Philosophy Weekend: Buddha, Desire and the Middle Way

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. All is 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.

10 Responses

  1. Ohm-Yum, Levi.
    Here’s another

    Ohm-Yum, Levi.

    Here’s another thought. With the game of love, in seeking the fufillment of desire, “winner takes all” justifies “loser gives all,” and in that wholehearted giving, both winning and losing are reconceptualized.

    Like Dylan says in Together Through Life, “It’s all good.”

  2. Levi: Thank you for
    Levi: Thank you for pinpointing the major reductionist dealbreaker that makes me wary of some Buddhist schools. As someone who is often unapologetically (albeit on a budget) Bacchanalian (although certainly far from the narcissistic heights of Henry Miller, still great respect for the man), I am naturally driven to both excess and asceticism. And it is this oscillation between the two extremes — sometimes entailing hours, sometimes entailing years — that permits me to eventually stumble upon the best way to live in a certain manner — with that particular manner subject to the constant revision of experience (hardly foolproof, for we make the same glorious mistakes again and again!). The problem with self-awareness — at least for me — is that it sometimes prevents one from going nuts and eventually zeroing the needle. Know precisely what you are going to do and you may not do it. (This is, incidentally, my major problem with Jon Stewart’s recent call to take it down a notch, adeptly rebuffed by Glenn Greenwald.) Or as Gandhi once put it, life is what happens when you make other plans. I think we may differ in our philosophy that humans are innately calm. Not always. They can also be innately aggressive. But respect someone for their natural piss and vinegar, and you may be helping them to find an equanimity (or indeed some other positive quality) that can be passed along to others. Of course, like Frances said above, it ain’t about bullshit binaries. But emotional uncertainty can also be a good thing.

  3. I love a lot about Buddhism
    I love a lot about Buddhism and its efforts to live comfortably with reality. However, the middle way, for me, has its own problems. This balance is a great thing when you need it. It’s great when you are in distress to seek a middle way, a balance. Of course. But people who seek it constantly become dull as far as I’m concerned. Medium everything is no way to make a Rolling Stones, or a William Burroughs, or a Beethoven. Why would we ever want to lose ourselves in a symphony if we were primarily interested in a middle way? How would you ever truly enjoy a great glass of wine and drown yourself in it completely if you were interested in a middle way?

    Homer most certainly was not interested in anything resembling a middle way.

    The loss of balance and the reveling in excess is one of the great powers and mysteries of the world. It should not be avoided and replaced with a middle ground or way.

    Everything in moderation is another example of this balanced approach, I think. But it lacks something. Perhaps ‘a middle way until one wants to maniacally obsess on something’ would be better for someone like me. I am seldom worried about obsession or excess. I can live quite comfortably with those things in fact. The middle path always makes me itch to jump out into traffic.

    Most of the time, when I encounter that calm, sleepy-eyed, serene look in someone, it’s just simple stupidity. Every time I see the Dalai Lama smirk I want to punch him.

  4. That’s a good point,
    That’s a good point, Alessandro. As far as critiques of Buddhism go, I think yours is one of the more accurate ones.

    However, once again, the ideal of moderation allows us even to moderate our moderation. Buddhism is an eminently tolerant religion — that’s one reason I like it so much. Perhaps it is acceptable as a Buddhist to be a Buddhist only some of the time.

  5. Yes, I agree completely. I
    Yes, I agree completely. I poke at Buddhism because I am well aware of how it is one of the few religions or modes of thought that actually encourages poking at it!

    And I wouldn’t punch the poor old Dalai Lama. I hope you realize that. I am kind of playing a Buddhist game when I say things like that. You know… the old when you meet a Buddha on the road…

    You’ve got me looking at my shelves of Buddhist books again. I tend to read them for a while and then let them sit for years.

  6. Sorry, Bill Vallicella, but
    Sorry, Bill Vallicella, but by stating you’re not a Buddhist because you cannot agree with the First Noble Truth does nothing to negate this truth, hence the word ‘truth’ as used by Siddartha.

    We could refute gravity and claim we’re not ‘Newtonian’ but the truth of gravity is still here regardless.

  7. Ha ha — well said,
    Ha ha — well said, mtmynd.

    To put it a different way: the fact that pleasure is often unsatisfying is a bigger truth than Buddhism. What Buddhism offers is a way of dealing with this truth.

  8. Re: “To put it a different
    Re: “To put it a different way: the fact that pleasure is often unsatisfying is a bigger truth than Buddhism. What Buddhism offers is a way of dealing with this truth.”

    Well said. Buddhism offers a path to walk upon…. it is up to the individual to walk that path with eyes open and mind emptied.

  9. You’ll find a lot of ideas
    You’ll find a lot of ideas related to this discussion of the Middle Way (and a discussion board) on my website . One of the key arguments I am putting forward there is that the Middle Way (which is about effectively addressing conditions, not just moderation) is separable from traditional Buddhism, and traditional Buddhism has to a fair extent betrayed it. The Middle Way also offers a key for resolving the absolutism/ relativism divide in ethics.

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