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Tag Archives: Existentialism

Vanitas Vanitatum Omnia Vanitas

15 May

Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Biblia Sacra
gouache, oil and watercolor on paper
19 5/8 x 13¼ in. (50 x 33.7 cm)
Painted in 1964

This gouache is the original maquette for the offset lithographic illustration to Ecclesiastes I, 2 facing p. 208, in Dalí’s Biblia Sacra, published by Rizzoli, Milan in 1967. It pertains to the famous lines “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of the vanities, all is vanity.” A complete Dalí Biblia Sacra, containing 105 offset lithographs, will be sold in Chrsitie’s, New York sale of 19th and 20th Century Prints on 5 November 2002, as lot 137.

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Mauvaise Foi with Your Mochachino, Monsieur Sartre?

31 Jan

“It has the quick movement and intense, a little too precise, too fast, it comes to consumers too vivaciously, he bows a little too eagerly, his voice, his eyes express an interest too solicitous for the customer’s order, finally she comes back, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible rigor of some unknown automaton while carrying his tray with a kind of tightrope walker boldness. All his conduct seems a game. He plays it fun. But what is he? One does not need to observe him long to realize he plays at being a waiter.”

Thus, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of his waiter at the Cafe Flore in occupied France. Was this a fair characterization of the waiter? Mind you, I had observed the same sort of behavior (or even worse) in Great American Diners like Perkin’s and Danny’s where the waiters and waitresses (some) are definitely a little too friendly, a little too smiley, a little too concerned about whether you like your meal, a little too eager to ask if you have room for a slice of chocolate mudslide. It is this “a-little-too-much” that makes you almost yearn for the comfort of bad service in a Beijing jiaoji restaurant where you have to scream fu wu yuen (waiter) from the top of your lung to prevent starvation. At least, they weren’t “playing waiter” there.

Perhaps it was a bit hypocritical for a former prisoner-of-war to so quickly find fault in a fellow man who is just doing his job. Perhaps it was another manifestation of Sartre’s innate anger at all things bourgeois. Be that as it may, it can be argued that, quite often, it is Sartre who acted a little too contrived, a little too intellectual, a little too cosmopolitan. The tobacco pipe hanging off his lip a little too professorial; the smoke swirling around the swanky cafe, reeks a little too much of Voltaire entertaining his entourage in the cafes of his Enlightened age. Using his own words, all Sartre’s conduct seems like a game. One does not need to observe him long to realize he plays at being a philosopher.

Despite his questionable quip of the waiter, Sartre was trying to illumine an important point from his existential oeuvre: that of mauvaise foi, or “bad faith”.

The concept of “bad faith” is easy enough to grasp. The waiter that Sartre observed seemed to be acting out the role of a waiter (his actions were too strained according to Sartre, thus he wasn’t being himself). This man was trying too hard to play the part of a waiter, rather than being his own authentic self; he was an actor, rather than a director. Anytime someone puts on a mask and not being authentic, he is acting in “bad faith.”

But without a more nuanced understanding, this concept might seem too obvious, simplistic, and even naive. To examine it further and to see why it is such a central tenet of Sartre’s prescriptive philosophy, we need to step back and look at mauvaise foi from the broader context of Sartre’s thoughts and Existentialism in general.

Beginning with the mathematical prodigy Blaise Pascal, the baton of (what we now call) Existentialism passed through generations of intellectual heavyweights such as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Kafka. However, the birth of modern Existentialism is generally credited to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger with the publication of his tome Being and Time in 1927.

[TO BE CONT’D]

“Buddism is Not What You Think” by Steve Hagen

14 Jan

Shunryu Suzuki wrote in his first book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

I have discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color – something which exists before all forms and colors appear. This is a very important point.

Huang Po:

The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see.

Put trust in immediate, direct experience, not concepts, models, beliefs, explanations, justifications. Before all these things take forms.

You don’t get it from a teacher, from an institution, from a book, or from a belief system of any sort.

In fact, you don’t need to get it from anything. You already have it. You are inseperable from it. You only need to just see.

Do not desire “enlightenment” or desire to reject enlightenment.
Do you really think that there is something you can put in your mind, or take out of it, that’s going to satisfy the deep ache of the heart? “I want to be awake… I want enlightenment… I want understanding… I want freedom and peace of mind… I want… I want… I want…” It’s like an itch in your mind, yet you’re left with no hand to scratch it with.

Do you really think that there’s something “out there” – enlightenement, Nirvana, some special insight – that’s ever going to satisfy? Momentarily you may be satisfied, but as long as you hold yourself apart, there’s always something you have to get or get away from – we make enlightenment into just another urge, another itch we try to scratch.

What you are truly after neither has form nor is without form.

It cannot be grasped or attained or obtained or conceptualized or even described.

We can realize that our life can’t be seprated from Reality – from the life of the world as a Whole, from the lives of others. In other words, there’s nothing to get.

In practical terms, it means we can notice – and root out by simply noticing – the grasping of our own minds as we live from day to day. We can realize, right up front, that this very restless, itching mind that asks, “What am I getting out of this?” and “What’s best for me?” is already the pain and the confusion we wish to free ourselves from.

The Buddha said:

Be a light unto yourself; betake yourselves to no external refuge.

Why? Because there is no such refuge. Nor is any needed. The thing you want to reach for to sustain you and help you is merely a construct of your own imagination. Ultimately, it will only hinder you, perpetuating your feeling of vulnerability.

It’s better to instead to just look at the situation you’re in and see immediately and directly what’s going on. If you do this honestly and earnestly, you’ll see that you’re already sustained, complete, and whole and that everything you’ll ever truly need is at hand.

Why not live as though you realize that this is true – as though you realize that there is no seperation, no distinction, between you and Reality?

If you do, there will no longer be any mystery to existence. Mystery only comes about when we wall ourselves off, divide the world into this and that, distinguish ourselves from everything else.

Reality is not a thought. Reality is not what you think. Reality is not what you can think. Reality is what is immediately experienced.

The Buddha said, “What I call liberation, the world calls resignation,” some people view Buddism as giving in to or giving up something – as if these teachings recommend that we lie down like a doormat rather than stand up and face Reality. People suffering from this form of delusion may say, “All those forces are out there are immense. Stop trying to fight them. Just surrender yourself totally; then you’ll experience enlightenment or freedom.”

But this is not at all what the Buddha spoke of as liberation. In fact, this very thinking is bondage itself. It’s still our ordinary, self-oriented state of mind.

The reason the Buddha’s message sounds like resignation to us is because we still presume a self “here” and something else “out there.” But the Buddha pointed out that there isn’t any world “out there” apart from you. That is, true separation between you and other things simply cannot be found.

This is liberation. It’s the very opposite of resignation; it’s the dissolution of the desire to get everything you want or to do whatever you please.

What the awakened see is Reality – Truth – before anything is made of it. What they have to say regarding this seeing is called Dharma – with a capital D.

Dharma can’t be solidified or conceptualized. It can’t be captured in a particular phrase or word; it can’t be laid out in a theory, a diagram, or a book.

Any teaching that points to Truth must ultimately erase itself. And in erasing itself, such teaching – Dharma – is ncessarily self-referential. Like someone writing ona chalkboard with the right hand while the left hand follows, erasing what has been written. As a result, it may appear paradoxical or contradictory. Yet it is not.

Unlike ordinary teaching, which presents itself as enduring and useful, Dharma teachings are offered with the understanding that they will pass away – that they have only provisional, temporary use. The Buddha, for example, likened his teaching to a raft used to cross a river. Once it has served its purpose – once the river has been crossed – it’s best to leave the raft behind or it will become an unnecessary burden.

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