Buddhism as Practice of Desire: On Non-Dualism and Nirvana
Last night I had dinner with a friend, and mentioned to him how helpful Buddhist ideas had been to me lately in terms of dealing with loss, crisis, and the difficulties of life. And he explained to me why Buddhism had never appealed to him, and he described what I’d always felt about Buddhism, until very recently. Namely, that it was what I’d been taught in H.S. and college. And it isn’t.
Here’s what he said to me: “I remember learning the Four Noble Truths in H.S. Everything is suffering, desire causes suffering, the way out of suffering is to get rid of desire, and that’s nirvana. That doesn’t sound all that good to me, why get rid of all desire? Would that really make you happy? I don’t think so.”
And of course, he’s right, destroying all desire would likely make you miserable! But as I’ve tried to show in some recent posts, Buddhism isn’t about destroying desire. This takes some explaining, of course, because it’s against what most of us have been taught about Buddhism, usually in our World History classes in HS.
And in fact, we can see this in the Buddhist notion, nearly as famous and just as ancient as the Four Noble Truths, which is the notion of the Buddha’s way as the “middle path.” The Buddha saw the religions of his day as radically ascetic, divided between the highly conservative Brahmanic rituals, and the wild monks in the forests who practiced various types of self-mortification. The Buddha believed we should live between these various asceticisms and hedonism. And if the middle path is between asceticism and hedonism, which the Buddha is quite clear about in the earliest Buddhist texts we have then getting rid of desire is likely not his path. Then what is?
Why Isn’t Buddhism About Killing Off Desire? A Detour Through the Pali Language
One way to start answering this question is to examine the language used in the earliest Buddhist scriptures, which are the closest thing we have to what the actual Buddha might have said. Much of what follows here will concern Nikaya Buddhism, which is the term scholars use to describe what they believe was practiced by Buddhists in its earliest stages, which is during the Buddha’s life and in the few hundred years afterwards. This is to distinguish this from the Mahayana Buddhism that emerges about five hundred years after the Buddha’s death, and which becomes the dominant form of Buddhism thereafter, as well as the Therevada school which survives today, but which is still different from original Nikaya Buddhism, even if less so than the Mahayana schools (which include the later tantric Vajrayana schools as subdivisions).
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on Nikaya Buddhism, which is to say, the earliest scriptures, because if we’re interested in what the Buddha actually said, it is to the earliest scriptures we need to go. However, this is problematic to some extent. Firstly, Buddha was an oral teacher, and wrote nothing down, everything was committed to paper years after this death, and likely after hundreds of years of oral transmission. In addition, however, the Buddha would likely argue that such a craving for certainty as to his authentic words versus others is just another form of the desiring for permanence that his teachings attempt to alleviate. But for purposes of argument, let’s look at the oldest Buddhist scriptures, and see how even there, getting rid of desire isn’t quite the point.
In the Pali language spoken by the Buddha and his immediate disciples, a language often quite similar to Sanskrit), the cause of suffering is tanha. Of course, the meaning of this word has likely shifted dramatically over time, not the least because of its role in the rise of Buddhism. The term is most directly translated as “thirst,” which is not the same as “desire,” which is kama in the Pali language, as seen in the title of the famed Kama-Sutra, a later Sanskrit text which is a how-to book on sensual, sexual, and physical desires. It is also distinct from the Pali word lobha (raga in Sanskrit), which is passion, as well as “grasping” (upadana in Pali), or greed (kamachanda, from Pali words kama and chanda, which is an effort to get something). Chanda isn’t always bad, however, because the ‘desire’ for liberation is referred to by the term chanda, and some have suggested converting tanha to chanda is precisely the goal of Buddhist practices. Further help in understanding tanha comes about when we see that it was subdivided in the earliest scriptures into types, including kamatanha (desire for physical pleasures), bhavatanha (desire for something to be or exist), and vibhavatanha (desire for nothingness).
