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2 Suffering as the problem

2 Suffering as the problem

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reshaping one’s life to extinguish all ‘attachment’ (up d na) that arises from

craving—indeed, the notion of being extinguished or ‘blown out’ like the flame

of a candle is preserved in the etymology of the word for the goal of Buddhist

efforts, nirvana (Pali: nibb na). The difference between the two approaches can

be seen by contrasting their respective attitudes to human sexuality. The

Epicurean attitude to sexual intercourse is well illustrated in advice given by one

of Epicurus’ close associates, Metrodorus, to a younger Epicurean, Pythocles:

You tell me that the movement of your flesh is too inclined towards sexual

intercourse. So long as you do not break the laws or disturb proper and

established conventions or distress any of your neighbors or ravage your

body or squander the necessities of life, act upon your inclination in any

way you like. Yet it is impossible not to be constrained by at least one of

these. For sex is never advantageous, and one should be content if it does

no harm.

(LS 21G3)

Sex like any other pleasure is in itself good, but it is hazardous and probably unwise

to indulge. This stands in contrast to the attitude expected of those most firmly

committed to following the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path, where sexual desire

appears as a paradigm of the craving that lies at the root of all suffering.

Buddhism arose within an antecedently existing subculture in which asceticism

played an important role. According to traditions concerning his life prior to his

enlightenment, the Buddha had abandoned wealth and privilege to live as one of

a number of itinerant teachers of philosophy and practitioners of religion,

dependent on the charitable support of people who saw their alms as gaining

them a better prospect in the next life. Collectively, these mendicants were

known as rama as;2 many of them practised extreme ascetic techniques, for it

had long been a tradition in India that ascetic discipline was a way of increasing

one’s power not only over oneself but also over nature and the gods.3 Many

recommended mental disciplines involving concentration ‘on a single point’; this

could be a physical object, some part of the person’s body, a thought or God.

This is the basis of the yogic meditation found in a variety of Indian traditions

(Eliade 1958:47).4 Those who aspired to the power or wisdom believed to be

obtainable through a combination of ascetic and meditative practice went alone

for extended periods into the forest, which in India served the same function as

the Egyptian desert for Christian renouncers 800 years later.

Gautama tried the doctrines and techniques of a number of rama as without

finding the spiritual satisfaction he sought: ‘an unsurpassed excellent state of

calm.’ Part of the enlightenment that he subsequently achieved was a doctrine

known as the middle way, viz. that extreme self-mortification is no more the

route to salvation than is self-indulgence. The ‘first sermon of the Buddha’

following his enlightenment (Rahula 1974:92–4) was addressed to five ascetics

(his former companions). It begins by insisting that both ‘self-indulgence of


sense pleasures’ and self-mortification are ‘unworthy and unprofitable’ and that

both extremes must be avoided.

From the standpoint of the ordinary person, however, the Eightfold Noble Path

contains significant ascetic features. According to tradition, the Buddha formed a

community (the Sa gha) of those who were most intent on following the path that

he had prescribed for bringing about the cessation of craving and suffering. For

the Sa gha, a code of discipline (Vinaya) was laid down, and the four most

strictly proscribed acts or ‘offenses of defeat’ (Keown 1992:32) were

manslaughter, theft, sexual intercourse and lying (specifically about spiritual

accomplishments). In other words, the Buddha regarded sexual activity as

incompatible with the aspiration to extinguish the craving that gives rise to

suffering; and sexual desire, by implication, was regarded as a cardinal instance

of attachment. Other cardinal instances represented in the ‘offenses of defeat’ are

greed, which might tempt one to steal; a yearning for admiration, which might

lead one to exaggerate one’s accomplishments; and fear or anger, which might

lead to spilling blood. The resulting acts are not forbidden because they have

potentially distressing consequences but because they are the most obvious and

serious manifestations of what needs to be extinguished if suffering is to be

tackled at its source.

The Sa gha was comprised of mendicants (bhikkhus5)—monks whose

minimal material needs were met by alms from the surrounding community —

and like the Epicurean community was thus economically dependent (parasitic)

on the wider social sphere. But unlike Epicureans, who took themselves to have

no responsibilities to the world outside their communities, the Sa gha taught the

