SUFFERING –   ASCETICISM – PART II – HINDUISM

“Once upon a time the days seemed long to me when my heart was sorely wounded through asking favors from the rich; and yet again the days seemed all too short for me when I sought to carry out all my worldly desires and ends. But now as a philosopher I sit on a hard stone in a cave on the mountainside, and time and again I laugh when I think of my former life.” – Bharti-hari.

The earliest known ascetics appear in India where the ancient polytheistic Hindu religion passed down in the Vedic texts was gradually refined by committed spiritualists into a near monotheism and profound philosophy preserved in the Upanishads. These great thinkers distilled from the Vedas the concept of a universal soul called Brahman. In circumstances of societal withdrawal and austere subsistence, they looked internally, peeled away their superficial identity – the physical or empirical self (guna) and the psychological self – and located an inner, unchanging self they named Atman (or purusha). Their ultimate discovery, perhaps the most sublime thought in human history, was that Brahman and Atman are the same, are one. But this deep truth can only be discovered as a direct experience brought about by rigorous self-denial and detachment, in effect, the conscious decision to induce suffering in oneself in order to extract this ultimate reality.

Of course most people could not desert their lives to practice the austere life of the ascetics and so a path developed for the common man. Hindus divide life into four parts: (1) brahmacarya ashrama, the student stage, (2) grihastha ashrama, the householder stage, (3) vanaprastha ashrama, the hermit stage, and (4) samnyasa ashrama, the contemplative stage. The last two require progressive asceticism. In the brahmacarya, the student studies the Vedas and the Upanishads as well as trains for his profession. In the grihastha, one works in his profession, has a home and a family, and fulfills his dharma or duty. The Bhagavad gita reveals the three ways to find purpose during this stage: (1) sattva, discipline in knowledge, (2) rajas, discipline in work, and (3) tamas, discipline in devotion (to Krishna). The operative term here is ‘discipline’ which, in fact, serves as the precursor of a future ascetic discipline.1

In this patriarchal society, when a man’s hair turns gray and he sees his children’s children, thoughtful men leave their homes [with their wives] and dwell austerely in huts in the forest, where they meditate on the problems of the universe and subject themselves to severe self-mortification in the belief that thereby they may escape from the bond which ties them to the cycle of birth and death and rebirth.2 . The fully ascetic elder devotes his life to penance and religious growth eventually forsaking all worldy attachments.

Next time we will look at the most famous Hundu ascetic practice,  yoga.

1Koller, John M., Oriental Philosophies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970. ISBN 684-13668-6, pages 33-40.

2Zaehner, R.C., Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions. Barnes &Noble Books, New York, 1997. ISBN0-76070-712-X,  page 220.

 

SUFFERING –   ASCETICISM – PART I

“The philosopher is independent, first because he is without needs, free from the world of possessions and the rule of passions, he is an ascetic…” – Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom.

 

In the last two posts we saw that whereas Viktor Frankl finds in unavoidable suffering the possibility of meaning, he objects to avoidable suffering as masochistic and unheroic. However, it turns out there is quite a long tradition of voluntary suffering and privation with the intent to induce meaning or enlightenment, known as asceticism. Philosophically asceticism can be defined as the doctrine that one ought to suppress one’s desires specifically with the goal of personal perfection or salvation for oneself or for others. This can extend from the simple abstinence from pleasure and most natural needs to outright self-inflicted pain or self-torture.1

The philosophical basis of asceticism is the theory that the body and matter are evil and serve as a detriment to a moral, spiritual, or God-pleasing life. In most systems, there is a presumption of dualism – man as two constituents – body and soul. It may be partial, meaning the suppression of lower desires such as sensuous, bodily, or worldly pleasures, or complete meaning all desires hence spiritual desires as well. It may also be moderate, that is, limiting oneself to only those needs necessary to life, or severe – the total annihilation of desires.2 In practice, denial may go beyond simple refraining from fulfilling desires and include “inflicting upon oneself the very opposite of what is desired.”3

There are at least three major traditions of asceticism: Indian (especially Hindu), Ancient Greek (Cynicism), and Christian. We will look at each in more detail in the next six posts. After that we will examine arguments in favor of and against asceticism as a discipline, and try to locate asceticism on the map of a philosophically meaningful life.

1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.24.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, pages 171.

