Friday, August 09, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 2

The second noble truth of the Buddha describes the "origin of suffering" as follows (from Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11)
What is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering?
It is craving which renews being and is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and that: in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being. But whereon does this craving arise and flourish? Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it arises and flourishes.
There is this Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering:such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.
The Buddha describes three kinds of cravings, or desires, that he considers the origin of suffering: craving for sensual pleasures, craving for being something, or craving for not being something.

If suffering is to be considered anxiety and frustration about desires related to oneself, then perhaps these three categories suffice.

But there are many more kinds of cravings, not easily classified as the above three.  The desire to see justice done, the desire for a better world, the desire to see someone change, the desire to discover s solution to a problem, the desire to bring order from chaos, and so on and so forth.  All of these can and do lead to suffering.

"I want to sense", "I want to be" and "I want to not be" are desires related to one's senses and one's ego.  Is the second noble truth wide enough to encompass all desires which can lead to suffering?

We are not yet discussing what aspect of desire leads to suffering.  Whether it is the process of fulfilling that desire or whether it is the non-fulfillment of the desire.

I think pursuing a goal can be considered stressful, and the non-achievement of a desire can be considered frustration.  Some of these stresses and frustrations can be quite intense and cause a great deal of turmoil.

If any stress is to be considered suffering which is to be avoided, then of course having no desires is the solution, which Buddha indeed advocates.

Desire is simply psychological energy aimed at a achieving a state of affairs.  The absence of desire means an absence of psychological drive.  It is to have a vehicle (a body and the mind) and no destination to drive to (no goal).  If the aim of human life is to finally become aimless, then this philosophy makes eminent sense.  But if the aim of human life is something else, then this philosophy is an invitation to apathy, dysfunction and de-motivation.

People claim that spirituality is not dysfunctional, that spiritual people engage in all kinds of good deeds to help others.  Gurus in India are known to patronize charitable hospitals and schools.

There are a few problems with this claim.

The first problem is that a desire to help others is nevertheless a desire, and spiritually speaking it has as much potential for suffering as anything else.

The second problem is that desires and their fulfillment can lead to opportunities and the creation of space for subtler and higher states of being.  Hence, trying to be rid of desires altogether can lead not to desire-less-ness, but resentment.

Even in Buddhism there is the concept of a Bodhisattva, who delays his own nirvana to help others come closer to nirvana.  Even the Buddha, after (presumably) attaining Nirvana, did not die but spent the rest of his life teaching others.

Hence, even in Buddhism, desire and its resultant suffering is admissible if it serves a great cause.  I claim that most human desires are for better states of affairs for oneself, one's loved ones or for one's community.  It is arguable that these wished-for states of affairs (less poverty, more justice, less inflation, better health, better safety) can lead to more opportunities for people to become more evolved.  In a war-torn African country, the possibilities for psychological evolution are fewer than in, say, Iceland.

If we consider the hierarchy of needs (such as propounded by Maslow, among others) as valid, then it is clear that any kind of fulfillment, even for social recognition or for love, enables one to feel fulfilled at that level and paves the way for "higher" kinds of achievements.

Therefore, someone wanting a good meal for their family, or being anxious to find a good spouse, or being concerned about one's reputation, can be considered desires to achieve a state of affairs where one can feel enabled to find higher or subtler kinds of fulfillment.

Subtler itches are felt only when the grosser ones have been scratched.

Hence, any person, and not just the spiritual teachers, can justify his activities as an expression of his desire to achieve better well-being.

The third problem is more sociological than philosophical: most such charitable activities are done with non-spiritual reasons (tax rebates, providing jobs to the faithful, gaining goodwill from the community, gaining real estate at cheap rates, building a heritage and a name for the guru/ashram, etc.) and in any case, are funded with the community's money in the first place.

There are numerous problems with the what the second noble truth is claiming: the very notion of considering desires as the origin of suffering, and therefore something to be rid of.

The first problem is that if one takes the Buddha seriously, there is absolutely no way not to make spiritual enlighenment itself into a goal, and to therefore desire it.  And to thereby go through the cycle of agony, competition, recognition, frustration, etc.  Too many Buddhist teachers have warned against the tendency of making spiritual enlightenment a personal ambition.  But to me, there is no other possibility.  The whole focus of a spiritual seeker, or a monk, is to gain in wisdom, to become liberated, to attain nirvana.  These are all desires squarely falling in the "craving to be" category.

Hence, there is a logical problem with desiring desirelessness.  Desiring only desirelessness and then not even that, or talking about throwing away the ladder after one has climbed it etc., are highly dangerous approaches because they assume the end-state is real.  These approaches need to have a lot of faith in what Buddha has claimed about Nirvana.  If for some reason (and there are a lot of good reasons) the goal is imaginary, or the pursuit is misguided, or if the path is wrong, or if the application of teachings is incorrect, then not only is one completely worthless in the real world (having no desire there), but is also wasting one's time and energy in running after a mirage.

The second problem is that desire is emotional energy and to see desires as evil, and to not want to desire at all is to kill one's emotional core.  Sincere spiritualists, by means subtle or gross, try to get rid of their emotional responses because to express emotions is to confess desire.  Even here there is some dishonesty involved.  It is considered permissible to feel "good" feelings and desires even while on the spiritual path.  Compassion and gratitude, for example, are actively encouraged even in Buddhism.  After a while on the spiritual path, one's emotional responses are subject to approval by the spiritual texts or the authority figures, and one is well on one's way to a lack of emotional autonomy.

The third problem, and the most serious I think, with considering desire as the cause of suffering and stopping there, is to completely brush aside the etiology and evolutionary explanation of desire.  Admittedly, evolutionary psychology wasn't there as a discipline when Buddha was alive.  Darwin hadn't been born yet.

Human desire and the human mind is a complex system with some influences which reach back millions of years.  To not inquire into those influences, at least now when there is research available, and to point at a mystical non-self-realization as the root cause of human suffering, because the Buddha said so two thousand years ago, is intellectual laziness.

For example, why do humans crave sensual pleasure?  Is it just due to ignorance, as the Buddha says?  Hardly.

Why do humans crave recognition, or prosperity?  Is it due to ignorance, as the Buddha says?  Not really.

Why do humans engage in territorial and tribal disputes?  Could it be because we, like all other species, want better prospects for our genes?

How come there is this sense of "self" or the "ego"?  I think Daniel Dennett has made some interesting points in the last few years which go deeper into this than just claiming that it is due to "ignorance".

It is not the Buddha's fault that research into consciousness and the "self" had not matured in those days.  It is still considered a developing field.  But what is remarkable is the humble arrogance of the Buddhist claim that they have figured out the origin of desire and of the sense of "self", and that it is "ignorance" of one's "true nature" which the Buddhists know to be "empty".

I want to quote Richard Dawkins here:
Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to
assess the level of our civilization, is: 'Have they discovered evolution yet?' Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To he
fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: 'The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.' (The Selfish Gene
(to be continued) 

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