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Philosophy of Religion

Notions of Selflessness in Sartrean Existentialism and Theravadin Buddhism

Sander H. Lee
Keene State College

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ABSTRACT: In this essay I examine the relationship between Sartre's phenomenological description of the "self" as expressed in his early work (especially Being and Nothingness) and elements to be found in some approaches to Buddhism. The vast enormity of this task will be obvious to anyone who is aware of the numerous schools and traditions through which the religion of Buddhism has manifested itself. In order to be brief, I have decided to select specific aspects of what is commonly called the Theravadin tradition as being representative of Buddhist philosophy. By choosing to look primarily at the Theravadin tradition, I am by necessity ignoring a vast number of other Buddhist approaches. However, in my view, the Theravadin sect presents a consistent Buddhist philosophy which is representative of many of the major trends within Buddhism.

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In this essay, I shall briefly examine the relationship between Sartre's phenomenological description of the "self" as expressed in his early work (especially Being and Nothingness) and elements to be found in some approaches to Buddhism. The vast enormity of this task will be obvious to anyone who is aware of the numerous schools and traditions through which the religion of Buddhism has manifested itself. In order to be brief, I have decided to select specific aspects of what is commonly called the Theravadin tradition as being representative of Buddhist philosophy.

Several comments should be made about this choice. First of all, it should be emphasized that the scope of this essay is such as to only be able to examine Buddhism as a philosophic system with psychological implications. Buddhism is, of course, much more than that. It is a religion. It should, therefore, be remembered that my description of Buddhism is an intellectualization of an extremely subtle religion which was designed to be properly understood only through direct spiritual experience. Secondly, Buddhism is a religion of many sects which differ from each other in various manners. By choosing to look primarily at the Theravadin tradition, I am by necessity ignoring the viewpoints of a vast number of schools which are considered Buddhist in nature. In my view, the Theravadin sect presents a consistent Buddhist philosophy which is representative of many of the major trends within Buddhism.

Sartre's method for explaining his position on the "self" is the phenomenological one, utilized before him by Husserl and Heidegger. Phenomenology may be defined as the descriptive analysis of subjective processes. It differs from psychology in that while psychology sets up causal or genetic laws to explain subjective processes, phenomenology merely describes. Sartre points out the intentionality of consciousness (a process earlier described by Husserl and Brentano). Consciousness is always consciousness of something. For Sartre, there exist non-conscious beings independent and external to consciousness. This realm of non-conscious beings is referred to by Sartre as the"in-itself" while consciousness is referred to as the "for-itself."

The "in-itself" appears to consciousness and is the object of consciousness, but is transcendent in the sense that it is external to consciousness. Consciousness is not only consciousness of the in-itself, though, for consciousness by definition is also awareness of consciousness. It should be emphasized that consciousness does not give its object being, it merely reveals its being without affecting it.

From this point, Sartre goes on to show that the in-itself which is revealed to consciousness in its appearance is nothing but appearance, it has no essence which is hidden behind its appearance. Being-in-itself merely is, it exists, neither actively nor passively, uncreated, without essence or hidden meaning. When the for-itself (consciousness) is conscious of the in-itself, the in-itself is revealed as it actually is. The only limitation on this is that the in-itself can be viewed from an infinite number of perspectives so that although a single instance of consciousness does reveal the in-itself as it actually is, it does not reveal it completely in terms of the infinite number of perspectives from which in-itself can be viewed.

For Sartre, the for-itself is never anything but the revelation of the in-itself; therefore, like the in-itself, it has no essence. Additionally, the for-itself is the origin of nothingness or negation. The for-itself is capable of recognizing the possibility of the nonexistence of the in-itself. Using Sartre's famous example, if I make an appointment to meet Pierre in the cafe at four o'clock and I arrive at four o'clock, I will look at the faces in order to discover if Pierre is there. Nothing in or of the existence of the people in the cafe itself suggests the presence or non-presence of Pierre. The realization that "Pierre is not there" comes solely from the for-itself. The in-itself merely exists, without consciousness, so that no indication of the possibility of nothingness can come from the in-itself, nothingness has its source in the for-itself.

