Phenomenological Reflection – On Life

Before I start sharing on my reflection, I’d like to warn you as a reader that this essay is first and foremost written for myself, as something sort of a journal. (P.S. I have done some restructuring and inserted a few paragraphs on the existentialist perspective as a bridge for this post to be less incomprehensible although prior knowledge of the existentialist philosophies may be required for it to be intelligible). I must admit that anyone who is unfamiliar with the Buddha’s Teaching may find this essay not in the least intelligible. Nonetheless, I am putting my thoughts out here and may anyone who come across this and is earnest to understand the Dhamma find benefit from it.

Upon thinking and pondering of the Dhamma, I had the opportunity to further clarify my understanding on the nature of the more particular dhamma (things) that constitute the sense experience. Prior to this reflection, my thoughts go to the people around me who are suffering from separation, loss, grief and despair.

This indeed, monks, is the noble truth of suffering. Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, union with what is disliked is suffering, separation from what is liked is suffering, not to get what one wants, that too is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates [matter, feeling, perception, determinations, consciousness] affected with assumption are suffering.

Saṃyutta Nikāya 56:11

Having thought of the person dear to me who is suffering, I further pondered and reflected upon the nature of existence: that life truly is beyond an individual’s inherent control. In fact, one never chose to be born, for disagreeable thoughts and painful feeling to manifest in the experience is not an option, and even more pathetically if one must so desire to die, one can’t will oneself to die but rather need to do it indirectly and passively waits for Death to find one. At this instance, the memory of what Ñāṇavīra Thera wrote presented itself to me:

As Sartre has observed, Heidegger has not properly understood the nature of death, regarding it as my possibility, whereas in fact it is always accidental, even in suicide (I cannot kill myself directly, I can only cut my throat and wait for death to come).

Clearing the Path (2010), p. 227

My thoughts returned to the suffering of one who despaired over the meaninglessness of life and I humbly empathise with it. I further thought, if neither the beginning nor the end of my existence is within my actual control, what even am I?

I recalled listening to an Introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) on YouTube and thought how brilliant it was for Heidegger to describe Being (Dasein) as that which exist not in time, but as time. Simply put, to Heidegger, the past, future and present are only possible on the basis of the presence of Dasein being there, which is what existence is. [I shall continue to describe my phenomenological reflection in a separate post on the nature of the body, consciousness and the six senses. For now, I would like to give a summary on the existentialist perspective and expand on the contrasting view of life between the existential philosophers and the Buddha.]

It was on the basis of this ontological description of Dasein that Sartre construed the notion of ’empty absolute’ (i.e. for-itself, ‘pure appearance’), which he used to justify what he was most famously quoted for: ‘existence precedes essence’. As to this catch phrase, Heidegger purportedly criticised Sartre for misunderstanding his work to endorse Sartre’s own notion of subjectivism without a proper investigation into what the two terms (existence and essence) traditionally signifies.

In reality, as much as the appearance of phenomena are determined by the experience as such, we can only recognise them there because they too are given: we haven’t created them but instead find them in the experience. Conversely, as much as the appearance of phenomena is determined by our experiencing of them (existence), the experience as such is only possible because these phenomena always already (simultaneously) appear as its constituents. With this understanding, it can no longer be assumed that it is existence which precedes appearance, but rather acknowledge with greater authenticity that regardless of one’s personal view or conclusion regarding the matter, existence cannot be conceived apart from appearance. Therefore, Sartre’s notion of the ’empty absolute’ is a contradiction in terms.

While there are differing views between one existentialist thinker to another, I find the existential-phenomenologist approach in general particularly helpful in understanding our human condition. On the existential approach, Blackham wrote:

The peculiarity of existentialism, then, is that it deals with the separation of man from himself and from the world, which raises the questions of philosophy, not by attempting to establish some universal form of justification which will enable man to readjust himself but by permanently enlarging and lining the separation itself as primordial and constitutive for personal existence. The main business of this philosophy therefore is not to answer the questions which are raised but to drive home the questions themselves until they engage the whole man and are made personal, urgent, and anguished. Such questions cannot be merely the traditional questions of the schools nor merely disinterested questions of curiosity concerning the conditions of knowledge or of moral aesthetic judgements, for what is put in question by the separation of man from himself and from the world is his own being and the being of the objective world. … These questions are not theoretical but existential, the scission which makes the existing individual aware of himself and of the world in which he is makes him a question to himself and life a question to him. … Existential philosophies insist that any plain and positive answer is false, because the truth is in the insurmountable ambiguity which is at the heart of man and of the world.

Six Existentialist Thinkers (1952), pp. 151-153

It was Ñāṇavīra Thera who quoted Blackham in the Preface of his Notes on Dhamma and praised the existentialist thinkers for confronting the big question on personal existence head-on rather than ‘drawing back in alarm and seeking refuge in distractions’ through positive answers (i.e. beliefs, faith), which sole function is to conveniently relieve one of anxiety. However, he also highlighted the inadequacy of the existentialist conclusions owing to unawareness or a blind spot:

Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable. Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified. But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute. The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a ‘commoner’, and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are. One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, ‘noble’, and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world.

