Is the problem in our heads?

A key idea that I’ve stressed from the Disengaged Buddhists is that the causes of suffering are primarily mental – especially the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots” of craving (rāga), aversion or hostility (dveṣa/dosa) and delusion (moha) – and that therefore changes in material conditions of life will do relatively little to solve them. Engaged Buddhists reject this latter idea, since they take changing the material conditions as essential. What has struck me recently, though, is that they reject the idea in ways that are different, and sometimes even opposite – each of which still, surprisingly to me in some ways, seems to accept that rāga, dveṣa and moha are indeed where the key problems of human existence lie. I see this point especially in comparing the different views expressed by Ron Purser and Sallie King.

Recall from my discussion of Purser’s book: Purser agrees that Buddhist mindfulness seeks to eradicate “greed, ill will and delusion” (McMindfulness 20), but then objects to “a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads”, as opposed to the “systemic, institutional and structural causes” of suffering and stress. (38) Purser advocates that people instead turn their focus outwards, beyond their heads, to the “the conditions that cause us to suffer… from a political point of view.” (249)

King, meanwhile, responds to apparently disengaged texts like the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (Fire Sermon), which claims that ” the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards the eye, towards forms… towards the ear… towards the mind….” and notes in response that it still focuses its critique on the three poisons, which she agrees are mental. I quoted this passage of King’s last time in a different context:

If these three poisons 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)

Notice the contrast and disagreement between the two about where the problem lies! Is the problem in our minds, or not? I think there’s a really interesting comparison to be made between Purser’s and King’s approaches here. We can elucidate it by spelling out a deductive compound syllogism that I think underlies much of the Disengaged Buddhist view:

  1. The fundamental problem that we need to solve consists roughly of rāga, dveṣa and moha (however we might translate these terms).
  2. If the fundamental problem is rāga, dveṣa and moha, then the fundamental problem is in our minds, not in the world.
  3. Therefore the fundamental problem is in our minds, not in the world.
  4. If the fundamental problem is in our minds and not in the world, then solving the fundamental problem requires fixing our minds rather than fixing the world.
  5. Therefore we should fix our minds rather than fix the world.

Now notice: Purser and King both appear to accept premise 1, that these three poisons – however one translates them – are the key problem in Buddhism, and they appear to accept this premise as their own constructive view. Neither of them accept the conclusion, 5; they both want an engaged Buddhist view that does focus on fixing the world. But they reject different parts of the intervening premises. King accepts 2 and 3 – “the problem is in our minds, not in the world”; it appears that she must therefore reject 4, in order to continue rejecting 5. But Purser specifically rejects 3, the claim that accepts, “that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads”, as a tenet of “neoliberal mindfulness”. This appears to be because he accepts premise 4, as King does not: he realizes that if the problem is with our minds, then the minds are what really need fixing, and this ancient Buddhist idea is too “neoliberal” for him. So it would appear that he must also reject premise 2, the premise that King accepts. It is an odd rejection to me, because I’m not sure how one could get to the idea that rāga, dveṣa and moha are not primarily “in our heads”, but it does seem implicit in what Purser has written.

My point here ties to a broader point underlying the Disengaged Buddhism article. The point of that article was not to reject Engaged Buddhism but to be clearer about our innovations, what it is in traditional Buddhism that we accept and do not accept. Here, neither Purser nor King spell out their rejections of the middle premises in the syllogism, and as a result, they do not explain their reasons for rejecting those premises. I think that such explanations would be just the sort of thing that an intellectually sophisticated Engaged Buddhism needs.

And where do I stand on the question at hand myself? Well, unlike Purser and King I do accept both premise 2 and premise 4: if the fundamental human problem is the three mental poisons, then the problem is in our minds, and if the problem is in our minds, then solving the problem requires fixing our minds. I also think that premise 1 is impeccably Buddhist and pervades most classical Buddhist thought, at least in South Asia from Thailand to Tibet. But I don’t fully accept premise 1 myself – and therefore I don’t fully accept 3 or 5, though I’d accept them all partially. Unlike many classical Buddhists, I accept worthy goals in life beyond the removal of suffering, and for that reason I don’t think the three poisons are the fundamental human problem. We have a lot of other problems – isolation from love and community, finding our authentic selves, and, yes, taking care of basic needs like food and medicine, without which we cannot even get to solving our mental problems. To the extent that activism is a good human activity, I think it is so above all in dealing with those other problems; it is much less helpful in dealing with the classically Buddhist problems of craving, hostility and delusion, each of which I suspect political engagement may tend to exacerbate.

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.

19 Replies to “Is the problem in our heads?”

  1. Dear Amod,
    I like your approach, if I understand it correctly. You are basically saying that: yes of course the three mental challenges are fundamental, but they are not the only keys to relieving human suffering. Where there is a lack of the most basic physical needs, then there are also physical obstacles as well that need to be addressed….precisely in order for such beings to be able to go on to address the mental obstacles. Do I have this right?
    This is almost a hierarchy of needs approach. I find it has merit, because it is realistic, practical.