Negation (or "nihilation") is applied to the in-itself by the for-itself and it is in this way that the consciousness is non-being. The for-itself has no essence. Only "what is not" is able to understand "what is." It is through this nihilating capacity that the for-itself is able to distinguish itself from the in-itself of which it is conscious, for the for-itself always retains the possibility of negating the in-itself. While the in-itself is complete in its existence, the for-itself is forever lacking or desiring due to its isolation and non-being.

Thus, consciousness is free to create its own essence. At the same time, however, because of its lack of being, it is also responsible for its acts. When one realizes this condition, one is filled with anguish. Anguish is the apprehension which comes from the realization that one is continually faced with situations in which a choice must be made—not to choose is a choice in itself—and there is nothing to guarantee the validity of one's choices.

Out of this anguish there arises what Sartre calls "bad faith." This occurs when a person lies to oneself and thereby refuses to accept his/her freedom and the responsibility which goes with it. No one can successfully lie to himself as it is impossible to totally deceive one's own consciousness. Such a person is necessarily aware of his/her own inconsistency and refusal to take responsibility.

The individual, therefore, is continually making choices based only on this incompleteness which results from the fact that the for-itself requires the in-itself as the object of its intentionality. This incompleteness can never be overcome, the most one can do is fully exercise one's freedom on the basis of one's past history and one's projection of one's goals or projects.

Sartre's philosophy at this point consists solely of the in-itself and the for-itself which is conscious of it. The Other arises for Sartre in the effect which it has upon the for-itself. In its dealings with the in-itself, the for-itself is always subject to the object of the in-itself. The for-itself becomes conscious of the Other in the Other's ability to objectify the for-itself. Consciousness has total freedom to create its being for itself but it has no power to create its being for others. Each person has the power to objectivity every other person in any way he/she chooses. Thus, for Sartre the "self" is an illusion, a mistaken notion created by the nihilating activity of the for-itself, often in an attempt to escape the nothingness which each of us carries around within us. This concludes my brief sketch of Sartre's early philosophy in Being and Nothingness. It is, of course, no more than a sketch. Full understanding of Sartre's work can come only through a complete reading of Sartre himself. (For a fuller discussion of this reading of Sartre, see my "The Central Role of Universality in a Sartrean Ethics," "The Failure of Sex and Love in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre," or '"Sense and Sensibility": Sartre's Theory of the Emotions,' all listed in the bibliography.)

In order to make clear the similarities and differences between the Sartrean and Buddhist positions, I will now use Sartrean terms to discuss these same issues within Buddhism. To begin, it will perhaps be more profitable to first discuss content and then the approach by which this content is reached. This is because, to the Buddhist, the goal of the investigation is known from the very beginning. As we have seen, the phenomenologist is extremely intent on making no prior assumptions to color the investigation. The phenomenologist's goal is to discover (or uncover) things as they actually are, no matter how distasteful these results may turn out to be. The Buddhist, on the other hand, knows the nature of things before he/she begins to utilize any method.

For Buddhism, life is an ever repeating cycle which is best characterized by impermanence, suffering, and non-self. These are called "the three marks" and they are essential to the Buddhist's view of the world. As in Hinduism (the religion from which Buddhism originally sprang), the Buddhist believes in the ever continuing process of reincarnation. A person is born, lives, and dies in this world. Then, according to the merits and good deeds which he/she has accrued in past lives, that person is reincarnated into a form of existence which is representative of one's worth. This cycle, or wheel, is known as the wheel of samsara. No matter where one stands in the hierarchy of existence (in reincarnation terms), life is always characterized by suffering (dukkha). These sensations which seem to be pleasurable are really only aspects of suffering as all pleasure is only the result of the temporary relief of pain, and therefore, all pleasure merely sets the stage for the recurrence of pain. In this sense, then, pleasure is only a stage in the process of suffering of which it is fully a part.

