Maple Leaves in Autumn
Presented by Kelvin Ravenscroft
What legacy shall I
Flowers in spring
Cuckoo in summer
Maple leaves in autumn.
-Zen Master Ryokan (1758-1831)
In relation to his 1893 version in oils of his painting The Scream, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) declared:
“One evening I was walking along a path, the city on one side, the fiord below. I felt tired and ill….The sun was setting and the clouds turning blood-red. I sensed a scream passing through Nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked.” (2005 p.64)
It can be suggested that the experience of “…a scream passing through nature…’ and “…the clouds as…. blood….” presented in Munch’s late nineteenth century painting can be appropriated as a starting point from which to consider the question ‘Are there good reasons for describing life as ‘absurd’ or ‘meaningless’? Munch’s celebrated artwork has become a potent symbol for the human condition in which many people are, at times, overwhelmed by their experience of life which can lead them to engage with questions of meaning, purpose and value, particularly in relation to what can be termed the ‘dark nights of the soul’ which can arise in response to the experience of the pain and suffering of existence. Indeed, in the ancient Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes the writer declares: “I have seen everything that is under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:14)
The world of the twenty-first century can be regarded as a world in which the only constant is change. Nothing stays the same. All things are in a constant state of flux and development. This echoes the teaching of the Buddha in his realization at his Enlightenment that everything is impermanent; nothing is fixed or static. Everything that exists, at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels, are subject to the process of change and development. All things come into being, grow, develop, mature and, over time, age, decline and fade away.
In a post-modern world in which there appears to be no fixed, unchanging, eternal and absolute truths but instead there is a world of a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas, beliefs, practices, world views and lifestyles existence can be experienced as being disorientating, lacking a coherent vision of what life can mean and uncertainty and ambiguity in relation to how people can live authentically.
It is possible to view a relativist approach to life as being a liberation from the dominant political, religious, moral and economic systems of the past. The evolving and emerging opportunities facilitated by the developing virtual worlds of digital technologies, for example, can be viewed as presenting creative opportunities for human beings to become the persons they truly wish to be unfettered by geographical boundaries and political restrictions. This can be seen as opening up a new world of freedom and creativity in which each individual has available to them economic, educational and technological resources which promote freedom of expression and the potential for a higher standard of living and an enhanced quality of life.
However, there is a contrary view which suggests that in a context of widening inequalities between the developed world and the developing world, where environmental degradation is rampant and where violence, conflict and war affect millions of people the post-modern vision can be regarded with some suspicion. Even in affluent societies addiction, for example, in its many and varied forms is widespread and many people experience high levels of stress, insecurity and depression and suicide is a significant phenomenon. In such a scenario the challenge with which people are presented concerns the question of how is it possible to find the motivation, energy and resources to adapt to unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances? How is it possible to discern, discover and create meaning, value and purpose in a world characterised by what the Buddha termed “dukkha”, suffering,
In such a world how is it possible to develop and maintain, for example, any degree of political, economic, social and moral consensus? Is it actually possible to formulate a vision of society to which most people would voluntarily subscribe? Or are we actually heading inevitably and irreversibly to a world of nihilism, breakdown and anarchy? Like the prisoners in Plato’s analogy of the Cave the human condition can, at times, be characterized as appearing to be like being in a state of imprisonment, living in darkness, experiencing a superficial world of appearances and shadows unable to live an authentic, liberated life of wisdom which is in harmony with the world of the Forms and particularly the Form of the Good. Echoing the First Noble Truth of Buddhism that ‘All existence is suffering’, the human condition can be viewed as being a state in which people, both individually and collectively, experience a profound sense of despair, alienation and meaninglessness in which life is perceived to be absurd and futile.
Although since the end of the Second World War in 1945 Europe has enjoyed many years of peace the conflict in former-Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing associated with it brought back to many the harrowing images of former times, evoking the sense of terror presented in Munch’s Scream. The experiences in recent years of Beslan, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria and Iraq, for example, can raise profound questions about the nature and direction of the contemporary world.
