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BUDDHISM
AND THE CONQUEST OF SUFFERING

picture of Buddhist Wheel of Life
"May all that have life be delivered from suffering"
Gautama Buddha

BUDDHISM

Alone among the world's religions, Buddhism locates suffering at the heart of the world. Indeed according to Buddhism, existence is suffering (dukkha). The main question that Guatama (c.566 BC - c.480 BC), the traditional founder of Buddhism, sought to answer was: "Why do pain and suffering exist?"

Buddhism teaches compassion toward all sentient beings. By contrast, Christianity and its secular offshoot, Western science, cling to a very un-Darwinian form of human exceptionalism. According to the Biblical Book of Genesis, God put animals on earth purely to serve Man, who exists to serve God.

Early in the 21st century, there are an estimated 300 million Buddhists in the world. Central to Buddhist teaching are the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path.

THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS:

  1. All is suffering (dukkha).
  2. Suffering is caused by desire/attachment.
  3. If one can eliminate desire/attachment, one can eliminate suffering.
  4. The Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire. Extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification should be avoided.
THE NOBLE EIGHT-FOLD PATH:
  1. Right Views.
    The true understanding of the four noble truths.
  2. Right Intent.
    Right aspiration is the true desire to free oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness.
    [These first two are referred to as praj˝a, or wisdom.]
  3. Right Speech.
    Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk.
  4. Right Conduct.
    Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviours, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.
  5. Right livelihood.
    Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including animals.
    [The above three are referred to as shila, or morality.]
  6. Right Effort.
    Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regulating the content of one's mind: bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again; good qualities should be enacted and nurtured.
  7. Right Mindfulness.
    Right mindfulness is the focusing of one's attention on one's body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance.
  8. Right Concentration.
    Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.
The Theravada tradition of Buddhism teaches that everyone must individually seek salvation through their own efforts. To attain nirvana, one must relinquish earthly desires and live a monastic life. The Mahayana tradition teaches that salvation comes through the grace of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas defer their own enlightenment to help others, thus enabling many more living beings to attain salvation.

Buddhist universalism is best represented by the Mahayana tradition, which embraces the well-being of all sentient life.

The meaning of the term nirvana, literally "the blowing out" of existence, is not entirely clear. Nirvana is not a place like heaven, but rather an eternal state of being. It is the state in which the law of karma and the rebirth cycle come to an end - though Buddhist conceptions of personal (non-)identity make these notions problematic. Nirvana is the end of suffering; a state where there are no desires, and individual consciousness comes to an end. Attaining nirvana is to relinquish clinging, hatred, and ignorance. Its achievement entails full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence, and interconnectedness. Sometimes "nirvana" is used to refer either to Buddhist heaven or complete nothingness, but most Buddhists would not understand the term in this way.

* * *

UTILITARIANISM

Ethical utilitarians share the Buddhist focus on suffering. But only "negative" utilitarians identify the minimisation of suffering as the sole ethical goal of life. "Positive" utilitarians regard the maximisation of happiness as ethically valuable no less than the minimisation of pain.

One radical form of utilitarianism is abolitionism. Abolitionists believe that biotechnology should be used to abolish suffering altogether - though not all abolitionists are utilitarians. Given the accelerating revolution in biotechnology, the abolitionist project is the logical implication of a utilitarian ethic. Even so, the creation of a truly cruelty-free world entails a disconcertingly ambitious technological solution. To achieve a world without suffering, it will be necessary to rewrite the vertebrate genome and redesign the global ecosystem. Any cross-species enterprise of this magnitude is beyond our current technological capabilities. Yet some kind of paradise-engineering is foreseeable in the coming era of quantum supercomputing allied to nanorobotics. Critically, too, genetically-engineered vatfood can potentially deliver global veganism more effectively than appeals to compassion alone.

These distinctions might seem academic. Most people are not avowedly utilitarians in their code of ethical values. Moreover the term "utilitarian" itself is pedestrian. It conveys no sense of moral urgency. But a rough-and-ready utilitarian ethic is widespread in contemporary secular society. Even professed anti-utilitarians normally rely on (indirectly) utilitarian arguments by appealing to the bad consequences that would allegedly follow for our well-being from the [mis-]application of a utilitarian ethic.

* * *

BUDDHISM VERSUS UTILITARIANISM

Setting aside differences of metaphysic, how closely do the core values of utilitarians/abolitionists and Buddhists coincide? If suffering and its abolition are central to life on Earth, can differences between the two traditions be resolved to questions of means, not ends?

Perhaps. But these differences of means are substantial. Most Buddhists would challenge the idea that technology offers an escape-route from the pain of earthly existence. Despite the cumulative success stories of scientific medicine, it would seem the advances of modern technology haven't left human beings any happier on average than our ancestors on the African savannah. Indeed the incidence of clinical depression, anxiety disorders, suicide, drug abuse, marital breakdown and other "objective" indices of distress is rising in Western consumer capitalist society as a whole. The track-record of technological science to date is not encouraging. Opponents of scientific utopianism envisage that its application will yield - at best - some type of "Brave New World".

