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BUDDHISM AND THE CONQUEST OF SUFFERING
Alone among the world's religions, Buddhism locates
suffering at the heart of the world. Indeed according to Buddhism,
existence is suffering (dukkha). The main question that
Guatama (c.566 BC - c.480 BC), the traditional founder of Buddhism,
sought to answer was: "Why do pain and suffering exist?"
Buddhism teaches compassion toward all sentient beings. By
contrast, Christianity and its secular offshoot, Western science,
typically cling to a very un-Darwinian form of human exceptionalism.
According to the Book of Genesis, God put animals on earth purely to
serve Man, who exists to serve God.
Early in the 21st century, there are an estimated 300 million
Buddhists in the world. Central to Buddhist teaching are the Four
Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS:
- All is suffering (dukkha).
- Suffering is caused by desire/attachment.
- If one can eliminate desire/attachment, one can eliminate
- The Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire. Extremes of
excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive
self-mortification should be avoided.
Theravada tradition of Buddhism teaches that everyone must
individually seek salvation through their own efforts. To attain
nirvana, one must relinquish earthly desires and live a monastic life.
The Mahayana tradition teaches that salvation comes through the grace
of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas defer their own enlightenment to help
others, thus enabling many more living beings to attain salvation.
- Right Views.
The true understanding of the four noble
- Right Intent.
Right aspiration is the true desire to free
oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness.
first two are referred to as praj�a, or wisdom.]
- Right Speech.
Right speech involves abstaining from lying,
gossiping, or hurtful talk.
- Right Conduct.
Right action involves abstaining from hurtful
behaviours, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.
- Right livelihood.
Right livelihood means making your living
in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including
[The above three are referred to as shila, or
- Right Effort.
Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in
regulating the content of one's mind: bad qualities should be
abandoned and prevented from arising again; good qualities should be
enacted and nurtured.
- Right Mindfulness.
Right mindfulness is the focusing of one's
attention on one's body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in
such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance.
- Right Concentration.
Right concentration is meditating in
such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of
imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.
The meaning of the term nirvana, literally "the blowing out"
of existence, is not entirely clear. Nirvana is not a place like
heaven, but rather an eternal state of being. It is the state in which
the law of karma and the rebirth cycle come to an end - though
Buddhist conceptions of personal (non-)identity make these notions
problematic. Nirvana is the end of suffering; a state where there are
no desires, and individual consciousness comes to an end. Attaining
nirvana is to relinquish clinging, hatred, and ignorance. Its
achievement entails full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence, and
interconnectedness. Sometimes "nirvana" is used to refer either to
Buddhist heaven or complete nothingness, but most Buddhists would not
understand the term in this way.
* * *
share the Buddhist focus on suffering. But only
utilitarians put the minimisation of suffering as the sole ethical
goal of life; other, "positive" utilitarians regard the maximisation
as ethically valuable no less than the minimisation of misery.
One radical form of utilitarianism is
believe that biotechnology should be used to abolish suffering
altogether - though not all abolitionists are
utilitarians. Given the
imminent revolution in biotechnology, the abolitionist project is the
logical implication of a utilitarian ethic. Even so, the creation of a
truly cruelty-free world entails a disconcertingly ambitious
mega-project: rewriting the vertebrate genome and redesigning the
global ecosystem. This enterprise is beyond our current technological
capabilities. Yet some kind of
is foreseeable in the coming era of quantum supercomputing and
These distinctions might seem academic. Most people are not
avowedly utilitarians in their code of ethical values. The term
"utilitarian" itself is pedestrian. It conveys no sense of moral
urgency. But a rough-and-ready utilitarian ethic is widespread in
contemporary secular society. Even professed anti-utilitarians
normally rely on (indirectly) utilitarian arguments by appealing to
the bad consequences that would allegedly follow for our
well-being from the [mis-]application of a utilitarian ethic.
* * *
BUDDHISM VERSUS UTILITARIANISM
Setting aside differences of
metaphysic, how closely do the core values of
utilitarians/abolitionists and Buddhists coincide? If suffering and
its abolition are central to life on earth, can differences be
resolved to questions of means, not ends?
Perhaps; but these differences of means are substantial. Most
Buddhists would challenge the idea that technology offers an
escape-route from the pain of earthly existence. Despite the
cumulative success stories of scientific medicine, it would seem the
advances of modern technology haven't left human beings any happier on
average than our ancestors on the African savannah. Indeed the
incidence of clinical
drug abuse, marital breakdown and
other "objective" indices of distress is rising in Western consumer
capitalist society as a whole. The track-record of technological
science to date is not encouraging. Opponents of scientific utopianism
envisage that its application will yield - at best - some type of "Brave New World".
Abolitionists respond that only biotechnology can ever
deliver the world from suffering. Unless the biological substrates of
unpleasantness are eradicated, then suffering is genetically
preordained. All Darwinian humans periodically go through periods of
distress ["dukkha"]; its intensity and duration varies, but its
spectre is never absent. Endowing their vehicles with a capacity to
suffer enhanced the
inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral
environment. A heritable capacity to undergo all sorts of nasty
states, conditionally activated, has been genetically
Sadly, even devout Buddhists undergo pain, sorrow and malaise in the
course of their lives. A Buddhist lifestyle and
disciplines may offer palliative relief. Yet given a Darwinian
genome, no pursuit of a "Noble Eight-fold Path" can
emotional thermostats, redesign our gene expression profiles, or
dismantle the "hedonic
treadmill" of Darwinian life. In evolutionary history, primate
mothers who weren't anxiety-ridden, "attached" to their
children, and desirous of their success left less copies of their
genes than their malaise-ridden, un-Buddhist-like counterparts.
Moreover, with a traditional neural architecture, it's notable that
people, who have the greatest range and intensity of appetites, tend
to be the least unhappy - though their lives can still be blighted by
disappointment and loss. By contrast, the extinction of desire
experienced by many contemporary humans is more akin to
withdrawal than illumination - not enlightenment and consequent
nirvana but instead a condition of
emptiness in the sense of an absence of meaning. This isn't the kind
of extinction of desire Buddhists have in mind; but it's unclear if
Buddhism offers a solution to, say, anhedonia - the incapacity to feel
happiness or anticipate reward - characteristic of many depressives.
Looking to the future, the new technologies of post-genomic
healthcare promise effectively unlimited
motivation - or serenity. If we so desire, a rich
can be awakened, too, even in the otherwise spiritually barren.
Intelligence can be
pharmacologically and genetically amplified, as can
perhaps indefinitely; and also, more counter-intuitively,
compassion. In future,
genetic engineering will allow control over archaic
and eventually the creation of whole new categories of experience in
More prosaically, but more importantly from an ethical point of
revolution of "designer babies" will enable us to choose how much
- or how little - suffering we bring into the world when we decide the
genetic-make-up of our children. Gradients of genetically
pre-programmed well-being can be the destiny of our offspring from
conception, depending on which dial-settings we favour. If we so
choose, we can abolish the soul-polluting nastiness of
Darwinian life altogether. Dukkha can be consigned to
historical oblivion; and replaced by a post-Darwinian era of mental
The era of mature genomic medicine is still decades away, perhaps
longer. Buddhists are surely right to stress how desire and attachment
as experienced today often lead to heartbreak. But when heartbreak
becomes genetically impossible, it will be safe to follow one's
heart's desire without limit. More generally, an absence of
desire is a recipe for personal and social stagnation, whereas an
abundance of desires is a precondition of intellectual dynamism and
Even so, control over our emotions strikes many
bioconservatives as a frightening prospect, evoking
than empowerment. It's worth recalling how some early commentators
feared that the discovery of
doctors too much power over their patients; the use of anaesthetics
for painless surgery allegedly robbed the individual of his or her
autonomy and the capacity to act as a rational agent, reducing the
patient "to a corpse". In a contemporary context, investing a
quasi-priestly caste of physicians with the sole lawful power to grant
- or withhold - pleasure-giving, pain-relieving
drugs undoubtedly does
magnify the scope for
Whatever the risks, technologies of pain-eradication are too
valuable to renounce, even if this option were sociologically
realistic. Right now, of course, the vision of life without suffering
still strikes many non-Buddhists and even Buddhists as
Life-long happiness seems no more likely than the prospect of
surgery struck our early Victorian forebears. We are possessed by the
deep unspoken feeling that "what has always been was always meant to
be". Even classical utilitarians may find it difficult to believe that
suffering could be eradicated in the foreseeable future in the
same way as, say, smallpox. Yet it is hard to underestimate just how
radical will be the effects of rewriting the vertebrate genome as the
millennium unfolds. The abolition of the biological substrates of
suffering promises to mark a major discontinuity in the development of
life on earth. Our genetically enriched descendants may regard
existence without "dukkha" - the abolition of suffering - as
the ethical foundation of any civilised society.