A Buddhist Response to Albert Camus and the Absurdity of Life

“I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.  Albert Camus”

The opening quote comes  from Albert Camus’s philosophic essay The Myth of Sisyphus.  While I was familiar with some of Camus’s ideas, I had never read this famous essay itself until recently.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus introduces his “philosophy of the absurd.”  The “absurdity” is man’s futile search for meaning in an unintelligible world devoid of God, eternal truths, or values. Does the realization of the utter absurdity and futility of life mean we might as well just kill ourselves? “No!” Camus heroically answers.  What is required of us is constant revolt against the absurdity of life.

As a Buddhist, I found many passages in The Myth of Sisyphus extremely compelling in their clear depiction of the plight of the human being trying to understand himself and his relationship to the world:

“Of whom and of what in fact can I say ‘I know about that!’ This heart in me, I can experience it and I conclude that it exists. This world, I can touch it and I conclude again that it exists. All my knowledge stops there, and the rest is construction.

For if I try to grasp this self of which I am assured, if I try to define it and to sum it up, it is no more than a liquid that flows between my fingers. I can depict one by one all the faces that it can assume; all those given it, too, by this education, this origin, this boldness or these silences, this grandeur or this vileness. But one cannot add up faces. This same heart which is mine will ever remain for me undefinable.

Between the certainty that I have of my existence and the content that I strive to give to this assurance, the gap will never be filled. Always shall I be a stranger to myself. …Here, again, are trees and I know their roughness, water and I experience its savour. This scent of grass and of stars, night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes—how shall I deny this world whose power and forces I experience? Yet all the science of this earth will give me nothing that can assure me that this world is mine.”

From a Buddhist standpoint, Camus gives an almost perfect description of the inherent problem of the “self” and its relationship to the world. If you take  the existence of the “self” at face value, and try to solve the problem of the “self” as a “given,” you end up in mystery. Mystery, as existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel put it, is when a problem encroaches on its own data.

But what if we don’t take “self” at face value—as a “given”—and instead look deeply into “self” using meditative concentration and insight? What might we find—or not find? Is there really a solid, unchanging “self” like we think there is?  Maybe the apparent meaninglessness of the world arises from the meaningless of identifying with something that has no real self or permanence to it.

The Buddha taught that the “mystery” of the self is really an illusion that dissolves when we know how to ask the right questions. For the Buddha, the important problem was not “What am I?” which presumes a “what” or a “self,” but rather the problem he answered in the Four Noble Truths. As Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in the essay Skillful Thinking:

It’s very common when we come to [Buddhist] practice that we bring along some very strong notions of who we are or the kind of person we’d like to be: “I’m this sort of person. I want to be this sort of person.” This type of thinking is very common. And yet it’s not all that helpful, because that concept of who we are is very nebulous, based on all kinds of information and misinformation. It often gets in the way of what’s the best thing to do at any given moment.

This is why the Buddha says to put those questions aside—“Who am I? Who am I going to be? Who have I been in the past?”—not only in their philosophical, abstract or metaphysical sense, but also in their psychological sense. Just look at what opportunities you have right here, right now for thinking, acting and speaking in skillful ways.

That kind of question—“What’s the most skillful thing to do right now?”—is a useful question. This is what the Buddha was getting at when he said to put thoughts of “me,” “myself,” “what I have been,” “what I will be” aside and to think instead in terms of the Four Noble Truths. These truths give you a way of looking at experience that focuses directly on the issue of skillfulness.

In other words, you look at your experience in terms of four variables: cause and effect on the one hand, and skillful and unskillful on the other. The first noble truth, the truth of suffering and stress, is an unskillful result. The unskillful cause is craving and ignorance. On the other side you’ve got the path of practice: that’s a skillful cause with the cessation of suffering as its result.

So when situations present themselves to you, just ask yourself, “What’s the most skillful thing to do right here?” Then allow yourself to think outside the box a little bit. The teachings of meditation are not necessarily there to just be followed one, two, three, four and bingo! there you are: Bliss. Oneness. Awakening. You’ve got to keep reflecting on what you’re doing, what results are coming, what adjustments have to be made…

That what we might see as profound metaphysical, philosophical, or psychological problems can find their solution in such a down-to-earth practice might at first seem, well, absurd!  But those who have actually learned how to meditate, learned how cause and effect work in terms of intentions and actions, can attest that this approach is actually quite brilliant.

