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“Beyond Binaries”: A Comparative Study of Buddhism and Western Existentialist Theory


“Beyond Binaries”: A Comparative Study of Buddhism and Western Existentialist Theory

Parth Chandrakant Yadav

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Yashavantrao Chavan Institute of Science

Stara, Maharashtra, India



In their haste to secure the primacy and hegemony of western epistemology, the occidental scholarship has blatantly negated the contributions of Eastern philosophies and theologies, eitherby assimilating them into Christian metaphysical manifold or by reducing them into various binaries which are central to western phenomenology. The Buddhist philosophy faced the similar fate and was misinterpreted to be rooted in binaries because of its apparent similarities with western existentialism.  This paper is an attempt to compare the two schools of thought and delineate the similarities and differences between them.

Keywords: Binaries; Buddhist Philosophy, Sartrean Existentialism; Western Epistemology


The advent of nineteenth century marks the expansion of European colonial enterprise to the far eastern corners of the globe. The dichotomy of “the Self” and “the other” discussed by Edward Said can be seen getting manifested in the form of the white man’s perceived cultural superiority over the orient. As its after-effect, the European imperialist regimes took it upon themselves to “civilize” the “savage” orient, a typical colonial approach which Rudyard Kipling ironically referred to as “the White Man’s Burden”. That is precisely when they came to know about Buddhism and many other eastern philosophical traditions, which were soon brought under the scrutiny of European scholars. In their haste to secure the primacy and hegemony of western epistemology, the occidental scholarship blatantly negated the contributions of Eastern philosophies and theologies, either by assimilating them into Christian metaphysical manifold or by reducing them into various binaries which are central to western phenomenology. Many of the concepts and ideas rooted in eastern thought transcended the very binaries that conceived and shaped western phenomenology. These concepts were indeed incomprehensible to a western mindset which tended to dichotomize whatever it could not perceive. This resulted in an obvious misinterpretation of eastern philosophical thought which was presented in a much distorted manner that suited the ethnocentric tendency of the European society. Since the scope of this essay is limited to Buddhism as one of the principle eastern thought, I would henceforth speak of it in particular.

Canonical Buddhism and European Buddhism

Such a superficial distinction exists chiefly because of the “problem of western misinterpretation of eastern thought” which has already been discussed in the introductory part. “Canonical Buddhism” (Kasulis 86) is that genuine Buddhism which, in its original entirety, arose in Jambudvipa (ancient India) around 6th century BCE, and as is reflected by the ancient Buddhist scriptures and its various practices around the world. On the other hand, “European Buddhism” (Kasulis 86) is that misinterpreted form of Buddhism which was “authenticated” by many of the European scholars following the nineteenth century “Nirvana Debates1” and the misapplied residue of which followed into the twentieth century formulation of western existentialist theory. European Buddhism was based on the very famous binary of “eternalism2 versus annihilationism3”, which functions as the mainstay of the western soul theory and even, for that matter, Hindu philosophy. Nineteenth and early twentieth European scholarship including Eugene Burnouf, Max Muller, Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, owing to their “predominant western dualist templates4”, wrongly equated the Buddhist concepts like Nirvana and Sunyata with annihilationism (Kasulis 76). Nietzsche’s theory of “nihilism5” serves as a supreme example of the misapplication of the European Buddhism. The idea of “Nihilism” severely takes from this annihilationist European perspective of Buddhism. Nietzsche, in his ignorance, employs “Buddhism” as a key example while explaining the concept of “passive nihilism”.

“its most famous form, Buddhism; a passive nihilism, a sign of weakness.” (Nietzsche 23.18)

Nietzsche’s ignorance as he proclaims Buddha to be the flagbearer of passive nihilism has deep roots in the European supremacist tendency. This annihilationist European perspective had a significant impact on how an average European perceived Buddhism. Roger-Pol Droit has summarized the extent to which the westerners discarded Buddhism, one of the greatest philosophical traditions in the world, claiming it to be “a religion of nothingness”.

