The Dhammapada: Socrates & Buddha Vs. Desire

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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26 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    How can you, therefore, renounce pleasures without forsaking the love and society of others? If I make you a batch of delicious strawberry tarts, have I corrupted you by sensual delight? And doesn’t pleasure sometimes make us wiser, even more spiritually astute?

    Aldous Huxley’s Island is in some ways an attempt to answer this question in the affirmative. I recommend it.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    I’ve never really understood the concept of a Bodhisattva. Supposedly, they are folks who have given up on Nirvana in order to stay behind and help others get there… but isn’t that another way to say “a really nice guy who still is hung up on the things of this world”?

    Anyway, the 2nd Great Truth has always bugged me too. Detachment from the world doesn’t seem an appropriate response… the Skin Horse has always made more sense to me:

    “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

    “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

    “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

    “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

    “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

    “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

    *THIS* makes sense to me. It’s not a renunciation of desire. Not at all! It’s just an acknowledgment that, as you grow more “real”, things hurt just as much… you just don’t mind.Report

  3. Andy Smith says:

    “don’t expect me to renounce a delicious meal and a beer with my beautiful wife tonight simply because sensual pleasures are transient.”

    Renouncing doesn’t necessarily mean not doing it. It means struggling with the desire to do it. But yes, this is far too difficult for most people. Anyone can read and appreciate Socrates. Very few people can practice Buddhism.Report

    • silentbeep in reply to Andy Smith says:

      Exactly. It’s not the renouncement it’s the struggle that’s the point, it’s the relationship with desire that is being worked out. I’d say that is what many monks and nuns in the monastery are actually doing: intense practice with desire and some level of renunciation.Report

      • Jim in reply to silentbeep says:


        If struggle is the verb in the situation, what you are trying to do is deconstruct the agent out of existence, so that there is no one doing the struggling. The struggle can continue on its own.Report

        • silentbeep in reply to Jim says:


          Well if you take the concept of “anatta” as a given, then it’s no so much important who is doing the struggle in the first place. It’s that the struggle is happening as a process, that can be experienced and that also can be fruitful for exploration into the nature of happiness. In essence: learning to be happy regardless of whether or not you get what you want all the time. Happy in this context, meaning liberation and freedom from suffering.Report

          • Jim in reply to silentbeep says:

            @silentbeep, “anatta” seems to me to be the default position. If someone wants to argue that the ego or anything else exists, the burden of proof is on that person. I can’t see how it is a coherent position for a person to argue that God does not exist but, saying that believers’ experiences are unsubstantiated subjective impressions, yet to believe that they themselves do exist, on the very same basis.Report

            • silentbeep in reply to Jim says:

              @Jim, just to let you know, some buddhists do believe in god or gods. some buddhist are basically apathetic atheists in the sense that the western ideas of a theistic religion, don’t resonate, so don’t really matter to them. Annatta might be the default position, but in terms of gaining insight through struggle, that is not something that is dependent on annatta per se. It’s more about being in the moment, here and now, and now experiencing for oneself, where the suffering is, where the desire is, where the impermanence, in the moment.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to Jim says:

              @Jim, This is all very helpful. I do think I get much better at this as I get older. Maybe renunciation is a tricky word. I asked my wife once if she ever has distracting thoughts when she meditates, and she said, “I just watch them go past like clouds.”Report

            • Jim in reply to Jim says:

              @Jim, Thuis is actuially to Silentbeep since the reply button on his is not available.

              I think the existence of gods and such has to do with a functional presence. The same as the ego. This is what Nagarjuna means, to the extent I can follow him at all, about things being “empty”. They are nothing but form, forms made of no substance.

              This is absolutely my experience of how language works . Words – lexemes -label semantic categories of objects that have one or more resemblances, criteria for inclusion in th category. The fewer the resemblances – semantic features – the more abstract is the label/word. The same holds for syntactic processes.

              The Structuralists held that languages could differ in an infinite number of random ways. Languages could have four tenses as easily as the three we think are so logically necessary, or just two, and they adduced mountians of examples to that effect. Chomsky came along and in his profoundly essentialist way said no, no, beyond all these forms you see in all these languages there is an underlying changeless reality we call Deep Structure. He said there is syntax on one side and lexicon on the other, which consists of discrete and primal units of meaning.

              So the game was on, with Chomskyans proposing absolute universals and the descriptivists finding counter-example after counter-example, for more than 40 years now. MOre than one researcher has pointed out instances in langagues where there is no definable distinction between lexicon andsyntax becasue the word derivationprocesses are so productive and far-reaching. Etc.

