I really want to stop wanting things.
May 18, 2008 8:16 PM   Subscribe

In Buddhist philosophy, how is one supposed to do anything?

The first noble truth is that life is dukkha. suffering.

So desiring, craving, or Taṇhā are the source of this suffering. So far this is all intelligible.

Where I get confused is the third noble truth. If craving results in suffering, to end suffering (through fourth noble truth) you have to deal with craving, no?

But how do you do anything without desire? You wake up in the morning and you crave food. You want to get up and go do things. You want to learn things, make the world a better place, meditate, or any number of other things.

It seems like if you got beyond craving, you would contentedly waste away. And to even get there in the first place, you'd surely have to desire to follow the eightfold path. This seems paradoxical, and clearly Buddhists do not simply sit around doing nothing. So how does one act without desire? What else is there to act on?
posted by phrontist to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm no expert, but from what little reading I've done: I believe the idea is to do things not because you crave, but because they minimize suffering (in others, not just yourself).
posted by twiggy at 8:20 PM on May 18, 2008


I've always interpreted these truths as referring to the idea of "clinging" rather than "craving". The Sanskrit word for this is Upādāna.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 8:47 PM on May 18, 2008


IANAL (Lama) but I think ISeemToBeAVerb is on the right path: eliminating clinging rather than craving. Often, clinging is expressed as "grasping onto senseless attachments".

For example, it's natural to feel hungry in the morning, and to want to eat breakfast as a result. But if you cling to the idea that you just have to have a ham & cheese croissant, this clinging can cause suffering if not satisfied. If you're open to eating whatever is available, your chances of suffering will be lower. Better yet, if you can overcome the clinging onto the idea that you need to eat *now*, then maybe a brunch is ok.

But you raise a good point, and the problematic nature of desire is something that many Buddhists are well aware of - as in the idea that if you desire enlightenment, then you're on the wrong track. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha, as they say...
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:57 PM on May 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


It seems like if you got beyond craving, you would contentedly waste away.

Would you?

If you watered a plant, it would not be because a plant craved water. It requires water to live, but that is very different from wanting.

Why would feeding yourself be any different?
posted by tkolar at 8:59 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Consider the difference between "craving" and "fact of life needing." You need food, you crave waffles. Your body needs food to live. Therefore, you should eat something nutritious, palatable, and sanitary. You're perfectly free to enjoy it. Go ahead and get waffles if you like. "Hey, waffles. Cool." But you should not say, "I really want waffles, and if I don't get them, it's going to ruin my day."

Getting beyond craving means you live a content life, pleasantly eating, sleeping, hiking, playing Civ, doing whatever it is you do. You don't waste time climbing over the corpses of your coworkers to reach management. You don't want a fancy car so badly that you ruin your marriage by working three jobs to afford one. That sort of thing.
posted by pandanom at 9:04 PM on May 18, 2008 [11 favorites]


Your question is along the lines of the following Zen Koan:
http://www.ashidakim.com/zenkoans/82nothingexists.html

Siddhartha Gautama was a philosophical pragmatist. If the ultimate end is the cessation of suffering, then one must achieve that end by any means necessary. Without subscribing to any metaphysical theory whatsoever, the Buddha's ultimate objective was the cessation of the belief that one exists. If you do not exist, then you cannot cling/crave, and therefore you cannot suffer.

This places your question, "How do you do anything without desire", into another context. In the enlightened state, you are not the source of your bodily actions and dispositions. In a way, this is what is meant by "being unattached".

The following zen koan is a wonderful illustration of the unattached state:
http://www.ashidakim.com/zenkoans/3isthatso.html

I am neither enlightened, nor all too conversant in Buddhism. Regardless, I hope that you learned, at the very least, a little from the little that I do know.
posted by mahoganyslide at 9:13 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also.
posted by tkolar at 9:18 PM on May 18, 2008


You're not supposed to 'not desire' anything; you're supposed to be working towards not being qualitatively attached to anything.

Here's an anecdote: One day, Roshi was sitting peacefully in the meditation hall, chatting with a group of students. One of them asked, "Roshi, once one achieves enlightenment, what does one do afterwards?"

Roshi stood up suddenly. "I have to go the bathroom," he said, moving towards the door. "Such a small thing, and only I can do it for myself."

[Not as good a Roshi story as the Leather Sandals/Mosquito one, but still instructive to an extent.]