Buddha’s message when receiving food and other necessities. Non-ordained

individuals (the ‘laity,’ ‘householders’) were offered ‘the three refuges’—the

Buddha, his teaching and his Sa gha—and they would associate themselves

with specific groups of bhikkhus and would worship with them in buildings and

parks set aside for the Sa gha.6

For the laity, ‘four vices in conduct’ correspond to the ‘four offenses of

defeat,’ except that ‘sexual misconduct’ (‘unchastity’ or ‘adultery’) replaces

‘sexual intercourse.’ These vices give rise to ‘five precepts,’ which proscribe

intoxication along with the four vices (80), each of which has a positive

counterpart, e.g. with the first precept not to kill or injure goes the practice of loving

kindness (mett ) to all (Saddhatissa 1970:76ff). Where bhikkhus are also

forbidden from receiving gold and silver and adornment (along with personal

possessions other than their robes and a bowl out of which to eat), householders

are encouraged to protect their wealth, make their businesses prosper and provide

adornment for their wives. Where bhikkhus are forbidden dancing, singing and

shows, householders were merely advised that these are among the ‘six doors of

dissipating wealth.’7

Buddhist beliefs about death and reincarnation (Buddhist eschatology) provide

a natural motivation for the dual structure of the Buddhist community—the

stricter subculture of the Sa gha within the wider, less rigorous, lay culture.


According to these doctrines, humans are caught in the cycle of rebirth

(sa s ra), and the only way to break free and ensure that one will not be born into

yet another life is to extinguish totally the craving and attachment that lies at the

foundation of all suffering and at the foundation of what people normally think

of as their selves—this is regarded by many as involving the total dismantling of

the self. Being moved to join the Sa gha is a sign that one hopes to make

definite progress toward this goal; hence a bhikkhu is expected to put aside

interest in possessions, comforts and sex. The laity are left to work (through good

deeds, e.g. supporting the Sa gha materially) for a more favorable birth in the

next life. Pious laymen aspire to enter the Sa gha in a future life, when they will

begin more thoroughly and comprehensively to detach themselves.

Viewed from the perspective of its eschatology, Buddhism hardly appears to

be a ‘life-affirming’ outlook. Humans are portrayed as beings normally

condemned to live, and thus to suffer, over and over again. Suicide is no way

out; not only is one ushered back into (yet another) life, but the doctrine of

karma (see Section 3.2) entails that one’s new situation will only be worse. Acts

committed in previous lives create an ongoing burden that makes attachment and

suffering worse. Suicide, after all, in violating the precept against taking life,

manifests a negative form of the ‘craving’ (viz. self-hatred) that leads to rebirth

and suffering. Such karma must be purged by meritorious actions before a person

can hope for rebirth in a more comfortable situation, let alone achieve sufficient

detachment to bring about the cessation of his or her own cycle of rebirth. The

Buddha taught that whatever gives life to a succession of bodies is not

indestructible, but karma ensures that it will be difficult to terminate. The

ultimate goal of the Eightfold Noble Path is thus not merely to achieve a degree

of non-attachment but a complete and comprehensive non-attachment sufficient

to bring that termination about.

Buddhist eschatology stands in stark contrast to Western traditions, which

consign the dead to a permanent shadow world, either divided into regions of

torment and bliss or as in the case of the Jewish sheol ‘a sad, disturbing place but

one devoid of punishments’ (Le Goff 1984:7). Buddhists believe that heavens

and hells exist, but residence in such realms is not permanent. The highest Western

eschatological aspiration is everlasting bliss; the most pressing need for salvation

is from everlasting torment. Epicurus saw mankind as needing salvation above

all from such beliefs and taught a view of human life and experience as

dependent on the body in such a way that neither experience nor the effects of

one’s actions were capable of surviving the disintegration of the body:

For all good and evil lie in sensations, whereas death is the absence of

sensation. Hence a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes

the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, but by ridding us

of the desire for immortality.

(LS 24A1–2)


To the Buddha, the solution to the problem of suffering could hardly be a matter

simply of adjusting one’s beliefs about the hereafter. To an Epicurean, the

Buddha’s message would appear to be based on yet another superstition—another

of what Lucretius called religio—that unnecessarily torments the minds of

human beings and adds misery to what little time they have to live. To a Buddhist,

however, Epicurus’ doctrines, which entail that actions in one life have no

effects on future lives and indeed that there is no rebirth, are the sort of wrong

views that constitute one of the four principal objects of attachment, clinging to

which ensures the perpetuation of suffering. This represents not only a challenge

to the truth of Epicurus’ doctrines regarding nature but also raises the possibility

that what we believe about the world around us is dependent in crucial ways on

our dispositions to desire certain things.