“The Buddha became the symbol of nightmare. His basic teaching, they said, contained something impossible: the human spirit could not really desire its own loss. And yet Buddhism was real: its antiquity rivaled at least that of the Greeks, and the number of its adherents was greater than what Christianity could claim. It was difficult not to admire its moral teachings. Nevertheless, it was not possible to consider it a theological system. In the beginning, the existence of Buddhism, a quite late discovery, was like a bad dream for Europe. It was seen as a paradoxical and horrible religion of nothingness.” (Droit 4)

Nietzsche’s “nihilism” was used by Jean-Paul Sartre to form the core of his concepts which he later combined to produce what we refer as the western existential theory. Though Sartre never mentioned Buddha or his teachings anywhere in his works, his philosophical oeuvre centers around Nietzsche’s idea of nihilism which is clearly based on the foundation of the western misinterpretation of Buddhism. Thus, it is important to bring forward the Canonical Buddhism which thrives “Beyond Binaries” not only to counter its misinterpreted European version but also to study the key similarities and differences between the Buddhist thought and Western Existentialist Theory.

Anatman (Anatta) and non-self

Anatmanis a Buddhist doctrine which asserts that “there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul, or essence in phenomena” (“Anatta”). Buddhism, with its no-soul theory, transcends the predominant binary of eternalism and annihilationism, as it completely rejects the possibility of an eternal selfhood or utter obliteration (for there is no soul in the first place). One of the apparent reasons why Buddhism was demarcated into these traditional binaries was the inability of western ontology to even consider the possibility of self-negation given its strong individualist leanings. Sartre, with his theory of existentialism, was the first European scholar who at least considered the possibility of a “non-self”. Thus, it is possible to compare Buddhism and Sartre as Heyman states-

“(Buddhism and Sartre) have comparable theories of consciousness” and (Buddhism’s) rejection of the self is similar to Sartre’s rejection of the Ego as the center of consciousness.” (Heyman 431,433)

Sartre’s core concepts of “being for-itself” and “being in-itself” aid us in understanding his model of consciousness as “non-self”. “Being for itself” is the “subject” of the consciousness, while “being in-itself”, consisting of all the non-conscious entities that simply exist in external reality, is its “object” (Lee). According to Sartre, since “being for-itself” has a “freedom” to negate the aspects of “being in-itself”, it is trapped in a forever “lack” which arouses constant “desires” to be “complete” and “fulfilled” like “being in-itself”. Thus, being for-itself, since it is lacking the “completeness” of being in-itself, is non-self. Furthermore, its “desire” to become “being in-itself” results into a perpetual “anguish”, i.e., suffering. Sartre’s “non-self” is, in many ways, is similar to Buddhist Anatman, especially in terms of its aspects of “desire” and “suffering” referred to as Trishnaand Dukkha in Buddhist terminology. Second Noble Truth of Buddhism clearly makes a reference to these concepts and establishes Trishnaas the source of Dukkha.

“The cause of suffering. The action of the outside world on the senses excites a craving thirst. For something to satisfy them, or delight in the objects presenting themselves, either of which is accompanied by a lust of life” (Davids 48)

Dukkha and Existential Anguish

Sartre’s existentialist theory establishes existential anguish to be an end in itself and commits to a view that the being for itself can never escape suffering except when it is in “Bad Faith”. In Sartrean terms, bad faith is that unauthentic way to lead life where being for itself gives up its freedom and responsibility to accord to an illusory selfhood. According to Sartre, such a person is simply living a life of illusion and is deep down aware that the selfhood he is clinging to is a lie and not a “true self” and suffers anyway. Buddhism has a similar concept called Upadana, where a sentient being, because of the influence of five skandhas6, clings to a false atman (selfhood). Upadanais the principal reason behind human suffering in Buddhism.

While Sartrean existential theory is averse to any solution for existential anguish (besides death) and deems living with it as an only way to lead an authentic life, Buddhism provides a noble way to put an end to one’s suffering in the form of the Eightfold Path7 (ariyaashtangamarga), which, if a sentient being follows sincerely, can lead to Nirvana, the “freedom” from suffering. To assess the nature of Nirvana, one first need to understand the concepts of Svabhavaand Sunyata. Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna has addressed the conflict between Svabhavaand Sunyatain his work Mulamadhyamakakarika.

