A while ago William Edelglass put up a paper for discussion on academia.edu about Śāntideva and happiness. I made some suggestions for changes in a way that turned out to be unhelpful, since William informed me that the paper was already on its way to publication and he had only put it up by accident! Now, though, the paper has been published, as a chapter in David McMahan and Erik Braun’s valuable and readable volume on meditation, Buddhism and science. So perhaps now is the time to take my old suggestions and reframe them here as part of an ongoing public discussion.
William’s purpose in the chapter is to critique what he calls the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism, in which Buddhist advocates cite Buddhism’s ability to make its practitioners happy. The most prominent such case is Matthieu Ricard, the Tibetan monk whose fMRI scans showed record levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness. William thinks this emphasis on happiness misrepresents significant elements of Buddhism, and cites Śāntideva at length to prove his case.
Overall, I do not find myself convinced. Perhaps the most problematic passage in William’s chapter is this one:
according to Śāntideva, cultivating attention to the experience of others, especially attending to their suffering and desires, is far more important, and far harder, than cultivating positive affects. Interpreting Śāntideva in a contemporary context, we might say that we need to cultivate capacities for attending to the other with all her differences. We need to cultivate the capacity to attend to those who may suffer from deprivation, violence, illness, racism, and environmental degradation and to feel the “negative” feelings such evils arouse in us. (75-6)
First notice the quick elision of “their suffering and desires” as what one attends to. A reader unfamiliar with Śāntideva might come to think that satisfying others’ desires is as important to him from alleviating their suffering – especially in light of the final sentence. But this is quite far from Śāntideva’s position. I don’t think Śāntideva identifies deprivation, violence, illness or caste prejudice (a close premodern Indian analogue to racism) as primary causes of the other’s suffering – let alone environmental degradation, a problem he would have had considerably less reason to thinkabout. Suffering is caused by mental factors, and material deprivations can actually help one address those factors. (I have developed this point at length in chapters 3-5 of my dissertation.) Śāntideva’s bodhisattva does try to satisfy others’ desires – but solely so that he can more effectively teach them how to see those desires either don’t matter or lead to deeper suffering. And so he is anti-political, a disengaged Buddhist – not least because the “negative feelings” these social ills may arouse in us include anger, the deepest source of suffering.
I think that passage is largely wrong. But there are other passages in the chapter that, while I also find them potentially misleading, are considerably more interesting. Most notably there is this one:
In some circumstances, pleasure, or a positive affect, may indicate a lack of compassion or wisdom. Consider Śāntideva’s comment in chapter VI: “Just as there is no mental pleasure in all sensual gratification whatsoever when one’s body is on fire, likewise there is no way for the compassionate ones to be happy when sentient beings are in pain” (VI.123). Śāntideva argues that happiness in the face of pain is the mark of someone who suffers from mental defilements. (73-4)
The reason I find this misleading is that Śāntideva also says many things that are quite opposite to it. Śāntideva might have some objection to being happy in the face of others’ pain, but he identifies happiness in the face of one’s own pain as the mark of a bodhisattva. Just a few verses later Śāntideva tells us that one who has kṣānti – the patient endurance that the chapter is advocating – attains the happiness of an emperor. (VI.134) In chapter XI of the Śikṣā Samuccaya, he goes considerably further to say how the bodhisattva is happy even while undergoing gruesome tortures. More generally, when Śāntideva is more explicitly advocating altruism, in Bodhicaryāvatāra VIII.129, he tells us that “all who are happy in this world are happy because of desire for others’ happiness.” William gives that last sentence just a “see also” in a footnote, but I think it needs more than that in the face of his other claims. One imagines the bodhisattva is always aware of others’ pain, yet we still have several passages insisting she is indeed happy.
From my studies of Śāntideva’s texts, I think remarks like that – that the bodhisattva is happy – are actually much more frequent than are the remarks about not being happy when beings are in pain. BCA VI.123, the verse where others’ pain makes one unhappy, is a more isolated passage than the others.
And yet – and this is why I think this passage of William’s really is interesting – verse VI.123 is still there in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It stands in manifest tension to all the other passages just discussed. What is it doing there?
At the 2017 AAR conference in Boston, Stephen Harris presented on the Bodhicaryāvatāra’s passages about the bodhisattva’s happiness, and in the question period I pointed verse VI.123 out to him. Stephen’s first response was to say that Śāntideva isn’t as concerned about contradictions or consistency as we are. I’m not sure that that is true, though it perhaps depends on who the “we” is who is concerned about contradictions and just how concerned it is. Many people treat Madhyamaka Buddhism as a school that is comfortable with contradiction, but that really isn’t the case. Candrakīrti, Śāntideva’s fellow Prāsaṅgika, says:
Now if, even with the injunction that there is a contradiction (virodha) with what he has admitted himself, the opponent does not back down, then because of his extreme shamelessness, he would still not withdraw even with [a further] reason or example. And we do not debate with a madman (unmattaka). (Prasannapadā 15-3-16.2)
One way or another, I am convinced that it is a poor reading strategy to shrug one’s shoulders and say “meh, he contradicts himself.” If one is trying to learn from a great thinker like Śāntideva, I think it’s essential to follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice and view contradictions in the text as a problem. That was the approach I took in my dissertation: I noted Śāntideva both says material goods are harmful and urges one to give them to others for their own benefit, and asked how he could say both of these things without contradicting himself. The answer led me to what I think is the dissertation’s most important new insight, summarized in my 2013 JBE article: that the gift-giving is intended for teaching purposes, not for material benefit. As I understand it, Kuhn developed his own great insights by reading Aristotle’s Physics in this way.
And what I see in the passages mentioned in this post is an apparent contradiction, what Kuhn would call the “apparent absurdities” in the text. I think Śāntideva had reasons for what appears like both denying and affirming the bodhisattva’s happiness. I don’t yet know what they are, but I bet they would make a great topic for someone else’s dissertation.