Sartre and Nagarjuna, Being and Emptiness

The impact of Buddhism on Western philosophy is still a relatively new field of study. J. Jeffrey Franklin of the University of Colorado in “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna” * delves into the subject.  According to the abstract, Franklin’s essay contends “that modernist nihilism owes a largely unexamined historical debt to the nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of Buddhism. It demonstrates that Jean-Paul Sartre’s nihilism was influenced by a debate that occurred as part of the Western struggle to assimilate Buddhism: the nineteenth-century nirvana debate.”

I bring this up because Jean-Paul Sartre was a key figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century, a founder of French Existentialism, and today is the 111th anniversary of his birth.  Sartre died in 1980.

He was also a novelist and playwright.  During the early part of World War II, Sartre was imprisoned by the Germans, escaped and joined the resistance movement.

How deeply Buddhism may have influenced Sartre, I don’t know. And I can’t get access to Franklin’s paper. However, I am aware that Sartre’s ‘nothingness’ is comparable to the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in some respects, but we should not carry this comparability too far.

Hazel Barnes in the 1943 English translation of Being and Nothingness writes,

sartre2If an object is to be posited as absent or not existing, then there must be involved the ability to constitute an emptiness or nothingness with respect to it.  Sartre goes further than this and says that in every act of imagination there is really a double nihilation.  In this connection he makes  an important distinction between being-in-the world and being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. To be in-the-midst-of-the world is to be one with the world as in the case of objects.  But consciousness is not in-the-midst-of-the-world; it is in-the-world.  This means that consciousness is inevitably involved with the world (both because we have bodies and because by definition consciousness is consciousness of a transcendent object) but that there is a separation between consciousness and the things in the world.”

This comes close to emptiness and interdependence but doesn’t go all the way.  It seems dualistic to me.  For Nagarjuna, emptiness demolished all notions of separation and distinction, even though he recognized it was not possible to avoid using such terms.   An article on Buddhanet says, “All phenomena have a relative as opposed to an absolute existence . . . Nagarjuna used the dialectic method to ruthlessly negate all pairs of opposites.”  This is correct but I don’t understand how the article can go on to say that “Sunyata is the absolute reality.”

Emptiness is not a truth so much as it is a condition or state of existence.  We can say it is an aspect of reality, but even that is problematic.  Previously, I have quoted the famous verse from Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, “Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.” These words summarize Nagarjuna’s whole philosophy as he identifies the non-duality of the relative and absolute or ultimate truth.  But the next verse in the chapter is equally important:

Whatever does arise through interdependency does not exist.  Therefore, something that is not empty does not exist.”

In his commentary on the verse, Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield** says,

Nagarjuna is asserting that the dependently arisin is emptiness.  Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things.  They are, rather, two characterizations of the same things.  To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say that it is empty.  To say of something that it is empty is another way of say that it arises dependently.”

The way I see it is that absolute reality is the absence of an absolute reality.  The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.  And emptiness is relative, which, as I have also mentioned before, Nagarjuna expressed as sunyata-sunyata or the emptiness of emptiness.

Anyway, it’s Sartre’s birthday.  Thought I would pass that along.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Franklin, J.J.: “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna.” Religion and Literature

** Arya Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,, Translation and Commentary, Jay Garfield, 1995

Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Estella Barnes, Simon and Schuster, 1992


7 thoughts on “Sartre and Nagarjuna, Being and Emptiness

  1. Nagarjuna does an excellent job tackling emptiness, dependent origination, even “karma” with his middle-way literature. Not much to add there, but I believe the really important aspect actually is the notion of ignorance and wisdom.

    If everything is emptiness, or as Zen folks say “there is nothing to achieve or do”, then what is “dukkha”.

    I believe Buddha’s whole quest/point is to address this. What is the right answer to our existence? Right way to live? Point of life? the meaning.. etc.

    Yes, technically there is nothing existing on its own as nagarjuna says, but there IS dukkha (the root of ignorance and wisdom).

    It’s interesting, actually. Everything is turning out as it should. This is karma, in other words. This also is dependent origination and nagarjuna’s emptiness.

    In this context, what is the best/optimal way to live a life? I believe that is exactly what Buddha’s teachings are about.

    1. Thanks for leaving the comment, Red. I quoted verses 19 and 20 from the chapter on the Noble Truths, verse 21 reads “How can there be suffering that is not dependently arisen? Suffering has been described as impermanent, but it cannot exist if there is self-being.”

  2. Certainly Merleau-Ponty’s work has some interesting parallels with the Buddhist concept of emptiness, especially in his development of “flesh”. I just recently read that MP’s exposure to Buddhist ideas was through a Japanese student of Heidegger who he learned about through his friend Jean Paul Sartre.

    1. Know the name but not too familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s work. There was a book published some years ago about him and Buddhism. Thanks for sharing the dharma connections between those three philosophers.

      1. Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism is probably what you are thinking of and it was in one of the papers there that I found the reference to MP’s Buddhist “connection” through Sartre and Heidegger. Anyway as an artist and zen student I find Merleau-Ponty’s writing especially rich. He doesn’t concern himself with the issue of soteriology but his discussion of a non-dualistic perception could be out of a zen treatise.

  3. Thanks david. I believe we should treat things that dependently originates from “self” differently than everything else. Dukkha/suffering is one such thing. “Karma” captures this well. And noble eight fold addresses how to handle karma.

    Granted, even self doesn’t exist, originates dependently. But, you can’t avoid self when speaking relatively, or just plain for practical purposes.

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