Either way, the Buddha is quite clear that tanha leads to dukka, often translated as “suffering,” but more precisely translated by some scholars as “dissatisfaction, consistent unsatisfactoriness,” of which according to Carl Olson in The Different Paths of the Buddha, “If one retrieves the root meaning of the term, dukkha refers to an axle that is off center to its wheel, or it is like a bone that slips out of its socket” (52). And dukkha is caused by avidya (ignorance, delusion), such that what’s needed then is a change of perspective on things, seeing them as they “really are.” The result is nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit), which literally means “extinction.” But what precisely are we supposed to extinguish?
This gets tricky. It seems clear that once one does achieve nibbana, there isn’t nothing, but rather, the state of upekkha, often translated as “equanimity” or “detachment” (and often mistaken for sheer “indifference.”) Another result is ananda, which is bliss, joy, or contentment, or sukkha, which is the exact opposite of dukkha, since it originally means an axle that is centered in its wheel. So it seems that we need to get centered, and we do this by getting rid of that which makes us uncentered. All of which bring us to the contentious issue of rebirth.
Why Reincarnation Happens All the Time: A Detour through Neuroscience and Quantum Physics
What is it that keeps us off center? This is kamma (karma in Sanskrit, different from kama, or sense-pleasure). Kamma/karma is a term which goes back to way before Buddhism, it is one of the core terms of Hinduism. It is that which gives rise to rebirth in the cycle of reincarnation. This term has many, many meanings, and can be translated as action, cause, or effect. This ultimately makes sense, however, because it describes how actions act as both causes and effects, for past actions influence us in ways that effect our future actions, or at least, our tendency towards them. This is why some people have linked karma to memory or habit, because it describes the more we act a certain way, the more likely we are to act this way in the future. This is something that has a basis in contemporary neuroscience, in the notion of LTP (long-term potentiation), though the power of habit is something we all experience every day, and don’t really need neuroscience to see as part of everyday life.
So if we’ve acted a certain way in the past, it gives rise to what many have called a “constriction” of our discernment, and this leads us to tend to repeat those actions in the future, because we are blinded by our illusion/delusion (avidya) caused by the influence of past actions on our present, and through this, the future. The link to memory, whether bodily, mental, or even cultural, seems pretty powerful. Habit blinds us to other possibilities, and tends to just repeat itself. The result is suffering, and so learning the Buddha’s path would be an attempt to break some bad habits of thinking and acting.
The most pernicious of all of these, however, is the self. The original Pali scriptures indicate the non-self (anatta) as essential to the Buddhist path. But why get rid of the self? Firstly, because it isn’t really there, it’s an illusion. According to Carl Olson, the Buddha argues in the early Pali scriptures the following:
The Buddha answers that we are composed of five khandas, which can be translated as heaps or aggregates [or] branches of a tree or the shoulder of a body…the five aggregates [of matter, sensations or feelings, perceptions, mental constituents, consciousness]…are constantly in a state of flux…mental dispositions help to explain why it is impossible to have pure perceptions…the fifth aggregate is consciousness, which represents a reaction… Ever-changing consciousness serves to explain the continuity of experience, time, and ultimately rebirth, even though it represents disunity rather than the unity of a personal self… From this perspective, a “person” is a series of clusters of p hysical and mental events that occur in a human pattern… [But] If there is no real self that endures, what happens after death?… The Buddha responds to this problem by using the example of a flame being passed from one candle to another. The question arises: Is the flame on the last candle the smae as the original flame? … there is a causal connection between the flames of the candles, although there is nothing of substance that is involved. Likewise, what is subject to rebirth is an impulse of kammic energy that is transmitted to a new mode of existence” (61-3).
The Buddha thinks we are like a pattern of quantum events that happen to dance together for a while. Of course, contemporary quantum physics actually takes this view, each object in front of us is nothing more than a relatively stable pattern of events, an intertwined dancing of energy which is stable for a period of time, giving rise to stable matter. But eventually, the energy will unwind, and the dancers will disperse, and then, where did the dance go? Ultimately, it was nothing but the sustained patterned intertwining of these energies. Our selves are just that.
And this helps explain why the Buddhist notion of reincarnation isn’t perhaps as strange as it might seem. Rebirth, and hence death, happens at each and every moment. For example, when we sleep, our “consciousness” flashes out of existence. It sometimes remerges from the depths of sleep in the semi-consciousness of dreams, but most often, it is simply gone. During these pauses, does our “self” cease to exist? Well, there is a body there, but is our self just dormant there?
