Humans are creatures that see meaning everywhere, hope for a better future, pray to gods, spirits and ancestors and believe life goes on after death. This mentality has been with us for thousands of years, and to this day the majority of us either share it or have heard about and rejected it.
There are three major ways of responding to it.
The first way: throughout history Western and Middle Eastern thinkers usually responded to their religious intuitions by saying ‘If we have these thoughts, it’s because they’re true and God planted them in us. Yes, the message has been distorted over time, resulting in different cultures praying to different gods and envisioning different afterlives, but everyone has the basic religious impulse and that has to mean something’.
Over the last 500 years various scientific and philosophical shifts have opened up a second way of looking at these intuitions — they’re alluring fantasies, but we know better now. When it was first announced, the “death of God” was seen as a profound loss: ‘Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?’ Enter “disenchantment”, existentialism, nihilism, alienation, “absurdity”. Enter Camus declaring that suicide is the only serious philosophical problem. Weber wondering how to fill the vacuum when religion can’t help us and science can’t satisfy us. Everything from sport to shopping being called the “new religion”.
It’s not that every atheist is unhappy — I know a lot of atheists whose temperament is sunnier than mine. And they don’t all go around obsessing over the meaninglessness of life — it’s been fashionable for a while now to focus on the more upbeat side of Nietzsche and say ‘You can create your own meaning’ or ‘Why should life have a meaning anyway?’
But despite attempts to replace negative terms like “atheism” and “nihilism” with positive ones like “secular humanism”, one thing that’s remained constant since the “death of God” is a sense of absence — we once believed something, now we don’t. You can resign yourself to the idea that when you die, you’re dead, but very few people jump for joy about it.
In the West, we generally assume that these are our only two options: theism (life has a higher purpose!) and atheism (no it doesn’t!). We’re so used to this stark choice that it’s disconcerting to find out that people came up with a third way of approaching the religious impulse 2500 years ago — before Jesus was even born. The modern West says ‘God is an illusion that makes us happy, and we’d rather be disillusioned than happy’. But in ancient India a small sect got together and said ‘God is one of many illusions that makes you unhappy, and we’d rather be disillusioned and happy’.
In fact, the more I read Buddhist and Taoist writers, the more I’m struck by the fact that they take a nihilistic, even depressive approach to just about everything in life, except for the part where they actually get depressed. Everything that gets Westerners down is presented as a positive. Everything we think of as a lack is a cause for celebration. Everything that makes us feel empty makes the ideal Buddhist feel alive — even the concept of emptiness itself.
I’ve found so many examples of this “backwards effect” in my Buddhism research that I decided to make a list out of them. I won’t source every single one of my points, but trust me, if you’re interested in this stuff you won’t have to look far to find examples of what I’m talking about.
Life has no meaning!
Jack the atheist: ‘It certainly used to. Suppose I’ll have to make my own meaning from now on.’
Jill the Buddhist: ‘“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” It’s not that we ask “Does life have meaning?”, discover it doesn’t and say “I’ll have to make do then”. It’s that we’ll be endlessly unhappy if we keep looking for meaning and endlessly happy if we accept it’s not even a valid question to ask.’
There’s no God!
Jack: ‘There certainly used to be one. And people can’t seem to stop themselves turning everything into a religion in His absence. They shouldn’t, but it obviously comforts them.’
Jill: ‘Whether God exists or not isn’t an important question — the only important thing is the reduction of suffering. We can reduce our own suffering without the help of a supernatural being — in fact, one of the key ways we do it is by letting go of concepts, including the concept of a personal God.’
There isn’t even a you! You have no stable identity!
Jack: ‘Freud took a long look at the self and decided it was nothing more than a battleground for mutually hostile tribes — unfortunately, he also said a stable ego was vital to good mental health. And Foucault said the self was a political construct and that politics was nothing more than a battleground for mutually hostile tribes. His “spaces of resistance” stuff is very liberating-sounding and everything, but it’s hardly a cheerful view of human society.’
Jill: ‘Yes, the concrete self is an illusion. So much of what we think is us — our cravings, desires, resentments, fears and rages — has nothing to do with what we actually are. But the good news is that we can detach from all of it. The more we let go of the ego’s illusions the happier we feel. Why not try experiencing life directly, without drawing a line and saying “here’s me, there’s everything else, and I’m not happy with x and I want something from y?” Why not just…be there?’
You don’t go anywhere when you die!
Jack: ‘Sucks doesn’t it? Suppose you can’t be greedy though. Hey, at least I won’t know I’m dead.’
Jill: ‘We’re all like individual waves who don’t realise they’re made up of the same thing: water. “In the world of water, there is no birth or death, no being or nonbeing, no beginning or end.” It’s hard to pin down what the Buddha himself thought about the afterlife — the sutras talk about reincarnation and other worlds — but he definitely didn’t believe in the soul, so it’s pretty easy to adapt his teaching to a secular view of the world that says “As long as life itself goes on, it doesn’t matter whether my individual ‘identity’ continues or not”.’