3Ibid., Volume 1, page 173

SUFFERING –   VIKTOR FRANKL – PART II

“There is only one thing I dread, not to be worthy of my suffering.”Fyodor Dostoevsky

 

 

 

 

 

Last time I introduced Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl discovered that even extreme suffering does not make life meaningless, and can prompt personal meaning. However, as a physician and healer, his first caveat: if suffering is avoidable its cause should be removed. Anything else is masochism, not heroism. He does not advocate asceticism; on the contrary he writes: “in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning.”1 Rather his point is that “meaning is possible even in spite of suffering.”2  This is the comfort he  offers to those facing unavoidable suffering

His philosophy is based on three fundamental premises:3

(1) The will is free.

(2) Humans have a will to meaning.

(3) There can be a meaning of life.

The first of these, freedom of the will, he considers the immediate data of experience, although of course freedom is limited by the human condition and by one’s circumstances. His life experiences have led him to believe that human will is directed – not to pleasure as asserted by Freud, nor to power as maintained by Nietzsche and Adler – but to meaning which subsumes the others. He adds that the meaning the will seeks requires a commitment to something beyond oneself or super meaning, and freedom makes one responsible for fulfilling it.

Frankl thinks there are three ways a human life can be meaningful: (1) what we give, i.e. creation, (2) what we take, for instance peak experiences or love of another, and (3) the stand we take to a fate we cannot avoid or change, such as an incurable disease.4 It is this latter point which he extracted from his experience in a concentration camp. But like Buddha, Frankl recognizes none of us can avoid what he calls the “tragic triad of human existence, namely pain, death, and guilt.”5

In fact, Frankl argues that to live is to suffer and if there is a purpose in life at all there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. The reality of suffering is individual; thus one finds out for oneself its meaning and the possibility of growth despite indignity. One learns there is always one final human freedom, the freedom to choose one’s attitude to one’s circumstances. “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”6

In brief, if we wish to be worthy of our suffering, we must prove our capacity to rise above our outward fate, to transcend it. Like Kant, who tells us we cannot expect happiness, only make ourselves worthy of it, Frankl tells us we cannot avoid suffering, but we can make ourselves worthy of it.

 

1Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington Square Press, New York, 1984. ISBN 0-671-02337-3, page 136.

2Ibid.

3Frankl, Viktor, Psychotherapy and Existentialism. Washington Square Press, New York, 1967. Page 2.

4Ibid., page 15.

5Ibid.

6Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington Square Press, New York, 1984. ISBN 0-671-02337-3, page 99.

SUFFERING –   VIKTOR FRANKL  – PART I

“Death wrapped itself around me till I was stifled. It stuck to me. I felt that I could touch it. The idea of dying, of no longer being, began to fascinate me. Not to exist any longer. Not to feel the horrible pains in my foot. Not to feel anything, neither weariness nor cold nor anything….”Elie Wiesel, Night.

We have just completed an exploration of the Buddha’s analysis of the role of inevitable suffering in individual enlightenment. It seems to me the Buddha’s teachings are most instructive when applied to the common suffering we all experience, but less congenial to the extraordinary suffering such as extreme physical pain or flight from a war zone. At a minimum we may wish to consider the more sensitive approach we find in Viktor Fankl’s masterpiece Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl was a psychiatrist, who lost his father, mother, wife, and brother in the holocaust and was himself a Nazi concentration camp survivor.  In the first half of this book, he recounts the intense cruelty and deprivation that he and others endured over three years in the camps and his ground level attempts to survive and find meaning in the experience. If you decide to read it, be prepared for horrendous stories of inhumane treatment. However, he discovers within the torment “that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.”1 After the war he returns to psychiatric practice in Vienna and develops a school of psychotherapy he calls logotherapy, which involves existential analysis and guidance to individual meaning.

What counsel can the reader with current extreme suffering derive from Dr. Frankl’s book?  First he tells us the psychological side of such circumstances: a mixed flow of emotions and apathy, cold detachment concerning one’s fate alternating with desperate strategies to preserve one’s remaining life, increased tolerance of  lesser suffering, religiousness, a grim sense of humor, and fixation on images of loved ones and natural beauty. But his two greatest observations are: (1) human beings have an incredible power to turn suffering into meaning, and (2) love is the highest goal to which a man can aspire.

Next time we will look in more detail at his philosophy based on his unimaginable suffering.

 

1Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington Square Press, New York, 1984. ISBN 0-671-02337-3, page 104

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART XII (CONT’D)

Following our tabulation of the causes and cures of suffering offered by Buddha and his followers and commentators in the last post, we ended with the irony of suffering transmuted from an evil to a good.

Still it seems odd to view the universal experience of suffering as a good; perhaps it is more accurate to see it as an opportunity. The main message of the Buddha may simply be for us to recognize that we continuously experience the burden of suffering. Rather than deny, rebel, complain, or despair, wisdom is the choice to endure it, learn from it, find the opening to transformation, and plunge deeply into contemplation. At the end of the day, the Buddha’s teaching is utterly optimistic – suffering can be overcome; it is not inevitable. It is the vehicle that carries one down the path to peace and enlightenment.

