There’s a theory that proves
that life is a bet
we win at birth.
— From the song “Tú mandas” by Pau Donés (Jarabe de Palo)
A contemporary meditator picks up the wisdom-filled classic The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In chapter 15, the geographer asks the Little Prince to describe his planet. “There are three volcanoes,” he says, “two volcanoes are active and the other is extinct.” And then he adds: “I also have a flower.” The geographer informs the Little Prince that they don’t record flowers, because they are ephemeral. Puzzled, the Little Prince asks what that means, shocked to hear that they would fail to register precisely the most beautiful thing. “It means,” replies the geographer, “‘which is threatened by imminent disappearance.’” The Little Prince is devastated. He has just found out that his beloved flower is ephemeral, threatened by imminent disappearance, and he has left her on his planet all alone, with only four thorns as defense.
What should the Little Prince do? Should he let this newly discovered vulnerability of what he loves turn into concern and care? Or should he follow another young prince—Siddhartha Gautama—and sever his ties with the flower, considering that one should not seek what is subject to birth, aging, or imminent disappearance? I imagine that the contemporary meditator would read the Little Prince’s episode with tenderness, finding it cold to infer that he should disengage from the flower. Yet exactly that is what early Buddhism teaches. Why else would the early texts have the Buddha on his deathbed reprimand his crying disciple, saying,
Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament. Did I not prepare for this when I explained that we must be parted and separated from all we hold dear and beloved?”
(Digha Nikaya 16, trans. Ajahn Sujato)
The hypothetical meditator could remark that this is a false dichotomy, that not clinging doesn’t mean not caring, that equanimity is not indifference, that one must remain mindful and equanimous toward the flower but can still enjoy contemplating it, watering it, and so forth. I do not disagree, but I am not convinced that this attitude represents early Buddhism. It is later forms of Buddhism that maintain one can enjoy without attachment, and I fail to see how you can care for something—let us replace the flower with your mother—and not suffer because of its ephemeral nature. But the early Buddhist discourses take Ananda’s distress as falling short of the ideal they pursue.
It is later forms of Buddhism that maintain one can enjoy without attachment.
Our hypothetical meditator stands for a current trend of life-affirming dharma that focuses on specific elements of the earliest phase of Buddhist teaching while distancing itself from certain Theravada doctrines—we can call it neo-early Buddhism. In a certain sense, it continues the emphasis on “authenticity” and texts that characterizes Buddhist modernism. We see this trend in institutions in the United States and Europe that self-identify as “early Buddhist,” as well as in the popularity enjoyed by the writings of prolific scholar-monk Bhikkhu Analayo (not his work itself but its reception). This patent interest in early Buddhist teaching even overlaps with a secular mindfulness audience. If you identify as practicing mainly on the basis of the early texts and you liked the opening quote of this essay—quite antithetical to them—you may be a neo-early Buddhist.
I do not wish to argue against neo-early or early Buddhism in themselves, but as a contemporary practitioner enthralled with early Buddhism myself, I cannot help but notice certain contradictions and peculiar habits of interpretation. Thus, I offer this reflection simply to raise issues so we can all further reflect upon them.
Early Buddhism is a renunciant tradition founded on a (very human) rejection of negative affect. In contrast, neo-early Buddhism presents itself as a life-affirming dharma that enjoins people to accept the difficult and tragic as part of life. The tensions here are far greater than acknowledged. I wonder how honest we are being with ourselves. Either we are not thinking hard and systematically enough about the teachings because we are afraid to find we clash with much more than we want to admit, or we are very motivated (consciously or not) to agree with ancient texts and traditions. If the former is true, we are holding the lid on a potentially bursting crisis of faith, and therefore deluding ourselves. If it is the latter, why not yield to the mindset of those 5th-century BCE renunciants from the Gangetic plain?
“Rejection” above may sound dissonant with the goal of overcoming the fire of aversion and with the ideal of being beyond preferences. But aiming to transcend all pain and reach its cessation means that at some level there is wanting to get rid of it. Buddhism calls negative affect dukkha, a word meaning “pain, suffering, discomfort.” Life is filled with dukkha in three ways: as experiences that are painful or unpleasant (dukkha dukkha, felt dukkha), as the transiency and inevitable ending of pleasant experiences (viparinama dukkha, anticipatory dukkha), and as the structure of what it means to be a living thing (sankhara dukkha, potential dukkha). The first sense of dukkha is self-evident. The second refers to how good things often end badly or, more simply, that they end, which hurts or leaves one empty. And the third and the most abstract reflects how transiency, unreliability, and dependence are baked into the recipe of living things—not something that will sustain complete satisfaction. The best-case scenario for a date, for example, is that two true soulmates find each other and live in absolute bliss until one of them dies, leaving the other one heartbroken.
