Both Jainism and Buddhism are offshoots of the Sramana Movement, which is a countercultural movement in India around the sixth century, BCE. It opposed the mainstream Vedic religion of the time. The Sramanas, commonly known as monks, are members of the movement who “left home” (i.e. renounced married and domestic life). Not only did they reject the worldly lifestyle, but they also rejected the authority of the Brahmins and practiced an ascetic lifestyle in pursuit of spiritual liberation. Their ascetic practice often involved self-mortification — the subjugation of appetites or desires by self-denial or self-discipline as an aspect of religious devotion.
Because Buddhism arose as a branch of the Sramana Movement, it retains many aspects of asceticism. Sramanas practiced severe self-discipline and abstention from worldly pleasures as a way of seeking spiritual enlightenment and freedom. The early Buddhists generally adopted this ascetic heritage, although they moderated the self-mortification practices. Gotama Buddha is said to have practiced extreme fasting, almost starving himself to death. It was only later that he discovered that self-mortification is not the right way. Thus, he started the Middle Path, avoiding extremes. Nevertheless, the belief that one needs to deny oneself of worldly pleasures, social ties and desires in order to achieve liberation remains firmly entrenched in Buddhist thoughts. Verse 90 of Dhammapada says, “For him, who has completed the journey, who is sorrowless, wholly set free, and rid of all bonds, for such a one there is no burning (of the passions).”
Similarly, verse 97 of the Dhammapada says: “The man who is not credulous, who knows the uncreated, who has severed all ties, who has put an end to the occasion (of good and evil), who has vomited all desires, verily he is supreme among men.” The scripture praises the severance of human bonds. It also rejects all forms of desires. The use of the strong word “vomited” is a good indicator of the sense of revulsion. Desires are anathema. They are viewed as serious obstacles on the path of liberation. They are to be uttered rejected by those who are serious about liberation. If this is not life-negating, I don’t know what is!
A legitimate question to ask is why rid of all bonds? Isn’t the bond between parent and child important? Isn’t the bond between husband and wife important? Aren’t these bonds important for the stability of the family? How about between teacher and student? Between friends? Human bonds are important for building society and a community. They also form a social safety net. To totally reject human bonds represents extremely otherworldly thinking. Perhaps such an attitude was popular during Buddha’s time. But it is absurd today. And why demonize all desires? Isn’t it important that we have certain desires in life in order to go on? It is understandable that attachments and addictions can be problems. But not all desires are unhealthy or unwholesome attachments. It is certainly possible to enjoy worldly pleasure and sex without developing a pathological addiction. Most of us are householders who are husbands and wives. We are also parents to our children. Most of us manage to have a healthy relationship with social bonds and desires. I don’t see the need to “vomit all desires.” Further, isn’t the aspiration to be desireless also a form of desire? Perhaps it is also a dangerous desire.
It is a fact that early Buddhism has a very otherworldly and ascetic orientation. It is not a surprise that Chinese Buddhism has historically been practiced as a form of escapism, with few meaningful forms of social engagement. This is something that all modernizers of Buddhism should ponder. It is quite possible that the Dhammapada reflects more a certain conservative school of thought among Buddhist monks. It may very well be a partial and sectarian view. The Buddha himself did not reject the world. He was socially-engaged. He protested wars. He advised kings and royalties. He was against the caste system. There are also apparent inconsistencies to consider. In the Pali Canon, there are places where Buddha affirmed desires and social bonds. In the Sigala Sutta, Buddha advised the young layman, Sigala, about the importance of conventional social relationships. According to Walpola Rahula, author of the book, What the Buddha Taught, Buddha told the young man about the ‘noble discipline’ of worshipping in the six directions: east: parents; south: teachers; west: wife and children; north: friends, relatives and neighbors; nadir: servants, workers and employees; zenith: religious men.
What this tells me is that we should interpret scripture with great care. We must have the whole picture. We must also put things in historical context. We cannot blindly follow certain words from the Pali Canon. That would be like the Christian fundamentalists. Clarifying Buddha’s vision is certainly crucial for the modernization of Buddhism.