Search This Blog


Buddhism in the News


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is Buddhism Masochistic?

Author Ben Dench certainly isn't the first person to claim that Buddhism teaches self-annihilation and nihilism but I wanted to touch on his article because there is still a lot of misinformation in the west in particular about Buddhism. For example, many Americans continue to think we Buddhists see Buddha as a Creator God to be worshiped. Dench insinuates that the Buddhist denial of the self is escapism and abandonment of life. Unfortunately Mr. Dench like many critics of Buddhism seems not to have studied the issue enough to understand what Buddhists mean by the denial of self.

He says, "In Buddhism, the existence of a self is denied and the goal of Buddhism is to snuff out the flame of consciousness and cease reincarnation." Wow, sounds pretty bad if that's was the truth. We don't seek to "snuff out the flame of consciousness" but rather the flame of desire. As I understand it, (to over simplify this) In Buddhism consciousness is simply awareness of being. In Buddhism our current state of being is limited by much suffering. So why would a person not want to be free of suffering one day? None of us wants to suffer and so at it's core Buddhism seeks to snuff out suffering--not happiness and a sense of meaning as Mr. Dench seems to insinuate.

Now, concerning the idea of denying the existence of a "self"--There are differences a bit on the view of the self between Theravada and Mahayana so I'll speak from the point of view of a Mahayanist. Buddhists deny a permanent self because upon closer inspection through meditation and contemplation it is seen that the idea of a self is a delusion. Thus if something is a delusion then why would we want to embrace it? The understanding of this idea of the "self" being a delusion hinges upon the Buddhist teaching of Dependent Arising, which says phenomena rise along side each other in an interdependent fabric of cause and effect. This is because of that--and that, and that. This computer exists because minerals exist, chemicals exist, engineering exists, designers exist, assemblers exist and so on. Without all of those existing in unison--there is no "computer" as such.

We think we are an individual but if that were the case then we'd have to have appeared in this life without the influence of parents--we'd be an anomaly. Instead we have the DNA of both our mother and father who have their DNA as a result of their mother and father. You have a name but it was given to you by your parents. You have interests but they were developed because of certain conditions and influences, which arose from the infinite pool of potentialities of life. You can not say for example that you'd be the same "permanent self," which you claim that you are now if you had been born under different circumstances. The human manifestation is ENTIRELY dependent upon innumerable factors.

It's not, "You are nothing--period, end of sentence." It's more like, "You are nothing because you are apart of EVERYTHING." That said, however, the word "nothing" carries too much negative meaning. So instead how about saying, "You have no permanent self not because you're a bad person or a loser but because that "self" is LIMITING your enjoyment, peace and meaning. It's holding you back instead of allowing you freedom." When you realize that you are BOTH "you" AND everything else--How can you NOT see the "self" as limiting and imprisonment??? I like the analogy used by many that "I" am a wave:

D.T. Suzuki has the analogy of a wave on the ocean as symbolic of man’s sense of self. A wave arises on the ocean and looks down and sees the ocean all around. It says, “ I know that I am because I am not the ocean nor am I all the other individual waves, I exist separate from them”. It has separated itself from the ocean to know itself as an individual wave. This separation actually creates the ‘self’; it is both an act and a fact of this separation. Now it makes all its judgments as a separated self. In this act it is also separated from itself, it knows that it is but not who it really is. Now it tries to go outward to find itself but it cannot. When it goes inward it is also problematic, why, because the act of going inward is still the act of separating from the ocean to be able to go inward.

So this wave is alienated from itself, it’s surroundings and the ocean. But the fact of the matter is, who is the wave fundamentally? Is it the individual wave? No, there’s really no such thing. So who is looking for this awakening? The fact is that the wave is really just a manifestation of the ocean; it never was separated in reality but only knew itself as separated. It has to stop the ego process, the act of separating, in the hope that the ocean can rise up to see itself as both the wave and the ocean. It is one hundred percent wave and one hundred percent ocean, not at any point ever separated. The wave seeking the ocean/enlightenment/nirvana is the ocean seeking the wave. When the breakthrough occurs it is not new or just starting but a realization of what always really was. This is a non-dual duality. Both itself as wave and ocean.
JAMES: So we can quickly see that we are variations of the same essence repeating itself in beautiful, myriad ways in a timeless state. How can an individual wave feel that it has more meaning as just a wave then as a wave AND the entire, beautiful, amazingly diverse ocean!! Thus, Buddhism doesn't say, "You have no self (you're not an individual wave)...Thus you're worthless." If Buddhist teachings stopped there as Ben Dench seems to be implying then yeah, that would be pretty miserable. If that's what someone thought Buddhism to be then I can see why someone like Mr. Dench would say it's masochistic and leads to feelings of meaninglessness. However, you just read in the wave story--that's not the end. I think some people hear, "You have no self..." along with words like "emptiness" and that's all they hear. That would indeed lead to wondering why in the hell anyone would want to follow Buddhism!!

As the wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson says, the same iron in meteors is the same iron that pulses through our veins--that's what Buddhist's are talking about when they deny the reality of the "self." It's the idea that we are larger than our individual "selves"--we are interdependent upon each other, which gives most people a tremendous sense of well being and meaning. Does that sound like nihilism to you?

Individualism is much more limiting and alienating than Buddhism as individualism's answer for all life's problems is extreme self-indulgence, which doesn't bring peace and lasting happiness. When self-indulgence doesn't work we deny everything and become angry, bitter and nihilistic. Buddha taught to avoid EITHER extreme of eternalism or nihilism. After trying to live both extremes himself he came upon the idea of walking the middle-path of neither extreme and finally he found peace. So when it's understood in this light it, no self actually gives a person GREATER meaning in life--not less. This is the context that is missing in the Dench article but I realize that in English the terms no-self and emptiness sound like annilation, pessimism, fatalism and nihilism.

