Monday, May 3, 2021

On Medium: Buddhism and The Threat of Nihilism

Read on for an article about Buddhist pragmatism and the secular reconstruction of morality, and how the Buddhist's therapeutic coyness with metaphysics flirts with self-defeating nihilism.


  1. "Throwing the baby out with the bathwater" so accurately describes my problem with Buddhism that I half believe that the idiom was created with Buddhism in mind. I find Buddhist metaphysics fascinating, but the soterlogy just doesn't follow from it. Another analogy might be "Kill the patient & cure the disease."

    You compared Buddhism to Stoicism, for which there are some parallels, but the Stoics ultimately believed that life was worth living & some things were worth suffering for. Many of the most worldly & socially invested men in Rome were Stoics, Emperor Aurelius being the most memorable example.

    It seems to me that a consistent Buddhist would be as impossible as a consistent Vulcan: once you renounce passion there is no longer as motive to do anything. If reason is our rudder, our passions are the wind behind our sails.

    I have often wished I could go back in time to speak to Buddha so I could ask him why he didn't believe anything was worth suffering for.

    1. In speaking to some Buddhist or mystically-inclined critics of my articles on Buddhism, I find that their response is to deny that Buddhists are opposed to all desires and motivations. They're opposed only to craving or to confused motivations. Buddhist motivations are outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path. To desire well is to want only what makes sense given the background of Buddhist knowledge.

      So you'd have to want a glass of water, for example, knowing that you'd be drinking not as an independent substance that can resist the interconnectedness of causes and effects. This would be something like having a desire in the context of determinism. You'd have to accept much futility and pointlessness. It wouldn't be you who'd want a glass of water, since you'd know you don't exist as a self. All our ordinary concepts would be oversimplifications, so you'd no longer even be thinking or feeling. Mental events would happen in your head, and you'd go with the flow, as in Daoism or Stoicism.

      However, your actions would somehow still be directed ascetically. You'd no longer have selfish desires, so you'd become selfless, humble, peaceful, and imperturbable. The trick would be to act selflessly without attaching yourself emotionally to selfless outcomes, to seek peace without believing there's any moral superiority or redemption from doing so. The reward is only the loss of illusion or the elimination of the false self.

    2. The Buddhist cannon is about 10x the size of the Christian Bible & is written in Chinese & Pali, so misunderstandings are inevitable. While none of the books on Buddhism I have read ever clarified terms like 'desire' or 'craving' to mean specifically those arising from ignorance, I think that might be a reasonable qualification given that the eight-fold path implies the pursuit of something (Nirvana). But even if we grant this supposition, Buddhism still comes off as unworkable to me.

      The desire for contentment is paradoxical & yet it is what hides behind everything we say we want. Desire might need an object, but it does not truly depend on any particular object for its existence. That is the foil of hedonism - but of Buddhism too; for what is Nirvana if it is not a state of perfect, unassailable contentment? To seek contentment is to run from it, not towards it. Contentment can never be caught or bought for any price -- no amount of self-denial will purchase it. How, then, can we ever be content? And if it is truly impossible, why bother pursuing it?

    3. I'm planning to write something on the nihilistic aspect of nirvana. I think the paradoxical kind of contentment here would be an acceptance of nihilism not just intellectually but viscerally and in the core of cognition. The Buddha is content with whatever might happen because he's come to accept that nothing matters, not even his fears or doubts. I suspect this is meant to be an ultimate way of coping with existential alienation.