On Preview: Also, what mahoganyslide said.
posted by Minus215Cee at 9:19 PM on May 18, 2008


When hungry, Eat! When tired, Sleep! Have you finished your meal? Wash your bowl! Stomp on a cockroach in a hospital, say: "may you be reborn a Buddha". If your hosts went out and slaughtered their best goat to make you a meal, you eat it... (and think "may you be reborn a Buddha").

Everything goes away at some point. Your grandparents are going to die, turn to dust. So are your parents. So will your SO. So will the mountain behind you turn to dust.

Laugh, a lot...

Just do the right thing every time you can and live in the moment knowing that every thing around you will if noting else be burned up when the sun explodes. You have a moment and a choice... understand and choose wisely. May You be reborn a Buddha.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:22 PM on May 18, 2008 [37 favorites]


My understanding of these things is imperfect at best, but here is my understanding:

"you have to deal with craving, no?" - Cravings, like hunger or desire, are perceptions, and perceptions are illusions created by the mind, which clings to the world out of ignorance. You wouldn't "deal" with an illusion, there is nothing to "resolve" about a dream or a delusion except to realize it as such.

But also realize the 3rd and 4th noble truths (from what I know of the Buddhist traditions I have studied) are not something you attain in a year or even a lifetime, it takes many rebirths to attain. In the mean time you should have love and compassion for all living things to maintain good karma and ensure a rebirth where you can continue on the path to enlightenment, each rebirth becoming less and less attached to the cycle of samsara.

Further, realize that the complete dispassion leads to Nirvana, a state which is incomprehensible to those who have not attained it, so asking how someone who has attained Nirvana "deals" with craving and clinging is like trying to describe mathematics to a houseplant. And you don't attain complete detachment while you are alive (usually), Nirvana (at least the permanent kind) is a state that your mind achieves at the moment of death so that it does not cling to samsara and seek another rebirth.

"surely have to desire to follow the eightfold path" - Many of the teachers use the example of a raft to cross a river. The raft is Dharma (truth/teachings) and the river is samsara. As you are swimming in the river you must cling tightly to the raft so as not to be swept down stream and drowned, but after you reach the other side and are safely on land you can discard the raft. Indeed, it would be silly to carry a raft around with you and cling to it while you are on dry land.

I hope that helps. Good luck on your quest for knowledge.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:25 PM on May 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Buddhism is totally down with having goals and working towards them. It's just telling you that if you have these goals because you hate what exists now (or hate yourself as you exist now), you're creating suffering (and that you will continue to suffer even when you attain the goal because hatred and suffering is what you're training yourself to do.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:55 PM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


How do you do anything?

With mindfulness.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 PM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think the concept of the Middle Path is relevant here, in addition to the excellent points that others have made. As far as I understand the story of the Buddha, he spent his childhood in luxury and then decided to live the life of an ascetic, fasting intensely and so on. Ultimately, he realized this approach was no better and decided to live in moderation.

So, if someone who was a Buddhist thought the proper approach would be to stop eating or drinking altogether (which would be more extreme than what the Buddha did as an ascetic), they could look at this story, and see, "A ha, that can't be what his teachings mean, because it contradicts another teaching, and the example of his own life."
posted by overglow at 10:31 PM on May 18, 2008


I believe the key is BEING, not DOING. And as klangklangston mentioned... it's about mindful being. You have to release the form (your ego) that drives you to do something and instead just be mindful of your existence in every moment. Your choices should come from inner awareness, never ego. Your ego is an illusion, your past is an illusion, the future is an illusion. But now is real. So that's where you need to live. If you choose well in the now, the rest will take care of itself.

Or something.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:31 PM on May 18, 2008


I recommend reading some Eckhart Tolle, btw. I think he makes certain aspects of Buddhist spirituality pretty easy to grasp compared to a lot of other writers.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:34 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


But... IANAB, so YMMV.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:34 PM on May 18, 2008


(On preview: yeah, what everyone else said)

In This Very Life is a book I'm reading now. I've found it to be a very instructional and comprehensive look at one path of Theravada Buddhism (specifically from the Burmese tradition, a path which apparently seems to cleave closest to the Buddha's own practice: YMMV). In case you're looking for further reading on Buddhism generally, I'd recommend it.

