The meaning of suffering

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    Research areas

  • PhD, School of Philosophy and Religion


Throughout the last three decades there has been considerable academic interest in the comparisons between Existential philosophy and Buddhism. For instance, numerous publications propose significant parallels between a range of Buddhist philosophies and the ideas of Nietzsche and Sartre, with comparisons often made between Buddhist philosophies such as anattā (not self) or the śūnyatā (emptiness) and Sartre’s notion of “nothingness”, or Nietzsche’s notion of “nihilism”. Whilst Nietzsche and Sartre have remained at the forefront of research into the relationship between existentialism and Buddhism, there appears to be a growing interest in possible associations between Buddhism and the ideas of existential philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.
In complete contrast to the majority of research into the relationship between Buddhist thought and existentialism, analysis of the relationship between Buddhism and Kierkegaard is explored only fleetingly, usually as a subsidiary topic within studies of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. This is to say, often Buddhism is employed by scholars of Kierkegaard to help explore themes of his philosophy in greater depth or to show his relevance to religious discourses outside Christian traditions. Whilst much of the dialogue between Buddhism and Kierkegaard in current scholarship seems to be cut-short—appearing briefly in short articles or mere paragraphs within works that are focussed on other matters entirely—the frequent pairing of these philosophical traditions collectively reveals substantial similarities between them. For instance, there appears to be rich overlap between the Buddhist notion of dukkha and Kierkegaard’s notion of suffering, one that reveals suffering to be a fundamental aspect of human life, with the capacity to transform a person’s perception of the material world. In each case, suffering appears to have the power to motivate a person, and to encourage them to overcome selfish and materialistic desires, and in the process, discover true joy or satisfaction.
Whilst current research on the relationship of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and Buddhist ideas have exposed a promising area for further study, it is also insufficient in its attempts to analyse the topic, and all too often arrives at erroneous conclusions. The complexity of Buddhist ideas often goes unnoticed, leading to reductive, mistaken definitions. Furthermore, owing to the fact that research in this area is often presented within discourses that, in the main, seek to emphasise and elaborate the ideas of Kierkegaard, there has been little consistency in the specific Buddhist traditions and concepts that are examined, and in some cases, an unhelpful tendency to conflate Buddhist traditions as if they were all one and the same with no appreciation for their differences.
The intention of this thesis is to re-evaluate the existing dialogue between Buddhist thought and the philosophy of Kierkegaard. To do so, I identify and analyse key points of similarity and difference between the two. These include the relationships between Kierkegaard’s angest and the Buddhist concept of dukkha and Kierkegaard’s approach to human suffering and the Buddhist conception of samudaya. My thesis provides an invaluable counterbalance to existing scholarship in the field by placing greater emphasis on key Buddhist teachings in relation to Kierkegaard’s ideas. This ensures that the important parallels between these two great philosophies and approaches to life can be analysed more accurately and in greater depth. Likewise, it enables a clearer appreciation of the various points of contention that prevail between the two. This thesis will challenge significant preconceptions that continue to be voiced by scholars of Kierkegaard, who fail to appreciate the finer nuances of Buddhist
doctrine, whilst at the same time, open up fresh, new dialogues between the works of Kierkegaard and Buddhist philosophy.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date2018