As contemporary science has shown us, the physical form of our brain, the wiring of the neurons, is what holds our memories. And if, as many neuroscientists have argued, consciousness comes about when parts of the brain fire in sync with each other, such that our waking consciousness, or consciousness of any sort, is what happens when patterns of activation in our brain come into sync with each other, with small patterns as thoughts and the largest “dynamic core” as conscious awareness itself, then isn’t the Buddha actually right?
It seems quite likely, from such a perspective, that our sense of selfis the dance in our brains. It’s a process, not a thing, for while it requires the physical memories stored in the brain, which we can think of as a form of karmic deposits, to reconstitute, just like a dance requires the physical bodies of the dancers to dance it, ultimately, it is nothing more than a temporary process, a mode of coordination between the flows that are channeled by the wires in our brains.
From such a perspective, we die and are reborn not only each time we go to sleep, but in a sense, each thought and feeling is born and dies, and in a sense, we are born and die each moment as the dance mutates. For if this dance is nothing more than the beating of neurons firing in sync, then the pulse of these firings could in a sense be the speed of our thought, and some scholars have argued that these sorts of neural clocks, and how they speed up and slow down, explains why time seems to stretch and contract in its lived form, even if it doesn’t seem to do so in relation to clocks.
And so, if we die and are reborn each moment, reincarnation seems less, well, silly. What happens after death? Some Buddhists believe that our energies, memories, bodily components, and others go back into some cosmic well, and are then redistributed. And this ties into an early Buddhist belief that the universe couldn’t have been created, but must have been here in some form for all eternity, since even before a creation event there must have been something with the potential to do this creating, and hence, we were there in some sort of potential form.
Likewise, all that’s here now will recycle, because, as science has shown us, matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. And while we don’t know if there was something like matter, energy, or even time or space before the Big Bang, there must’ve been something like something for there to have been whatever gave rise to the Big Bang.
Other Buddhist schools believe that our self will reincarnate into another sentient lifeform, and in this it is closer to traditional Hindu belief systems. And how we act, via our karma, will determine which new type of form will be attractive to us, and since like attracts like, we can go down the ladder and end up an animal, or go higher and become a more enlightened human in our next life.
But What Exactly Is Nirvana?
How does this all help us in figuring out what nirvana is? In fact, this question has been debated, not only in the Buddhist tradition through the centuries, but in the earliest scriptures as well. It seems that, according to the Pali canon, that nirvana is outside time and space, the chain of causation, and it is free, liberated, and “unconditioned.” But just because it is outside of the realm of causation doesn’t mean it is nothing, it’s just that it’s hard for us to understand. And as the Pali canon makes pretty clear, nirvana is not something that can be grasped successfully by words, which are limited human constructs.
And so in order to even grasp what nirvana might be, we need to get beyond our traditional notions of what it means to be something, be describable in language, or of a self which could describe or be. For if part of the path towards nirvana is understanding that the self is itself an illusion, then isn’t there something paradoxical here? In fact there is:
“If there is no self, who or what realizes nibbana?… The Buddhist answer is that there is no permanent self to annihilate … According to the predominant Sanskrit viewpoint, to blow out the candle is not to detroy the light but is rather to transform its mode of existence from visible to invivle. Similarly, nibbanna is not the annihilation of the person or soul… What are extinguished are the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion” (65).
Now if the Buddha was enligtened and achieved nibbana while he was still alive, we shouldn’t think of nirvana as nothingness, but, as some have argued, no-thing-ness. It is possible to have this state while alive, and also after the death of the physical body. But does one just vanish after this? This remains unclear, at least in terms of the earliest Buddhist scriptures. However, there seems as much reason to believe that it is a state of simply being outside time, space, body, desire, distortion, etc. One is centered, blissful, and joyous. This doesn’t sound like nothing. Rather, it seems like one is liberated, but not gone.
