Staring Into the Void: The Resolution of Nihilism Through Buddhist Practice

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Staring Into the Void: The Resolution of Nihilism Through Buddhist Practice is a book I wrote that is drawing upon and contributing to a niche subsection of the Early Buddhist/Theravāda world that could aptly be called Existential Buddhism. The first existential interpretation of the Dhamma was expounded by Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera in Notes on Dhamma and has, in recent times, been further explored by writers associated with Path Press, most notably by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero of Hillside Hermitage. Staring Into the Void is essentially a conversation between existential and phenomenological philosophers and the Buddha, with the overarching aim of putting that conversation to use in resolving that core spiritual crisis that has crippled Western culture since Nietzsche: nihilism and the death of God.

The primary thesis of Staring Into the Void is that nihilism is deeply intertwined with sensuality and craving, and could even be considered craving’s most abstract and broad form of manifestation. This is because sensuality, in its very nature, entails the ontological appropriation of the five aggregates in a primordial process that attempts to “make more” of our lives than the empty flux of temporal ekstasis that it actually is. Thus it is only through the relinquishment of sensuality in all of its forms through the practice of the Dhamma that we may ultimately relinquish even our desire for teleological grounding, and thus authentically free ourselves from Nietzsche’s “uncanniest of all guests.”

Beyond serving as an explicit on-ramp to the Dhamma for skeptical Western audiences, Staring into the Void also works in reverse, by applying the intellectual tools of existentialism to critique some aspects of contemporary Buddhist culture that, in my view, serve to obfuscate the Dhamma’s core message of saṃvega, the totalized renunciation of sensuality, and radical, uncompromising personal transformation. And not to worry, I actually consider Secular Buddhism to be a prime contemporary example of what I call Dhamma domestication. Staring Into the Void is not, as I write in the book, “another example of a soteriologically-neutered, socially-engaged Secular Buddhism.”

In Chapter 2 I actually provide an existential interpretation of Buddhist metaphysics where I explicitly address Western discomfort with supernatural aspects of the Dhamma like rebirth. My basic thesis there is that all of metaphysics will always be ultimately groundless, and thus should be approached in an entirely pragmatic way, an approach explicitly advocated for by the Buddha in his simile of the raft. As I write:

So long as you take metaphor and allegory very, very seriously, you could easily interpret the entirety of the Dhamma through an entirely allegorical lens, without losing anything of value whatsoever. Nevertheless, what I hope this chapter supports is the following recognition: that previous statement applies to every single worldview that anyone has ever had … If you take a metaphor seriously, it will eventually stop being just a metaphor.

I go on in that chapter to provide an existential hermeneutic of Buddhist cosmology that, through leveraging Ajahn Geoff’s idea of saṃsāra’s “scale-invariance” and Heidegger’s distinction between temporality and historicity, I think resolves the tension between Ven. Ñāṇavīra’s one-life interpreation of paṭiccasamuppāda and the orthodox three-life interpretation.

Staring Into the Void is the result of a decade-long existential crisis and spiritual struggle that has, through the Buddha’s guidance, finally been brought to an end. This book was a labor of love that I produced as my final act of lay life; in three weeks I will be flying to SE Asia to pursue ordination, starting with checking out SBS in Malaysia. I offer this book to you all with mettā, freely to anyone whom it may benefit. Grappling with nihilism has brought me to some very dark places in the past; I hope this book will, for some person somewhere at some time, hopefully prevent the kind of suffering that radical skepticism wrought on my life and give hope to those who feel compelled, as I did, to perpetually pursue the truth at any cost.