              In the end it seems to me that the state of play is that at the point you find a structure that is universal, it is no longer has much structure left. And I think this is true for gods and humans.Report

    • Jim in reply to Andy Smith says:

      @Andy Smith, “don’t expect me to renounce a delicious meal and a beer with my beautiful wife tonight simply because sensual pleasures are transient.”

      Don’t expect the effort of renunciation to be anything more than another ego-centered feat of willpower.Report

  4. Paul B says:

    I think the Buddhist concept of anatta or “not-self,” which I had in mind while making the comment Rufus quotes, is central to the discussion here.

    If there is some kind of enduring self, whether Plato’s ideal soul or the Pharisees’ enduring resurrected flesh, then the primary concern of asceticism is basically to maintain that self in a proper relationship to the world. And if, in turn, asceticism is merely a means to that end, then it makes sense to wonder if it’s actually correct — after all, maybe God wants us all to enjoy the joys of his creation.

    But if, as the Buddha* maintained, the “I” that experiences pleasure and pain is an illusion — some sort of contingency in the karmic flux — then asceticism isn’t really a means to anything, it’s simply the truth. Holding on to desire is the way the illusory self maintains its hold, and so we have to let go of the desire to let go of the self.

    *I should point out that (a) I’m pretty much a novice when it comes to Buddhism and (b) I’m nevertheless in strong philosophical agreement with the no-self concept, so maybe I’m only shoehorning my own beliefs onto the Buddha. Assuming, of course, that there’s any “I” to have those beliefs.Report

    • sam in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B,

      “Assuming, of course, that there’s any “I” to have those beliefs.”

      I once made some remark about the “nonreality” of “the I” to a Zen Master. She reached over and pinched me real hard and said, “Who felt that?” I said, “Ouch, I did.” “Right,” she said, “you did.” That was a defining moment in my practice. Wittgenstein said that philosophy, as he practiced it anyway, leaves everything as it is. So Buddhist practice, or at least the Zen practice I’m familiar with, leaves everything as it is. Here is most profound koan I ever encountered.

      A monk asked the Master, “What is enlightenment?”
      The Master replied, “Have you had your lunch?”
      “Yes,” said the monk.
      “Then go wash your bowl.”

      The truth of being is the ing part.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to sam says:

        @sam, “Constant Mindfulness” is how I came to understand it.

        Do not be an automaton who does nothing but react to stimuli.

        Be a Moral Agent. Be constantly mindful of the choices and opportunities before you… and, instead of reacting, Act.

        Interestingly, the better you get at this, the better you get at this.Report

  5. silentbeep says:

    “isn’t this a healthier attitude towards mortal existence than living in a monastery and trying to master ourselves at the expense of controlling all the vagaries of life?”

    This is one of those debates in Buddhist circles that keeps coming up: monastic life vs. the laypersons life. I can tell you from what little experience I have with monks and with reading monks’ take on the Dharma that this “control” you speak of, is not how they see it really.

    One of my favorite Buddhist teachers was a monk for 10 years he is now married with two kids: he tells me the layperson’s life is much more difficult because one’s relationship with desire and attachment is constantly being challenged.

    That being said, I don’t know if “control” is really the best word to use for what Buddhist monks are doing in the monastery, your insight here:

    “Of course, maybe what the Buddha means is just that pleasures are fleeting, along with the rest of life, and that we suffer because we want to make them last forever or fill all moments of our life.”

    Well as a student of Buddhist philosophy and buddhist meditator (novice siix years now) I’d say that’s a pretty good interpretation.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to silentbeep says:

      @silentbeep, Thanks- when I wrote that, it seemed to make more sense than the prior paragraphs.

      I miss living in Toronto- we had a Buddhist monastery about a block from our house and I’d like to ask some of these questions there. It’s entirely possible- actually pretty much certain- that I’m confusing the monkish practices of Buddhism with those of Christianity here too.Report

  6. Jim says:

    “Can’t sensual love make us spiritually larger? ”

    Well, if drinking tea can help, so can any other kind of sensuality. Drinking tea is pretty sensual. Isn’t this called Tantra?Report

  7. sam says:

    ” This is what Nagarjuna means, to the extent I can follow him at all, about things being “empty”. They are nothing but form, forms made of no substance.”

    That’s not quite accurate. See Dependent Origination — things are empty (sunya) in the sense that they do not possess own being: Things are not the causes of themselves. but rather exist as a nexus of causal relationships, each related to all and all related to each. See, Hua Yen and Indra’s Net — and if you think that resembles Leibniz’s Monadology, you’d be correct.Report

  8. Jim says:

    “in the sense that they do not possess own being:”

    That’s what I meant by “substance”., something that exists on its own, independently. It is a physical metaphor.Report