    • Hi Lyone: I’m constructively saying two things, and was probably not very clear about that. One is basically your interpretation here. That is, that there are sources of suffering other than the three roots of unwholesomeness: that external causes can cause us to suffer more, at least when we are below a certain level development, and we may even need to deal first with some of those external causes in order to allow ourselves to develop to a point where they will no longer matter to us. (Nothing could shake Thich Quang Duc’s calm, but there was a lot that needed to be available to him for him to get to that level.)

      The second one goes in a different direction: that suffering isn’t the only thing in life. I do think certain things, like love and self-expression, are valuable independent of their contribution to the reduction of suffering.

  2. There is so much I would like to speak to, but perhaps I can do that another day. For now, I want state that I have always understood the so-called roots of suffering in Buddhism two be twofold: inordinate desire (hence craving) and ignorance. This strikes me as eminently plausible whether one fancies oneself an engaged Buddhist or not. In any case, there are myriad causes of suffering as we see in the three marks of existence and the chain of dependent origination. If roots are connected to a trunk and branches, then working on the causes of suffering my involve, in practical terms, dealing with, say, the trunk or the branches by way of getting to the roots. Or, taking a different approach, it is not all about the mind when it comes to the eradication of suffering, for that would be on one-third, so to speak of the Eightfold Path, which involves knowledge/wisdom and ethics, all the threefold division being complementary and mutually reinforcing, so it strikes as egregiously mistaken to prioritize, stress, or focus on “the mental.” And of course changes in our material conditions and experiences can have effects on our mental and emotional outlook and dispositions, much like we recognize mind/body interactions in medicine have causal arrows in both directions (the placebo effect being only one instance of this). Thus from my perspective, that syllogism is wrongheaded from the start. Again, I apologize for the brevity, but perhaps I stirred things up by way of an ongoing conversation.

    • I agree with the broader point that things outside the mind can affect the mind and perhaps even constitute it: see my exchange with Nathan today on LoAW.

      That point only goes so far, though. I definitely disagree with you that a focus on the mind “would be only one-third” of the Eightfold Path. For one thing, it seems to me that prajñā is, if anything, more clearly mental than samādhi. I’m not sure how one could even imagine knowledge – or ignorance – not being a mental thing! And that already changes the math dramatically, such that two-thirds of the path are mental. But even when one turns to the last item and examines the purposes of śīla, very often that too comes down to mental cultivation. In Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter V, all about the kinds of discipline and bodily restriction typically taken to constitute śīla, the explicitly stated goal of it all is to control one’s own mind (and, to a lesser extent, generate respect in others in a way that will help their advancement).

      • I imagine wisdom to be practical, evidenced in the way one lives one’s life, so knowledge is of course part of that but more along the lines of “knowing how” than simply or solely “knowing that. Again, I think we need to think clearly about how the three parts of the Eightfold Path are meant to be interdependent and mind/body interactions are reciprocal in many respects, even if we learn to transcend the body to some extent via mind training, a transcendence that is never complete given embodiment. A close examination of the chain of dependent origination may reveal “master links” (as in a bicycle chain) in the chain of dependent origination by way of spiritual praxis or exercises, yet:
        Cf.: … conditioned by consciousness is (mind-and-body or name-and-form [nāma-rūpa/skandhas/kandhas], conditioned by mind-and-body are the six sense fields (6 organs, 6 objects, and 6 kinds of sense consciousness) [sadāyatana/salāyatana], conditioned by the six sense fields is sense-contact [sparśa/phassa], conditioned by sense-contact is feeling [vedanā], conditioned by feeling is craving, or inordinate or improper desire [trsna/tanhā], conditioned by craving is …

        How does one infer from this that “the causes of suffering are primarily mental?”

        • I wouldn’t infer that the causes of suffering are primarily mental from what you quoted – since suffering, dukkha, doesn’t appear in it in the first place. It does appear in the Four Noble Truths, of which the second cites taṇhā, craving, as the source of suffering (not even just the primary one). And taṇhā sure looks mental to me. (Likewise you said above “I have always understood the so-called roots of suffering in Buddhism two be twofold: inordinate desire (hence craving) and ignorance.” Is either of these not mental?)

          One could then specify that the mental causes of suffering in turn have their own non-mental causes, and that seems plausible to me – but it wouldn’t change the fact that the causes of suffering themselves are mental, whatever might cause those causes..

          • Dependent origination is about the causes of suffering: they are variable, multiple, and interdependent, that is why it is misleading to simply assert that the causes are mental; everything is connected, is it not? This is actually a topic I have come across both in the law (especially criminal and tort law) and in philosophy of science and science generally. It is extremely difficult to select out particular causes as more significant than others (even if, by way of shorthand or convenience, we do so): in the explanation of diseases, for instance, we have a network of causes, correlations, and mechanisms (Paul Thagard). And in medicine and healing generally, we can speak of body/mind interactions in both directions (causal arrows), in which case, how can we accord causal priority to the mind? The five “heaps” or “aggregates” known as skandhas (khandhās) or not purely mental: they are about body and mind conjoined. When the Buddha ignored his body in practicing extreme asceticism he found it was not conducive to mind training and meditation.

