Eternalism, Nihilism, Buddhism
Dernière mise à jour : 3 sept. 2021
Note: The following is adapted and translated from a talk I gave on May 12, 2021, in the context of a series of weekly meetings on the foundations of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and practice. The meetings usually start with a brief session of calm abiding meditation (shamatha), and often end with a thematic contemplation (such as on the “four thoughts that turn the mind towards the Dharma” or the “four immeasurables”). For an introduction to meditation practice, you could refer to Dza Kilung Rinpoche’s The Relaxed Mind or Matthieu Ricard’s The Art of Meditation.
Last week we talked about the four truths of the noble ones. Today, let’s look at another topic that is fundamental to understanding Buddhism.
First of all, let’s remember that the goal here is not to proselytize. We are not trying to increase the population of Buddhists in the world. You can, of course, seek a better understanding of Dharma without denying your own heritage. There are things I’m about to say that are intended to help us see how Buddhism distinguishes itself from other religions; it doesn’t mean that you have to throw away everything that has brought goodness or beauty into your life.
The teaching of the Buddha helps us see our true nature. This is like a ritornello in the teachings, and over time we learn to understand its implications. Dharma also allows us to reconnect with what we could call a “fundamental right.” All beings have this right, even if they often forget about it: the right to find true inner freedom. We all have the right to develop a certain ease with regard to our own emotions—a healthier, more open relationship with our own thoughts. Nowadays, Buddhism is often referred to in the context of feel-good techniques, which can be problematic, since the real purpose of Dharma is not at all the pursuit of comfort in the usual sense of the term; the point, rather, is to go beyond dualism. Nevertheless, there is a kind of fundamental ease to which one is automatically entitled, from the moment one has a mind—it is a bit like if you were born in a royal family, except that we would all be blue-blooded. No one is going to grant you or take away your right to experience this inner freedom; however, to regain this freedom, there might be a long way to go. Hence the need for study, reflection and meditation. Dharma also allows us to have more flexibility and wisdom in the way we interact with the world. Sometimes we react rashly, or find ourselves catapulted into extreme positions, but here we finally begin to see that there is a different way to live.
So, generally speaking, the path we are embarking on gives us the means to cultivate more openness, more compassion, and more humor, too. We sometimes feel that we are getting uptight about a situation that bothers us, or around a character trait that we had hoped to have corrected years ago—and then we crystallize the situation. But the Buddha and the masters who followed him give us ways to see our predicament with more humor, which can be another form of kindness.
All this is linked to what we could call the middle way, a fundamental notion for Buddhists. (To be clear, “Middle Way” sometimes refers specifically to the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism; but here we will use this term in a much broader sense, without going into the particularities of the different philosophical tenets.) It is an incredibly vast and profound topic that scholars study for years and years; and I am not a scholar. At any rate, these weekly meetings are not geared at erudition. That doesn’t stop us from addressing this topic, starting with the question: “middle in relation to what? What is this path away from?” This is an important question, because the term “middle way” implies that there are two extremes. What are those two extremes? That is what interests us today.
Before answering this question, we could wonder whether Buddhism is a religion. Actually, it depends on our definition of the word “religion.” But one thing is certain: it is a non-theistic spirituality. Now, most of the religions we know are either monotheistic or polytheistic. If our idea of a religion inevitably implies theism, the use of the word “religion” to refer to Buddhism is likely to confuse us. Personally, I see it as a non-theistic religion. I prefer to say “non-theistic” rather than “atheist”. I have nothing against the word “atheist,” but it sometimes connotes a rather aggressive position, where one feels the need to deny the beliefs of others and to stick to one’s own point of view. . . But here, we are not trying to denigrate other religions. This is why I speak of “non-theism”, even if it may sound a bit dubious linguistically. Of course, not all atheists are bellicose; I just wanted to emphasize the nuance. In any case, Dharma must be practiced with respect for other traditions and other points of view.
The two extremes I would like to address today have implications of the utmost importance in our lives and in our approach to meditation. For about fifteen years I read, traveled, met with masters, and dabbled in all sorts of practices, without understanding how fundamental this subject was, until one of my teachers, Sam Bercholz, was kind enough to insist on recognizing these two extremes again and again and again, which is in line with the teachings of one of his own masters, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche.
These two extremes are eternalism and nihilism.
“Eternalism” is an umbrella term that can refer to all sorts of philosophical views, and to different approaches to spirituality. And of course, Western philosophy might use the term differently. But here it is often associated with the illusion that compounded phenomena are permanent. Compounded phenomena are made of parts and depend on causes and conditions. Take a tree, for example: it doesn’t take long to figure out that it is compounded; the same goes for furniture, our bodies, buildings, social events, schools, political institutions, and so on.
