Irony and Compassion: Comparing Existentialism and Tiantai Buddhism

By Joseph Kirby.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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In his essay “The Absurd,” philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that human existence is absurd, because we cannot help but take our projects seriously, yet we also cannot help but doubt the actual seriousness of these projects. In other words, because we are able to step back from total immersion in our lives, we inevitably come to see our highest aspirations as contingent, arbitrary, and rationally unjustifiable. However, having come to this realization, we are still forced to live—and since life requires that we treat our contingent concerns as though they were actually important, we treat them as such, but also now treat this seriousness with a sense of humorous distance and irony. This idea—that one begins in seriousness, passes through a realization that this seriousness is an illusion, and then returns to life with a transformed perspective—is similar to the spiritual progression described by Tiantai Buddhism. However, Tiantai does not settle on “irony” as the proper attitude upon which to end. Instead, the perspective of ironic detachment is a temporary stance that should itself pass into something higher: “the Middle Path.” In this paper, I describe the progression from irony to the Middle Path with reference to Tiantai’s elaborate systematic classification of different Buddhist philosophies. I argue that this progression represents a non-arbitrary improvement to the spiritual stance described by Nagel.

Keywords: Existentialism, Buddhism, Detachment, Irony, Compassion

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.1-8. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 352.251KB).

Joseph Kirby

PhD Candidate, Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I am a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies. I am currently researching parallels between Christian and Buddhist understandings of historical time.