To take a shot at your question (and be forewarned that this may not be in strict accordance with Buddhist teaching, only my imperfect understanding of parts of it, as combined with my own philosophy and some recent thinking on similar subjects) I'd say that if giving up desire led to sloth or torpor, you would only cease to help yourself ease suffering in this life. Firstly because starving to death is a form of suffering which requires a great deal of effort to rise above in your thoughts, but also because you would be so weakened that you would surrender the opportunity to help others ease their suffering as well. So, paradoxically, it would be selfish if, by giving up desire, you also gave up the motions that sustain your existence. Neither you nor those around you would move closer to enlightenment in a future life. Limiting your actions and thinking is a way of increasing the good you can do in this life, and should never go to the extent of withholding it.

Of course, perhaps wanting to make the world better can likewise be a craving that must be given up. I've lately wondered, for example, why I should eat if others have no food. Shouldn't I forfeit my food for them? (I don't mean donations to food banks--I mean give up all of it.) Here's the answer I came up with: you have to treat your own body the way you would want others to treat theirs. It's like some weird inversion of the Golden Rule, but it was helpful for me when I was wondering about the possible negative effects of surrendering craving entirely. It helped me think of my body as an other, like the raft DetonatedManiac discusses: while it was unsettling to think of my body as a stranger I had an obligation to care for, it sorta made me like myself more too. But it also made me less attached because I took a step back and questioned what it was to have a body and what my obligations to it were, instead of simply taking it for granted. That helped me convince myself that when it was hungry, I should feed it. Also that, for instance, a big bag of Doritos was, perhaps, despite my craving and laziness, not the best option for dinner. If someone else fed a bag of Doritos to, say, a child, I'd object that it wasn't healthy to impose such food on another. So I should hold myself to this standard too.

Anyway, breaking the chain which puts desire at the forefront of your existence therefore does not mean that, without desire, one stops doing things: rather, you keep on doing things, except without desire, and without desire you're freed to make better choices in life, eventually (hopefully) leading to enlightenment and freedom. By breaking desire, you aren't being coerced by thoughts which have no purpose other than their own fulfillment. Your body is no longer just a means to an end (eat chips! buy big tv! more more more!). You're no longer a cog in the wheel of wanting. You're liberated.

It's not that you do nothing. It's that nothing does you...
posted by roombythelake at 10:37 PM on May 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


Here some tidbits from Steve Hagen's "Buddhism Plain & Simple," one of my favorite intro books on Buddhism, which I find relevant. This is a question I've struggled with a lot, too.

Just what is this [eightfold] path? It is, first of all, to see what our problem is, and then to resolve to deal with it. In seeing you will realize that you must live consciously, not for your sake or someone else's sake or for the sake of some goal or belief or idea, but for the sake of being fully engaged in the moment. Once you see, you will speak, act, and maintain your life in a conscious way. Wise speech, action, and livelihood then follow naturally.

----

We don't want bad times, of course. But bad times are out of our control as much as good times. The times we don't want will come (and go) no matter what we do to control the situation. The good times will do the same. Thus, beyond just simply living fully in each moment, we should realize that such control is impossible, a pipe dream. This doesn't mean we shouldn't set things up for the future. It does mean that we would do well not to become attached to particular outcomes. We'd do better focusing our effort on being present rather than on insisting on what the future must be.

----

Don't squelch your desire, or try to stop it. You'll only feed and intensify it. The point is not to kill desire. The point is to
see.

----

Right intention simply means that your mind isn't leaning. Your ordinary mind assumes there's something "out there." Either you want it and you try to get it, or you dislike it and try to keep it away. To the extent your mind leans either toward or away from certain things, longing and loathing are present. This leaning reveals your state of mind.
The mind doesn't only lean toward the obvious--fame, money, sex, and such--it can lean toward anything. It can even lean toward putting an end to leaning. "Oh yeah, I want enlightenment!" But, of course, this is to lean once again.
The thing you really want is for your mind not to lean. So what are you going to do about it? You may say, "Okay, I'm going to straighten up my mind!" And then you struggle to straighten up your mind.
But that is leaning!
The mind will not be ruled. If you try to get it to lean less, it just leans all the more. So how are we ever going to get our minds to stop leaning? Just attend to what you're doing. Because in attending to this moment, you're attending to your own mind. You're watching your mind lean.
See how this leaning comes about. When you acquaint yourself with what leaning really is, you'll realize that in trying to stop it from leaning, you're making it lean all the more. Nevertheless, as you watch what actually takes place in each moment, already your mind has begin to lean less.
You cannot make your mind not lean--at least, not directly. But when you observe what actually takes place from moment to moment, the mind, of its own accord, straightens up.


posted by vytae at 10:45 PM on May 18, 2008


>"But how do you do anything without desire? "

they're not saying 'dont desire'. so long as you live, you cannot help but desire.

the recommendation therefore isnt to 'not desire'. Rather, the recommendation is to not let that be the *justification* for your acts.

