Bill Vallicella, a former professor who runs a good philosophy blog called The Maverick Philosopher, has written an article called Buddhism on Suffering and One Reason I am Not a Buddhist.
He has every right to not be a Buddhist, of course, but I think his article expresses a misunderstanding of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding I’ve also heard from others. Vallicella objects to the Buddhist teaching on desire, one of its core concepts, for its essential negativity:
For Buddhism, all is
dukkha, suffering. Allis unsatisfactory. This, the First Noble Truth, runs contrary to ordinary modes of thinking: doesn’t life routinely offer us, besides pain and misery and disappointment, intense pleasures and deep satisfactions?
He describes what he sees as the Buddhist attitude towards desire in more detail here, and he captures the prevailing belief well enough:
Each satisfaction leaves us in the lurch, wanting more. A desire satisfied is a desire entrenched. Masturbate once, and you will do it a thousand times, with the need for repetition testifying to the unsatisfactoriness of the initial satisfaction. Each pleasure promises more that it can possibly deliver, and so refers you to the next and the next and the next, none of them finally satisfactory. It’s a sort of Hegelian
schlechte Unendlichkeit. Desire satisfied becomes craving, and craving is an instance of dukkha. One becomes attached to the paltry and impermanent and one suffers when it cannot be had.
Yes, this is what Buddhists believe, but if this were the sum total of Buddhist teaching on desire then I would not be a Buddhist either. Taken in isolation, this is too stringent an attitude, too humorless, too inhumane. But is this utter rejection of desire what Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, actually taught, and what he represented to his own direct followers? Let’s take a closer look.
I could pull out some dusty Pali texts here … but I’m not fancy, let’s go to Wikipedia and read about the Buddha’s progress towards enlightenment there. Here’s how the gospel goes:
Gautama first went to study with famous religious teachers of the day, and mastered the meditative attainments they taught. But he found that they did not provide a permanent end to suffering, so he continued his quest. He next attempted an extreme asceticism, which was a religious pursuit common among the Shramanas, a religious culture distinct from the Vedic one. Gautama underwent prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and exposure to pain. He almost starved himself to death in the process. He realized that he had taken this kind of practice to its limit, and had not put an end to suffering. So in a pivotal moment he accepted milk and rice from a village girl and changed his approach. He devoted himself to anapanasati meditation, through which he discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way (“madhyam path”): a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
The Middle Way — Madhyama Pratipad, the alternative to the extremes of gluttony or ascetism — is an absolutely essential part of Buddhism. Siddhartha Guatama’s great discovery was not self-denial — that was the practice of several other would-be wanna-be Buddhas who, unlike Prince Siddhartha, never found the formula. His great discovery was balance, and self-awareness, in the face of extreme choices.
He accepted milk and rice from a village girl. That was the formula — he discovers the possibility of harmonic equilibrium between self-denial and self. In the didactic portions of the Buddhist texts, the Enlightened One tells us straight out, no punches pulled, what desire is: illusion, an ever-turning wheel, a painful fire. But how do we counter it? He only counsels balance. He never demands displays of extreme denial or self-mortification from himself or his followers. Christianity, in fact, is much more obsessed with self-mortification as a path to purity than Buddhism.
The Middle Way: what a beautiful concept. Translated into Classical Greek, it ties Buddhism not to the shining ideals of Plato (Buddha and Socrates had much in common elsewhere, of course) but to the moderation of Aristotle. I hope Bill Vallicella and others I’ve read or spoken to who’ve harbored similar ideas about what Buddhism is will take a closer look at the historical record, at the familiar life story that has always illuminated the religion to its followers. We should not apprehend a religion only by its commandments, but also by the life stories (of Moses, of Jesus, of Buddha, of Mohammed) and living examples that sustain it.
Beyond this one quibble, I must express my admiration for the welcoming tone of Vallicella’s Maverick Philosopher overall site. He concludes his piece on Buddhism like this:
But I should say that I take Buddhism very seriously indeed. It is deep and sophisticated with a rich tradition of philosophical commentary.
He also qualifies his thinking here:
I am talking about primitive Buddhism, that of the Pali canon. Attention to the Mahayana would require some qualifications.
This is correct, but I hope I’ve helped to make it clear that it’s not just various Mahayana Buddhist teachers who’ve emphasized moderation and the Middle Way (like Nagarjuna, founder of Madhyamaka). It wasn’t until Siddhartha Guatama began to differentiate himself from the extremes of his fellow ascetic searchers that he became the Buddha. I think it’s the Shramanas, not Buddha himself, who take a hard position on desire and suffering like the one Vallicella postulates in his piece.
You know, I don’t think I’m a very good Buddhist myself (though I seem to be a very vocal one), and I can’t honestly say I feel I’ve always found the Middle Way in my own life. But it’s by constantly reminding myself of the calm, earthy influence of Buddhist thought that I always remember to try to find this moderate path. Whenever I have a difficult decision to make, or whenever I feel in the grip of emotional uncertainty, the Buddhist philosophy reminds me how wide my options are. This is one of many ways that I believe the teachings have helped me in my life.