Suffering & Desire
We left off last time with the Jains, who practice severe discipline to escape from entanglements with material existence. Mahavira argued for a physical conception of suffering rather than a psychological one such that any material interaction, intentional or unintentional, has negative consequences. This is why Jains practice non-violent measures such as wearing masks, as unintentionally killing insects and microorganisms has a negative karmic impact on the individual, even if they are unaware of it and did not intend it.
Let’s say that Susan and Steve are quite addicted to delicious, satisfying waffles. Sadly, waffles are not the healthiest food in existence, and so Susan and Steve suffer pain and dissatisfaction after eating nothing but waffles for years on end. Susan gives no thought to her problems, or anyone else’s really, but Steve worries about his health and addiction to waffles a great deal. For the Jains, what is bad for you is bad for you regardless of whether or not it is intentional, and so a Jain could use this imaginary example to show that Susan and Steve’s health suffers the same even though one intends to change while the other does not.
Gautama Siddharta (563 – 483 BCE), a shramana (striver) like Mahavira, left his home for the jungle and tried Jain-like practices with the forerunners of Jainism before it became an official school, but he left frustrated and dissatisfied. Gautama, also known as Siddhartha, also known as The Buddha, also known as Buddha, found that Jain beliefs and practices gave him feelings of self-loathing rather than liberation, and so he meditated until he discovered that the cause of suffering is psychological rather than physical. Buddha taught that desire and fear fill existence with suffering, what Buddhists and others call samsara, but we can grow through wisdom to find freedom and happiness, what Buddhists and others call nirvana, moksha and samadhi.
While a Jain might argue that Susan and Steve have the same health problems, a Buddhist would argue that both have the conscious, intentional desire for waffles and then act on that desire again and again, and that this intention is the cause of their problem, not the waffles themselves, who intend nothing. Thus, Steve intends to change after intending to eat waffles, which is better than Susan intending to eat waffles without intent to change. Susan might be ignorant, but her actions are not unintentional. One follower of Mahavira argued that if an uncivilized savage roasts and eats someone, mistaking them for food, then Buddhists would have to admit that the savage did no wrong, and thus made a good breakfast.
The Life of the Buddha
According to the tradition, Gautama Siddhartha was the son of a king who ruled the Gautama region of Northern India, what is today in Nepal, the same region and living at the same time as Gautama, founder of the Nyaya school of Logic and Debate. When Siddhartha was born, the king’s wisest adviser told him that his son would be either the greatest of kings or the greatest of sages, the great ruler of the physical or the mental. The king did not want his son to be his successor, so he kept his son in a palace and gave him all the luxuries in the world, hiding death, disease and pain from him, surrounding him with servants, peacocks and happiness. Siddhartha received the finest education and training several academic and military subjects, and received everything he desired, but by 29 he had become bored and snuck out to see the city outside the palace, taking along his most trusted servant.
Outside the palace walls, the prince first saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead man. Horrified, he asked his servant about each, and each time the servant said that this is what happens to everyone, even the crown prince himself. Then he saw a holy man practicing meditation, and his servant told him that this fourth man was working on the problems of the first three. The Buddha was immediately envious of something more wonderful than he had ever possessed in the palace, and so he left home to become, in the Buddhist tradition, the greatest sage of all ages.
Many sages and schools had many formulas for finding one’s way to the One itself, the truth and meaning of it all. The Indian tradition generally prizes liberation from attachments, accompanied by discipline. The Vedanta wrestle over how much this is anthropomorphic devotional worship and how much this is beyond human and inhuman. The Vaisheshika and Nyaya seek atomic, universal truth. The Charvakas say that everything outside of immediate sense is illusion. The Jains say that everything is perspective and disentanglement of the mind from matter. Many great strivers had come before Buddha, but he is the last of the great sages of the golden age of ancient Indian thought, and by following and popularity he is unquestionably the greatest, the most revered Indian philosopher of all time and one of the most popular philosophers in history.