The eschatological issues are impossible to settle, but the relationship between

belief and desire needs further consideration. On this turn the questions of

whether it is correct to conclude that Buddhism is not a ‘life-affirming outlook,’

that the Buddha ultimately only offered salvation from life itself, and that the

most important thing to be ‘extinguished’ or ‘blown out’ is an individual’s

continuity. A number of modern scholars and apologists have insisted that this

last would be a distorted understanding of nirvana. The goal is the extinction or

the blowing out of the fire of ‘craving,’8 the dissolving of attachment and the

dismantling of the self. The result is not merely salvation (present and

permanent) from suffering, but human fulfillment, a way of living the rest of

one’s natural life that is both worthy and satisfying. This the Buddha and

numerous arahants9 managed to achieve before their final bodily death, when the

cycle of their rebirths terminated, and their achievement should be intelligible

and appealing even to those who do not believe in the cycle of rebirth. Nirvana,

understood as the extinguishing of the craving that leads to suffering, and the

immediate consequences of its achievement for the remainder of a person’s

natural life thus require closer examination.

To understand what this might involve, recall that as humans mature (see

Section 10.2 on James and Butler), they acquire a conception of their own

individual prosperity (which may, but need not, be broadly conceived to include

the good of other individuals and/or the good of some collective body) and also

develop an awareness of how their particular passions bear on that conception. It

might then be claimed that all mature human behavior—when ‘behavior’

qualifies as ‘conduct’—is in this sense self-regarding. Even what appears to be

self-sacrifice and not merely benevolent action is really self-regarding, because

the self in such cases is broadly conceived and we must take that person to be

acting in furtherance of that broad conception or we will not be able to

understand that person’s actions. Given that we are defining conduct as behavior

that involves a concept of the self and given the strategy for finding a broad

enough notion of the self to disallow any exception to the claim that conduct is

always self-regarding, this claim appears to be true either by definition or by the

analysis of the meanings of our terms (is an ‘analytic truth’).


But if this claim that all human conduct is self-regarding is necessarily true,

what sense can be made of the Buddhist aspiration to extinguish altogether the self

conceived as a complex of attachments? What is the meaning of the advice in the

Dhammapada 285 (Radhaknishnan and Moore 1957: 314): ‘Cut out the love of

the self as you would an autumn-lily with the hand?’ This is usually taken to

involve more than merely rooting out the desire for natural gratifications and for

the high opinion of other people. But is it not incoherent to try to live and act

without any self-regard?

If James and Butler are right (Section 10.2), there is a primitive condition in

which action is totally absorbed in its object without any regard for the self, that

is for anything conceived as the agent of the action. Clearly, Buddhism does not

call for a return to this primitive condition, but the condition points to the

possibility of acting without regard for self, a possibility that might be realized in

other ways. Mature individuals occasionally experience what they describe as

‘loss of self’ when they become engrossed in watching a drama, reading a novel,

making something or managing some undertaking. When they have finished,

they sometimes feel a mild shock as they reconnect to their ordinary concerns,

concerns structured by their awareness of how their experiences bear on their

self-image, their self-esteem, their personal projects and personal property.

Now if the mind can be drawn into something as complex as solving a

mathematical problem or managing a crisis without connecting itself to

preoccupations with the self, could one not seek a way of life in which this loss of

self was permanent? Puzzle solving and crisis management may well not be the

best activities to try if one hopes to sustain the loss of self. Governing, creating

or being entertained may also be insufficiently stable, because they cannot be

prolonged and hence the loss of self cannot be sustained indefinitely. But if one

could establish a routine removed from everyday life in which long periods are

spent developing and disciplining the mind’s ability to concentrate on objects, in

which social interactions reinforce or at any rate do not distract from that

discipline and in which the manner of meeting the necessities of existence (food,

shelter, etc.) is wholly uncluttered by opportunities for self-concern, might one

not bring about a permanent loss of self? All activities would be done because

they are to be done, not because I, this person, need or want or should do them.

Everything would be done with as little self-regard as breathing is normally done.

All humans would draw the same response of concern and compassion from me,

not merely those who mean something to me.

The project begins with a measure of egoistic concern. For reasons more

readily accessible to those who accept the framework of karma and rebirth but

not inaccessible to those who do not, egoistic concern turns on itself, and the

terminus of the process of trying to think out what is best for me ends with the

thought that what is best for me is that I lose all concern with what is best for me.

If the claim that all human conduct is self-regarding is a necessary truth, this

conclusion (terminus) is incoherent and the project it suggests is unattainable. To

the extent that some Buddhists do appear to exhibit the external signs of a total


lack of self-regard and thus appear to have achieved the goal of becoming

arahants, it seems that even this minimal self-regard is not a necessary condition

of human action.


Apathy (apatheia) and non-attachment (anup disesa)

The pathology of the passions

Buddhists and Epicureans, as we have seen, both address the problem of

suffering, but whereas the latter outline a policy of avoidance, the

former prescribe rooting out the cause. The approach recommended by the

Buddha has some important similarities to that of the Epicureans’ rivals, the

Stoics. Stoics did not begin with the problem of suffering or the avoidance of

distress. They began with the same problem that provided Aristotle’s startingpoint, which was to articulate the goal toward which people should direct their


Like Aristotle, they saw fulfillment as lying in excellence (virtue, aret ) that is

in the best life that a human being could live, and they regarded the sort of

emphasis placed on pleasure and pain by Epicurus as seriously misguided.

