Does Śāntideva think bodhisattvas are happy?

A while ago William Edelglass put up a paper for discussion on 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 a recent conference – it might have been the 2017 AAR 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 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)

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 blog 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.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

4 Replies to “Does Śāntideva think bodhisattvas are happy?”

  1. Thanks for the post Amod! One important lesson I learned is that I need to be more careful about answers to Q & A at the AAR . . . because they might show up in a future blog post!

    Re Śāntideva and inconsistency, I think it is important to keep in mind that this is a meditation manual intended to develop certain psychological qualities. So the fact that he stresses apparently contradictory positions at various places in the text can sometimes at least partly be understood as attempts to develop the relevant virtue (paramita etc). But I’m not sure this is the best way to answer you’re point here.

    Re the bodhisattva’s well-being, one potential solution is to keep in mind that compassion (karuna) is a virtue (it’s kusala). So its positive and well-being conducive. But it is plausibly also painful–as seems to be stated in 6:123, referenced by Edelglass. That’s not obviously inconsistent. It can be painful (duhkha-vedana), but also virtuous (kusala). And since it’s virtuous, its well-being conducive. This isn’t explicitly what Santideva says–but it seems to me to be a reasonable guess about what his position might be. And I think it’s the right thing to say–in an imperfect world, it’s better for us, in terms of our own well-being, to feel sympathetic pain in response to the suffering of others, so long as our response is virtuous–it’s accurate, not self-blaming, not overwhelming etc.

  2. Amod,

    Thank you for your careful reading of my chapter. As you have given the most compelling account I am familiar with of Śāntideva as a “disengaged Buddhist” in several of your writings and our conversations, your response makes sense.

    Amod, you have been writing about these issues for many years and I would be surprised if you were persuaded by my reply. But I hope this might at least clarify where we are in agreement and where we disagree. In brief, I think, we are in agreement that Śāntideva is always and fundamentally most interested in the awakening of sentient beings. This is why your argument about the bodhisattva giving sex, weapons, and alcohol to attract the recipient to the bodhisattva path makes sense. And, it is why addressing deprivation, or basic material needs, for Śāntideva, is primarily about two things. First, the bodhisattva should be concerned with the material conditions for others to achieve awakening, which, as I read him, depends on where one might be on the path. And second, concern for the material conditions of others and responding to the needs of others is how the bodhisattva herself makes progress. Moreover, I think we are in agreement that making progress on the bodhisattva path does increase happiness. There are two points of disagreement, it seems to me. First, in contrast to you, I think that for Śāntideva the bodhisattva does feel pain when encountering the sufferings of another (even though this looks like it would be in tension with the idea that the bodhisattva just gets happier and happier, as there are always others around who are suffering and would presumably cause pain). And second, sometimes those sufferings, whether they derive from material deprivation or social stigma or other forms of physical or emotional pain, are hindrances to making progress on the path. In those instances the bodhisattva would respond by alleviating those sufferings. Which might include giving food to the hungry or listening to the emotionally distraught. So, here are some reasons why I have these two views.

    First, just to frame the passages to which you were objecting…In that chapter in the Erik Braun and David McMahan book, I was using Śāntideva to raise questions about the way in which different rhetorics frame our understanding of meditation. I was looking at the social science research that is cited to justify the claim that being a Buddhist, understood in this context as doing something like mindfulness meditation, makes one happier. (A view, by the way, that seems to be quite widespread.) The two primary instruments for measuring happiness—life-satisfaction questionnaires and experience sampling—are implicitly committed to non-normative conceptions of happiness. Namely, happiness as being satisfied with one’s life and happiness as positive hedonic state. Thus, the famous study by Killingsworth and Gilbert that showed a correlation between being mindful and being happy also showed a higher correlation between happiness and going shopping than between happiness and caring for one’s children. This research doesn’t make normative evaluations between different activities.

    In contrast to happiness understood as life-satisfaction or positive hedonic state, I was arguing, Śāntideva has a normative view of happiness. For Śāntideva, some things really should make us happy, and some things, by their nature, should not make us happy: “why do people take pleasure in what is worthless and anoint it with fragrance?” (VIII.66). One thing that Śāntideva thinks will not make us happy is actually pursuing happiness. This idea is expressed a number of times. Happiness seems to follow from the virtuous activity of the bodhisattva, which, as I quote a few paragraphs before the passage you began with, “carries away all despondency and weariness, what sensible person would despair at progressing in this way from joy to joy” (VII.30). So, if our goal is to avoid suffering, we are unlikely to attain happiness; if our goal is to cultivate the perfections and attend to others, we are more likely to attain happiness. I wanted to emphasize the difference between Śāntideva’s rhetoric and the contemporary rhetoric of meditation as a path to happiness.

