“Pain is a sensation, and as such, is impersonal. Pain leads to suffering when it is seen as ‘my’ pain. No self, no suffering.”
Rudi states a basic Buddhist view of pain and suffering in this comment on Why does Euthyphro hurt? On first reading, this comment struck me as a good reminder of some fundamental teachings. On reflection I see that it provides a good framework for clarifying these teachings.
These three sentences make four assertions:
(1) Pain is a sensation.
(2) Sensations are “impersonal.”
(3) Seeing pain as “mine” leads to suffering.
(4) “No self, no suffering.”
Some initial thoughts on these assertions.
(1) From the beginning of this blog I have been wrestling with the relations between what the scientists call “nociception,” i.e., aversive sensations, and what we call “pain.” In one of my first posts I paraphrased the definition of pain from a scientific textbook that bears repeating here:
Many nerve receptors lie close together in the skin and underlying tissues. When they are stimulated, energy changes into electrical impulses that are transmitted and modulated by the nervous system. What we call “pain” is our experience of that process. (Ransom et al. 249; Gatchel et al. 1)
Scientists use the noun “nociception” to refer to that process in the nervous system. What many posts here have been exploring is how we experience those sensations when we feel pain. I am not going to repeat them here. They can be found through the Index and links at the top of the left hand menu on all these posts, and they run from Pain, disturbance, and “bad things” through Rosetta.
(2) Yes, sensations are “impersonal” if we are talking about the electrical and chemical activity in our bodies. The scientific definition of pain mentioned above distinguishes between nociception as “objective” and pain as “subjective.” Another text referenced in that post labels nociception as “physiological” and pain as “psychological.” I questioned these dichotomies, but these texts make an important, relevant point: pain occurs when someone experiences these physical sensations. If no one is aware of these electrical and chemical activities, no one feels pain.
We need to be careful here not to reintroduce the dichotomies that the scientists used (objective/subject, physiological/psychological) or the dichotomy implicit in “impersonal” (i.e., as opposed to “personal”). Feeling pain is not a process where one thing (mind, me, or whatever) experiences another, distinct thing (nociception, nervous activity). One of the best 20th century scientists of pain, Ronald Melzack, tries to express this complex of interactivity as a “neuromatrix” of pain.
Earlier, I quoted what the Dutch physician and philosopher F.J.J. Buytendijk has to say about this dynamic in his exploration of “the underlying principle of the phenomenon of pain, namely, the relationship … between self and body.” Buytendijk’s observation bears repeating in this context.
Pain is hurtful only because it is a state of conflict between some part of our body and the centre of our personality. … Pain is the sensation of crisis and tension, where our normal relationship with our body seems to be destroyed, while it asserts itself in protest in one of its parts. We are conscious of the fact that the injured part belongs to us, but we are incapable of adequate reaction. We must do something and we say to ourselves over and over again: ‘Painfulness is what we neglect to do.’ Buytendijk 57
Buytendijk is quoting Viktor von Weizsäcker, a German physician and physiologist. The implication in Weizsäcker’s word “neglect” is relevant to the recent discussion that led to Rudi’s comment. Weizsäcker is not blaming the victim; rather, he is trying to express how we become aware of what our body is doing as something we want to stop.
Elaine Scarry describes this becoming aware with the preposition “against” when she defines pain as:
a pure physical experience of negation, an immediate sensory rendering of ‘against,’ of something being against one, and of something one must be against. Even though it occurs within oneself, it is at once identified as ‘not oneself,’ ‘not me,’ as something so alien that it must right now be gotten rid of. (52)
I’ve been using the interjection Not! when talking about pain. We haven’t opted in to pain, but we do want to opt out. Some people confuse becoming aware with opting in to pain.
(3) If pain arises when I see physical sensations as mine, but I see them as “against” me, as Not! me, where does that leave suffering? If pain is already “mine,” how does seeing pain as “mine” lead to suffering? Many Buddhists will see Rudi’s aphorisms as a summary of an idea that has been given a number of English names—dependent origination, interdependent origination, dependent co-arising. The central concept is not very complicated—everything has causes, usually many, interacting causes. It gets complex when this concept is used to analyze the causes for dukkha, i.e., suffering and related phenomena. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an e-book which does as good a job as any in clarifying the concept.)
It seems to me that Rudi’s connection between suffering and “mine” refers to two of the steps in the chain leading to suffering—grasping (tanhā) and clinging (upādāna). It is beyond the scope of this post, and beyond my abilities, to thoroughly analyze and clarify these concepts. But, in the context of heading off tendencies to blame the victim for suffering, it is important to challenge the connotations of the English words “grasping” and “clinging.” Both words imply a conscious, moral culpability that may not occur in the Pali words tanhā and upādāna. Two of the suttas in The Long Discourses of the Buddha, the Digha Nikaya (15.2, 22.19), talk about grasping and clinging as conditions for suffering, both of which are also conditioned. Both suttas discuss clinging and grasping more as just occurring when we sense, when we perceive, and when we think. Like becoming aware of aversive physical sensations, tanhā and upādāna do not necessarily involve conscious choices that lead to pain and suffering.
(4) “No self, no suffering” expresses the intent of the Buddha’s teachings. If suffering arises from certain conditions, then we can free ourselves from suffering by reversing these conditions. On the other hand, this short phrase both contradicts basic Buddhist teaching and provides another excuse for blaming the victim. This is not a criticism of Rudi. Such problems are just inherent in aphorisms in the same way the pain is inherent in becoming aware of sensation.
First, “no self” is one of the three marks of existence along with suffering and impermanence. (Dhammapada 277-279) On the face of it, this aphorism says that one mark (no self) contravenes the other (suffering). But that is not what Rudi meant.
Secondly, I do not think that Rudi meant what some people would take this aphorism to mean, i.e., that as long as we think of ourselves as substantive individuals, we are consciously choosing the conditions for suffering. I do not mean that selfishness and self-centeredness don’t lead to suffering. I’m just saying that it’s a mistake to blame all instances of pain and suffering on the one in pain.
Questions that do not help us become free of pain and suffering, that do not help us act freely in this world to free others of pain and suffering—such questions are not worth answering. In writing the above, I have strived to pay attention to what questions are skillful and what are not worth answering, even when I seem to sound abstract and theoretical. (By the way, I emphasize “in this world” because this is the path of the bodhisattva finding nibbāna in samsāra. Obviously that aside is meant for my Buddhist readers. In that vein, I would add that Mahayana teachers may have clarified the bodhisattva path, but I do not think that compassion for others is found only in Mahayana teaching and practice.)