Buddhism: One Philosophy or Many?
Buddhism is often presented as something like this:
Dissatisfaction is everywhere because of desire. However, desire can be overcome to result in bliss. We overcome desire through (among other things) seeing everything as impermanent, unsatisfying and without any underlying substance. This seeing applies to everything, including what we regard as our selves.
While this is presented as a single philosophy, it can be split into several worldviews. Any of the below can be used by itself to overcome desire:
- Everything is transient.
- Nothing is fulfilling.
- Desire creates dissatisfaction.
- Overcoming desire brings bliss.
- Self is an illusion.
- “Things” don’t exist
The key here is worldview: we are to see our experience through the lens of any of the above.
Naturally we aim for the ideal of complete cessation, but any progress we make in realizing any of the above yields a corresponding improvement in the quality of our lives. Put another way, we don’t need full cessation, but are happy to the extent we realize any of the above.
Everything is Transient
If I value something, some combination of the below will happen:
- I lose it.
- It changes so I no longer value it
- I change so I no longer value it.
- I die and lose it (along with everything else).
Nothing is Fulfilling
When I seek something, some combination of the below happens:
- I don’t get it
- It’s disappointing
- I lose it
- I take it for granted and chase the next thing
Desire Creates Dissatisfaction
My desires are not things to seek for happiness, but the reason for all my unhappiness. Unhappiness is nothing more than thwarted desire and to live by desire means I’m forever running on the treadmill of life. All my problems are due to one thing: desire. My problem isn’t that I’m disrespected, get ill or die: my problem is that I mind being disrespected, getting ill and dying.
Overcoming Desire Brings Bliss
This is the positive side of the above. Since all my dissatisfaction is due to desire, overcoming desire brings perfect satisfaction. If I stop minding anything, then I will no longer have any problems and cannot — by definition — ever have a problem.
Self is an Illusion
Desire is relative to a self which is a mental construct. Undermine the self, and desire is undermined. Past and future (and hence grudges, regrets, worries) only exist for a self. Additionally, some desires (like prestige) are uniquely mental constructs that serve this uniquely mental construct of the self.
“Things” Don’t Exist
This is actually a strategy that can serve to undermine the self or desire by undermining the foundation upon which both reside. Reality only exists for me as an experience, which is nothing more than a series of sensations and thoughts. For example, there are no “cars”; there is only my experiences of colors and thoughts which I conclude “is” a car. This process is so quick and habitual, that I see “cars” as things and not processes. Since everything in experience can be treated thusly — including memories, the desirability of objects, identifications, etc — everything can be deconstructed thusly, including desire and self.
Is Buddhism a single treatment of desire with multiple facets, or a toolbox with multiple tools to tackle desire, to be used based on the challenges and strengths of the practitioner?
Focusing on a single worldview is simple and one can delve deeply. Using multiple worldviews tackles the problem from a variety of angles and can correct subtle misunderstandings (or attachments!) that arise from applying a single worldview.
If you practice Buddhism and it’s working for you; great. On the other hand, if you find Buddhism complex or cannot see how it hangs together as a coherent whole, then perhaps focusing on a single (or a few) aspects is for you.
A Note on Dependent Origination
Dependent Origination is big in Buddhism, but I avoided it for a few reasons. First, I’m interested in Buddhism as a psychology, yet Dependent Origination’s most common formulation has metaphysical elements like Karma and Rebirth. Second, Dependent Origination is complex and counter-intuitive. Granted, this doesn’t make it false, but it makes it harder to treat it as a worldview. Imagine trying to view experience through a 12-point chain of causality or trying to figure which point on the chain one’s experiential process falls on…