Who thought Nihilism could be such fun?
Is having a meaning to your life the same as having a purpose?
When I was philosophy undergraduate in the 1980s, Jean Paul Sartre was still de rigeur. The sixties image of trendy existentialism was long gone; with its followers sporting black berets and black polo-neck sweaters standing alone in the corner at parties.
However, we did enjoy our late- night discussions about ‘nausea’, the angst produced by the sheer meaningless of it all. The ‘all’ being life, the universe and all that kind of stuff. Here we were on the cusp of our adulthood, trying to feel just how pointless it all was, prior to spreading our wings and taking flight into the world away from that strange hermetic world we were in between parental home and the rest of our lives.
Having met up with many of my old university buddies many decades later, it seems that these discussions did not leave any lasting scars. Many of my companions went on to have careers, create families, with, of course, heartbreaks on the way , but no-one appears to have just given up on life.
However, it could be argued that life in my time, in this part of the world has not been so bad. Since then, four decades ago, life has been, by and large, pretty good! It has only been in the last fourteen years, following the banking crisis, that we have seen a general decay in economic circumstances and a growing sense that what lies ahead is not necessarily going to be better than what went before.
The latest generation of young adults, known as Generation Z, (a.k.a. Zoomers), born in the late 1990s and up until 2010 are taking their place on the adult stage and are bringing with them attitudes and views that reflect the new reality or ‘new normal’ as the media like to call it.
The latest take, which seems to be taking hold amongst an increasing cohort of this generation is called ‘Optimistic Nihilism’. In a long article on the subject, novelist Ewan Morrison writes:
“Life is utterly meaningless, but this is a great opportunity to have fun creating our own meanings—that’s the latest postmodern self-help mantra. The trend known as optimistic nihilism is a twenty-first-century spin on the doctrine that existence and values are meaningless.”
In a world where, for the first time, the new adults will be less well off than their forebears and face increasing restriction and regulation of life choices, nihilistic optimism provides a vision of self-autonomy:
“Optimistic nihilism is the realization that the lack of meaning in the world and the universe as a whole can be liberating. Precisely because there is no inherited meaning in life there is no cosmic plan forcing you to act a certain way, and we are the ones who can create our path.”
So writes Ivaylo Durmonsky, a business blogger who is keen to highlight the possibilities of this latest philosophical take on what is a crisis of thought of our times.
There is something despairing about this vision. It is the passive acceptance of a universe that is just taken to be empty, void, purely mechanistic and we are just meat-machines swimming through a sea of chemicals until our eventual dissolution. What I find so disturbing about it is that there is no conception that the nature of the world could be any different. Where there is optimism there is also pessimism. Since accepted values are degraded by this view that everything is ultimately rootless, new and sometimes disturbing values can take root in their place.
It is only when we put this purely materialistic view of a de-vitalised universe into historical context that we can possibly see just how ‘odd’ it is.
The European Enlightenment is usually pointed to as the beginning of this ‘rot’, however this period came hot on the heels of the Renaissance which itself was a ‘re-birth’ of the classical thought of Ancient Greece and Rome.
There was a distinct and deliberate break with the Medieval past which saw Nature as fallen, true, but still very much God’s creation and thus infused with His Spirit and Will. Instead, we had a growing view that God was now absent from the world and Nature was there to be used as humans saw fit. The proto-scientists of that age talked of Nature in increasingly aggressive terms, there to be exploited and have her secrets ‘extracted’ from her (yes, Nature was still seen as feminine). The language became increasingly violent as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the father of the controlled experiment talked of ‘torturing’ nature to get her secrets from her.
I do not wish to go too much the other way and claim that pre-modern Europeans and the rest of the world who do not subscribe to this view of Nature are some kind of ‘noble savage’. This is in itself, to use the post-modernist term, problematic.
However, I would like to suggest that perhaps, despite the wonders and technological benefits that this extractive view has given us, we have lost something important along the way.
Before we go any further, - and if you have reached this far, well done,- you might like to read the Ewan Morrison article quoted at the top of this article. I’m going to take issue with two things he says; firstly, that the history of nihilism starts with Buddhism, and secondly that throughout the article there is a conflation between ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’.
Although he does not substantiate the claim that Buddhism is nihilistic or elaborate on why he thinks this, I am going to assume that it is because Western thought originally classified the Buddha’s message as both pessimistic and atheistic.
Again, we recall that what a word may mean to a Westerner is not the same to someone outside of our bubble. Yes, the Buddha declared the Noble Truth of Suffering and that living and depending for personal happiness on compounded things which are subject to decay entails suffering. But it is not the world that is seen as suffering but the clinging to it that causes it. Hence, the way out of suffering is to let-go. Originally, this did mean leaving home and going out into the forest, but with the advent of the Mahayana, being in the world became central to Buddhist practice. Hence the Mahayana expression ‘Samsara (the world of desire, the world of the householder), is Nirvana.’ What matters is the attitude taken to the world, not to escape this world to a different place where Nirvana is.
Another point is that whilst it is also true that the Buddha did not teach the existence of a personal deity, he did teach about a spiritual power called Dharma - the inherent law or nature of the world. However, this law or nature is active not passive. Nature is seen as a guiding force in all beings which we are tuned in to or deaf to its guidance. This nature is clearly a spiritual notion and this means that Buddhism is not atheistic, rather non-theistic. This means that it does not personalise this spiritual power into a being, but into a principle.
