Philosophy

On Buddhism and Suffering…

I think the fundamental idea of Buddhism, of desire being the main cause of suffering, is somewhat flawed. Although it surely is a massively influential idea which has branched off into different complex and esoteric forms over the course of time, fusing even with other schools of thought like Shintoism or Daoism, I still think it is somewhat insufficient in terms of foundational reasoning.

After all, Buddhism is, in reality, an idea that was derived from just an individual Human’s emotional epiphany about the universal phenomenon of human suffering. I guess this realization of Buddha’s has had much to do with the moral conflict any human with basic empathy skills experiences when they are removed from their comfort zones and put into a situation where they see people struggling to get by on a daily basis or to just survive. We can still witness such phenomenon in the form of tourists from industrialized rich countries getting emotionally affected enough to be motivated to start or donate to charity in order to help the people they see as being unfortunate or disadvantaged during the course of their travel to a developing nation, all relative to their own lives of relative comfort.

Now I’m not even going to entertain the argument that Buddha wasn’t a human but instead an enlightened being; because that line of thinking, I assume, is just an effort to shift the goalpost in order to distract the primary point of critique. If we assume Buddha as a human being, then he surely is subject to the universals of human nature, and when he is subject to these universals, he is surely subject to the cognitive biases that make us all liable for critique. In that sense, can we trust Buddha’s philosophy which was based on pure epiphany and introspection? Can we give any validation to Buddha’s idea of subjective truth encompassing all forms of objective truth? If the answer is yes to these questions, then I’ll have to disagree.

Such a phenomenon of individual humans being affected by the harsh nature of reality and its effect on human lives, and subsequently seeking isolation in order to meditate and introspect about the nature of reality is common. We can see numerous examples of such from history. Sages who sought for social meditative isolation was a common practice in ancient Indian subcontinent and has been documented in Hindu scriptures older than Buddhism itself. Perhaps after his epiphany of class differences between humans and the subjectively perceived unfair nature of life as a whole, Buddha was inspired by the same established trend to abandon what he deemed as ‘material possessions’ in order to seek isolation for subjective, explorative and meditative purposes. Realizations of class struggle, suffering and it’s uncanny nature is as old as humans have existed, we can say, and so I think we cannot just blame nor credit even Karl Marx for coming up with the idea of socialism, I guess he just organized it for his time. Unless we understand how we function as humans, pertinent to the laws of evolution and physics, I don’t think any human would be able to realize the biology nor the psychology of suffering in objective ways, for what they are – leading them into the endless metaphysical abyss of questioning the very idea of existence and suffering without any useful end in sight whatsoever.

Coming back to the initial thesis, my reasons for disagreement stems from the fact that Buddha’s notion about suffering is much too simplistic, if not obsolete. I can understand how later disciples of Buddhism have tried to work around this deficit and they should be given some credit, however, I think they still haven’t dealt much with the core idea of suffering coming from human desires. The trailing bias against human desire is all too apparent in most of their works. What this has come to imply today is the popular notion among followers that desire is immoral and thus to mitigate it as far as possible is a moral thing to do. Such a line of reasoning is in fact insufficient in explaining the causality of human suffering even in the most general sense. We could argue that suffering arises from our subjective expectations not meeting the seemingly unpredictable outcomes of reality, and there’s some truth to that; but what about the inevitable suffering brought forth by often uncontrollable factors such as disease or death, is that also a result of human desire or a certain concept of a deterministic yet reciprocal Karma? Mainstream Buddhism escapes this loophole by shifting the goalpost as it creates an unfalsifiable negative in the form of Karma, and thus most argument in favor of Buddha’s initial thesis circles around it in an endless loop. Perhaps Buddha and people who follow his line of reasoning are affected by the problem of failing to realize the nature of entropy or natural selection – what can go wrong will go wrong (as we may call it Murphy’s law); and that we are all subject to natural selection in spite of our protective civilizations – as a result of which our subjective expectations aren’t met and thus the perceived quality of suffering. I’m not discounting Buddha’s observation completely, despite of his realizations about suffering and desire being a derived from just a strong epiphany; it surely does bear some truth to it. However his conclusion of desire being the causative agent of suffering, I think, is flawed and that remains my main argument against the foundation of Buddhism. I guess we can help tackle that reasoning by asking a simple question – isn’t it also a kind of desire to get rid of desire itself?