So, the eternalist view believes that compounded phenomena, or at least some compounded phenomena, are permanent. It is also linked to the idea of a kind of soul, which would always remain somewhere within us, until it travels to another place or body at some point. (Incidentally, Buddhism does speak of rebirth, but it is not exactly the same as the Hindu concept of reincarnation.)
A related eternalistic notion is that of a self that is unitary, autonomous, independent and lasting. For example, let’s say I have been through all sorts of difficulties in my life, constantly searching for myself in my career, in my studies, in my relationships, and so forth; at some point, I may want to borrow all sorts of methods to help me see within more clearly, in the hope that I will finally find the little biographical note that will perfectly define who I really am. I proclaim, “This is my personality,” and I crystallize that “eureka” moment by repeating to myself, “Yes! this is me! This is exactly who I am! I’ve been looking for so long!” We get attached to this kind of narrative as if it were describing something lasting, totally independent of causes and conditions.
Another variant of eternalism is associated with the belief that there is something outside of us, quite independent, autonomous and separate from our mind, that will save us. This is a form of magical thinking. The term “eternalism” can also be associated with the concept of an autonomous Creator. Logically, it is difficult to defend the notion of an autonomous and independent agent that can create things that are impermanent while himself remaining unchanged. But let’s leave logic aside for the time being and instead look at our own intimate experience. When we buy into the hope that something entirely external will save us, we risk shedding away our sense of responsibility; so Buddhism takes this view with a grain of salt. I don’t necessarily want to question your beliefs, but I simply invite you to consider what our philosophical positions imply, psychologically and spiritually. Do we expect all our problems to be solved by some external shift? This is a question worth asking.
In Buddhist teachings, there are often stories of people being saved by buddhas, bodhisattvas and manifestations of enlightened figures; there are many colorful and inspiring testimonials. No one is saying that we cannot relate to enlightened manifestations; all we are saying is precisely that there is an interaction; that there are causal principles in this world; and that the line between inner and outer is not always as clear-cut as we think. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon us to make efforts on the path.
Now, let’s look at nihilism.
It is associated with the illusion that there is nothing—nil as in “nothingness”—beyond matter; nothing beyond the phenomena that can be directly observed by the senses. One of the most frequent manifestations of nihilism is to disregard the fact that our actions have consequences beyond those that are immediately apparent. For example, I was recently told about someone who takes care of a park. In this natural area is a beautiful little lake, in which some rascals dump waste. Not long ago, the guy has found a kitchen oven: someone had dumped an actual stove on the shore, instead of driving to the eco-centre or some such facility. Obviously, when you do something like that, you have no vision of the consequences it has, for yourself, for others, for the planet and for other organisms, from the tiniest to the biggest. One could say that this is a kind of nihilist tendency. It goes without saying that it is a dangerous view.
Nihilism also fosters the idea that everything ends at death. If this is our philosophy, we can live any way we want. . . If it’s all over once we take our last breath, then nothing is a big deal, really; we don’t have to worry about anything beyond our own immediate comfort or, at best, that of our family. The specter of narrow-minded individualism is never far away, as is that of a counterproductive form of cynicism. A slippery slope! (Actually, a healthy dose of cynicism can sometimes turn out to be helpful on the path; but that’s not what we’re talking about here!)
To simplify, we can say that nihilism is a rejection of spirituality. A common example is to think that prayer has no effect whatsoever. Yet isn’t it obvious that if one prays—regardless of one’s religious tradition—it will at least have an effect on one’s own mind? If that person prays with an open heart and in a positive way, it will undeniably have an impact on his or her inner life; and from there, it will probably have an effect on their surroundings. We cannot predict the extent of this “environmental” impact, which may be too subtle to be noticeable; but we must agree that there is a chain of causes and effects. There is some interdependence at play. It is a nihilistic perspective to reject everything and to affirm that prayer is useless because we cannot perceive its effects directly through our ordinary sense organs. Another widespread idea today—largely supported by scientific materialism—is to consider that the mind is limited to the brain. Wanting to explain everything by the action of neurons is illusory; it is a narrow view which implies a rejection of intangible and subtle spirituality.
So, on the one side, there’s eternalism, and on the other, nihilism. On the one hand, there’s the risk of wishful thinking, and on the other, a form of defeatism. These two extremes are also prominent in our relationship to death: either we expect to remain fundamentally the same person—this is an eternalist attitude—or we believe that mind dies along with the body, which is a nihilist view.
For Buddhism, most religions, which are theistic, generally lean toward eternalism. This is not a condescending statement, for at least two reasons. The first is that Buddhism recognizes that we all have these tendencies, which are very much part of the samsaric predicament. The second is that it feels that if we are going to wander, we’d better wander on the side of eternalism, because at least on that side there is hope, and the possibility of cultivating positive qualities.