Notes on Dhamma (2021), pp. XIV-XVI

How, then, does the Buddha resolve this ambiguity that has tormented the existential philosophers (who come after him) for centuries? It is through rightly understanding the nature of ‘self’ and the world [to be further expanded in a separate post]. Ajahn Ñāṇamoli Thero elucidated the right understanding thus:

The Teaching tells him that ‘existence’ cannot be conceived anywhere apart from ‘appearance’, but also that it is not ‘appearance’ as such; even more importantly, it also tells him that ‘existence’ does not depend on ‘appearance’ directly, it depends on the ‘assumption’ (upādāna) in regard to that which appears, and this means nothing else than that the appearance, for its appearing, does not require existence at all—it is actually better without it.
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“The five-assumed-aggregates, friend Visākha, are not just assuming; but neither is there assumption apart from the five-assumed-aggregates. That, friend Visākha, in the five-assumed-aggregates which is desire-&-lust, that assumption is therein.” (MN 44/i,299-300)
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Thus this inquiry has passed ‘through’ the puthujjana’s ‘being’, which must not be either denied (dismissed) or justified (explained), but established as a phenomenon. It was seen that this phenomenon, far from being a reason because of which things appear, actually depends on the puthujjana’s assumption in regard to that which appears. …with the Buddha’s aid, a puthujjana can further see that actually the existence is not that which appears—it never was. It is the appearance that exists, by him assuming it (or by being ignorant in regard to it). The existence, in order to be, requires maintaining (hence upādānapaccāya bhavo). In this way a new perspective has emerged on the relationship between existence and appearance…

Meanings (2020), pp. 26-28

In other words, with the puthujjana‘s tacit assumption of existence, this phenomenon of appropriation over the appearance of things was never noticed (i.e. the self ‘I’ is taken absolutely for granted). With the cessation of assumption of existence as that which appears, through ‘seeing’ the principle of paṭiccasamuppāda (dependent co-arising) in existence [separate post], the puthujjana ceases to be a puthujjana and thereby becomes an ariya.

‘Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing’

Sotāpatti-phala (fruition of ‘stream-entry’)

Having attained this knowledge, the Noble disciple thereafter trains for the thorough purification of ‘being’ to a point where the conceit [I] ‘am’ would cease without remainder.

What we call the ‘self’ is a certain characteristic of all experience, that seems to be eternal. It is quite obvious that for all men the reality and permanence of their selves, ‘I’, is taken absolutely for granted; and the discrepancy that Kierkegaard speaks of is simply that between my ‘self’ (which I automatically presume to be permanent) and the only too manifestly impermanent ‘things’ in the world that ‘I’ strive to possess. The eternal ‘subject’ strives to possess the temporal ‘object’, and the situation is at once both comic and tragic—comic, because something temporal cannot be possessed eternally, and tragic, because the eternal cannot desist from making the futile attempt to possess the temporal eternally. This tragi-comedy is suffering (dukkha) in its profoundest sense. And it is release from this that the Buddha teaches. How? By pointing out that, contrary to our natural assumption (which supposes that the subject ‘I’ would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all), the existence of the subject depends upon the existence of the object; and since the object is manifestly impermanent, the subject must be no less so. And once the presumed-eternal subject is seen to be no less temporal than the object, the discrepancy between the eternal and the temporal disappears (in four stages—sotāpatti, sakadāgāmitā, anāgāmitā, and arahatta); and with the disappearance of the discrepancy the two categories of ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’ also disappear. The arahat neither laughs nor weeps; and that is the end of suffering (except, of course, for bodily pain, which only ceases when the body finally breaks up).

Clearing the Path (2010), p. 232

I am publishing this post non-coincidentally with the Vesak day celebration. I am aware that what I have written briefly may be hard to grasp and I would like to expand on some of them in a separate post. This follow-up post will encapsulate the Buddha’s ‘Noble method’ to uproot suffering, although I am afraid to promise that it would make the Dhamma any less difficult to understand—it will not! However, as Ñāṇavīra Thera said, the Dhamma is indeed difficult and it serves no useful purpose to pretend that it is not; or worse, to make it easy by leaving out the difficulty. I would like to end this post with a word of encouragement for all to strive heedfully for the destruction of suffering. May all beings be happy!

Ānanda, there are these five-assumed-aggregates wherein a bhikkhu should dwell contemplating appearance-&-disappearance: ‘Such is matter, such is the appearance of matter, such is the disappearance of matter. Such is feeling, such is the appearance of feeling, such is the disappearance of feeling. Such is perception, such is the appearance of perception, such is the disappearance of perception. Such are determinations, such is the appearance of determinations, such is the disappearance of determinations. Such is consciousness, such is the appearance of consciousness, such is the disappearance of consciousness.’ For him, while he dwells contemplating appearance-&-disappearance in the five-assumed-aggregates, whatever conceit ‘I am’ there is in the five-assumed-aggregates, that is abandoned.

Majjhima Nikāya 122

Further Reading:


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