            We can, conventionally, say that smoking causes lung cancer, but of course there are other causes of lung cancer and it may be that genetics, lifestyle choices, circumstances and conditions into which one is born and raise that one has little control over, etc., etc., could be said to be part of the larger network of causes that may lead to (as contributory causes) to lung cancer in one who smokes.

            The Doctrine of Dependent Origination (which is about conditions and relations) implies several different propositions insofar as it claims that any object of experience depends for its existence or occurrence on the necessary and sufficient presence of its cause:
            1. that all conventional phenomena have an origin;
            2. that their existence depends on causes;
            3. that causes operate in networks;
            4. that causes operate inevitably, uniformly, and spontaneously
            This of course applies to suffering.

            As for what I singled out as the twofold cause of suffering, that is because, in one sense, these are the weakest links in the chain by way of attempting to break the chain of suffering, but they cannot exist without the other links.

            If the problem is in our heads, what about the story of the poisoned arrow? One removes the arrow without inquiring into who shot it, why, etc. Of course we may inquire into such things later, after the fact (the metaphysics and psychology if you will). Perhaps I am stubborn, but I continue to believe only one/third of the Eightfold Path concerns primarily what is “in our heads,” I do not think acting ethically and wisely is about what is (primarily or solely) in our heads, and thus it is mistaken to single out what is in our heads, and so I believe engaged Buddhists are on the right track, at least in some respects, for if we contribute to the welfare, well-being and eudaimonia of others who are poor, disadvantage, excluded, what have you, if we materially improve the circumstances and conditions of their lives, we enhance their opportunities for happiness and reduce at least some of the causes of suffering. We might even say that this is a necessary yet not sufficient condition for relieving such suffering that is primarily psychological or existential (in other words, enhancement of well-being and welfare enhances the possibility that one can address other and more obdurate forms of suffering), for as Gandhi said, when people are starving you give them bread, you can talk about other matters after their hunger has been satisfied.

  3. I agree, Amod. This is why the most ancient texts place such an emphasis on dealing with ignorance, isn’t it? ……And this question of what constitutes the mind versus what the mind constitutes is always a complex one in regard to tackling suffering.
    To take the simple example of food deprivation. On the one hand, we may consider a person who has been deprived of sufficient food for her entire life to require certain *physical* remediation ( such as compassion, medicine, food,etc) before she can come to a point where she could be capable of addressing her various forms of mental delusion and suffering. On the other hand, someone else who has led a relatively comfortable life may reduce their food intake and cease eating certain foods altogether in order to address his attachments and suffering.

    • So in the former case, the physical situation of food deprivation seems to constitute a certain amount of suffering in and of itself. This would seem to suggest that the physical world can have a profound effect on our nonphysical state.
      In the latter case, it is already a mental state that enables the person to freely choose a particular practice, in order to enhance and cultivate their mental state further.

  4. Clarification question: You wrote “So it would appear that he must also reject premise 2, the premise that King accepts. It is an odd rejection to me, because I’m not sure how one could get to the idea that rāga, dveṣa and moha are not primarily “in our heads””. Isn’t it that P. is saying that rāga, dveṣa and moha are in our heads, but their *causes* are in the world?

  5. @Amod,

    Your take on prajñā and samādhi interests me, as showing how we now trip over the philology which defined Sanskrit studies as an academic arena. You are up against positivism here, seeking to reduce knowledge to matters of objective fact. And in that vein, James Haughton Woods translating the Yoga Sutra for the Harvard Oriental Series, and rendering samādhi as concentration, as of the mind.

    I now render it as articulation, as of speech, which is always situated, by how we are in the moment poised, the muscles setting an undertone in the larynx. And I now find a subtext in the Bhasya, one of a whole series of layered commentar*IES, noted by Bhojaraja, which addresses this problem, noting that words are natively universals, and as such do not engage particulars.

    That Vedantic take set the scene for the Grammarian who reordered the text, while addressing an early Abidharma text which was brushed aside as the school matured, now recovered by Noa Ronkin in Early Buddhist Metaphysics. That settles another philological red herring for me: the Grammarian’s practical yoga for students then set a baseline for Buddhist refinement of meditation, which yoga practice, attuned to breathing, simply does not match.

    With that said, I’m now understanding Buddhism as addressing a kind of entanglement with circumstance, as in guilt by association, stereotypes of background, and much more that is painful and disfunctional. Yet actively sought out by positivism! I would support any effort to clear away the residues of their crabby philology, and avoid the habit of merely stirring controversy to ride the currents of rhetoric, which are hopelessly entangled.

    Like Harvard’s approach to the Internet, which gave us the social network ancestral to Facebook, and now exposed as hopelessly compromised by spying, advertising interests, and reactionary meme-riding. . .

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