Selected quotes:

[I]n order to attain even a fundamental understanding of the problem of nihilism, it is my contention that a thorough familiarity of the phenomenological and existential wisdom contained in the earliest Buddhist scriptures is of the highest importance. Moreover, undertaking the ascetic and contemplative training described and advocated by the Buddha is not merely crucial to resolving nihilism as a fundamental human problem. It is a requirement. I understand that this may seem far-fetched to some readers. Doubting that some Indian ascetic from 2,600 years ago could ever have something meaningful to say about such an abstract, anti-religious, and culturally-disparate topic as existential nihilism is reasonable. But like much that seems reasonable, it is also wholly mistaken. To very quickly demonstrate as much, to give just a hint at how anticipated philosophers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre were by the Buddha, let us simply compare two brief quotations—one from Sartre’s existential magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, and the other from the Saṁyutta Nikāya, an early Buddhist collection of scriptures.

[C]onsciousness does not have by itself any sufficiency of being as an absolute subjectivity; from the start, it refers to the thing.

Just as two sheaves of reeds might stand leaning against each other, so too, with name-and-form as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form comes to be.

This reality, the fact that there is no such thing as “pure consciousness” and that consciousness cannot exist without its object and vice-versa has been recognized completely independently in two radically different cultures and languages, separated by a gap of 2,500 years and the distance of an entire continent. Taken together with all the other incredible similarities between the insights contained in both the Buddhist discourses and the writings of the great phenomenologists, the close relationship of penetrating, corroborating discernment shared between the two is remarkable, to say the least. As I said before, my evangelism is not trivial.

[B]ecause of their indulgent lifestyle and unquestioned, culturally-conditioned attitudes regarding the nature of happiness, the Western philosophical community would not, as Heidegger did not, connect the nature of thrownness with a far more important topic, namely the nature of suffering. This relative obscurity at least prevented Heidegger from suffering that further indignity placed upon the legacy of the Buddha: the indignity of being made into a god—an inhuman, inscrutable metaphysical principle placed on a pedestal out of reach, exhortations of the dangers of social entanglement and sensuality falling on mostly deaf ears, before eventually being almost entirely discarded.

So, if you are a dogmatic adherent to the ideals and metaphysics of modernity and are simply looking for a flavor of Buddhism that can be easily metabolized into a new psycho-spiritual therapeutic modality, you best look elsewhere. Given the domination of non-renunciate, feel-good praxis within Western Buddhism, you will not have to look very far. If it has no other merits whatsoever, I hope at the very least that the contents of this book will render it impossible to be appropriated by the American self-help industry. I will not be offering up another example of a soteriologically-neutered, socially-engaged Secular Buddhism. Whether it has a rationalist or New Age flavor, Western Buddhism is often deeply antinomian and world-friendly. While such expressions of religiosity are no doubt authentically Buddhist in the socio-historical sense, I must state I will be advocating an approach to the Dhamma that, following the earliest texts, stands directly opposed to such conceptions of spirituality. Domesticating the Dhamma into a reasonable and empirical—though archaic—philosophical system that may be comfortably consumed, appreciated for its lack of insistence on any particular oaths of faith or fealty, and then placed back on the bookshelf, ignores the single non-negotiable prerequisite for entering into discipleship with the Buddha: an openness to the possibility that all of your most fundamental assumptions about the nature of happiness and all of your most cherished habits of thought and behavior are entirely, categorically, irretrievably misguided.

When we begin to understand the shape and patterns of the mind in such a way that we can directly recognize craving as well as its attendant suffering and the constriction of our mind’s shape into the form and the mythos of sensuality, we then have the power to leverage our established context of mindfulness to either explicitly reject or, when the existential knowledge and remembrance of proper mindfulness has been drilled in deep enough, even completely undermine the very possibility for the encroachment of that mythos, allowing us to abide in our chosen mythos of resolute contentment and enduring peace. For the mythos of sensuality is always a story that shamelessly denies the reality of thrownness and the groundless co-dependence of Being on Nothingness, and Nothingness on Being. The desire for intellectual security is always an emotional narrative, wherein we do not know enough, where we are bewildered and confused and looking for a way out of our perpetual condition of ethical ambiguity, epistemological groundlessness, and existential vulnerability. Craving lures us into bad faith and into a contextual realm, in which some fictitious, safe solidity is substituted for the airy intangibility of Dasein. By ignoring the primordial un-ownability of experience, we conceive of a static, independently existing world “outside” our senses, not recognizing that such a conception is invariably based upon particular experiences of particular thoughts and the underlying contextual attitudes that drive and motivate those thoughts. Seeing the bait of solidity for what it is and defiantly learning how to cultivate the context of contentment, how to be independent of conceptual certainty, and how to abide comfortably with thrownness is the only means there is for finally making peace with the absurdity of saṃsāra and letting go of the desire for intellectual security. This is the way to the resolution of nihilism.

