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On Claptrap Part 3

May 11, 2009

I bet I’m going to get in trouble for this one …

The Second Noble Truth: Your desires are at the root of your suffering.

The Third Noble Truth: You can eliminate suffering if you eliminate your desires.

One Zen thinker I’ve read goes so far as to suggest that when you’re ill, you don’t expect the doctor to write a prescription for your neighbors. The problem is not with them but with you. He goes on to say that, by analogy, if you’re suffering you don’t need others to change (your lover, your boss, your  teachers, or whomever), you need to change yourself (by altering your desires, dropping your attachments, changing the expectations you have of others, etc.).

So, people wouldn’t suffer if they had their desires in order? Right.

Would you be willing to tell that to all the minorities presently suffering from discrimination in the US? Would you be willing to tell that to the kids working in the sweatshops overseas? Would you be willing to tell that to the victims of the current American carpet bombing in Afghanistan?

“You’re only suffering because you’ve got your desires all wrong.” Really?

I thought their suffering had something to do with prejudice and white privilege. Or with how capitalist competition drives down labor costs so I can buy a cheap jacket at Old Navy. Or American imperialist powers dead set on controlling the Middle East so I can buy gasoline for under $3/gallon.

Don’t get me wrong—I have a great appreciation for Buddhism. I particularly like the early Mahayana non-dualist discourses on “suchness.” But I can’t buy Samudaya and Nirodha. Suffering results from a nexus of causes, not just individual desire. As a result, any solution has to begin with that nexus of causes, not just with the individual.

Yes, I know there is no “individual” in the strict sense in “orthodox” Buddhist doctrine. Nevertheless, those forms of Buddhism that start with the four noble truths still focus on you and your desires—there certainly is a “you” in the conventional sense.

I don’t know any forms of Buddhism that begin with an analysis of systematic social relations, although some of them may end there. I think they start at the wrong end. I’d rather begin with an analysis of how systematic social relations produce desire.

The idea that all of your suffering results from the way you approach the world—and that all you need to do is change yourself—is ass backwards.

If you’re a Buddhist and you think I’ve got this all wrong, I’d love for a sporting debate! (Part of the problem, of course, may be that there are a wide variety of interpretations of Samudaya out there. Maybe the interpretation passed down to me is particularly superficial?)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2009 10:16 pm

    I am not very well schooled in buddhism, but I think you are to some extent attacking a strawman.

    On one level, the idea that if you were enlightened, no external conditions would affect your enlightened disposition.

    But one of the fundamental things in Buddhism has to be how everything is interconnected. My action does not only effect me but also everyone else. My desires do not only create suffering for me but for other living beings.

    And most people are many lifetimes away from enlightenment, so in the here and now, my effect on others is perhaps more pressing an issue to worry about than the desires of others making them unhappy.

    It’s kind of like in Christianity how in the end, it’s about your sins, maybe other people sin, maybe they are all saints secretly testing you with their apparently sinful behavior, but either way it doesn’t matter because your job is to love everyone and hate yourself.

  2. May 12, 2009 7:50 am

    You’re understanding of the Truths is flawed. Release from dukkha (which is not just “suffering”) is not just a matter of eliminating desire. At the root of desire is ignorance of the nature of existence. We desire because we see ourselves as limited, needy, cut off from everything else. We live in a self-other dichotomy, in other words. By crushing all such dualisms, we see through the delusions that created our desires, and this is what causes release from dukkha.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 12, 2009 8:57 am

    Hi Barbara, I know that there is more to dukkha than just mental or psychological suffering (particularly depending on which form of Buddhism we’re talking about). In addition, I know that seeing the world in non-dualist ways is important (however, this seems to me to be less important for Theravada). However, does any of what your suggesting negate the idea that relief from suffering starts with you and how you see the world?

    Also, maybe you can help me with this: I’ve never understood how dualist ways of thinking cause desire. I’ve asked a lot of people and have never gotten a satisfactory answer.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 12, 2009 8:58 am

    Barbara: I don’t mean my queries as an attack; I’m honestly interested in what you have to say!

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 12, 2009 9:02 am

    Hi Sophia, if it is as you say (and I would imagine it would depend on which version of Buddhism you’re talking about), what are you going to do to relieve the suffering of others in the meantime? And how do you know how to go about it? Does the Buddhist tradition offer any pointers?

    To switch over to the Christian “love everyone” analogy: I’m not sure that the Bible, for instance, provides very good directions for how to go about “loving” everyone.

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