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The Sunny Side of Nihilism

By Zach Van Houten

Merriam-Webster defines nihilism as:

a: a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless
\\ Nihilism is a condition in which all ultimate values lose their value.
— Ronald H. Nash

b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

Now could there be any value to a viewpoint such as this? Does it not seem a little bit… bleak?

I would argue that, despite the reputation it has garnered, nihilism is more or less the pessimistic Western version of an Eastern spiritual tradition known as zen. What is seen as tragic to us, with a slight shift in perspective and emphasis, is actually great freedom and liberation.

Nihilism is considered to be the implication of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s declaration that “God is dead“, and the aftermath of the destruction of belief in traditional religion in the West. The picture painted was very tragic. Contrary to popular opinion, Nietzsche was not himself a proponent of nihilism, but rather a prophet predicting it’s arrival. He predicted the horrors of the 20th century quite accurately, as in his own view, a natural consequence of the collapse of religious ideals.

Nihilism extends beyond simple rejection of religion to a deeper mistrust of all societal values and concepts. The nihilist gazes at the horrors of life and doesn’t provide an excuse for it. He or she does not see hope or deeper meaning, just the brute facts of the situation. This outlook is deeply related with the depressive tendency.

So, if this philosophy is so depressing, what good could there be in it? Well, I would argue that nihilism is in some ways the dark before the dawn for the spiritual/philosophical seeker. The end of the line for all buffers against the cold reality which faces us.

Society is built around a sort of repression of the hard truth that everyone will suffer and die. Life is a constant uphill battle, offering no clear answers to why we are here or what we are doing. Some people happen to have a sunny disposition and are able to repress these aspects of life and enjoy their time. But for many, if not most, the actual experience of living is not easy at all.

Before we can find true freedom we must first take complete responsibility for our beliefs and ideas about life. Nihilism involves a ruthless deconstruction of false ideas and fake positivity. It sees through the futility of human concepts in the face of mortality. In the end everyone suffers and dies. What point is there to it all?

Buddhism shares a similar focus on suffering and death. Buddhists believe that life is full of suffering, and that the only way out is the attainment of enlightenment, or liberation. Everything changes, and grasping onto anything will only end in suffering. So the Buddha taught his followers to learn nonattachment: the art of dying before you die.

Society wants you to follow its rules and play its games. It convinces you by appealing to your sense of morality and reason. Yet the values of society are often superficial, and not well thought-out. Nihilism, in it’s rejection of societal values, has a degree of wisdom, as ultimately, all external values have to be dropped in order for a person to become completely free. A liberated being does not base their morality off of society, but rather their own inner sense of compassion and internal moral compass, which can’t be put into rigid doctrines.

Zen buddhism is an attempt to throw off all conceptual knowledge and return to the simplicity of the human heart. It involves a deep trust in the compassion and wisdom of our true nature, rather than the distrust of nature that society has instilled in us.

Zen is a means of transcending the idea of meaning in life, instead preferring direct experience. In this way it is similar to nihilism, except that nihilism is more of a response to loss of meaning, whereas zen is focused on transcending meaning. Seeing things as they are is the goal of both approaches. The main difference is in the actual experience of this meaninglessness. For zen buddhists it is an ecstatic experience to reconnect with their true nature apart from mental concepts. Nihilism does not seem to offer such consolation.

Zen Buddhism is practice-based. It is rooted in the practice of meditation, and the contemplative lifestyle. And in this way it is a fully formed way of life rather than a philosophy. It is based in a worldview which is fundamentally optimistic about life after death, even though a zen buddhist would be very reluctant to speculate on such topics. Nihilists on the other hand tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of life after death and spirituality in general.

So in conclusion, nihilism is for many a symptom of a deep spiritual need. A yearning for the transcendent, which cannot be filled by external ideas and moral injunctions. Zen buddhism on the other hand shares a lot of the same deconstructive tendencies with nihilism, but offers a fundamentally positive, practical, and optimistic path forward. I am not a zen buddhist per se, but it has been a fundamental part of my spiritual path, and may offer something of value to anyone with nihilistic or depressive tendencies.

Thank you for reading.