Why the Buddha Argues for the Middle Path
The difficulty of grasping precisely what the Buddha felt about nibbana is what lead to disagreements within Buddhism, and this is tied to the split between Therevada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. The Therevada side, which sees itself as much more purist, views the approach to nirvana as one of removal, or as Olsen argues, “purification.” The Mahayana side, however, tends to the side which feels that nirvana is something that can’t merely be described negatively, but rather, in more descriptive terms. It is a state outside time and space, but it is still blissfull and a state of equanimity.
Nirvana then isn’t simply being gone, but as the famed Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna argued, emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit), which means composed only of infinite chains of causal connection to what is around it. For as the Buddha famously argued in his example of the chariot, if you take a chariot apart, is it in its parts? Which one can you remove and say it’s not a chariot? So it is with the self, or anything in the world. This is what Nagarjuna calls the emptiness of everything. Is this nirvana?
Nagarjuna and the Mahayana tradition famously argue that nirvana is samsara. And hence, what is needed isn’t that we leave this world, but rather, that we recenter ourselves within it, like the axle and the wheel. We don’t leave the world, we relate to it differently. We see everything, including ourselves, as empty, as void, as caused by chains of influence and habit, and we step outside of this. In doing so, we remove ourselves from the need to be one way or another, and become totally free. We don’t cease, but we cease being constrained, even if this means being constrained by a self. Between a belief in nothing at all (nihilism) and belief in absolute permanence (absolutism), Nagarjuna pursues the “middle way” of emptiness, between nothing and something. Many later scholars, particularly Zen Buddhists, described this approach to things as “suchness” (tathata or dharmata in Sanskrit, chen-ju in Chinese, shinnyo in Japanese). Suchness is an attempt to approach everything in our world by means of emptiness. Between fullness and nothingness, it is seeing the world without pre-conceived filters, learning to see it as if for the first time, being open to surprise and the new.
All of which would lend us to support the conclusion that nirvana is a state outside of time, place, space, self, and even non-self. The orginal Pali corpus indicates that desire for nothingness is desire as well, and that we should avoid desire for being as much as non-being. Both are desire, and desire for specific states. And if the Buddha preaches the middle way, between hedonism and asceticism, this is also the middle way between other extremes. The Buddha was critical of the Brahmanic notion that the world was created by gods, for the Buddha felt it was always there. But he also felt that the Cavarka school of atheistic materialist philosophers, a thriving sect in his day, were also wrong. The Cavarka believed that what’s present here and now is all there is, and after we die, that’s it.
But the Buddha also came up with his theories at a period in which the dominant approach to the world was the Brahamanic semi-dualism in which the goal was to see through illusion (maya in Sanskrit), to see the true realm of the gods. The Buddha believed we shouldn’t see through to the gods, but rather, he was agnostic about the gods. We should just see through, and this was enough to bring us to nirvana. And what is to be seen? That everything is connected in chains, what he called dependent origination (patticcasamuppada in Pali), the chain of influences which includes karma, or as Nagarjuna put it so well later, that everything is void. And this would include nirvana itself, which is neither thing nor non-thing, but void. And since it is the only thing the Buddha describes as being outside the karmic chain, it is either nowhere or everywhere. And likely, both, and neither.
Buddhism as Non-dualism
And this is why so many later Buddhist scholars have argued that we simply can’t apply human reasoning or language to nirvana. It is not something that can be grasped, no matter how much we thirst for it. And in fact, our very attempts to grasp for it are part of the very problem! This is thirst, once again. Once we see it correctly, however, we realize that nirvana isn’t a thing, or a place, or a lack, or a presence, but is beyond these.
And this is why the notion of non-duality (advaita in Sanskrit) becomes so essential to both Buddhism and later forms of Hinduism that arose in response to Buddhism. For in fact, much of what non-Hindus consider the core beliefs of classical Hinduism today, as based in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, were formed in response to early Buddhism, and systematized during the period of the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism, which many see as a counter-response to the shifts in Hinduism.
