On Buddhism the human (indeed the animalic/sentient) condition is a profoundly unsatisfactory predicament from which we need extrication. The First Noble Truth is that fundamentally all is ill, suffering, unsatisfactory, dukkha. That there is some sukha (joy, happiness) along with the dukkha is undeniable, but the little sukha is fleeting and unsatisfying and leads to dukkha which is primary. Desire breeds desire endlessly with no satisfaction being finally satisfactory. You may satisfy your sexual craving, but the satisfaction is impermanent and gives rise to further desires upon desires and temporary satings upon temporary satings which become increasingly habitual but never finally satisfactory. So not only is frustration of desire unsatisfactory, satisfaction of it is as well. Either way dukkha is the upshot. This is the deep and radical meaning of the First Noble Truth.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
The Second Noble Truth is that suffering has its origin in desire or craving (tanha). The natural pursuit and possession of the ordinary objects of desire such as name and fame, pleasure and pelf, property and progeny, power and position all breed attachment, and this attachment breeds misery. Why? Because the ordinary objects of desire are impermanent (anicca) and insubstantial (anatta). They lack the power to satisfy us. Desire or craving (tanha) drives us to cling to the fleeting and unreal that cannot last and cannot ultimately satisfy. In this sense sukha, which is derivative, leads to dukkha which is primitive and fundamental.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
Should we then re-direct desire to what is permanent and possesses self-nature, God for example? You would think so, right?
For on original, radical, Pali Buddhism nothing is permanent and nothing possesses self-nature. All is impermanent and insubstantial. This is the nature of things and cannot be otherwise. The task cannot be to re-direct desire to the Eternal in the manner of a Christian Platonist such as St. Augustine who turns away from this deceitful world of time and change and misery and seeks salvation in God. The problem is desire itself, not mis-directed desire. The task, then, must be to uproot desire. The task is to step off of the wheel of samsara and achieve cessation or nirvana.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
How do we extirpate desire and end our delusive attachment to the insubstantial and unreal and unsatisfactory?
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
How can the entire samsaric realm, including us and the manifold objects of our desire, be devalued relative to a nonexistent and indeed impossible standard? If nothing is permanent and nothing can be permanent how can impermanence be a negative axiological feature of what alone exists? And if nothing is and can be a self or substance, how is it any argument against samsaric items that they are devoid of self-nature?
I am assuming that there cannot be impossible ideals. Either an ideal is realized or it is not. If the former, then it is possible. If the latter then it must be realizable. Ideals must be realizable if they are to be ideals. What is realizable is possible. So if permanence is an ideal, then it must be possible. But it is not possible on early Buddhist principles. So it is not an ideal. Since it is not an ideal, nothing samsaric falls short of it. It follows that ordinary objects of desire cannot, all of them, be unsatisfactory on the ground of their impermanence.
To appreciate my point, suppose God as classically conceived exists. Think of the God of Augustine and Aquinas. He is permanent, a self (in excelsis) and absolutely and finally satisfying to himself and to those who share his life. If such a God exists, then it makes perfect sense to consider of lower or even of no value the objects of ordinary mundane desire such as money and property and the paltry pleasures of the flesh.
The great Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, is supposed to have said to the nuns in her care, "Sisters, we have but one night to spend in this bad inn."
To liken the world to a bad inn makes sense as a claim purporting to be objectively true only if there is a heavenly home to which it is possible to go. But if there is no God, no soul, and this life is all there is, then this world of time and change cannot be objectively assessed to be of little or no value. Any such assessment could then be subjective only, and if Nietzsche is right, a slandering of life that merely reflects the physiological decadence of the sick slanderers who are too sick to face reality and must in compensation invent hinterworlds.
As Nietzsche remarks in Twilight of the Idols, in the section entitled "The Problem of Socrates," if there is no true world, then there is no merely apparent world either : this world objectively lacks plenary reality and value and is rightly assessed as lacking such only if there is a true world it falls short of.
I spoke to a hermit monk a couple of summers ago. I said, "This world is a vanishing quantity." He agreed wholeheartedly, having abandoned a millionaire's life as a super-successful Wall Street bond trader for the austerities of a monkish, and indeed eremitic, existence with its vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But my assertion and his agreement could make no sense as an objective negative appraisal of the reality and value of this world except on the assumption that there is an Unseen Order that is not impermanent to its core, but the opposite, the source of all intelligibility, reality, and value, and the summum bonum, the highest good, of human striving. And if the assumption is true, then the negative appraisal is true.
A Similar Pattern in Benatar
One source of David Benatar's anti-natalism is his conviction that human life, on balance, is objectively bad for all despite how well-placed one is. There is some good, of course, but the bad so preponderates that it is morally wrong to perpetuate this life by procreation. But the standards and ideals Benatar invokes to show the objectively bad quality of human life are impossible as I try to show in this preliminary draft. My thought is that to fall short of an impossible standard is not to fall short. Benatar's radical pessimism and anti-natalism do not comport well with his naturalism.
To this extent my critique of Pali Buddhism and of Benatar is 'Nietzschean.' Impossible standards do not permit a devaluation of what actually exists.
But I share Nietzsche's naturalism and atheism as little as I share Benatar's. And of course I reject Nietzsche's psycho-physiological reductionism: the deep sense of philosophers and sages from time immemorial that this life is no good cannot be dismissed as a merely subjective response of the sick and decadent. Thus a No to Nietzsche's reading of Phaedo 118:
Concerning life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths -- a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live -- that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the god of healing a rooster." Even Socrates was tired of it. [. . .] "At least something must be sick here," we retort.
If the appearance of life's low quality is real, because life falls short of the ideal, then the ideal must itself be real -- elsewhere, not here below, but in the Unseen Order.