Home > philosophy > On tea with Mara

On tea with Mara

I read this on unawoken’s blog and felt “tempted” to respond with a post.

You can read about Mara here.

For the purpose of discussion, I assume Mara is temptation.

I use the word temptation for it has negative connotations as does Mara. Temptation is associated with sin. Temptation is associated with a weak character, with weakness.

But why?

There is a perfectly good anti-theory to the Buddhist way. Temptation is the means to happiness. Strive to achieve what you want, to get what you lust after and you shall reach Nirvana. Treat your mind and body as your temples. Offer them what they want and they shall give you ample happiness in return. Recognize that we are animals. Bow to the animal instincts and satisfy them.

Why does salvation become tastier when achieved through hardship? Why does Nirvana have to come after remaining celibate and fasting for many years? All organized religions advocate moderation. Clearly there is benefit to society from moderation. It works for the greater good. But the anti-theory wouldn’t care for the greater good.

There is clearly benefit in not stressing over what you can’t get. There is clearly benefit in accepting your limitations and working within them. But what are the benefits of depriving yourself of a tasty morsel when it presents itself? Would you rather be Zorba or Buddha?

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  1. anon
    July 22, 2008 at 9:52 am

    one of your more interesting posts… you’ll say that “you hedonist will obviously say that”. So be it 🙂

    Well, my point of view: the real debate is not whether one should go pro-desire or against it, but HOW much importance shud be given to desire. A purely hedonist (or whatever) would want to try extreme polygamy or heavy drugs, coz his ‘temptations’ are satisfied, and he is ‘satiating the animal within’.
    The point is that religion and your pro-temptation argument both are striving to bring happiness to life. And both believe they have nailed down the path. And both believe in satisfying oneself – one through abstenance and the other through indulgence. But just like heat and cold both are looking at temperature relatively, so are both these arguments.

    🙂

    Keep such posts coming

  2. July 22, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I am glad that my post made you make one of yours.

    As discussed, I will not worry about trying to fit in a whole lot into one response.

    It is not important (to me) what the connotations of Mara & temptation are. However, the usage, what they represent is useful and offers some distilled information that we can use.

    We do not live in the times of the Buddha, and pure, original, or classical Buddhist meanings are not so important imo. In other words, the ideas of goals, purposes, salvation, nirvana, etc. are still up for grabs in a discussion.

    This is why phrasing the question as indulgence vs. abstinence doesn’t really cut it right, imo. i.e. your take on Buddhism and your anti-theory are not the only paths to wherever we need to go.

    You ask several questions, and to answer some of these we need to deconstruct deeply. For example: “Why does salvation become tastier when achieved through hardship?”.

    Let’s start with a couple.
    Pleasure-seeking, happiness and temptation: I think we should not jump to the conclusion that “temptation is the means to happiness”. See for example the discussions on hedonism and eudaimonism. The key elements to this discussion are what constitutes pleasure, happiness, are they different, are they worthy goals, are there other goals, what may lead us to them and is a hill-climbing-no-backtracking algorithm (giving in to temptation) the best way to get there (where?) ? The idea I want to present here is that pleasure and happiness approximate some of our hardwired goals, however for a mind that revisits it’s wiring:
    i. more utility functions are evaluable and/or
    ii. we can get more accurate in our approximations to wired goals

    Giving in to temptation is the “happy” way to a solution, which immediately hit our reward buttons. But we still need to evaluate the reliability and efficacy of this method to others. Ditto with abstinence.

    Regarding moderation and social conformity, rebellion: There have always been counter-cultures that have run against the grain. For example the free-love movement, hippie culture, biker-dude rebellions, aghori counter-culture in India. Extreme self-denial and extreme indulgence are two ends of a continuous spectrum that is populated throughout by humans.

  3. July 22, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    BTW, I need to read/watch Zorba the Greek. I have no idea about it.

  4. July 22, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    My answers are inline. They are short and hopefully convey my intent!

    “hill-climbing-no-backtracking algorithm (giving in to temptation) the best way to get there (where?) ?”
    –Agree. Where is undefined. Maximizing an objective function would be a possible equivalent, but then life goals are not necessarily quantifiable or objective. And given that we cannot rewind time, backtracking doesn’t work anyway.

    “i. more utility functions are evaluable and/or”
    — Not quite true. The abstract functions pleasure() and displeasure() subsume all else.

    “ii. we can get more accurate in our approximations to wired goals”
    –Agree. But, this is more about “how” to implement aforementioned abstractions.

    “we still need to evaluate the reliability and efficacy of this method to others”
    — Agree. But how? By counting the number of happy people and dividing them into philosophical buckets?!

    “Extreme self-denial and extreme indulgence…..”
    — Agree completely. Where to place myself in that spectrum is the current struggle in my head.

  5. July 22, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    “They are short ”

    Why?

    “Maximizing an objective function would be a possible equivalent, ”

    Mathematical programming is a language, we can use it if the model makes sense to our discussion. We don’t have to as well.

    ” but then life goals are not necessarily quantifiable or objective. And given that we cannot rewind time, backtracking doesn’t work anyway.”