It is impossible to attend properly to the themes of contentment and poise while you are willfully immersed in a self-constructed world that is anything but. Later Buddhist metaphysical revolutions that diminish the difference between nirvāṇa and saṃsāra, positing that there is only one monistic tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-nature at the heart of all reality, such that even the act of sensuality is just another expression of—well, of Brahman, let’s call it what it is—is not only self-aware in its blatant affront to the anti-monistic ontology found in the early Buddhist texts, but is also deeply, deeply misguided on a practical level. The myth of the enlightened person fully, willfully engaged in the world—socializing, having sex, doing psychedelic drugs for “spiritual” purposes—while all the time retaining some kind of compassionate, non-dual lack of clinging regarding the entire ordeal is a delusional fantasy of the highest order. Yet, it is no wonder such an image of enlightenment and all its attendant bad faith has found itself hoisted onto the proverbial billboards of Western Buddhism’s corporate mindfulness seminars, as Slavoj Žižek points out: “Although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.” Regardless of how concentrated and relaxed you are in your involvement with profane living, the fundamental principle of your existence remains dependent upon such involvement, and thus fettered and imprisoned. You cannot be authentically and most effectively compassionate if you repeatedly demonstrate through your own behavior that you don’t understand what goodness even is. “Mindful” indulgence and passionate “compassion” only occur within a framework of overwhelming ignorance regarding the nature and the dangers of sensuality. Sensuality is directly built out of our repeated actions to indulge in such accumulation, entanglement, and emotionality. There is sensuality or there is peace. There is no overlap. And if you’re not sure which is which, sensuality is the default.

What are not so well and good are some of the newer additions to the Buddhist Ruins that solely serve to distort and confuse, without offering anything of remedial value in return. Materialist justifications and interpretations of the Dhamma are perhaps the most obvious offenders here in the world of Buddhist modernism, so let me be very, very clear: the Dhamma has absolutely nothing to do with neuroscience. The ontological assumptions and ultimate goals of neuroscience and positive psychology are completely at odds with the world-renouncing conception of happiness put forward by the Buddha. Wisdom is not something that can ever be quantified or understood through a microscope. Attempting to pin down eudaimonia through brain scans or psychometric indices will never resolve the very suffering and craving that motivates that scientific enterprise to begin with. Looking for some kind of therapeutic intervention or literal happy pill to solve dukkha is the epitome of bad faith. Your problems are not out there in your brain. But people don’t want to hear that. They’ll run around to the ends of the earth searching for the perfect study to put before a peer-review panel so they can sleep soundly in the security that a bunch of other oozing mammals rubber stamped their idea of happiness before they’ll allow themselves to actually witness their own mind and the terrifying, lonely vulnerability of their existential situation.