Speaking of the modern condition the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1988) declared:
“Today we live in an age of crumbling and vanishing traditions. Thus, instead of new values being created by finding unique new meanings, the reverse happens. Universal values are on the wane. That is why ever more people are caught in a feeling of aimlessness and emptiness or, as I am used to calling it, an existential vacuum….” (p.64)
Frankl’s perspective recognises that the process of change has been accompanied by humankind’s incapacity in relation to developing new meanings, creative and innovative perspectives, new ways of seeing and being in the world. He suggests that the decline of what he terms ‘universal values’ has been accompanied by the phenomenon of an absence of meaning and purpose. Frankl’s use of the word ‘feeling’ in his view that people are experiencing aimlessness and emptiness suggests that an ‘existential vacuum’ is not to be perceived purely as an abstract philosophical problem or question to be solved but, rather, refers to a profound existential and ontological experience, a crisis which strikes at the very core of one’s being. Indeed, the philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt (2006) has explored what he terms
“the beliefless religiosity of modern people for whom everything has failed. They look into the void and ask: What am I and how can I become myself? How can I pull my life together and assume responsibility for it? How can I find a way of seeing the truth about life and saying Yes to it? Modern life is getting to be so spiritually desolate that I want to know how we can inject meaning and value into our lives. And finally, I want to be at ease and free, above all, free.” (p.65)
For Cupitt, therefore, the task facing each person in contemporary society is that of responding to existence head on and addressing the questions which life presents particularly in terms of considering seriously how one can become an authentic integrated self who perceives and affirms life as being meaningful, worthwhile, significant and characterised by a radical sense of freedom.
This paper arises from a workshop entitled Maple Leaves in Autumn which the writer presented at the Manchester Buddhist Convention held at St Peter’s House and Chaplaincy on 11 October 2014. The paper develops concepts, themes and ideas explored in the workshop and considers Frankl’s perspective on the human condition and its exploration of the primacy of meaning with particular reference to aspects of Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism (1973) and Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (2005) and their connection with the experience of the Zen Buddhist Joenji Temple community in Japan in their profound and inspiring response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Reflecting upon the experience of the Fukushima nuclear disaster Koyu Abbe (2011), the Chief Monk of the Joenji Temple community has declared: “To put Buddhist belief in one word: life doesn’t go as you wish. Everyone runs into obstacles; therefore, in order to overcome this disaster we should accept that this disaster had happened and need to face the reality squarely.” He is recognising the reality that existence is characterised by contingency, finitude and impermanence. As the experience of the Buddha in his encounter with old age, sickness and death confirms, life presents challenges, which are all too often unexpected, which can shake the very foundations of our being. Suffering in its many and varied forms can have the effect of destabilising and subverting what we consider to be the reassuring predictable reliability of the positive routines and experiences of daily living. When suffering breaks into our lives it is understandable why individuals and communities ask “Why has this happened?”, “What does this all mean?”, “Why do people suffer?” “Is there any purpose to what has happened?”, “What can we do?” and “How should we respond?”. The irruption of dukkha, suffering, into our lives can present a profound existential challenge because it powerfully and painfully illustrates that our understandable and laudable aim to construct individual and social lives characterised by order, routine, predictability and some degree of certainty can, often violently, be sabotaged by forces beyond our control.
