Grappling with impermanence

The Buddhist propositions that Evan Thompson articulates go deep. They proclaim three flaws of all the things around us, in ways that (Buddhist tradition has typically claimed) make them unworthy of our seeking. On such a view, the only thing truly worthy of our seeking is dukkhanirodha, the cessation of suffering, through a nirvana identified with “unconditioned peace”. The ethical implication is that the finest human life is that of a monk, who devotes his or her entire life to the pursuit of dukkhanirodha. It is granted that most people won’t pursue such a life, but that is because they are too weak to do so; their lives will be worse for their seeking external goods, like familial relationships and material possessions.

Aśvaghoṣa dramatizes these points in the Buddhacarita, his famous story of the Buddha’s journey to monkhood. After a contented life of luxury the Buddha-to-be sees an old man, a sick man and a dead man, he realizes that that is the fate of everyone and everything, and can take no more pleasure in the objects (viṣayas) of the world: “I do not despise objects. I know them to be at the heart of human affairs. / But seeing the world to be impermanent, my mind does not delight in them.” (BC IV.85) It is specifically the impermanence of things that leads the Buddha to become a monk and reject them.

I reject Aśvaghoṣa’s view. Why? I will first note my agreement with Jan Westerhoff that such a worldview is far more difficult to accept when one rejects rebirth. If all the things of the world are to be rejected as dukkha, and we are not reborn after death, then our best option is suicide – or perhaps murder, if we are altruistic Mahāyānists. Such a conclusion is at the very least prima facie wrong. Westerhoff thinks Buddhists should therefore cling to whatever tenuous justifications they might find for rebirth, a strategy I don’t find viable). My preferred alternative is to reject the other premise: the things of the world are not to be rejected.

But my alternative, I think, requires further justification beyond the rejection of rebirth. For even if it could be shown that humans were reborn after death, I would still reject the worldview that says we should aim to leave the cycle of rebirth and reject the things of the world. And I think there is justification for saying this.

It is characteristic of classical Buddhist philosophy to infer from metaphysics to ethics. I think the propositions at issue here contain an implicit “and therefore”. The things of the world are impermanent, non-self, and unsatisfactory (dukkha) in at least the sense that we will lose them – and therefore we should reject them, aim to transcend them for an unconditional peace. But does that really follow? The commenter Thill pointed out long ago that we don’t cease to enjoy a song because it has an ending. Amber Carpenter notes a similar objection in chapter 3 of her Indian Buddhist Philosophy. She calls the objection Nietzschean, referring to Twilight of the Idols where Nietzsche endorses “saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility” – as opposed, Carpenter adds, to “rejecting some or all of it on account of its unpleasantness, painfulness, unsatisfactoriness or suffering.” (Carpenter 49-50)

I am largely in sympathy with the view of that Nietzschean objection. Buddhists like Aśvaghoṣa are right to caution us that things (including relationships) are impermanent, that we will lose them, and that we increase our suffering if we act as if this is not the case. Yet I do not think that these cautions imply the full conclusion that we should reject all these things. I also agree with Martha Nussbaum’s claim that the values we normally place on goods like relationships have such depth and power that Buddhist or Stoic objectors have “the burden of showing why and for the sake of what these beliefs are to be given up”. The burden of proof, that is, is on the Buddhist objector: if their objection is not compelling enough to reject our involvement with conditioned and compounded things – and I think it is not – then we should not reject that involvement. This isn’t missing the radically challenging aspects of Buddhism; it is reflecting on those aspects, grappling with them, and deeming them a less appropriate guide to life.

Does that mean that I am rejecting the heart of Buddhism? I don’t think so. It is for this reason that I have drawn inspiration from the less philosophical Buddhism of the Mahāvaṃsa and lived Asian Buddhist practice, the kind of Buddhism that Melford Spiro calls kammatic: most practising or self-proclaimed Buddhists throughout history, it turns out, have not in practice treated the things of the world as unworthy. I think it is appropriate to profess a contemporary Buddhism that says they were not wrong in this.

The “kammatic” term, in turn, implies a Buddhism that is focused on karma rather than nirvana. That brings us back to the topic of karma, which I will take up in next week’s posts.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

4 Replies to “Grappling with impermanence”

  1. Dear Amod,

    Advaitins don’t have to undergo this dillemma because after rejecting impermanence, there is the permanent Self, which one has always been. Also, once Self is known, all temporary phenomenon are also seen as Self.

    Best wishes,
    Anurag

  2. Dear Amod,

    My apologies, I forgot to mention this in my last comment so posting a fresh comment.

    You write, “If all the things of the world are to be rejected as dukkha, and we are not reborn after death, then our best option is suicide – or perhaps murder, if we are altruistic Mahāyānists.”

    This would not work according to karma theory because by killing or committing suicide, you do not extinguish all karma, so one shall be reborn again.

    Best wishes,
    Anurag

  3. Just like there is much more to a ‘beach’ than the mere presence of water, there is so much more to Buddhism than the concept of impermanence. Also, nowhere in the Buddhist teachings does it say that one should not listen to a song (especially if one is a lay Buddhist). Also, the Buddha did acknowledge that there are various pleasures in the world, but he describes the severe limitations of these hedonic pleasures including their conditioned nature, etc. If we take a song, not everyone likes the same kind of song – it is dependent on one’s past conditioning, and also if the same song one likes were played continuously for days, one would be so sick of it!

    • Wellll… the Sigālovāda Sutta does say the virtuous householder doesn’t go to the theatre, and the reason not to do that is that if he does, he will always be thinking “Where is there dancing? Where is there singing? Where is there music?” It’s not a straight-up condemnation of music, but there’s definitely suspicion there.

      The Sigālovāda is probably one of my least favourite suttas, for reasons like this. It’s not one I would make central to my Buddhism. It is there in the canon, though.

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