Svabhavaand Essence

Svabhava in Buddhist thought and “essence” in Sartre are truly interchangeable terms and necessarily mean “intrinsic or essential nature of beings” (“Svabhava (Buddhism)). What differentiates is how these similar concepts are treated in their respective philosophies. Sartre’s existential theory asserts that the for-itself is “lacking” of the “essence”, but it has “freedom” to make decisions and these decisions constitute its “essence”. Though Sartre’s existential theory holds the opinion that “existence precedes essence”, it cannot completely get rid of the concept of “essence”. The idea of “Essence”, thus in many ways, is at the center of western existential theory.

Buddhism, on the other hand, outrightly rejects the validity of such an “essence” or Svabhava. For such an “essence” or Svabhavato exist, there must be an entity that is autonomous, independent, and unchangeable. Buddhist doctrine of “Dependent Origination” states that there is nothing that exist in an enclosed autonomous bubble, instead everything is interdependent and connected with each other through causal links. If one looks into the Buddhist theory of impermanence (anitya), it completely dismisses the possibility of a permanent essence or Svabhava. Thus, “the true nature of existence” is dynamic, continuously changing, and “radically Becoming” (Kasulis, p.86). This assertion in Buddhism is inclusive of the nature of external reality which is deemed to be “non-permanent”, “a transitory illusion (Maya)” and mere “projection of fruition (Vipaka) of karmic seeds (Sankharas)” (“Reality in Buddhism”). Sartrean existential theory, as opposed to this, takes materialist position in its understanding of external reality, and believes in a “concrete” reality or a “complete” being in-itself.

Sunyataand Nothingness

As I have already discussed, Buddhism staunchly believes that the true nature of being is dynamic and constantly “becoming”. For anything to “become”, it has to be “empty” and “open” in the first place. Buddhism entails that there is a peculiar “emptiness” or “nothingness” inherent in being. Buddhists refer to this “emptiness” as Sunyata which is further fortified by the doctrine of “Dependent Origination”. The theory of “Dependent Origination” posits that nothing in the universe is “independent” and “complete” in itself and thus it is impossible for anything to be more complete than other things. All that exists is equal in their being, and that being as Sunyataasserts is Zero. Many European scholars who participated in the Nirvana debates in nineteenth century, owing to their binary templates, associated the concept of Sunyata either with eternalism or with annihilationism. Sunyatacannot be an eternal, autonomous, complete “selfhood” since it is essentially empty of Svabhavaor essence, neither can it be an utter nihilation because a sentient being, when devoid of Upadanaor “attachment”, can experience the “fullness” of this “emptiness” (Sunyata) in the form of “suchness” (Tathata). In these regards, J. Jeffery Franklin, citing Nagarjuna’s arguments in Mulamadhyamakakarika, asserts that –

Sunyata, far from being an absolute void, is, in effect, a fullness of the interdependence with everything else in the universe that is made possible by the very absence of any essence or void.” (Kasulis 88)

The concept of Sunyatacan be “Present” at the same time it is “absent”. In that sense, it necessarily transcends the binary of eternalism and annihilationism.

On the other hand, the “nothingness” which is implied in Sartre’s existential theory is connected to the ability of being for-itself to “negate” the aspects of the external reality and to desire its “completeness” to compensate for its own “lack” or “emptiness”. As clear as it is, Sartre’s “nothingness” is of nihilist nature and is thus rooted in western obsession for dichotomies.

Rebirth in Buddhism

Buddhist belief in rebirths and its rejection of reincarnation as a possibility is deep-rooted in the concept of Anatman or Anatta. Since it refutes the existence of an eternal selfhood, the belief in transmigration of an eternal soul into a number of forms is strictly not entertained. Rebirth, on the other hand, as understood in Buddhism, is a transmigration of karmic energies and not souls. These karmic energies are secured in a continuity held together by the causal links (as implied in Dependent Origination). To explain the concept of rebirth in absence of soul, Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa “compares it to how a flame is transferred from one candle to another” (“Rebirth (Buddhism)”). The flame of the candle represents the karmic energies while the two candles represent two distinct forms. The very concept of “rebirth without soul” transcends all the binary templates.