Impermanence also characterizes all life. Every creature which lives is in the process of dying. The entire world is in constant flux (as Heraclitus also stated). Thus, there is nothing in this life to which one can cling. Everything goes through the process of birth, stability, decay, and breakup.

The third mark refers to the fact that there exists no self which endures throughout the life (lives) of any creature. What is commonly called a self is really only the collection of what are called the five "skandhas" or heaps. These are form, impulses, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness. As in Sartre, for Buddhism the individual is but an empty shell which constitutes its being only through the organization of experiential data. Also as in Sartre, external objects are viewed as only appearances without essences behind them. However, while Sartre holds the materialist position that external reality does exist, for Buddhism, external reality is as non-existent as the self. The objects of the world are only illusions which the individual mistakenly takes for real just as he/she mistakenly believes in his own self.

Alan Watts has suggested in his Psychotherapy East and West that "social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion."(Watts,1972, p. 62). It seems unlikely, however, that this is what is really meant by the Buddhist's renunciation of the world. For the goal of the Buddhist is not simply a recognition of "a transformed view of the physical world, seeing that world in its full relativity"(Watts,1972, p. 6); but a total release from the world of samsara in all its components. This goal is perhaps best expressed in the four noble truths: (1) all in the world is dukkha (suffering), (2) there is an origin to dukkha (samudaya), (3) there is a cessation to dukkha (nirodha), and (4) there is an eightfold path which leads to this cessation (astanga narga).

Sartre's for-itself is the subject which is empty in and of itself, but which is capable of constituting its own being by selection of desired elements both in the in-itself and in the for-itself's manner of relating to the in-itself. It is through this process of negation that the for-itself recognizes its total freedom and responsibility. A Buddhist could agree with this formulation, accepting the possibility of a subject, realizing his own emptiness, selecting elements from external reality and from the way that he/she relates to external reality in order to constitute a being of some sort. However, the Buddhist would state that in doing this, the subject is still being deceived and bound by illusions. In order to gain true freedom the subject must first realize the impermanence and illusory status of external experience. When he/she realizes this, along with the necessary relationship between contact with the illusory external world and suffering, the subject will understand that he/she is basing his supposed "freedom" on an illusion which can bring only pain.

Sartre has claimed that because the for-itself is nothing but the revelation of the in-itself, it has no essence. By giving the for-itself the power to understand the in-itself in terms of a negation which is not present in the in-itself, Sartre has opened the possibility of the for-itself creating its own unique being. This possibility manifests itself in the ontological freedom of the for-itself.

"Freedom" means a very different thing in Buddhist terms. Sartre acknowledges that the for-itself is motivated by desire for the completeness of the in-itself (see Sartre's discussion of God in Being and Nothingness). The for-itself is forever bound to the in-itself. The Buddhist realizes this and concludes that one only becomes free when desire is overcome and the attachment to the in-itself is ruptured.

Thus, the process of living is like the process of having a boil which is continually becoming more infected. Buddhist freedom consists of ridding oneself of this boil by cutting all one's attachments to this world. Where for Sartre, "freedom" means the ability to totally constitute one's own being on the basis of one's ability to negate aspects of external reality, "freedom" for a Buddhist is freedom from the restricting belief in the existence of a "real" external reality or a "real" self which experiences it. As long as one still believes in either of these fanciful constructions, one will be determined in thought and action by the power of desire. However, when one realizes the falsity inherent in any belief in the objects of the external world and the self, then one has taken a major step along the path towards ultimate freedom or liberation (moshka).

Before discussing the method by which nirvana should be achieved, I will briefly review the similarities between the content of Buddhism and those of a Sartrean existentialism. Both believe that freedom is fundamental to the activity of human beings. Both claim that freedom manifests itself only through negation or nihilation. Both see the possibility of constituting one's own being in any way one chooses (although Buddhism rejects all but one way). Finally, both view the self as an empty construction of internally deceptive activity. The major difference between the two philosophies lies in the fact that Sartre's is a materialistic approach devoid of spritual content while Buddhism posits a transcendent, other-worldly goal.