In practice what that means is: discipline your desire. meaning, learn to control it as much as possible; maximize your control over it to the best of your abilities.

To discpline desire does not mean to 'not act'. (this is a common misconception in the west with regard to buddhism and nondualist hinduism too which is similar, for instance these same questions tend to come up among western readers of the bhagavat gita). In this sense 'disciplining desire' is different from christian asceticism which denies the body to punish it for original sin or some other reason. Rather, to discipline desire means to to direct it in accordance with your circumstance and context. So for instance, with regard to the desire to eat, disciplined desire would say "eat proportional amounts of food, eat healthy food, eat foods that minimize ecological impact, eat foods that minimize pain to other living things, etc etc". Ie, do eat - but condition that desire to eat by other considerations -- ie, discipline it, control it, direct it -- specifically, direct it in light of what your mind knows about the larger contexts in which your desire has occurred, being one part of the world and in consideration of its other parts and longer term consequences.

This therefore isnt a call to pacifism or inaction. Its a call to "right action", which when you examine what that means in the context of the Buddha's teachings, it means action performed in the light of, informed by, your larger awareness of the earth, the universe, etc. An awareness which in turn obligates you to discipline your desires and not let them run amock. Because, as the Buddha points out, craving leads to craving and that leads to all kinds of consequences both to you and to the world.
posted by jak68 at 10:47 PM on May 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


There are better answers but here is mine:

The true answer will be subtle and non-verbal. It is not readily apparent. The question you are asking is moving you along the path and you may need to ask it for quite a long time. There is a [deeper] motive force, the trick is to find it within yourself. I suspect in true Buddhist fashion if you ever get to name it or even, say, recognize what it feels like, you will be moving off the mark.

Short answer: Keep exploring this question.

The Buddha taught the Lotus Sutra in response to a question concerning following the path without giving up desire. That may offer an alternative approach.
posted by pointilist at 10:55 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


A perspective I found online:

"Buddhist meditation launches an individual headlong into a curious yet rigorous examination of desire. Overly simplistic formulations of Buddhist philosophy make many folks think that desire is a bad thing, plain and simple. But the true Buddhist perspective on the all-too-human experience called desire--whether it's hunger for a slice of pepperoni pizza, longing for world peace, or just some good old-fashioned lust--is much more nuanced. Ultimately speaking, Buddhism takes the perspective that desire is 100 percent natural and incredibly positive. The problem, however, is that unchecked fear and unexamined habit can pervert desire into addictive tendencies--habits which are destructive for an individual, harmful for a community, and disastrous for our planet. What Buddhist meditation necessarily reveals to us, moment by moment, is the problematic nature of our impulse for instant gratification."

posted by miss lynnster at 1:06 AM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


It is problematic. As an intentional creature, all actions may be subsumed into an intention-action framework. As someone said above, treat Buddhism as a pragmatic policy for reducing or eliminating those mental affects which you want to reduce or eliminate.

I'm not sure that the path of no-self works because if there was never a self, then you never suffered, so why are you here? The path of no clinging is somewhat better but that relies on identifying and classifying certain cravings as alright and others as not so. Of course, that wisdom is what's missing in the first place. So, ultimately, the path is that of equanimity. If you don't get euphoric for something, you don't get dysphoric at its lack. Of course, what about compassion and avoiding cruelty, then? Well, if you are truly equanimous, you don't care, and if you do, then you are clinging :)
posted by Gyan at 3:29 AM on May 19, 2008


I'm not sure that the path of no-self works because if there was never a self, then you never suffered, so why are you here?

I think the idea there is that there is in fact no single, essential, stable, ongoing identity - call it a 'self' or an 'ego' or whatever - but we tend to believe that there is, which is what creates problems.

For example, let's say that once somebody harmed 'me', many years ago. Since then, I have changed in myriad ways - in my habits & lifestyles & friends & tastes & many other ways. What, then, is this 'me' that was harmed if I am in many respects a completely different person now? If I cling to the idea that there is a stable 'me' and this is what the other person harmed, I might feel resentful. But if I recognise that everything is in flux, that I change daily, and that the supposed harm was also something that arose, existed for a minute, and then passed, there can be no ongoing suffering unless I perpetuate it by clinging to the idea of an ongoing essential 'me', and by clinging to the idea of the harm as some kind of permanent thing.

