On the first day of a course in wine appreciation I was presented with two samples and asked to describe their aromas. They both smelled like wine. There was nothing else I could say about them. I remember thinking that that would change, and that by the end of the course I would be able to detect nuances that escaped me.
And that’s what happened: the course became a training in perception. The Buddhist idea is that perception is a mental faculty that attaches words and concepts to appearances, and with time I found myself better able to do that. I found nuances of flavor and aroma that I could attach words to, that previously had been lost in the mass-awareness “wine”.
I remember a similar occurrence years before in an art appreciation class in school, looking at abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian and thinking that I could not understand why this was art, or why anyone would consider it beautiful. Yet by the end of the course I found I could appreciate those same paintings as great and beautiful works of art.
These were both exercises in art appreciation, or more specifically, cultivating refined aesthetic preferences. Ordinarily we call this awareness “taste”. By repeated exposure to different examples of what are taken to be materials of aesthetic value we endeavor to elicit more and more refined notions of what counts as beautiful and ugly, good and bad, worthy and unworthy. Whereas before all things seemed aesthetically equivalent, only open to a very small number of uninformative descriptions like “wine” or “painting”, now all of a sudden we can make a huge field of distinctions. For example when dealing with wine we can base them on age, grape type, appellation, viticulture, vinification method, and so on. Or for painting: cubist, modernist, constructivist, abstract expressionist, color field, minimalist; techniques of gesture, splash, impasto, material primacy; relations of color and space, and so on. What was one undifferentiated mass becomes a varied field of aesthetic awareness.
Perception arises with feeling: as our perception becomes more refined, as we can make out more distinctions and nuances, so too do our feelings. Some things that earlier we would have passed by as neutral now we find either beautiful or ugly. Sometimes we can articulate why we find it so: we say that this Pollock is good-of-kind, or that it has a depth and gestural vibrancy that others lack. We say that that sculpture is kitschy trash. Or we look to describe a glass of wine as “natural” as versus “spoofulated”.
Other times we cannot articulate why we like one thing rather than another; we simply find ourselves presented with inexplicable aesthetic preferences. At base this is how it always is: even with those preferences we can articulate, the question can always be asked, “Why do you like this rather than that?” Eventually the question must end with an expression of brute preference. This is why disagreements over taste can never be fully resolved.
What is the point of this aesthetic refinement? Part of it is social, having to do with the “sophistication” (or snobbery) of class hierarchy. We learn to value particular perceptual refinements over others not solely due to their intrinsic features, but because they are the fashion of the day, and as such serve as codes for, or markers of, social class. For example, simply to have had the exposure necessary to make and understand the relevant distinctions requires a large amount of time and money. Seen in this way, articles such as one recent essay attributing the “downfall of the fine arts” to capitalism’s role in overthrowing the taste of “royal and aristocratic patrons” misses the forest for the trees. The shift in patronage is business as usual, trading one set of fashionistas for another. The difference is that in the absence of a hereditary nobility, social competition is heightened. Its code-games become more complex.
Learning aesthetic refinement is also said to make life more pleasurable and hence more worth living. Not only do we see things as beautiful that otherwise we would not have, but the beauty we see is more exalted or beautiful than the ordinary beauty we see around us as untrained observers.
In that sense some may say that a training in aesthetic refinement is essential to the ethical end of living the Good Life (eudaimonia): without it we are incapable of reaching the highest pleasure, a pleasure that makes life worth living. I am not sure whether anyone in the Western tradition ever quite put the matter in those terms, but I don’t think this is too far away from how the importance of cultivating aesthetics is often put.
In his Utilitarianism, JS Mill ascribes to a form of ethical hedonism similar to this. He notes that the Epicureans, sophisticated Greek hedonists, were accused of holding “a doctrine worthy only of swine”, since swine are just as capable of pleasure as humans. In response both the Epicureans and Mill claim that humans are capable of higher pleasures than swine: Mill puts forward a form of hedonism in which the “higher pleasures” are those of the “intellect”” or “imagination”, as contrasted with the lower ones, which are based on “mere sensation”.
So it might be said that in cultivating refined aesthetic preferences one gains access to these kinds of intellectual and imaginative pleasures: after all, pigs are not capable of such refined preferences. So far as we know, those are exclusively available to humans. If so, then perhaps the Good Life lies in the cultivation of such refined tastes: it is in learning to appreciate food, drink, music, dance, sport, painting, sculpture, fashion, architecture, perfume, graphic design, the beauties of nature, and so on.
It is too quick to respond that ethical hedonism is obviously wrong. After all even the Buddha claims that nibbāna is the greatest pleasure (paramaṃ sukhaṃ). (E.g., Dhammapada 203-4).
He even provides a three tiered ranking of pleasures, with “carnal” sense pleasures at the bottom, “spiritual” (nirāmisa = non-carnal) ones realized in jhāna at the middle, and “more spiritual than the spiritual” in nibbāna at the top. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 36.31). So it does seem that in a way the Buddha is arguing for a form of ethical hedonism, whereby in order to find the Good Life (nibbāna) we search out the greatest possible pleasure.
The Buddha does not include mental or intellectual pleasures among the carnal. He confines discussion to the “five cords of sensual pleasure”: eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, and from there goes to jhānic pleasures, which wean us from carnal pleasures. Then the pleasure of nibbāna comes across as a form of mental or “intellectual” pleasure:
And what, bhikkhus, is happiness (sukhaṃ) more spiritual than the spiritual? When a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed reviews his mind liberated from lust, liberated from hatred, liberated from delusion, there arises happiness. This is called happiness more spiritual than the spiritual. (SN 36.31).
This is an example of an “unworldly pleasant feeling” of the kind mentioned in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 10.32); it is “unworldly” by not being carnal.
The Buddha gives further nuance to the distinction between worldly and unworldly pleasant states when he outlines six kinds of joy (somanassa) based on the household life, and six based on renunciation. (MN 137). The household joys are those that arise when contemplating past or present pleasures through the five senses. The list also includes the joy that arises when contemplating pleasure gained through the mind, that is, through “mind-objects … associated with worldliness”. (MN 137.10). Note that “joy” is not quite the same as pleasure; this is a list of kinds of joy that arise from contemplation, so all of these joys are mental, and perhaps even intellectual, kinds of pleasure.
The six kinds of joy based on renunciation are all cognitive and intellectual: they involve the awareness of the “impermanence, change, fading away, and cessation” of the objects of the senses and the mind. (MN 137.11) That said, this joy is to be overcome by equanimity and then “non-identification” (atammayatā) before one truly reaches nibbāna.
In the Bahuvedanīya Sutta (MN 59) the Buddha classifies cessation as a “kind of pleasure loftier and more sublime” than all other pleasures. In this case however the pleasure he is discussing is not a kind of pleasant feeling at all; indeed, it is a state entirely devoid of feeling. Nevertheless he considers it the ultimate pleasure. This is an odd result. The commentary explains it as being due to the state being entirely without suffering (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi p. 1262n618), but I don’t think defining pleasure simply as the absence of suffering is satisfactory. For one thing, why couldn’t there be a neutral state that was absent suffering, just as there is a feeling which is neither pain nor pleasure?
So the supposed “pleasure of cessation” aside, the highest pleasures the Buddha sees are intellectual: awareness of liberation from the taints, or of the impermanence of all sense and mind objects.
The Buddha and Mill
Both the Buddha and Mill say there is a hierarchy of pleasures, with carnal pleasures at the bottom and intellectual ones at the top. There are, however, significant differences in their approaches. In particular, while to my knowledge there is no explanation of what count as “mind-objects associated with worldliness”, I think we can expect they would include many of the intellectual pursuits involved in cultivating refined aesthetic taste. That is, the “household joys” that the Buddha outlines are not simply the pleasures of mere sensation that we share with pigs. Instead they involve contemplative, intellectual pleasures that stem from pleasures of sensation. And that I submit will include those pleasures involved in the cultivation of aesthetic taste.
So for example when we cultivate aesthetic taste we spend time learning and discussing about styles, schools, artists, and so on. We debate aesthetic merits. We learn to identify and distinguish. This is as true today as it ever has been. Although much of contemporary art rejects ideals of overt physical beauty in favor of more “conceptual” pleasures, at base this only amounts to a question of where we look to find our aesthetics. Is beauty found at the level of the eye and forms? Or is it at the level of mind-objects associated with such forms?
To that extent the Buddha would not view the cultivation of taste as leading to nibbāna. While nibbāna may be the greatest pleasure, it is not got at by a refined notion of sense pleasures nor by their derived intellectual pleasures. In a sense cultivating aesthetic taste simply makes things more difficult by making the pursuit of actual pleasure more complex and harder to achieve. Whereas before one was satisfied by a simple meal, now one needs a fine chef. Whereas before one was satisfied with a poster from the local shop, or the tunes on the radio, now one needs the latest piece from the hottest gallery or band. The pleasure involved may be greater, but at the cost of giving us stronger desires that are more difficult to support. (Cf., Aṅguttara Nikāya 8.53).
Cultivating refined taste proliferates and heightens our desires, binding us also to a proliferation of views based on taste. Such is our lot as aesthetes and snobs.
Now, it may be said that there are certain aesthetic schools that are in harmony with the Buddhist path: the Japanese taste for “wabi-sabi” or “mono no aware” that we see in the Cherry Blossom Festival for example. These highlight the transient and bittersweet (dukkha-esque) nature of reality.
Buddhists themselves have historically created great works of art, but they also have had suspicious attitudes towards the arts in general. So for example the Buddha claims actors are bound to bad rebirths (e.g., SN 42.2), and Buddhaghosa says that reciting the Mahabhārata and Ramāyana count as wrong (because frivolous) speech. (Heim 2014:70). As the Dalai Lama (1999) wrote,
[The] human capacity for experiencing deeper levels of happiness also explains why such things as music and the arts offer a greater degree of happiness than merely acquiring material objects. However, even though aesthetic experiences are a source of happiness, they still have a strong sensory component. Music depends on the ears, art on the eyes, dance on the body. As with the satisfaction we derive from work or career, they are in general acquired through the senses. By themselves, these cannot offer the happiness we dream of. (p. 51).
When we consider this kind of claim next to Tibet’s long artistic history, it may remind us of Plato’s use of verse and refined rhetorical techniques in his condemnations of artistic pursuits.
Richard Gombrich (2013) has written an interesting paper on Buddhist art as devotional and didactic in character, which raises the question as to whether what’s at issue here isn’t so much a rejection of refined aesthetic taste as its studied redirection. Or to put it another way, the Jātaka tales are as dramatic as the Mahabhārata. Perhaps it’s just that most aesthetic schools aren’t appropriate to the Good Life, to nibbāna, but a few are.
Can we learn the path to nibbāna by cultivating the appropriate aesthetic sensibility? I don’t think so, and I expect the Buddha would not have thought so either. While Gombrich looks to answer the question about Buddhist aesthetics by searching for (and having trouble finding) a Buddhist account of beauty, I prefer instead to look for what we have in spades, which is a Buddhist account of sensory pleasure. While beauty may be more than sensory pleasure, I do not think it is more than sensory pleasure when added to the mental pleasure it produces. That is to say, beauty, at least most beauty of the ordinary sort we consider when considering aesthetic taste, is constituted by sensory and mind-objects associated with worldliness that produce pleasure in us. Beauty is basically pleasure of the senses and thoughts about that pleasure.
While there are forms of beauty, aesthetic schools of taste, that highlight typically Buddhist subjects like transience or the unsatisfactoriness of life, I do not think that an appreciation of such aesthetics will get one very far along a path of practice. A Zendo may be beautiful for highlighting impermanence and selflessness, but in the final analysis it is all trappings. One does not need a Zendo to attain nibbāna.
In a recent piece about Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci says that Stoics should
avoid becoming “connoisseurs,” the kind of people who are so used to luxury and exoticism that they lose the ability to enjoy the simple things in life.
The Buddha would have agreed. Considered apart from its social role in constructing class hierarchy, connoisseurship is perhaps best seen as a method for producing strong desires that are difficult to satisfy. That is, it is a route to dukkha. Why do the wealthy, powerful, and educated among us so assiduously pursue dukkha? It is a question worth contemplating.
The arts are eternally seductive and fascinating, and I admit to being captivated by them. There is nothing I would prefer to spending time at a museum or over good food, or indeed to spending time amid the beauties of nature, which provide a powerful aesthetic draw. But the more I contemplate their enjoyment the more I see potential downsides. I do not want to overstate the case: not all pleasures are bad, and the Buddhist path is expressly a middle between denial and indulgence.
The question is whether it is skillful to pursue refined aesthetic preferences. These preferences may provide heightened levels of appreciation and pleasure, and may be markers of social standing, but they also produce dukkha. Seen in that light we should, as Pigliucci says, at least strive to avoid becoming “connoisseurs”.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, various Nikāyas (Wisdom).
Richard Gombrich, “Buddhist Aesthetics?” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2013 (5), pp. 136-60.
Maria Heim, The Forerunner of All Things (Oxford, 2014).
The Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (Riverhead Books, 1999).
JS Mill, Utilitarianism.
Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, 4th Ed. (Wisdom, 2009).