Of course, there is much more to Buddhism than suffering and its remedy. The second order lesson of Buddhism is that we must question our preconceived notions of reality and ethics, what I called in my early blogs, the big picture.2 It turns out the quest to relieve suffering mirrors the quest for meaning – in fact, they merge into a single quest. Inside his journey, the Buddha uncovers revolutionary truths: the no-self, no-time, and no-death; the wheel of becoming; the Middle Way; and the power of mindfulness. All of these do not appear or are underdeveloped in Western philosophy and thus represent priceless contributions to the corpus of human thought.

In conclusion then, it seems to me that the Buddha and his followers articulate the most sophisticated understanding of the place of suffering in human life. However, in general, the focus of the First Noble Truth is everyday human struggling and misery or what might be called ordinary suffering, rather than the physical pain, illness, torture, or desolation that make up extraordinary suffering. Buddhist insights apply well to the former, but arguably not as well to the latter. It seems doubtful, even insensitive, to offer only the four noble truths and the eight-fold path to a person with severe persistent pain or a rapidly terminal illness, or to someone living in a war zone. For those scenarios I propose another approach which is the subject of our next blog.

2See Philosophy: The Big Picture and The Two Fundamental Questions, this site 11/5/2018 and 11/7/2018.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART XII

“Buddhism denies the unique and tries to show us that our sufferings are anything but unique. What grieves us has grieved others before us and will grieve us again as long as we live, many times, and in lives to come, over and over again.”– Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy.

In the last 11 parts, we have examines the Buddha’s First Noble Truth of the universal experience of suffering, his metaphysics, later interpretations, and Western commentary and integration of his ideas. Today I will begin a synopsis and synthesis of this information. First we look at a tabulation of their theory of the causes of suffering and the treatment they recommend:

THINKER CAUSES TREATMENT
Buddha Ignorance and desire Eliminate desire; eight-fold path
Dalai Lama Physical pain, change, and pervasive conditioning Hope, optimism, meditation
Zen Attachment Direct grasping of reality
Schopenhauer Will /striving Aesthetics, asceticism, saintliness
Nietzsche Excessive sensitivity and over-spirituality Endurance, meaning
Hesse Love Love, death of self and time
Tillich Finitude and estrangement (Tillich) Defeat estrangement; courage to be
Tolle Resistance to reality, focus on past and future Presence
Ricard Negative emotions and egocentric pleasure-seeking Antidote of opposites, contemplation

In brief suffering is due to ignorance of and an undisciplined attitude to attachments, willfulness, and negative psychological states. The cure is a blend of detachment, positivity, virtue, mindfulness, and meditation or contemplation.

Buddhism is a philosophy of paradoxes and opposites, but perhaps its greatest irony of all is that suffering – customarily considered the epitome of human evils – is likewise a good. Unlike in Christianity where suffering is subsumed in theodicy, in Buddhism, suffering is recast as a force for good in the process towards enlightenment. Like Edith Hamilton who determines that one legacy of tragic myths is the lesson that the ability to endure suffering is, in fact, a human power,1 our thinkers have distilled from suffering the tincture of transformation. Suffering awakens one to ignorance, facilitates the direct grasp of reality, encourages virtue, validates the sacredness of existence, thrusts one into presence, is compatible with flourishing, and ultimately can bring about enlightenment.

(continued next post)

1See epigram for The First Noble Truth – Part I, this site 2/24/20.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART XI

“From the point of view of absolute truth, neither happiness nor suffering has any real existence.” – Matthieu Ricard.

 

 

Our last commentator on the Buddhist interpretation of suffering is Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and son of a French philosopher.1 He tells us that lasting well-being or sutkha can be attained by recognition of the illusory quality of suffering. Buddhists believe the pervasive form of suffering stems from blindness of the mind under the grip of ignorance and selfishness. Vulnerability to this suffering leads to world-weariness and a lack of meaning, but can be overcome. I will reconfigure his thinking into three segments: (1) reality, (2) irony, and (3) cure.

REALITY

We must first have a correct understanding of reality, which in Buddhism connotes the nature of things unmodified by mental constructs. The key tenet of reality is that nothing exists in and of itself; all things are related. Critically, this applies to us, that is, our belief that each of us is a separate self is false. Ricard warns us the most disruptive mental confusion or ignorance is grasping on to personal identity – the illusion of being separate from the world. We are fundamentally interdependent with others and the environment. Self is only a word, a label, a convention. No serious analysis leads to reasonable conviction that we possess a self. Consciousness is just the flow of experience with its most fundamental aspect being the pure faculty of knowing, the luminous quality of the mind.

