Notions of Selflessness in Sartrean Existentialism and Theravadin Buddhism

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Notions of Selflessness in Sartrean Existentialism and Theravadin Buddhism


ABSTRACT: In this essay I examine the relationship between Sartre's phenomenological description of the "self" as expressed in his early work (especially Being and Nothingness) and elements to be found in some approaches to Buddhism. The vast enormity of this task will be obvious to anyone who is aware of the numerous schools and traditions through which the religion of Buddhism has manifested itself. In order to be brief, I have decided to select specific aspects of what is commonly called the Theravadin tradition as being representative of Buddhist philosophy. By choosing to look primarily at the Theravadin tradition, I am by necessity ignoring a vast number
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Secondly, Buddhism is a religion of many sects which differ from each other in various manners. By choosing to look primarily at the Theravadin tradition, I am by necessity ignoring the viewpoints of a vast number of schools which are considered Buddhist in nature. In my view, the Theravadin sect presents a consistent Buddhist philosophy which is representative of many of the major trends within Buddhism.

Sartre's method for explaining his position on the "self" is the phenomenological one, utilized before him by Husserl and Heidegger. Phenomenology may be defined as the descriptive analysis of subjective processes. It differs from psychology in that while psychology sets up causal or genetic laws to explain subjective processes, phenomenology merely describes. Sartre points out the intentionality of consciousness (a process earlier described by Husserl and Brentano). Consciousness is always consciousness of something. For Sartre, there exist non-conscious beings independent and external to consciousness. This realm of non-conscious beings is referred to by Sartre as the"in-itself" while consciousness is referred to as the "for-itself."

The "in-itself" appears to consciousness and is the object of consciousness, but is transcendent in the sense that it is external to consciousness. Consciousness is not only…

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