Jan 19, 2007

Is Buddhism Negative?

I've just had a look at a couple of pages that critique Buddhism from a Catholic perspective.

Why Buddhism Gets up the Pope's Nose (serious article with a funny name)
and Catholic Encyclopedia article on Buddhism (surprisingly rude, really)

The major criticism seems to be on two points; Buddhism lacks a concept of God and Buddhism is essentially negative about the world, the body etc. The former point we can readily concede, although seeing it as a virtue rather than a defect of Buddhist thought (perhaps the topic of another post.) The latter, Buddhism's supposed negativity, deserves some rebuttal.

This is not a criticism limited to the Catholics, either. Many who are in partial sympathy with Buddhist ideas voice similar objections. For instance, on a web-site called "A Call for a New Buddhism" we find the following;

1) Life is suffering. Is human life essentially painful from the moment of birth to the moment of death? Even ordinary life can be full of fun, adventure, friends, romance, good food, music and art. In many ways Buddhism has become an anti-life religion that appeals to those who always see the glass half empty rather than half full. Why should we deny the fact that life can be an enjoyable adventure and not just a pitiful veil of tears?
I've also encountered variants of this objection phrased as a question many times when giving talks. (On one occassion someone asks why Buddhists only talk about suffering and I couldn't resist replying that that isn't true, we also talk about grief, pain, lamentation, misery and despair)

The objection comes primarily from a reading of the First Noble Truth (in translation) as "Life is suffering." Part of the problem is that old bug-bear, translation. I've said it before, and I'll no doubt say it again, languages are not perfectly isomorphic. Pali does not completely map into English on a word for word basis. The Pali word translated as "suffering" is "dukkha" which is much broader than the English word. In some contexts, suffering works well enough but the problem comes when we encounter the teaching that all conditioned experience is dukkha and translate that as suffering. A poke in the eye with a sharp stick is both suffering and dukkha. A delicious slice of rhubarb pie is dukkha but it certainly isn't suffering.

So what exactly is dukkha then? It is a universal characteristic of all conditioned phenomena experienced with the physical senses or the mind. It points to that aspect shared by all such experience as being imperfect, unsatisfactory, in some way incomplete or provisional. Some experiences can give us joy, but no experience can be completely sufficient. There is never enough rhubarb pie.

From the subjective side, this is the root of desire. The mind always seeks to fulfill itself, to complete itself, through objects. These objects can never give total satisfaction, so the mind always moves on to another desire. This is the endless, and ultimately fruitless, project of samsaric existence.

Far from seeing the world as an endless veil of misery, Buddhism teaches that this human existence is a balance of pleasure and pain. Actually, most of our mind-moments are neither, they fall in the neutral range of equanimity. Buddhism also teaches that other realms of existence, devas and brahmas, experience much more pleasure than pain, but are still included within samsara. So samsaric existence is not necessarily suffering, but is always incomplete and in a deep sense futile.

Furthermore, Buddhism has the Third Truth, there is an end to dukkha. This is where Buddhism, far from being pessimistic, is radically more optimistic than other religions. For a Buddhist, the Christian heaven is still bound within samsara. Buddhism teaches that there is an Unconditioned, the Nibbana element, which is an alternative to conditioned existence. Nibbana (or Nirvana) has been grossly misunderstood by critics of Buddhism. This is understandable, because the Buddha refused to define it very clearly. Indeed, the implication of Majjhima 72 is that is essentially indefinable (words and logic being conditioned cannot contain the unconditioned). The implication of this sutta is to reject the view of Nibbana as either a super-sensuous heaven or a state of annihilation (the two erroneous views often encountered)

Finally, it should be noted that far from rejecting this human existence and body, Buddhism teaches the "preciousness of human rebirth" since a human existence is rare in the world and is the optimum position from which to attain awakening. (Humans may not seem rare, but consider that there are more beings in a bucketful of garden earth than there are human beings on earth.)

So we have to conclude that Buddhism is not pessimistic. In it's appraisal of this life it is simply realistic, and in it's soteriological aspect is in fact extraordinarily optimistic.