Discussions on whether this teaching is pessimistic have a long history. It is certainly not optimistic about life, because the solution it offers to this predicament consists in no longer being born. Early Buddhism rebelled against the negative affect of dukkha in its three senses, and since dukkha is unavoidable and they saw life as cyclical, the solution was to escape existence altogether. Another implicit presentation of potential dukkha is as follows: it is because we feel at all that we feel pain, that we can hurt; therefore it is best we leave this feeling thing behind. Meditative states devoid of phenomenal experience, or nibbana as the utter ending of cyclical existence, are the accomplishment of this, and they are called bliss (sukha) precisely because they are devoid of feeling (vedana). Paradox aside, the point is that the absence of feeling and of lived experience is positively valued, and practitioners strive toward that goal: there will be no feeling as there will be no contact, no sense-spheres, and so on.
Think of the dentist. No one would take early Buddhism to be against enduring dental pain for the greater good of healthy teeth in this life. But in the bigger scheme of things, it still prioritizes avoiding dental pain, so it prefers to forgo teeth altogether. Some early discourses use a threefold template consisting of the gratification (assada, literally “sweetness”), drawback (adinava) and way out (nissarana) with regard to something; the third resolves the dilemma posed by the previous two. Let us apply this haiku-like approach to the Little Prince: that the flower is pleasant or brings satisfaction is its sweetness, that it does not last is its drawback, and the way out of this dilemma is to abandon passion (chanda-raga) for the flower. In this way, the Little Prince would deprive the mechanism that drives cyclic existence of its fuel, reaching the goal of experiencing neither the sweetness nor the drawback of the flower. It is the philosophy of “no head, no headache.” In this sense early Buddhism is renunciant, world- or life-denying.
While all these reasonings are loyal to the early Buddhist texts, I can barely find them in contemporary teachings that claim to have their roots in those texts. Contemporary teachings value experience rather than praise its cessation. How does this square with all experience being dukkha and with the goal of ending dukkha? Today dukkha tends to be interpreted as the imperfect character of all that we experience, as that tragic side of “the nature of things” that we do not like to dwell upon but without which our lives are rendered depthless: we live in denial and perhaps even more afraid of pain and loss than if we faced its inevitability. I think of it in this way too. However, it is a reinterpretation.
With this reinterpretation, the doctrine that “whatever is conditioned or impermanent is dukkha” sounds like a fact. But it is not a fact: it is a judgment. Whether we translate dukkha as painful, suffering, imperfect, or unsatisfactory, since existence contains a diverse mix of experiences, calling it dukkha as a whole can only be an evaluation. For example, a good thing that ends, bringing distress, is a combination of pleasure and pain, moments of satisfaction and dissatisfaction distributed in time. To label it dukkha overall is an evaluative judgment—one you can agree with but a judgment nonetheless, not a fact. To claim that experiences are dukkha (in the anticipatory and potential senses) because by nature they will and always can involve felt dukkha makes this the most relevant feature. This is not math but a choice of emphasis that sits on a rejection of negative affect. Someone could consider that a certain good experience that brought pain when it ended was nevertheless worth it rather than ultimately unsatisfactory. In making dukkha the most salient feature, early Buddhism transfers our natural avoidance of felt pain and discomfort to life generally. Thus this doctrine is at the core of the early Buddhist renunciant or world-denying orientation. Yet even if I am to turn toward the difficult, toward this felt pain and discomfort, what reason do I have to see all of experience through its lens?
How aware is this movement of itself as neo-early? Or is it really neo-early?
Perhaps instinctively, contemporary Buddhists see the achievement of a deep level of acceptance as a goal, but I seriously question whether early Buddhists did: their very explicit aim is to eradicate all dukkha—in the felt, anticipatory, and potential senses; what fuels the practice is an ethos of rejecting negative affect and aiming to transcend it.
It is here that I become confused: does neo-early Buddhism share this ethos? Because with one hand it spreads life-affirmation, and with the other it still holds on to the judgment that everything conditioned or impermanent is dukkha. Yet such a judgment is necessarily renunciant, incompatible with embracing negative affect in an ultimate sense.
The usual way of ironing this out is to restrict the sense of dukkha to psychological malaise. However, this just relocates the wrinkles. Should Ananda have remained psychologically unmoved by the impending death of his teacher, to whom he had been closer than anyone else? Should the Little Prince be dedicated to his flower but magically not suffer if anything happened to her? Is that even coherent? And what do you do about your mother?