Frankl, Sartre, Camus and the Joenji Temple community can be regarded as presenting significant responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by existence and their relationship to meaninglessness and absurdity and to meaning, purpose and value. Indeed, Sartre explores key themes such as, for example, the experience of anxiety, despair, abandonment and forlornness which can be regarded as relating closely to absurdity and meaninglessness and Camus (2005) declares:
“…. man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” (p.26)
Sartre (1973) declares that “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man in consequence is forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers, forthwith, that he is without excuse” and that “…man is condemned to be free.” (p.34) In this perspective, therefore, living in a godless universe means that human beings are faced with the burden of being responsible for their choices and actions and the consequences of how they live. They cannot project on to anyone or anything the responsibility for choosing and acting autonomously and exercising their freedom. The awareness of being alone and having to choose, however, can be perceived as being a significant burden to carry. Each person, in effect, is Camus’ Sisyphus, presented with the experience of being alone, forlorn, being solely responsible for the manner in which they respond to their existential predicament. Particularly when faced with life’s, at times, overwhelming insecurities, uncertainties, pains and sorrows it can be seen as understandable why life can be viewed as ultimately being meaningless and absurd.
Indeed, Camus’ declaration that “man stands face to face with the irrational” and Cupitt’s observation that human beings “look into the void” can be regarded as sharing the perspective that the human condition is characterised by the interplay between the experience of the “irrational” and the “void”, being in a world which is experienced as not making sense, not being ordered or purposeful, lacking a goal, direction, purpose or telos and being confronted by an emptiness, a profound sense of hollowness at the heart of existence.
The analysis of the human condition presented by Sartre and Camus and the Engaged Buddhism of the Joenji Temple community are considered in this paper from the perspective of Frankl’s philosophy and therapeutic approach of Logotherapy and related perspectives in order to consider whether it is justified to suggest that life is meaningless and absurd.
The Qualifications & Curriculum Authority (QCA) (1997) in its draft guidance for pilot work in the promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development recognises that:
“Most of us have experienced, at some point in our lives, a temporary loss of spirit. this can make us feel powerless, lethargic and hopeless because we no longer believe ourselves to be equal to the challenges of life.”
The experience of not being “equal to the challenges of life” can be viewed as succinctly capturing the essence of Camus’ and Cupitt’s exploration of irrationality and the void and, it can be suggested, the profound experience of life at its challenging extremes can be regarded as a rationale for Camus’ (2005) declaration that:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest ……comes afterwards.” (p.1f)
The QCA’s recognition of the experience of the ‘loss of spirit’ would appear to be complemented by the perspective of the philosopher Sam Keen (1994) who has suggested that:
“The spiritual quest is the reverse of the religious pilgrimage. The quest begins when an individual falls into a spiritual “black hole” in which everything that was solid vaporizes. Certainties vanish, authorities are questioned, all the usual comforts and assurances of religion fail, and the path disappears. A spiritual quest is the effort to discover the meaning of life.” (p.77)
Keen’s perspective presents the view that that the quest, journey, search for the meaning of life is, ultimately, a spiritual issue. He clearly indicates that he is not equating spirituality with religion and he dramatically articulates the intensity of the experience of what he terms the ‘black hole’ of existence. It appears that, in Keen’s perspective, there is a profound sense of loss, an experience of existential bereavement, at the heart of the process of discovering, discerning and creating meaning. Such a perspective can be regarded as echoing the psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s (1964) theory of personality development termed Positive Disintegration which affirms that the anxieties and stresses of daily living and the energy utilised to attempt to resolve the challenges which life presents enable the essence, the core self or potential of the individual to be actualised through an existential process of change, growth and development. This process of personal growth, however, can be characterised by significant personal change, what can be regarded as a letting go, a dissolution of the self, at times characterised by intense anxiety and, in extreme cases trauma, from which the core potential, the essence or true self can evolve and emerge. The significance of Dabrowski’s theory in relation to consideration of life as being meaningless or absurd can be viewed as being located in its recognition of the intensities and extremes of human existence, that facing life with all of its challenges and opportunities, although having the capacity to bring about positive change and a new perspective on life, can involve, as Cupitt suggests, ‘facing the void’ and confronting what Camus calls the ‘irrationality’ of the world. It can be suggested if that one authentically and profoundly confronts the irrationality of the void, there may well be a significant existential cost, in which order, meaning, purpose, significance and value appear to be absent or disappear. The, at times, savage intensity of such an experience, for individuals and groups, can be viewed as presenting a perspective on existence in which a sense of meaninglessness and absurdity is understandable and justified. Like the women straining under the weight of carrying sacks of coal in Vincent Van Gogh’s powerful work “The Bearers of the Burden”, each person has to carry the burden of the responsibility for making choices, deciding how to act as a free agent in a world which appears to have no intrinsic meaning, no guiding moral principle or telos.