Physicalist-medical hermeneutics can also have a devastating impact on Buddhist training when combined with the myriad meditative concentration exercises, positive emotion cultivations, and “insight” techniques on offer in today’s burgeoning meditation marketplace. We have already once mentioned Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of the notion of sensation as a pure, inscrutable, dot-like impression. Merleau-Ponty really comes out of the gate swinging at this idea from the very first sentence of his Phenomenology of Perception, writing that we utterly misapprehend perception when we “treat it as an incommunicable impression,” because such impressions always come bundled with a richness of Gestalt, context, and communicable meaning. I reiterate Merleau-Ponty’s criticism here because I very much agree with the focus and intensity of his attack, for it is an attack that is directly applicable to the conceptual framing of a great many meditation exercises being taught out in the wild. There are some people that believe that the purpose of meditation is to catch every fleeting sensation in their body as if they were some kind of human oscilloscope, perceiving the pure electromagnetic fluctuations in their nervous system with millisecond precision. Such people are utterly deluded and have entirely misapprehended the reality of their own experience. There is no such thing as a pure, isolated vibration of experience with a precise beginning, middle, and end. To conceive experience as such means that you are necessarily ignoring the mind: the existential realm of context, intuition, understanding, and authentic temporality as described by Heidegger as well as the transcendent Nothingness of Sartre. In doing so, you will have thus entirely closed yourself off from any understanding of Dasein as it actually is. Read the suttas, read the phenomenologists, and don’t fall into this trap.

As for the topic of meditation in general, I would simply advise caution and resolute skepticism. In A Critique of Western Buddhism, Glenn Wallis thoroughly points out all the ways that meditation is currently being co-opted to serve as Žižek’s “perfect ideological supplement” to late-stage capitalism. To summarize his critique of this particular issue—putting the point very bluntly—if a set of meditative tools and techniques are being embraced by Google and the World Economic Forum, that should be an indication that there is probably nothing of any contemplative value in them at all. Living a conscientious life that gradually builds an unshakable foundation of sīla while moving towards minimizing trivial engagements, conflicts, and distractions in favor of broad wholesomeness, generosity, simplicity, reflection, and ease is going to do a lot more for you than 20 minutes of breath meditation a day. Consider instead simply spending those 20 minutes thinking about how to cultivate a greater level of contentment and generosity in your life and attempting to recollect any lapses in virtue, strategizing and resolving towards not repeating them or simply basking in the composure that your unbroken virtue has built for you…

Rather than taking the form of intensive yogic concentration resulting in deep states of almost total sensory deprivation beyond the singular object of focus, Early Buddhist meditation usually seems to be described in a form much closer to the more European conception of meditation that the word originally connoted: contemplation and reflection, but with a layer of classic Buddhist mindfulness at the bottom. And this does have some sense to it: just like you wouldn’t be able to learn about how an engine works by simply staring at one of its pistons for hours on end, you will not come to an understanding of the mind by repeatedly, mindlessly attending to a particular physical sensation. You will come to an understanding of the mind by, surprise, surprise, trying to understand it

So, meditation has been co-opted by capitalism to suit its own needs and Buddhist meditation is itself of complex origins, but these are really only background issues. The main issue with meditation is the common tendency that I already mentioned in Chapter 3: that it is often taken to be the totality of Buddhist practice, with everything else being “preparatory” or “supplemental.” This attitude is perhaps the most subtle and ingenious version of Dhamma domestication that has ever been devised. In being transformed into a daily routine of mental exercises, the Dhamma is neutered into a form of mental hygiene—like a toothbrush for the mind. But as with physical health, the ignored reality here is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and, to extend the oral analogy, it’s much more important to stop drinking the sugary beverages that are rotting your teeth at the roots than perpetually working on perfecting your brushing form. It is a travesty and a scandal that the absolutely central topic of sensuality and its dangers is so totally ignored in so much of popular Buddhist discourse. I “roar my lion’s roar” and take a categorical stand on this point: there is no authentically-Buddhist meditation outside of the abandonment of sensuality. Breathing your way to enlightenment only works when every other part of your lifestyle is supportive of composure and letting go. Effacement is not a technique: it’s a commitment.

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Thank you for sharing! I definitely benefited from NoD and the Hillside writings/video’s, so curious to read your book! Once I read it, I can write a bit more in this topic. For now good luck with your ordination and the new chapter in your life. :pray:

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Thank you for taking the time to share all these interesting ideas. I’m very interested in reading your new book.
Best wishes for all your future endeavors, be well!

