Nothingness and Nihilism, Meditating with Descartes Part 1

Descartes is undoubtedly one of the most influential philosophers of our time. He formed our concepts in the west about mind and our existence, although heavily influenced by the catholic church his ideas and theories are here to stay in one form or another. This discussion I intend to start is to discover what similarities can be found between Descartes’ western and christian theories and those of the Buddha Dharma one of the more influential wisdom traditions of the east. As I am here to learn I welcome as always welcome you to reach out and share your thoughts with the community here.

Descartes six meditations are truly a wonderful thought experiment in which he disassembles the foundation of all he believes to exist and then slowly builds them back up only as he in his mind can prove to himself their existence. I cannot understate how similar this process is to the Tibetan Guru Yoga that I practice almost daily. Where after focusing on the four basic thoughts and then taking refuge we dissolve the conditioned world and then slowly build it all back up again in a meaningful way.

Descartes rightfully understood that he held way too many ideas and concepts to doubt and move away from one at a time so he developed a way to deny the existence of large groups of concepts. This way instead of having to dismantle the wall one brick at a time he pulls away at the foundation and lets it all fall in on itself. He does this by doubting; if he can find a reason to believe that he might have been deceived or fooled in any way he removes everything he knows from his existence, even himself, his mind and god.

I think like most philosophers and physicists one must really come to a point where one seriously doubts or denies the existence of everything. We need to explore what the idea of nothing or nihilism might mean. Nihilism, the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless, but to an even greater degree that of existence as a whole. This is nothingness the absence or cessation of life or existence is at the centre of Descartes’ contemplation.

Over the years I have noticed in discussions with many people that a general conception about Buddhism is that we are nihilists. This misconception seems to be based on the idea that there is no right or wrong in Buddhism, only consequences or cause and effect. I would also add that when one mentions ego destruction it might seem like Buddhists want to kill themselves or something like this. The biggest misconceptions arise when we talk about emptiness, here almost every critic seem to think that Buddhists simply wish to end their existence in a pool of nothingness. These misconceptions could not be further from the truth the Buddha Dharma does not deny the existence of anything or anyone we simply say that things do not exist in the way in which it seems. The Buddha Dharma teaches us clearly that things truly exist but they do so in a way that is free of our concepts and ideas. This is the idea of emptiness, things are empty of the judgments we place on them when we decide or think that something is good or bad. Emptiness is not to be confused with nothingness. However, no thing, or no thingness, seems to be highly relevant in the discovery of our existence.

This is quite similar to the journey that Descartes begins here in his first meditation. Let’s meet soon for our next discussion in Rene Descartes’ second meditation.



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