Now, here’s a key point: it’s not just “other people” who have these extreme views.
In point of fact, if we take an honest look at our own experience, we see that we all regularly cling to all sorts of variants on these two tendencies—nihilism and eternalism. It may not be exactly like the descriptions I gave, and it is likely that we have a particular propensity towards one or the other, but generally speaking, Buddhism teaches that we are tossed from one to the other. We oscillate between hope and fear. We hope that we will find the key, the secret ingredient that will make us feel good about ourselves forever, and that we will live happily ever after; and suddenly, we fall into defeatism, asking ourselves, “What’s the point? Why am I still depressed or anxious, even though I’ve prayed and done some meditation?” Or, “There are so many problems in the world, I’ll never be able to do anything really useful!”, that kind of thing. Even when we experience pleasure, it is often dubious, since it is also tainted by a kind of illusion. (As mentioned in our previous meeting, this does not at all mean that joy has no place on the path.)
Buddhism considers that eternalism and nihilism—including all the variants that we can group under these umbrella terms—are two extremes. “Extreme” in that they do not provide a complete or adequate definition of reality; it is always only part of the story, and often that part of the story is completely distorted.
So sometimes we cling to the notion that our life, our body, our personality, or anything that we enjoy will last; sometimes we reject spirituality, or its most subtle elements; and regularly we sway between hope and defeatism, between elation and depression. . . When we realize that we keep going from one to the other, that this to-and-fro is dizzying and that the results are unsatisfactory, we look for a path. But even once we are on the path, it continues! The difference is that we learn to recognize, mitigate and dissolve these extremes; the ups and downs are less abrupt and we navigate with more and more clarity and discernment. It is the dawn of a fundamental sanity.
To avoid abstraction, I’ll give you two examples of how we can personally suffer from these two extremes.
The first example is that of a heartbreak. Let’s say you’ve been in a romantic relationship for six months, five years, thirty years, whatever, and you have a breakup. Different scenarios are then possible.
We could get attached to the idea of permanence: we hope that the relationship will last forever; we then crystallize the relationship, the conception we have of the other person and the conception we have of ourselves, as if it were all permanent and would never change; and we cling to that. If that’s what we do, it’s a form of eternalism; and we suffer.
Another scenario would be to lose confidence in our ability to love, and in our ability to be loved. This is something we often see when people go through a tough breakup. We can then fall into a form of scientific materialism that reduces absolutely everything to small connections in the brain, as if all reality was limited to those impulses; “ah! it’s all the play of hormones; it’s purely animal; love is bullshit, we just have to meet someone whose hormones are aligned with ours at the right time.” We then risk denying our own potential for tenderness, which, when you look at it, is not unlike a rejection of spirituality; this scenario too leads to suffering.
And if I tell myself, “well, enough with the pain!” and I start looking for another romantic relationship, but with the idea that the next one will last forever, it’s not much better: I will start a new relationship based on an eternalist concept that sets the stage for future sorrow.
This doesn’t mean that everything is doomed and that you shouldn’t aspire to build healthy relationships and put effort into your marriage! The problem is attachment and delusions. It’s a bit like coming to the end of your life: whether you’re 30 or 108, if you’ve always been attached to the idea that you’re never going to die, you’re going to have a difficult time.
The second example is a personal one, set in the Sillery neighborhood of Quebec City. I’m giving you a somewhat cartoonish view of it, but I’m trying to show that we need to bring theory into focus by looking at our personal experience: an important aspect of reflecting on the teachings is to see how they apply to situations that cause you to suffer.
For years, I dreamed of living in this beautiful neighborhood, commonly known as the “faubourg ouvrier.” As a teenager, when I was going through a period of anxiety, my father took me for a walk. We ended up in this neighborhood at a time when, in the course of our father-and-son conversation, I felt a sense of openness. You know, those moments when you feel lighter, when insights come through. . . It coincided with my discovery of this area and its natural spaces. “Wow,” I thought, “I’d like to live here some day.”
More than fifteen years later, my girlfriend and I were fortunate enough to move into one of the few rental units of this neighborhood, a beautiful apartment that was a perfect fit for our needs and lifestyles. But after a couple of years of enjoyment, construction sites popped up all around—no matter which direction I go for a walk, I almost immediately come across a building site. Natural areas are shrinking, heritage lands are being used for condos, there are many more cars and much more noise, and so on. Of course, this creates a sense of claustrophobia: you feel territorial, as if you were being encroached upon; you feel that something you love dearly is being shamelessly gnawed off.
Under the circumstances, my mental situation could freeze into an eternalist position: by clinging to the illusion that the house, the city or the neighborhood I have chosen will always remain as it is, suffering is inevitable.