    Given the verses that suggest that pursuing one’s own happiness is misguided, it doesn’t then seem unreasonable to suggest that Śāntideva is prioritizing attending to the “suffering and desires” of others over cultivating one’s own positive affect or life-satisfaction. Aiming for one’s own happiness will actually lead to suffering. Amod, your account of giving gifts is not so much about the material benefit but is primarily about attracting the recipient to the bodhisattva path, I think, is part of the answer. And your interpretation makes sense of a lot of passages in the BCA and SS. But I think the distinction between deprivation and renunciation also makes sense in Śāntideva and is also part of the answer.

    That is, I agree with you that for Śāntideva, suffering is primarily caused by mental factors. And I agree with you that there are circumstances in which material challenges can indeed be employed to address those factors. I think Śāntideva makes that point quite clearly. At the same time, though, he doesn’t think that just anyone is capable of being able to make good use of every situation of deprivation. Some people suffer deprivations that are beyond their ability to work with in a positive way. Consider VI.14: “There is nothing whatsoever that remains difficult as one gets used to it. Thus, through habituation with slight pain, even great pain becomes bearable.” Yes, you can get used to great pain. But if you have not developed the capacity through habituation, then you will just be overwhelmed. In that case, deprivation isn’t much help. Or consider VII.25, where Śāntideva writes, “The Guide enjoins giving only vegetables and the like at first.” That is, the Buddha himself suggests that when starting out on the path one should only give away that which is possible to give without resentment, such as vegetables, that can nourish the body of another and are beneficial. “Later,” he continues, “by degrees, one acts in such a way that one is even able to give up one’s own flesh!” (VII.25). Thus, in contrast to moral theories that lead to one or another act that ought to be done regardless of who the agent might be, Śāntideva argues that one should carefully discern whether or not a given practice or act is beyond one’s abilities, and then act accordingly. And if a task is taken up that exhausts one, it should be set aside until strength and energy and zeal are revived (VII.66). Thus, he is not suggesting that just anyone can simply be mindful in a situation of immense physical, such as forced labor, extreme heat or cold, or the weakness of the body and mind that comes with starvation.

    If one is more advanced on the path, renunciation makes sense. But there are some instances of deprivation that are too much for some people to work with. Maybe I am projecting this on Śāntideva because I happen to think it’s true. But I also think there is some evidence for this view in Śāntideva. This does not mean that there isn’t also plenty of evidence, as you have marshalled, for the idea that the bodhisattva gives gifts to attract the recipient to the bodhisattva path. But while Śāntideva is primarily interested in the bodhisattva alleviating suffering through helping others transform their minds by themselves making progress along the path, this requires addressing material deprivations that are too much for another to work with. And, in addressing these material deprivations, the bodhisattva is herself making progress on the path. I think of lines such as “May those afflicted with cold find warmth.” Or, “May they acquire everything that is beneficial and desired by the mind: clothing, food, drink, flower garlands, sandal-paste, and ornaments.” “May the ill have good health. May they be freed from every bondage. May the weak become strong and have affectionate hearts for one another.” There are, as you know, many more verses like this. Being cold and hungry can be so debilitating that it is much harder to start out on the bodhisattva path. On some level, presumably, Śāntideva is indeed interested in those afflicted with cold finding warmth, even as it is not as important as awakening in the long run.

    I think there is some textual evidence for the kind of view I am proposing. And, given this view, it is possible, it seems, to me, to interpret Śāntideva in a way that can address contemporary contexts. True, Śāntideva did not live in a world conditioned by the modern idea of race or, for that matter, contemporary ideas of environmental degradation (though, presumably, he did live in a world which included various forms of outgroup antipathy and could have included certain kinds of environmental degradation). In the chapter in Braun and McMahan’s book, immediately following the passage you cite, I discuss Candace Clark’s book on sympathy, Misery and Company. According to Clark, many affluent Americans believe the poor are responsible for their poverty because of bad choices, and therefore they have more sympathy for people like themselves stuck in traffic jams through no fault of their own than they have for people who live in poverty. Martha Nussbaum makes the point that what most of us need is not to focus our attention on our own happiness, but to cultivate the capacities to attend to people who are in pain and suffering, something that we are not very good at. I was giving an interpretation of Śāntideva that is generally in agreement with this view. According to my reading of VI.123—“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”—attending to the deprivations of those who are cold or hungry, and not trying to be satisfied with one’s life or increasing pleasure is characteristic of the bodhisattva. More generally, this would be true not just of suffering that comes with material deprivation but any kind of suffering. And, as is suggested by the widespread image of the eyelash in the eye being more painful than the eyelash in the hand, but for the advanced bodhisattva, the eyelash in the hand is also painful, the bodhisattva is indeed pained by the pain of others.

    Finally, I think Stephen’s proposal is an elegant way to address with how it might simultaneously be the case that for the bodhisattva, encountering the suffering of others is painful even if it is still virtuous and conducive to well-being. This I think would also be true of a number of other verses in Śāntideva, remembering, at least according to my interpretation, that not everyone is able to make the pain and material deprivation they suffer conducive to well-being.