After leaving home, Siddhartha first tried meditating with masters of the Upanishads, but he was not happy to simply pacify the mind and attain tranquility. Then he tried asceticism, fasting and severe practices in the jungle for six years, but he found that this brought no great enlightenment and in fact brought him much frustration and self-hatred. He left the jungle disappointed, and sat underneath a large tree on the bank of Neranjara River, across from a place where priests, ascetics and others made fire sacrifices to different deities. Siddhartha tried the Upanishadic meditations for pacifying the mind again, but with the strength he had acquired from proto-Jain asceticism, and found himself in a state of freedom from hate, greed and confusion. He realized that enlightenment is not a conception of reality, a form of truth, but maintaining awareness itself. He then came out of this state and spent most of his time for the next 45 years reflecting and teaching, explaining with words and concepts why words and concepts are not the truth itself.
The Middle Way
One of the most popular metaphors we find across human thought is balance, the idea that we should not do too much, nor too little. Aristotle in Greece and Confucius in China were both advocates of balance in all things, and the Jains, following Mahavira, argue that we should not be one-sided. The Buddha tried living in a palace with every luxury, and then he tried doing without everything in the jungle, but neither worked. In other words, the Buddha tried being a Jain, but he found that Jain practices are not non-one-sided enough. There are Buddhist images and statues which portray the Buddha obtaining enlightenment while still severely emaciated, but these are not the typical popular portrayal of the Buddha as neither too thin nor too fat, in line with the idea of moderation between extremes.
Gautama Siddhartha is never depicted as fat, though many Americans and others wrongly believe that the Buddha was fat because of the popular “Laughing Buddha”, the happy fat monk and good luck saint who supposedly lived around 900 CE. Known as Budai in China and Hotei in Japan, his name means ‘Cloth Sack’, and he is often shown holding a sack, and orange, or a ball of butter up in the air. He loved playing with children and giving them gifts from his bag, just like the sort of people Nancy Reagan warned us about in the 80s. In one Zen koan story, a monk approached Budai as he was giving out candy and asked, “What is the meaning of Zen?”, a common koan question, and Budai dropped his bag to the ground. The monk then asked, “How does one realize this?”, and Budai picks up his bag, slung it over his shoulder and wandered off.
Budai is extremely popular in Chinese culture, and it is believed that he brings good luck and fortune to lay people and shop owners. Rubbing his belly is supposed to bring good luck, which is why the gold paint or red die on the belly of Budai statues in restaurants is often word away. People saw Budai in the Chinatowns of America and Europe, and assumed this Buddhist monk to be the Buddha himself. Yes, but only in the way that all of us are the original Buddha, Budai and the entire cosmos. When people think that the Buddha is fat, this is somewhat like confusing Friar Tuck with Jesus. Jesus is also depicted as skinny, not as a fat Franciscan brewing beer.
The Middle Way is what Buddha taught those who first listened to him, including ascetics, after he himself had practiced asceticism. He realized that a mind without hate, greed and confusion can see and experience so much more of the world, but that we must be both dispassionate and compassionate at the same time. Unlike Mahavira, Buddha thought we should grow our passions, the seeds in you into fruits, growing causes into effects, without allowing them to become too inflamed and out of control, neither burning them all off nor allowing them to grow out of control. Rather than try to escape our attachments, individuality and perspective entirely for unmotivated omniscience, we should pragmatically engage with whatever side of the elephant we find ourselves on with the wisdom that there is always more than one side.
One of the great scholars of Buddhism as philosophy is David Kalupahana, who studied with Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke, who studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, my favorite modern European philosopher. For many years, Kalupahana was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Hawaii, one of the foremost institutions in the comparison of Eastern and Western thought. Kalupahana argues that Buddha, like William James and Wittgenstein, was a pragmatist who sought a middle way between dogmatic absolutism and skeptical relativism. Our desires and conceptions are true and false, believable and doubtable, and so it is not about what we believe in itself but what we do with our beliefs in practice. Desires and conceptions are not bad in themselves, but tools that are used in ways that result in good and bad. Thus, we should grow the seeds in us wisely, without burning them off or growing them into too much fruit.