This clinging to the belief of a self, where no self exists, could be seen as the fundamental problem of samsara, the world of confused thought & emotion (a world that exists purely in our mind). Cleanse those doors of perception, realise that in fact there is no self, and all the confused emotions that result instantly vaporise into the phantoms that they always, already were, only you didn't know it yet.

Or at least, that is what I've heard.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:05 AM on May 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm going to echo klangklangston and vytae. The point is to notice your desires/craving and your behavioural and emotional responses to them. One really needs to practice meditation to understand this state of mind.

If you do decide to sit and meditate, there are two general things you can do which in the scientific literature have been termed Open Meditation (OM) and Directed Meditation (DM).

In OM the point is to let your mind wander (which it will inevitably do) but to simply be aware that it is wandering. To not get lost or caught up in its wanderings. To just sort of notice that 'I am deeply worried about X' or 'I deeply want to do Y' and just notice that. And then maybe you might start to think about how you can achieve Y. Allow that to happen to, but simply be aware that it is happening. Be aware that you are strategizing or planning of the future or moving your legs because they hurt.

The idea I guess is to develop this sort of recursive 'detachment'. Say you are pissed off because you just stubbed your toe and are about to flip over the kitchen table because of it. If you are mindful there will be a part of your brain that just notices: "damn I'm really pissed off an am flipping over this kitchen table."

So you still live in the world but if you are mindful you are constantly stepping away. Or stepping into depending on how you look at it.

This solves the problem of intentional action but it opens the new problem of existential nothingness. Have fun!
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:37 AM on May 19, 2008


This question has occupied me for a good bit as well. I don't think there's a pat answer. It's something to sit with, not so much to meditate on but to let it rest and to come back to over time.

Thinking about preferences might be helpful. We will almost always have a preference for one possibility over another. Take it to an extreme and this becomes more a matter of biology than conscious intention, e.g. preference for a moderate environment over an extreme one, inside over outside in the cold, inadequately dressed. There's no point in pretending that that preference isn't there. And I think it's similar for other desires which are much closer to 'wants' than 'needs'. Acknowledge the desire and act on it as appropriate for your situation. What I look to eliminate, is the notion that the world is supposed to be in accordance with my desires. I think many of us hold that belief, perhaps other than consciously. This entitlement view of the world is inevitably disappointed, turning into "It doesn't work out for me because I am deficient" and that's where it crosses over from pain into suffering.

When you act without concern for the results, you're still going to keep your eye on the ball.

The desire and accompanying emotion won't go anywhere anytime soon. The level of detachment rises, and it's OK when A or B or C happens because most of the focus is on noticing thoughts and sensations. Any given outcome won't change your beliefs about your own importance or the nature of others. I have also found that getting some distance from my thoughts and sensations makes the claim about impermanence being all phenomena's ultimate nature recognizable with a deeper level of agreement than comes from argument.

Some zen monk: "The purpose of Zen is not to resent having been born".
posted by BigSky at 7:23 AM on May 19, 2008


There are lots of awesome answers in this thread and I look forward to reading them in depth when I have more time (and more caffeine in my system).

My take on your question is that Buddhism is not about annihilating one's personal goals. It's about realizing that there really are no goals that are truly personal. What you do affects everyone else, and beyond that, there really IS no "you." If you decide to become a soldier rather than a teacher, that has an impact on the world. If you decide not to recycle, or to buy a Hummer, that has an impact on the world. Those things are fairly obvious and tangible. It's simple cause and effect - if you don't recycle, you fill up landfills. Become a soldier, you might have to kill people.

Today I want to stay in bed and not go to work. That's a desire. I can be mindful of it and not let it become a craving, however. I can let go of the sense of dread. I can choose not to be miserable on my way to work and swear at other drivers. I can choose to be cheerful and productive when I get to my desk. I can choose not to constantly wish I was back home in bed. This is what alleviates suffering, and this is what Buddhists do, every single day.

Except Mondays, I fucking hate Mondays. :P
posted by desjardins at 7:46 AM on May 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


If craving results in suffering, to end suffering (through fourth noble truth) you have to deal with craving, no?

In Buddhist philosophy the craving is for sensual pleasures and attachment to material things.

