Generally speaking, Buddhism teaches that unhappiness is related to desire, and we can overcome desire to be happier. However, Buddhism also comes to us in translation, so many terms are roughly translated. This means — depending on the translation — we can find different teachings and problems.
For example, what is meant by desire? Is it just want, a strong want, or attachment to want? What does overcoming desire mean? Does it mean ending it or just not clinging to it? Is Buddhist happiness the happiness we know or something else?
As for problems… How do we live and act without desire? Are desires really a problem? After all, I’m happy if I satisfy my desires. Isn’t desiring to end desire also a desire? And if I end up happy, wouldn’t I desire to stay that way?
AN ALTERNATE FORMULATION
Enter Philosophy of the Buddha by Archie J. Bahm. In this book, Bahm drops many Buddhist texts as inauthentic, claims The Buddha never taught The Four Noble Truths or The Eight Fold Path, gives short shrift to (or entirely ignores) karma, rebirth, no-self, dependent origination, impermanence, and claims The Buddha did not hold many of the views attributed to him.
Bahm’s formulation avoids many problems and he tackles others head on. In fact, most of his book is about an apparent paradox at the core of Buddhism, a paradox Bahm considers critical to practicing it successfully.
NOTE: I will frequently quote Bahm in this article. Quotes from him are in italics, like this. Additionally, any deletions will be indicated by […] and my summaries will be in [brackets]. Bahm’s writing style often involves long asides, so there will be quite a few brackets, but I believe I have faithfully preserved his points.
WHAT THE BUDDHA REALLY TAUGHT
According to Bahm, Buddhism can be summarized in one sentence: desiring what you won’t get leads to frustration, so to end frustration, stop desiring what you won’t get.
This covers desires about the past, present and future. It covers major and minor desires. It covers all emotions, since emotions are tied to desire. For this reason, Bahm ties his formulation with a typical (yet controversial) interpretation of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering.
Bahm stresses the importance of his formulation and states that people make a key mistake by addressing the symptoms rather than the disease:
The principle is neglected […] first because people mistakenly search for the causes of unhappiness in the objects of desires and then, when desire itself is discovered to be the culprit, because the locus of its application undergoes a sleight-of-hand shift, so that whenever a person tackles the problem in one place, it reappears, unawares, in another
In short, addressing specific problems rather than the root cause (desireousness), is like playing Whack-A-Mole with our problems.
STILL SOME PROBLEMS
Bahm’s formulation is not immune to problems. However, Bahm embraces them early on:
[…] First, it is natural to want more […] than one gets. […] Secondly, one cannot always anticipate precisely what will be attained. […] Thirdly, since effort of will or strength of desire itself often influences the outcome, one ought to desire strongly enough to ensure adequate effort […] [yet] desires commonly overshoot their mark.
Much of this book is occupied with the real show-stopper of a problem — that the path itself can be a problem:
[…] the desire to prevent desiring more than will be attained is unconsciously desired too much.
THE BUDDHA’S LIFE IS THE SOLUTION
The core of the solution is found in the story of The Buddha’s enlightenment. Bahm offers a different take of The Buddha’s life:
Abundant pleasures of the princely life he knew first hand. But no matter how lavishly he was supplied, he always wished for more than could be had. Finally […] he listened to the counsel of the wise men of his time: the root of life’s troubles lies not in insufficiency of objects desired, but in desiring. Surrendering his royal robes for ascetic rags and his palace for a begging bowl, he went in search of nirvana, the peace that knows no frustration. Trances, mortifications, fasts and the like […] brought him nowhere. Hence he learned that not only did excessive desire end in defeat, but excessive desire for freedom from desire also ended in frustration. His discovery of this fact […] constituted his ‘Enlightenment’.
Rather than treating The Buddha’s experiences as “mere” dead-ends until he got around to his pre-destined enlightenment, Bahm’s account emphasizes the importance of these “dead-ends” to The Buddha’s Enlightenment.
Additionally, rather than treating The Middle Way as a commentary on The Buddha’s mistake, it becomes central to the solution. In fact, Bahm makes it a point to stress that the middle way isn’t just moderation:
His historical […] insight, that happiness can be found only in the middle way, appears to agree with other […] Golden Mean philosophies in advising avoidance of extremes. […] however, Gotama’s insight focused upon one kind of mean, one which, if achieved, would automatically resolve the difficulties relative to all other pairs of extremes: his middle way is a way between desiring too much and desiring too much stopping of such desiring.
One can interpret The Buddha’s life as a metaphor for the “spiritual” search. A person is unsatisfied with the typical life and seeks “spirituality”. However, that also fails to satisfy. Having exhausted all possibilities, s/he gives up and finds happiness in the surrender. The key is the cause of unhappiness was not due to either life, but to an attitude that governed both lives. In giving up this attitude, the right problem was finally addressed.
This is how I like to understand The Buddha’s experiences. I don’t imagine him trying to figure out the meaning of life. Rather, I imagine him simply being fed up and giving up. In doing so, he finally just surrendered and accepted things as they were. When he did, he got what he always wanted: bliss. He was then able to connect the dots, and the rest is history.
This surrender is different from the mindset of the average person in a typical life and different from the mindset of the average person in the “spiritual” life. In both cases, non-acceptance rules the day. This is important because the subtlety of this approach can easily make it seem like the path itself vanishes. However, a moment’s reflection reveals this to be untrue; if nothing needed to be done, there would be no need for any path.
Again, it’s important to appreciate that the path itself can become the problem:
The problem of unhappiness is an ever-deepening one which can be grasped and solved only dialectically. […] one who finally gives up trying to solve the problem of frustration, thereby becoming willing to accept his desires and frustrations for what they are, finds the problem solved.
WHAT IS THE MIDDLE WAY?
Bahm has much more to say about this:
This way involves a double willingness. In order to avoid frustration, one must desire to stop desiring what will not be attained. But to stop desiring what will not be attained requires a desire to stop such desiring. In so far as this additional desire is also a desire for what will not be attained, it, too, ends in frustration. Hence to stop this additional frustration, one must stop desiring more stopping of desire than will be attained. Here a predicament arises. In seeking to avoid frustration, one finds that he must be willing to be frustrated as much as he will be frustrated; and also be willing to be frustrated relative to his desires to stop desiring as he will be frustrated. This double willingness is the middle way
Bahm equates the middle way with acceptance:
The middle way turns out to be the way things are (i.e., in all tenses of ‘are’) […] So long as one considers ‘seek the middle way’ and ‘accept things as they are’ as two different principles, he has not yet found the middle way.[…] only when one is willing to be as unhappy as he is, can he be as happy as he can be.
Unfortunately, Bahm doesn’t explain dialectic, but the context gives a rough idea of what it is. Still, I wanted to know more, so I searched the web and found multiple definitions of dialectic. The one that seemed most appropriate was Hegelian Dialectic.
Hegelian Dialectic reconciles knowledge by unifying opposites. It does this by a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Thesis is what arises, antithesis is its opposite and synthesis is the reconciliation of the two.
If we get a bit liberal and treat this as an inner attitude, we have acceptance as the thesis, non-acceptance as the antithesis, and acceptance of both acceptance and non-acceptance as the synthesis. So for instance, if I were to try to stop desiring for more than I will get, that’s my thesis. But I find that I desired more stopping than I got, that’s my antithesis. My synthesis is to accept both of these.
This can go on for many levels. One may find that the synthesis was not accepted and must accept the next synthesis which reconciles the previous synthesis (now the thesis) and its antithesis, and so on.
For Bahm, the goal of Buddhism is immediate:
The goal of life is neither more favourable rebirth nor extinction of self or of desire, as some have maintained, but ‘dwelling, here and now, beyond appetites, consummate, unfettered, in bliss, in (wholesomeness)’.
Although Bahm denies the Buddha taught the 4 Noble Truths or the 8 Fold path, he considers them compatible with his interpretation and views them through that lens. He claims the 4 Noble Truths are not separate truths, but 4 statements about the central principle. He then rejects the term “Right” in the 8-Fold path (i.e.: Right Livelihood, Right action, …) as misleading, dogmatic and moralistic sounding. He instead argues for other terms such as equanimous, calming, or even middle-wayed.
Bahm’s view of Buddhism is secular, simple and confronts apparent paradoxes head on. Although a great deal of Buddhism is dropped, the core of Buddhism remains.
As clear as this book is, it could have been clearer. I wish he explained dialectic and gave more details on Buddhist practices like meditation. Additionally, his sentences are often a bit long with some asides, and the near-paradox that occupies much of the book requires self-reference (e.g.: the desire to stop the desire to stop); this means his point is obscured at times.
Regardless, this is a refreshing take on Buddhism, and his sympathetic yet critical attitude is a great change of pace from many Buddhist books.
NOTE: I have made no attempt to research his claim that this was what The Buddha taught, as I’m more interested in teachings than sources. So even if it turns out that his claims are completely unfounded, it would make no difference to me. In fact, early on in the book he mentions his own philosophy called Organicism, and states that this reading of Buddhism is similar to it. Given how little I know about Organicism, I can’t say how much of his work is reading Organicism into into Buddhism…