I recently ran across Rick Bateman’s insightful article delving into some intriguing commonalities between the Buddha and author, Ayn Rand. Having only made it half way through Atlas Shrugged without dissolving into a coursing fit of riotous indignation, I applaud Bateman’s peace around Rand’s self-focused literature. I must say my attempt at the novel was before my meander into Buddhism. Perhaps a more tempered view of Rand’s work and her themes of ultimate happiness would be easier to swallow now in the light of my recent years of practiced contemplation.
While Ayn Rand and the Buddha initially appear to be at odds I’m struck by the similarities of existentialism and Buddhism. Both expound the concept that life is not determined by a supernatural being, while each of us is free and responsible for the choices we make in our lives and the actions that arise from those choices. Suffering is inevitable by the way our perceptions colour the world, the self is impermanent and nothingness is the core of the human condition.
Admittedly there are a plethora of differences between the two philosophies. Existentialists believe the individual creates meaning in life; Buddhists, not so much. Existentialists believe this is as good as it gets; Buddhists believe in nibbana, peace and the release of all suffering. Existentialists believe that when we die, it’s the end of the show; many Buddhists believe in reincarnation to clear out all the karma we’ve been lugging around for lifetimes.
Franz Kafka, the author of the fantastic short story, The Metamorphosis, is a poster boy for the dark existential movement of the early 20th century. His surreal study of the transformation of traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, into a giant insect shines an irrepressible light on the absurdity of life, our sleepwalking disconnection between mind and body, and how unaware we are of the suffering of others.
What if Kafka and the Buddha met for coffee in a Prague cafe? Maybe their chat would go something like this.
In theory there is a possibility of perfect happiness. ~ Kafka
While in the midst of those who hate, to dwell free from hating is happiness indeed. ~ Buddha
The experience of life consists of the experience which the spirit has of itself in matter and as matter, in mind and as mind, in emotion, as emotion, etc. ~ Kafka
The thought manifests as the word. The word manifests as the deed. The deed develops into habit. And the habit hardens into character. ~ Buddha
The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual. That is why the revolutionary spiritual movements that declare all former things worthless are in the right, for nothing has yet happened. ~ Kafka
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. ~ Buddha
You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. ~ Kafka
Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue. ~ Buddha
He who seeks does not find, but he who does not seek will be found. ~ Kafka
Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without. ~ Buddha
I do not read advertisements. I would spend all of my time wanting things. ~ Kafka
The world, indeed, is like a dream and the treasures of the world are an alluring mirage! Like the apparent distances in a picture, things have no reality in themselves, but they are like heat haze. ~ Buddha
It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet. ~ Kafka
Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine. ~ Buddha
One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die. ~ Kafka
Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely. ~ Buddha
Suffering is the positive element in this world, indeed it is the only link between this world and the positive. ~ Kafka
I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering. ~ Buddha
Franz Kafka – Anonymous – Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons