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
Philosophy

On Stoicism

Just like many people, when I first heard of the word ‘stoic’, I looked it up and many dictionaries showed me definitions which sounded somewhat similar to what google gives you – a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. The first character that came to my mind was Papa. He happens to be this hardened, seasoned, struggler, whom I’ve heard complaining on fewer occasions than the number of fingers on my hands. The second stoic in my mind was obviously Bhinaju, he’s endured many instances of pain, the likes of which most of us do not even know about, and yet he remains the same old composed, sociable, and caring Bhinaju for all of us like ever before. These are the two close men I’ve always looked up to in life. But sadly, I am nothing like them in anyway, so I don’t consider myself a stoic in that regard. I claim to be just the opposite, but this blog is not about me, nor does it deal with these two men – but rather about a philosophy that has been adopted, knowingly or unknowingly, by countless mentally strong men and women throughout human history.

I was first introduced to the idea of Stoicism in a very non-traditional way. There was this time I was watching an episode of ‘Gotham’, a FOX and DC television series based on the early life of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon – a sort of a prelude to DC’s Batman comics. The series turned out to be very superficial towards the end of the second season, but for its early episodes, it was more or less captivating. So in this one episode, young Bruce meets his company’s tech supervisor, Lucius Fox, to ask for clues about his father’s murder. Fox then explains by revealing that his father, Mr.Wayne, was a stoic and would never make careless decisions. Rest aside, the word ‘stoic’ had caught my attention. I then looked it up and was subsequently directed towards the philosophy of Stoicism itself.

For a few years then, I started casually learning about Stoic philosophy from others who knew more about it. There were numerous articles on the core tenets of Stoicism on The Atlantic and Aeon, I also devoured the Stoicism page on Wikipedia as much as my memory could retain, watched numerous video essays dealing with similar ideas, and I subscribed and listened to numerous podcasts which dealt on this topic on a regular basis – the most notable one being ‘Daily Stoic‘. However, I came to read Marcus Aurelius’s famous work on stoicism –  ‘Meditations’, fairly recently after being inspired into it by a very close friend of mine. It may seem as if I was obsessed, which is only partly true since I never seriously considered becoming a stoic myself. It’s not as easy as declaring myself into a certain doctrine, and stoicism, I have come to learn is not just about garnering the identity of this line of thought, but rather about practising it whenever you can. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t consider myself a stoic, although it is one philosophy I have found to be practically useful for daily life – especially for acquiring useful insight for enduring the long and uncertain journey in my career.

When we first look into the philosophy, we may assume that it’s a strategy for hiding our emotions. I’m guilty on this regard as well, but the more I looked into the philosophy, the more I discovered that it’s not a very organized idea to be described in just one sentence. The word Stoic comes from Greek word ‘stoa’ which simply translates to ‘porch’ in English. This is because the first Stoic philosophers in Greece, like Zeno, preached and dictated their philosophies to pupils from the porch of their schools. The word stuck after the Hellenistic period, much later than the time of Zeno, even though the tradition vanished into the vastness of history. The problem with this terminology is that not one philosopher we know as a Stoic today, ever assumed that title for themselves in their teachings. For instance, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor towards the end of the old Roman empire, wrote Meditations as a diary for objective self reflection and to practise philosophy for just himself. He never really intended it to be spread through publications. Likewise, Zeno never really taught his pupils the philosophy of Stoicism, he just taught philosophy. Epictetus and the Roman Seneca, never really mentioned the term Stoicism in their writings or teachings – they all just called themselves philosophers practising philosophy.

What we today identify as Stoicism, is nothing but a set of practically useful philosophies, which many men in history have come to agree or elaborate upon. Individual stoics have ranged from emperors like Marcus, to slaves like Epictetus. They have been highly spiritual and pious, but they have also have been skeptics who doubted the gods of their times. They span across different times, religions, and cultures but the core tenets of their individual philosophies for approaching life remain strikingly similar. Ibn-sinha (aka Avicenna) and Rhazes, for instance, were physicians and philosophers of the Islamic golden age with keen interest in the Stoic philosophy. It could be said that some eastern philosophers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, Zen master Ikkyu Sojun or even the Hindu economist Chanakya were in some ways Stoics as many of their ideas on self-reflection and endurance resonated to those of the classical Stoics from the West. What’s even more interesting to note is that the reiterating themes of endurance and composure in the Stoic philosophies, could be said to have been simple empirical observations of these diverse group of people, pertinent to their time of existence.