I can also react by sinking into defeatism. For example, when I go for a walk, I could get stuck into the energy of frustration and constantly complain about the construction sites, the noise, the urban densification. . . If I indulge in these counterproductive emotions and, in so doing, ignore the ever-present possibility of reconnecting with primordial goodness and with the wisdom of the Dharma—which is truly open-ended wisdom—one could say that this is a form of nihilism; and I suffer.
The goal is to find a path and a practice which lead beyond these two extremes. This is called the middle way. We’ll explore it more in the future, but I’d like to clarify one thing today.
In a previous meeting, I mentioned that when Buddhists are wary of conflicting emotions, they are not saying that we should repress or suppress everything, and pretend that everything is fine all the time; it is also not about turning into robots, nor is it about becoming completely indifferent, passive to the point where you never say or feel anything. That is—of course—not the goal. Well, there is an analogous consideration, here. I wanted to use my second example—about the unbridled development of a peaceful neighborhood, with noisy trucks and trees being cut down—since it also connotes climate change and ecological concerns. And I wanted to emphasize an important nuance: Buddhism does not encourage inertia either. In fact, apathy and indifference belong to ignorance; in other words, never wanting to get involved is not seen as a positive thing. On the contrary, we try to cultivate a strong sense of fellowship, and universal responsibility.
In any case, beyond philosophical considerations and terminology, know that the simple and regular practice of sitting meditation helps us to understand these two extremes, eternalism and nihilism. It helps us to see them in ourselves, and to consider other possibilities. (I use the word “possibilities” in the plural, because the “middle” is not a fixed point.) In other words, meditation helps us heal our relationship with the world; it makes us more flexible. At the moment, we live in the world as we imagine it; we are constantly putting layers and layers of concepts on phenomena; but eventually we can have a fresher, more direct relationship with the world. We find ourselves in a better position to appreciate this world; and when things go wrong, we are better able to see if we need to act or not; and when we do need to act, we have a better chance of discerning the most appropriate course of action given the circumstances.
As we use words ending in “ism”—eternalism, nihilism, etcetera—let’s not fall into abstraction and be satisfied with a purely intellectual understanding. In the history of Buddhism, some great masters were scholars who spent a good part of their lives in monastic universities; but there are also people who had no formal education, and yet achieved high spiritual realizations. So you don’t necessarily need to express yourself like a dictionary. The important thing is never to neglect practice.
Besides, I have a little homework for you. When we suffer—and you will agree that this happens often!—let’s ask ourselves some questions. This is also part of the path. Investigate. But change your angle—try a new approach. We are used to cogitating: we think and think, intensely, wishing to break away from our problems. This time, don’t try to find a solution right away, which is a bit aggressive. The goal is not to shy away from discomfort, but to use one’s natural wisdom that is quietly emerging—thanks, among other things, to meditation—to sharpen one’s powers of discernment and ask, “Why am I suffering? I’m getting angry at some guy who gave me the finger on the road, but is that really the cause of my suffering?” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t! We find some very interesting answers along the way. So rather than pushing away what we assume is the cause of our discomfort, let’s investigate. It’s not about beating yourself up and blaming yourself, “it’s all my fault!” but simply keeping an open mind. Ask yourself, “If I am suffering today, or this week, or in my life, is there a connection to what Vincent called eternalism? Am I clinging to the idea of the permanence of a phenomenon that by nature cannot be permanent? Or is it due to a nihilistic tendency? Am I rejecting possibilities because I cannot see them with my eyes?” For example, if I lose confidence in my ability as a meditator, I may be flirting with nihilism, or with a form of materialism: only tangible, quantifiable results are valuable to me. These tendencies must be recognized and brought to light.
The Buddhist view that overcomes extremes harmoniously integrates impermanence, interdependence and shunyata. This last theme, often translated as “emptiness” (or occasionally “openness” so as to distinguish it from mere nothingness, which would be nihilistic), is extraordinarily rich and nuanced. Interpretations can vary according to context, and misunderstandings are common, so it is important to proceed gradually and to be well guided.
In short, by combining Dharma study, reflection—which includes trying to understand the meaning of what we are studying and how it applies to our own situation—and meditation, we discover little by little how to avoid extreme positions and we can then move towards ever greater clarity. Moreover, for Mahayana Buddhism, this component of wisdom is never dissociated from compassion: practitioners cultivate both together.
As a complement, I invite you to watch this short excerpt from a teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. Furthermore, to better understand how the Buddhist view avoids the pitfalls of nihilism and eternalism, it is good to study the “four seals (or four hallmarks) of the Dharma.” This is the central subject of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s book What Makes You Not a Buddhist; it is a hilarious and provocative, but profound and very helpful book.