The idea that suffering is caused by 'craving an illusion' is one of the core propositions of buddhism. I'd like to dissect this with the help of this discussion group.

I have always found the selection of the word 'craving' to be interesting and worthy of discussion. To quote a dictionary "A consuming desire; a yearning.".

Stephen Batchelor sums this up in his interesting but over-compressed 'Buddhism without beliefs' as 'Craving for life to be other than it is.' To expand 'A consuming desire for life to be other than it is'.

In many cases, this analysis makes perfect sense to me. For a trivial example: getting upset about having a disagreement with someone is an example of 'a consuming desire for everyone to agree with me' - which is unrealistic. If we accept the world view that others absolutely do have different views from our own, then we can still have the debate, but the 'pain' of the dispute is removed.

Where I have trouble is with the apparent lack of acknowledgement of 'agency' on the part of the 'craver'. If the world 'is other than I would like it to be', I can conclude that I am craving an illusion and (to use the relevant Buddhist phraseology 'let go' of the craving), or I can attempt to do something to change the world such that my 'craving' is not (any longer) for an illusion.

Because I think that the general principle is sound, I think this consideration simply places an onus on the dharma practitioner to distinguish between the two cases, and it also says that the practitioner should simply 'let go' of any bad feelings that result when they encounter something unchangeable. ie "It's no use crying over spilt milk".

I'd be very interested to hear the views of others on this forum.

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You say:
Where I have trouble is with the apparent lack of acknowledgement of 'agency' on the part of the 'craver'.

If I understand you correctly, you are struggling to understand the doctrine of anatta, or no-self, non-being. The idea that there is no soul, no 'i'. This is not easy to understand. But Buddhist teachers have accumulated many teachings to explain it. I wont propose that there is no 'agent' but that there is no agent independent of phenomena. Agency exists as a form of interaction only, and it is always conditional.

The first explanation has to do with the five skandhas, or aggregates. The idea is that there is nothing that can be inherently described as a self, or an i. There is no place in the body or the brain, or chemical in the mind, that can be said to be or to produce a self. You can cut off someone's arms, genitals, etc. and still have a self. People fall asleep and then wake up with still a sense of self.

Instead what we have are aggregates, many factors, mostly organic and mental, that together create the phenomenon of appearance of an identity which we then cling to and then we suffer. This is practically necessary in our world but through mindfulness we can observe these phenomena and become more detached and aware.

I am not entirely familiar with all the skandhas, and the matter is very complicated, but I think there is body, mind, intellect, emotion and maybe memory?

Buddhists use the term 'mindstreams' to refer to the momentums of our thoughts, emotions and experiences, but there is no self in these mindstreams that is not conditional. Identities change, evolve and die as they interact with life and with others. Our inner child died when we entered puberty yet we think we are the same person.

Also, the other mark of existence known as impermanence helps to shed light on the insight of non-being because every seven years, for example, we shedd all of the cells of our organism, even of our bones. That means that the person that we used to be seven years ago no longer exists at all in physical form. We are an entirely different being from who we were seven years ago.

Trees, animals and all living creatures to whom we ascribe identities or selves go through the same constant becoming. What inherent self can they be said to have, other than a mental construct? This is especially true of social animals (like humans, apes and most mammals) who develop strong attachments to each other because that attachment increases the importance of individual identities of mothers and children, for instance, or of lovers, and social interaction creates stronger nuances to the phenomena of identity.

There have been studies linking the bond of lovers to the release of dopamine in the brains of addicted persons. Relationships generate a type of high, a type of euphoria or madness. This is a huge insight into the matter of anatta, if we are mindful. When mothers and newborn, or lovers, in many species recognize each other through scent in nature (humans also do this), and then bond, they are literally becoming chemically dependent on each other. It is an illussion that the brain creates and it's obviously conditional and strongly impresses the 'chemical' identity of the other. This socialization strongly influences what we think of as self.

This does not mean that attachment is not real or is not really experienced. What it means is that the identities are conditional, impermanent and therefore lack inherent reality. They are not real as we perceive them. All phenomena is mind.

