Theravāda budističko društvo

Buddhism and Existentialism

Buddhism and Existentialism

Čedomil Veljačić

Za sajt pripremila
Biljana Milovanović

On this occasion [1] of the Anagarika Dharmapala anniversary I wish to say a few words on behalf of those people in Europe who have heard of Buddhism only recently and who seem to feel that it does correspond to a deeper need not only of their particular aspirations but rather of their time, of a mental situation ripening in the West with the new post-war generation.

It is, of course, a very sad and dark mental situation and, as a matter of fact, there were a few outstanding European psychiatrists who realized first how serious it was. It may suffice to remember Carl Gustav Jung among those who in this connection became aware of the advantage of some Asian, and specifically Buddhist, religious and philosophical systems and methods for our mental health in the spiritual chaos of the materialized West.

Buddhism, just because of its stress not only on dukkha, but also on anatta, has in our days taken a definite shape under which the new generation in Europe is inclined to consider its importance in a very specific situation of its own cultural crisis. There, it is supposed to satisfy, in part at least, not only the philosophical and psychological needs, but also the artistic aspirations of a new generation whose own cultural heritage has been reduced very often to bankrupt and empty autocratic aspirations of the pseudo-heroic generation of their fathers. It is a simple matter of fact that I wish to stress when I say that the Buddhism that I am referring to owes its origin, its pattern and its actual impact on the western mind almost exclusively to the successful approach found by one man― Prof. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki of Kyoto, Japan, and his modernized version of Zen-Buddhism―less than thirty years ago.

Thus, the basic situation which we have to face today in Europe from a Buddhist view-point is that of the existentialist philosophy confronted with Zen.

I wished to stress just these two terms: Existentialism and Zen in connection with problems that possibly might be discussed on the occasion of this anniversary celebration of Dharmapala and of the order of Anagarikas established by him for the propagation of Buddhism on a broad and non-sectarian platform.

I would like to draw your attention only to one question: Is this situation to which the European understanding of, or rather interest in Buddhism has to be essentially reduced in a realistic estimate of the actual situation, i.e. the increasing connection of existentialism and zen―is this situation to be considered as satisfactory from a Buddhist view-point, and still more important, are we entitled to consider it as final, at least as the cultural tasks of our generation are concerned?

I dare anticipate that we may agree that the nature of the existentialist world-concept in its basic and most serious forms can be considered as satisfying, especially in as much as its scope is not only limited to academic philosophy, but tends to cover more and more consciously wide fields of vital activities. It may be considered satisfactory from the Buddhist view-point also in view of the notorious fact that modern existentialism is an expression of an interior crisis, in which mind is being primarily driven to identify itself with a question of existential importance for its own being―a question rather than a solution, this latter being still awfully lacking. This is exactly what Suzuki’s Zen requires from a disciple: He who has not identified himself with his vital question, who has not become a question, who is not living in this sense a deep interior crisis, he is not fit to ask any question to a zen master. From this aspect we may state with some satisfaction that Buddhism apparently has found once more―if not for the first time―in the West a natural and deep enough possibility of moral approach.

I however feel that Dharmapala’s order of Anagarikas should not consider that its main task in this case has kindly been accomplished by Prof. Suzuki. The main point has not yet been attained. The existentialist philosophy in Europe is still a morally negative background consisting in a deep and sincere question without proper solution. We should not be too pessimistic about the aptitude of Suzuki’s Zen to satisfy such requirements, especially since several psychiatrists have already expressed their satisfaction with its implicit capacities to that effect.

Notwithstanding that, the main point that I still wish to stress in short can be expressed on this occasion only in a few very frank and blunt words:

Europe cannot need, nor accept, nor find a serious solution in a way which, if I am not wrong, appears still most attractive and practically the shortest to the Indian, and probably, also to Asian religious mentality. This is the essentially irrational way of japa. We in Europe do not need japa but jhâna in its most rationally elaborated form. This, however, has not yet been made accessible to serious seekers in Europe. We do not feel afraid of meditative seclusion from any kind of worldly affairs, from any secular ″battlefields″. We are rather scared of managerial diseases and we are fed up with strategic slogans of doubtful moral values that the old generation wants to impose to the coming one. The new generation, in Europe at least, purposely wants to doubt about the social morality of their fathers. In this very legitimate distrust lies the crisis of that generation, and we must not deny them the capability of very serious seeking of better ways. It has been already realized very clearly, just in this connection, that mental assistance has become more urgent than that material. ″Sabbadânam dhammadânam jinâti″ [Dh.354].

Europe had developed in proper time its own systems of japa, which had failed as well as many other attempts concerning religious practices, and I feel that Buddhism or even yoga or vedânta, should not try any longer to rescue them. Let it remain the business of the Jesuits whose methods of psychotherapy may still be efficacious to some extent.

On the other side, I am very happy that I am not the first European interested in Buddhist studies who since the last war has felt that the actual task and the main contribution of Buddhism should consist now in a rational method of  jhâna, a proper  method of reduction of mental functions and states to a clarified ″stream of consciousness″, bhavanga-sota, a notion already conceived quite clearly by several European philosophers since W. James, Bergson or Husserl through their own serious attempts in rational meditation on the nature of the consciousness.

Translated in classical pali terms what we still need is Visuddhi-Magga. It seems to me therefore very symptomatic that competent translations of that book have appeared since the war in a few European languages. However, the essential content of this venerable old book has not yet found its appropriate approach to the searching spirit of the modern man.

May I mention at the end that I had recently a talk on this subject also with a very competent Indian scholar, the Ven. Bhikkhu Kashyap of Nalanda, and that his full support and enthusiasm has given me courage also to use today’s opportunity for something more than a formulation of greetings and best wishes.


[1] Speech on the occasion of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s 99th birth celebration, at Calcutta University, Institute Hall, on September 17th, 1963. [Natrag]