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Looking forward to reading … :grin:

Thanks for sharing! Just read the Introduction. Very nice writing style. I look forward to the rest of the book! :pray:

Good luck with ordination and monastic life!

Right view should not be forgotten what is a two-pronged strategy:

" "These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassana).

"When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.

"When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.

“Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.”—Anguttara Nikaya 2.30

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Hey!

Oh man, I’ll be checking this out. I am working on a similar (ish) project, and we have a lot in common! Thanks for posting. Going to send you a PM if that’s alright!

Mettā

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congratulations on your book! looking forward to checking it out!!

Metta

nihilism: the desire for intellectual security juxtaposed with
the manifest impossibility of ever attaining such security

This definition naturally demands further analysis, and this
book will be partially—if not, primarily—dedicated to satisfying
this demand. It seems appropriate, though, to first begin with
some more general remarks. It is widely acknowledged that nihilism is not a specific, formal ideology like most other -isms.
Such an understanding is preserved in our definition. Rather, nihilism is the negative of belief. Note that it is not the opposite of
belief, but its consubstantial companion. One might categorize it
as a spiritual aesthetic, rather than a philosophy, for the philosopher, in the nihilistic mood, may hold his precious philosophies
before letting them all drop to the floor like marbles. The perpetual possibility of the instantaneous devaluation of all that we
hold sacred is the essence of nihilism. In this work, I will be describing and encouraging nothing less than a complete and final
reckoning with this terrifying and liberating possibility.

:face_with_spiral_eyes:

Hi Keller. Merely reading a few paragraphs, my mind is quickly overloaded with so much jargon. What is meant by “existential” and what makes Ñāṇavīra the first? Thank you :slightly_smiling_face:

There seems to possibly be lots of problems with the above:

  1. While I am not fluent in Pali, if “jati” meant “my self was born” and if “marana” means “my self will die”, I imagine the Pali here would include some type of present tense & future tense in its grammar when these words are defined in SN 12.2.

  2. Kosala Samy. i,3 <S.i,71> (SN 3.3) does not seem to support Ñāṇavīra’s view. SN 3.3 says:

Even for mendicants who are perfected — their bodies are liable to break up and be laid to rest

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From wikipedia:

Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the subjective experience of thinking, feeling, and acting. Existentialist thinkers frequently explore issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Sorry about the philosophy overload; it’s really hard to communicate about this book without assuming some minimum level of philosophical literacy, especially in brief. Ven. Ñāṇavīra was simply the first person who had an in-depth knowledge of both the Dhamma and existential philosophy, who recognized that the two modes of discourse are deeply compatible and complimentary, and who synthesized the two systems of thought in his writing.

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The above seems to be ‘circular’. I remain stuck on not understanding what is meant by ‘existential’; particularly how it relates to Buddha-Dhamma. :slightly_smiling_face:

Certainly Keller can answer for himself, but as I have begun to read the book a bit, perhaps a quick answer can be found on p. 13.

I hope you can give the book a chance before launching into a full critique.

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Why don’t you simply, with kindness & generosity, post what you believe to be relevant. Thanks. :slightly_smiling_face:

I doubt I can launch into a full critique. The book is way too long for me.

The above said, merely the opening paragraph of page 13 sounds inaccurate and sounds like solipsism:

Of course, it is still necessary to justify the choice to retain fidelity to an ostensibly arbitrary, pseudo-historical figure. It has already been briefly indicated that the Buddha was, in his own context, a discerning phenomenologist—that is, a philosopher concerned with phenomena as they are directly apprehended in experience.

Since what is apprehended in experience may have no objective truth or benefit (for example, a hippy hallucinating on LSD), it seems unlikely the Buddha could be regarded as a “phenomenologist”. It seems obvious the Buddha found what is ontologically soteriological.

Page 13 continues:

To label him with an even more specific anachronism, he was an existential phenomenologist. The Buddha was deeply concerned with the nature of human existence as it is directly experienced and the dynamic relationship that nature maintains with our attitudes, choices, and notions of identity. Through the understanding he developed, the Buddha went from descriptive analysis into the prescriptive domain, expounding a very specific and detailed regimen of action, contemplation, and non-action for solving not merely specific spiritual or philosophical problems, but solving Problem itself.