In fact, there’s nothing to believe in! Abandon all hope!
Jack: ‘I’ve tested just about every belief system there is and found it wanting. All the Big Stories about who we are and what we’re doing here have collapsed. There’s nothing to hope for except that your luck won’t run out.’
Jill: ‘I don’t know who first said this, but “Serenity comes when you trade expectations for acceptance”. Hope is about the future but acceptance is about the present. Imposing any kind of system on life strangles its natural vitality. Let things unfold the way they want to. The only legitimate hope is the justified expectation that you’ll get more and more peaceful the better you get at acceptance. It’s not “I hope things get better”, it’s “I don’t need things to get better because I’m ready for anything”.’
You can’t think your way out of any of this!
Jack: ‘In Enlightenment times everything was so simple: reason, science, progress. Now progress doesn’t seem certain any more. And every culture has a different idea about what truth means. And debating fundamental issues with people rarely convinces them you’re right. And postmodernism keeps undermining everything. Hume was right: reason is the “slave of the passions”, and no-one can escape their biases and presuppositions.’
Jill: ‘Thankfully the intellect doesn’t need to solve anything. Once you stop thinking of existence as a problem to solve, you realise that you can only apprehend it if you transcend the intellect. Let go of your ideas. Ditch your beliefs. Perceive things without your usual filters. The result will be an absolute clarity that sees everything exactly as it is.’
To live is to suffer!
Jack: ‘There’s pain, suffering and injustice everywhere. Be nice if there was a God to balance out the scales. As it is everything is horrifyingly unfair. All I can do is help out as much as I can, but it’s a drop in the ocean really.’
Jill: ‘I agree that we all have to help each other. But ultimately you’re responsible for liberating yourself, and the way to do that is by letting go of your desire that reality be any different than it is. Suffering isn’t an objective fact, it’s an operation of the mind. The more you train your mind not to resist reality, the less you’ll suffer.’
Nothing is certain, nothing is permanent and nothing’s secure!
Jack: ‘If there’s no destiny or purpose, then you’re left to your own devices. Success and fulfillment are a matter of dumb luck: no matter how hard you work you can’t protect yourself against a freak accident or random bad fortune. Make a botch of your life and there’s no way to make things right. All our attempts to create warmth and beauty are arbitrary, and the universe is indifferent if not outright hostile towards them.’
Jill: ‘Yes, everything is flux. But flux doesn’t create suffering, our desire to artificially solidify it does: here’s me, here’s my belief system, here are my plans for the future. The secret of happiness is to look at the river and realise that it’s always moving but always in the same place. The universe is inherently beautiful if we can just adapt ourselves to it. In fact, it is us.’
You can’t trust anyone! Everyone is an island!
Jack: ‘God’s love may endure forever, but you can’t say the same for most human love. They’re always telling you “Life’s about the connections you make along the way”, but what about faithless friends? Deaths in the family? Bad luck? An inability to socialise? What if you just don’t like most people very much? Or you want more than the highly conditional love 99% of them are able to give?’
Jill: ‘You can’t trust others, but you can always trust yourself. And you can put your faith in the solidity of the present moment. It’s next to impossible to walk the path without a mentor or the support system of the sangha, but ultimately all lasting wisdom comes from looking within rather than uncritically swallowing what others tell you. So for all that we live in “interbeing” and compassionate interaction is important, it’s equally true that we all need to retreat to the “island of self” sometimes to ground ourselves.’
99% of human activity is based in illusion, selfishness and fear!
Jack: ‘People suck. They delude themselves about their real motivations for doing and believing everything, focus on their own needs over those of others, obsess over stupid things, hate each other’s success, mess up the planet and generally act out of fear, insecurity and anger.’
Jill: ‘And realising that is half the battle. The other half is gently working on yourself until you’ve unravelled all these behaviours at the source.’
Nothing’s worth wanting! Give up on your dreams!
Jack: ‘All possessions are unsatisfying and all goals are arbitrary. They tell you to chase your dreams, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get anywhere. And when you’re lying there in the ditch “At least you tried” isn’t necessarily that much comfort.’
Jill: ‘So don’t attach yourself to possessions or goals — by which I mean don’t fret about the outcomes of your actions. Acting decisively with a specific aim in mind is noble, but saying “I won’t be happy unless my actions cause x, y and z to happen” is a waste of time. So you don’t want to be a rock star, you just want to write a song to the best of your ability. And you don’t want to change the world, you just want to help the person right in front of you.’
Status is meaningless! Don’t be gregarious! Don’t be spontaneous!
