Rejecting Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation

The key goal of my dissertation was to understand Śāntideva’s thought as it was and how it could be applied in a contemporary context. Now, for my book, I want to actually apply Śāntideva’s thought, which requires asking where he is right and where he is wrong. And that, it turns out, changes my understanding of some of the dissertation’s key concepts – especially the one in its title.

The dissertation is entitled “Ethical revaluation in the thought of Śāntideva”. In its third chapter, I describe “ethical revaluation” as a consequence of Śāntideva’s ideals of nonattachment (aparigraha) and patient endurance (kṣānti). I explain the idea of ethical revaluation as follows:

one revalues objects in a way that reflects the object’s real effect on one’s flourishing. Such a revaluation needs to be a qualitative and not merely quantitative change; but it is more than even that, in that one changes one’s view of what might be called the “direction” or “sign” of the object’s effect. That is, one is not merely saying that the object is less (or more) good for us than we had thought, but that what we thought was good for us is actually bad or at least neutral. (122)

Specifically, in Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation, one revalues (normally positive) possessions and human relationships as negative, because they are sources of attachment, and the (normally negative) wrongdoing of others as positive, because that wrongdoing is a ground for patient endurance. One changes the sign of the valuation.

It’s striking to me to come back to these passages now, thirteen years later, because I see how different my thinking on these concepts is. Especially: I would want to weaken the connection between nonattachment and patient endurance on one hand, and ethical revaluation on the other. Because now I accept nonattachment and patient endurance – to some extent – but I reject ethical revaluation as it is described above.

Let me unpack all this a bit more. I see now that a reason I was drawn to Śāntideva as a dissertation topic is that I find his ideals of nonattachment and patient endurance valuable and worthy. We human beings do, I think, get too attached to externals beyond our control – what Śāntideva calls bāhya bhāvas – and I agree with Śāntideva that “the mind does not get tranquility or obtain joy and happiness, nor go to sleep or to steadiness, when the dart of anger is lodged in the heart.” (BCA VI.3) So I think it is worth cultivating a state of patient endurance such that, as the dissertation says, “one remains calm and even happy in the face of various undesired events — pains, frustrations, wrongs — that one might face” (129): a state that requires keeping at least some distance from those externals.

But there is only so far I’m willing to go with the point. The idea of changing the sign of externals’ effect – the sign in an arithmetical sense, positive vs. negative – is a dramatic and radical one. Śāntideva tells us that having possessions – which, for him, include personal relationships as well as material goods – is bad, because they make us attached to them. But this claim only makes sense if (as I think Śāntideva would agree) they do not actually contribute independently to our flourishing, or that contribution is so small that it is outweighed by the attachment they produce. And I do not think this is the case.

I’ve outlined my reasoning for this view before. I think Śāntideva would agree with Aśvaghoṣa that we should not delight in the objects of the world because they are impermanent and cause suffering. But I do not think this is sufficient reason to reject them. The reduction of suffering is only one of the values we human beings come to ethical inquiry with, and I don’t think it is sufficient to always override other values and aims – joy, love, justice, self-expression. I think Śāntideva’s non-Buddhist opponents were wise to treat mokṣa, the liberation from suffering, as only one of the human aims, the puruṣārthas. But I don’t think that it is a rejection of Buddhism to think this way, since I do suspect that some great classical Buddhist thinkers, like the author of the Mahāvaṃsa, at least tacitly agree with me on this point.

Writing my article on disengaged Buddhism helped me see this point, as I responded to the two engaged Buddhist authors who have paid disengaged Buddhism meaningful attention: Sallie King and Hsiao-Lan Hu. King and Hu both advocate what Hu calls a “this-worldly Buddhism”. King notes that if, as many classical texts say, the “three poisons” of craving, anger and delusion

are indeed the root of the problem, then the problem is in our minds, not in the world. We can free ourselves of duḥkha by practicing Buddhism in such a way that we rid ourselves of this craving, hatred, and delusion. This has nothing whatsoever to do with leaving the world and everything to do with transforming ourselves, here and now. (Socially Engaged Buddhism 43; emphasis in original)

I point out in the article that the arguments of the disengaged Buddhists are quite compatible with such a this-worldly position: this transformation in ourselves, here and now, is very different from a transformation in social structures. Still, in practice, what classical disengaged Buddhists like Śāntideva and Aśvaghoṣa advocate often is a withdrawal from the world to some extent. Śāntideva’s bodhisattva does remain in the world to help get others out of their mental suffering, but while in the world, he is not of it; he puts no value on relationships of love, indeed considers them negative.

I reject their rejection of the world. I think there are many worldly goals and goods that have value independent of the reduction of suffering. Does that mean I then accept political engagement too? Well, that’s more complicated. I absolutely think the disengaged Buddhists have a point, that political engagement can increase our suffering. And I think that that view is entirely compatible with a this-worldly life. But it may also be the case that some other values outweigh the reduction of suffering and make political engagement worthwhile. Whether that is the case for any given person may depend on the particulars of that person’s nature as well as her circumstances.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

3 Replies to “Rejecting Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation”

  1. How long should a person tolerate wrong doings of others? Isn’t there any ultimate point, or the negative side a person should reflect by reacting to others actions or behaviors? Would we call the act of defense as a negative reaction?

    • Śāntideva seems happy to tolerate wrongdoing indefinitely, as a ground for practising one’s own patient endurance or serenity. One implication of this post is that I don’t agree with him about that. I think it is worth seeking just treatment for oneself. But where I do think Śāntideva is wise is in cautioning us against the frustration (daurmanasya) that leads to anger even there: “If there is a remedy, what’s the point of frustration? And if there’s no remedy, what’s the point of frustration?”

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