I will now very briefly discuss the method by which nirvana should be achieved. As stated earlier, the new disciple knows the goal of his/her efforts before he/she begins, while the phenomenologist does not. The new disciple has been told by the teachers what he/she is attempting to achieve, much as in western science where it is believed that if one follows an exact procedure one will get the same result each time. The disciple knows others have achieved liberation by applying certain techniques and so he/she is confident that by applying the same techniques he/she will achieve the same results.

As was mentioned earlier, the fourth of the four noble truths states that there exists an eightfold path by which the cessation of dukkha may be achieved. This eightfold path can be divided into three major categories: that of wisdom (panna), morality (stla), and concentration (samadhi). The first two steps of the path are right thought and right aspirations (intentions). These two steps fall under the category of wisdom. The next three steps fall under the category of morality. They are right speech, right bodily action, and right livelihood. The final three steps fall under the heading of concentration and are right effort, right mindfulness (sati), and right concentration. Application of the steps of this eightfold path will lead to the cessation of dukkha and the breaking of all bonds to the karmic (habit oriented) world of samara.

The method of right mindfulness (the seventh step of the eightfold path) implies the use of an introspective, phenomenological examination of one's subjective consciousness. The first major stage in this examination is that of Bare Attention. This form of meditation is called "bare" because, as in phenomenology, it involves the mere description of the subjective processes of one's consciousness. This method is utilized because one's own subjective activities may be experienced directly, i.e., without the intervention of possibly deceptive sense organs.

In Bare Attention, one simply observes the flow of mental experiences without attempting to interpret or control it. This is a passive activity as one wishes only to view psychic activity without directing it.

From the phenomenological standpoint, the reason for this passive observation of the mental flow is to be found in the goal of observing consciousness as it really is without the intervention of assumption. This Cartesian approach is the prime element of both the phenomenological description and Buddhist meditation. In meditation one is attempting, in the phenomenological style, to let the mind reveal or uncover itself as it actually is without the intervention of any outside control.

In Bare Attention, therefore, one is attempting to disclose mental images without assumption or doubt. Bare Attention utilizes a technique similar to Husserl in that all evidence must be a grasping of itself as it is in such a way as to preclude all possibility of doubt.

The Theravadin master states, "Simply examine what is going on here and now within you, what presents itself to you and how you respond to it. Examining whatever arises is living in the present." (Swearer,1971, p. 36) [Bare Attention] "is simply looking passively with full awareness and complete attention. Then we do not see things according to our ideas or interpretations, and we have pure understanding or pamma." (Swearer, 1971, p. 37)

Another phenomenological concept which plays a major role in meditation is that of intentionality. Intentionality, it will be remembered, is the concept that consciousness must always be consciousness of something. Consciousness is empty; it derives its content only in terms of its object. In Bare Attention the same process occurs. One becomes totally mindful; yet, one is not just mindful, one is mindful of something; the flow of thoughts passing through the mind. "In the light of Bare Attention focussed on sense perception, the distinctive character or material and mental processes, their interrelation and alternating occurrence as well as the basic objectifying function of mind will gain in clarity." (Thera, 1971, p. 37)

What is it that one perceives when one is meditating on the flow of consciousness? Masters state that one perceives diversity without pattern, a host of separate individual impulses, feelings, forms, and perceptions which are not unified. When not in meditation the mind attempts actively to select and organize these elements into a whole consistent pattern which is in reality merely an illusion. By observing this diversity without pattern in meditation, one comes to realize the nature of the illusion of a consistent external world and inner self. Buddhism is neither pluralistic nor monistic. It transcends this dichotomy in its reach towards nothingness, the Void.

