The psychological case for disengaged Buddhism

My project on disengaged Buddhism has now been submitted to a journal. It’s undergone several revisions by this point. One of the most important such revisions was suggested unanimously by BU’s magnificent CURA seminar. In an earlier draft had attempted to emphasize the contemporary constructive significance of disengaged Buddhism by noting how its ideas were corroborated by some contemporary psychological research. The seminar participants thought that discussion of psychology did not strengthen the paper because I didn’t have the space to defend them fully; the paper would stand best discussing disengaged Buddhists’ claims in their historical context and letting those claims stand on their own.

I think they were right, and I removed the psychology discussion from the paper – a little sadly, as I thought the points of that section were worth making. Fortunately, I have another place to make them: here.

The key Buddhist ideas I discuss in the paper are: that we should have a detached attitude to the passage of time rather than hoping for progress; that politics leads our minds to an anger that hurts them; and that the kinds of goods politics can provide (especially material goods) do not do as much to fix our suffering as we think they do. And I think evidence collected by modern psychologists lends some support to each of these claims.

I had previously mentioned the psychological distress experienced by liberal Americans after the election of Donald Trump, distress so severe it causes physical symptoms. One journalist reports that her anxiety about Trump led to a psychosomatic retinal bleeding so bad it almost made her blind. It seems to me that such people have something to learn from the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta, a text which some have regarded as politically engaged but which (I argue in the paper, following Steven Collins is the opposite. In that text, history has been declining rather than progressing, and it will get worse before it gets better; and so, the Buddha says, we should “be islands unto yourselves, be a refuge unto yourselves with no other refuge.” Whether or not the text’s account of history’s direction is right, it is not hard to imagine how such a detached attitude to the passage of time could be a balm for those experiencing such great psychologically induced distress.

Along with these patients’ fear comes anger, an anger that one therapist described as “almost irrational”. That reaction seems to confirm the worries of Aśvaghoṣa about the harshness inherent in politics – and the way that harshness interferes with one’s tranquility.

The negative consequences of anger and violence for their targets should be obvious. But it is worth noting also how some contemporary psychological and biomedical research concurs that anger and hostility have a negative effect on the angry one’s own well-being, a key concern of these texts. Psychological and medical researchers have observed a significant correlation of anger not only with self-destructive behaviours like bulimia, but with physiological illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

As for the disengaged Buddhists’ disregard for material goods, it seems confirmed by the theory of the hedonic treadmill (which I briefly discussed a long time ago.) That is, any perceived gain in happiness from increased income is temporary at best, confirming the Rajja Sutta’s claim that “not a mountain of gold would suffice for one”. Philip Brickman and others found that lottery winners were neither happier than a control group, nor showed a significant increase in happiness from before they won the lottery. At the collective level, when a state’s GDP rises, Richard Easterlin and others found that there is a short-term boost in happiness but the long-term relationship is nil – whether the country was rich or poor to start with.

The implications of these studies are debated, but they should give us pause before dismissing the disengaged Buddhists’ arguments that the goods of politics are not as important as we think they are. The Thai-born behavioural economist Nick (Nattavudh) Powdthavee makes the connection explicit: he told his 90-year-old Thai Buddhist grandmother about the findings of the happiness literature and she replied “Tell me something I don’t already know.” And so, he came to think:

maybe it wasn’t Philip Brickman and colleagues who first discovered that people adapt to changes in life events. It probably wasn’t Richard Easterlin who was the first to conclude that economic growth for all increases the happiness of no one…. It was actually the Buddha who first discovered them over 2,500 years ago.

So various observations from contemporary psychology would seem to lend support to key claims of the disengaged Buddhists: a detachment from hope for progress, an avoidance of anger, and a suspicion of material goods. These observations are not sufficient reason for us to disengage from politics, at least not on their own, but they are reason to take the disengaged Buddhists’ arguments seriously in our context, rather than dismiss them as some outmoded view that we have progressed beyond. Nor is it sufficient to dismiss the disengaged Buddhists as “selfish”, when the thoroughgoing Mahāyāna altruists Candrakīrti and Śāntideva express at least as much suspicion of politics as the non-Mahāyāna texts do. Even if we are not fully convinced by their view, it seems to me that they have figured out something important that most people in our activist culture have not.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

2 thoughts on “The psychological case for disengaged Buddhism

  1. Would not most of these disengaged Buddhists have lived in a monarchy, and hence had less potential power in political events?

    In that way, there would be a difference about how much care and effort may be put in before an election. But the teaching would still be pertinent for after an election.

    • Well, one could also question how much potential power any individual has in an electoral system. The Indian Buddhists lived under monarchies, but the states were much smaller – getting the ear of the king may well have been considerably easier than influencing an American president.

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