Vincent Van Gogh – The Bearers of the Burden; 1881
By the claim that man’s existence precedes his essence Sartre means that human beings are born into the world, they are thrown into existence with no pre-existing, pre-determined, fixed meaning or purpose. They do not enter the world with an already existing telos or goal to which their life is directed. This view arises from Sartre’s atheism. He declares (1973) that “Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no god to have a conception of it. Man simply is.” (p.28) As he does not believe in the existence of a supernaturally existing divine transcendent Being who is regarded as being the creator of all things and the giver of meaning, unlike religious Existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers and Soren Kierkegaard, his view is that each individual is responsible for their existence. The consequence of living in a world without God is that each individual is free to make of their life what they wish. Each person is a meaning maker who fashions out of their freedom, and the choices and actions which result from the exercise of freedom, their own personal identity. There is, therefore, in Sartre’s view, no pre-determined view of what each individual should become; each person is a free, autonomous and independent agent creating their life. Existence, therefore, is a ‘work in progress’ reflecting a creative and dynamic process of change, development and personal transformation in which each subjective self develops their own personal way of seeing the world. Each individual, therefore, has their own ‘weltanschauung’, world view, their own unique perspective on the world, their personal way of perceiving and experiencing existence. For Sartre (1973) “… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward. (p.28) He affirms, therefore, that each human being are the makers of their own meaning. Each person “encounters himself” which suggests that at the heart of existence is the experience of facing up to who one is and what one might become. There is, in effect, an internal dialogue within the developing and changing self which necessitates self-awareness and self-understanding. To become the person one has the potential to be, therefore, requires reflection upon experience. For Sartre, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” (p.28) Such a perspective can suggest that life is a dynamic process of creative change, growth and development in which the challenges and opportunities with which human beings are presented are the vehicles through each person can actualise their potential. There is, therefore, inherent in Sartre’s philosophy, a forward looking, future orientated way of seeing and being in the world characterised by the realisation of one’s potential. Such an affirmative understanding of life may be viewed as being contrary to any perspective which perceives existence as being absurd or meaningless.
Sartre’s understanding of individuals as meaning makers and controllers of their own destiny can be evaluated in terms of what can be considered to be its positive and negative aspects. His view that ‘existence precedes essence’ can be regarded as positive in the sense that his philosophy affirms human freedom. It ascribes to humankind the actuality of the freedom inherent in the potential to become the person they are capable of becoming. In this respect, therefore, Sartre’s philosophy affirms the capacity for human beings to grow, change and develop. At the heart of it, therefore, is the recognition that a key feature of human existence is the possibility of transformation at both the personal and social level.
A positive aspect of the affirmation of transformation is that Sartre’s views can be regarded as complementing the perspectives presented in the therapeutic philosophies of, for example, Viktor Frankl, (2010) Carl Rogers (1977) and Abraham Maslow (2011) who recognised the centrality of transformation in human life. For Frankl his philosophy of Logotherapy affirmed the primacy of the “will to meaning”; each person is a unique individual who, out of the raw materials of their existence, strives to fashion a life of value, purpose and significance. Rogers’ non-directive, person-centred counselling recognises that, central to the therapeutic process, is the belief that each individual is responsible for the life they create. Each person can transcend what might appear to be their life’s limitations and challenges and create a life of meaning, purpose and value. In this sense, Sartre’s philosophy of personal freedom, with its view that “existence precedes essence” can be regarded as anticipating key concepts, themes and ideas which underpin much of the philosophy of the modern Human Potential Movement and the key features of Humanistic Psychology.
