Last time I discussed Jan Westerhoff’s potent objection to naturalized Buddhism: if there is no rebirth then we can end our suffering simply by committing suicide. Westerhoff takes this objection as a reason to accept rebirth. I do not. Rather, I take it as pointing to a deeper problem with some core Buddhist teachings as they are usually understood.
Probably the first deep philosophical thought I had came at age six in India, when I first heard of renouncer traditions: I proclaimed, “if you free yourself from sorrow, you also free yourself from joy.” It seemed then, and seemed to me now, that a life without joy would not be a life worth living. That is a major reason I decided to get married and live the household life, rather than the monastic life that Śāntideva and the Pali suttas praise as superior. For them, the householder’s life is only a second-best option for those of us too weak to pursue the higher monastic path. I do admire monks’ single-minded focus on liberation, but the texts have never quite convinced me that their life is the best for human beings to follow. I think the joys of the household life are worthy. I would be interested to know whether Westerhoff believes himself to keep to the household life only because of his own weakness. (Westerhoff and I were both at this year’s IABS conference and I regrettably did not get a chance to meet him. I did catch a glimpse or two of him, however, and from his handsome curls of hair I infer that if he is a monk he does a rather good job of concealing it.)
So I think it is fair to ask: for us Buddhists, should dukkhanirodha, the cessation of suffering, be the only thing we strive for? I think Westerhoff is not too far off the mark to say that “The central goal of the Buddhist path is the complete and permanent eradication of suffering (duḥkha).” But why, even for those who follow this path, should we take this as our only goal?
It is not clear to me why dukkhanirodha should be our only value, or even why it should take precedence over all other possible values. It may be, as Śāntideva says, that “no one disputes” that dukkha should be prevented. But many dispute the idea that the prevention of dukkha should take precedence over all other values! As before, I read this claim of Śāntideva’s as MacIntyre reads John Stuart Mill: it is perfectly reasonable of Mill to say that happiness is desirable because people do actually desire it. But MacIntyre is also right to note: it is not at all reasonable for Mill to say that happiness is the only thing desirable, or that all desirable things are reducible to happiness. And so likewise here: even if we grant the First Noble Truth, that all physical and mental things are dukkha, we might still stand with the likes of Nietzsche and affirm at least some of that dukkha. Yes, I know this is suffering, this is unsatisfactory, this is illness, this is impermanent, this is essenceless – but it is worth it.
And once we do say it, then we have an easy response when Westerhoff says: “for the Buddhist naturalist the choice appears to be between a reduced amount of suffering (through practice) or a complete and permanent removal of all suffering (through suicide). It is difficult to see why the former should appear to be the more attractive option.” (153) Why? Because there is more to life than the removal of suffering, of course!
To such a view Westerhoff is within his rights to respond, as he does to different conceptions of nirvana in his footnote 19: “Such reconceptualizations make it doubtful, I would argue, whether we are still speaking about a naturalized form of Buddhism, and not simply about a kind of naturalism.” For people who take Buddhism seriously it makes no sense to say that one is automatically a Buddhist by virtue of calling oneself such. But at the same time, a claim that self-proclaimed Buddhists are not Buddhists requires justification: for it to stand, one cannot merely say that one would argue it, one needs to actually argue it. Until such argument is forthcoming, I continue to feel comfortable applying the label “Buddhist” to those of us who strive to reduce suffering, as one goal among others, and see the advice offered by sūtras and suttas as our best fount of wisdom for doing so.
It matters significantly in this regard that most Buddhists recognized as such have not been only Buddhists. Chinese Buddhism is famous for its syncretism with Daoism and Confucianism, but even Thai Buddhists have always loved and learned from the Rāmāyana, a story whose villain is identified with Buddhist Sri Lanka. Its story is immortalized in murals on the country’s most sacred temple, surrounding its most prestigious monks. Is the story there only for the purpose of ending suffering? Are these monks bad Buddhists, or not real Buddhists? A yes answer to either of these questions would not be self-evidently false, but it would still seem hard to justify. I would rather take the approach that one can be a devout Buddhist, follow the dhamma, while still acknowledging that doing so is not the only thing that matters in life.
[EDIT, 8 Oct 2017: there was a confusing “is right again” stuck before the colon in the sentence about Mill, which shouldn’t have been there. I deleted it.]
[Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog. I will be taking a break to travel in two weeks; the next post will be at the end of the month.]