~Peace to all beings~

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Barry said...

Buddhism isn't masochistic. But people are, sometimes.

(Along with: sadistic, paranoid, entitled, rageful, etc. And also: joyous, compassionate, wise, generous, kind, helpful, etc.)

flowers said...

Flowers to be the most Important Part of every occasion used for Marriages, death day, for prayers and also for birthday Parties. So, want to buy flowers you will get every year, every month, every day, every Minute at huge discounts only at

tozan said...

It really doesn't matter what people may imagine Buddhism to be. We experience Buddha's dharma - which is not a path of pain but a refuge from suffering - only through sincere and sustained practice. H.H. the Dalai Lama speaks of Buddhism as, "a systematic way of comprehending the nature of reality."

Gina Monari said...

If spiritual fulfillment comes from unconditional self-acceptance and acceptance of our existing and potential environmental realities. We need not anything "in return" from anyone or anything ... gratification or pleasure or pain, etc.

Masochism, by definition is "gratification gained from pain, deprivation, degradation, etc., inflicted or imposed on oneself, either as a result of one's own actions or the actions of others, esp. the tendency to seek this form of gratification."

Spiv said...

The "western" thought places a huge emphasis on independence and individualism. It's so ingrained that it's hard for someone from that cut to see things outside of that perspective. I've had a couple occasions where friends trumpeted their level of independence, and where shocked and offended when I giggled and told them there was no such thing.

Why? You did not plant the seed, grow the cotton, spin the fibers, weave the cloth, and make your own shirt while growing your own food and mining the iron/smelting/tempering/forming/machining the makings of your car. You did not build yourself a log cabin in the woods. Nor would it be anything but miserable to try to do so. We are a colony, like ants. Separate enough to see the each other apart, but so connected that we are hopeless without each other.

To deny your interconnected-ness and dependence on others- especially to try and shun it in the name of "independence" is masochism. You can be a worker, or a soldier, or a queen, or whatever. But you're still a part of the colony. It's meaningless and painful to fight that.

Great post, btw

Pete Hoge said...

Thanks for skillfully laying
out a counter-argument to various
criticisms of nihilism.

All a person has to do is look
a little deeper...and that goes
for any religion.

I bow.


tozan said...

Jame's initial comments on Dench's essay really cover the issue very well. In fact Dependent Origination goes deeper and further than most of us might think as it generates the effects we experience as phenomenal reality. What we think of as "free will" is for instance an effect and not a cause. The fact that we fail to cognize the underlying processes doesn't make them any less deterministic. By the time we become aware of our thoughts or feelings, they're accomplished and irreversible facts.

The second element that seems to confuse Ben Dench is a matter of terminology. Maybe "Void" is better than "emptiness" and perhaps the Sanskrit "anatman" is more satisfactory than "no-self."

MgcHamm said...

To follow up on Spiv's comment, part of the current Western fixation on a strict individual "self" is the result of our history of Christian spirituality, in the sense of it being "Platonism for the masses". This spirituality often depends upon the belief in a definite individual soul; the Buddhist sense of self, based in interdependence and impermanence, is effectively contrary to such a belief. In another time and place, it would be blatantly heretical; as it is, in a culture based in such a contrary belief but often distanced from the origins of that belief, it seems alien and hostile, and the words normally used to express the Buddhist sense of self of course don't help the issue.

PeterAtLarge said...

Nicely argued, James. A meticulous job. But my sense is that its cogency will go over the head of anyone who believes as Dench does. It's a choice to believe what we want to believe, and to disbelieve what we don't. Dench is merely talking about himself; he's not uttering any lasting or significant truth. That's my view, anyway!

Museum of Techno said...

I'm reading a book about nihilism at the moment (by Bulent Diken) and it started off by throwing me, by claiming that christianity is nihilist - because it denies an unpalatable reality, plastering over the inevitability of death and suffering with fantasies of immortality. So there's at least one philosopher and author in the west whose definition of nihilism applies to christianity and... presumably not buddhism.

Riverwolf, said...

As a few others have said, in Western thought, the self is everything. So some people just don't get what Buddhism is all about. When I've revealed my interest in and respect for Buddhism, my Christian friends use the same arguments as Dench. When I tried to explain, it was clear they simply had never explored any of the concepts that are the foundation for Buddhism. It's like trying to describe the ocean without ever having seen it or splashed in the waves. Now I just smile and tell them they have to experience it for themselves in order to understand.

Was Once said...

I wish I could convey this as well as you have. Thank you, and I forwarded this blog link to several friends.

Andrea said...

I don't remember when I found your blog, but I'm so glad I did. I check here've given me much to think about.
I'm linking to you, if that's ok.

Chess for Roshi said...

It's always sad to hear people's misconceptions about Buddhism. Buddhism is not interested in getting rid of the self because there is no self to begin with. This is not nihilism, it's optimism. There's no self apart from the cosmos. Where do you end? Where does the cosmos begin? There's no line of separation to draw anywhere, yet all the wars and almost all suffering is based on "me" versus "you." The implication is of course that you are boundless, like the cosmos. You ARE the cosmos. This is your true nature: birthless, deathless. But it's not enough to believe this or have faith that it's true. In Zen we work very hard to uncover this living truth for ourselves, a truth beyond all words and thought, really, a life-changing insight. And THEN we work for the rest of our lives to deepen our understanding in all corners of our life, from morning to night, for the benefit of all beings.

Ben Dench said...

Thank you for commenting on my article. Here is my reply:

ShareThis Option