The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
Posts: 1970
Joined: Mon Jan 12, 2009 2:19 am

The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

Postby Individual » Thu Jul 23, 2009 9:01 pm

In order for there to be suffering, as I see it, you need two things, the physical component which creates the context for the suffering to occur (a sensory organ which experiences suffering and an object to suffer over) and a mental component of craving.

Dukkha ("suffering") is distinguished from pain, which can also be a kind of neutral feeling. What we call "physical pain," is defined by not simply its physical, but the aversion to pain. A Buddha, from what I remember, is said to feel physical pain but does not experience it mentally. Recognizing the physical interaction, but not labeling it, "I" or "mine", the pain has no existential meaning for him; in a sense, it does not exist. An analogy might be Arnold Schwarzanegger as the Terminator -- in one scene of the movie, when asked if he feels pain, he says coldly that he detects injury, but does not experience the emotional response humans call pain. Is this similar to the Buddha's own experience of pain?

Anyway, Theravada Buddhism does not seem particularly concerned with the physical component of suffering, except to the extent that the basic nature of reality constrains behavior (so, in order for behavior to be skillful, it must conform to the laws of reality, but Theravadins do not bother considering it fundamental to know these laws, in biology, physics, etc.). "Medicine" is something even forbidden for monks to practice (although perhaps this only applies to the superstitious "folk medicine" practices, like Ayurveda).

Now, a possible justification for this is that it is, in some way, easier to end all suffering through control of the mental component than manipulating the physical component. A Buddhist story I've heard on this point is about a king or queen who wanted to cover the world in leather, but their advisor recommended they just wear leather on their feet (hence the invention of shoes). The point is that it's easier to care after the point of contact -- your feet with the ground, your mind with your life -- than to try to control the whole circumstance -- the entire ground, all of reality.

But still, this doesn't negate the fact that scientific progress has an impact on suffering, because it removes various contexts in which craving might occur. I have heard descriptions of the lives of Egyptian laborers or those who built the Great Wall of China, or of the tribes in Africa today, and these kinds of primitive societies do not seem like they would make a person as happy as modern, prosperous nations. This coheres to what I've heard of psychology's view on the relationship between happiness and wealth: although extravagant wealth has no impact on happiness (the existence of luxuries does not remove craving, so no suffering reduced), but a basic subsistence, which could even be measured in dollars, does contribute to happiness. I think it's pretty naive, for instance, to actually believe the myth that Tibetans or Bhutanese can be dirt-poor, face political oppression, famine, disease, etc., and yet still be happier than average.

I don't doubt that it is possible for an individual to be happy despite circumstance, but collectively, people are always carried by circumstance, either they're lucky or victims of circumstance. The kind of mental purity that comes from Dhamma practice is unconditioned, such that even superficially practicing Buddhism does not ensure happiness.

Individually, a person born in ancient times who was reborn in modern times may have been about as happy, or more or less, depending on how much desire and aversion they felt (a basic notion of existentialism: you can get used to anything. A person born in medieval times could be just as happy as a person today, because they weren't aware of the possibilities of what we have today, so there was no such thing for them to crave and few people obsessively crave over fantasies, but instead, they crave things which are more immediate -- a medieval person would crave something close to his time, which he could see and touch.). However, collectively it's a different matter. Nobody, as I see it, can deny that advancements in medicine, consumer technology (refrigerators, air conditioning, food canning, etc.), and economic advances has not reduced aggregate or collective suffering. Although a person in medieval times did not crave these things, if we could give them these things, it would make life better for them and possibly give them an opportunity for happiness (if they exist as slave laborers, etc.).

So, is science and the physical context in which suffering occurs not also important? If a scientist finds a cure for a major disease, does this not alleviate suffering at least as much as a Dhamma talk? Shouldn't monks contribute to science, too, because of this?
The best things in life aren't things.

User avatar
Posts: 4655
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 2:36 am

Re: The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

Postby clw_uk » Thu Jul 23, 2009 9:31 pm

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

User avatar
Posts: 56
Joined: Thu Jan 01, 2009 3:26 pm
Location: Thailand

Re: The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

Postby Lampang » Fri Jul 24, 2009 7:12 am

I agree wholly with your point that a certain level of wealth/provision of food/healthcare etc (the four necessities) is necessary to underwrite our happiness but I think it's easy to overstate the case that science alleviates suffering, mainly because suffering is only measurable from the inside and we're wholly biased when we make our estimates of it. It's true that from the outside and from our point of view, the life of a mediaeval peasant looks a lot worse - in terms of suffering - than that of a privileged first-worlder but I'm not sure that we can then infer from this that the mediaeval peasant suffers more than the privileged first-worlder. I think we (humans) have a marked tendency to inflate our experience of suffering to whatever the bounds of existence will justify, and we're very inventive at finding reasons to suffer. We might think that our privileged first-worlder sitting in therapy, dosed up on Prozac, crying his/her eyes out with the injustice of it all is a moaning old crybaby because, look, here's some real suffering in Darfur but that's not the point of suffering. It's a measure of our felt experience, not of the facts of our experience. And this is why, I think, a lot of talk about, for example, stem cell research is pointless if you can't also talk about the inevitability of suffering and death; perhaps all this science is just a way of avoiding precisely that discussion.

Posts: 1970
Joined: Mon Jan 12, 2009 2:19 am

Re: The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

Postby Individual » Fri Jul 24, 2009 4:30 pm

The best things in life aren't things.

User avatar
Posts: 1720
Joined: Sun Jan 04, 2009 5:16 pm

Re: The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

Postby gavesako » Fri Jul 24, 2009 5:23 pm

I think here you will find some useful pointers:

A Buddhist look at trends in scientific development
P. A. Payutto ... cience.htm
Bhikkhu Gavesako
Kiṃkusalagavesī anuttaraṃ santivarapadaṃ pariyesamāno... (MN 26)

- Theravada texts
- Translations and history of Pali texts
- Sutta translations

Posts: 1952
Joined: Sat Jan 03, 2009 5:29 pm
Location: London, UK

Re: The meaning of "dukkha" and the relevance of science.

Postby rowyourboat » Fri Jul 24, 2009 6:10 pm

incredibly good book

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science
Product Description
Product Description
In this landmark book, Richard Layard shows that there is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income. Yet as societies become richer, they do not become happier. This is not just anecdotally true, it is the story told by countless pieces of scientific research. We now have sophisticated ways of measuring how happy people are, and all the evidence shows that on average people have grown no happier in the last fifty years, even as average incomes have more than doubled. In fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe, and Japan. What is going on?

About the Author
Richard Layard is a leading economist who believes that the happiness of society does not necessarily equate to its income. He is best known for his work on unemployment and inequality, whihc provided the intellectual basis for Britain's improved unemployment policies. He founded the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and since 2000 he has been a member of the House of Lords. His research into the subject of happiness brings together findings from such diverse areas as psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology and philosophy. ... 0141016906

I think there are methods for the short term alleviation of happiness and the long term, samsaric final solution.
With Metta

& Upekkha

Return to “General Theravāda discussion”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 25 guests

Google Saffron, Theravada Search Engine