Buddha Cat and the Existential Watermellon
When we were born, we were given the seed of a watermelon. That seed came from the watermelons carefully cultivated over many generations by our society, bred to grow well in a certain environment, and handed down to us by our family. We were encouraged to nourish that seed, to add our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, as taught to us by our family and culture, so that it would grow into a full-fledged melon, rich with meaning. That meaning would tell us all we needed to know about the world, morality, people, life, the universe, and everything.
In time the watermelon grew big, round, green, and heavy, but it was often a reassuring kind of weight. We carried it around with us everywhere we went. Sometimes it was a burden, but mostly it was a guide. Moreover, we were told that this watermelon was the most precious thing in the whole universe, sacred, important, and that only this melon held the key to everything.
Then the world got bigger. We took the blinders off. We turned around and suddenly found a whole field full of watermelons. Some were funny shapes and strange colors and people loved and cultivated them as lovingly as we had cultivated ours. But this did not make sense to us. It seems, any melon would do. The color and shape of the melon depended only on the nutrients we gave it. There was no inherently right type of melon. What then was the value of our watermelon?
And in our shock and panic, we opened our hands and dropped the watermelon. It fell into a deep, dark lake where we could no longer find it. – This is existentialism.
Then there came a cat, a very wise, loving, and sometimes baffling cat. It purred and wound itself around our ankles. It fished our watermelon out of the lake. It gave it back to us and said, “This is your melon. You created it whole, just as you were created by the world around you. Sometimes it is heavy, but even if you drop it and do not see it, it does not go away. You must break it open. See it for what it is. Taste it, know it, one bite at a time until it is all gone. Only then can you be liberated from it.” – This is Buddhism.
A classmate pointed out that existentialism is like the first two of the Four Noble Truths. Life is suffering and suffering is born from human desire. What we want, what we don’t want, what we call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are merely mental fabrications. Meaning, and thus desire, is assigned, not inherent in the world. But the existentialists stopped there. They stood on the foundations of Western religion and philosophy (built on assumptions of ‘human nature’ and divine predestination), which had always assured them that life had greater purpose and meaning, that this watermelon was the best, only truth, and felt that world shake. They freaked.
Two and a half thousand years ago, the Buddha and his followers stood on very different ground (under-girded by a cosmology of karma and rebirth) and saw the same thing. The Buddha felt the world shake and he kept walking. He saw deep into the lake and had compassion for those who despaired. He saw that that suffering can end and the path that leads to the end of suffering, the Third and Fourth Noble Truths.
Today the phrase “The world is meaningless,” has two very different connotations among the two camps. Amongst the first, it is a harbinger of despair. While a member of the second, upon hearing this declaration, might very well shrug and ask, “Yeah. So what?” We might even feel hope.
The existentialist dilemma stems from centuries of value placed on inherent meaning – that is, meaning that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, whether divine or natural. When existentialists realized all meaning is assigned – that is, given by humans, flawed, disagreeing, argumentative humans – they came to the conclusion that a universe without inherent meaning is meaningless. And then they assigned one more meaning – that meaninglessness is A Bad Thing.
But from the Buddhist perspective, of course the world is meaningless. “We are what we think. / All that we are arises with our thoughts. / With our thoughts we make the world.” These are the first three lines of the Dhammapada (Byrom, 1976). However, the world is also meaningful. Meaning exists because we exist. “Speak or act with an impure mind / and trouble will follow you / as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. / … / Speak or act with a pure mind / and happiness will follow you / as your shadow, unshakable.” We can no more escape meaning that raw matter can create it without us.
The existentialists saw meaninglessness as doom. However, it is actually good news. Their view of absolute free will and its corresponding ultimate responsibility was a weight too heavy to bear. But in this freedom is found the only real seed of hope. This freedom to create our own meaning from life is the freedom to be free from suffering, to let go of our egocentric selves, and to see the world as it is. For a world void of meaning is as empty of despair as it is of ecstasy. Such a world simply abides and leaves it entirely up to us how we will abide in it.
The world is subjective, yes. “Man is condemned to be free,” yes (Sartre, Being and Nothingness). That is karma, reaping what we sow. Suffering and anxiety pervade existence, duh. Humans are irrational and absurd, certainly. Note the illustration and title. Human beings are fundamentally alienated from each other, from themselves, and from God (for those existentialists like Kierkegaard and Tillich who aren’t outright atheists). These were the conclusions of the existentialists.
Where the existentialists got it most wrong was in alienation. It’s a stupid idea. It has some logical basis, of course, as the supposed consequence of subjectivity. A person can only know what they personally know and how they personally know it. No one else can ever really know that which another person knows. Descartes even went so far as to demonstrate perception itself so suspect that one can’t even be sure one knows what one knows other than that one knows something. Buddhist agree that perception is faulty, filtered, and conditioned.
However, if we assume that the world out there does, in fact, exist, at the very least everything we then perceive about this world, no matter how suspect, indicates not its separateness, but rather its inseparability, its interdependence, to use the Buddhist word. The very alienation which breeds existential despair is in itself subjective. It is an illusion. The disconnect of subject-object, is an illusion. It is empty (in the Buddhist sense, not the existential sense). Recognition of this illusion is what gets us from the Second to the Third Noble Truth, and from there the wheels start turning as we make our way down the Eightfold Path. We begin to see the seeds of our karmic watermelon, what conditions our choices, our ‘free’ will, and we can liberate ourselves from them.
When examined from a Buddhist perspective, I’m forced to conclude the existentialists got it right. Well, half right. They threw the watermelon full of meaning in the lake and watched it sink, mistakenly believing it was gone forever. What they couldn’t perceive didn’t exist, so they assumed starvation was imminent and began to despair accordingly. In fact, the watermelon was still there, sitting on the bottom, staying nice and cool. Now it’s up to us to fish it out again. And if you think that’s an absurd metaphor, well, you’re right. Existentialism and Buddhism hold that we are absurd creatures, and that’s right too. Happy watermelon fishing!