Pleasure and pain are not merely objects about which we make judgments and

reason our way to obtaining or avoiding. It is through our desires and aversions

that pleasures and pains commonly infect our discursive thought in ways that

distort our judgments and reasoning. Pleasures and pains were among the states

of a person which the Stoics called path and which they classified as ‘opinions’

(doxai, defined as weak and false assents or judgments, 41C3), just as Buddhists

treat ignorance as a crucial component of craving (tanh , ‘thirst’). Indeed, both

traditions stress the difficulty of disentangling the cognitive and affective states

of a person.

Epicureans held that pleasure is the natural object of an animal’s impulse.

Stoics denied this, insisting that if pleasure and pain occur in animals this would

be as a by-product of the activities that they engaged in naturally as a means of

sustaining their lives and continuing their species (LS 57A3). The activities rather

than the by-product should be thought of as the natural object of their impulses.

Human infants behave in this respect like non-linguistic animals (even if they do

so much less effectively than do even the young of other animals, and thus need

constant care and supervision). In human animals, there is a further natural

development, which is the capacity to govern responses to impulses of desire and

aversion by means of discursive thought. It is this that qualifies appetites and

aversions as the kind of opinion that the Stoics called path .

According to the Stoics, ‘pleasure’ is for the most part a name for what we get

when an appetite (shaped by discursive thought) is satisfied or we avoid

something for which we have a (discursively shaped) aversion; ‘distress’ is a

name for what we get when such an appetite is frustrated or we experience an

object we want (in this cognitive fashion) to avoid (LS 65A4). In addition,


experiences such as that of fulfilling a desire shaped by discursive thought will

be infused with and in part constituted by beliefs about what one is undergoing.

Pleasure in this sense is undergone by the body-mind as ‘an irrational swelling’

or ‘elation,’ which can be described from a slightly different perspective as ‘a

fresh opinion that something good is present’ (LS 65B). In a similar fashion, pain

or distress is also treated as a pathos and hence as a kind of opinion.

As the capacity for discursive thought does not normally perfect itself in adult

humans without a great deal of personal investment and guidance from others,

most human desires and aversions, satisfactions and discomforts, are ‘disobedient

to reason.’ This is not merely because they are formed as a result of ignorance or

of inadequate reasoning; the desires and aversions as well as the satisfaction and

distress that are said to motivate humans do not always respond to improved

information or reasoning (LS 65A6–8). Insofar as these path involve false

beliefs about what is good for a person, they will tend to damage that person’s

interests. Inadequate beliefs do not always result in choices that damage one’s

interests, but insofar as such beliefs are not secured by thorough understanding,

one’s choices can easily be turned in other directions. Indeed, the Stoics regarded

pathos as co-extensive with ‘fluttering’ (LS 65A2), a state of mind that might be

translated as ‘liable to dithering.’ The exemplary person, the Stoic ‘wise man,’ will

have freed himself of all path : he will have achieved a state of apatheia.

Whereas Stoics develop their analyses of these notions by contrasting the

capacities of humans and animals to secure what will contribute to their welfare,

the corresponding Buddhist analyses attempt to spell out the meaning of a

doctrine, that of ‘dependent arising’ (pa iccasamupp da), which opens up the

possibility of identifying and rooting out the source of suffering. The doctrine is

that everything that is depends for its being on certain conditions; that is to say,

there is nothing that does not depend on something else for its being what it is,

the way it is and its continuing to be at all. This applies to human individuals, for

example, and has the consequence that we do not have permanent, indestructible

‘souls,’ although, as we have seen, we have a highly resilient tendency to sustain

through our actions a continuum of suffering associated with a series of living

bodies. This continuum the Buddha saw as dependent on what he called

attachment, which in turn is dependent on the sort of desire characterized as

‘craving,’ which in turn is dependent on feeling (including pleasure and pain),

which in turn is dependent on the sort of contact that a biologist or psychologist

would characterize as stimulus, which in turn depends on a sentient body.11

Buddhism and Stoicism, like Epicureanism, are materialist philosophies in the

sense that each insists that there is no mind or consciousness without a (sentient)

material body. The chain of dependence traced in the previous paragraph is

extended by two steps in which the Buddha insists that a sentient body is

dependent on consciousness and consciousness on a sentient body. Now if we

trace the chain of dependency from the inter-dependent pair, consciousness and

sentient body, through stimulus as far as feeling, we will locate the sort of

pleasures and pains that the Stoics allowed as a by-product of animal activity. If,

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