The significance of transformation, both personally and socially, and the primacy of the “will to meaning” has been demonstrated in the action undertaken by the Zen Buddhist monks of the Joenji Temple in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Koyu Abbe (2011), Chief monk at the Temple declared: “I contemplated what I could do. I decided to receive the radiated dirt at my Temple. The Temple ground is vast.” Together with his community, Koyu Abbe made the decision to undertake transformative action in order to try to alleviate the radioactivity emanating from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Temple took large quantities of the radiated soil and stored it in the Temple grounds and established a project entitled “Hana ni Negaiwo”, “Make A Wish Upon Flowers” which encouraged the local population to plant sunflower seeds and mustard seeds together with other plants in order for them to absorb and transform the radiation. In effect, the Joenji monks have taken their practices of meditation, mindfulness, contemplation and reflection and made connections between their individual and collective spiritual disciplines and the wider ecology of their Temple grounds and the surrounding towns and villages. The spiritual disciplines, therefore, engage with the environmental, social and economic challenges presented by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The deep inner contemplative spirituality of the monks makes profound and practical connections with the outer transformative challenges and opportunities of the wider environment. In his 14 Principles of Engaged Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh (1993) indicates: “Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Through their sunflower project the monks of Joenjai Temple are, indeed, awakening themselves and others to the reality of suffering in the world and are undertaking action aimed at alleviating some of this suffering motivated by “metta”, loving kindness.
In addition to the connections with modern perspectives on personal development Sartre’s ideas and the Engaged Buddhism of the Joenji Temple monks can also be regarded as illustrating key aspects of what has become known as the Narrative Self approach to exploring human identity and self-understanding. In the Narrative Self approach, articulated by writers such as Jerome Bruner (2003), Dan McAdams (1997), Adriana Caverero (2000) and Anthony Rudd (2012), each human life is a creative work, a work of telling one’s story. Each individual is the creator and author of their own life script. Echoing Shakespeare’s view that “All the world’s a stage”, the approach of the Narrative Self affirms that each individual’s “life script” is continuously evolving, it is free-flowing and dynamic; it is in a constant state of flux. One’s life, therefore, is akin to a dramatic improvisation or like musicians jamming and not following a pre-written score. Sartre’s philosophy, which has as its central foundation the view that “existence precedes essence”, can be regarded, therefore, as presenting to modern man an approach to life which affirms change, development, process, transformation, creativity and innovation. It can be regarded as being a philosophy which is appropriate and relevant for a post-modern, wired, world of change and is not consistent with any perspective which regards life as meaningless or absurd.
However, although it is possible to recognise and affirm these positive features of Sartre’s philosophy it can be suggested that there are also aspects of it which can be considered as having potentially negative implications. Firstly, insights of the Social Sciences including psychology, sociology and anthropology indicate that man is not born or, to use Sartre’s expression, ‘thrown’ into an empty world. Each human being is born into a specific historical, social, political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious context. From the moment of birth, therefore, each human being is engaged in a creative and, at times, challenging dialogue with their environment and they navigate and negotiate encounters with, for example, their family, friends and peer group together with a range of social, political, educational, commercial and religious organisations, institutions and networks. There is a dynamic dialectic between the subjective self and the social and the physical world, one’s environment. Even within highly developed, economically prosperous countries there are very significant variations in, for example, the health, educational and economic opportunities which people have access to and these can impact profoundly upon personal and social physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. There is, therefore, a dynamic interaction between nature and nurture, between the experience of the individual being, as Sartre indicates, ‘thrown into the world’ and the opportunities and life chances available to them. Although such a perspective does not necessitate the holding of a deterministic perspective on people’s life chances it does recognise that, although the exercise of freedom is a characteristic of human existence, some people are more able to exercise this freedom than others.
