Atheism, Existentialism, and Buddhism's Reasons for Living

Recently I got an email from a listener of the podcast, asking some very well put questions about atheism and Buddhism as it relates to existential thought. These questions do come up every now and again, so with Alex’s permission I’ve included the main content from his email, and my responses to them.

Of course, opinions vary, and my thoughts on these topics aren’t going to necessarily blend with everyone else’s! I encourage you to put your own Comments on the post, and share your own insights and experiences. My background is not in a study of philosophy, hopefully you can all forgive my somewhat ham-handed responses to Alex, and improve this post with your own.

I’m writing to you because I’d like to ask you two questions, but before stating them I’ll need to give you a brief introduction. I’m a plain vanilla existentialist. In this line of thought, you start with two axioms: 1) the universe exists, 2) the universe has no meaning. From there, the first question you must answer is why don’t “you” (whatever this you encapsulates) commit suicide, or at least endeavor to stay alive. Once you have given or accepted a reason to live, all further precepts stem from that. For instance, for me a good reason to live is that I would like to learn, understand and experience as much as possible of this universe before dying. This has for instance informed such decisions as becoming a neuroscientist, traveling, being curious about other cultures, etc.

Thank you for the Cliff Notes version of classic existentialism. A few things do come to mind, one being that yes, as far as we can tell the universe exists. Functionally it doesn’t matter if it does or not, since that is our only experience of it. We may all be in the Matrix, or being fooled by a demon, but since things are operating with internal consistency it really doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Bearing that in mind, however, we hit our first troubling misperception about the universe: that there is an all or nothing aspect to it, that we don’t allow for shades of perspective of that reality. Buddhism and modern scientific experimentation bear out that yes, conventionally, there is a table, and at the same time on another level this reference we have is in constant flux, and not something we may recognize as such at that level. An understanding that things are not always precisely as they seem, does not mean the table is suddenly going to vanish, that we can levitate, walk through walls, or that Deepak Chopra caused an Earthquake. Shenanigans! The universe exists, we should question our perceptions, and not confuse them for factual reflections of reality.

Now, the meaning question. I would agree that the universe has no meaning in and of itself, that there is no inherent property of “value” per se, that does not in any way prevent us from finding meaning in our ongoing processes that make up what we refer to as us and our lives. There is a 1) and 2) as you’ve outlined, but 2 does not prevent us from creating meaning where one is not an inherent property of existence.

The summary — and please forgive my ignorance, as this may be addressed in a true study of existentialism — seems to ignore our role as evolved, natural, biological beings, complete with motives for continued existence that have little to do with such clinical decision making. If we set our hand on a burner, we do not have to decide to remove it, we reflexively do so. We can’t really set that aside for the discussion; we do have biological imperatives to survive, we have positive responses to pleasurable stimulation and negative responses to unpleasant stimulation because such stimulation was naturally selected for.

Of course, there are conditions where suicide is a choice people make. Ongoing clinical depression, physical pains of illness, and many other conditions can lead one to take that route. But the simple acknowledgement that meaning is something we don’t automatically get out of living is not typically enough for such action.

Because of my curiosity of Asian cultures, I’ve recently read the Buddhist Catechism by Henry S. Olcott. One of the things I liked (and is surprising if you consider Buddhism as a religion, but less if you think of it as a philosophy, like Stoicism) is the recommendation that any point of doctrine should be thought and understood, instead of being accepted as an article of faith. What puzzled me is the fundamental contradiction I see in the denial of self that Buddhism promotes and the notion of reincarnation, but whatever.

Alcott’s use of the idea that we should know for ourselves whether a particular point of doctrine (or any other kind of claim, I might add!) be subject to reasonable scrutiny and experience is inherent in traditional Buddhism, and is one reason it has found very fertile ground in contemporary Western circles. You may find the Kalama Sutta and the Canki Sutta interesting reading. And you’ve hit upon a major topic of confusion to the Western mind when encountering Buddhism: if there is no self, what’s with this rebirth stuff?

That is a very large debate, especially between traditional Buddhists and secular Buddhists. It is important to distinguish that reincarnation is a bit different from rebirth, however. Reincarnation is the continued existence, from life to life, of a monolithic “self” that remains unchanged throughout the cycles of birth and death. This was the Brahmanic realm into which Siddhatha Gotama, a.k.a. the Awakened One, the Buddha, would have been born. One of the fundamental shifts of his line of thinking was that this was not so, that there is no permanent, unchanging self. We are rather a collection of “heaps” and their processing, moment by moment — form, feeling (positive, negative, and neutral, not emotion), perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Consciousness in this context is not a spirit, but that which cognizes. All of those lead to this misperception of a Self that continues, rather like our earlier example of the table. Sure, there’s a conventional table and a conventional self. But it’s not, at the nitty gritty level, what we think it is.

Rebirth, then, is not this monolithic thing continuing from one body to another, but an echo, a wave, a natural outcome of the causes and conditions in the world. Please note that secular Buddhists like myself are not satisfied with that very vague, untestable hypothesis! If presented with repeatable, externally verifiable evidence for such a thing as rebirth, I’d be delighted — but I haven’t seen it yet, and as such, this truth claim about the natural world is not a part of my secular Buddhist practice.

