Buddha is Absurd

– Terry Kinzel

A couple of years ago I became interested in Albert Camus and after reading a short biography he became one of my heroes – mainly for his resistance work in Nazi occupied France, his advocacy of justice in general, especially in Algeria where he was born, and, although having been a communist at one point, his rejection of Stalinism. I read a little of his philosophy with limited success.

Then the pandemic hit and I took up Camus’ novel The Plague to see if it could inform my life under COVID-19. The plague is described in the novel as a bubonic plague and is set in the mid-1940s, but is based on a typhus epidemic in Oran, Algeria in the mid-1800s. While many of the scenes are playing out in our midst today, the novel was really a means for Camus to explicate his philosophy of Absurdism.

While my acquaintance of both Buddhism and Absurdism is so minor as to be considered trivial, I noticed some correlations between the Four Noble Truths and Absurdism.

First Noble Truth

            Buddhism: suffering is an innate characteristic of existence.

            Absurdism: suffering is universal, life/the universe is without meaning.

Second Noble Truth

            Buddhism: suffering comes from attachment (to the idea of a separate self?)

            Absurdism: suffering comes from the attachment to the idea that life can and should have meaning.

Third Noble Truth

            Buddhism: the cessation of suffering is possible

            Absurdism: the cessation of suffering is possible

Fourth Noble Truth

            Buddhism: the Noble Eightfold Path

            Absurdism: full acknowledgement that my life is meaningless and then I will die. However, by perceiving and then just doing my job my suffering will be relieved. 

The last point in Absurdism is (to my limited understanding) obscure. In another book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains this philosophy in a series of essays. What I think he is saying is that most other philosophies based on the assumption that there is inherent meaning to life are unsatisfactory in that life has no meaning. Even Existentialism, which postulates that while life has no inherent meaning, it is possible to achieve meaning by how you live your life. This, Camus says, is false. He says that it is not possible to achieve meaning, but it is possible to achieve a satisfactory life by “doing your job.” His image in this is that of Sisyphus, bound by the gods to struggle each day to push a giant boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back at night and have to start again the next day through all eternity. Camus’ famous quote here is “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. While I don’t pretend to understand the Noble Eightfold Path or Absurdism, it seems to accomplish Sisyphus’ task and be happy, he would have to achieve all the elements set down.