Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Response to "Was the Buddha a pessimist, by S N Goenka"

Mr S N Goenka, of Goenka Vipassana fame, has written a long essay claiming that Buddha was not a pessimist.  The essay was originally written in Hindi, but has been translated into English and is available in its entirety here.

The essay is quite long and meandering and does not possess a formal structure for it to be formally reviewed and analyzed.

Before reviewing and commenting on Mr Goenka's essay, some general comments: After regarding the length of the essay, one could be forgiven for assuming that there must be good reasons for many people to consider the Buddha a pessimist.  As an analogy, if the defense statement in a trial is very long, it stands to reason that the prosecution must have some evidence or persuasive power.

Secondly, the essay has cherry-picked incidents and sutras of the Buddha which purportedly show him to be not a pessimist.  There are grave examples in Buddhist texts (for example the Nine Cemetery Observations section in the Satipatthana Sutta) which show the contrary.  Be that as it may, I think even in these incidents and sutras there is ample expression and illustration of why Buddha can still be considered a a non-votary of happy living on earth.

Thirdly, I recognize that Mr Goenka is not a rigorous intellectual and his writings are meant to be emotionally persuasive, and he perhaps is not willing to question the basic tenets of Buddhism.  His acceptance of Buddhist texts is no less than veneration.

Now, on to some brief comments about the essay.

In the section "Ultimate Truth", Mr Goenka states that for the Buddha, "the four Noble Truths lead to the ultimate reality of nibbāna, which is beyond the senses: eternal, everlasting and permanent."

This statement is the key to understanding the aim of Buddhism (which is similar to the aim of all spiritual disciplines): to escape this world (the world of senses, people, time and space) and to somehow experience or dwell in the other world (the world of senselessness, timelessness and spacelessness).  This world is the plane of misery, and that world is the plane of bliss.  This world is the plane where there is craving, aversion, suffering, birth and death; and that world is where there is only absolute bliss.

The Buddha is quite explicit about it:
‘There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; ... neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor stasis; neither passing away nor arising: without stance, without foundation, without support. This, just this, is the end of dukkha’. (Udana 8.1; PTS: viii.1; Nibbana Sutta).
It is clear that the Buddha is advocating not a modulation or management or lessening of one's suffering or stress or sorrow while living on earth; his only solution is to proceed towards experiencing a timeless, space-less realm.

Further down, in the section "Does a doctor promote disease?", Mr Goenka writes:
An expert doctor comes to examine a sick person. He explains to the sick person: "This is your disease; this is the cause of your disease; and here—I have a medicine for your disease. The medicine will remove the cause of the disease and thus cure the disease." The sick person takes the medicine and becomes healthy. Now, can we say that this doctor is promoting disease or promoting health?
The criticism of the Buddha is not that he is promoting suffering, but that he is seeing life on earth as nothing but suffering and that the only worthwhile endeavor according to him is to not be born again.  The "medicine" that the Buddha offers the suffering person is of a curious kind, viz, to be completely detached from this world and its happenings, to not let anything affect or bind oneself.  In effect, Buddha is not being a doctor at all.  He is claiming that there is actually no cure in this world, and the only cure is to leave this world and its miseries behind.  As an analogy, it is as if a patient goes to the doctor to get relief from toothache, and the doctor removes his jaw altogether.  No teeth, no toothache, the doctor happily proclaims.

A little further, Mr Goenka writes:
Every serious meditator experiences that the entire field of the cycle of birth and death is misery. However, most importantly, one also knows that there is a way out of this misery. How wrong it is to call the Buddha a preacher of misery when he has actually given us a way out of all misery!
Nobody is calling the Buddha a preacher of misery, Mr Goenka.  He has been called a pessimist because he, like you, saw only misery in this "entire field of the cycle of birth and death".

I am inclined to think that Mr Goenka, in his zeal to defend the Buddha, is attacking straw-man arguments.  For example:
From the assertion that his philosophy and teachings were nothing but suffering and misery, the implication is that the Buddha himself was miserable and unhappy.
Nobody is asserting is that his philosophy and teachings were "nothing but suffering and misery".  The claim is that his teachings see only misery in this life, and offer the solution which is to escape to a birth-less/death-less realm.

In the section "Happiness even for householders", the advice quoted as given by the Buddha ("obey your parents", "keep standing when elders are standing", "be moral", "remain content", "abstain from evil", etc.) is embarrassingly pedestrian, unquestioning, and timid.  Even so, this is not really Buddha's main teaching.  The crux of Buddha's solution to the problem of human suffering is to attain Nirvana and to never be born again.

In the section "Use of the term sukha (Happiness)", the Buddha is very explicit in stating that happiness in the "other" world is to be preferred over the the happiness in "this" world:
1. Happiness of home and happiness of homelessness (of a monk or a nun)—between the two, the happiness of homelessness is greater.

2. Happiness of sensual pleasures and happiness of renunciation—between the two, the happiness of renunciation is greater. 
3. Happiness of various realms and happiness beyond all the realms of existence—between the two, the happiness beyond the realms of existence is greater.
The section on "Overemphasis on misery" is quite interesting.  Mr Goenka compares the Buddha's aphoristic statements on misery with the descriptive ones in Vishnu Purana and comes to the conclusion that if there is to be blaming and shaming, then Vishnu Purana is the worse offender.  I find the section on the suffering of birth quite hilarious.  That Mr Goenka agrees with the Vishnu Purana statements is quite telling.


In summary, I find that Mr Goenka has not fully understood the criticism against the Buddhist teachings and has therefore offered a meandering and weak defense.  The Buddha is in-line with other eastern spiritual traditions in offering an out-of-this-world solution to the problem of suffering.  To be fair, the Buddha only emphasized and verbalized the aspect of misery more, but all eastern spiritual traditions regard life on earth as sorrowful, secondary and preparatory for a blissful life elsewhere.  

