I find myself repeatedly returning to the question I asked earlier this year: “Is the problem in our heads?” That is: for Buddhists, especially classical ones, is the fundamental human problem located in our minds, or in the world? I have found that my thinking on this question has already changed even just since my posts on the topic last month.
In those posts, I defended to Patrick O’Donnell my claim that in classical Buddhist texts the causes of suffering are primarily mental. As I’ve thought on the question a bit further, I have come to realize that that is not quite right – though even so, the revision does not lead to the ethical consequences that Patrick or Ron Purser would hope for.
For my book project I’ve been exploring Śāntideva’s key concept of daurmanasya – etymologically “bad-mindedness”, probably best translated “frustration”. Śāntideva warns us that this frustration is the root cause of dveṣa (hostility or anger), which is in many respects the most serious problem of all and leads to untold suffering. About it, he asks the memorable question:
If there is a remedy, then what’s the point of frustration?
But if there’s no remedy, then what’s the point of frustration?BCA VI.10
But Śāntideva doesn’t stop there. He also tells us where frustration itself comes from. It is born from the causing of what is undesired and the destruction of what is desired (aniṣṭakaraṇāj jātam iṣṭasya ca vighātanāt, BCA VI.7). What we’re seeing there is an interaction between two phenomena: an external (worldly) event and our mental desires. And he spells out the connection more clearly in the Śikṣā Samuccaya:
The destruction of what is desired, and intense attachment (abhiṣvaṅga) to happiness: from these two comes frustration. From it, anger and faint-heartedness.ŚS 179
In these passages the problem is in two places, or perhaps more accurately at the intersection of two places: where mind meets world. There is the worldly event, and there are the desires that it goes against – and our intense attachment, our craving. The frustration comes when the world bumps up against our desires.
That is to say that Patrick O’Donnell was right in a sense: it is not just mind that is causing us to suffer, it is also world. (And thus Sallie King is not quite right to say “the problem is in our minds, not in the world.”) If the world never destroyed what we desire and never caused what we do not desire, then we could avoid suffering without changing our minds.
The problem, of course, is that the world doesn’t work that way and never will. This is Aśvaghoṣa’s point when he dramatizes the bodhisattva, the Buddha-to-be, leaving his father’s palace. King Śuddhodana has promised his son every pleasure, has done everything in his power to grant his son’s desires. The king also tells his son that it is his dharma, his duty, to rule. But the young Siddhārtha replies:
I will not enter the penance grove, O King, if you will be the surety for me in four things. My life shall not be subject to death. Sickness shall not rob me of my health. Old age shall not strike down my youth. And misfortune shall never plunder my wealth.Buddhacarita V.34-5 (Olivelle translation)
The request is hardly made in good faith. The bodhisattva knows the king cannot promise him any of these. And that is the point. The world ultimately frustrates our deepest desires through sickness, old age and death, in a way that neither an absolute king nor a social democracy can stop. Any alleviation of suffering that comes from fixing the world is minor at best. The world and the mind do meet to cause suffering together. But the difference between the two is that the world cannot be fixed, no matter how much power one has at one’s disposal. The mind can.
It is at that point that I think Sallie King remains right about the classical texts and Purser and O’Donnell wrong. Mind and world interact to cause our suffering, but according to the classical texts, fixing the world does not fix the suffering. Only fixing the mind does that. And so Śāntideva’s next line in the Śikṣā, after the one quoted, proposes the solution: “Nonattachment (anabhiṣvaṅga) toward happiness; non-resistance (avaimukhya) toward suffering.” (ŚS 179) So Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddha is not moved by the multiple entreaties, and rejects kingship for the monkhood. There is little to be gained by changing the world to bring it more in line with our desires. On this point, I think King is right and I stand by my previous claim: the solution, according to the classical Buddhist texts, is in our minds.