In the Gita, for example, one needs to see beyond the maya or distortions in our perspective produced by karma and make an internal sacrifice of all actions to Krishna, and become one with Krisha, an avatar of Vishnu, who is outside form, time, space, place, etc. Krishna briefly reveals his true form to Arjuna in the text, and he is literally incapable of comprehending the multiplicity of forms. This isn’t absence, but rather, radical plenitude, even if it is absence of a particular form, time, space, etc., but the potential for all of these. Beyond lack and absence, it is pure potential which can be actualized in multiple ways in multiple spacetimes.
And this is how much of the later Buddhist tradition then presents the Buddha, such that his bodily form was just an avatar of the principle or force or teaching or law (all possible translations of damma in Pali, dharma in Sanskrit) which the Buddha truly is.
Mahayana and later forms of Buddhism, as well as Advaita Vedanta of the sort systematized by the famed Hindu philosopher Shankara, argue that we should strive for non-duality, that which is beyond binaries, and hence, that which would be beyond even binaries and non-binaries!
Contemporary philosophy has many analogues of this. The deconstruction of Jacques Derrida can be seen as an attempt to identify with differance, Jacques describes the attempt to continually identify with the object a as his famed notion of the “desire of the analyst,” and for Deleuze, his ethical project of becoming-virtual describes an attempt to identify with the virtual, which seems a pretty great description of what nirvana is when conceived in the mode of non-dualism.
Beyond Desire, and Non-Desire
We can never know exactly what the Buddha said. Like Jesus, he never wrote himself, and his words were passed down orally for centuries before being written. And even after being written down, scholarship in devotional literatures from around the globe before the age of printing often modified sacred texts to be copied as what they thought should be there, rather than what actually was there. It is impossible to know if ancient texts come down to us unmodified.
In all it’s forms, however, it seems unlikely that the Buddha wanted us to get rid of desire, but rather, to get beyond the desire/non-desire binary, the nirvana/samsara binary. To recenter. To see and act differently. And to cease thirsting, but also non-thirsting. And this is why Buddhist literature is so full of paradox. It requires we move beyond the limitations of selfhood, and even language. This is why many have described its goal as moving us beyond reification, which is to say, the “thing-ificiation” of aspects of the world. To try to see the world from a perspective beyond time and space, beyond ourselves, and to use this perspective to help us live differently.
And this is also why the later Mahayana Buddhists felt that compassion for the suffering of others was essential to the Buddha’s plan. Because as soon a one sees that the self is an illusion, then we start to see just suffering, whether that of myself or anyone else, as that which hinders liberation. And hence, to liberate myself, I need to liberate others, and to liberate others, I need to liberate myself. And this means to identify with the Buddha-principle, the Buddhadharma, which simply means the teaching of the enlightened one.
The middle way, the non-dual path. Nirvana is samsara. The world remains the same, and yet everything is different. We still desire, but we do not thirst, we detach. And in the process, we paradoxically desire better, because it no longer runs us. We can live life more fully, and have bliss. Bliss is contentment, not needing outside things to be happy. But to enjoy them if they come, but not have that enjoyment turn into an expectation of further joy, since that is a trap which will create later suffering when, like everything, the enjoyment passes.
This is of course paradoxical. Equanimity, however, is the only happiness that cannot be taken away. It is the only secure pleasure. And this is why the Dalai Lama says that if you are to be selfish, at least be smart about it. The best way to achieve the maximum pleasure is to take the long view. Pursue bliss, equanimity. And then any added pleasure is just a boon, but you won’t be limited by it after.
The ancient Greek Epicureans in fact believed something incredibly similar. Limit your desires, live a simple life, and then no loss will ruin your happiness. Gain your pleasure from striving for maximum pleasure, which meant learning to curb unnecessary desires, and keep only that for maximum pleasures, which meant going beyond desire, and in fact, through it. Then each pleasure becomes a blessing, without also becoming a cage. Friendship and community of like minded individuals is the best way to help you get there, but ultimately, this too can be a trap. Becoming identified with the gods is the goal, just like in Vedantic Hinduism, and in its more radical agnostic way, identifying with the principle of desire beyond desire, or nirvana.
This is the paradoxical path of Buddhism. Give up the whole world to gain it better. Give up desiring to learn to desire better. Give up the self to be it better.