A few things to read:

Skillful actions for a lay buddist: AN X 176

Five precepts for lay buddhists.

Its probably worth mentioning the 10 fetters too.

But how do you do anything without desire? You wake up in the morning and you crave food.

I cant answer this well, but even the buddha ate. I believe there is a good mix up of terms here. Desire is an english word and youre being confused by mixing some general concepts with specific ones. These ideas in buddhism are very specific. Someone better versed in this than may can explain this at this forum. I suggest you re-ask your question there. There are a few monks there who are active on those forums.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:20 AM on May 19, 2008


Also it is worth mentioning that the answer to your question will vary depending on what flavor of buddhist you ask. How Chan/Zen handle 'desire' may very well be different how Theravadans handle 'desire.'
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:24 AM on May 19, 2008


UbuRoivas, the world 'self' has been multiply loaded. The self you are referring to concerns the perceptual representations that are treated as the self i.e. this is my hand, that is an external object, that was my voice, this is your shadow..etc. The self that I mean is the more fundamental self (primarily as the experient subject). The self that doesn't disappear within induced ego deaths.

But the reason no-self doesn't work is because if someone, say, tasered you, you don't feel the pain because you believe in the self, but as a natural unconditioned reaction to the stimulus. Now, the contemplation on specifically the memory of the pain and speculation over future pains will sustain and emerge new negative reactions, but this has nothing to do primarily with the self but with the contemplations arising from that incident. You can stop thinking about the pain without pondering over issues of selfhood.

But if I recognise that everything is in flux, that I change daily, and that the supposed harm was also something that arose, existed for a minute, and then passed, there can be no ongoing suffering unless I perpetuate it by clinging to the idea of an ongoing essential 'me', and by clinging to the idea of the harm as some kind of permanent thing.

Unless you are imprisoned in some underground cellar for 20+ years.

damn dirty ape: In Buddhist philosophy the craving is for sensual pleasures and attachment to material things.

In a monistic thesis like, say, physicalism, there's no fundamental difference between natural and artificial, physical and mental..etc. An intentional focus is an intentional focus. This trend to carve up intentions into good & bad, necessary & superfluous..etc strikes me as an attempt at manageable accommodation of the underlying Buddhist message with persistent impulses of human biology.
posted by Gyan at 9:37 AM on May 19, 2008


In a monistic thesis like, say, physicalism, there's no fundamental difference between natural and artificial, physical and mental..etc. An intentional focus is an intentional focus.

I'd like to point out here that, in principle at least, Buddhism doesn't recognize a duality of the material vs. the spiritual or physical vs. metaphysical or however you care to phrase it, so attachment to "material things" isn't any more or less significant than attachment to "spiritual things" (I think I'm seconding Gyan on that point).

Generally, I'd say I agree with those answers above that try to draw a distinction between desire as it naturally arises and passes away, and desire that gives rise to unhealthy attachments.

Buddhism is fundamentally not about actively trying to extinguish desire so much as it is about being mindful of desire (or, better, "craving") and how, in the absence of unhealthy attachments, craving arises and ceases on its own without any volitional action on the part of the observing self (there is a sort of self, in Buddhism, despite the centrality of the idea of no-self--but the Buddhist 'self' isn't a fixed, unchanging, self-determined 'entity' so much as a dynamic process).

In a meditative state, you confront the noble truths directly for yourself (the truth about the causes of the arisal of suffering and the truth of its cessation) as you impartially observe your own desires and mental processes arising and passing away while you do nothing more than pay mind to the mental processes whereby they arise and disappear.

Left to their own devices, desires and the grasping mental processes and sensations they give rise to are fleeting and tend to vanish quite naturally all on their own. But if you become attached to them, they begin to consume more and more of your attention, until ultimately you've formed an unhealthy attachment (and you can often literally experience this as an unpleasant physical sensation, like a tightening in the stomach or a feeling of uncomfortable muscle tension).

So, again, as others have said far more eloquently, it's not so much about giving up on wanting things. It's about learning to recognize how essentially arbitrary the processes that give rise to most of our desires are, and how, by learning to observe the objects of our desires and the mental/physical processes associated with them objectively without becoming attached to them, we can minimize both our own suffering and that of others. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that, but those are some of the most crucial points. The complete extinction of craving (unhealthy attachments) presumably comes about naturally with the attainment of full Buddha-hood, and you can only really get there through meditative practice according to most traditions (although in some traditions, like Zen as I understand it, you might get there very suddenly rather than as a result of a gradual process of perfecting your meditative practice).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:37 AM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that the path of no-self works because if there was never a self, then you never suffered, so why are you here?