This reading raised my interest enough to do further searches, and that’s how I found out about your website. I’ve listened to eight of your podcasts, and they are quite interesting, I’ll continue to listen to them. Since your stance is similar to mine, but instead of me you have a lot of experience and learning on Buddhism, I would like to ask you one or two questions.

1 – on the issue of detachment, Buddhism and Existentialism seem to move in opposite directions. In Existentialism, you start by complete detachment (nothing matters), and then it’s up to “you” to find reasons to “attach” and engage with the universe. In Buddhism, “you” start as suffering from the attachments to the universe, and endeavor to detach yourself. But the question then becomes: what to do once “you” are detached… does Buddhism inform in any way the suicide question? Why would “you” keep living (or not)?

One thing to be careful of is conflating the ideas of “meaning” and “attachment”. Nothing may “matter”, inherently, that seems to be so. We can still find meaning in experience, though, as being of personal value. I like milk chocolate, regardless of it not really “mattering” in the universe.

Sacrilege, I know, but it had to be said — chocolate has no inherent meaning.

Again, there is no need for us to find particular meaning to continue to live, either. There are biological reasons we strive to live, to continue our existence, that have little to do with philosophical fingers pointing at the moon. But you do raise another very good question that is a point of debate: if one is truly “enlightened” (and again, I’ve yet to see any externally verifiable way to ascertain such a claim) in the Buddhist sense, that is, free of the poisons of greed, ill-will, and delusion, why not simply “take the knife” and end this round of rebirth right away, with no more to follow?

I should state at this point that the idea of ending the rounds of rebirth does appear to be an inherent component of traditional Buddhism. Conditioned existence is fraught with suffering, and in the extinguishing of our attachments to the unwholesome, we let go of the poisons, and are free from “again becoming”. Secular Buddhism, however, finds that this is not only utterly unverifiable as a truth claim in the natural world (and therefore is set aside), it also does a great disservice to the wonderful depth of meaning one finds in the teaching and practice. There is terrific value in the wonder of this very moment, and that understanding can have a very beneficial transformative effect on the quality of one’s engagement with living. This touches on what Owen Flanagan refers to as HappinessBuddhism in his book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized.

Traditionally, one continues to live and doesn’t commit suicide because having a human rebirth is very rare and valuable, in that it is the best of the rebirth realms to attain enlightenment. If one already is, there is still a precept against taking a life, any life. And, of course, taking one’s own life shows that one still is dealing with the poison of ill-will, as demonstrated by the aversion to this life, and delusion, as one’s suffering may simply continue into the next rebirth!

Less traditionally, one continues to live because we have suffering and joy in life. This is where attachment comes in! It’s not a matter of not having what are considered “wholesome” experiences (those that are of positive benefit to self and others), but not being attached to them such that their enjoyment supersedes our perspective.

Sure, have a chocolate. Don’t eat the whole box in one sitting!

In a secular Buddhist practice, there would not be a functional dependence on ending the rounds of rebirth — they are simply not in evidence. What is in evidence is that understanding how the natural world works, ethical conduct, and mental development (Panna, Sila, and Samadhi) do show a greater likelihood of positive benefit than confusion, hurting others, and carelessness.

2 – the second question is more prosaic: what does Buddhism brings you, as an atheist? Stress-relief? Tranquility? If so, what does Buddhism add more than just meditation? Is it because it helps you to put things into perspective, and decreases anxiety? Is it a way to channel and experience the feelings of wonder that you have about the universe? Or does it help you to keep focus and purpose?

As an “out” atheist, I find this to be one of the best questions that can be asked. Indeed, why take on this typically religious practice?

The hard-line atheist position has been one of returning the antagonism of hard-line theists. It has an opportunity that’s being missed, and is one of the reasons we tend to see a migration of people out of atheist groups and into skeptical ones. First, it’s a negative proposition. Rather than stating what atheism is, it can only be identified by what it is not. I’ve struggled with this problem in the formation of the Guiding Principles of Secular Buddhism, to ensure that anchor is avoided. Second, atheist communities seem to have a hard time accepting that religious practice evolve, and in more recent times become more secular and devoid of the very problems atheists have with them! Secular Buddhism is one such manifestation of a practice that has tangible benefits in the real world, and is not dependent on supernatural claims. It recognizes that though it may have roots in religion, it is not entrapped by those roots and can develop into a viable practice that is personally uplifting and pragmatically helpful.

Secular Humanism is a step further, I think, than atheism in that it addresses the positive. It says what we should be, what it stands for, not what it is against. Where I still find it a bit lacking is that it does not have a systematic practice of how to become, on a personal level in our engagement with living moment by moment, better people to support the fine ideals of Secular Humanism. For me, that is a key distinction, and why I use the reference of secular Buddhist: it acknowledges what kind of practice this is, while placing it firmly in the natural world. It is not your daddy’s Buddhism.

In that way, it is all the things you describe. Yes, stress relief, but that’s not all. Yes, tranquility, but that’s not all. Yes, meditation is a component of the practice — but that’s not all, either, there is more to it than only “samadhi”, there is also that “panna” and “sila” which really complement my mental development. That is something that is a risk today as people simply do meditation, separated from the rest of what we call the Eightfold Path. If you’re just doing it for stress relief, go on vacation! But there is so much more than that, and as one’s practice grows, the benefits continue to become more pervasive and transformative.