Is the Buddhist Path at Odds with Our Humanity?

The Roots of Suffering in Biology and Human Nature

What could be more natural than to desire pleasure and avoid pain in our life? We all desire what is pleasurable, and we all seek to avoid what is not. That’s just human nature, right?

Well, it’s more than just human nature; it’s our biological nature. Even the simplest organisms seek what supports their well-being, whether it is food, shelter, or a certain kind of environment.  And all organisms avoid what is painful or stressful.

Seeking pleasure, in the broad sense of that word, and avoiding pain or what is harmful, is the very mechanism that helps ensure an organism’s survival.

Freud’s Insight into the Pleasure Principle

Freud, of course, built his whole psychology on this idea that at our most basic, gut, instinctual level (he called this the id) we seek to satisfy our biological and psychological needs. He called this psychoanalytic concept the pleasure principle.

Of course, as this primal urge runs into reality, so to speak, there is inevitable suffering. Desires and needs are thwarted or deferred. A person learns that one can’t always get what one want when one wants it. Not only that, pain often can’t be avoided.

Freud called a person’s realization of the “reality” of human life the reality principle. In Freud’s own words: “an ego thus educated has become reasonable; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished.”

The Buddha Looks Even Deeper into the Causes of Suffering

Given these biological and psychological realities, certainly the Buddha’s First Noble Truth—”there is suffering” makes a lot of sense. But the First Noble Truth isn’t some trivial recognition that there is suffering in the world. It didn’t take a Buddha to figure that one out!

What the Buddha explains in the First Noble Truth is despite appearances of relative happiness, or relative unhappiness, in fact, nothing that is created or conditioned can be experienced without stress or suffering. This diagnosis of the experience of suffering entails the understanding of what he saw as the Three Characteristics or Marks of all conditioned or fabricated things:

1) All conditioned, fabricated things are anicca—impermanent, inconstant, changeable, ephemeral, undependable—nothing we can depend upon for permanent happiness.

2) because all fabricated things are anicca, they are also automatically “marked” by dukkha. Dukkha means that nothing fabricated or conditioned can be experienced without some element of  stress, unsatisfactoriness, or “dis-ease” because everything is ultimately undependable, transitory, and passes away.

3) Finally, all conditioned things are anatta—they are void of any intrinsic, eternal self-existence. All “selves” pass away. Further, we cannot say anything is intrinsically “me” or “mine” because all things arise in dependence on everything else and the very elements of a “self” are changeable and transitory. Any sense of a permanent “self” is a deluded fabrication of things that are themselves inconstant and undependable.

To sum it up in the Buddha’s words:

‘All conditioned things are inconstant’ —
When one sees this with discernment
And grows disenchanted with stress,
This is the path to purity.

‘All conditioned things are stressful’ —
When one sees with discernment
And grows disenchanted with stress,
This is the path to purity.

‘All dhammas [phenomena] are not-self’ —
When one sees with discernment
And grows disenchanted with stress,
This is the path to purity.
— Dhp 277-79

Does the Second Noble Truth mean we have to abandon our humanity?

If seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is built into the very nature of us as living, sentient beings, what in the world are we supposed to do with the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth—the insight that desire or craving is the very cause of all suffering?

If it is our human nature to desire pleasure and avoid pain, and if the very nature of all the things that we desire are anicca, dukkha, and anatta, aren’t we kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place?  It sounds like an impossible dilemma!

Of course, the Third and Fourth Noble Truth promise that there is indeed an end to suffering and a Path that leads to that end. Still, on the face of it, and without looking deeper into the Buddha’s teaching and practice, any path that seems to require giving up all desire sounds pretty life-denying, even inhuman.

It might seem that the only way out of suffering would be to dehumanize ourselves—to become non-feeling, barely sentient beings who are untouched and unmoved by all the motivations, thoughts, feelings, and aspirations that make human’s happy—or sad. Is the goal of Buddhism to become unfeeling dharma robots?

How Buddhism can deepen our humanity without losing its spiritual radicalism

Let’s be clear. Ultimately, the “goal” of Buddhism is nothing less than complete and total liberation—awakening to the Deathless, the Unconditioned, the “gone beyond-ness” of all fabrications and of all becoming. In Buddhism, final release from suffering is not annihilation nor is it absorption or disappearance into deity or the ground of being. Nirvana is not being, or non-being, self, or non-self. No categories apply.

This Third Noble Truth, the absolute end of suffering, utterly separates Buddhism from all “human potential” and “new age” self-development spiritual theories and practices. The “goal” of Buddhism is not to become a “good person,” though you certainly will become one if you practice the Noble Eightfold Path.  The goal is not to gain spiritual and psychic powers, though these may arise along the path.

Nor is the goal to  become a more psychologically balanced individual, though that should indeed be an effect of Buddhist practice. Nor is the goal to become perpetually “blissed out” and disconnected from everyday life because our minds are in some alternate state of consciousness, where we walk around as in a dream.

Buddhism isn’t really about “goals” at all.  What Buddhism helps us become is awake. It helps us become present, but not just present, but present with discernment and wisdom and loving-kindness.

The path of Buddhism is not some all-out assault on human desires. It does not teach a simplistic “Desires—bad! No desires-good!” Rather, it says that the desire for pleasure and its counterpart, aversion to what is not pleasurable, need to be examined. Our inability to find lasting and permanent happiness in the things we desire surely points to some intrinsic problem in how and where we are looking for happiness.

Instead of blaming our inability to find permanent, dependable happiness on “original sin” or some god, or the devil, or social conditioning, or how we were raised, or even biology and genetics, the Buddha asks us to assume self-responsibility for our experience. Instead of looking “out there” for happiness, we look within. The Buddha asks us to look into the nature of our desires—how they operate and what their effects are and then to bring skillful means to bear upon our desires.

