flinching from eudaimonism in buddhism

Let me pick up on a hint of a theme from yesterday’s book review of Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice. Towards the end of the post, I commented that Thấy’s teachings offer an easy entry to Buddhism.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he, like many teachers who are skillful, offers an apparently simple beginning to practice.  There is wisdom in this.  The teachings can be encouraging and lay a solid groundwork for deeper understanding as we continue on the path.  However, there is also a danger that we can fall into a flowery, vapid, and naive approach that gentle teachings can evoke.

It has always concerned me that “simple” is absorbed as “simplistic” and the evidence is rampant in the millions of catchy sayings that attempt to transport us from the truth of suffering into a facsimile realm of the Pure Land.  Tragically, this creates a blindness to the deeper teachings offered by teachers such as Thấy which are – under the child-like renditions – a complex integration of scripture and aids to practice.  Over the years, I have come to appreciate that his words, audio and written, are killing-sword koans whose edge we can skip over or on which we can impale our delusions.

I once said to a dharma teacher in Thấy’s tradition that Thấy offers an easy in but it’s a tough stay.  Practice, as Thấy teaches, demands an unrelenting devotion to being honest with oneself in every moment.  Try it for five if you question how hard this is.  And yet, the preponderance of his teachings seem to end up as sound bytes turning the nectar of compassion into a mind-numbing salve against the reality that the practice of Buddhism is not about salvation in this moment or any other.  It’s a true koan of our times.  How do such accessible teachings result in such a diversion from the intent of practice?

About the time of my struggle with this conundrum an email arrived pointing me to a delicious post by Glenn Wallis on “Flinching.”  As frightened as I am by the depth of Wallis’ erudition, I was compelled by his argument that there is a turning away from the truth of suffering, that we have developed a predictive, fallacious equation whose outcome variable is set as “deep joy.”  He refers to this perspective as “a eudaimonistic subterfuge” to which Buddhism is becoming heir.  If I grasp Wallis’ exegesis and in my simplistic terms, we Buddhists have taken a wrong turn in our understanding of the Dharma by making practice instrumental rather than intentional.  Not only have we let our fears about the true nature of reality get the better of us, we have become deeply desirous of a belief that a virtuous practice will reap a future of deep joy.  This utilitarian stance to practice is subtly subversive and the ground quickly becomes unstable because it is driven by avoidance of pain.  This is further emphasized by a recent retreat on the Tricycle page in which Rita Gross spoke out on “feel-good Buddhism.”

In psychotherapy, we call this a flight into health.  The patient, overwhelmed by what is required to make sincere and long-lasting change, suddenly gets better – a one-hit-one-session-wonder.  The therapist, anxious about the depth of intervention and the demands of sitting with the pain of the Other, flinches at the prospect and welcomes or even offers this endpoint of deep joy.  It is a collusion that creates a dynamic of mutual blindness.  Winding this thread back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I wish had a peanut for every time I heard someone say, “If you just practice for three days, your depression will go away.”  Or, “If I could just sit in the presence of my partner’s anger and understand Interbeing, it will be ok.”  Well, if I had a peanut for each of these times, I’d be a happy elephant.

Here’s the unfiltered truth:  There are no promises.  Hope was a demon in Pandora’s Box.  Practice simply because there is no choice.  Don’t flinch from this.

14 thoughts on “flinching from eudaimonism in buddhism

  1. yes, it is always easy to look for a quick fix and we westerners specialize in this. And you bring up a complex issue for me. it is easy for me to be immersed in suffering and I can see some people’s inclination to fly off in the direction of joy. There is some point of balance here, I think. My Vipassana friends are very clear that practice will lead us to more joy, tranquility and equanimity if we use our effort, investigation, mindfulness and concentration (7 factors of awakening). And yet we practice just because we have started and it is right for us in some way. My old Zen teacher used to say “once we have seen a ghost we can’t pretend we didn’t.

    • Seeing that ghost changes everything! And often that ghost is the belief that “things will get better if…”

      My vote is for squirrel nutikin, if you ask me!

  2. These are pretty serious discussions, yours and Wallis’. Serious in the best sense because they get to the heart of what we’re doing when we practice. Two thoughts come to mind (and the paucity of the thoughts will tell you a lot about my mind!):

    – I recall Suzuki Roshi saying to a student who expressed a desire for enlightenment, “What do you want enlightenment for? You might not like it!”

    – This discussion causes me to consider the “-ism” fallacy (I just made this up!) whereby we think that anything with an “-ism” attached to it is designed to produce some joyous improvement in life. Is a tame mind an improved mind? Is the deep realization of how we create suffering for our “selves” and “others” a joyous thing?

    The Buddha spoke of “Mudita” or sympathetic joy, but I don’t recall that he ever spoke about old-fashioned, self-centered joy. Which is what I want, of course.

    • I’ve given up on enlightenment. On getting anywhere with all this practicing. 😀 I think, for the first time, in all these years, I feel a sense of freedom and validation of something I’ve always known. The outcome of practice is unknowable and that’s the most intimate connection I can have with what we call “this life.”

      About mudita: Impossible unless we have a sense of our own joy. Which is different from that “conditioned joy” that is inadvertently sold as dharma.

      • I was on retreat over the weekend and I asked the Zen master, “When the body dies, where does the spirit go?” (He and I had been talking about “spirit” as breath.)

        He simply responded, “I don’t know.”

        That was it. And it was the most amazing moment in a wonderful set of interviews. Both of us were completely enveloped in the wonder of not-knowing, comfortable with it, way outside our ordinary “comfort zones.”

        Thank you!

  3. “There are no promises. Hope was a demon in Pandora’s Box.” – Sadhu sadhu sadhu. If only we could pound this into our psyche, like pounding nails into Pandora’s Box. Oh well. No nails. No promises. Only practice.

  4. “Hope was a demon in Pandora’s Box.”

    Jolting! May I “borrow” that line for my future blogdada poetry? Really beautiful.

    You say in the final 26 words what I was trying to say in my bloated beast of a blog post. Thanks.


    • 😆 Thank you for dropping by, Glenn. I have thoroughly enjoyed your books (and there are a couple of posts on them here).

      You may happily filch, pilfer, or otherwise lift them (and the academic in me is having a conniption).

      Thank you for your post. It encouraged me to clarify some of the discomfort I experience in some “Buddhist-y” circles. And btw, I do find the Zen “flinching” into pseudo-sunyata on this issue to be fascinating. Look forward to exploring your blog more and now have it on my blogroll.

  5. This is a serious practise, NOT an intellectual exercise.Forget about how you project yourself and your ‘understanding’. Just do the pracise.All this is just blah blah!

  6. Pingback: 7 links – how to appreciate yourself « 108zenbooks

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