Jack: ‘Wish I could find fulfillment by forgetting about life’s absurdity and partying hard. Or “find my bliss” at the top of the social hierarchy. How are all the party animals so happy? How are the go-getters so confident? I’m obviously never gonna fit into this world…OK, that’s it, I don’t care any more. Forget status, let people think what they want. If you need me I’ll be curled up in the corner.’
Jill: ‘Exactly, forget about status. People’s opinions of you mean less than nothing. Lean into life’s absurdity. Stare down the shadow. You may not be the life and soul of the party, but the Buddha told people to avoid idle chatter and think long and hard before saying basically anything: “Does this help people or harm them? Does it improve on silence?” Mindfulness is more important than spontaneity.’
The only response to the harshness of the world is to sit around doing nothing!
Jack: ‘Consider it a protest vote.’
Jill: ‘I prefer to think of it as a regular meditation practice. Sitting quietly in your room isn’t about avoiding life’s suffering, it’s about leaning into it — investigating it, accepting it, transforming it. Taking some time for this every day makes you feel more engaged with the world, not less — it’s not designed to be a purely self-directed process. The only valid response to the harshness of the world is to treat every living thing with compassion and lovingkindness.’
Jack: ‘You’re coming off a little preachy now.’
Jill: ‘Wait, you could hear me this whole time?!’
INTERESTING STUFF. WHAT NOW?
As a Christian I don’t agree with everything I put in Jill’s mouth, but I’ve tried to represent the mainstream Buddhism perspective as well as I can. It’s a perspective I greatly admire, and applying some of its insights and techniques to my own life — albeit nested within my deeply theistic worldview — has made me a much happier person. But I also have questions and doubts, some of which I’ve gone into here and here.
Two final thoughts: first, Buddhism represents probably history’s greatest attempt to reckon with nihilism and come out the other side. People who lived over two millennia ago found a way to start from pessimistic atheism and end up in a place that looks very like Christianity: lovingkindness, compassion, joy, peace. Did their astonishing project actually work? Did their solutions come at too high a cost? Is the idea of “extinguishing the fires” basically nihilist at heart, even if the packaging is less depressing? These are all legitimate questions, but you’ve got to do your research — you can’t assume in advance that life’s only options are theism or hopeless despair.
And secondly, the tenets of Buddhism are extremely counterintuitive, subtle and open to misinterpretation. I still don’t understand a lot of them myself and I’ve been engaging with the literature for months now — years, if you count all my previous half-hearted research attempts. This makes it hard for me to figure out what parts I genuinely disagree with and what parts I simply haven’t understood. Which is why I think that these ideas are like all powerful, stimulating and potentially life-changing ideas (including those in the Bible): they should come with a health warning.
Why? For a start, Buddhism categorically doesn’t endorse misanthropy, isolationism and cynical inaction, but if you’re inclined towards them it’s very easy to use out-of-context Buddhist quotes to justify them. Then there are all the teachings that only fully apply to people in advanced spiritual shape, way above my paygrade: for example, if you genuinely don’t care about worldly status then great, but most of us do care about it, and if we pretend we don’t we risk opting out of things and embittering ourselves. It’s definitely important to remind ourselves that our spiritual condition is more important than our position in society. But for most of us, spending some of our time jockeying for status is unavoidable.
Finally, there are the doctrines that I either don’t understand properly or have genuine reservations about: things like not-self (I’m still wary of this one), the importance of unyielding self-control (I’d prefer to make mistakes, even ones that occasionally cause harm) and the necessity of loosening the ego as much as possible (this seems potentially dangerous to me). Some of these more radical, subtle ideas are very hard to approach in the right way and at the right pace at best, and too extreme in themselves at worst. Either way, I’d be wary of jumping into them headfirst.
Buddhists themselves recommend that you not make any serious attempts to walk the path without the guidance of a more experienced practitioner. As I’m not a Buddhist, my approach is to not walk any preconceived path — to keep an open mind, go it alone and go with my feelings. Some of the things I read resonate with me, others annoy me. Some of the more radical statements alienate me, and others mean specific things to me that I find comforting, whatever they were originally intended to mean.
Sometimes the same idea alienates me one minute and comforts me the next: the alienation comes from taking it at face value and trying to figure it out rationally, while the comfort comes from intuitively (even involuntarily) glimpsing a certain sense in which the statement is true and illuminating. I don’t force myself into anything. If my meditations increase my peace and effectiveness in the world they’re working, if they don’t they’re not.
Anyway, I’d like to wish everyone good luck with their dharma. If you’re a follower of the Middle Way yourself I’d love to hear from you, whether you think I’ve got everything basically right or I’ve got it all so wrong I should be banned from ever discussing the pathless path again. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me lately that experience is a thousand times more useful than thought, so the more experienced you are the more interested I am in what you have to say.