It can be suggested, therefore, that in his existential philosophy, Sartre affirms and promotes the centrality of human freedom and the capacity to create meaning at the expense of downplaying the significance of the powerful interaction between nature and nurture and the impact of this upon authentic choice, decision-making and action and the capacity for persons to actualise their potential. Indeed, experience clearly indicates that human beings have very diverse life experiences. Although the Social Sciences do not argue for a deterministic view of human existence it can be acknowledged that, for many people, their life chances, choices and opportunities are significantly limited by the context into which they are born and socialised. In a very real sense, therefore, it can be suggested that there are perhaps significant numbers of people who, in respect of their life situation and the impact upon their lives of factors largely beyond their control, experience what can be described as lives which, at times, can be characterised a meaningless and absurd.
A powerful and dramatic example of a life lived at the extremes of existence is embodied in the experiences in the Dachau, Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps of Viktor Frankl (1984) who developed an approach to psychiatry which recognises the primacy of humankind’s search for meaning. Frankl believed that existential frustration and spiritual problems can lead to the development of what he termed “noogenic neurosis” in which individuals struggle to come to terms with the value and meaning of their lives. Central to Frankl’s philosophy is a psychotherapeutic approach called Logotherapy which aims to facilitate exploration of questions of meaning, value and purpose.
Frankl (1973) has commented that
Man’s struggle for his self and his identity is doomed to failure unless it is enacted as dedication and devotion to something beyond his self, to something above his self. (p.83)
For Frankl, meaningful existence is found in a person’s commitment to someone or something beyond themselves; meaning, therefore, transcends the ego. History confirms that despite the many and varied challenges that human beings, both individually and collectively, have faced people have the tenacity and resilience to dedicate themselves to a cause, passion or ideal beyond themselves. The achievements of the arts and culture, the discoveries and inventions of science and technology, the exploration of the natural world and of space and the deep faith embodied in the spiritual traditions of the world, for example, illustrate vividly that humankind displays a dynamic and innovative capacity for creating, discerning and discovering ever evolving multifaceted meanings. Can such a history and such a world really be experienced and described as meaningless and absurd?
Maria and Edward Marshall (2012) have noted that:
A literal translation of the term ‘logotherapy’ is’ therapy through meaning’ … it could also be translated as ‘healing through meaning’… (p.44)
Frankl’s Logotherapy is affirming that questions of meaning, value and purpose are at the heart of being human and he (Frankl; 1973) has suggested that life can be made meaningful in three ways:
…. first, through what we give to life (in terms of our creative works); second, by what we take from the world (in terms of our experiencing values); and third, through the stand we take towards a fate we no longer can change (an incurable disease, an inoperable cancer, or the like). (p.25)
This tri-dimensional understanding of meaning derives from the interpretation of life as
…. a chain of questions which man has to answer by answering for life, to which he has to respond by being responsible, by making decisions, by deciding which answers to give to the individual questions. (p.27)
Such a perspective complements Sartre’s affirmation of the necessity for exercising freedom, making choices and acting authentically.
In his summary of the implications of Frankl’s philosophy of existence for educators Thorne (1991) has commented that
In an age when values and traditions are in the melting pot, the individual receives very little help from his environment as he seeks to confront the ultimate questions of his own meaning and value. Indeed, he may for a while be separated altogether from these questions by an all-embracing materialism. (p.115)
Thorne’s reference to what he terms “an all-embracing materialism” introduces the point of view that in modern society people can be distracted from exploring issues of meaning, purpose and value as there exists a culture which promotes ‘having’ rather than ‘being’. The psychologist Erich Fromm (1978) has delineated two modes of existence and articulated an analysis of human values in terms of the distinction between the modes of Having and Being. He suggests that:
In the having mode of existence my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property (p.33)
In the Being mode of existence, however,
…we must identity two forms of being. One is in contrast to having, … and means aliveness and authentic relatedness to the world.
