We are here talking about the means to the cessation of duhkha — and that is the Buddhist goal. That is the program. Let us see if we can get with it.

We can restore ourselves to the aesthetic quality of Existence Itself and let go of our hang-ups or so-called troubles in life, if we can deeply realise that our conceptual constructs of reality have no real or fundamental validity — or fixed 'self-existence', as the Madhyamikas also put it — that is, if we can realise that they are not basic or stable or necessary to reality but are only a kind of network of linguistic assumptions we superimpose on it. After all, people in different times and places project different assumptions. They are contingent, changeable and variable. To say that our human thoughts and beliefs are not inherent to reality, or that they are not 'the given truth' as such, is to say they are not absolute or essential. (This antiessentialism is a point we will return to when we discuss existentialism in chapter three).

However, human beings tend to believe that their conceptual constructs and metaphysical worldviews are absolute, valid, true and essential. They too quickly assume and take it for granted that the belief-systems have some self-existence, some absolute right of existence and validity of their own, rather than just being something that exists only relative to ourselves as our own cultural language, mental projection, and questionable bias — a reflection of our own partial, fragmented, culturally, personally or linguistically skewed perspective on life and reality. Making this move, we fall into delusion, which here means taking our various biased beliefs and perspectives for the absolute. The Madhyamaka teaching and way of meditation aims to liberate and save us from precisely this delusion.

Our hang-ups are duhkha; our deep existential disquiet is created by living in delusion. Delusion is being attached to the imaginary metaphysical constructions we superimpose on Existence Itself as if they were true and absolute. If we could just drop our delusion, we could drop our duhkha. This dropping occurs in shunyata meditation, where we dissolve away our thought-centred disquiet and so bring ourselves in clarity and openness (shunyata) to a new kind of inner wellbeing. Peace gathers. However, it seems there is one supreme stumbling block to this, a major barrier that curtails our freedom to finding this kind of release.

It is as follows. Believing as we do that our conceptual constructions are both essential and given as true, and so have a kind of absolute self-existence of their own, we believe that we are unable to void them. We think they are true, therefore, we feel we are basically stuck with them; wedded to them whether we like it or not. From this kind of standpoint, it is simply impossible for us to see that they are variable, violable, voidable, that they can be cancelled, annulled and shown to be null and void — shunyata. Also, probably we don't realise that it might be a good thing to violate and void them, because we are so used to relying on them for our sense of self-identity, security and orientation to life.

The block to our self-liberation from self-torment is that we are stuck in the habit of believing in our so-called knowledge and truths. We trust them, so much so, we take our interpretation to be the real itself — ultimate, non-deceptive and non-delusional. We assume, with hardly a second thought, that we are not comprehensively deceived by our particular conditioning in this or that cultural neck of the woods. We ignore the possibility we are mistaken in holding so fast to our convictions about our self and our life, about others and about metaphysical reality. We cling to our beliefs and won't let go! Now that is grasping. That is attachment. That is holding on with a mind like a tight fist!

The aim of the Madhyamaka is to get us to release our grip. It provokes us to stop now and reflect critically and insightfully on all our various thought-constructions to show that they are not essential truths, that they do not have ultimate validity or absolute self-existence. They are not simply 'the given' with regard to reality. This can be done by showing that our belief-systems are all highly questionable as such, either because they are self-contradictory or inconsistent, or they involve us in unwarranted leaps of logic, or they are views that have no more grounds or arguments in their favour than directly opposite views.

Taking it a stage further, the dialectic reveals not only that no theory or view of the ultimate nature of reality is given as essential or true, but that no theory or view stands out as being more probably true than any other. Nothing we can say about the ultimate nature of reality is more probably correct than anything else we might say about it — even if we may happen to strongly feel or intuit it is — for we could be radically deceived and mistaken in even our strongest feelings and intuitions. After all, people from diverse cultures have had very different feelings and intuitions about the true nature of things. The strength of feeling or the assurance of intuition is quite simply not a proof of truth.

The critical logic of such reflections can bring us to a kind of profound silence about metaphysics, about reality. We may find we are struck dumb as it were; intelligently dumbfounded in the moment of critical awareness, surprised by doubt and suddenly opened to the absolute mystery of immediate existence here and now. Realising that all conceptual constructions, thoughts and words, are ultimately imaginary and speculative, we see that Existence Itself is void (shunyata) of these structures; they are not inherent to reality. Therefore, we gain some detachment from them, dissociate from them and put them in abeyance. Existence Itself is suddenly restored to its purity or original wonderment for us. And then, to borrow a famous phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), we might put it that, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent'. Well, at least temporarily!


Excerpted from "Buddhist Existentialism"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Robert Miller.
Excerpted by permission of Shogam Publications.
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Table of Contents

Invitation to the Reader,
1 Voidance and Existence Itself,
2 Radical Scepticism and Suspense,
3 Existentialism and Re-enchantment,
4 Resplendent Being and Poetic Play,
5 Holistic Beauty and Love,

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