In meditation, therefore, one actually experiences the non-existence of self and the dharmic world. One hopes to experience total freedom from attachment to the in-itself. The Theravadin master states, "Insight and understanding are always coupled with detachment. Ordinary life is characterized by attachment because we are afraid of losing the security of permanence in life." (Swearer, 1971, p. 42) "When we experience detachment, freedom is the necessary result." (Swearer, 1971, p. 33)

The result of the process of Bare Attention is the forging of the principal tool for liberation, insight (nipassana). "Insight is the direct and penetrative realization of the Three Characteristics of Existence: Impermanence, Suffering, and Impersonality. It is not a mere intellectual appreciation or conceptual knowledge of these truths, but an indubitable and unshakable personal experience of them obtained and matured through respected meditative confrontation with the facts underlying those truths...It is the intrinsic nature of Insight that it produces a growing detachment and an increasing freedom from craving, culminating in the final deliverance of the mind from all that causes its enslavement to the world of suffering." (Thera, 1971, p. 44)

While the Buddhist is aware of this goal. intellectually prior to meditation; once he/she has entered the Way of Mindfulness (by meditating, even if only a few times), "the goal will appear like the contours of a high mountain range at the distant horizon; and these outlines will gradually assume a friendly familiarity for the wanderer who gazes at them while plodding his toilsome route that is still so far from these exalted summits."(Thera, 1971, pp. 44-45)

Once one has reached the stage of Bare Attention successfully, one is ready to initiate another step, that of Clear Comprehension. The initiation into Clear Comprehension does not mean that one stops practicing any of the techniques of Bare Attention. It simply means that one adds further techniques. Clear Comprehension is the aspect of Right Mindfulness which is concerned with activity. When applied properly, it becomes the regulative force of all our activities, bodily, verbal, and mental. There are four types of Clear Comprehension: that of purpose, suitability, the domain of meditation, and reality.

In Clear Comprehension, the most stringent application of the techniques of meditation will be necessary, for the truth of impersonality is the hardest to achieve. Impersonality is an experience which can be realized through unceasing meditative examination of the flow of consciousness. When one experiences this truth, a transformation of consciousness occurs which will ultimately lead to liberation.

In Buddhism, as in phenomenology, reason plays the role of a heuristic device by which the system is formulated and measured. Reason in both is simply a tool which one uses in order to symbolically represent a system which transcends logic as it is an actual experience rather than an equation. Therefore, the division of the path to liberation in terms of steps or formulas is just another example of the intellectualization of a subjective experience which is ultimately incapable of being adequately verbalized. One does not think in terms of "Clear Comprehension" when one is acting in accord with it. These labels and technical terms are unimportant in Buddhism. Only the experience of liberation is important, no matter what means are consciously used to secure that purpose.

I could say much more about the various different techniques of meditation involving control of bodily process, such as breathing, or concentration on specific parts of one's experience such as feelings or certain aspects of material experience. This I will not do for two reasons. First, I am not qualified to explain these techniques in the exhaustive and comprehensive manner which they deserve, and secondly, their discussion would only serve to reiterate the numerous similarities between Buddhist meditation and the phenomenological method which have already been mentioned.

I conclude by restating my contention that various similarities exist in the content of Sartre's phenomenological existentialism and Theravadin Buddhism, with the major difference between the two lying in the materialistic, this-worldly orientation of the former as opposed to the transcendent other-worldly orientation of the latter.

Further, in terms of method, I contend that many similarities may be seen in the techniques of phenomenological investigation and those of Buddhist meditation. Depending on one's perspective, therefore, one could claim either that Buddhist meditation is a form of phenomenological inquiry or that phenomenological inquiry is a form of meditation (with a radically different goal, obviously).

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Lee, Sander H. "The Central Role of Universality in a Sartrean Ethics," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. XLVI, No. 1, September 1985.

———"The Failure of Sex and Love in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre," Philosophy Research Archives. Vol. XI,1985.

———'"Sense and Sensibility": Sartre's Theory of the Emotions,'

The Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry, Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1983.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Washington Square Press, 1966.

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Swearer, Donald V. Secrets of the Lotus. MacMillan, 1971.

Thera, Nyanaponiha. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. Weiser, 1971.

Watts, Alan. Psychotherapy East and West. Ballantine, 1972.

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