Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Essential pleasures

with 8 comments

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

8 Responses

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  1. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for this, really interesting. So there’s a kind of placebo effect for pleasure? If you believe it will be pleasant it will be? I think I’ve seen parents helping their kids to form these kinds of ideas. I think as an adult living in a foreign country I daily come up against the fact that there are national differences in what things are considered pleasant.

    Also think of olives or whiskey – unpleasant to start with, but with repeated exposure, and the belief that they are pleasant, we consume them, often with increasing pleasure as time goes on.

    But how to suspend disbelief and stop giving the inner narratives so much credence? Last week while watching Inception I found the man next to me loudly guzzling popcorn was pretty effective at keeping me from being caught up in the movie!


    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 00:35

  2. thank you Richard! Cool hat.

    Drew Logan

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 11:30

  3. Made me think that.

    I hope this isn’t annoying but the different qualities of emptiness all seem to follow from the one above.

    You seem to be saying that meaning changes dependent on context in such a way that the new meaning is not just an accumulation or higher version of the former.

    Which seems to be to say that things are composed of other things.
    If a meaning depends on context then any description is not final; if also the new context is not just an accumulation of new meaning, the change must involve an analysis into parts, as any change consists of either addition or subtraction or both.

    And also that things are not self caused.
    If some thing is self caused then as long as it is itself, it is its own sufficient condition; so it cannot lose the meaning of itself as cause and so that concept of the thing is not composed of anything.

    So they are not eternal. Doesn’t spinoza say this?


    Friday, August 13, 2010 at 15:38

  4. The world seems to fail us when we define what it is, and what it does, and how it should behave, and then it doesn’t live up to our expectations. This is, of course, ridiculous, but we all do it all the time, with the people in our lives, with our toys, and all our fascinations.


    Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 03:17

  5. Nagarjuna is right: the woes of the world are predicated on wrong assumptions. We categorize and define, and then we forget we’ve done this; we think we now understand, and that’s the way things are, and we assume we are correct, when we are rarely even close to getting it right — and if so it’s only for the one instance, not to be applied to every similar thing that follows. Just look at family relationships: how much sorrow comes from parents defining what their kids should be when they grow up and then feeling heartbroken when they differ?

    The conclusion that you shouldn’t, then, think too much about the “pernicious effects of forming explanatory narratives” while clever, doesn’t work. The Buddha teaches us to practice seeing this very effect in order to be rid of it. It doesn’t go away on its own, we have to dig deeply into it in order to come out the other side; ignoring it won’t make it go away (or the world would be a much better place than it is).


    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 23:28

  6. My guess is that people differ, and that’s why there is no panacea, no one-size-fits-all answer. Some people may need to dig deeply, while others really can make things go away by ignoring them (or by not compounding the problems by indulging in too much analysis).

    Richard Hayes

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 17:48

  7. “Too much analysis” yes; there’s a time when it’s better to just let go.

    But I don’t see that most people have the innate wisdom to recognize that moment without examining what they are doing and what their assumptions are first.

    In the very broad sweep of human behavior, if I had to make a choice, I’d choose for people to stop and look at what’s going on, look at their normally unquestioned assumptions about things, and give their best attempt at basing their choices on awareness of how much they can and do know. The world is chock full of people who are convinced they “can make things go away by ignoring them” which from the evidence I see around me doesn’t work all that well as a general principle.


    Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 10:08

  8. On Nov 10, 2010, at 9:08 AM,

    Richard Hayes

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 12:46

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