Hokai said...

thanks for your post, punnadhammo. there's also a different view on the issue of Deity. it's not true that buddhism lacks a clear notion of God/head, and such unreal absence is not to be understood as a virtue. in mahayana we find detailed elaborations of Supreme Reality or Dharmadhatu in third person, and of the Dharmakaya in first person (also found in some Sutta-pitaka teachings as well, where the Buddha talks of the Unborn and the Undying in very positivistic terms). The difference is, of course, that the personal deity is absent, while the Supreme Reality is given emphasis. But the Supreme Reality is neither personal nor impersonal and may be indeed expressed in both terms quite appropriately, depending on the cultural and religious context. But in later developments in Vajrayana we find even the transpersonal expression of Nondual in form of Yidam, Ishvara and Devata, all different names for Mahasattva. These function as embodiments of reality-principles, and also have both an impersonal and a personal aspect to them. On the other hand, all "teistic" traditions in broad sense have a developed notion of Godhead as apophatic/ineffable, or Nirguna-brahman in India. The ultimate difference is not in the Deity or Doctrine, but in the practice. Most schools of Buddhism place much more emphasis on self-reliance, but not exclusively, and neither is Buddhism the only one to do that. So the issue is actually a subtle one, but the debate is regularly exacerbated but those without sufficient understanding of the subject. There's much more overlap between traditions if we apply the rule of comparing principles on the same level of complexity. thanks again for your post. in dharma, hokai

Anonymous said...

Dear Venerable Punnadhammo;

First, of course, an apology. There are at least 22 wars going on in the world. I am sad when I find a fine monk getting betrayed by the whims of the media. Please forgive my stupid and harsh words. I am an old man who has worked hard (in the Buddhist sense) to help others. Wrong speech is always wrong. Please accept this apology. I've been kicked around very hard for a decade. So what. That's my problem, not yours.

Dukkha is a funny word. To Buddhists it means (more or less) that all conditioned things are unsatisfactory. I personally feel that the average person has trouble understanding that because they experience all conditioned things as ecstatic.

What the Buddha said is accurate. But it is not mindfulness that rules the world. It is surrender to the tyrany of time. Aka ecstasy.

At least, that is what the gnostics called it. Oneness, integration (even used by some Buddhists), failure - aka hope.

What hope is there for a better world? I personally think that the best translation for dukkha is hope. Hoping that, if we work hard enough, one day, somehow, things will change and be better. Now, things always change, of course.

Fortunately, the Buddha had no position on the subject. He was smart enough not to deny Buddhists hope that work (in the dhamma) can make a better world.

But, just look at the world. Billions of fine Christians washing their hands. Hundreds of millions of fine Buddhists washing their hands. Not to mention other faiths.

So, all that the worlds religions have given us is surrender. We save our souls (to use the Christian quip) and let the world die like an old tree full of bugs called - other humans.

The poor, the starving and the illerate have been neglected by your blog while you express your opinions on the insanity of the clearly insane? Perhaps this blog could work harder to help the poor and starving?

I am not a Buddhist who feels that social activism is important. I am a Buddhist who is socially active. My words, like silent raindrops fall, into the well.

In a day, the day accepts the next morning. As we bury our friends each day we bury the day we were born - and will be born again.

For at least one day, three things were given time. Each one, and easily forgotten.

Thank you. And peace from


glennfitzgerald said...

Punnadhammo, your objection to the criticism that Buddhism dwells on the negative aspect of life as suffering doesn't seem to quite make it. That is to say, that after having carefully followed your argument, it's still possible to say that doctrine based Buddhism dwells on the negative. And while I'm personally sympathetic to your argument, that argument just doesn't seem to add up.

Yes, one can appreciate your point that an accurate interpretation of the First Noble Truth written in Pali doesn't quite say that, "life is suffering." Rather, as you put it, the Pali term for suffering---or “dukkha”---is broader than the English interpretation. Suffering, then, in its correct definition of dukkha implies the experience of all conditioned phenomena both pleasant and unpleasant.

So here's the, "fly in the ointment," of your argument.

As you so very well pointed out, the positive and insatiable experience of dukkha leads to a fruitless quest for new objects of desire. But the experience of a delicious slice of rhubarb pie, which is never enough, only sets you up for the suffering which will come when the pie is gone and you have to wait before you can consume yet another. Another way to put this point made by you is to say that the pleasures of dukkha must always lead to the experience of frustration---or to use another term for "frustration," might be to say, “suffering.”

And so, doesn’t it seem that your definition of dukkha has inadvertently “wandered” into another and more nuanced definition of suffering?

In the world of dukkha, our insatiable appetites render sharper and even more painful contours to the definition of what it means to reject pain (suffering) ---you seem to unwittingly imply. The more pies you have, the ever newer and appealing kinds of pies you must have, and the less tolerable the absence of pie must feel. And anyway, wouldn’t the knowledge that your pleasures of dukkah will always be followed by disappointment and frustration eventually deprive you of those pleasures—to leave only the pain?

The message is clear. The path of dukkha---human experience---is the path of suffering.

If such a view doesn’t harbor a negative and pessimistic view of human experience, I don’t know what does. This view of dukkha, with its highs of fulfillment matched by its lows of deprivation, can be compared to the kind of stomach churning roller-coaster ride that must make the rider finally yearn for a vomit bag.

If Buddhism indeed does teach that the world is "dukkha," then Buddhism also teaches by implication that the world is, "an endless veil of misery." And the only light at the end of the tunnel for its inhabitants is the escape into Nibbana. And the criticism, therefore, still stands that doctrinal Buddhism negatively sees the world as an unpleasant place of necessary escape.

I’m likely being too presumptuous in my following and likely very flawed view that Zen might provide yet another way to look at human experience.

But wouldn’t the view of Zen regard human experience as a sort of mysterious and indefinable delight which fully originates in this world and which transcends simple categorization as, “pleasant” or “painful?” In this view, nirvana is to be found in what it means to directly live in our own everyday experience. Or to put it in Zen terms, “when walking, just walk” or when having a toothache just have the toothache. LOL. In the Zen view, the experience of comfort in eating the pie is to be savored just as enthusiastically as the experience of hunger when your stomach growls. This experience I might term, “the equanimity of joy.” And that mindset attains a sort of nibbana on earth, does it not?

Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud. Sorry if my critique of your post didn’t follow too well the logic of its argument.

Glenn Fitzgerald.

Anonymous said...

glenn wrote:

Suffering, then, in its correct definition of dukkha implies the experience of all conditioned phenomena both pleasant and unpleasant.

Is dukkha the experience itself or the relationship to the experience?

Canadafitz said...

Jeff asks:

"Is dukkha the experience itself or the relationship to the experience?"

It's my understanding that Punnadhammo refers to dukka as the experience itself. Both examples of dukkah he gives, the painful experience from a sharp stick poked into the eye, or the experience of the delicious pie slice comprise examples of dukkah.

What I pointed out about that definition of dukkha, which includes those examples, is that the pleasurable sensation of consuming food or material objects generates the unpleasant sensation of hunger and the need to painfully strive for more food or material objects. The savor and taste of that delicious slice of pie drives humans, to reach for more pie (by working overtime perhaps), to make sure there will always be enough, and to worry about running out.

Anyway, if you don't believe that expectation of pleasure doesn't physiologically drive drive the anxious symptom of hunger, just ask Pavlov or his dog. LOL.

The worry and anxiety prone effort to make sure there’s always pie around sounds like a form of painful suffering to me.

What I should have also mentioned, though, is that the actual experience of gratification is fleeting and painfully short compared to the long periods humans anxiously wait for and anxiously strive for that gratification.

Our pleasures may, in actual fact, be minimal when weighed against what we have to do to protect or obtain those pleasures. So, dukka, it would seem to me, is mostly suffering. And anyway, people don't enjoy their pleasures anyway for the worry those pleasures might prove too fleeting.

Have you ever really watched people eat food at places like MacDonalds? Most of the time I only see in their faces the evidence of anxiety and distraction by some far away worry. Only their bodies seem present.

To say the world is, "dukkha," is also to say that the world is also truly a veil of endless and painful suffering---or so it seems to me.

Anyway, I don't know how convincing I find my own counter-argument to Punnadhammo's post. I'm just voicing my first impressions of his argument.

I've only quickly expressed my off-the-cuff thoughts to provoke discussion.

Glenn Fitzgerald

Canadafitz said...

As one more thought on this discussion thread, I might reach for a certain metaphor to describe the condition of, "dukkah."

I might use the metaphor of a tread mill cage where you (whoever you are) can be compared to the," mouse"

Everyday the mouse runs to leave behind the back part of the tread mill wheel to pursue the front part. Every day you run---because you have to---to leave behind your hunger and pain to pursue your pleasure. In both cases, the runners travel a meaningless and tiring journey.

What a painful and exhausting journey that must be for humans.

Glenn Fitzgerald.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like Pope Paul II needed to read "Living Buddha, Living Christ."

Anonymous said...

In the early 90's I lived in S. Indiana. A Catholic Monastary called Gethsemani is located in Kentucky and I believe Thomas Merton was affliated with these monks.

I read an article where a group of Tiben monks from Bloomington Ind. visted the brothers at Gethsemani.
The Cathoilc brothers sat before the Tibetan monks and held up a large crucifix with Jesus on it for the monks to look at. Then one monk asked...Tell us, what do you see?
The Tibetan monks put there heads together and conversed quietly. Then one monk replied..."That life is suffering".

