Thursday, March 14, 2019

In search of the heart of spiritual living


The following is a snippet from Martin Hägglund’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, “Why Mortality Makes Us Free” (March 11, 2019):  

“The aim of salvation in Buddhism … is to be released from finite life itself. Such an idea of salvation recurs across the world religions, but in many strands of Buddhism there is a remarkable honesty regarding the implications of salvation. Rather than promising that your life will continue, or that you will see your loved ones again, the salvation of nirvana entails your extinction. [emphasis added] The aim is not to lead a free life, with the pain and suffering that such a life entails, but to reach the ‘insight’ that personal agency is an illusion and dissolve in the timelessness of nirvana. What ultimately matters is to attain a state of consciousness where everything ceases to matter, so that one can rest in peace. 

The Buddhist conclusion may seem extreme when stated in this way, but in fact it makes explicit what is implicit in all ideas of eternal salvation. Far from making our lives meaningful, eternity would make them meaningless, since our actions would have no purpose.”

There is much that is mistaken or misleading about Buddhism in this article by Hägglund, based on material from his book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, 2019). Here is my response: 

While I have yet to read Hägglund’s book, the picture sketched of Buddhism here is rather constricted and distorted if not simply a crude caricature, for any number of reasons, only some of which I can address in this format. First, while the picture superficially resembles the Theravāda school more than any other “school” of Buddhism, it is far from doing justice to even that tradition, for the while goal is indeed nibbāna (which can be attained on this earth, so it is not ‘otherworldly’),* any decent Buddhist focuses on the path, not the goal, for in one very real sense, focus on the goal, the end, the fact of possible or eventual liberation from sundry forms of suffering, is selfish (for then it is about one’s own liberation), self-centered, or egoistic (and this, in the main, was perhaps the principal part of the Mahāyāna critique of this school; incidentally, a similar critique arose within other Indic religio-philosophical ‘schools’ in Hinduism, for the masses tend to be enchanted by mokṣa and became rather fatalistic, at the expense of dharma, etc.). This need not be the case, however, for that critique generated the notion of bodhicitta (inherent in all human animals), a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind which desires to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, as well as the idea of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara (who goes by different names in Asian countries), thought to exemplify the bodhisattva’s resolve to postpone his own buddhahood until he has helped every sentient being on earth achieve liberation from suffering and thus end the process of death and rebirth. Buddhists, in both theory and praxis, are encouraged to focus on the path, as only the path can lead to the goal. And that path, āryāṣṭāṅgamārga (the ‘Eightfold Path of the Noble Ones’) is tripartite (three ‘trainings’), only one part of which has to do with concentration and mind training, including meditation, the other two parts having to do with morality or ethics (lists of specific virtues to cultivate, Aristotelian in spirit, are enumerated in any number of texts) and wisdom (‘right knowledge or views,’ etc.). The three parts of this path are considered complementary and thus mutually reinforcing, and thus it is a profound mistake to focus on any one part, even meditation, while excluding the other two parts of the path.
Insofar as the achievement of liberation (the term ‘salvation’ has connotations that differ from the meaning of nirvāṇa in Buddhism and should generally be avoided in the Buddhist case) in Buddhism is “this-worldly,” this (with three clusters of ‘trainings’) path (with three clusters of ‘trainings’) to “awakening” or liberation does not require one to die before achieving it (for several scholastic or metaphysical reasons, a notion of ‘final’ nirvāṇa evolved for those anxious to understand what happened to the last Buddha after he died, but we can set that aside here). Indeed, based on this opinion piece and what I’ve read about Hägglund’s book (including some excerpts here and there), he’s let a largely Christian conception of salvation skew his understanding of the concept of liberation in Buddhism. 

The author might want to familiarize (or ’better …’) himself with what Buddhists teachers actually say and do, rather than construct a fairly abstract and inaccurate picture of the role of “awakening in Buddhism.” There is of course an immense amount of literature by both Buddhists and scholars writing on Buddhism, and whether it is anthropological, historical, psychological, or philosophical, very little of it, for ample and correct reasons, has to do with the subject of nirvāṇa construed in the reductionist terms found here. Compare, for instance, the end or ends of psychoanalytic therapy, which, loosely speaking (and after the accounts by Jonathan Lear, among others), revolve around an enhanced sense of personal agency or freedom for the analysand and thus encourages, if successful and in the first instance, individuation if not self-realization or even eudaimonia. The analytic process itself, the psychoanalytic therapeutic regimen, aims to provide relief from various kinds of mental suffering that motivated the analysand to seek help in the first place. And the ultimate goal of therapy hopes to find the analysand living his life unencumbered by the kinds of anxiety, anguish, neuroses, in other words, all that heretofore has thwarted attempts or the very possibility to be rational and reasonable, to live a more or less ethical life, to meaningfully and lovingly interact with others, and so forth and so on. Much could be said, analogously or similarly for the case of the Buddhist spiritual therapeutic regimen.

There is a famous story or parable in Buddhism about a man shot with a poisoned arrow and the Buddha is queried by someone who is clearly disturbed by his refusal to answer or address difficult metaphysical questions (various reasons are given for this, some having to do with the presuppositions of these topics, others to do with the mind of the person asking the questions, which may not be capable of understanding the answers), and the Buddha responds by saying he never promised to give definitive answers to such metaphysical questions or indulge in what we might call metaphysical speculation, for that is not the principal concern of or motivation that animates his teachings:

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me ... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short, [….] until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.” 

The lesson of this story is of course that the Buddha is interested in the immediate relief of suffering, here and now (the possibility or prospect of nirvāṇa may motivate one to become a Buddhist, but one soon learns it is all about the path, not the end, for if one follows the triune path, the end will eventually take care of itself, thus the means and the end become convertible terms, and we can state unequivocally that the notion of nirvāṇa recedes, as it were, to the back of one’s mind), and preoccupation with metaphysical topics or metaphysical speculation interferes with providing relief here and now for the sundry forms of suffering we experience as human animals (Buddhists are also asked to embody concern, care, and compassion for all sentient creatures). I happen to think that Buddhism does in fact, and after the fact in this case, evidence philosophical interest in these metaphysical and psychological topics, but not at the expense of the everyday tasks devoted to the relief of suffering (the four truths of the ‘noble’ ones have, for example, to do with the nature of suffering, its twofold cause, the possibility of relief, and the therapeutic regimen necessary to attain such relief, all of which broach metaphysical subject matter). With good reason, there are many Buddhists who individually and collectively identify with “engaged Buddhism” (see, for example, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship), an expression that should be redundant, but is designed to show how Buddhists can, indeed should, effectively engage in the many political projects and endeavors traditionally associated with the history of the Left. With good reason, the Dalai Lama himself describes his worldview as “half Marxist and half Buddhist.” And of course the Dalai Lama has stressed the importance of secular ethics apart from Buddhist ethics, recognizing that people can be both “spiritual” and non-religious, as explained by Sudhir Kakar, Grant Gillett, and John Cottingham (and exemplified by countless others who self-identify as atheists, agnostics, humanists, Marxists, what have you).

As for the claim, “Rather than promising that your life will continue, or that you will see your loved ones again, the salvation of nirvana entails your extinction,” this is simply wrong: for extinction, which Buddhists term “annihilationism” is to be avoided, one reason the Buddha’s teachings are said to be a “middle way,” that is, a middle way between two extreme views: annihilationism on the one hand, and eternalism on the other. This “middle way” method is applied to several concepts (e.g., the idea of a ‘self’) in Buddhism, but perhaps most importantly, to the doctrine of “dependent origination,” and the notion of “emptiness,” such that the latter is not to be construed as a “nothing,” on the one hand, and some absolute reality on the other. Entire books have been devoted to explaining how and why this is the case, so I will not here try to summarize the argument, which is fairly complex, as is much of Buddhist philosophy. 

* For a concise introduction to nibbāna/nirvāṇa, please see the brief section, “The cessation of suffering: nirvāṇa,” in Rupert Gethin’s The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 1998): 74-79.


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