Abolitionists respond that only enlightened biotechnology can ever deliver the world from suffering. Unless the biological substrates of unpleasantness are eradicated, then suffering is genetically preordained by the biochemistry of the human brain. All Darwinian humans periodically go through periods of distress ["dukkha"]. Its intensity and duration varies. But its spectre is never absent. Endowing their vehicles with a capacity to suffer enhanced the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. A heritable capacity to undergo all sorts of nasty states, conditionally activated, has been genetically adaptive. So even devout Buddhists undergo pain, sorrow and malaise in the course of their lives. A Buddhist lifestyle and meditational disciplines may offer palliative relief. Yet under the yoke of a Darwinian genome, no pursuit of a "Noble Eight-fold Path" can re-set our emotional thermostats, redesign our gene expression profiles, and dismantle the "hedonic treadmill" of Darwinian life. In evolutionary history, primate mothers who weren't anxiety-ridden, "attached" to their children, and desirous of their success left less copies of their genes than their malaise-ridden, un-Buddhist-like counterparts.

Moreover, with a traditional neural architecture, it's notable that desire-driven "hyper-dopaminergic" people, who have the greatest range and intensity of appetites, tend to be the least unhappy - though their lives can still be blighted by disappointment and loss. By contrast, the extinction of desire experienced by many contemporary humans is more akin to apathy and withdrawal than illumination - not enlightenment and consequent nirvana but instead a condition of melancholia or anhedonia: emptiness in the sense of an absence of meaning. This isn't the kind of extinction of desire Buddhists have in mind. Yet it's unclear if Buddhism offers a solution to, say, anhedonia - the incapacity to feel happiness or anticipate reward - characteristic of many depressives.

Looking to the future, the new technologies of post-genomic healthcare promise effectively unlimited joy, meaning and motivation - or serenity. If we so desire, a rich hyper-spirituality can be awakened, too, even in the otherwise spiritually barren. Intelligence can be pharmacologically and genetically amplified, as can lifespans, perhaps indefinitely; and also, more counter-intuitively, compassion. In future, genetic engineering will allow control over archaic emotions and eventually the creation of whole new categories of experience in state-spaces of consciousness hitherto unknown.

More prosaically, but more importantly from an ethical point of view, the reproductive revolution of "designer babies" will enable us to choose how much - or how little - suffering we bring into the world when we decide on the genetic-make-up of our children. Gradients of genetically pre-programmed well-being can be the destiny of our offspring from conception, depending on which dial-settings we favour. If we so choose, we can abolish the soul-polluting nastiness of Darwinian life altogether. Dukkha can be consigned to historical oblivion; and replaced by a post-Darwinian era of mental superhealth.

The era of mature genomic medicine is still decades away, perhaps longer. Buddhists are surely right to stress how desire and attachment as experienced today often lead to heartbreak. But when heartbreak becomes genetically impossible, it will be safe to follow one's heart's desire without limit. More generally, an absence of desire is a recipe for personal and social stagnation, whereas an abundance of desires is a precondition of intellectual dynamism and social progress.

Control over our emotions nonetheless strikes many bioconservatives as a frightening prospect, evoking images of enslavement rather than empowerment. So it's worth recalling how some early social commentators feared that the discovery of anaesthesia gave doctors too much power over their patient. The use of anaesthetics for painless surgery allegedly robbed the individual of his or her autonomy and the capacity to act as a rational agent, reducing the patient "to a corpse". In a contemporary context, investing a quasi-priestly caste of physicians with the sole lawful power to grant - or withhold - pleasure-giving, pain-relieving prescription drugs undoubtedly does magnify the scope for abuses of authority.

Whatever the risks of abuse, our technologies of pain-eradication are too valuable to renounce, even if this option were sociologically realistic. Right now, of course, the vision of life without suffering still strikes many non-Buddhists (and even Buddhists) as fanciful. Life-long happiness seems no more likely than the prospect of effective "pain killers" or pain-free surgery struck our early Victorian forebears. For the most part, we are possessed by the deep unspoken feeling that "what has always been was always meant to be". Status quo bias has deep cultural roots. Even classical utilitarians may find it difficult to believe that suffering could be eradicated in the foreseeable future in the same way as, say, smallpox. Yet it is hard to underestimate the ramifications of rewriting the vertebrate genome as the millennium unfolds. The abolition of the biological substrates of suffering promises to mark a major discontinuity in the development of life on Earth. Our genetically enriched descendants may regard existence without "dukkha" - the abolition of suffering - as the ethical foundation of any civilised society.




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