In Zen, this principle is known as The Way and is influenced by Chinese thought, particularly Taoism, from which Zen adopted the term, although it gets tweaked along the way. Hence, the Zen Way.
On the conflation of ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ there is this to say. Whilst a purpose gives meaning to a life, meaning is not dependent upon purpose for its existence. This differentiation is, I think, one of the most important insights that Chinese Buddhism gives to the world and one that we must take on board if we are to not fall into the void of nihilism.
This conflation is a mistake that I hear many Buddhists here in the West make. Time and again, students of Buddhism ask about the Dharma as if there is some purpose that the Dharma has for them. But this is precisely the problem, and is why Master Rinzai says in one of his sermons, “All intention misses the target.” Intentions are purposive, that is, they have an aim or goal from the outset. You either gain it or miss it but they all have a target and success and failure depends upon it. But there is a problem here. Say a nineteen year old believes that his purpose in life is to play football professionally. He has a car accident and loses a foot as a result. What then? If this is what Dharma/God/Universe wants him to be, then he is now condemned to a life of no purpose and therefore no meaning. We can, after the fact, change the goalposts (pun intended), by saying “Well, maybe God didn’t really want you to be a footballer after all”. But this still leaves the problem of divining exactly what that purpose is which leaves open the possibility that in fact there is no purpose and here we are at nihilism again.
Meaning, in terms of the Way has a different definition. Whereas purpose relates to the person, the Way gives a person context. It is about the relationship between the person and where they are now. It goes to the heart of the original definition of the word ‘religion’ which comes from the Latin ‘ligare’ which refers to a binding; religion means to tie together two things that may have inadvertently come apart. In Zen practice, and indeed all Buddhist practice, the original relationship is re-linked by the practice of samadhi. The English translation for this word is ‘oneness’, but what this means is the tying together of two things that have come apart. The attainment of samadhi is thus the attainment of The Way.
As stated above, nature is seen as active in beings. As my late teacher used to call it – ‘the informing information of how to live in this form, as this being.’ Only a consciousness that is ignorant of its own nature would ask ‘What is the meaning of life?’ All beings who are one with their nature just live out of it. So, the task for the Zen student is not to think about where else I should be or what else I should be doing but to find the way wherever one is right now. Then to get into alignment or right relationship with this way and live it. This is what we are doing in daily life practice, in giving myself into what at this moment is anyway.
I’d like to finish by going back to Rinzai’s statement that all intention misses the target, as this hits the nail on the head about the difference between purpose and meaning. What follows is a story that, I think, makes this point very well.
At one time the Great Bodhisattva Manjushri was born in a world that had entered the Kali Yuga. This is the last period of time before that particular world ends. It is a period when the teachings of the Buddha have long since disappeared and the people are so immersed in ignorance that even if they hear the teachings they do not understand them, and in all likelihood disparage them. We should know that to disparage the teachings is karmically very dangerous as it almost certainly ensures being later reborn in one of the hell realms.
Now the very being of a Bodhisattva is to save or liberate all beings, but if Manjushri were to try to teach any beings in the Kali Yuga with the intention of leading them to liberation then they would almost certainly disparage the teaching and thus he would be condemning them to hell. So, instead he decided the only thing he could do for that incarnation was to do his own spiritual practice and bide his time until the next rebirth. Therefore, when he came of age, he left society and went into the forest and took a vow of silence, so as not to try to teach anyone and just did his own meditation practices. But, of course, no matter how far into the forest you go, people will find out that you are there and some went to see what this odd fellow was doing. When they asked him, he would not reply but just sat in meditation. One person tells another and soon there were frequent visitors to see this strange spectacle, but no matter how many times they asked him what he was doing he remained silent. After a while they began to admire his fortitude, his ability to just sit there in all weathers and wondered what gave him such strength or determination. In truth, they wanted that same strength. As he would not talk to them, they began to help him in any way they could. Some brought him food, others a new robe, others repaired his hut when the roof leaked and so on. Now, to help someone and support them in their spiritual practices is highly meritorious and, without the people knowing this, they were accumulating merit by these actions. So much merit did thy accumulate in that life that they were later reborn into another world where there was a Buddha teaching and their karma ensured that they came into contact with that Buddha and in time they too were liberated.
So, we see that even without trying purposively and without intending to liberate them, Manjushri was able to provide sufficient agency to liberate those with whom he was in contact and thus fulfil the nature of his being as a Bodhisattva to be of assistance to all.
It’s a remarkable story and it comes from a tradition that sees our place in the world as agency enough to provide meaning for life. To be clear, this meaning doesn’t come from achieving a goal in the future, it has no purpose as such, but meaning is produced by being in relationship with what is right now before us, As ‘I’ give myself into what at this moment is, then the Way opens out and leads all to where we need to go.
Forthcoming Events in the Dharma Centre
Tuesday 20th December 2022 - Monthly tutorial on practice at 1900hrs BST. Join us for a discussion on daily life practice and Zazen. Bring your questions along about how the practice is going. The Zoom details will be put into the Dharma Centre's Telegram page.
There will be no live-streamed Zazen meditation either this coming week nor the week after as we take a break for the Christmas & New Year period. The next live-stream will be Thursday 5th January.