On resolving the neo-early Buddhist contradiction

I’m very grateful to Mike Slott for his helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.


The latest issue of Tricycle Magazine (Winter 2021), which came out last November, featured an article I wrote entitled ‘The New Tradition of Early Buddhism’. It fills me with joy that the piece has generated some discussion, as this was my intention. But I also know that some people (mis)interpreted me as defending traditional Buddhism. This is not what I did. My piece was descriptive, not normative: I described a contradiction within what I called ‘neo-early Buddhism’, but I deliberately refrained from saying how that contradiction should be resolved, e.g. by recovering traditional perspectives. So now I want to offer the normative counterpart to that article and reflect on how we may respond to the contradiction I pointed out in it.

A contradiction in neo-early Buddhist thought

The crux of my argument was that the doctrine that ‘Anything Conditioned and Impermanent is Dukkha’ (from now on, ACID) is necessarily renunciant, and therefore incompatible with a life- affirming orientation. Since neo-early Buddhism holds both, it’s inconsistent. This neo-early Buddhist contradiction hides well because we’re in the habit of reinterpreting what dukkha means, so that ACID looks like a fact when in reality it’s a judgement or a choice of emphasis—one which makes a lot of sense in a world-denying orientation, but not in a life-affirming one.

Tricycle made an editorial decision to delete the sentence where I identified the neo-early Buddhists. I avoided naming individual names, but I mentioned two institutions: the Insight Meditation Society in the US, which recently started self-identifying as ‘early Buddhist’, and the Bodhi College in Europe, whose motto is ‘Early Buddhist teaching for today’. I can understand why Tricycle would do this, but removing the bit where I defined the target of my critique obscured my argument, and I heard from a few confused readers wondering who I was talking about.

Perhaps some of those neo-early Buddhists thought I was defending traditional Buddhism because they felt attacked (rightly so), and because no matter how much we value impartiality, I suspect that when something is not as biased towards our position as we’d like it to be, we tend to see it as biased towards the other side.

I get that emphasizing that contradiction can give the wrong impression, but I also wrote a few times that I don’t consider reinterpreting a problem and that I even agree in some cases. What I did criticise was not being explicit about reinterpretations and ‘stopping halfway’, without facing and solving the problems those created. While the average practitioner doesn’t lose any sleep over philosophical coherence, they can still feel it (or its lack); so if neo-early Buddhism isn’t transparent enough with its reinterpretations, it can foster confusion in practitioners.

That’s the most normative I got in the article. I sympathized with the fears connected to following certain lines of thought to their last consequences (e.g. if we replace a renunciant with a life- affirming framework, what else might we need to change or let go of?), but I encouraged us to do so collectively. To me, this leaked my own position in the debate. Perhaps it wasn’t clear.

How to resolve this contradiction

Dharmically, I identify (sort of) as a neo-early Buddhist, as a secular Buddhist, and perhaps as a metamodern Buddhist—but that would require another article. To resolve the contradiction I’ve sketched, I see the following three options:

  1. Cease to be life-affirming and stick to a more renunciant message.
  2. Let go of the doctrine that anything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha.
  3. Consciously and explicitly resignify that doctrine.

Option 1 implies accepting ACID, so 1 and 2 are mutually exclusive. Since I don’t think life-affirmation is negotiable for neo-early Buddhists, option 1 is out. Option 2 seems more radical or blasphemous than it actually is—later Buddhisms already went for it. This one can be combined with option 3. On its own, I find option 3 bland and insufficient. I choose option 2.

ACID performs a valuable psychological function: it helps us accept the inevitable dukkha of our existence. But since the changing and conditioned gives rise to both joys and sorrows, both satisfaction and dissatisfaction, I see no convincing reason to summarise it as ‘unsatisfactory’. Something very natural inside us turns away from the fleeting, from finitude and instability. I cherish this impulse, it has wise things to contribute. But in the end I don’t require permanence in order to find something valuable or meaningful. This is why I reject option 1.

The great Sri Lankan scholar P. D. Premasiri offers an example of option 3 in a paper published in 1981*. He argues that dukkha, in its second and third meanings (those of impermanence and conditioned existence), is not an ontological claim about the world, but rather a psychological fact of the unawakened mind: we suffer around the unreliability and change of our experiences. If I read him correctly, he reduces ACID to what the texts call domestic unhappiness (gehasita domanassa). Then of course this dukkha is not a fact about the world, because awakened beings who are still in the world have overcome it. (The Theravāda Abhidhamma likewise posits that awakened ones feel no mental or emotional suffering.)

I think Premasiri is on to something here, but I’m not convinced he accurately reflects the phase of Buddhist thought called early Buddhism. Because if he were correct, then ACID would not be true for awakened people, it would not apply to them as a psychological truth, since they have gone beyond that dukkha. Why would they uphold ACID then? In early Buddhism, awakened ones are precisely those who truly know and see that ACID is the case, that it’s true that anything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha. Yet if their awakening consists in overcoming that type of dukkha, wouldn’t their discovery be the exact opposite?

This doesn’t work. The ACID doctrine maintained by liberated people in early Buddhism and classical Theravāda must be something else; it cannot refer to mental suffering. My Tricycle piece suggested ACID is a meaning-making strategy in a renunciant or world-denying system. (But again, nonsensical in a life-affirming dharma.) What’s more, if the big insight awaiting us were just that we tend to suffer around the conditioned and impermanent, well, that would be a rather anticlimactic awakening to me.

I said Premasiri is on to something because I agree with him as long as we’re interpreting or philosophising rather than trying to be historically accurate. If we do an exercise in Buddhist theology, we can interpret that what the practitioner must understand is how ACID holds true for the unawakened, because that’s what they often experience—ACID characterises a lot of unawakened experience. But then, awakening reveals precisely that the conditioned & impermanent are not inherently dukkha. Not inherently because in an awakened mode one perceives and relates to experience differently. This is my attempt at option 3, building on Premasiri, but together with option 2: rejecting ACID.

Someone might consider that, underneath the renunciant language of their time and place, early Buddhist texts implicitly mean what I have just said: that the conditioned and impermanent are not in themselves dukkha. But since the texts don’t actually say it, from a historical perspective we cannot associate early Buddhism with this idea. In contrast, later forms of the dharma such as emptiness teachings and Vajrayana did express the view that to see existence inherently as dukkha is a discrimination. We can then be neo-early Buddhists: we keep the early texts as a source of inspiration in many regards, but also drink from other dharma perspectives that better align with a life-affirming framework.

Neo-early Buddhism seldom engages in theology openly in the way I just have. I think it should. These ideas aren’t necessarily hard to convey—at least not harder than some Buddhist concepts, and certainly easier than explaining how absolutely everything is dukkha. In this way, we would address the cognitive dissonance of contemporary practitioners who’ve been encouraged by their life-affirming teachers to read profoundly renunciant Buddhist literature. Reflecting on key issues like these can trigger uncomfortable realizations and lead to reconsidering a lot, but I believe that’s good and can clarify one’s understanding.

Explaining my choice

My current position is that we must move beyond ACID because, as I’ve said, training to see everything conditioned and impermanent as dukkha isn’t value-free. Quite the opposite: it’s designed to induce renunciation towards the worldly, and this doesn’t fit lay practitioners who seek a dharma for their worldly, daily, lay lives.

Early Buddhism counters this austerity with a strong emphasis on spiritual pleasures. Traditional Theravāda does so with inspiring Jātaka tales and other (derisively) so-called ‘folk’ elements. Mahāyāna has Buddha-nature: because things are conditioned, they contain the possibility of transformation—but then they’re not inherently dukkha, they’re just empty. In contrast, as a child of the Vipassanā movement, neo-early Buddhism is quite suspicious of pleasantness of any kind, though this seems to be changing, and has yet to fully replace the lived religion aspects of Theravāda that Buddhist modernism ‘sanitised’.

The moment I realised I disagreed with ACID was deeply liberating to me. I saw I had been pulling in two different directions, for I had been unconsciously looking down on the things I was (and wanted to be) fully immersed in. ACID devalues the worldly, and simply being unaware of the renunciant implications of this doctrine does not deactivate them. Instead, becoming aware of them brought harmony to my practice. I stopped self-sabotaging. As a lay practitioner, I fully engage with the conditioned and impermanent, so I cannot be constantly telling myself ‘but this is ultimately unsatisfactory’ as if these were the last word on the matter. I’d be shooting myself in the foot! In fact it’s quite an historical oddity to ask this of practitioners living a regular lay life.

I can see how specific behaviours don’t deliver the satisfaction they had promised, for example, without needing to hold ACID as an absolute truth about the world. Nor do the ‘three marks of existence/experience’ (tilakkhaṇa) need ACID to help us come to terms with how our lives (and everything in them) is finite, vulnerable and dependent.

I use ‘vulnerable’ as an ACID-free translation of dukkha, where vulnerable denotes that something ‘can be affected’. This covers the second and third meanings of dukkha (what in Tricycle I called ‘anticipatory’ and ‘potential’ dukkha) without the negative renunciant judgement. In its place stands the invitation to take care of what is vulnerable. With this I don’t mean to perpetuate the hīnayāna rhetoric—that renunciants do not care—but to promote a world-friendly alternative to ACID.

To sum up: as long as neo-early Buddhism remains life-affirming, I think it should let go of the doctrine that anything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha. Now I’d like to hear arguments in defence of keeping it.


*  P. D. Premasiri, ‘The Role of the Concept of Happiness in the Early Buddhist Ethical System’, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, 7 (1981), 61–81 (p. 65).


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COMMENTS

7 Replies to “On resolving the neo-early Buddhist contradiction”

howard

I mistrust the dichotomy ACID or the world. Perhaps the question to consider is: ‘If ACID is accurate what kind of relationship can one have with the world?”

Thank you for the comment, Howard. Yes, that’s the question, and my argument is that if one accepts ACID the logical response is what we find in the suttas: renunciation, disenchantment, abandoning, seeking a way out, not being born again. I developed this more in the Tricycle piece. But I think it’s uncontroversial that ACID is a feature of the denial of the world, and less world-denying forms of Buddhism accordingly deemphasise this teaching – think of Zen, for example.

ACID says that all of life (i.e. that which is impermanent and conditioned) is in fact suffering. The same goes for the ‘three meanings of dukkha’, which is really the same doctrine: that we should apply the everyday Indic word for pain and suffering, dukkha, to all of existence. If you accept this, isn’t wanting to stay and perpetuate life masochism? I’m inclined to think that those of us who affirm existence instead of seeking a way out already disagree with the claim that all of life is suffering.

The other point in your question is whether ACID is accurate. Personally, I don’t think so – and we must remember that ACID is a value judgment. The picture changes when we don’t conceive of life as cyclical, and teachings on dukkha become a way to accept the difficult and the tragic in our lives, but this is different than calling everything dukkha. So I’m curious, do you agree with ACID? If yes, why do you consider that everything that is impermanent and conditioned deserves to be characterised as ‘suffering’?

Kennyo

What if the value judgment on which renunciation hinges is not that anything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha, but that dukkha is bad? Call this second-order value judgment PLACID (the Problem Lies in Anything Conditioned and Impermanent being Dukkha). This would allow ACID to be retained, while dropping PLACID, opening up a stance that affirms not only life, but also dukkha. Thoughts?

Hi Kennyo, I appreciate your comment. This could perhaps work with my ACID-free interpretation of dukkha as vulnerability, so a part of me sympathises with the wish to retain this classical doctrine, while another prefers to let this attachment go. But in the traditional sense, I’m not sure it works, because PLACID still begs the question of why consider everything conditioned and impermanent as dukkha in the first place.

I see it as quite self-evident that dukkha is bad. First, a very primal thing is that pleasure is good and pain is bad, so all organisms run towards the former and flee/avoid the latter. Of course, for humans things can get more complex (again, think of the dentist!), but I don’t think examples like these override our basic inclinations. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Buddhism assumes that pain is bad when it presents itself as being about the erradication of dukkha. If dukkha weren’t bad, why erradicate or overcome it?

As I argued in Tricycle, I think it’s inevitable that teachings on dukkha get weird when we do not instinctively conceive of life as cyclical. The best solution I have found is the open reinterpretation of dukkha as vulnerability. Transiency, vulnerability and dependency (or conditionality) entail each other, they’re aspects of each other, and this conceptions leads me to care.

Kennyo

Thanks for responding! Though I don’t have a definitive position on this, ACID feels true to me in almost mathematical way. It seems possible (at least theoretically) to acknowledge this and still let go of the judgment that leads to life-denial.

Various questions lurk in the background here, for example about the role of belief in Buddhist practice, particularly in Zen practice, where the drive to go beyond all views is strong. In the Mahayana more generally, philosophical considerations breed complexity and ambiguity – even around such foundational Buddhist claims as that liberation means freedom from dukkha. Is liberation even the goal, in that context? Then, of course, there are questions about the internal relationship between Mahayana and earlier forms of Buddhism…

I’d be really interested to know how you see ACID being true in the way you describe. While I’ve considered it a contradiction to maintain ACID and not have a world-denying practice, I know many people live in that paradox, if we want to call it so. I tend to attribute that to not reflecting enough to see the implications of such doctrine, and I say this without any disparagement whatsoever: not everyone is philosophically inclined. But that is clearly not your case. In a way, I agree that there is a possibility to live in that paradox (somewhat), which is what Martin Hägglund has called ‘secular faith’ – the devotion to this finite, fragile, imperfect life as an end in itself. That paradox is also reflected in the Bodhisattva vows. Of course, none of that is the early Buddhist approach – which was my critique to neo-early Buddhists.

You may be interested in Paul Fuller’s “The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism”, which is an in-depth study of views in the Pali canon, and explains how the Pali tradition has understood ‘right view’ and ‘no view’ as compatible, as both being instances of not clinging. If you don’t want to buy it, you can find it as a PDF on ahandfulofleaves. Paul was also interviewed in the Secular Buddhist podcast.

Kennyo

Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out.

And thanks for your deep and honest writings.

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