In addition to the problem of illusoriness of self, there is the illusoriness of all phenomena. The minds of different animals, even of different members of the human species, perceive reality differently. Some animals live mostly in a world of noise and sound (like bats or dolphins), others like the eagle live mostly in a visual world. We all create what we call our reality based on these perceptions and based on how our brains operate in the habitat and world in which we live. Therefore, what we think of as real, as reality, is the product of our particular brains. There is no reality without an observer.

Recent quantum experiments have explored the relationship between the observer and the observed and how the observer shapes his reality. Quantum physics also describes a world that is empty at the atomic level, that is particles move so fast that they cannot be said to exist physically except as energy fluctuations or waves. The emptiness, or void that the Buddha called sunyata, which is the fundamental nature of all phenomena, is attested by science.

This is the third mark of existence (the other two being anatta/non-being and impermanence): the mark of interbeing, or dependent origination. All things are composed of other things and nothing exists by itself or has an inherent reality.

There is no 'thing', there is only processes, or to use grammatical verbiage there are no nouns, only verbs.

I know this is a very cold and logical, detached, insight into the nature of reality but it is reality and Siddhartha said that the more we get close to its true nature the less we suffer.
Hiram, many thanks for your reply; logical is definitely what we ought to be in this discussion.

Before going any further, I want to be clear about the discussion I am interested in having. It's about three things;
  1. Getting clarification about what Buddhism says on this topic
  2. Whether or not this holds up based on current knowledge of the world.
  3. Whether or not this actually useful, for example in the pursuit of the cessation of suffering. Often Buddhism is making an assertion that is not so much a statement of physical reality but a statement that 'this outlook on the world will help eliminate suffering'.

Under the category of what Buddhism asserts, you've mentioned three things: (lack of) identity, impermanence and interbeing.

Of these (my views)
Impermanence is a sure fire winner. Everything changes, all the time, and it's clear for all to see that attempting to reject this will increase suffering.

Interbeing. Somewhat trickier: it's a simple fact that (for example) via the physical laws of the physics, we could say that we are 'connected' to everything everywhere. Via the facts of genetics you can say that we are amazingly closely 'connected' to all living things (e.g. our amazing genetic closeness to things as seemingly different as e.g. a tree), and in particular to all other humans. But let's examine this: accepting these simple scientific facts does not necessarily in itself change how we see approach world. So: what outlook on the world does interbeing cause, and how does this help? It seems to me that it tends to encourage a more compassionate view of the world.

Finally, and trickiest: the assertion of no lasting identity. This one seems to me to be a pure 'this is a helpful outlook' assertion. There certainly are many senses in which we do have an identity. We have identifiable bodies, we have continuous memories, you can do a DNA fingerprint on us. There are many other examples. So I don't accept that identity is an illusion in the absolute sense that seems to be implied. Now, let me state my views on the plus side of the equation. If we interpret identity as the conscious part of us: as I understand it current neuroscientific thinking is that consciousness is 'just a' post-hoc interpretation that our minds put onto things that our subconscious 'collection of subsystems' have done. But I have long thought that identity is a collective result of both conscious and subconscious (by the way, I have a background in both physics and software engineering, so I have no trouble at all in thinking of a single entity being composed of many cooperating subsystems).
So, finally, how does the view of lack of identity help? I don't find that it adds anything that you don't already get from 'impermanence' (in summary: accepting change) and 'interbeing' (in summary: compassion).
I really enjoyed your discussion
This site is wonderful. Many intelligent discussions. I detest Face Book. For the life of me I can not see why anyone could be interested in anything on that site. Shallow is not a strong enough word for Face Book.
Reminder: Craving is one of the five kleshas that inhibit and in extreme cases deny enlightenment. I always speak of them as the four kleshas, since I think of craving (raga) as the twin klesha of abhorrence or rejection (dvesha). Either is fatal.
Sorry for the delay in replying...

Could you explain in non-buddhist terminology why 'craving' is regarded as fatal?

The reason I ask is that common sense says to me that some cravings (e.g. for water, if I am thirsty, or food if I am starving) are far from fatal.

The best I can come up with based on some recent reading is that the 'emotional weight' of the craving for e.g. water can itself become negative. So... it is different (less emotionally negative) to think 'My body is in discomfort because it needs water' than 'I am thirsty'.

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