In Buddhism there are two main unskillful approaches we may have towards the world: greed and aversion. Most contemporary dhamma discussions tend to revolve around mitigating aversion. To do that, we practice mettā, the other Brahmavihāras, and learn to accept and embrace the world with kindness and compassion, just as it is. So for example in his recent book After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor glosses the first part of the Buddha’s fourfold task as “embrace life” (70).
Perhaps this present-day focus on alleviating aversion has something to do with our Western tendency towards depression, self-hatred, and cynicism. For all our apparent sunniness, we in the West tend towards negativity much of the time.
But there is a flip side to this practice, one which seems to be significantly more emphasized in the Pāli material: the antidote to greed. Greedy personalities may find that practices of accepting and embracing the world are all too easy. They reinforce our natural desire to encompass, acquire, and own. On the other hand, practices designed to highlight the unsatisfactory nature of reality may work to lessen our knee-jerk tendency to want and grasp.
The Practice of Disenchantment
Two of the four “inversions of perception” that the Buddha says constitute ignorance are taking what is suffering to be pleasurable and what is unattractive to be attractive. (Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.49). These are profound and difficult teachings: while sitting on a beach sipping a cold drink we are not naturally inclined to think of ourselves as immersed in suffering. While looking at a beautiful scene we are not naturally inclined to think of ourselves as viewing something unattractive. But in both cases this is what the Buddha suggests we contemplate, and I don’t think we can really come to terms with him until we take this practice onboard.
Perhaps the most famous practices of finding the unattractive in the attractive are the viscera and charnel-ground contemplations in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 10). There we are supposed to contemplate our bodies not simply as viewed from outside, but also as a list of internal organs, fluids, heats, and gases. We are supposed to contemplate our bodies not simply as living processes, but also as things that will die and decay.
While such practices are intended partly to dispel sexual tension in young monks, the practices are quite general: things that appear attractive from one perspective (outside) will not from another (inside). Things that appear attractive right now did not before, or will not at a later time. Beauty is relative, perspectival, fleeting, and hence cannot be relied upon.
The Pāli scholar K.R. Norman, following Lambert Schmithausen (1990: n.17), suggests the account of the Buddha’s awakening found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26) may be the earliest. There the Buddha says he rejected the dhamma of his teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta since in each case he felt,
This doctrine is not conducive to disgust (with the world), nor dispassion, nor cessation, nor quiescence, nor super-knowledge, nor awakening, nor nibbāna.
Norman goes on to say,
We may also deduce that the words in the Buddha’s statement are in the order in which the various states mentioned in it are to be realised, starting with disgust with the world, and going on to awakening and nibbāna. This would support the belief that the Buddha’s aim was to free himself from saṃsāra, and all aspects of his teaching were concerned with the acquisition of means to do this … (1997: 30).
On this account, the key insight necessary for nibbāna is disgust with the world (abhinibbidā), which Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi translate “disenchantment”, perhaps because “disgust” has an aversive connotation that is unwelcome in this context.
The Buddha’s teachers’ focus on higher states of jhānic meditation would not have resulted in disenchantment; rather, they would have substituted disenchantment with the world for an embrace of absorptive meditative states.
Disenchantment leading to liberation: this is the classic, arguably the earliest, formulation of the aim of practice. It is a path of renunciation, but not an ascetic path. Instead it involves renunciation of our tendency to enchantment with the world. We have many useful metaphors for this process: growing up, removing the rose-colored glasses, setting aside the Disney endings. It is coming to the realization that nothing is ever perfect and only rarely and temporarily is anything good enough.
There is gratification in sense pleasures, in taking the world as beautiful. But there is danger as well, insofar as these “inversions of perception” (or mindsets of ignorance) lead us towards the further proliferation of desires. Having enjoyed our days at the beach, we look back on them sadly as we pack our bags in the hotel room, wanting more.
Such desires can lead to striving that creates worthwhile things, such as scientific or medical discoveries. But they are fundamentally unending. They foretell a future of constant unease.
This attitude of disenchantment with the world is one, I think, that seems foreign to many of us who are more used to the contemporary rhetoric of positive thinking. Disenchantment sounds so negative! We may even assume such attitudes have something to do with the Buddha’s focus on escaping the rounds of literal rebirth. No literal rebirths to escape, we may say to ourselves, no need for disenchantment with the world.
But such a response would neither be true to the practice nor to what is most fundamental in the Buddha’s dhamma.
Materialism and Disenchantment
We are primed to believe that the Buddha’s attitude towards materialism was universally negative. And indeed, negative it was.
The Buddha taught that materialist belief would lead, or at least would tend to lead, to a kind of ethical nihilism, wrong action, and bad rebirth. But interestingly that is not all that he thought about the subject. For there were many such “outsider” (bāhiraka) views that the Buddha contemplated and argued against, materialism being only one.
Buried in one sutta is the surprising claim that the materialist view is the “foremost” (aggaṃ) outsider view. For one who holds this view that “I shall not be, [and] it will not be mine”
… will not be unrepelled by existence and will not be repelled by the cessation of existence. (AN 10.29.8).
That is to say, one who holds the materialist view that one will not survive the death of one’s body will be naturally inclined towards disenchantment with existence, and therefore naturally attuned to liberation from existence.
I would argue that this is perhaps overly optimistic on the Buddha’s part. Perhaps in his day those avowed materialists with whom he was familiar (such as Ajita Kesakambalī) were wise enough to have achieved this kind of equanimity with death. If so, I would submit they were not necessarily representative of the run-of-the-mill secular materialist today.
Nevertheless the Buddha’s point is intriguing for those of us who hold to a secular approach of the dhamma. Our view may not be exactly along the lines the Buddha intended, but it is as close as one got, at least in his day. And that is for this reason: it is implicitly liberative, by teaching disenchantment with all things.
From the point of view of theology, secularist materialism is ultimately a kind of counsel of despair: there is no final salvation, no everlasting life, no Disney ending in the clouds. Instead there is the dark future of deep time and the heat death of the universe, in which nothing will escape: the footman’s snicker. It is in learning to hold such truths with equanimity that we find a kind of liberation.
The Dalai Lama likes to remark on how self-hatred is a contemporary Western phenomenon with little or no Tibetan counterpart. Perhaps he is right, and of course to that extent the practice of mettā and the other Brahmavihāras are particularly apt in the West. Indeed, perhaps one could argue that the relative insignificance of the Brahmavihāras in the Pāli Canon stems from the same fact the Dalai Lama points to: perhaps kindness and self-love was more prevalent and hence less in need of support 2500 years ago in India. It’s hard to say.
But then nobody is only aversive. We may incline in certain ways at certain times, we may even find ourselves expressing aversion more than greed, but we all have both tendencies in us. If anything, our contemporary consumer culture (particularly, as this is written, around the holidays) tends to heighten our acquisitive desires and reinforce whatever tendencies we naturally have to view the world through rosy glasses.
Hence perhaps as secular practitioners we should consider from time to time the natural advantage of what the Buddha termed “annihilationism”, that which made it the foremost outsider view of his day: its power to disillusion us with the world.
Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism (Yale, 2015).
Bhikkhu Bodhi, Various Nikāyas (Wisdom).
K.R. Norman, “Aspects of Early Buddhism,” Panels of the VIIth World Sanskrit Conference, Vol. II (Cambridge, 1990).
K.R. Norman, A Philological Approach to Buddhism (University of London, 1997).