The Existential Stance, And The Two Errors in Buddha’s 4 Noble Truths

I am often asked, how can you be existential and religious at the same time? Isn’t the existential non religious? But I reply, if you understood the existential, you’d turn this question on its head. You’d see the real question is, how can you be existential without being religious?

The existential reveals the real God: the last ‘god’ we would ever chose, invent, seek.

The existential stance asks us:
–to make spiritual sense out of our suffering position in the world [awareness of ontological insecurity],
–to feel free and responsible within this [will; existential choice],
–and to find meaning, value, and purpose, through this [passion; existential engagement and commitment].

‘Our suffering position in the world’ does not mean, simply, that we suffer now and again– or even that we suffer a lot of the time. It means something far more radical. It means something absolutely fundamental. Our very ‘position’ in the world ‘inherently’ subjects us to an ‘inescapable fate’ which is not simply full of suffering– suffering and joy both come and go, increase and decrease– but itself just is a suffering. This fate is ‘a suffering’ in the Old English sense of a befalling that we do not choose and cannot escape. It is not just that we suffer pain. We suffer unknowingness and uncertainty, risk, jeopardy, and danger, non guarantee, difficulty and hardship, paradox, ambiguity and contradiction, loss, sorrow, hurt. Our very ‘situation’ of being in the world entails having to accept, without choosing it and without any alternative to it, a condition of existence whose pain is inexplicable and cuts deep. There is a “host of shocks that flesh is heir to” in this condition of existence.

Different ways of describing ‘the existential fate human beings suffer’ are possible. Poetry is often preferable: existence is on an Edge where it can totter, in a Gap where it can prevaricate, at a Cross-Roads where it is torn; existence is stretched taut within a Koan, existence is broken on a Cross. I met a Jewish follower of Martin Buber who had been given a different way of putting it; humanity inevitably encounters in this existence:

–The Mysterious,

–The Meaningless,

–The Hostile,

–The Contradictory,

–The Unexplainably Warm and Giving.

The heart of our suffering position is hard to express, because it is mysterious and irrational, beyond all words, and even images hardly catch it; it is, ‘the wound of existence’, or ‘the wound of the Daemonic.’ We are shaken, moved, unseated, at the core of our being, once we wake to this suffering position we are in just by virtue of existing in this world. Buddha was ignorant of the suffering position that is the human lot, that is the human condition, until he broke free of the gilded palace where he had been protected from existence all his childhood, and suddenly encountered death, old age, sickness, and poverty.

Buddha, however, taught that a spiritual path could be walked that would end our suffering position of existing in the world. Many monastics in other religions, including some Eastern Orthodox Christian monks, would agree with him. Our suffering position is due to the loss of consciousness of our root in a spiritual reality, and attachment to the world’s reality. Once we regain that lost root, by severing the worldly attachment, we will indeed be free from our suffering position.

The Jews embraced mankind’s suffering position in the world– which includes the ‘absent God’, and the God who does not make sense to us and is indeed nothing but an affront to us– as spiritual in origin. Buddha’s greatest moment was not when he sat under the tree for 40 days, and attained a problematic and incomplete enlightenment, but when his heart was moved by the existential condition he shared with all humanity, and he vowed both to join that condition and find a way to serve and help all humanity in it. This moment, of leaving the palace, was the heart of Buddha, the heart his subsequent mind of enlightenment did not fully recover.

The suffering position we are in becomes, in fact, not easier but harder, more inexplicable, more pained, if we realise that God placed us in exactly this existential situation. What kind of God would do this? Why did this God do it? For what end? For what point? For what meaning? Did this God dump us here, and go off to enjoy his unsuffering being, or is he here with us, to join the suffering? Why would he do that? Kierkegaard famously asked, ‘who put me here?’, ‘for what reason?’, ‘why wasn’t I consulted?’, but I think that a religious existentialism, rooted in a this-worldly spirituality, actually cries out more strained questions than these… Part of our experience of existence’s wound is that God does exist, but has inflicted this Daemonic wound on us. What God does that? It hurts more, not less, that there is a God and this God must be an existentialist: unlike any ‘god’ we can imagine, hope for, desire. The illusion we lose concerning the world and our existing in it is also the illusion we lose about God. The real God is ‘the unknown God’, and this God’s unknownness is heart breaking to every human being. David hinted at this cry of heart in all of us when in the psalms he uttered “deep cries to deep.” This is why Kierkegaard rightly said that faith is trusting in an ultimate absurdity; thus the person of faith makes a far greater leap into the dark than the atheist or agnostic.

The God that the human heart knows to have put us here is the absent God, and to bring this God closer is the ultimate existential adventure and existential folly. It is a sword that has pierced every heart. The Jewish-Christian ‘fall of humanity’ did not put us in this suffering position; the fall in fact constitutes our evasion, our flight, from it. In our fallenness, we foolishly think there is a way out [secular], a way above [spiritual], rather than embracing the undeniable existential revelation that confronts our heart day in and day out– there is only a way through, not any way out, not any way above, but this way through is not secured. It is not guaranteed, for us individually, for humanity collectively. Something in the heart says, you can get through, something else says, you can be lost on the way. Victory can be won from struggle, and it can really come to deadness and end in ruin. Nothing ventured, nothing gained: but there is no guarantee the venture will come through. If it does, it will be a close run thing. Such is the real truth of the Jewish and Christian ‘heaven and hell.’

Whatever existential descriptions we use to try to evoke our existential fate, at the core it is a state of basic and irremovable insecurity, an un-secured state of being. Something is at stake, the heart knows. To care about it, to love it, is to stake oneself to its fate. Thus, the this-worldly spirituality calls for, and culminates in, sacrifice.

The 2 untruths in Buddha’s 4-fold enlightenment are:

[1] that humanity’s suffering position in the world can be escaped, and
[2] that the escape is via detachment from the world.

Buddha’s own life gives the lie to these 2 errors– the day he left the palace his heart knew something his subsequent enlightenment would seem to have lost:

[1] humanity’s suffering position in the world cannot be spiritually escaped, but must be spiritually embraced, and when it is, this changes the nature of that suffering but does not remove it—indeed, the suffering is intensified precisely in its existential meaning;

[2] when humanity’s suffering position in the world is spiritually embraced, there is only detachment from that in the human heart which seeks escape from its Daemonic fate– fallen attachment is let go of, but this is replaced by a new and totally passionate attachment that binds one’s own fate to the fate of the world.

This suggests, if the world goes down, I go down with it; only if the world comes through will I come through.

Heraclitus pointed to the real enlightenment when he said, “Those who are awakened are in the same world, but those who sleep are each in a separate world.”

Jewish and Christian love for the world seeks not to escape, nor to falsely secure, the existential precariousness of the world, but to redeem it. The world is un-secured because it has no ground: it rests in a groundlessness. But it is this groundlessness that all ground rests in which allows, or better, forces the heart to step in to the breach, and make that sacrifice whose tears, sweat, and blood, secures the ground over the abyss.

‘Sufferingship’ is ‘passion’ in Kierkegaard’s Danish tongue. Our suffering position in this world is what sparks passion. We are to stay here, stake ourselves to what is at stake, and see it through. From this irrational, pained struggle, the real spirituality is kindled.

Passion moves through time, on the ground, over depth.

This is its fate.

But it is also the destiny of heroism, forged in the furnace of existence, so that it can reforge existence in the furnace of its heart.

Such is the real God; such is the human heart, an organ of fire, in which and through which God ceases being absent and enters the world.

Enters the world to make sacrifice, and by sacrifice to redeem.