Neo-early Buddhism is as free to reinterpret Buddhist teachings as all other traditions have been—Buddhism’s diversity attests to this—and being critical is a dimension of this process. How aware is this movement of itself as neo-early? Or is it really neo-early? When we reinterpret halfway (or half consciously), we may leave in place structures we do not actually agree with but on which our house is built, no matter how heavily decorated. The result can be an incoherent teaching, a practice that misfits its theoretical framework without quite knowing what is wrong. We foster confusion. Enthusiastic practitioners of “turning toward the difficult” and “stopping to smell the flowers” plunge into the waters of ancient Buddhist texts only to find no shoal of accept-verbs. The injunction to mindfully know any pleasant or unpleasant feeling as it is may sound like a candidate, yet it swims next to the injunctions to regard the pleasant smell as dukkha and to not welcome or approve it. If the flower brings delight but is impermanent, the “way out” could be to remain aware of it without greed or attachment, but often this is just the neo-early Buddhist method of getting away with enjoyment, perhaps called “appreciation.” Is that appreciation compatible with not delighting, rejoicing, or finding pleasure in the flower? Let us consider the following passage:
Udayi, there are five strands of sense pleasure. What five? Images known by the eye, sounds known by the ear, smells known by the nose, tastes known by the tongue, and tactile sensations known by the body that are desired, agreeable, pleasing, and lovely. The pleasure and happiness that arises from these five strands of sense pleasure is called sensual, filthy, ordinary, and ignoble pleasure. Such pleasure should not be pursued, cultivated, or developed. I say that it should be feared.
(Majjhima Nikaya 66)
So should neo-early Buddhists abandon what is changing and not-us, as another text, the Alagaddupama Sutta, tells us, or not? Do we turn toward or away from what is subject to birth, sickness, aging, and death? Is mindful gardening recommended, or should that hobby be relinquished through understanding how pleasant floral sensations are constantly vanishing? Since early Buddhism aspired to transcend all negative affect, and since it is natural to suffer for the loss of what you care for, one must disengage, detach, or whatever one’s preferred term is. One must regard the flower as if one regarded dirt, with no preference. There is no place here to recommend sniffing the roses unless we do the same with excrement—a suggestion that would not be far-fetched. Botanical appreciation is not the flavor of most early Buddhist texts. Were this wrong, it would be hard to make sense of the goal of “no more birth” and no more flowers.
Neo-early Buddhists would hardly chastise Ananda for his grief and would tell the Little Prince to care for the flower while never forgetting its impermanence—an impermanence that would not, however, require a lack of interest. Such a characteristic approach, distinct from early Buddhism, seems to me a natural consequence of not instinctively regarding life as cyclical. No matter how agnostic we may try to be about rebirth, the worldview we grew up in remains for many of us as a default perspective we cannot simply shake off. With the scope set to one lifetime, the amount of what can be done about dukkha dwindles greatly. There is little we can do about much of the felt dukkha that life allots us, a bit more we can do about anticipatory dukkha, and there is nothing whatsoever we can do about potential dukkha. That is because dukkha is only completely eradicated by not being (re)born. We can reduce felt dukkha to its bare minimum: the pain of illness, death, unpleasant sensory stimuli; in dharmic jargon, we can keep it to the first arrow. And through insight, we can decrease the suffering of change, of good things ending; but the extreme of completely eradicating it entails not caring—or a similar stance, one that I doubt neo-early Buddhists would cherish as an ideal.
Since certain forms of dukkha are perceived as just part of this one life, the problem of dukkha mutates. Any such “natural dukkha” is no longer on the list of what one’s practice aims to overcome. I regard this as nothing more than the very understandable outcome of a culture crash. Nevertheless, this outlook is something new that draws from early Buddhist texts while replacing the whole frame—it is not early Buddhism. My point is not that this is a bad thing but that frame-switching should be more transparent and more critical. A life-affirming dharma has no reason to maintain that everything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha; for the latter doctrine makes full sense only when we aspire to leave cyclic existence. Like Saint-Exupéry’s geographer, early Buddhism does not record the flowers—by the same token, it does not record anything lived at all, as everything is equally ephemeral. But neo-early Buddhists do.
Our hypothetical meditator has been thinking throughout this essay that the teachings on dukkha have nevertheless been very useful for their life, here and now. Indeed, dukkha is a strategy of meaning-making. And sometimes apparently defeatist outlooks can bring freedom and drive away anxiety, like when right after midnight on New Year’s Eve it started raining and I said to myself that 2021 would continue to be shitty COVID-wise. I felt immediate relief, as all the constant hoping that “things will be better in two months” dissolved and could no longer be frustrated. Maybe the doctrine of dukkha has always helped practitioners accept the tragic side of life, even at the time of the Buddha. I say only that this doctrine does not merely observe that things are imperfect but directs one to leave the world as a response, and that this matters as we shift from “let us get out of here” to “let us accept this here.”
