Sunday, May 12, 2019

Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering

Should our ultimate goal be to end all suffering? Is the highest form of spirituality a state of bliss? Is enlightenment the learning of secret knowledge and the attaining of a cosmic perspective that free the enlightened one from having to suffer due to ignorance? Is that what’s left when we extinguish our egoistic illusions, when we discover the truth of what life and the universe really are: inner peace and what one writer who contrasts Buddhism with pessimistic philosophy calls “morally blameless delight and a peace that brings wellbeing, fearlessness, and generosity”?

That author points out that while the Buddha did seek to prove that life in ignorance is suffering, the Buddhist departs from pessimists such as Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker, and David Benatar in maintaining that “life and nature also contain real pleasures and beauty,” which inspire the Buddhist to champion “the moral purity and joy available to those who practice the way of self-restraint, lovingkindness, and meditative training.” By contrast, the pessimist’s “sober gaze on the shortcomings of the world leads neither to the transcendental freedom offered by many classical spiritual paths (both Buddhist and non-Buddhist) nor, it seems, to a commitment to the service of others.” Pessimism is only Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, according to that author; the others are about how to be happy in a world in which suffering predominates.  

Nihilism and Buddhist Values

I want to focus here on that notion of “morally blameless delight.” This delight or peace or enlightened happiness is supposed to be superior to pessimistic depression or cynicism. Both the Buddhist and the pessimist are clear on the horrific nature of reality, but the Buddhist transcends that knowledge by realizing that if nothing matters, because all events are morally neutral, dependently arising probabilities, there’s no point in wanting anything. The loss of ego and the surrender of personal preferences free the mind and body to stop caring and thus to stop wasting time suffering from disappointment. While the pessimist wallows in misery and guilt, the Buddhist can excel at selfless action, since the Buddhist views the world from a cosmic perspective in which there’s only amoral causality.

But why help others if nothing really matters, because there’s no God or supernatural self or metaphysical purpose? Perhaps nature appears beautiful from the Buddhist perspective, and when she appreciates that beauty she’s naturally inspired to seek to end other people’s suffering, in which case Buddhist morality would be aesthetic. Suffering would be uglier than happiness. Meanwhile, the pessimist would be like the decadent Frenchman in The Matrix Reloaded movie, who is only bored by his unsurpassed knowledge of causality. However the Buddhist leaps into morality, there’s that author’s contention that Buddhist delight would be “morally blameless.” Presumably, the Buddhist shouldn’t be condemned because she no longer has a self that seeks to dominate others due to willful blindness to the real causes and effects that make nonsense of conventional beliefs and interests. For the Buddhist, conventional pseudoreality is only a field of hallucinatory illusions that traps us and imposes a sad regime in which we suffer from cravings that can never be fulfilled, because real causality is indifferent to our myths and ideals. We want to be happy even at the cost of harming others to get ahead, because we don’t realize there’s no such thing as the self in the first place; instead, there are natural mechanisms that give rise to particular events that can be aesthetically appraised. 

It should go without saying that if the values that survive the objective attention to causality are aesthetic, the Buddhist wouldn’t be compelled to see only beauty, as though there were no such thing as ugliness. Thus, if Buddhist happiness follows, in short, from the replacement of metaphysics with aesthetics, the Buddhist could still suffer—from disgust with ugliness. To say that everything in the universe is beautiful is to reduce “beauty” to a meaningless weasel word. If nature is partly beautiful and partly horrific, the Buddhist should have mixed feelings like the unenlightened folks. Notice, then, that the pessimist would be burdened with an abundance of knowledge of life’s ugly aspects. What depresses or disappoints her would be her preoccupation with everything that’s wrong with the world.