The other form of being is in contrast to appearing and refers to the true nature, the true reality of a person or thing in contrast to deceptive appearances… (p.33)
It is possible to view the “all-embracing materialism” to which Thorne refers as being itself symptomatic of the awareness, which can often be repressed, of the experience of meaninglessness and absurdity of life. In such a view materialism can be viewed as a way of avoiding life’s ultimate questions; it can become an anaesthetic, a drug, by which one hopes to ease the pain of existence. Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork The Bearers of the Burden starkly and powerfully portrays the experience of the literal burdens that people carry but it can also be regarded as presenting a poignant reminder of the existential burdens that life confronts each individual with. Each person carries, like Sisyphus, their personal rock, their own burdens.
Although Camus’ reflections can initially appear to suggest that, like Sisyphus’ experience of rolling the rock up the mountain only for it to fall down and the task therefore requiring repetition ad infinitum, there is both absurdity and meaninglessness to existence, he does conclude his analysis of the human condition with the declaration (Camus; 2005) that:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (p.119)
There appears, therefore, to be a paradox at the heart of Camus’ philosophy presented in The Myth of Sisyphus. The relentless, constant task that Sisyphus faces on the mountain can be viewed as meaningless and even absurd. What does it really achieve? What is its purpose? Does it really have any significance or value? If Sisyphus’ task, although appearing in one sense to be heroic in its struggle, is, in reality, devoid of meaning and purpose, then it can be understandable why life can be perceived as being both meaningless and absurd to which an appropriate and justified response could be suicide. However, this is not actually the way of seeing the world with which Camus concludes his work. Indeed, he appears to present a contrary, even hopeful, view. It can be suggested that he is articulating an approach to life which, whilst agreeing with Sartre that we live in a godless universe (“…the universe…without a master…”), recognises and affirms that meaning and purpose can be discerned and located in the very act, the process, of engaging heroically and authentically with the challenges with which we are presented in life. Although Sisyphus’ task may, understandably, appear to be almost tragic in nature, destined to repeatedly engage in activity devoid of meaning, it is in his attitude and approach to, and his engagement with, his task that meaning and purpose is to be found. In his declaration that “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world” Camus is affirming that, the stone, the burden which Sisyphus has to constantly and carry, is, in effect, the very vehicle, the channel, through which he can locate meaning. The very fact that he has to struggle with a demanding task is a giver of meaning and purpose; the rock which in one sense is the burden which he literally carries, is also simultaneously the provider of meaning. Camus’ perspective, therefore, can be regarded as being congruent with Frankl’s affirmation that life can be made meaningful “…through the stand we take towards a fate we no longer can change…” (p.25) and complements Sartre’s (1973) affirmation of optimism in his declaration that:
Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair…; what man needs to do is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action….” (p.56)
Sartre therefore, presents a way of seeing and being in the world which affirms that it is through living authentically in a world without God that each person can make sense of their life, discover who they really are and act in the world accordingly. This view is a celebratory, hopeful and ultimately optimistic response to the human condition and is compatible with Camus’ perspective that “The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” The inspiring and ennobling transformative action of the Joenji monks can be viewed as articulating and embodying the capacity for human beings to “struggle towards the heights” and for their hearts to, indeed, be filled.
It can be suggested, therefore, that although the existential philosophies of Sartre and Camus present a clear and direct exploration of the human condition with its profound challenges, their analyses also present an approach to life which complements that of Frankl in his affirmation of the primacy of meaning and ultimately cogently negates the view that life is meaningless and absurd.