I don't know that the doctrine of no-self is a path. I think it is an answer to the common question about the nature of the self. It's an attempt to express what contemplative practice reveals about identity.

Briefly, the self is not the body, because we can stand in contrast to the body, e.g. "I want to get up but my legs are numb", it is not the emotions as we can contrast the 'I' with the emotions, e.g. "I was angry and said something that I knew at that very moment was hurtful", nor is it the mind, e.g. "I recognize this pattern of obsessive thoughts", and it isn't some sort of 'meta-identity' like the 'witness', e.g. I am aware there is witnessing occurring. If we pursue the question like this there is no point of identification, and of course, because of the perspective there couldn't be one. So as far as there is an answer to 'What is the self?', it is the space in which it all occurs, I as capacity, the Field, etc. It doesn't consist of anything, no-thing, no-self. This is just a way to talk about it. We don't have to agree that these are the right expressions of what the meditating mind is, or even that it's important to make those expressions. I don't think these formulations are all that helpful or important, they are a juxtaposition to 'conventional wisdom', and perhaps an invitation. But I don't think that alone they are much of a guide, in isolation it's just one more opinion.

"But if I recognise that everything is in flux, that I change daily, and that the supposed harm was also something that arose, existed for a minute, and then passed, there can be no ongoing suffering unless I perpetuate it by clinging to the idea of an ongoing essential 'me', and by clinging to the idea of the harm as some kind of permanent thing."

Unless you are imprisoned in some underground cellar for 20+ years.


There's a useful distinction between pain and suffering. Buddha didn't say anything about an end to pain, only suffering. I see suffering as based in arguing with the world about what it should be. Many Buddhists in Vietnam went through tremendous ongoing pain during their war. It was experienced and passed. Likely enough, painful memories continued to come, and then they passed as well. I think Buddhism is concerned with perhaps a more modest goal, not holding a grudge against the world for your own pain.

So, ultimately, the path is that of equanimity. If you don't get euphoric for something, you don't get dysphoric at its lack. Of course, what about compassion and avoiding cruelty, then? Well, if you are truly equanimous, you don't care, and if you do, then you are clinging :)

Ultimately, I think the path is one of gratitude, appreciation for the opportunity to be one's experience. And the ethics come from a choice to be available in response.
posted by BigSky at 12:29 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


somewhat related: happy Vesak, everybody!
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:18 PM on May 19, 2008


saulgoodman: draw a distinction between desire as it naturally arises and passes away, and desire that gives rise to unhealthy attachments

This is still problematic. With no natural/artificial distinction, all desires arise and fall naturally, including obsessive ones. If the interval and intensity are implicated in the natural/artificial-unhealthy distinction, then that wisdom is missing in the first place and just a maxim to deter unhealthy desires won't of itself provide that skill.

BigSky: and it isn't some sort of 'meta-identity' like the 'witness', e.g. I am aware there is witnessing occurring

Who is aware of the witnessing? The witness.
posted by Gyan at 11:14 PM on May 19, 2008


BigSky: I see suffering as based in arguing with the world about what it should be

The key essence of suffering is aversion. Pain qualifies.
posted by Gyan at 11:19 PM on May 19, 2008


Who is aware of the witnessing? The witness.

Yes, Gyan, but the witness isn't a consistent, unchanging thing that has anything you might consider volitional control over itself.

The key essence of suffering is aversion. Pain qualifies.

Sufficiently advanced practitioners of meditation can manage pain much more effectively than non-meditators, learning to recognize the physical symptoms and mental processes associated with pain as empty, fleeting mental and physical processes like all other kinds of sensations, rather than as something that is happening to 'you,' can greatly ease the suffering associated with the pain. Advanced practitioners may very well be able to experience pain without suffering. Pain is a type of physical sensation; suffering is a combination of emotional/physical/mental responses to various sensations.

The witness you ask about is bright like a mirror, with no self, just a reflection.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:09 AM on May 20, 2008


saulgoodman: the witness is consistent and unchanging atleast until it ceases to exist, if it does. It has no attributes other than being a witness i.e. it is not an extended entity.

Pain is a type of physical sensation; suffering is a combination of emotional/physical/mental responses to various sensations.