I always have to chuckle when Christians say Buddhism is negative yet base their beliefs on a tortured man on a cross, drink his blood and eat his body in communion.

I was raised Christian yet found the the First Noble truth...Life is suffering/life is unsatisfactory to be a freeing recognition that..that suffering, that unsatisfactoriness...can be changed through Practice. There in lies the Hope and where I found true Peace.

Another fine post Bhikku...


Canadafitz said...

Sunyata, perhaps both doctrinal Christianity and Buddhism share the same negative and rejectionist view of the world. For Christianity, the world of the flesh and life itself is to be sacrificed and cast aside to choose God---as for example when Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice to redeem humanity.

For doctrinal Buddhism, on the other hand, our world of "duhhha" is a place where, as Punnadhammo put it: "There is never enough rhubarb pie." In this view, our pleasures comprise a biological trap set by nature to lock us into a painfully stressful struggle for survival and our pleasures.

Perhaps the real journey of liberation lies in a state of mind which affirms both our pleasurable and painful experiences of life as ecstatic affirmations. Might it be possible for an enlightened mind to embrace the simple and fundamental reality of living in all of its pleasures and pains as nirvana?

Punnadhammo wrote a very fine post, but one which seems to leave me unsatisfied about one of its central arguments. (i.e.: that doctrinal Buddhism isn't really negative about the world).

Glenn Fitzgerald.

They call him James Ure said...

Well said.

Great post.


Anonymous said...

Spot on Glenn. Well said.

Jon said...

Venerable Sir, I urge you to respond to Glenn Fitzgerald's post, especially his rejection of the view that appetites are snares to trap us in some treadmill of the senses. I visted a Theravada monastery (Bhavana, WV) and was chilled by the pre-meal Pali chant that eating was not for enjoyment and only for sustenance. Leaving aside the question of the "for-ness" of things, which sounded like the dubious Catholic view that sex is "for" making babies, what's wrong with enjoyment? When the French wish one another "bon appetit" are they really casting a dukkha curse on their fellow diners? I don't find that there is "never enough rhubarb pie." If you eat you fill up. (Of course, there's never enough pie if all you care about is pie, but that's different. Presumably none of your readers are committed hedonists.) Can you explain how the pleasures of the senses, which seem so innocent and transient, can be classed as a hindrance on a par with really wretched states of mind like anxiety or ill will? I ask you for your own true feelings and thoughts, and not words that monastics put in the Bhuddha's mouth 500 years after he died.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful question Jon,

And I too hope you'll get a nice reply.

What an interesting thread. Thank you.



Konrad's Blog said...

I don't care what anybody says. Buddha, or not. Life is all about betterment and improvement. Its through experiencing both pleasure and pain of events that we learn. We all strive to become better, because World is a competitive place. It is only through adaptation to the conditions and through adjustment/suffering that we become better. We may not know the ultimate goal of becoming better - other than bilogical evoliution, but nevertheless giving up on reacting to pain and pleasure - seems to me like the most counterproductive thing to do.

I can't seem to get over the idea that Buddhism encourages people to give up on life, rather than accept its challenges and learn how to be better through working through the pains - just like any other being on this planet does.

If "nirvana" is the state of the total relaxation and loss of reaction to pain and pleasure, then it would be equivalent to death - which is coming to all of us anyway. I don't know of any living being that likes the idea of death.

shinjinspirit said...

Surely whether life is suffering, or even inherently unsatisfying, is purely the result of one's outlook? Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person - that is what matters. If you look for the bad, and focus on the bad, your experience of life will be primarily negative, and you will find no joy in simple things. If, on the other hand, you look for the good, and focus on the good, then your experience of life will be primarily positive no matter what the external circumstances may be.
Some movie examples of this that come to mind are Pollyanna and City of Angels, both of which tend to butt heads with Buddhist ideas.

I often think that perhaps Shakyamuni had a rather skewed view of the world. First off, he was born into the lap of luxury and probably spoiled rotten in an unnaturally perfect environment, so simple pleasures held no joy for him. Then he had the unfortunate experience of all at once encountering several distressing sights of sickness, decrepitude and death, which because of his sheltered upbringing seemed to be not just a natural part of life but some kind of abhorrent anomaly to be escaped and eradicated. Then he underwent several years of rigorous, extreme asceticism - which, let's face it, is a euphemism for self-abuse, and which would leave anybody bitter and disenchanted with life. And it's on the basis of these two extreme lifestyles - pure hedonism and asceticism - that the Buddha developed his theories and practices. He never had a normal life with simple joys.

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