Prescriptive, Not Descriptive

This is the third installment in which I discuss ideas presented by Stephen Bachelor in a series of dharma talks in late 2010. You can hear them at

Christians have some explaining to do. If, as they believe, God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving, why is there so much suffering in the world? Even if you accept that rebellious Mankind causes much of its own suffering, what about innocent children born with terrible afflictions or into horrible situations? What have they done to bring suffering on themselves? In a larger sense, however, to suggest that humans are responsible for their own misery is to suggest that God, the all-powerful creator, could have made the world so that humans would not cause suffering for themselves, and chose not to. Or perhaps He’s not so powerful and loving after all.

As Stephen Batchelor pointed out in his Fall 2010 talks, Buddhists have the same problem in reverse. Life is suffering, they say. But what about pleasure? What about contentment? Love? Joy? Peace? Surely such things may not comprise all, or even most, of our lives, but we still experience them, sometimes frequently and for considerable periods of time. Ah, say the Buddhists, such happiness isn’t real; real happiness only comes from practicing Buddhism.

According to Batchelor, both groups make the same error. They make positive, absolute statements about the nature of the cosmos. “God is love” and “life is suffering” are both ways of assigning identity, fixed on a cosmic scale. Gotama taught us, however, that fixed identities don’t really exist. Things arise dependent on certain ever-changing conditions; as those conditions pass, what is here this moment is gone the next. No wonder that our pronouncements of the Truth have a way of falling apart.

Batchelor’s mantra throughout these talks is that Gotama’s teachings are prescriptive, not descriptive. Gotama is not trying to convince us that the universe is this way or that. He’s trying to suggest to us what we can do to live a fulfilling life in the world as it presents itself to us. Of course, any statement we make implies certain ontological underpinnings; in Gotama’s case, the major underpinning is the nature of conditioned arising itself. But even this is a statement of change and flux, not identity. Gotama’s project is not to tell us what to believe, but what to do.

There are many passages in the canon where Gotama is pressed to make statements about the nature of reality, and flatly refuses to do so. There is the parable in which a man refuses to allow a poisoned arrow he’s been hit with to be removed until he is informed in absurd detail about who shot him, what kind of arrow it was, what shape the head was, what kind of bird the fletching came from. “These things would be unknown to the man, and in the meantime he would die.” Similarly, someone who refuses to follow the dharma until Gotama declares to him whether the world is finite or infinite, eternal or not, whether people live on after death, and a host of other metaphysical pronouncements, is in the same quandary: “These things would still be undeclared by me, and in the meantime that man would die.” (M 63)

Then there is the story of Vacchagotta demanding to know whether Gotama declares there is or isn’t a self. Gotama remains silent throughout the questioning, until Vacchagotta eventually gets up and walks away. When Ananda asks why he did not answer, Gotama explains that whichever position he would have expressed, it would have led Vacchagotta into error (SN 44). In these and other passages, it’s clear Gotama finds these kinds of metaphysical pronouncements to be irrelevant to his message.

What is relevant? The phrasing of the Four Truths in the first sermon is vital:

Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.

Such is craving. It can be released. It has been released.

Such is cessation. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.

Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated. (Mv I)

This is not the standard trope we so often hear in traditional Buddhism, i.e., “Life is suffering, craving causes suffering, the cessation of suffering is nirvana, the Eightfold Path leads to nirvana.” These are all identity statements about the nature of the world; if you believe them you’re a Buddhist, if not, then not.

In the first sermon, however, the truths are presented as actions to be performed. Fully know dukkha. Release craving. Experience cessation. Cultivate the path. The Path itself is a series of interrelated actions — seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, working, practicing, being mindful, concentrating. And as Gotama elaborates on these teachings, his prescriptions are all injunctions to action. Go to a quiet place and sit upright; be mindful of the breath and the body; cultivate kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. Know things as they arise, directly and for yourself.

And yet, as we discuss secular dharma practice, how often are we tempted into speculation and dispute about identity? What do we make of rebirth? Was there an historical Buddha or not? What is the nature of mind, emptiness, karma, the unconditioned? Batchelor suggests it would be good at such moments to remember that Gotama didn’t tell us to know the Truth. He taught nothing, he said, but release from suffering. He said, “Try this, and see what happens.”