This is a bit of semantic nitpicking here but pain is the complex of stimulus, say, nociception, and reaction to that. The definition by the IASP starts: "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with..."
posted by Gyan at 7:27 AM on May 20, 2008


Well, Gyan, what I mean to say is that the physical stimulus at the root of 'pain' is ultimately a value-neutral physical sensation--the suffering one experiences with pain results when one experiences a physical sensation or mental process of a particular kind and registers it as pleasure, pain, or some other category of sensation. Pleasure/pain aren't simple binary states, and how we respond to all sensations or other sensory input is conditioned by our physical and mental processes. Meditative practice is, in part, aimed at developing and cultivating the capacity to actively identify and deconstruct the various constituent parts of the complex conscious experience of sensory input (including the many acute and less acute forms of physical and psychological suffering) and actively managing our conscious responses to them.

All that defines the 'witness' you refer to is the act of witnessing--and everything it witnesses is in constant flux, neither existing nor not existing in any fixed state for any length of time.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:03 AM on May 20, 2008


saulgoodman, no disagreement here over the aim of meditation and the complexity of experience. I was just responding to BigSky's contention that "There's a useful distinction between pain and suffering". Unless you demarcate only the stimulus as pain, there isn't.

everything it witnesses is in constant flux, neither existing nor not existing in any fixed state for any length of time

Which is not at issue, only that the witness i.e. the self, exists.
posted by Gyan at 9:14 AM on May 20, 2008


gotcha.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:22 AM on May 20, 2008


The key essence of suffering is aversion. Pain qualifies.

If you think that there's no useful distinction there, O.K., cool. But I do think it is implicit in Buddhism. The Third Noble Truth speaks of the end of suffering as a real possibility. I can not accept that about pain, perhaps some can, but I find it almost inconceivable. You won't find many Buddhists who have gone through significant hardships, e.g. war, death of a child, chemotherapy, saying it was a pain free experience. The pain is still there even after they have accepted the condition. The continuing presence of pain strongly suggests that 'suffering' is used in some sort of limited, 'technical' sense and that finding the intended borders is key.

Finally, I doubt that I would be interested in a guide to a life free of pain. I think it would diminish my life instead of enrich it. It sounds too much like being a corpse, perhaps man as vegetation. If someone told you that their experience of losing a child was pain free because of their religious practice would that be someone to respect and emulate? By my standards that's less than human, it's sociopathic. Your May 19, 6:29 post sounds like you see that as a plausible representation of the Buddhist ideal, but I've never seen a Buddhist act like that or even suggest that such a condition is admirable.

Who is aware of the witnessing? The witness.

And who witnesses the witness of the witnessing? If the self is both knower and known, then what is the justification for drawing the line anywhere at all, you could just as legitimately include the thoughts and emotions and body as the self as well.

But more than that, there are times in anyone's life where there is no witness, e.g. asleep, intoxicated, enraged, in love, absorbed, etc. Is there no self, no 'I' there? It doesn't hold that the lack of self conscious observation means there was no self there. The self can not consist of a fixed constant because there is an awareness of being somehow separate from that constant by virtue of naming it. If the descriptions of the self as no-thing (absence, awareness, whatever) are ineffective, then maybe a verb is a better choice, like the self is a 'knowing', or a 'perceiving', or an 'awaring'.
posted by BigSky at 11:36 AM on May 20, 2008


BigSky: I've never seen a Buddhist act like that or even suggest that such a condition is admirable

Er, they're clinging to wanting admirable qualities ;)

And who witnesses the witness of the witnessing?

No one, the 'self' is reflexively known, not witnessed. And there's certainly a witness during intoxication or other absorptions.

The self can not consist of a fixed constant because there is an awareness of being somehow separate from that constant by virtue of naming it

I disagree. The 'self' is derived reflexively, and is unique from all objects of consciousness. Your tack is similar to those who don't pay much heed to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, by inducting it as yet another phenomena just temporarily awaiting physical subsumption.
posted by Gyan at 11:13 PM on May 20, 2008


(this is all so much vastly improved if i imagine you guys pacing back & forth & slapping your hands together as you make your points. naturally, you have shaven heads & are wearing tibetan-red robes...)
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:15 AM on May 21, 2008


Ubu - comme ça?
posted by desjardins at 10:08 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


oui, exactament!
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:15 AM on May 24, 2008


You'll never stop wanting things--the best you can do is stop reacting to that feeling by acquiring things.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:15 PM on November 10, 2008


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