What I understand is that nature is ruthless in a way that it has no bio-centric goal in anyway, let alone any anthropocentric ones. Nature is indifferent, so for me to call it ruthless is also my own anthropocentric projection and likewise would be my idea of suffering. If we are to understand the laws of physics and those of evolution, suffering is nothing but a neurological perception and its subsequent portrayal of the effects of entropy. Take away the nervous system, especially its ability to perceive pain or dissatisfaction or it’s ability to set and fulfill survival goals, and would there still be suffering of any kind? Would suffering still be an effect if there wasn’t an observer to experience it? Would plants suffer in the same way animals would? Despite it is apparent that the end adopted by Buddhism is in achieving Human well being, the means are pretty ambivalent as it falls into the risk of being open to interpretation, liable in being led into any motivated direction as any proponent could please. This is sure to happen and has happened (e.g. Ethnocentric Buddhist Monks in Myanmar using Buddhist scriptures to justify the violence against Rohingya Muslims) – Buddha’s ideas do not give us a sound and cogent means to achieve its desired end.

The problem that arises from Buddha’s line of thinking, at least in this century if not in the ones before it, is of an uninformed kind of moralistic pacifism – the kind of which we see in those projected by PETA activists around the world. An obscure idea of morality could lead to overly zealous people reside on a self-assumed moral high ground from which they knowingly or unknowingly think of others who do not agree with them as lesser people and thus act upon it, much to the detriment of well being itself. We can see a similar moralistic trend amongst people who vilify vaccines as opposed to holistic alternative care modalities such as homeopathy, naturopathy or tantric medicines, which haven’t been shown to have had any objective benefit on people for so long and instead may cause more harm – despite of assumed good intentions. A sort of a black-and-white mindset for envisioning reality ensues out of doctrines derived from those such as Buddha’s ambivalent ideas of moralistic pacifism and suffering. I’m not saying, in any way though, that such effects are all due to Buddhist values – all I’m trying to do is to draw a common ground between ambivalent moral ideas.

Another troubling aspect in this regard is of people’s zealous attachment to Buddhist ideas, devoid of any kind of critical reception. This, I think, remains a fundamental philosophical problem of the Indian subcontinent – to adhere to a doctrine of subjective preference with little regard to their rational significance. I understand that it is more important for some people to become morally right, or spiritually sound, as opposed to pursuing after a rational observation of their surroundings or any idea for that matter. But in the end, if our common philosophical goal is towards the well being of the Human race as a whole, shouldn’t it serve the same purpose better if we could train ourselves to see things for what they are as opposed to what we want them or assume them to be? This, I think, is a question we all have to ask ourselves and others around us at some point in our lives – all for the sake of promoting clarity of thought for the covetous end of Human well being.

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Image source: Buddhist Thangka Center Website

25 thoughts on “On Buddhism and Suffering…”

      1. I belong to the same community where Buddha was born, grown and awarded with heavenly enlightment. At that period of history, there were hundreds of small kingdoms ruled by the dynasty of monarchs. The kings were always fighting with each other to grab land, gold and other properties. There was only the suffering of war and desire. In my opinion, Buddha was influenced by these suffering and desires of people. I’m also doing intuitive meditation and it improves the health of brain circuits. Be happy and keep smiling forever. Thanks for the writing

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      2. Hmm. Well, to give you credit, there is some truth to what you’ve said. Obviously the world is always full of suffering of some kind. Perhaps in Buddha’s time there was more compared to ours today. So I do not deny that he wasn’t affected by the suffering. However it would be interesting to know more about his heavenly enlightenment. My doubt is, is it even right to call Buddha’s strong epiphany an enlightenment?

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  1. Great post thank you. I think however there is a small misunderstanding here as in Buddhism suffering is not caused by desire alone. It is caused by our ignorance. We simply don’t see things as they really are. We colour them as good, bad, or otherwise. Basic Ignorance is the problem and this is how the ego forms. You did seem to touch in this when you wrote “shouldn’t it serve the same purpose better if we could train ourselves to see things for what they are as opposed to what we want them or assume them to be?”
    This is what Buddhism proposes to do. This is what one learns to see in meditation.

    QP

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  2. Ok so as humans we function under a false pretense of separation that causes our suffering. We think we see a separation between ourselves, that which we see, and even the act of seeing. This is our basic ignorance that happens because our consciousness in default mode functions very well like an eye we like to see outwards and then we disassociate the outer from the inner. This is also known as the ego illusion. This is the first separation there are others such as I like and I dislike, this is desire and aversion, they results from the root cause our ignorance.
    In meditation we look within and begin to see how interconnected everything is.
    We begin to see with our entirety in all its clarity. There is not too much more to say other than it is really something that one has to experience. We can talk about it till we are blue in the face without any result experience is the best teacher.

    Any more questions or clarifications?