Again, the above sounds inaccurate. The above seems to assume the nature of human existence is universally directly experienced. Since Buddhism says in many places most people are puthujjana, it seems whatever the Buddha directly experienced is not what most people directly experience. In fact, it is even questionable if most people are capable of ‘direct experience’ (whatever that term is supposed to mean).

Page 13 continues:

Thus, in categorizing the Buddha as an existentialist

Well, the Guardian has a article about what it is to be an existentialist, called: Think big, be free, have sex … 10 reasons to be an existentialist :smile:

I’m afraid I don’t have the capability to cut and paste right now.
But looking above at Keller’s quoted definition of ‘Existentialism’ combined with his first paragraph of p. 13 should give you the flavor of the project.

The very notion of objectivity is itself something you subjectively experience. The whole point of existential and phenomenological philosophy is to take subjectivity very, very seriously. And, judging by the fact that in SN 35.82 and AN 9.38 the Buddha defines the entire cosmos in terms of the six sense bases, it seems the Buddha took it very seriously as well.

Indeed, but what precisely is meant by “ontological” and “soteriological” requires further investigation. Nibbana is not a heavenly realm where you “go.”

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The above sounds unrelated to Buddhism. Buddhism says the Dhamma “invites inspection” (“ehipassiko”) and is to be “verified by each wise individual” (“paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī”). Thus the Dhamma to be inspected & verified sounds unrelated to “subjectivity”. In fact, Dhamma seems to admonish “subjectivity”.

Again, the above does not sound particularly relevant because Nibbana is not “a world” and the goal of Buddhism seems to be “transcending the world” or “lokuttara”.

Also, SN 35.82 seems to contradict SN 12.44 (which seems to say the world arises from craving). Similarly, SN 35.82 seems to contradict AN 9.38 (which seems to say the world ends when the defilements end).

In summary, my impression is Nanavira borrowed his ideas from Buddhadasa because both Nanavira & Buddhadasa had the same idiosyncratic unfathomable unsubstantiated idea that “jati” means “I am” which obviously has no support in SN 12.2. :face_with_spiral_eyes: SN 12.2 says:

Yā tesaṁ tesaṁ sattānaṁ tamhi tamhi sattanikāye jāti sañjāti okkanti abhinibbatti khandhānaṁ pātubhāvo āyatanānaṁ paṭilābho. Ayaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, jāti.

Since Ven. Ñāṇavīra nor Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero have been able to convincingly explain the Pali above, it seems their ideas are not directly related to the Buddha’s Teachings. This is possibly because, similar to Brahma, they regard their “subjectivity” as essential. :slightly_smiling_face: Best wishes :pray:t2: :dizzy:

Yes, quite so. As Heidegger wrote about extensively, Being is ‘being-there’.

I look forward to reading and contemplating your book in the days ahead, and perhaps discussing it further then.

Thanks!

I like this. This is a really good phrase. It has to be an attack on Nietzsche somehow. I very much like him and think he’s still grossly underestimated, so this is provoking me to go dig around in some stuff of his.

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@keller has definitely listed the existentialists for you. They go: Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling) Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. I think @keller 's focus on the social value of sila is more in keeping with Camus (also an existentialist) than it is with Sartre, and I also think Camus is a much more mature writer (and probably man) than Sartre. But whatever. Those are the philosophical existentialists.

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Although Ven Nanavira came to Heidegger late (an English language translation of Sein u. Zeit appeared at the end of his life) and spent more time with Sartre (the Ven read French), he seemed to think there was more value in Heidegger.

I know this sort of thing has been said before, but it bears repeating that unless one’s mind inclines to the Western thinkers listed above, engaging in a Dhamma investigation a la Nanavira (or this new book) is likely to result in frustration, if not antipathy.

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