Indeed, such a philosophy of hope and optimism is affirmed by Cupitt (2007) in his declaration that:
We should not attempt to escape from the terrors of existence. Instead we should by faith cast ourselves into existence in all its one way temporality, its contingency, and is transience. We must both recognise clearly what our life is, and find the courage for the solar living that nevertheless says “Yes” to life, and steps boldly out over the abyss. (p.85)
The Joenji monks and the Make A Wish Upon Flowers project in their planting of sunflowers to transform the radiated soil can be regarded as saying a joyous Yes! to life and are presenting a simple, yet profound illustration of the capacity of spiritual traditions to engage with the challenges and opportunities of life. Their transformative action affirms and embodies Frankl’s declaration that man’s struggle for self identity is rooted and located in “… dedication and devotion to something beyond his self, to something above his self.”
Large Sunflowers by Emil Nolde
Koyu Abbe has declared: “My hope is, as we wish upon flowers, the seeds of sunflowers and many other flowers we have distributed will bloom in Fukushima and become everyone’s flower of hope and happiness for the future. I wish this from the bottom of my heart.” In this perspective the act of growing sunflowers is a practical meaningful act of transformation. As the sunflower plants absorb the radiation from the surrounding area they act as a profound symbol of transformation in the personal, social and ecological dimensions of existence. What can be regarded as a simple act of planting and nurturing seeds illustrates that simple actions have the potential to have significant, even far-reaching, consequences. Confirming the understanding of the Buddhist law of karma, actions do have consequences. How we live, what we do and say, how we relate to, and connect with, others and with our wider ecologies, all have significance. It is like the pebble tossed into the lake. Once the pebble is thrown into the water we are no longer in control of what happens. We are actively involved in the casting of the stone into the water but we are not in control of, and we cannot ultimately predict, the extent and the force of the ripples on the lake which arise from the act of casting the stone. There is a profound sense, therefore, in which in a world in which we can easily become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of “dukkha” in its many and varied forms, the inspiring and ennobling example of the monks of the Joenji Temple present us with a contemporary role model illustrating how small acts can have very significant consequences. Indeed, from a small seed a mighty oak can grow. It can be suggested that in his declaration that “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed” Jesus, in harmony with the Buddha, draws our attention to the importance of “planting seeds”, preparing the ground for, and nurturing actions, activities, initiatives and projects which can transform lives and transform, in the process, darkness into light, hopelessness into hope and despair into meaning and purpose. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is present wherever and whenever positive transformation is manifested. The Monks of the Joenji Temple gently, humbly, yet powerfully illustrate that significant transformation can arise from relatively small acts of “metta”, loving kindness, in which individually and collectively persons can create and leave a legacy. Each human being, responding to the precious gift of life in all of its fragile glory, can create the ripples on the pond confirming that, ultimately, all things exist in a dynamic, creative and interconnected web of life. Each person begins where they are, in their own context and situation. From this context they exercise their freedom to choose and act and, in this process they can actualise transformation. Inspired by the teaching and way of the Buddha, the “Dharma”, the Joenji monks affirm the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path and mindfully, creatively and with compassion for all beings bring about, at times almost imperceptibly, profound personal, social and ecological change. The Joenji monks and the Make A Wish Upon Flowers project articulates clearly and unambiguously Sartre’s perspective that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” To be a person is to be embodied and engaged; we do not exist as disembodied minds engaging purely in rational thought. Thinking and reflection is translated into engagement with the world. We are what we do. Who we are is how we act.
Text (c) Kelvin Ravenscroft; 2014
Invisible Snow Film:
Invisible Snow is a moving and inspiring film clearly illustrating Engaged Buddhism. It presents a Zen Buddhist monk, Koyu Abe, who initiated the planting of millions of sunflowers and other plants, at the temple in Joenji (50 km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant) and spreading out into the surrounding area. The flowers are believed to absorb the radiation emanating from Fukushima.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Ward and Cheri Maples explore Mindfulness, Suffering, and Engaged Buddhism:
Souls of Zen: Buddhism, Ancestors and the 2011 Tsunami in Japan dvd
This film follows Buddhist priests through the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011. The film explores perspectives on the significant role that Buddhsim played in the care of those lost or bereaved following the disaster.
Please see: www.soulsofzen.com
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