The path corrects the mind

This week I continue my response to Patrick O’Donnell’s comments disputing my claim that in classical Indian Buddhism “the causes of suffering are primarily mental”. The discussion last time was abstract and theoretical, but it has practical consequences – which bring us back to Engaged and Disengaged Buddhism. Patrick has an interesting discussion here which I think is unfortunately confused by terminological problems. He says:

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).

The thing is, the Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta’s story of the poisoned arrow is not a warning against seeking an understanding of “metaphysics”, let alone of psychology. The “questions that tend not to edification” in that sutta are largely cosmological questions: about the eternality or finitude of the cosmos, whether a Tathagata exists after death. The unedifying questions are described as “positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One” – which psychological questions pretty clearly are not. The craving and ignorance in our heads are the poisoned arrow that we have to get out first, before we can worry about the cosmological questions of who shot it.

Patrick continues:

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…

Here I think we may have some translation difficulties. Paññā/prajñā is most commonly rendered “wisdom”, but it is not phronēsis, wisdom about how one acts in the world. Discussions of paññā have to do with the nature of reality (including paṭicca samuppāda) and with seeing that nature correctly (yathābhūtadassana). It is not merely assent to propositions, for it affects the mind in other ways: one who sees things correctly is not attached to them. But neither is it about finding the right thing to do in a situation; it is not about acting wisely (though that might follow from it). In my dissertation I rendered Śāntideva’s prajñā as “metaphysical insight” because that is what he is talking about when he talks about prajñā, and as far as I can tell the same is true for Buddhaghosa and other Pali authors. The proper perception that constitutes paññā is something that is indeed in our heads, and therefore it is at least two-thirds of the path that are mental.

I also don’t think “ethics” or “acting ethically” is a good translation of sīla. I view ethics as concerned with how human beings should live as a whole, not merely how we should act, such that mental cultivation falls under its purview as well (I sometimes describe my work as “ethics of emotion”). But even if we take the analytical view that “ethics” is about how we should act, sīla in the Pali texts is not about “acting ethically” in the sense that modern Westerners understand that term, where it has to do with active benefit to others. It is nearly always phrased in terms of abstention: what one should not do. (The Five Precepts are the most famous formulation of the content of sīla, but other longer formulations are similarly concerned with abstention.) In a sense it is not about action at all, but about inaction, refraining from action. In the fifth chapter of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, this restraint of one’s action is practised primarily with the intent of controlling the mind, and I have not seen anything different in the Pali texts: the primary purpose of sīla throughout these texts is indeed to alleviate the mental causes of suffering.

Finally, Patrick continues:

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.

I know of nowhere in Pali literature where any advice to this effect is to be found, and there’s a reason for that. It is the sort of view that is often associated with altruistic Mahāyāna texts, but strikingly, it is often not even found there. The view that Patrick describes here is basically the one Stephen Jenkins attributes to Śāntideva in his “Do bodhisattvas relieve poverty?”, in which “material goods have priority as a prerequisite for moral well-being”. For, Jenkins correctly notes, Śāntideva’s bodhisattva does give gifts to the poor.

But in response to Jenkins I showed, in my “The compassionate gift of vice”, that that is not how Śāntideva understands those acts of giving. The material gifts do not have priority; they are not a necessary condition for relieving suffering. Rather, they are a way of getting the recipient to listen to the bodhisattva’s teaching, compared to bait on a fish hook – and analogous to the way Śāntideva says bodhisattvas intentionally become prostitutes to draw men to them. For that reason, while Śāntideva’s bodhisattva indeed gives to the poor, he also gives to the rich! Even Śāntideva’s altruism is about getting other people to improve their minds – because, as he says, “all fears and immeasurable sufferings come from the mind alone.”

I’ll close by noting that I have recently come to feel more persuaded by Jenkins’s view constructively: it probably is the case that some suffering is genuinely caused by material deprivation, and that it is harder to be virtuous on an empty stomach. I just don’t think that that’s the view found even in the altruistic Śāntideva, let alone anywhere in the Pali Canon. There, the causes of suffering are, indeed, mental.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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