Even some well-known critics of Stoicism, like Friedrich Nietzsche, have inadvertently adopted some aspects of the Stoic philosophy for themselves. It can be said that Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism was borne out of an obvious lack of understanding, perhaps he assumed the Stoic philosophy of being a singular conformist attitude in favor of the Judeo-christian way of life he was so critical of. Perhaps he thought Stoicism was just about wearing a mask in public to suppress our emotions. But regardless, his ideas of Amor Fati (The love of one’s fate) and the purpose of his thought-experiment of Eternal Recurrence, are intimately tied, albeit unknowingly, to the core tenets of the Stoic way of life. Why this has happened is probably because Stoicism encompasses a set of observations made by people for the sole purpose of introspection, selective indifference and coping and for endurance – skills that are very useful and needed by all of us, regardless of gender, culture, race, or era. And since Human nature is too obviously universal, our philosophies in this way do tend to resonate across millenia. For instance, I’m almost certain that my Papa and Bhinaju had never even heard of Epictetus in their lives, but regardless, they still have more in common with the Greek man than Siddhartha Gautama himself.

Although many people can get their insights from other means such as Zen Buddhism, Sufi mysticism or even Hindu Vedic philosophies, most of us make the mistake of immediately identifying with the name of the first idea we come across. For example, we tend to readily identify as a ‘Buddhist’, even if Buddha himself may never have intended the same for himself or his disciples. This approach, I think is quite hasty, and similarly it may also be wrong to call ourselves ‘Stoics’ just because we like many aspects of this philosophy. However, what has drawn me towards Stoicism is it’s immensely useful practicality rooted in the basic rules of Human nature. In short, Stoicism is perhaps one line of thought that never really goes against human psychology, all the while being a useful tool for improving it. It teaches us to see ourselves and other humans as phenomena, like how we observe rocks or other animals. One recurring idea in Stoicism is to not complain about the rain – not because we shouldn’t but because we should identify the futility of the complaint as we cannot do anything about it.

Marcus Aurelius specifically found it useful to read people, and he did that by seeing them as facts of nature, even through their emotional outbursts – all so he could deal with people in the way they wanted and could also empathise with them or avoid them when needed. Stoic ideas have less to do with suppressing our emotions, than with acknowledging them so in the end we become less affected by our own as well as those of others. Basic common sense. In this way Stoic philosophers have talked about many different areas concerning human life, from relationships with others, and proper use of power, to perseverance and curiosity. Contrary to the popular criticism that Stoicism makes us suppress our feelings and emotions, it instead encourages us to channel it safely to where it’s worth, thus removing the need for us to suppress our emotions in the first place. Obviously, my take on Stoicism is limited in this particular article. Perhaps I’ll talk more on the details of the Stoic philosophy in a later sequel to this blog, but I can’t stress enough on how important the findings of Stoic philosophers can prove to be for us all.

A topic for a later day, I’m also intrigued about how Stoic ideas have been supported in many ways by the current findings of present day cognitive and evolutionary psychology. For example, an empirical psychological therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT (a kind of psychotherapy) has proven to be effective for addressing numerous mental conditions and personality disorders in the clinic. CBT teaches us to envision ourselves objectively, to reflect on our past actions, and to see our emotions in action and exactly how we are affected by other people and how we react to them. It gives us insight to improve upon our mental resilience – much like the core ideas in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and the rest of Stoicism. Perhaps this is how Nelson Mandela, who was a self-admitted follower of Marcus’ notes, endured his stressful 27 years in prison. And much like him, I think it is about time we all gave Stoic ideas a try, even if we can do that just once.

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Marcus Aurelius