Monday, January 2, 2017

Buddha vs.aesthetics

Although Buddhism has many wonderful things to offer everyday aesthetics one should not be uncritical of this tradition.  I have been reading a fascinating book, Buddhist Romanticism by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) that is available for free and comes out of the Metta Forest Monastery in Valley Center, CA, 2015, where Bhikkhu is the abbot.  I highly recommend the book which is an elaborate critique of most versions of Western-style Buddhism as being overly influenced by the Romantic tradition which Bhikku traces back to such figures as Frledrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, Holderlin, Schelling Kant, Fichte, Schiller and Herder, and then on to Emerson, James, Jung and Maslow. 

Bhikku's understanding of Romanticism is excellent and his case is well made.  Unfortunately, his own brand of Buddhism is probably equally Western-influenced in ways that he himself does not recognize.  He attacks Romantic Buddhism on a number of fronts but mainly he seems to be opposed to their monism.  In contrast, he accepts a version of dualist idealism that goes back to Plato, quite possibly projecting this onto Buddha.  Thus, rather than rooting out Western assumptions in the interpretation of Buddhist texts he may simply be emphasizing one Western tradition over another and thus one Western way of reading Buddhism over another. His way of reading insists on a transcendent realm much like that accepted not only by Plato but by most of Christian philosophers (e.g. Aquinas), precisely the position that was being attacked by more monistic thinkers like Spinoza and the Romantics. 

Bhikku claims that his own position is derived mainly from the Pali Canon which he takes to be "the best available primary source for learning what the Buddha taught." (9)  The Appendix of the book, titled "Unromantic Dhamma," contains what he takes to be the relevant Pali passages.  We find on pg. iv that the all of the translations are by Bhikku himself and are based on the Royal Thai Edition of the Pali Canon (Bangkok:  Mhamakur Rajavidyalaya, 1982).  Much of this material is available in a larger online translation titled Handful of Leaves: Vol. 3, An Anthology from the Auguttara Nikaya, 2003 which also easily available here.  The Appendix is selected from this and other translations including from the Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, and Samyutta Nikaya. Any teacher who wishes to use the Appendix in a class should also include pg. iv which indicates the meaning of the citations at the end of each paragraph. The paragraph numbering in the Appendix, is Bhikku's own.  

For the sake of this post I will simply assume that these are Buddha's actual views, or at least those of the earliest Buddhists.  I haven't compared Bhikku's translation with anyone else's, although it is striking that when Buddha and his followers refer to release from "stress" in this translation I find myself preferring the more usual term "suffering."  I think "stress" a problematic translation since it is so associated with contemporary feelings that combine worry and tension: as in "I am under a lot of stress." defines stress as "state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances."  Is that all Buddhism is about? Stress relief?  

But here is what really interests me for now.  If Bhikku's translations are correct then Buddha was deeply anti-aesthetic. 

1.  We have long associated Plato's cave with the idea that the world of appearance is like the world of movies:  that all of the figures in the cave are looking at a movie.  Actually, in Plato, they are looking at a puppet show.  Buddha does something similar when he compares the world we must escape to a moving picture show:  "Monks, have you ever seen a moving picture show [an ancient show similar to a shadow puppet show]?  (331)  "That moving-picture show was created by the mind.  And this mind is even more variegated than a moving picture show.  Thus one should reflect on one's mind with every moment:  'For a long time has this mind been defiled by passion, aversion and delusion.' From the defilement of the mind are beings defiled.  From the purification of the mind are beings purified."  The point, of course, is not the same as Plato's, but clearly the moving picture show is defiled by the passions of the mind that created it, and purification would involve leaving this world, much as with Plato.  [So perhaps my earlier complaint is unfair.  Perhaps Bhikku has found that Buddha really has much the same metaphysics as Plato.]  

2.  Against aesthetics, Buddha further says:  "Therefore, monks, that dimension should be experienced where the eye [vision] ceases and the perception of form fades.  That dimension should be experienced where the ear ceases and the perception of sound fades.  That dimension should be experienced where the nose ceases and the perception of aroma fades.  That dimension should be experienced where the tongue ceases and the perception of favor fades.  That dimension should be experienced where the body ceases and the perception of tactile sensation fades.  That dimension should be experienced where the intellect ceases and the perception of idea fades.  That dimension should be experienced."  (336) If anything, aesthetics requires attention to the senses and to sense experience, as well as sense experience enhanced by ideas. Buddhism seems to require escape from these.  This is made even more clear in the following.

3.  Buddha [who I assume is the person addressing the Monks here] distinguishes between a low level attainment called "unbinding property with fuel remaining" and a higher one called "unbinding property with no fuel remaining."  It is clear that the second involves escape from any domain that is aesthetic.  "And what is the unbinding property with fuel remaining?  There is the case where a monk is an arahant whose effluents have ended, who has reached fulfillment, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, destroyed the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis.  His five sense faculties still remain and, owing to their being intact, he experiences the pleasing and the displeasing, and is sensitive to pleasure and pain.  His ending of passion, aversion, and delusion is termed the unbinding property with fuel remaining."  But the monk who has achieved "the unbinding property with no fuel remaining" has escaped the senses. Such a monk has achieved all that the first has, and, in addition, "For him, all that is sensed, being unrelished, will grow cold right here." When no fuel is remaining "all becoming totally ceases."  (337)

So, much to my surprise, I have discovered that Nietzsche was right about Buddhism, at least about this earliest form of Buddhism (maybe not right about Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism or Romantic Buddhism.)  It is a denial of life, of the senses, of becoming, of pleasure and pain.  

3.  It is not the Buddhism of this earliest sort rejects all pleasure, simply sense pleasure:  "Now it's possible, Ananda, that some wanderers of other persuasions might say, 'Gotama the contemplative speaks of the cessation of perception and feeling and yet describes it as pleasure.  What is this?  How can this be?  When they say that, they are to be told, 'It's not the case, friends, that the Blessed One describes only pleasant feeling as included under pleasure..."  So, it is "pleasant feeling" that is rejected, i.e. the pleasures of the senses, the aesthetic pleasures.

4.  Attack on the arts.  Buddha likes to make a contrast between what he calls "two assemblies":  one pays attention to the Tathagata which is "deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness" and what he calls "bombast," which is, in reality, the literary arts.  He complains about monks who attend to the latter:  "But when discourses that are literary works - the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples - are recited, they listen, they lend ear, they set their hearts on knowing them, and regard them as worth grasping and mastering....This is an assembly trained in bombast, not in cross-questioning."  (345)  

This sounds very much like Plato:  the arts are rejected in place of the cross-questioning characteristic of philosophy.  The cross-questioning involves asking questions like "How is this?  What is the meaning of this?"  (346)  The early Buddhists seemed incapable of a life in which philosophical questioning and paying attention to literary work could be integrated in a fully cultured life.


Anonymous said...

An interesting conclusion that Nietzche was right about buddhism, characterising it as a denial of life. Except isn't the purpose of the denial of the senses clearly to let go of filters that the mind puts upon direct experience? For example if I hear the sound of rain, and I refuse to recognise the sound as rain, then do I truly deny the existence of sensation? Yes I have refused to recognise the sensation as there and chosen to see phenomena as inherently meaningless, but the notion of meaninglessness is a notion of meaning in itself - Meaningless: To be void of meaning. So denying the filters of the mind, the labels we put on things, which is what I believe the Buddha is teaching here (we can easily correlate the zen notion of beginner's mind here) does not deny life but rather see it through as unfiltered lens - "that dimension should be experienced where the intellect ceases and the perception of idea fades" (336). It is a denial of intellect, one function of life that can be seen as an independent direct experience.
Thank you for you article, was very enjoyable to read - tell me what you think.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom,

While it's correct to say that the Buddha was anti-aesthetic in that he gave little importance to sensual beauty and taught that dwelling on it inappropriately blocks the path to freedom, the point of these passages and his teaching as a whole is that he saw things this way because he found a bliss that infinitely surpassed even the most refined sensual pleasure, and which couldn't be attained without the abandoning of sensual passion.

Two things are particularly worthy of note in qualifying his anti-aestheticism:

His account of his former life reveals that, prior to his going into homelessness, he was highly acquainted with the most refined sensual pleasures imaginable at the time, enjoyed them, and was capable of affording an abundance of them. It's also generally accepted that he had mastered the various arts and humanities of the day, the best evidence for this lying in his skill in extemporaneous verse composition and wordplay, which, along with an evident dramatic sensibility, he employed to great effect in his teaching (see Ven. Thanissaro's discussion of 'rasa', "savour", the ancient Indian aesthetic theory, in his intro to the Dhammapāda).
His descriptions of the path to awakening and the goal reveal that, rather than simply abandoning his aesthetic sensibilities, he refined them, developing what might be termed a transcendent aesthetic - one that finds true beauty in the transcendence of all sensual experience and in the path that leads to that goal.
On the level of virtue, for instance, he describes a virtuous person as possessing a fragrance sweeter and more pervasive than the most fragrant flower on earth; a scent that, unlike that of flowers, "goes against the wind".
An awakened person is compared to a beautiful lotus emerging from a heap of trash, representing the unawakened masses, on the side of the road.
One of the highest levels of concentration, developed by taking immeasurable goodwill to its foremost stage, is termed "the beautiful" - the mind made extremely calm and breathtakingly luminous, observing itself with a pure, silent clarity and equipoise.
Finally, positive aspects of the sublime can be found in his descriptions of the goal itself, standing out as especially magnificent when placed against the terrifying vastness and painful pointlessness of samsāra, invoking the negative sense of the sublime - terror - which he invokes as a goad to make effort for the sake of escape.
To begin with, the goal is deathless, "The Deathless", a literally inconceivable form of pure, unaltering happiness. Other epithets for this goal include, "The Amazing", "The Wonderful", "The Far Shore", "Shelter", "Freedom", "Purity".
Further, in other teachings, he describes the fully awakened one as "deep, difficult to fathom, like the great ocean" and compares the manner in which meditators delight in awakening to the manner in which certain divine beings delight in the majesty, expanse and depth of the world's oceans.
Other images he gives for the awakened mind are light with no surface anywhere throughout space to land on, and fire unbound - indescribable in terms of its location in space.

What this shows is that the Buddha didn't simply abandon his aesthetic sensibilities, he raised their bar, maturing from and abandoning his previous love of sensual beauty, and in its place finding loftier beauties and wonders as a result of his ability to imagine the possibility of an alternative to sensual experience, and of his daring commitment in pursuing that possibility.


Unknown said...


Sensual beauty is limited in that it's bound up with time and eventually destroyed by its ravages, often into something extremely unbeautiful. A sensual aesthetic appreciation, moreover, usually depends on psychological (sometimes pathological) denial of the object's less-beautiful aspects (note the parts of the body normally left out in romantic descriptions of a lover's form - intestines don't usually make the list). From this perspective, those who are incapable of imagining beauty and wonder apart from sensuality are the ones whose sensibilities are hampered and impaired, not the ones who turn away from it and transcend it to find something better. As is often stated in the suttas, the minds of those who have abandoned sensuality and becoming are, precisely because of this, immeasurable, unfathomable and unlimited, with awareness wide open. Sensual delight, however, necessitates a limited and closed awareness: it can't function without it.

” It is a denial of life, of the senses, of becoming, of pleasure and pain. ”
" is "pleasant feeling" that is rejected"

What the Buddha denied was that these (pleasure aside) were worthy ends, but he didn't deny them a place as means to a higher goal. And after all, what's the point of life if it can't be used to find something better than life? As for pleasure, he found that by de-emphasising sensual pleasure one opens the door to higher pleasures, first the pleasure of concentration - a pleasant feeling that he actually taught should not be rejected - and, using concentration as one's path thereto, the pleasure of unbinding, total freedom from suffering and stress, the highest pleasure. Thus he actually taught a path of pleasure, already superior to sensual pleasure, that leads to an even higher, undying pleasure.

Regarding bombast, if you revisit the sutta you'll see that one of the main differences between a group trained in cross-questioning and one in bombast is that the former, apart from emphasising flowery verse and poetics over the Dhamma, don't make effort to examine the meaning and coherence of their chosen texts. Rather than merely attacking the arts per se, the Buddha is attacking intellectual laziness and aesthetic bias (the notion that because something sounds good it must be good). Ven. Thanissaro is exemplifying the attitude of cross-questioning with reference to the (Buddhist) Romantic tradition, and shows why such an attitude is usually shunned among its followers: the tradition's manifold problems are all too easily exposed.

"The early Buddhists seemed incapable of a life in which philosophical questioning and paying attention to literary work could be integrated in a fully cultured life."


Unknown said...

As Ven. Thanissaro points out, there were only a handful of questions that the Buddha found worthy of attention - those that help lead to the end of suffering, and to the highest happiness. Others, like "who am I" or "is the universe a oneness/infinite” etc. are either fruitless distractions from or harmful obstructions to this goal, and so he put them aside. "A fully cultured life" wasn't his goal - as explained, he'd already lived what the world deems a highly cultured lifestyle, and found it severely wanting of substance; worse, bound up in stress, competition and danger, with far too little pleasure to make it worthwhile. Most literature isn't centred on the issue of solving suffering and isn't written by people who have figured out how to do so, and thus would generally not have much place in a life dedicated to completely ending suffering, which is what the Buddha deemed a noble life. Ven. Thanissaro however shows how even such literature can be read in such a way that at least shows how not to think and what not to do if you desire true freedom. In doing so, he has in turn provided a piece of literature that certainly can help end suffering and be integrated into a noble life.

As another example of conducive literature - poetry in fact, written by a very early Buddhist - that can form part of a noble life, I'll leave you with this verse from the Buddha's strictest and most ascetic disciple, Ven. Mahā Kassapa, showing both how awakened ones still enjoy the pleasures of seclusion in nature while still living in the world. Lastly, in his final comparison of the experience of awakening with the pleasure of listening to music, is contained support for the point that there is a transcendent aesthetic sensibility among those who attain concentration and succeed in bringing sensory experience to an end. Here it is made clear that they perceive the beauty of this experience as aesthetically superior to the best the world has to offer:

Spread with garlands of vines,
places delighting the mind,
resounding with elephants,
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
The color of blue-dark clouds,
cooled with the waters
of clear-flowing streams
covered with ladybugs:
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
Like the peaks of blue-dark clouds,
like excellent peaked-roof buildings,
resounding with tuskers,
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
Their lovely surfaces wet with rain,
mountains frequented
by seers
& echoing
with peacocks:
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
This is enough for me—
desiring to do jhāna,
resolute, mindful;
enough for me—
desiring the goal,
a monk;
enough for me—
desiring comfort,
enough for me—
desiring my duty,
Flax-flower blue,
like the sky
covered over with clouds;
filled with flocks
of various birds:
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
by householders,
by herds of deer
filled with flocks
of various birds:
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
With clear waters &
massive boulders,
frequented by monkeys &
covered with moss &
water weeds:
Those rocky crags
refresh me.
There is no such pleasure for me
in the music of a five-piece band
as there is when my mind
is at one,
seeing the Dhamma

Best wishes