This post is an informal response to an article recently published in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, titled Buddhism According to Pessimism.
I would be remiss not to point out straightway—as did Glenn Wallis, who brought this piece to my attention—the significance of such an essay even being published in what is by-and-large a fairly bland publication; a publication which, if nothing else, serves only as an epitomized demonstration of the insipid dullness that is contemporary Western Buddhist “discourse.” The significance lies in the seeming possibility, which the publication of this article raises, that Western Buddhists might be beginning to at least consider engaging with other, perhaps on their face Buddhistic-ally uncomfortable, modes of thinking.
The piece begins with an introductory survey, albeit indolently cursory and somewhat dismissive in tone, of contemporary pessimist thought. “Pessimism,” the essay opens, “has been making a comeback lately.” It would seem, from the way in which the author presents the overview that follows, that thinkers such as the existential horrorist Thomas Ligotti (The Conspiracy Against The Human Race), or the anti-natalist David Benatar (Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence), are lovingly embraced by the public at large. Despite this obvious but forgivable exaggeration, which I don’t see it necessary to spend too much time on, I would be much more inclined to bet that the popular social consensus around seriously pessimistic or nihilistic thought is more along the lines of “this may be cute and entertaining for some purposes, but no way in hell would we take these views seriously as pertaining to our every-day lives.” In any case…
While many pessimist thinkers “see a kindred spirit in the Buddha’s honesty about suffering,” the author argues that, in fact, these thinkers fail to acknowledge the essential optimism of Buddhism; that it offers a remedy for suffering as well should surely vindicate it of any accusations of pessimism. He concedes:
The Buddha did make several comments one can imagine Ligotti and company approving of. He compared the pleasures of the world to a bone stripped of all meat, causing more pain than enjoyment. These pleasures, he said, lead to anxiety and conflict, and in the end are no better than the pleasure of someone with a skin disease scratching themselves to relieve the itch. He compared this universe to a mountain of corpses and a sea of tears, and he described seeing just about anything at all to being speared through the eye. Not to mention the necessity of living off other creatures, he said, makes us all like parents who have unknowingly dined on the flesh of our own children.
However, as the author points out, this only describes the first of the Buddha’s noble truths. The latter three, afterall, are all about the cure to suffering!
There is an error here, however, which is so obvious that it genuinely feels surreal to even have to point it out.
It must have struck other readers, too, as odd, that the essay does not see it relevant to mention what Buddhism’s remedy for suffering actually entails. On the other hand, it should be of no surprise when Western Buddhists feign to forget or otherwise handwave away aspects of Buddhism which do not conform with their secular worldview. Yet it would take a kind of mental gymnastics, which even the greatest spiritual masters of the human mind would find arduous, to ignore the centrality of rebirth in Buddhism’s doctrines, especially as it pertains to the end of dukkha. Namely, it is by no means a stretch of interpretation to read the end-goal of the Buddhist project—that is, the end of suffering—as no more rebirth. Even rebirth into some higher, heavenly, realm is not enough. The only way to be fully released from the causes of dukkha is for the lights to go out. For good.
Is there anything more pessimistic than that?
Not that I particularly care about protecting some “original” Buddhism from the corrupting forces of secularization, to be perfectly clear. Buddhism, be it traditionally or secularly formulated, deserves no more philosophical protection than any other ideology.
What I do find frustrating to keep rediscovering, however, is that, to quote Glenn Wallis proper, “[t]he history of Western Buddhism … is one of evading the consequences of its own thought.”
The consequences of such Buddhist notions as contingency, emptiness, anātman, and so on, can be viewed with at least as much (and I would argue much more) coherency in pessimistic or nihilistic terms as they can be as affirmations of personal liberation and agency. Importantly, I think that such an attitude may even be more spiritually healthy. This is something which I am actively exploring and hope to write about in more detail.
What I didn’t take the time to address in this post were the article’s numerous straw man representations of philosophical pessimism. For example, this pair of sentences:
Despite his stark assessment of the anguish that humans often face, the Buddha also had a much more balanced view than the bleak void of Thacker or Ligotti. The Buddha asserted that life and nature also contain real pleasures and beauty . . .
I don’t think there is any need for me to defend Thacker or Ligotti by pointing out that they would be unlikely to deny that life and nature contain “real pleasures and beauty” (save any potential semantic tomfoolery regarding the word “real”).
I do, however, think that people are generally completely confused about pessimism and nihilism, and that there is a way in which a pessimistic orientation can amount to genuine contemplative insight and allow for more authentic ways of doing ethics. I’m currently working on a longer essay on pessimism and Buddhism (and the former’s contemplative merits in particular) that I hope to publish soon.