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On Buddhism and Suffering

March 18, 2010

The language of cause and effect is too simple for thinking in a sophisticated way about causation. The Stoics noticed long ago that that “effects” are produced as a result of a network of conditions.

Lighting a match is not the cause for the flame that results—there has to be oxygen in the air too.

Planting a seed is not the cause for the growth of a tree—there has to be water and certain kinds of soil.

You get the idea: “effects” come about only as a result of a set of conditions, not just a single “cause.”

Consequently, it distorts matters to suggest that desire is the root of all suffering. Desire can, at best, be only one element in the conditions that produce suffering.

In addition, narrowly focusing on desire can have the effect of largely ignoring the other conditions that contribute to suffering (such as the production of desire, human exploitation, domination, etc.).

Yes, I know, there are socially engaged Buddhists. But that doesn’t negate this point.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. larry c wilson permalink
    March 18, 2010 4:13 pm

    Buddhism is a religion; it doesn’t have to make sense anymore than does Philosophy.

  2. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 18, 2010 6:59 pm

    Hmpf… By the time of the Abhidharma, many Buddhists had already elaborated on this point. In many tracts (see the Abhidharmakosa and its bhasya) an elaborate examination of the workings of causes, conditions and effects had been examined. The Pali Canon is only one of the three baskets (unless one is a Sautrantika — though there are none of those left). Indeed, another defunct nikaya group, the Vaibhashika, placed the Abhidharma above the Sutra as authoritative. In practice, as far as I can tell, the Pali Canon “that arises, this becomes” was more of a general slogan aimed for the general populace much like “to the things themselves”. Would we really think that this slogan adequately represents Phenomenology or even Husserl?

    The Pali Canon idea of pratityasamutpada was more frequently, within the text, characterized by the 12 chains of dependent arising which had little to do with causal explanation and more to do with some sort of contextual equivalent to psycho-babble .

    So, yeah, if we are talking about contemporary Buddhists using cause-effect language in the way you are describing here, I’d say its probably the general contemporary religious zeitgeist of sloppy, wishful-thinking interpretation taken for critical thought or textual analysis. Buddhist elites from the past would probably be shaking their heads as much as you are at this.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 18, 2010 8:55 pm

    Glad to hear it, fuzzy theory. I recently read a book on Nagarjuna, and it seems like his position was fairly sharp when it comes to causation (although his mode of argumentation drives me nuts).

    I wish I had been exposed more to the more sophisticated strands of Buddhist thought in my studies.

  4. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 19, 2010 11:40 pm

    Luckily I was trained by one of the best Buddhist Scholars of Indian Buddhism in the world. I got to pick up some wonderful tools of textual analysis, and had the linguistic basis to put the pieces together. If I hadn’t moved away from Buddhism to a more methodological bent, I’d probably move to a trajectory like Foucault’s hermeneutic of the self series: A geneology of Buddhist textual ideology and its institutional impact on South Asia, or a general South Asian concept of Self. But, I am happy in my self-critical analysis of scholarship and contemporary knowledge production about “THE ORIENT”.

    Hahah… Yeah, the Mulamadhyamakakarikas are tough. It helps to get the context and the Nyaya logic underpinning his analysis. It works on a number of assumptions that are not intuitive to those not steeped in Nyaya-based Sanskrit pramana-theory logic, and Abhidharmic modes of scholasticism. One of the best interpretive stances that helped me understand Nagarjuna was a work… I think by Gomez or Cabezon… or was it Ruegg? Anyway, it was some obscure article… where they traced one particular ideological element of the Pali Canon through the Abhidharma straight to Nagarjuna. It was a sutra of the Pali Canon where the reader is enjoined to not adopt any views (even about say, the Four-fold path) as any view leads–practically speaking–to ideology: to debating, trying to figure out who is right and wrong, “eel-wrangling” (I love Sanskrit technical/metaphorical terms), and basically distracts from the path and directly leads to dukkha. This idea of not “grasping onto” an ideology (or even an interpretation) then gets traced through the Abhidharma to Nagarjuna’s suppliment to the MMK, the Vigrahavyavartani (“Averting the Disputes”). That text, a response to those critical of sunyata sunyata is an excellent read to counter certain misunderstandings and give a more positive account not of sunyata as a concept, but of how to explain sunyata. The MMK is pretty negative (that is it says what sunyata is not)…

    Anyway… just a little meander through some of my development of understanding Nagarjuna… take it as you will. :)

  5. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 19, 2010 11:41 pm

    To Larry: “Buddhism is a religion”.

    Is it?

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 20, 2010 10:28 am

    The book I just read was Westerhoff’s Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka. I hated the parts of the book where he was explaining the details of Nagarjuna’s argument, but when he summarized in his own words what Nagarjuna was trying to accomplish, it was fairly persuasive. Whether or not Westerhoff’s “translation” of Nagarjuna is faithful, I don’t know …

  7. larry c wilson permalink
    March 21, 2010 1:49 pm

    To fuzzytheory: I suppose it depends on what form/sect of Buddhism you’re talking about. However, whether religion or philosophy it doesn’t need to make sense.

  8. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 21, 2010 2:36 pm

    missives: A new book! Well, I’ve not read anything done in the last few years about Nagarjuna. As I said, different interests these days. The last I picked up was Nagarjuna in Context, but even that I’ve only skimmed so far. But now you’ve given me something to add to my reading list!

    larry: maybe… on some level I totally agree. On another, I think: “what criteria of ‘making sense’ are we using here?” This partly because on the level that I agree with you, I don’t actually think much makes sense in the world.

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