In Buddhist practice, you begin to think of yourself less in terms of who you are and more in terms of what you do.  You begin to realize who you are is actually fluid, ever-changing, and is basically fabricated by what you think and do.  As we begin to realize this, we lose a kind of crippling self-consciousness.  Ironically, we are freer to be our true selves, because we are increasingly not hung-up on ourselves!

Probably all of us have had those times when we were utterly absorbed in something we love to do and were utterly self-oblivious—absolutely “in the moment” or in the “flow.”  At such times, our sense of self just disappears, but we are not annihilated or turned into unthinking zombies!  In Buddhist meditation and the practice of mindfulness, we learn how rare moments like this can become more and more the way we live all the time.

Paradoxically, the mindfulness and loving-kindness developed in Buddhist mediation are exactly the opposite of a selfish or world-denying self-absorption. The less we are tangled up in our emotional problems and self-centeredness, the more we are able to love, to help others, to see the beauty of the world around us.  Not so caught up in ourselves, we are better able to see others and to see our interrelationship with everything around us.  Instead of seeing life as “absurd” or futile, we find our lives blossoming with meaning and depth and love.

If we live our lives focused on how we create our own suffering and our own happiness, our “self” will take care of itself! We don’t have to think about our “self,” and the fabrication of associations we call our “self” really can’t think about us!  We are all so much more than our self-definitions of ourselves.  But we can only discover this by letting go of our selves and learning the skills that enable us to live each moment fully and completely. That’s where the real meaning of life can be found.

♥♥♥

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

7 Responses to “A Buddhist Response to Albert Camus and the Absurdity of Life”

  1. Beautiful thoughts. Thank you very much! I’m really into Camus’s concepts and have been discovering wonderful relief in Buddhism and related agnostics schools (such as Robert Anton Wilson’s “Maybe Logic”. Oftenly I lose myself again, drowned in my own hell, haunted by demons of the self… Your post helped return to the surface of my conscience! All my good wishes to you, frater!

  2. I have that at least for myself Buddhism and Absurdism work together well. I respectfully disagree with your notion of a necessary tangle of self-absorption and perceived futility of existence set forth by Absurdism, just as I wager you or any other Buddhists would be likely to disagree with someone you believe to be either willfully or ignorantly misinterpreting Buddhist teaching for selfish ends, which alas, not few do in today’s quick-click, self-help quick-fix age. Absurdism didn’t wrap me up in myself or make the world and life in it seem empty. Quite the opposite. Camus’ experiences, particularly during the war, shaped his prose. Many have not those same and have a very different lens they’re reading his words through. Upon reading and then reflecting for a considerable time on his work, as well as reading endorsements and critiques of it, I came to see Absurdism as able to live quite hospitably, even helpfully to Buddhism, and the two together have benefited me tremendously over the years. That said, I found much food for thought here and am very grateful to have done, and I will reflect on it all.

    sincerely,
    M.

  3. Rhonda Kampers Reply 2010/05/26 at 10:35 PM

    Hello Steven, It is with open mind and the prospect of liberating thoughts and reflections that I have come to enjoy reading your posts. Many thanks for this engaging insight.

    kind regards Rhonda

    • Thank you, dear Rhonda! What a sweet and gracious comment! My aspiration is that each post speaks to the heart, from the heart, with skill and helpfulness.

      So glad we have met and that you find support in your path at Metta Refuge.

      With warm regards,
      Steve

  4. Your reflections add much inspiration to my day. Thank you. I particularly like Thanissaro’s description of the Four Noble Truths.

    “In other words, you look at your experience in terms of four variables: cause and effect on the one hand, and skillful and unskillful on the other. The first noble truth, the truth of suffering and stress, is an unskillful result. The unskillful cause is craving and ignorance. On the other side you’ve got the path of practice: that’s a skillful cause with the cessation of suffering as its result.”

    Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu.

    • Why, thank you, my friend! I can assure you that I am greatly blessed, as well, in the creating and sharing of this post. Our great and skillful friend, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, never ceases to amaze me with the depth and breadth of his insights—I always feel, after studying him, that yes, I, we, can do it!

      Thank you for visiting; may you never be separated from the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow!

      Steve

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