The other main ignorance is our understanding of happiness and suffering:

(1) Pleasure is not a source of happiness as it is unstable, variable, and exhausted by usage.

(2) Egocentrism is flawed as we all depend on others for our happiness.

(3) Unhappiness is simply the way we experience our suffering, not suffering itself.

In short happiness is neither the egocentric quest for hedonistic satisfaction nor the absence of suffering, but the achievement of inner peace and wisdom.

IRONY

Buddhism restructures these aspects of reality into a series of ironies.

(1)  Most importantly, suffering will always exist, but everyone has the potential for liberation from it.  Suffering is universal but not inevitable.

(2) Suffering is not incompatible with a flourishing life.

(3) We use personal identity to shield ourselves from suffering, but the opposite happens.

(4) We take for happiness that which is but a source of suffering.

CURE

Ricard describes the relief of suffering in almost psychological terms. We must learn to tone down disturbing thoughts through a gradual process of “familiarization” with the new vision of reality and of negative emotions. He specifies two methods: (1) the antidote of opposites (e.g. counter hatred with love) and (2) freeing negative emotions by contemplating them until they evaporate. At the end of the day, suffering is a state of mind; we must purge the mental toxins of compulsive desire, hatred, and so forth.  The final outcome is enlightenment which, according to the Buddha, is the ultimate freedom that comes from perfect knowledge of the mind and the world of phenomena.

1Ricard, Matthieu, A Buddhist View of Happiness, in David, Susan A. et. al., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-871462-0, pages 344-356.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART X

“You cannot  suffer the past or future because they do not exist. What you are suffering is your memory and your imagination.” – Sadhguru.

 

 

Last time we looked at Paul Tillich’s existentialist interpretation of Buddha’s First Noble Truth and were led down a profound, though perhaps abstruse path. Today I would like to bring in the more accessible ideas of Eckhart Tolle. He is a contemporary thinker; part psychologist, part spiritual teacher, obviously influenced by Buddhist doctrines, particularly Zen.

Tolle believes that most human suffering is unnecessary, self-created, and due to the unconscious resistance to what is. From the psychological standpoint, the mind disavows the present by covering it up with past and future. The resulting pain with which the mind wishes us to identify ourselves is an illusion  – either guilt or hurt from past events already concluded or worries or fear about non-existing future events. This suffering can be eliminated by a determined effort to stay within the present moment, what he refers to as the Now. This is best accomplished by self-observation, the ability to be witness to oneself, the silent watcher, via a process he calls presence.

Like Hesse’s Siddhartha, the problem according to Tolle comes down to the illusion of time, although his description is quite different. Life is not the experience of many moments; on the contrary, he argues, we all know by direct experience…there is only one moment, the present one! Everything else is thought structure – memory or imagination. Note this includes positive experiences as well: “The Buddha taught that even your happiness is dukkha – a Pali word meaning ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness.’ It is inseparable from its opposite. This means your happiness and unhappiness are in fact one. Only the illusion of time separates them.”

There can be no ‘salvation’ from anything you do, possess, or attain; recognizing this places you “one step away from despair – and one step away from enlightenment.”2  This even applies to disaster and illness. In the Now, the suffering of illness is just the active symptom, not a state or label identified with oneself. His solution: “Allow the suffering to force you into the present moment, into a state of intense conscious presence. Use it for enlightenment.”3  Such surrender does not change the situation, just the person, and “transmutes deep suffering into deep peace.”4

He concludes with perhaps his most profound thought on this topic: “The acceptance of suffering is a journey into death. Facing deep pain, allowing it to be, taking your attention into it, is to enter death consciously. When you have died this death, you realize there is no death- and there is nothing to fear. Only the ego dies…Do you want an easy death? Would you rather die without pain, without agony? Then die to the past every moment and let the light of your presence shine away the heavy time-bound self you thought of as you

1Tolle, Eckhart, The Power of Now. Namaste Publishing, Vancouver, B.C., 2004. ISBN 1-57731-480-8, page 186.

2Ibid., page 187.

3Ibid., page 217.

4Ibid., page 221.

5Ibid., page 223.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART IX

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find that it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

We have seen that Buddhism arose out of the Hindu matrix of beliefs when the Buddha identified universal suffering as the impetus for enlightenment. Similarly Christianity emerged from the Hebrew tradition as a response to suffering, symbolized by the agony of a particular person, Christ. Today we will see how Paul Tillich elucidates the Christian conception of suffering existentially and compares and contrasts it with that of Buddhism.