Buddha argued that there are many different views and schools, but that all of their theories are based on both reason and experience. The Nyaya logicians had argued before the Buddha that there are four sources of knowledge: perception, inference, testimony and comparison. We experience things and experience others telling us about their experiences, and we reason about what is true beyond our and others experiences, making comparisons between different things and their different possibilities.
Some schools, like the Nyaya, believed that reason is central and yogic insight unnecessary, but other schools, like the Jains, believe that yogic insight acquired through practices is necessary. Thus, both the Nyaya and the Jains believe in both reason and experience, but the Nyaya believe that reason is essential and experience is a helpful, while the Jains believe that experience is essential and reason is helpful. In the early modern European philosophical tradition, these two positions were known as Rationalism and Empiricism, the first major schism, with Descartes and Kant on the side of reason as universal and Locke and Hume on the side of experience as complex.
The Buddha argued that siding with the Rationalist Nyaya or the Empiricist Jains are each an overstatement (adhivuttipada in Pali, similar to the Jain anekantavada in Sanskrit), as we should not have too much faith in reason nor too much faith in experience. We must believe and doubt our perceptions as well as our reflections, maintaining awareness of the situation. Too much faith in one side of things blinds us because there are different positions we can take and things change. What if we trust our reasoning, and deny counterexamples in our experiences, including the testimony of others? What if we trust our experiences, such that we deny our reasoning, including comparisons we can make between how we do things and how we could do things better? In one early text found in the Majjhima-Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses), Buddha is recorded as saying:
Even if I know something on the basis of best faith, that may be empty, hollow, and confused, while what I do not know on the best faith may be factual, true and not otherwise. It is not proper for an intelligent person, safeguarding the truth, to come categorically to the conclusion in this matter that such alone is true and whatever else is false.
Impermanence & The Monkey Mind
Many of the debates between ancient Indian philosophers were concerned with separating the eternal and universal from the temporary and particular. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, including our individual selves and our shared world. Buddha was critical of the Hindu idea of the atman and the caste system, even though Hinduism recognizes the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and some Buddhist texts speak of the Buddha going to high heaven realms and teaching the Hindu gods, who rejoice upon being enlightened more than they apparently already were.
Even our conceptions and understandings of the whole and truth itself are evolving and changing depending on circumstances. This constant transformation is a central cause of fear and clinging to particular things to seek stability. However, because particular things are not permanent, the mind must jump from one thing to another, seeking ideal stability in each thing and then leaping to the next with the same hope, endlessly without rest unless wisdom is developed. To illustrate this, Buddha use the metaphor of the monkey mind, of a monkey leaping from branch to branch trying to find the branch that is completely secure, ignorant of the insecurity the monkey finds in every particular branch.
Buddha says that we all have contact with reality, much as each blind man has direct physical contact with the elephant in the Jain story. By having contact with reality, we become familiar with things, and by becoming familiar with things, we come to have positive, negative or neutral feelings towards them. Feeling can lead to perception, perception can lead to reflection, and reflection can lead to obsession. If we are satisfied or dissatisfied with something in experience, this can lead us to focus on it rather than ignore it, as we do with countless things that are pleasing or displeasing in passing. If we focus on a thing and how it is satisfying or dissatisfying, this can lead us to reflect on it later, when we are no longer experiencing the thing, and if we reflect on things we are not directly experiencing, this can lead to obsession. If the Buddha is correct, our lives are unfortunately filled with obsessions that cause ignorance, which itself causes problems.
When we reflect on our perceptions, we can focus on whether or not things are making us happy, but we can also reflect on whether or not our perceptions and reflections themselves make us happy, leading us to bondage and suffering or freedom and happiness. Thus, in maintaining awareness of our feelings, perceptions, reflections and obsessions, we become increasingly aware as we feel, perceive, reflect and obsess that we can obsess about our reflections but we don’t have to, and we can reflect about our perceptions and feelings but we don’t have to. Because we cannot say with absolute certainty that our feelings, perceptions and reflections are the complete and total truth, we must try to maintain awareness that the perceptions and reflections that arise from our feelings are only useful some of the time. As Kalupahana says, “it is easier to be enslaved by a concept that gives the impression of being permanent and incorruptible than by a perception that is obviously temporal and corruptible.”