The Buddhist pulls the rug out from under the pessimist by maintaining that the pessimist has only pseudoknowledge. Genuine enlightenment would be the ability to see the world objectively as being comprised of so many amoral, causally-related events. Such objectivity would indeed render depression and anxiety silly, since negative reactions to causality would be like crying over spilled milk. Again, if nothing matters, there’s no reason to worry; enlightenment would be emotional neutrality as a consequence of objectivity. But the Buddhist is supposed to be somehow saved from nihilism. The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic in presupposing that suffering ought to end. In terms of their content, those truths are value-neutral, since they affirm only that suffering exists, that it has a cause (unquenchable desire), that suffering can end, and that there’s a cause of that ending (the Noble Eightfold Path of “right” conduct). Those truths would thus be consistent with the naturalistic thrust of Buddhism; if there’s only causality, the Buddhist can only lay out certain options. But Buddhist normativity is slipped in by her pragmatic stance, that is, by the Four Noble Truths’ presumption that we should end our suffering and by the talk of “right” behaviour (thought, speech, and so on) in the Eightfold Path.

After all, the Buddhist could just as easily hold out Five Noble Truths, supplementing the four with the amoral reminder that instead of following the eightfold path to end suffering, you could choose to continue suffering by maintaining your desires (and ignorance and egoistic illusions). If all that exists is causality, we should face a choice like Cypher from The Matrix, to endure nature’s indifference or to retreat to fantasyland. But Buddhism presupposes that suffering should end, by manufacturing consent in something like Chomsky’s sense, disregarding the option of preferring suffering in ignorance. The four truths do this just by presenting the options in the progressive order, instead of emphasizing that in amoral reality neither option matters. The enlightened one might choose to forget her naturalistic knowledge, unlearn her elevated mental habits, and return to her selfish pursuits. In any case, the Buddhist should have achieved the standpoint of a neutral, withdrawn observer, in which case she merely records which effects follow from which causes. The wording of the Noble Truths gives the superficial appearance of such neutrality, by laying out two opposing causal chains, while presupposing the moral values of happiness and selflessness, by holding out enlightenment as an escape from the innate, oppressive state of natural life. The pure naturalist is entitled to say only that suffering can end and can continue. Once you say or imply that happiness is better than suffering, you’re no longer talking about a world of amoral causes and effects; you’re assigning value to certain events.

The Promethean Value of Heroic Suffering

But let’s leave aside the mystery of the source of Buddhist morality. Is Buddhist happiness morally blameless? Well, in so far as the Buddhist is selfless and doesn’t seek to exploit others, she likely has a praiseworthy character. But if happiness, tranquility, and nirvana are degrees of contentment, I do think there’s reason to question their moral value. Again, the aesthetic stance towards nature is no help to the Buddhist, since an art lover should be impressed by great beauty and should be appalled by hideous failures. Ignoring the latter might be due to fear, whereas the Buddhist is supposed to have transcended that self-centered reaction. The deep question for the Buddhist is whether she should be content with natural causality and in particular with a mechanical world that imposes ignorance, illusion, and suffering on most living things.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the universe is monstrous and that we can and should transcend nature’s monstrosity by creating what the Buddhist mislabels as “illusion” but which in reality is an emergent layer of complexity, namely the artificial world of art, culture, and technological progress that reflects our ideals. Our promethean mission would be to revolt against the established natural order in all its amoral causality, and to turn ourselves into godlike creators. Such a purpose would require the opposites of peace and contentment. We should be appalled by the lack of meaning and value in nature, because the universe’s neutrality is the deeper source of our suffering. The primary reason we suffer isn’t that we desire too much; no, it’s that the universe doesn’t care what we desire and so won’t necessarily give us what we want. We suffer precisely because the universe is monstrous, because it’s the abomination of a living-dead self-creator, having no plan or interests or affection for the living things that evolve. For that very reason, we creatures are dispensable, from nature’s “standpoint.” Nature isn’t bound to keep us alive or to satisfy our cravings, because natural processes don’t pick favourites. We suffer not just because we’re selfish, but because our love of ourselves is out of place in an inhuman environment. As the Gnostics saw, we’re mismatched with monstrous nature, because we see how things should be but aren’t. We envision ideals, whereas nature just unfolds regardless of who gets in the way.

