A key idea that I’ve stressed from the Disengaged Buddhists is that the causes of suffering are primarily mental – especially the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots” of craving (rāga), aversion or hostility (dveṣa/dosa) and delusion (moha) – and that therefore changes in material conditions of life will do relatively little to solve them. Engaged Buddhists reject this latter idea, since they take changing the material conditions as essential. What has struck me recently, though, is that they reject the idea in ways that are different, and sometimes even opposite – each of which still, surprisingly to me in some ways, seems to accept that rāga, dveṣa and moha are indeed where the key problems of human existence lie. I see this point especially in comparing the different views expressed by Ron Purser and Sallie King.
Recall from my discussion of Purser’s book: Purser agrees that Buddhist mindfulness seeks to eradicate “greed, ill will and delusion” (McMindfulness 20), but then objects to “a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads”, as opposed to the “systemic, institutional and structural causes” of suffering and stress. (38) Purser advocates that people instead turn their focus outwards, beyond their heads, to the “the conditions that cause us to suffer… from a political point of view.” (249)
King, meanwhile, responds to apparently disengaged texts like the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (Fire Sermon), which claims that ” the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards the eye, towards forms… towards the ear… towards the mind….” and notes in response that it still focuses its critique on the three poisons, which she agrees are mental. I quoted this passage of King’s last time in a different context:
If these three poisons are indeed the root of the problem, then the problem is in our minds, not in the world. We can free ourselves of duḥkha by practicing Buddhism in such a way that we rid ourselves of this craving, hatred, and delusion. This has nothing whatsoever to do with leaving the world and everything to do with transforming ourselves, here and now. (Socially Engaged Buddhism 43; emphasis in original)
Notice the contrast and disagreement between the two about where the problem lies! Is the problem in our minds, or not? I think there’s a really interesting comparison to be made between Purser’s and King’s approaches here. We can elucidate it by spelling out a deductive compound syllogism that I think underlies much of the Disengaged Buddhist view:
- The fundamental problem that we need to solve consists roughly of rāga, dveṣa and moha (however we might translate these terms).
- If the fundamental problem is rāga, dveṣa and moha, then the fundamental problem is in our minds, not in the world.
- Therefore the fundamental problem is in our minds, not in the world.
- If the fundamental problem is in our minds and not in the world, then solving the fundamental problem requires fixing our minds rather than fixing the world.
- Therefore we should fix our minds rather than fix the world.
Now notice: Purser and King both appear to accept premise 1, that these three poisons – however one translates them – are the key problem in Buddhism, and they appear to accept this premise as their own constructive view. Neither of them accept the conclusion, 5; they both want an engaged Buddhist view that does focus on fixing the world. But they reject different parts of the intervening premises. King accepts 2 and 3 – “the problem is in our minds, not in the world”; it appears that she must therefore reject 4, in order to continue rejecting 5. But Purser specifically rejects 3, the claim that accepts, “that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads”, as a tenet of “neoliberal mindfulness”. This appears to be because he accepts premise 4, as King does not: he realizes that if the problem is with our minds, then the minds are what really need fixing, and this ancient Buddhist idea is too “neoliberal” for him. So it would appear that he must also reject premise 2, the premise that King accepts. It is an odd rejection to me, because I’m not sure how one could get to the idea that rāga, dveṣa and moha are not primarily “in our heads”, but it does seem implicit in what Purser has written.
My point here ties to a broader point underlying the Disengaged Buddhism article. The point of that article was not to reject Engaged Buddhism but to be clearer about our innovations, what it is in traditional Buddhism that we accept and do not accept. Here, neither Purser nor King spell out their rejections of the middle premises in the syllogism, and as a result, they do not explain their reasons for rejecting those premises. I think that such explanations would be just the sort of thing that an intellectually sophisticated Engaged Buddhism needs.
And where do I stand on the question at hand myself? Well, unlike Purser and King I do accept both premise 2 and premise 4: if the fundamental human problem is the three mental poisons, then the problem is in our minds, and if the problem is in our minds, then solving the problem requires fixing our minds. I also think that premise 1 is impeccably Buddhist and pervades most classical Buddhist thought, at least in South Asia from Thailand to Tibet. But I don’t fully accept premise 1 myself – and therefore I don’t fully accept 3 or 5, though I’d accept them all partially. Unlike many classical Buddhists, I accept worthy goals in life beyond the removal of suffering, and for that reason I don’t think the three poisons are the fundamental human problem. We have a lot of other problems – isolation from love and community, finding our authentic selves, and, yes, taking care of basic needs like food and medicine, without which we cannot even get to solving our mental problems. To the extent that activism is a good human activity, I think it is so above all in dealing with those other problems; it is much less helpful in dealing with the classically Buddhist problems of craving, hostility and delusion, each of which I suspect political engagement may tend to exacerbate.