    We don’t necessarily have to quantify them as long as we agree on ordering. greater happiness, lesser happiness etc.
    If goals are not objective, then why would a discussion with other people help at all?
    Even though people’s feelings are subjective, people behave in such a way that they care for the same things, at an aggregate level. This is why it makes sense to discuss feelings, goals..
    Agree, yes backtracking doesn’t make sense in terms of behaviour, but backtracking in our mental simulation model (consider possibility giving into temptation – evaluate – backtrack) is a possibility.

    “The abstract functions pleasure() and displeasure() subsume all else.”

    You imply here that pleasure and displeasure dictate everyone’s behaviour, and we all interpret them in different ways. This is one way of saying it, but we could also go with some common standard for what people mean by “pleasure”, and then discuss how peoples’ behaviour deviate from pure pleasure-seeking goals.

    “But how? By counting the number of happy people and dividing them into philosophical buckets?!”

    I am not sure if the conclusion “giving in to pleasure is the way to happiness” is inviolable for you. I mean, is that up for discussion?

    “Where to place myself in that spectrum is the current struggle in my head.”

    Right, ok. But this next part an extra (i.e. unrelated to previous talk). In spite of not being sure of where you should place yourself, you do in actuality place yourself somewhere on that continuum. Where? Why?

  6. July 23, 2008 at 11:03 am

    daku was here!
    you guys make me want to blog again.
    i think this is one of the most important thoughts a human being can ever ponder. i think we should enjoy tasty morsels, but at the same time, abide by certain limitations. we should also recognize that it is possible to be happy without access to tasty morsels. and we should always look for what gives us the long term happiness and growth – not just momentary satisfaction.

    these are just quick thoughts (-;
    i’d like to read zorba… saw the movie eons ago, but must admin that i don’t remember much of it except that i liked it!

  7. July 23, 2008 at 11:04 am

    woops and i mispelled my url, so it points to some junk website instead. here is the right one.. doh!

  8. July 24, 2008 at 12:26 am

    @unawoken,

    “giving in to pleasure is the way to happiness” is inviolable for you.

    –it is not inviolable. it is up for discussion. i wonder though why the line about counting happy people prompted this response. i was trying to say that there is no good way to do an objective comparison between philosophies or schools of thought.

    @daku
    good to see you here! thanks for the comments!

  9. July 24, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Mohit, I see that you passed most of my questions, comments without comment. Why?

    ” i wonder though why the line about counting happy people prompted this response. i was trying to say that there is no good way to do an objective comparison between philosophies or schools of thought.”

    If your way of looking at pleasure is by definition – the driving force to human behaviour, and people behave differently because they implement pleasure() differently, then I’ll have to go down a different line of reasoning. People at an aggregate level do tend to indicate happiness in the same general conditions. People are bucketed all the time, and bucket themselves too. See for instance the post in “flow” research by Csikszentmihalyi on my blog. There is research on happiness, and measures on how life conditions, attitudes, outlooks affect how people rate their happiness.

    People love to bucket themselves on their own (movie tastes, music tastes, zodiac signs, Brigg Myers personality types, self-professed philosophy preferences eg. hedonism and on and on). For researchers, it is a matter of using these buckets and identifying trends and correlations.

    On a side note, people love to voluntarily offer information to bucket themselves, and love to respond to questionnaires, take psychology tests that bucket them, bucket themselves at the beck and call of authority – however, they’ll fight tooth and nail at any attempt by whom they consider peers, or non-authorities to bucket them in any way (unless if it is to send a signal – so what is your favourite colour? and so on..) – but this is a tangential.

  10. July 24, 2008 at 10:59 am

    unawoken,

    I did not respond to all because I agree with most of your comments. I will respond to those that I differ on or have a different perspective on.

  11. July 2, 2009 at 3:52 am

    Well, to be honest, I did understand your post, Mohit, but not your and unawoken’s comments in their entirety.

    I’ll post my take here, do point if it’s relevant or not.

    I feel, even though we tend to apply lot of thought to what religious icons of the yore have said, personally I feel, all that was to ensure smooth functioning of the society with intention to modulate people’s–the individual units of the composite–behavior. Of course, it’d have to packaged as a way of life for the individual–otherwise they won’t listen! Otherwise vis-a-vis, answering questions for one’s purpose of living and doing what we’re called into doing or not doing, those ideas were actually insufficient.

    In olden days, hedonism just couldn’t be promoted because of an immense resource crunch. Hedonism, as a possible way of life entered the mainstream, only when industrial revolution made it possible without putting too many people at pain by way of their exploitation/neglect.

    There are two antagonistic forces at work when trying to determine what we should or should not do–how much it pleases or pains the individual v/s how much it pleases or pains other people. Abusing narcotics is not immoral in the absolute terms–it is because it leads to crimes, and if one looks at the economics of it, displaces food crops from agricultural production–thus leaving someone else in the process–THIS is what makes it immoral–not that it gives pleasure to the abuser. Same’s the case with polyamory–it gives pain–acknowledged or unacknowledged to the partner of one indulging in it, irrespective of whether the said individual indulges in it or not. If it does not pain either of the partners, and gives both of them pleasure and doesn’t cause any long term societal harm (like neglected upbringing of kids or spread of venereal diseases), there’s nothing immoral about it.

    Every organism is driven by seeking pleasure-avoiding pain-principle. If it’s one’s pleasure that leads to someone else’s pain, then we’ve to think of immorality, otherwise not. And what pleases one can certainly be different from what pleases someone else–that’s we even have a perversion called masochism!

    TC.

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