The Buddhist wants to say that natural disasters aren’t wrong exactly, because really there are no suffering selves. But the Buddhist confuses the anomalousness and impermanence of artificiality with its alleged illusoriness or unreality. The self is a construct like all our creations and indeed like all natural creations (like rocks, planets, stars, and so on). To say that something has been created hardly amounts to saying that the construct is unreal; on the contrary, when you’ve laid out how the thing is made, you’ve specified the cause and effect that distinguish the construct from nothingness, and so you’ve explained the extent to which the construct is real. What’s unreal is a fiction that doesn’t exist as a thing, being at best a figment of imagination. But in so far as imagination is part of a constructive process in which we’re inspired to recreate nature in our image, even fictions becomes realities with causal power. Witness the effects of pop cultural products such as Star Wars, The Matrix, or Game of Thrones, or of literary characters like Jay Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, or Jesus Christ. We may be misled by such creations, as when we become obsessed with them and fail to distinguish between social and natural constructs, but even a social construct isn’t nothing at all. Thus, the Buddhist oversimplifies when she dismisses constructs as illusions or unrealities.

If constructs are as real as their underlying causes, we face the choice of which constructs to prefer, and that choice is largely aesthetic and ethical. So are natural disasters bad? Again, were the self unreal, the self’s destruction would be impossible and thus the question would be ill-formed. But if we follow that nihilistic logic, we’re poised to interpret Buddhism itself as a meaningless option. If the self doesn’t exist, suffering and joy are just different mental states that don’t matter to any underlying reality. So why pick one over the other? Evolution compels us to prefer pleasure to pain, but why defer to natural causality when social causality is evidently open to us in so far as we’re relatively autonomous animals? Why defer to the natural life cycle when we can formulate and pursue anti-natural goals? My main point here is just that the answer isn’t self-evident. The Buddhist might feel at peace, knowing (to be more precise) that the conventional notion of the self as an underlying, immaterial, immortal spirit is delusory. But should she be at ease, knowing also that some natural processes threaten a higher order of reality (artificiality), that nature’s indifference both sustains and endangers life and culture and spiritual progress? The Buddhist might be blameless in declining to add to other people’s misery by selfishly taking advantage of them. But she might be guilty of another sin, of mirroring nature’s indifference and thus failing to fulfill her godlike potential to transcend mindless, natural creation with a more ideal recreation.

If life and artificial constructs don’t represent a higher order of reality, we’re back at nihilism, in which case the Buddhist is left without a decisive reason to end suffering, and Buddhist pragmatism appears arbitrary. If we ought to be happy and selfless, life must be worth preserving despite our lack of a metaphysically-absolute self. Whatever the source of Buddhist values may be, contentment seems like the wrong attitude for an enlightened individual, since we’re at war with nature. We needn’t be egotists to choose to conflict with nature. For example, we can appreciate the greater beauty of cultural creations compared to natural ones, because the value of the former is mixed with tragedy. We create even knowing that ultimately everything is pointless and the universe will extinguish all the living things that accidentally arise within it. So we can choose to protect cultural creations from nature’s indifference not because we need delude ourselves into thinking that God gives us license to dominate the planet; rather, we can make an aesthetic judgment that’s consistent with attending to the objective facts of causality.

Even the Buddhist could prefer artificial creativity to the natural kind, since she evidently prefers happiness to suffering. If the Buddhist is perfectly indifferent to whether she lives or dies, and she’s neutral with respect to the difference between natural and artificial events, she’s a nihilist bereft of a reason to seek nirvana. Nirvana may be imposed on her as a matter of causality, given her enlightened perspective, but she would hardly have any ideological advantage in her dispute with pessimists. This enlightened Buddhist should be unable to affirm that happiness is better than suffering. All she could say is that when you no longer care—just as the universe doesn’t care—you’re naturally at peace with whatever happens. So you’d be at peace with any evil or catastrophe, too, be it the Holocaust, the Black Death, or Donald Trump’s presidency.

