The Dhammapada: Socrates & Buddha Vs. Desire
The death of Socrates brings us, in a strange way, to the life of the Buddha. Socrates came to the conclusion that mental/spiritual enlightenment requires us to renounce bodily craving and our need to perpetually satisfy our sensual desires. Spiritual growth means mastering our desires, and letting go of the attachments of embodied life. In Plato, Socrates is nearly the antithesis of the Homeric hero. As he said himself, to philosophize is to learn how to die.
Nearly identical ideas appear in Buddhism. However, Socrates believed that death freed us to a higher life beyond, and the Buddha made no such claims. While Buddhism is not precisely “atheist”, Siddhartha Gautama speaks little about the afterlife, and claimed not to know. As an apocryphal joke puts it, a student asks a Zen master: “Don’t you know if there’s life after death? Aren’t you a Zen master?” The Zen master replies: “Sure, but I’m not a dead Zen master!”
They have different goals: Socrates renounces sensual desires in hopes of achieving enlightenment in life and spiritual rebirth after death; Plato writes philosophy and theology. The Buddha renounces the same things, but in hopes of living an enlightened life on earth. In many ways, Buddhism evokes both philosophy and psychology. Neither tradition espouses masochistic asceticism as much as peaceful withdrawal.
The theme of craving appears memorably in the Dhammapada, composed in the third century BCE and perhaps the most accessible work in the vast Buddhist canon. A key verse (189) promises that “whoever has gone for refuge” to the Buddha will “see with understanding the four noble truths”. The deliverance of these truths was, by tradition, the first public teaching of the Buddha and, in many ways, central to Buddhism.
The first is the truth of pain- sometimes translated as suffering; however, in English, ‘suffering’ is perhaps a bit too melodramatic. This truth holds that pain, or simply unease, is inescapable in human life. Maybe we could even use the term ‘trauma’: Birth is trauma; death is trauma; union with what is displeasing is trauma; not to get what one wants is trauma; separation from what is pleasing is trauma. In short, pain and trauma are inevitable for those living.
This seems obvious; yet, consider how much of modern life is geared towards the denial of suffering. Not just obvious salves, such as the overmedication of people in emotional distress; but the discomfort many seem to feel about being alone with their thoughts, undistracted by glowing, plastic rectangles. It is hard to think of Twitter, for instance, as anything other than a series of distress signals broadcast into an oceanic loneliness, in search of distant connection with an alien life form that happens to be our own. Distress, ennui, and malaise are things that individuals in our society simply do not know what to do with. Religious cultures might be able to entrust them to the Lord. We, however, avoid suffering like an embarrassing relative who arrived unexpectedly at a party.
The second noble truth holds that pain arises from craving. We crave sensual pleasures and further existence. Craving is accompanied by delight and lust and this leads to “renewed existence” to no end. In the comments, Paul B. noted: “It’s interesting that folks who build their philosophies on such radically opposed foundations as the resurrection of the flesh, the eternally pure soul, and the inherent perishability of all things (i.e. the Buddha) can all come around to the same sorts of asceticism.” The common message being: the drive for bodily pleasures causes delusion and spiritual suffering.
The third noble truth is that this pain ceases when we renounce craving. (The fourth truth: that we can surrender craving by following the “eightfold path”, will be topic of a future post.) By relinquishing this drive to have and control and being freed from craving, we are also freed from suffering. Since pain is inescapable, the best we can hope for is to experience trauma with a sort of quiescent detachment. And, indeed, following the old AA line about accepting the things over which you have no power to change does make life much more endurable.
However, why do Socrates and the Buddha equate sensual delight with craving? Okay, of course, we crave sensual delight, which distracts us from the contemplative life. But isn’t it possible to renounce craving, while still accepting the sensual gifts that come into one’s life, and remain uncorrupted? Many world traditions hold that, if your life is geared towards securing wealth and hoarding material possessions, this passion will consume you. But monkish asceticism seems a bit like a pathological response, even if the goal is to avoid all craving. It’s a paradoxically self-indulgent form of renunciation. One never really gets over getting over craving.
Living in the body seems to somehow necessitate living with other people. We are drawn to satisfy our needs together, even if we’re shy. So we live socially in a quiet and often unstated need for each other, and communities form around a constant inner struggle between our self-determination and our need/love for others. The social life and our correlated love for others- which is not precisely the same as Buddhism’s peacefulness towards others- makes us want to make others happy, and vice-versa.
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? Can’t sensual love make us spiritually larger? Aren’t some pleasures transcendent? If we are momentarily freed from pain by certain pleasures: sunlight on our face, good wine, the smell of onions cooking, an orgasm, a purring cat, a warm embrace, a cigarette in the evening, a good laugh, etc: while accepting that they are, of course, momentary and fleeting, 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?
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. I think this is what defines craving and its attendant misery. Though, don’t expect me to renounce a delicious meal and a beer with my beautiful wife tonight simply because sensual pleasures are transient. That strikes me as ingratitude and self-absorption. And remember that Socrates was a lousy husband and father.
1. Like most Westerners, I stumble a bit through Buddhist texts. Corrections, complaints, suggestions, and jokes are welcome.