If one really listens to spiritual philosophy, life is best avoided.  They only differ in the "How" aspect.


P. Joseph said...

HI there, please do read this paper when you get a chance.

Anonymous said...

"This world is the plane where there is craving, aversion, suffering, birth and death; and that world is where there is only absolute bliss."

The quote that you provided by Buddha says "neither this world, nor the next world" which I understand to mean that he is not talking about either "this" world nor "that" world. I think he is talking about getting out of the mind's habit of creating duality.

You said "It is clear that the Buddha is advocating not a modulation or management or lessening of one's suffering or stress or sorrow while living on earth; his only solution is to proceed towards experiencing a timeless, space-less realm."

Yet from the same quote of Buddha, I don't think his solution lies in timeless and space-less realm rather where there is neither time nor timelessness, neither space nor space-less realm. I think he is advocating a non-dual state of mind.

Sanjay Srivastava said...

The real proof of pudding is in the eating. Only a statistical sampling of people from a Buddhist culture and analysis of their attitude can reveal if Buddhism is a pessimistic philosophy or not. Textual exegesis proves nothing. It is not just that the faithfuls cherry pick from their teachings to show themselves in a better light. The detractors also cherry pick from the same teachings to show the faithfuls in a poor light. The debate remains ever inconclusive as it is bound to be.

In one of his essays Khushwant Singh has written that when he tried to read Brahma Kumari’s philosophy, he found it very childish. Yet he found their members always peaceful, never in the news for wrong reasons and generally have a much better social conscience than mainstream Hinduism. His observation is very pertinent. Hindu Vedantins may claim privileged access to very sophisticated metaphysics, yet the society and the culture that this philosophy has created leaves a lot to be desired. If someone wants to find out whether Hinduism has a social conscience or not, scriptural texts are not the right place to look. One can selectively quote from Gita or Upanishads or Mahabharat to prove that Hinduism has a very well developed social conscience. The argument can be settled conclusively only by looking at the society Hinduism has created and comparing it with say institutional philanthropy of Christianity.

Therefore coming back to whether the Buddha preaches a pessimistic philosophy or not, you have to go to a Buddhist society and verify whether statistically speaking Buddhists are more pessimists compared to followers of other religions or not. There is no empirical evidence to prove that Buddhists are more pessimistic than other religionists. The arguments to prove pessimism of Buddhism by the type of textual exegesis that you are doing are of no value in really understanding whether Buddhism is pessimistic or not. They are simply another form of intellectual entertainment that people of this country have indulged in for centuries.

Capt. Ajit Vadakayil said...


August 12, 2013 at 5:14 PM

after reading most of your post and other articles over internet,i understood the quote "i have seen the truth and it doesn't make sense" much better.
Please read: was the buddha a pessimist? by s.n.goenka ,Taoism philosophy and do listen to mr.s.n.goenkaji 10days HINDI discourse in vipasana workshop.

My view :In my view your blog plays a conspiracy theory mind game or the one which person like osho use to play by challenging the human thought process, i do not say that your in-formations are wrong or you are misleading people ,but the problem is that we get various version of truth which ultimately make people more confuse and most people except the version of truth which philosophically satisfies their psychology (because logical form of truth is hard to digest as it require irrational thought process) hmmmm...the curiosity no doubt drove crowed towards your blog but what i take away with me is the disturbing truth and big disturbing thoughts and thus producing more sadness and pessimistic attitude in common people.
And as you yourself said in one of your blog that subconscious take the words on their face value ,So my question is why are you giving your negative thoughts the power of technology ?

Please listen to jeson silva(futurist)

If you think my talk make no-sense or it doesn't make you convince and motivate you deep look into the matter which i have shared with you.(which generally happen to the person who has got a great reputation with the army background)
Just ask yourself one question what now ?
till you get all the satisfied answers of what now series .
i.e. what now as now i know the truth ?

my truth is my experience.



Capt. Ajit Vadakayil

August 12, 2013 at 8:58 PM
hi gg,

india rejected buddhism whole sale.

this religion was salvaged by BR Ambedkar -- for reasons rothschild knows best.

punch into google search-

Hinduism or for the matter any other religions does NOT subscribe to the dark vision of Buddhism, limited to the thorny, bitter and miserable aspect of life.

religion is about HOPE.


it has brought out the worst human traits--which includes ethnic cleaning and amazing cruelty.

i hope you know the atrocities of POL POT ( i may put a post on it ) , the sri lankan buddhists against the tamils etc.

if have NOT exposed buddhism yet.

but i have scratched the surface .

you can get a brief glimpse from-




buddhists have destroyed hindu tamples and built buddha temples in its place, in the far east.

by the way-- when you have NOT understood me -- how can you understand my posts?

i am NOT an army captain, as you say.

i am a ship captain of 30 years experience--

-- who has seen the whole planet like the quintessential condor , the reason why i started this blog --

--- NOT a frog in the abandoned well , who can keep talking about his GREAT experience (channeling him to THE sublime truth) -- till the cows come home.

capt ajit vadakayil

Harmanjit Singh said...


"The quote that you provided by Buddha says "neither this world, nor the next world" which I understand to mean that he is not talking about either "this" world nor "that" world."

In the Buddha's quote, "next world", as far as I understand, refers to a temporal realm, perhaps not on earth, but another realm such as Indralok, or the next life. For example, when Buddhists talk about liberation, they say that one will not be born either in this world or the next. Their "that world" is, in a manner of saying, just another planet. ON that planet also, there is desire and suffering.

Whereas the "freedom from suffering" that the Buddha talks about is in a non-temporal realm where there is neither birth nor death.