    QP

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    1. Interesting. You do talk about our consciousness being in default state. I think that was a rather obscure statement. Forgive me, but I’d rather if you could, as far as possible, provide me with to the point explanations. I’m sure you are talking from your knowledge or your experience, I don’t doubt that. But at least it would be better if you could be a little more crisp with your explanation.

      Also do clarify, how exactly in your opinion, looking inward or reflecting on ourselves through meditation could tell us about our surroundings? Will the resultant knowledge be subjective or also objective?

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      1. Thank you for your interest and intellect. By default state I mean that we and our consciousness naturally look outwards. The eye consciousness (one of several consciousnesses discussed in Vajrayana texts) is very dominant. However we can learn to see with our mind’s eye. This learning happens in meditation.
        As I mentioned that we learn to see how the seer, thing seen, and the act of seeing become one, co emergent, or non separated. This is explained as subject, object, and action coming together. So it is not just subjective or just objective it’s everything. Like I said one must experience this. Any more explanation is beyond the words language affords us.

        QP

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      2. So in your understanding, consciousness is an extracorporeal entity or some kind of a force. You have understood consciousness to exist beyond the material body, and thus by meditating one can be in sync with this extracorporeal consciousness to understand more about the universe. Is my summary of your argument justified?

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      3. Hi Sandehakari

        No consciousness is not extracorporeal. I believe it to be non local or pan psychic in most understandings of these dualistic words. Try “both and” if the other two fail to complete your understanding.
        You could read the works of Nagarjuna, Tilopa, the Third Karmapa. They have all written very deep treatises on this subject. If you like logic try this. A thing is neither A nor not -A, but yet it is not a ” neither A nor not -A ” , nor can one say that it is “both A and not -A. ”

        What is it?

        QP

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      4. So you have modified both dualist and monist concepts of consciousness, and formed a new one which applies the rule “either, or one, or both”. Is that correct? Something vaguely similar to the concept of superposition of subatomic particles in quantum mechanics, albeit a very simplified one.

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      5. Hmm. Ok. But this isn’t the same picture given by neuroscience. Maybe Buddha’s teachings could be outdated perhaps? Would you consider this position if it were to be so?

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      6. Hmm. I agree with you on science having gaps. But don’t you think it would be unwise to fill in such gaps with wishful thinking? After all, even the most outdated scientific concept have only been overthrown by the most empirical discoveries. So I find it hard to agree with your idea of quantum consciousness, based on paucity of working mathematical models if not data.

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      7. There is data, but as I said it is data that one can only experience for ones self. Explaining it is difficult if not impossible. It’s not just old data it’s modern people having a modern experience of mind and saying hey this sounds very much like what science is trying to say. It is quite condescending for you to say wishful thinking when you yourself have barely or not at all explored the possibility. That is actually quite unscientific of you to write something off without throughly examining it. But it is ok we are all entitled to our own opinions and science feels it has a duty to remain non dogmatic and non religious, even if they are being very dogmatic about it.

        QP

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      8. Yeah we all have opinions. True. I guess we have to agree to disagree as our philosophies are rather different in world view. I’m not sure how metaphysics can help explain a hypothetical question. However, it should be understood that science is but a tool, unlike what you’ve said about it “trying to say”. It’s how effectively we use this tool is the thing to see. I won’t dismiss the benefits of mindfulness meditation. I do it myself, however I do not agree with the claim that it can provide us with the hard questions of consciousness on it’s own. Maybe it will help us understand human mind better, but I’m not so optimistic as you about it unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Let’s just see what we find out as time progresses.

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      9. Thank you for sharing with me I have learned from you and I hope you from me. Discussion and sharing ideas even when we disagree is never a bad thing. Be well and take care of those you love.

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      10. When we try to apply concepts of Quantum mechanics to neuroscience a fundamental error of extrapolation occurs. Wave particle duality occurs at the quantum level, not at the level of proteins (which are huge molecules) and nerves. So I think applying concepts pertinent only to the quantum realm wouldn’t explain anything that would happen at the level of large molecules which make up neurons in the brain from which consciousness arises. Neuroscience has established that consciousness is a product of the Brain, and thus is not an entity by itself. It’s sort of an illusion, much like how vision is an illusion. However it’s an illusion rooted in reality for us to perceive it.

        Now why I don’t agree with your argument (I don’t think it is Buddha’s argument) is because it vaguely generalises a concept in quantum mechanics and tries to apply top down into psychology and Neuroscience. It doesn’t work like that. Hypotheses do not shape scientific knowledge, it needs to be tested first for us to know anything. Your idea I think is hypothetical, but based on an erroneous extrapolation of a concept from particulate quantum mechanics into macromolecular biology.

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