Tillich  notes the similar locus suffering has in Buddhism and Christianity and the opportunity in both for suffering to be transformative. The difference between them centers on recognition of the two basic forms of suffering: first as “an element of essential finitude,” and second “an element of existential estrangement.”1 The latter according to Tillich can grip a person and become a “structure of destruction,” 2  and is therefore evil and so must be overcome. In Buddhism this distinction is not made; finitude is lumped with estrangement as evil, and thus salvation means escape from finitude as well. While Tillich thinks this interpretation is correct to the extent that suffering is derived from the will to be, he rejects the Buddha’s  conclusion that suffering is conquered by self-negation of the will’s desire to exist.

Christianity avoids this formula by attempting to free one from the suffering of existential estrangement, which is evil, while urging one to endure the suffering of finitude with an ultimate courage, that is, the courage to be. Tillich admits any victory over existential estrangement is limited in time and space, and the two remain difficult to differentiate. His solution is to distinguish suffering in which meaning can be experienced from meaningless suffering.  He believes the main cause of meaningless suffering is ‘aloneness,’ manifest as ‘loneliness’ and rejection by others in contrast to the ‘solitude’ in the case of finitude wherein man can experience the ultimate.

“If the distinction between essential solitude and existential loneliness is not maintained, ultimate unity is possible only by the annihilation of the lonely individual and through his disappearance in an undifferentiated substance. This solution aspired to in radical mysticism is analogous to the answer to the problem of suffering given in Buddhism.”3 72

If existential estrangement and loneliness can be conquered and finitude can be subsumed in the ultimate courage to be, suffering can be transformed into Christianity’s summum bonum, blessedness. In brief, then, Tillich sees the Buddha’s solution to man’s suffering as an escape from being, while the Christian solution is the conquest of estrangement from being (God) and the courage to be.

1Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8, Volume II, Page 70. Tillich uses the word essence to refer to potentiality, equivalent to Plato’s ideal. Existence is the actualization of the potential human, a state in which man is inherently estranged from the ground of being, from other beings, and even from himself. In the transition from essence to existence man acquires guilt, becomes sinful, and participates in universal tragedy. It is a state characterized by hubris, unbelief, and concupiscence. The condition of estrangement from the ultimate power of being is only conquered by love. (see pages 21-24 and 44-70)

2Ibid.

3Ibid, page 72.

SUFFERING – THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART VIII (CONT’D)

As a part of our review of the Western interpretation and translation of Buddha’s noble truth of suffering, last time I reviewed the plot of Hermann Hesses’s Siddhartha. It ends with the protagonist’s enlightenment with several variations from that of the Buddha. Today we will attempt to unravel Siddhartha’s revelation.

First he reiterates his distrust of doctrines and teachers. Enlightenment cannot be taught or learned, only experienced, and only individually, wherein suffering is a key component of that experience. By contrast, passion is obstructive and evokes death. Nonetheless enlightenment is salvation from both suffering and passion.

Second is a subtle lesson – by seeking a thing, one can find only what one seeks and nothing else; freedom results from cessation of the pursuit of a specific end. Third, for every truth the opposite is equally true: for example, much sorrow comes from loving, yet sorrow and suffering allow us to relate to others and to thereby love them.

Fourth is the metaphor of the river – always the same yet always new. It teaches one to listen with an open heart and a still soul, without passions or judgments, and to strive downwards, to seek the depths. But most importantly, it demonstrates that there is no such thing as time – only the present exists. All sorrow, all torment, all fear exist in time, and so can be conquered by dispensing with time. In addition if time is not real, the dividing line between this world and eternity, and between suffering and bliss, and between good and evil is also an illusion. The sound of the river is the voice of being and of becoming, the unity of the world.

Fifth, the death of self, meaning the psychological self, leads to the emergence of pure thought and the innermost being that is not self. Wisdom is “preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life,”2 but that “wisdom is not communicable.”3 And finally, “love is the most important thing in the world…it is only important to love the world.”4

So what conclusion can we draw from Hesse on how to use our individual experience of suffering? I think he would advise us to allow it to erase artificial purposes and teach us the truth of opposites, the illusion of time and of self, and the value of love in our connection with the unity of the world. Suffering can be the springboard for ultimate wisdom and offer escape from the egotistical self and Schopenhauer’s will.

1Hesse, Hermann, Siddhartha. Bantam Books, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-553-20884-5, page 33.

2Ibid., page 131.

3Ibid., page 142.

4Ibid., page 147.