    • Thanks to everyone for their responses on this. I’ve been too overwhelmed to write many blog comments this semester, but I appreciate everyone’s thoughts on this tricky textual question. They reinforce my view that Śāntideva’s views on happiness are a rich and complex topic about which a lot more can, and probably should, be said – not necessarily by me, though it certainly could be. Unfortunately it’s not a topic I have the time to probe as fully as I’d like at the moment.

      I did want to at least briefly address William’s response in particular because it brings up an important point I had forgotten about Śāntideva, even though I had addressed it in both my gift-giving article and my dissertation. Namely: as William properly reminds us, for Śāntideva one of the key purposes that giving serves is the bodhisattva’s own spiritual benefit. This is especially the case in passages where “giving” occurs as a part of karmic redirection (_pariṇāmanā_), which are the “May…” passages that William cites. That point is a major oversight in what I’ve written above.

      Still, I don’t think that that point makes Śāntideva a supporter of engaged Buddhism in any signficant way. For what benefits the giver is not satisfying needs, so much as satisfying wants. When Śāntideva makes wishes for others’ well-being as part of redirecting karma, it includes food for the hungry and medicine for the sick, but also perfumes and ornaments. Many of the gifts he describes in his passage on giving are lavish, with their target unspecified; one can give to the rich as easily and as much as to the poor.

  3. Pardon my uninvited contribution to this dialogue but I would like to comment, in part by way of an elaboration, on William’s reply to Amod (I will read the former’s paper anon, so it may turn out that I say something already addressed in the paper).

    The individual pursuit of happiness amounts to what we might call, with apologies to Jon Elster, the moral psychological fallacy of by-products (Elster speaks respectively of ‘moral’ and ‘intellectual’ fallacy of by-products). The rather crude conception of happiness intrinsic to the hedonic model is owing to its association with largely simple pleasures (and avoidance of pain) and evanescent states of mind, so while it may not be prone to this fallacy, the happiness that is attained is characterized by comparatively short duration and not intrinsically connected to a sense of personal fulfillment, existential satisfaction, or virtuous conduct or character (I’m not against enjoyment of simple pleasures, only the belief that these amount to true happiness). The moral psychological fallacy of by-products occurs when an individual tries to directly will a mental state or condition that he or she believes is desirable but is bound to fail, for the mental state or condition, in this case, happiness, is best viewed as a by-product of other actions and states of affairs. Elster’s treatment is beholden to, among others, the work of the late psychiatrist Leslie H. Farber who spoke to the folly of “willing what cannot be willed,” citing such examples as wisdom, sleep, humility, virtue, faith, and understanding as exemplifying “positively defined states that … elude the mind that reaches out for them.” The self-defeating nature or sheer silliness of these attempts is vividly illustrated in those cases when one learns of another’s avowed endeavor to “be natural” or “act spontaneously,” as if the intention itself gets us, so to speak, halfway there. Or think of the parent scolding the child: “Don’t even think about it!”— an authoritative command that results in the converse of its intended effect on the poor child.

    Perhaps meditation can be a path to happiness, but only in the sense that, with time, one forgets the reason or intention that motivated meditation practice in the first place, namely, the desire to be happy, so a sense of “self-consciousness” about one’s practice or meditation that keeps in (the back of) one’s mind the desire for happiness will be analogous to the dog chasing—and not catching—its own tail (some dogs, my wife reminds me, do catch their tails). I have written a brief unpublished paper on this topic (‘Act naturally!’ ‘Say what?’) in the context of Daoism and the notion of wu-wei (lit. ‘non-action’ or ‘not acting,’ but means more or less acting spontaneously or naturally in a manner imitative—in an analogous or metaphoric sense—of the operations of the natural world according to Daoism).* I make a brief argument, after the work of philosopher David Fraser, that one can begin, as it were, with an intentional project to “be natural” or act in the manner of wu-wei provided that, over time, one forgets the original intention or motivation behind the (spiritual exercise of) meditation. In other words, in spite of “making every effort,” of the “striving,” or arduous self-discipline that can be essential to a daily meditation practice, the fruits of such efforts, that is, on our account, the spillover or by-product effects, are such that one’s willful mind or previous desires or ego have been sublimated or transformed or transcended, and thus we can view (the original) intention or self-conscious desire to be happy as merely a necessary yet not sufficient condition for, say, happiness, or an empty mind, or wu-wei. So, one desires to be happy, entertaining perhaps an erroneous conception of happiness, yet in the end, as a fruit of meditation (and in conjunction with the other two parts of the Eightfold Path!) one achieves a kind of happiness. And of course the conception of happiness I have in mind here is likewise a normative one historically found, for instance, in classical Greek thought (for Aristotle, happiness consists in ‘virtuous activity’) and thus is conceived in terms of eudaimonia or, pardon the expression, self-fulfillment. We might also consider it an unintentional or indirect effect of activities associated with joint self-realization (in a Marxist or other sense).

    * One could say such action is characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that comes from a heart-mind (xin) experiencing, it seems, an ecstatic oneness or identity with “all-there-
    is” or, perhaps less controversially, acting in harmony or concert with the natural rhythms, processes, and patterns found in the natural world.

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