When we naturally suffer as a result of change or loss (1), early Buddhism wants to point out that this is what happens always—it is dukkha, after all (2)—and that it can be avoided by not being (re)born (3). The middle bit of this three-part reasoning creates meaning in a way that leads to the conclusion, the renunciant exit sign. Shifting to today’s neo-early Buddhist discourse: when we naturally suffer as a result of change or loss (1), if we do not aim to avoid that through not being (re)born (3), what meaning does it create to emphasize that pain and make it the summary of our experience (2)? This is a question for us all. To take away the renunciant conclusion—the exit sign—but keep the reasoning or strategy that led there is to leave the work half done.
The content of a doctrine is linked to—but is not the same as—its effect on our being. Which matters more? For example, teachings on buddhanature claim that we are already awakened; but doctrine aside, their effect can be a trust in our abilities, a psychological shift away from unhelpful relationships with a goal perceived as distant. Similarly, one could interpret the early Buddhist teachings on dukkha as a method to help people come to terms with their existential condition, articulated in the way permitted by the generally accepted worldview of the Buddha’s culture. We find hints of such pragmatism, whether conscious or not: a passage in the Kalama Sutta concerning karma and rebirth that looks like a Buddhist version of Pascal’s wager; the fact that the problem of many other sects’ wrong views is that they deny ethical consequence; or the shocking Abhidharmic suggestion (in the Patthana) that belief in a self can be skillful, for the same ethical reason. This is speculative, of course, but I would argue that even a renunciant path is undertaken and maintained only because it gives this life meaning—no other-world-oriented system can be fully other-worldly. Despite pragmatisms, the renunciant flavor of early Buddhist discourse is too markedly different from most people’s affect and character today, and the desirable effects of certain teachings or beliefs do not, by themselves, justify keeping the doctrinal content. Since some of the doctrinal content of early Buddhism clashes with much in neo-early Buddhism, then why do we keep that content?
So much stress on the early texts, coupled with seeing them as the word of the Buddha rather than as a collective creation of the first generations of his followers, makes it emotionally difficult to openly—or even inwardly—disagree with the Buddha; this is what makes Buddhism a religion. Thus traditions and contemporary teachers alike have tended to photoshop their reinterpretations onto the original, calling them “what the Buddha actually meant,” “the secret teaching,” “mind-to-mind transmission,” and so forth. In contrast, philosophers and scientists continue the work of those whom they admire while also raising objections, and a jazz musician plays a Duke Ellington composition that does not sound the way Duke played it. If asked, they would not hesitate to admit to their innovations. Buddhists, however, feel pressure to concur with what is in the texts and are inclined to resolve cognitive dissonance with semiconscious reinterpretations rather than dissent. I remember reading certain canonical passages and feeling that dissonance rubbing against a discernible wish to agree with the text. It was partly unconscious, but as far as I can recall it there was awareness of the process. Buddhist history contains cases of overt dissent nevertheless, like Zen radicality or the layered approach of different yanas, or “vehicles.” It may have been in wrestling with the issues raised here that later Buddhists said the way out was not really out:
Those who, afraid of sufferings arising from the discrimination of birth-and-death, seek for nirvana, do not know that birth-and-death and nirvana are not to be separated the one from the other; and, seeing that all things subject to discrimination have no reality, imagine that nirvana consists in the future annihilation of the senses and their fields.
—Lankavatara Sutra, trans. D. T. Suzuki
The author(s) of the Lankavatara Sutra is unhappy with the rejection of negative affect and the “no head, no headache” philosophy. Still, reform has tended to keep and repurpose, just like when I reorganize my room: I rarely throw anything away for good. But if we today stop using the renunciant framework altogether, then we must ask what other pieces of the puzzle need to be reshuffled or discarded: the extent to which sensuality is a problem, meditative practices designed to perceive everything as dukkha, not-self as a way of disengaging, the implications of all this for a lay life, and so on. I fully understand the looming fear connected to these questions, but we are very much in our dharmic childhood: did we expect to have gotten it right already?
The recent trend in dharma circles that we may call “neo-early Buddhism” differs in fundamental respects from the early Buddhist texts it claims as basis, and it should be more open about that. Chiefly, it is life- or world-affirming, which early Buddhism is not. I have argued that the doctrine that “everything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha,” one element of the rationale for wanting to leave the world, is a renunciant doctrine. Since in affirming life neo- early Buddhism affirms the impermanent and conditioned rather than attempting to get away from it, it is senseless for it to maintain that everything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha. I have suggested that this inconsistency stems from two things: from not instinctively regarding life as cyclical and from an emotional difficulty in disagreeing with the Buddha. The latter facilitates relating to those teachings that create cognitive dissonance in a way that is dishonest and unhelpful, planting the seeds of future confusion, stuckness, or even crises of faith, and that does not help to harmonize our values, our goals, and our means to reach them. I hope I am exaggerating.
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