Rather than offering a metaphysical or mere theoretical explanation of how desire creates suffering, the Buddha offers a practice. We have to know for ourselves how our craving, attachment, and aversion operate in our own minds. In meditation, in self-observation, using the Buddha’s insights, we learn how to watch our own mind and its fabrications. We learn what feelings and actions lead to happiness, and what don’t. That’s the real meaning of kamma, or karma—learning to discern how cause and effect works in our thoughts and actions.

As we discern their transitory, impermanent nature, we learn to dis-identify with thoughts, feelings, and impulses that before we thought of as absolutely solid and real or “me” or “mine” For example, when a strong desire or powerful emotion arises during meditation, we may initially feel total identification with it. It’s “I want, I need, I feel, I am..angry, hurt, lonely, vengeful…whatever.” That’s OK. Just watch. Be curious about what you are feeling. Look into it without getting lost in it.

See what happens as you just hold some strong feeling or desire or urge as lightly as you can, neither identifying with it or rejecting it. Just hold whatever you feel or sense with great compassion and as much tenderness as you can, just like you would a crying baby. What happens? What do you see? What lasts? What doesn’t? What’s dependable? What’s not? Can you be absolutely honest with yourself about what’s there to be seen right in your own thinking?

Be patient—gaining insight into our desires is a great work!

Obviously, this is very hard work and requires courage and determination, qualities the Buddha said we would have to cultivate if we are going to gain freedom. If we are totally identified with something, we can’t be objective about it and its effects. We are lost in samsara, the stream of “conscious unconsciousness,” of mindlessness. And so, being unaware of things as they really are, we suffer.

With the arising of mindfulness, insight, and loving-kindness, we begin to have a new relationship to our human desires. Rather than being blown around like a leaf by our passions and desires, we begin to gain mastery over them so that they serve us. (Think of the wild ox who is tamed in the Zen parable of the ox herder.)

With meditative practice, and cultivation of mindfulness throughout our day, we begin to see our desires more clearly and see more clearly what motivates us. We begin to discern that our desire for something or someone may in fact be an unhealthy expression of a deep fear, inner emptiness and longing, insecurity, grief, or anger. At the same time, we begin to see happiness more and more in terms of healthy qualities such as mindfulness, alertness, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, concentration, and discernment.

Freedom from desires?—it’s not what you think!

Until we have begun to gain some control over the “wild ox” we call desire, we can’t really understand what freedom from all desires might really mean. At this point in our practice, it can only sound impossible or as some sort of murder or suicide of our most basic humanity. Who wants to become an emotionally-dead spiritual robot?

Of course, this fear is nothing more than the fabricated human personality’s defense against what it perceives, and rightly so, as its own demise. But long before there’s any final release from all human limitations and desires, the human being must be transformed. Our humanity must deepen, not disappear. The human personality must be befriended, not despised and rejected. Before there could be freedom from desires, there has to be mastery over desires.

What I’ve found in my practice, as have countless beings before me, is that the Buddha’s path awakens my humanity. Freed in a degree from mental afflictions, from fearful and selfish craving, and from ignorance about how things actually work in the world, I have more appreciation of whatever is beautiful good, and true, not less. Insight and loving-kindness practice have opened up my heart and made me more compassionate and loving, not less so.

Beyond all desires—an answer of the heart

Understanding better the transitory and fabricated nature of things, even things I deeply love, brings a deep poignancy to life. It breaks open my heart and arouses the deepest sort of compassion and love for myself and for others.

As much as I love this beautiful planet, its creatures, my fellow human beings, my wife, my friends, and all the genuine joys of human life, I know that no amount of clinging to them can make them permanent.

I still rebel against this impermanence and loss with all my heart, and of course, I suffer. I have not found that intellectual acceptance or understanding of the transitory nature of all things has lessened my suffering one iota. The only cessation of suffering that I have found in this path, or in any path, has been through deep insight into the nature of things that is also a deep, compassionate love.

Something in me intuits that the end of suffering is not the end of love, but just of our human, limited sense of love. Maybe even this deep intuition will finally prove to be a fabrication and thus finally yield to something beyond my human comprehension.  I don’t know.

But when I feel this love-beyond-all-love most clearly, I have some sense that nothing will be lost, that nothing ends, because nothing begins. I sense that impermanence itself is impermanent, that unsatisfactoriness is not satisfactory, that not-self is not self, and that illusion itself is illusory.

Words fail, but there are signs along the way of this path of awakening that all will be well, and that nothing is as it seems to be, nor is it otherwise. Come and see for yourself. Investigate. Look within. Look deeply. Find the wide-open awareness that is free of the limitations of space, time, thought. Find the love that clings to nothing but holds everything in its embrace. That way lies undying happiness.

About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

3 Responses to “Is the Buddhist Path at Odds with Our Humanity?”

  1. Hi again. Really like your description here about Buddhism helping us to become awake and present. I need these reminders, it’s all small steps, being in the moment. And that Nirvana is not a destination but within if we can have patience (which I must admit I don’t have much of)…but I will continue to try. Thanks for your insights.

    • Hello again! Thanks for stopping by; I’m so glad what I posted was helpful to you. And listen, we all need these kinds of reminders, believe me! And to continue to try, as in continuing to sit and meditate when our “monkey mind” is all over the place is everything. Stick with it, my friend, and thanks again for your kinds remarks.

      With metta,


  1. How Insight and Loving-kindness Free Us from Mental Parasites « Metta Refuge - 2010/04/15

    […] Is the Buddhist Path at Odds with Our Humanity? […]

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