Monday, 15 December 2014

Between the Buddha & Camus

What truly divides us in politics is not some grand doctrine or unshakable party allegiance, but our core moral dispositions. Some see others in distress and pain, and instinctively assume such people have only got themselves to blame. And whatever evidence is produced to suggest the contrary, they will keep condemning them for countless deficiencies.

We recoil from such prejudice. When we witness suffering, we want to understand the underlying causes and find ways to overcome them. Unlike our detractors, we hesitate to proclaim ourselves ‘right’ about everything, for we merely seek to be as reasonable as we can under even the most trying circumstances.

But without the simplistic recourse of dismissing human misfortune as rooted in the flaws of scapegoats, we have to struggle to make sense of life’s seemingly endless stream of torment and affliction. Yet what can we do? However much we try to seek out amelioration and progress, the trials are interminable.

Two counsels have in the past proffered advice on this very problem. One is Gotama the Buddha, who observed that suffering was inescapable unless we were ready to attain nirvana through the extinguishing of desires and emotional turmoil. The other is Camus, who pointed out that life was inherently absurd without any meaning except for our defiance against injustice and oppression.

Gotama showed us the path to accepting the experiences that come our way and letting everything go without becoming perturbed. Camus reminded us that the only alternative to a meaningless existence is to engage in rebelling against the suffering confronting us.

What then are we to do? Keep fighting ignorance and exploitation knowing that, as in the myth of Sisyphus, our labours will never end with a final triumph? Or step back from the arena of conflicts even though that robs us of the moral purpose that underpins our existence?

Perhaps we should look beyond their apparent incompatibility and see them as two stages of a single journey. The coming of consciousness challenges us to respond to the causes and consequences of subjugation and suffering. At this point, there can be no surrender to the dominion of the powerful and the cruel. But when the time comes for us to exit, we should be ready to leave it to others to continue the campaign. Once we have completed our tour of duty, we should move on and embrace our own extinguishing.

If we retreat into nirvana when we are in the frontline battling the causes of avoidable suffering in this world, we betray ourselves. If we lament the contrived futility of not being around to fight on till the end of time, we deceive ourselves.

Between the Buddha and Camus, we have a pathway that leads us from the existential commitment to challenge the devious and the unjust, to the time when it is for us to embrace our own disengagement from the tumultuous combat. We rebels may take comfort in knowing that when our mission is done, nirvana awaits.

No comments: