Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for July 26th, 2010

Essential pleasures

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Why do most people like the smell of a rose, but not the smell of a skunk? Why do some people enjoy the thrill of a scary movie, or the burn of hot pepper sauce? In this segment, we’ll talk about what’s known about the science of pleasure. What’s going on in the body and brain to make things seem appealing? (NPR’s Science Friday, July 23, 2010)

Ever since I first encountered the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna in 1969, I have not been able to leave him alone for long. I wrote my B.A. honours thesis on him, a 100-page essay that caused me more sleepless nights than anything I have ever done, and I returned to him in graduate school and have taught numerous courses on him. Although his presentation contains some faulty reasoning, his principal conclusion has always struck me as correct. One statement of his conclusion is that seemingly paradoxical claim that the essential nature of all things is that they have no essential nature. It is acting as if things have essential natures that occasions most of the avoidable kinds of human dissatisfaction with life.

While I think the conclusion that nothing has an essential nature is without a doubt correct, what has puzzled me about Nāgārjuna is his claim that one can be liberated from discontent by learning not to think that things have essential natures. One way I have articulated my puzzlement is to say that Nāgārjuna seems to be offering a cure to a disease that no one actually has. Who, I kept asking myself, would ever believe that things have essential natures? Since people are much too clever to believe in essential natures, it just cannot be the case that their unhappiness stems from foolishly believing in essences.

After listening to the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom being interviewed by Ira Flatow on the Science Friday mentioned above, I was intrigued by Bloom’s claim that a key factor in whether or not a person finds something pleasurable is the person’s belief about what the thing is. If one believes that a performer is famous or that a physical object has an interesting past, then one tends to find that performer’s singing or playing or acting more enjoyable than if one believes the performer is an ordinary person; if one believes a shirt used to belong to a celebrity, it becomes much more interesting than an indistinguishably similar shirt on the shelf of one’s closet. This all reminds me of something that people used to say about forty years ago, namely, that the most important part of the body for having pleasure is the brain. It may not be the case that pleasure is “ all in the mind,” but a great deal of pleasure is indeed in our thoughts about our experiences.

Also intriguing is Dr Bloom’s observation as a developmental psychologist that children begin very early forming notions that things have essences. Not too surprisingly, there is an intimate connection between the notion of essences and the use of language. It is Bloom’s contention that it is a person’s conception of a thing that influences whether the thing is found pleasurable. A child might, for example, form the idea that some things are dirty and disgusting—parents are often instrumental in the formation of such ideas—while other things are pleasant and fun. The notion that the child forms of a thing being pleasurable becomes part of the child’s idea of the thing’s essence. And these notions of the essential natures of things are very difficult to change, except through something dramatic, such as a traumatic experience.

Nāgārjuna and some of his commentators were convinced that one of the means of breaking the habit of thinking that things have essence is to break the habit of talking about things. More important than simply holding one’s tongue is to silence the mind, especially that part of the mind that is constantly trying to figure things out and understand how they work and how they came to be. Coming up with narratives is one of the things human beings do almost constantly. And once a narrative has taken shape, it is difficult to let it go. The narrative becomes not simply a story; it becomes the story.

The kinds of narratives that one allows to take shape in one’s mind has a great deal to do with whether one finds experiences pleasurable, disturbing, intolerably painful, frightening and so forth. The Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti tells the story of a man who hears something tapping on the outer wall of his hut and becomes so terrified that he dies. Investigation later reveals that the tapping was caused by a branch of a nearby tree bumping into the side of the house on account of the wind. A narrative can be fatal!

I find pleasure in standing corrected. For decades I have told myself a narrative about Nāgārjuna having some fanciful idea about people falsely thinking that things have essential natures. Now I am less convinced than before that his idea was fanciful. Perhaps people really do think in terms of essences, and perhaps this kind of thinking really is troublesome. It may be worth thinking about.

On the other hand, if Nāgārjuna is right about the pernicious effects of forming explanatory narratives, it may be best not to give the matter any further consideration.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, July 26, 2010 at 21:47

Posted in Buddhism