By maintaining awareness of feelings and perceptions, we can do without excessive and harmful reflections and obsessions. In particular, Buddha was concerned with the ways we obsess about ourselves, attempting to fix a permanent, perfect self, and the ways we obsess about our world, attempting to fix the ways of things and our understandings of them. As we become aware of our obsessions, we become aware of how they blind us to seeing the complexity of the situation, how things are interconnected and complex. Buddha called this pratityasamutpada, Codependent Arising, which sounds like a terrible movie about therapists aboard a submarine, also known in English translation as dependent origination and conditioned genesis.
Each thing is what it is because of how it interacts with every other thing, not because of anything that it is completely in itself. Things that are opposite and opposed to each other, such as self and other, friend and enemy, good and bad, hot and cold, are what they are because of their opposites and in spite of them. Buddha referred to the self, the world and each part of each thing as a pile (skanda), a bundle of many things intertwined. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s idea that thinking and meaning are like a thread, a tangle of many things without one single strand running throughout the length of the whole.
Because things are impermanent and dependent on other things to be what they are, Buddha taught that all things are empty (shunya). While this seems depressing or frightening to many, it should be understood as a kind of openness, not being closed off in themselves as it first appears but being connected to and dependent on everything else. In an early text, the Buddha says that abiding in emptiness is abiding in fullness. What first appears to be nihilism, belief in nothing, should rather be understood as belief in everything as an interconnected whole, as a rich abundance that means far too much to mean any one specific thing in particular.
In a set of talks by the Dalai Lama called Compassion in Emptiness, he speaks about Nagarjuna, who we will soon study, and connects emptiness, openness, and compassion as the goal of Buddhist teaching and practice. Being empty of self is not just lacking self-determination, but lacking selfishness and possessiveness. An absence of selfishness or division of things does not mean one has nothing. Rather one is not attached to the things one finds one has. Later in this talk the Dalai Lama giggles about Jains showing up to conferences naked.
The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings of the Buddha, collected and written in the first century BCE, the time when Buddhism was becoming codified as a tradition and religion in Pali texts of northern India. Dhamma, dharma in Pali as opposed to Sanskrit, means law, discipline and truth, and pada means path, step, foot and foundation. Thus, the text is the foundation of the law, as well as the path of truth. It includes several memorable passages, including:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.
“Look how they abused and beat me, how they threw me down and robbed me.” Live with such thoughts and you live in hate. “Look how they abused and beat me, how they threw me down and robbed me.” Abandon such thoughts, and live in love. In this world hate has never dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible. You too shall pass away. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?
An untroubled mind, no longer seeking to consider what is right and what is wrong, a mind beyond judgements, watches and understands. Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded, but once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or mother.
The fool who knows they are a fool is that much wiser. The fool who thinks they are wise is a fool indeed. A jug fills drop by drop. Fools forget their mischief, and light the fires they will burn in one day.
The farmer channels water to his land, the fletcher whittles his arrows, the carpenter turns his wood, and the wise man masters himself.
There is an old saying: “They blame you for being silent, they blame you when you talk too much and when you talk too little.” Whatever you do, they blame you. The world always finds a way to praise and a way to blame. It always has and it always will. I shall endure hard words as the elephant endures the arrows of battle, for many people speak wildly.
If you sleep, desire grows in you, like a vine in the forest. Like a monkey in the forest, you jump from tree to tree, never finding the fruit, from life to life, never finding peace.
You have come out of the hollow, into the clearing. The clearing is empty. Why do you rush back into the hollow? Desire is a hollow. Quiet your mind. Reflect. Watch. Nothing binds you. You are free.
Delight in the mastery of your hands and your feet, of your words and your thoughts. You have no name and no form. Why miss what you do not have? Empty the boat, lighten the load.
Unbolt the doors of sleep, and awake.