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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 dharmaseed.org.

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.”

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  1. star on July 7, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Yes, good post, but does the Buddha ever say, “Life is suffering?” (Pardon, but the way it appears above you seem to be saying that he did.)

    I find that the problem is not with what the Buddha said about dukkha (suffering) but with the way people interpret it. If life were suffering, there would be no escape from suffering, except through death.

    As you point out, Mark, the Buddha shows us that there is no inherent nature to anything, so he can’t have ever meant to say that “life is suffering” because that would give life the inherent nature “suffering”. The way I understand what’s being said is “Life lived with our false sense-of-self in control is the cause of dukkha arising”. And dukkha isn’t a child being born with a handicap, or a tsunami wiping out a town, dukkha is precisely the result of leaving that false sense of self in control. If it sounds like circular logic, it is, because it is, pretty much, a closed system that is being described, totally self-referential — in more ways than one!

    • David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      I totally agree with your interpretation! That’s what makes most sense to me, intellectually, logically — I’m curious what actual meditation will reveal once I commit to it.

      Right now, though, I’d go one further (much, much further) than you: I’d say that everything is an illusion, possibly time itself…no self, no free will, no control indeed!

  2. Dana Nourie on July 7, 2011 at 11:10 am

    “Only Sith speak in absolutes” ~Star Wars

    Excellent blog, Mark! This is well worth rereading and remembering . . .

  3. mknick on July 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Star — I’m saying that I don’t believe Gotama DID teach that “life is suffering.” Buddhist tradition, however, especially as it has been translated for Western audiences, would read a phrase like “sabbe sankhara dukkha” in just that way (see my earlier post on dukkha for why I’d disagree). And as I discussed in that same post, the idea that there is no escape from dukkha except in death (or at least paranirvana) without rebirth is a foundational one for traditional Buddhism. Finally, this idea is the only thing about Buddhism Bill Maher can find to say catty things about in the movie “Religulous.”

  4. mknick on July 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    But I did edit the post to remove the implication that the phrase is a Buddha-quote regarding the Four Truths.

  5. star on July 8, 2011 at 3:27 am

    Ah, you’ll turn me into a defender of the literal, Mark. How anyone can turn “All formations are suffering” into “Life is suffering” is beyond me, but you’re right, people do. Thanks for the explanation and for making it clearer that “Life is suffering” isn’t what the Buddha said.

    And I think I lied about it being “beyond me” — the perception seems to be that the Buddha meant “samsara” fairly literally as the thing we are born into and drag around with us throughout our lives, birth to death, and around again. And yet he does talk about how the problems kick in around puberty (I like his rendition at MN 38.26-30, where he gets his most literal in tying dependent arising to a particular life). It seems to me he has us “entering samsara” about the time we start developing our sense of independence — and developing all the strong opinions that go with that.

    Also, in his description of how babes on their backs have “underlying tendencies” but they aren’t active yet (MN 64.3), I think he’s pretty clearly saying infants don’t have what it takes to be in anything like a samsaric world — they are born with the capacities that will make samsara arise, but those capacities aren’t active yet, so neither is samsara — babies don’t *have* strong opinions about things! they don’t lust in any selfish way, either. It’s that strong and independent sense of self arising that brings “formations” (sankhara) into existence, which is the cause of “suffering” (dukkha) — the Buddha’s samsara is something we create “on the fly” so to speak.

    It’s only through mistaking the metaphor of samsara for something literal (oh — I’m turning back into myself again!) that anyone could turn the Buddha’s message into “Life is suffering.” What he is talking about all the time is cause and effect that we can see for ourselves. Poor babies born into a literal samsara can’t see the causes of their suffering to learn from them how to get better effect.

    • David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      Wow, this is so interesting…it sounds true, what you say! But how then does it account for animal dukkha, if at all?

      Perhaps you’re only describing one kind of dukkha, psychological dukkha…??

  6. NaturalEntrust on July 19, 2012 at 5:21 am

    Mark thanks for this “Prescriptive, Not Descriptive ”

    Seems a good way to say it. Rhymes with my personal experience too.
    One of the reasons that I hesitate to identify as a Buddhist is that assertion
    that their descriptions are reliable. Not even science trust they have final such descriptions. One can always learn more.

    If one see descriptions as prescriptions for ethical and compassionate behavior then the descriptions makes more sense to me. I know from experience that I easily crave too much and that I do cling to unrealistic views on self and so on.

    My craving behavior and my clinging to unskillful means is making my life be more problematic than it needs to be.

    What I don’t agree with is the claim that all of life is suffering I find life rather enjoyful.

    I trust that the words that 4nt is based on has to be read with the understanding of the intent of the writer.

    If one take them literally they don’t seem true to me at all. Overly simplistic and so on.

    Sometimes I wonder if Buddhists are so fond of these words that they rather accept that very few become Buddhists due to these words being a way to drive people away from Buddhists and that only those that accept the words are left. That the words are a kind of test like when a Zen Master let the Apprentice work for free two years and he teach him nothing just to test the sincerity of the intent of the Apprentice?

    I mean if seems odd that one keep words that gets so misunderstood just because one are nostalgic or that Buddha did say them or something.

  7. David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    There’s a bit of a strawman going on here. Life is suffering precisely because life is also joy — the two go together and create and sustain one another. Christians wouldn’t ordinarily say that God is both love and hate (though in the Old Testament somewhere it’s recorded that God is just that, encompassing both) but I think many Buddhists understand that dualities create and sustain one another.

    Of course, as you go on to point out, Buddhism is really about perceiving the illusory nature of fixed identities and not so much “life is suffering” as such. But like I said, Batchelor, interesting and helpful as he is, does employ something of a strawman here to make an otherwise excellent point.

    He does the same thing in categorizing Buddhism as prescriptive, not descriptive. Again, the duality is deceptive — Buddhist teachings are only prescriptive insofar as they do accurate describe the actual state of affairs! You do recognize this, of course, in your essay but don’t stay with it and go on to claim that no beliefs are being insisted on when in effect that’s precisely what’s going on when someone makes an observation, such as the Buddha did.

    But all that is quibbling a bit with “pedagogy” more than any ontological disagreement WRT what Buddhism is. Certainly this is a wonderful emphasis for Secular Buddhism to make, distinguishing it as modern and practical!

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