3

I was listening to a discussion with David Benatar, and the point that Buddhism seems to be antinatalist was raised. It seems that people argue this both ways. Can Buddhism be said to be antinatalist? Or some strands but not others? If it is, what consequences does this have?

I have always kind of dismissed Benatar's ideas as being a kind of Larkin-esque pose, and making a mistake in hierarchy that puts pleasure above meaning, like utilitarians. But if the charge of antinatalism sticks, it seems I am going to have look more carefully at which of his points also apply to Buddhism.

EDIT TO ADD:

I'm pretty sure the Benatar discussion was with Sam Harris here. It's not been transcribed that I can find, so I'll have to re-listen..

But, this Big Think piece discusses the episode, and says this:

"Harris finds a correlation with Buddhism. According to a translation of Buddhist texts by Sir Hari Singh Gour, Buddha claimed that men are ignorant of the suffering they unleash; existence is the cause of old age and death. If man would realize this harm he would immediately stop procreating. That might offer insight into why Buddha named his own son Rāhula, which means “fetter” or “impediment.” Of course, Buddha had his son before embarking on his legendary quest, so selfishly the name implies Rāhula was getting in the way of his father’s search for enlightenment."

From the subtitles to the video, Harris speaking to Benatar:

"On the Buddhist account existence is the problem and they have this view of rebirth and karma and a wheel of becoming. You know, life after life you just can't get off this wheel, unless you become fully enlightened. Enlightenment consists in no longer being subjected to this continuous cycle of rebirth. There's obviously very good reason to doubt that picture of existence scientifically, but the core of the ethical view there, the soteriological view, is that what it means to be free is that existence has this intrinsically unsatisfying character and you know this is for reasons that we really haven't gone into yet it's just the fact that everything is impermanent, your pleasures no matter how good always fall away, and you're left with more of a search for pleasure. There's a kind of intrinsic dissatisfaction even in satisfaction. It wouldn't be bad if no one existed, and the fact that people exist in a circumstance that is perfect to frustrate the search for happiness and well-being is the problem, and enlightenment is the the act of canceling all of the the mental properties that would cause one to continually be reborn into existence. So your view is very Buddhist, without offering the methodology of enlightenment."

So the issue as I see, if you are a physicalist-materialist, ie the consensus scientific view, human lives without awakening are net-negative. Tge Buddhist analysis of the intrinsic conditions of existence becomes not only anti-natalist, but pro-mortalist.

Modern Western Buddhist thinkers, like say Stephen Batchelor, take a skeptical stance towards many of the theological verities around awakening in Buddhism too. It seems like keeping the wider analysis, but abandoning rebirth and awakening as ending suffering, is going to be anti-natalist, and pro-mortalist.

I guess this is in terms of Therevada specifically. The Mahayana doctrine of our original nature as awakened I think may sidestep this..

  • Do you have a reference for the discussion with Benatar? – Frank Hubeny Jul 11 '18 at 14:39
  • Somehow I occasionally (no) turned up on wikipedia antinatalism page and it states that Hari Singh Gour said Buddhism was antinatalist. But since Buddha himself didn't say it (or if he did, no source has survived till the present), I would not call Buddhism antinatalist. – rus9384 Jul 11 '18 at 14:50
  • 1
    @rus9384 But surely if the natural conclusion of buddhist thought is antinatalist it may be said to be antinatalist even if it's not explicitly so? – JeffUK Jul 11 '18 at 14:56
  • What consequences? I guess it could be argued that antinatalism would stop the endless round of suffering by stopping new births. Tolstoy came out the same way I believe with his Christian Anarchy (I think this was what it was called). – Gordon Jul 11 '18 at 15:06
  • 3
    According to buddhist thought human beings are in the best position to achieve enlightenment, even when compared to deities. Ceasing birth of human beings would therefore cease the birth of beings capable of achieving enlightenment. Antinatalism wouldn't stop the endless cycle of suffering but would rather make enlightenment impossible. – transitionsynthesis Jul 12 '18 at 6:23
2

An 'anti-natalist' conception of Buddhism involves a fundamental misunderstanding of Buddhist precepts. When Buddhists use the concepts of dukkha and tanhā —frequently translated as 'suffering' and 'craving' — they are pointing at mental phenomenon, not physical ones. We don't 'suffer' because of what happens to us in the world; we 'suffer' because what happens in the world violates our preconceptions, expectations, or desires. When the First Noble Precept says that "birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering", it doesn't mean that these material occurrences themselves cause suffering. It means that the mind clings to the thought that we ought to have been born into a better life; that we ought to be young; that we ought to be healthy; that we ought never to die. We suffer because we crave after unrealized (and often unrealizable) 'oughts'. Buddhism has no particular opinion about whether one should give birth to a child. But if one gives birth to a child, Buddhism asks that one helps that child avoid the suffering that arises from craving.

In Western philosophical terms this is a twist on the classic is/ought distinction. Being born, getting old, feeling sick, eventually dying... These are 'what is'; they are a concomitant of being alive. But these things only generate dukkha to the extent that we have a deep and abiding desire that they were otherwise. For Buddhists, the natural state of human existence is a kind of existential joy, a joy that rises from the direct experience of being alive. We lose track of that joy the more we get involved in perceived problems and their perceived solutions, but that just obscures it.

Now, Buddhism may seem anti-natalist to a Western observer, but that's because the Buddhism we know in the West is largely monastic traditions stripped of their cultural context. In Asia, people who enter monastic life are seen as those who have already spent many lifetimes living the conventional life of work, family, and society. Who knows how many children they may have had in past lives, but by living virtuously and following the Buddhist precepts as best they can, they have advanced to the point where they are preparing to leave the wheel. Those who are not yet advanced lead the conventional life, blessed with children whom they hope will advance to more auspicious births. In the West — without that cultural context, and seen through the radical individualism that informs us here — Buddhism looks austere and repressive, because there is no sense of continuity across lifetimes over which a person can develop.

There are ways to reformulate the karmic system of Buddhism to mesh with the scientific individualism of the Western world. Harris has one, Stephen Batchelor has another. I'm not convinced by either of their approaches, but I suppose neither of them would be convinced by mine, so that's all well and good. As I've said elsewhere, Buddhism is in the process of developing a fourth wheel unique to the Western world (distinct from the established Theravedan, Mahayana, and Vjrayanan wheels), and the ultimately form that will take is still in the wind. But all things considered, it is a good time to be alive.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.