From the humanistic, promethean perspective, that nihilistic inner peace would be morally and aesthetically blameworthy. Some creations are better than others, which is why much suffering should end. If the Buddhist is indifferent only to her egoistic impulses, having come to see them as foolish, and she’s driven for some reason to help others, she implicitly subscribes to that promethean enterprise and so takes a stand in the existential conflict. She wants to protect life and therefore should not be happy to see people come to ruin, or be indifferent to threats to our survival. In short, this Buddhist would suffer from empathy and would even have a moral or aesthetic duty to do so. Happiness would be selfish in light of that insight into the existential importance of life’s evolution. This doesn’t mean the Buddhist should wallow in misery like some incapacitated pessimists, but it does mean that suffering in general isn’t the enemy and that happiness—in the sense of contentment which reflects nature’s indifference—isn’t the solution.


  1. Not being a Buddha I suppose I am in no position to judge whether the bliss of nirvana is superior to the ups and downs of samsara; but I have often suspected that a life without suffering would lose its savor. And though I am no Christian, I cannot help but appreciate the contrast between Buddha's answer to our existential plight and Christ's: where Buddha chose to withdraw from life and the suffering that attends it, Jesus taught his disciples to not resist evil and actually embraced the suffering of the cross.

    I've noticed that your critiques of Buddhism seem to focus specifically upon the Theravada interpretation of Budda's teachings. Do you have anything to say about Zen?

    Zen Buddhism comes pretty close to acknowledging the ethical nihilism that Theravada philosophy implies but attempts to evade. In feudal Japan, zen was practiced almost exclusively by the samurai who, of course, dedicated their lives to the very amoral career of killing other samurai. Even nonviolent zen monks were remembered more often for their peccadillos than for their purity or compassion. Ikkyu regularly saw prostitutes, pederasty was openly practiced in many monasteries in Japan, and at least one zen master was a notorious drinker.

    Jodo Shinshu, another Japanese Buddhist sect that has proliferated in the west but has its roots in Japan's feudal era, goes as far as to formally reject meditation and precept keeping as barriers to 'ojo'; which for them is equivalent to nirvana but only attainable post mortem. In Jodo Shinshu, the most that can be achieved in this life is the state known as 'Shinjin', which I can best describe as a state of irrational but unshakable conviction that one will attain Buddha-hood immediately after death. Any effort to attain enlightenment in THIS life is doomed because practices like meditation and precept-keeping only feed the egoic illusion (in this case the illusion of being a good Buddhist) and blind us to our 'bombu' (translation: foolish) nature.

    It seems that the later incarnations of Buddhism did arrive at the nihilism implicit in the original teachings which Theravada claims to represent. If only our western judeo-christian tradition had been able to do the same and work out its own contradictions and hidden implications.

    1. I'm not sure whether Zen is explicitly nihilistic. From what I understand, Zen is largely epistemological, the point being that intuitions or direct experiences can get us closer to the truth than can rational discourse. So Zen distinguishes itself with its view of how the great awakening happens.

      I'd suspect that intuitions would be more likely to project values onto nature than would logic. Rationality isn't nihilistic either, though, as the Frankfurt School showed. The use of reason has instrumentalist or Machiavellian presuppositions. Hyperrationalists can seem nihilistic because they treat people as means rather than as ends, but that's only because they have a greater end in view (selfishness, the domination or transformation of nature through technoscientific progress, etc).

      Jesus taught his followers to embrace suffering as a means to a greater end, to sacrifice their happiness in this life for heaven in the next. Buddhists (and Nietzsche) would say that that was a fairy tale or a con for sufferers or losers (omegas). Buddhists learn to accept inhuman natural reality, which requires a kind of lobotomization, whereas Christians retreat to a fantasy that enables them to glorify acts of superficial, delusive self-sacrifice. In any case, it is indeed interesting to compare these Eastern and Western viewpoint.