Nirvana and Freedom

Freedom, as implied in Sartre’s existential theory, is “one’s ability to negate the aspect of in-itself and all-in-all external reality” (Lee). Sartrean “freedom” is motivated by a “lack” or “incompleteness” within and is ultimately based on the principle of “negation”, that is “nihilation”, again rooted in binaries. “Freedom” in Sartre provides no solution for the “existential anguish” and is rather the reason why suffering exists in the first place.

Freedom, in Buddhism, is referred to as Nirvana, and it is established as the ultimate goal for a sentient being who wants to come out of the suffering that is embedded in the cycle of rebirths in the Wheel of Samsara. Thus, unlike existential theory, Buddhism provides an authentic way to put an end to the suffering. It includes the strict observation of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is inclusive of the meditative techniques (right mindfulness and right samadhi) which expect “a passive examination of the flow of thoughts without Upadanaor attachment” (Lee). As a result, one should come to terms with the three marks of life8 and recognize Sunyata or “emptiness” within as Tathataor “suchness”. Such a sentient being has gained the knowledge of the true nature of existence or reality and is thus free from the attachment and suffering.

Nirvana, or the “freedom” as implied in canonical Buddhism, is based upon the concepts of Anatman, Sunyataand rebirth which transcend “beyond binaries” as opposed to Sartrean “freedom” which rests upon the binary template of eternalism versus annihilationism.


As discussed in the paper, Canonical Buddhism and the true nature of its core concepts transcends beyond the binaries and dichotomies emblematized by western ontology. The western obsession with binaries, resulting out of their individualist and ethnocentric approach, is reflected in the European misinterpretation of Buddhism and, by and by, in the philosophy of western existentialist theory. 

End Notes

1.      The 19th century debates in Europe which revolved around the (mis)interpretations of Buddhist concept of Nirvana. Some scholars preferred an eternalist interpretation, while most favored an annihilationist one.

2.      belief in eternal selfhood

3.      belief in complete obliteration of selfhood (after death)

4.      Prevalent dichotomies like soul versus body, eternalism versus annihilationism etc.

5.      A skeptical (often atheist) view of the meaninglessness of life propounded by Friedrich Nietzsche

6.      Five aggregates of clinging (Upadana) in Buddhism viz. form (rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (samajna), mental activity (Sankhara) and consciousness (Vijnana)

7.      It consists of eight practices including right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right Samadhi (a meditative state of trance)

8.      That of impermanence(anitya), impersonality(anatman) and suffering (dukkha)

Work Cited

1. “Anattā.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Apr. 2021, <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatt%C4%81>.

2. Davids, Rhys, T.W. Buddhism: Being a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha. 1877.  21st ed. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1907. Print.

3. Droit, Roger Pol. The Cult of Nothingness: The Philosophers and the Buddha. Trans. David Streight and Pamela Vohnson. Chapel Hill, NC: U North Carolina P, 2003. Print.

4. Heyman, Derek K. “Dual and non-dual ontology in Sartre and Mahayana Buddhism” Man and World 30 (1997): 431-433. Print.

5. Kasulis, Thomas P. “Buddhist Existentialism.” The Eastern Buddhist, vol. 17, no. 2, 1984, pp. 134–141. JSTOR. Web. 22 Sept. 2022. <www.jstor.org/stable/44361718>. 

6. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. Print.

7. “Notions of Selflessness in Sartrean Existentialism and Theravadin Buddhism” Bartleby. Web. 20 Aug. 2022. <www.bartleby.com/essay/Notions-of-Selflessness-in-Sartrean-Existentialism >.

8. “Reality in Buddhism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Sept.. 2022. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality_in_Buddhism>.

9. “Rebirth (Buddhism).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Web.  17 Sept. 2022. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebirth_(Buddhism)>.

10. “Svabhava (Buddhism).” Svabhava (Buddhism) - Theosophy Wiki. Web. 18 Sept. 2022. <theosophy.wiki/en/Svabhava_(Buddhism)>.