Staring Into the Void: The Resolution of Nihilism Through Buddhist Practice

Not saying I understand the entirety of your post, but the core issue seems to be whether one thinks that craving can be abandoned by craving or just leads to dukkha management.
As you might have guessed, I‘m coming at this from Thanissaro Bhikkhu‘s angle which resonates with my previous life experience. He cites suttas such as MN14:

This seems to suggest that the attainment of rapture and happiness is a necessary basis for abandoning the craving for sensuality completely. The Hillside Hermitage group interview, on the other hand, seems to come to the conclusion that one has to „stick it out“ and suffer without giving in to it (either by way of actual sensual indulgence or „dukkha management“) to the point where simply abandoning the craving for sensuality appears more sensible.
This is a very high bar, potentially excluding anyone who doesn‘t have immense amounts of willpower. Maybe getting one‘s suffering into a more manageable state through calming forms of meditation could instead be seen as a step towards the state of mind needed to gain a proper understanding of dependent co-arising leading to wise reflection.

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I believe you’re referring to what they call “Enduring”, as in enduring the dukkha.

MN 14 might be referring to non-returners who have attained jhana sufficiently that they can now attain it at will, so they never return to sensuality.

But until one gets to that level, they would need to endure dukkha instead of giving into it and resorting to “maintenance” such as wrong practice, or distraction such as sensual desires.

It’s like if you want to give up smoking, and you haven’t smoked for a month, you’re enduring the suffering that would normally be suppressed by giving in to craving. You can fall back to that craving or try to eliminate it.

The question is if you can substitute the craving for something less harmful and if that means jhanas, but in the suttas jhanas are the reward for giving up sensual desire, as when you get over the 5 hindrances you get pamojja which later develops into piti and sukha.

So it seems like one must endure dukkha so that they can see dukkha clearly, without distraction or falling back into craving, in order to attain idappaccayatā and right view, so that they then can overcome the 5 hindrances, lower the defilements and attain jhana.

This is shown here

Mendicants, it’s totally impossible that a mendicant who enjoys company and groups, who loves them and likes to enjoy them, should take pleasure in being alone in seclusion. Without taking pleasure in being alone in seclusion, it’s impossible to learn the patterns of the mind. Without learning the patterns of the mind, it’s impossible to fulfill right view. Without fulfilling right view, it’s impossible to fulfill right immersion. Without fulfilling right immersion, it’s impossible to give up the fetters. Without giving up the fetters, it’s impossible to realize extinguishment.

  • AN 6.68

Being alone in seclusion means enduring the dukkha rather than giving into craving, and this needs to be done until one learns the patterns of the mind, because you can’t see dukkha if you appease it with craving. Once you see dukkha, then you can see idappaccayatā and paticcasamuppada, and then you attain right view, yoniso manasikara, overcome the 5 hindrances, and only then can you attain jhana.

In short, your interpretation sounds like you’re putting the cart before the horse. An addict must first see the problem in order to escape it, instead of ignoring the problem via distraction, you need to trigger dukkha by not suppressing it by gratifying the craving.

This is related to my response in another thread regarding the 1st and 2nd noble truths, dukkha isn’t always present but craving is. One needs to trigger dukkha by not giving into craving in order to see how craving and dukkha work How Gotama realised continued existence - #11 by Thito

The only shortcut to this I’ve seen in the suttas is when the Buddha is able to literally infuse others with pamojja, piti and sukha, so they get a taste of what’s it like being without the hindrances, and I actually believe this is the true meaning of metta.

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May I ask how the idea of „wrong practice“ developed? This line of thinking reminds me of the reasoning behind dry insight.
Overall, concentration techniques, commentarial or otherwise, don‘t work like an anesthetic. Craving does come up, and most instructions I‘ve seen tell you not to ignore or paste over but investigate it. This way, ideally, the mind gets stilled to a degree where suffering is not as acute, and may be observed from a more detached viewpoint.
To run with your smoking analogy, many people don‘t quit cold turkey but either reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke gradually or think of something else to do instead, like chewing gum. They replace a harmful habit with a relatively less harmful one.

Your argument about the progression towards jhana seems sound. I can‘t speak from personal experience here, as I have not attained jhana. Maybe I‘m also misrepresenting Thanissaro Bhikkhu‘s point here, so let me make my own.
Rather than calling my interpretation putting the cart before the horse, I’d say that yours is linear or consecutive, while mine is nonlinear or iterative. While you say that a total understanding of the problem and your proposed solution must come first, steadfast endurance second, and release third, I suspect that this may not only be very hard to do, but unrealistic as well. In my experience, few people‘s minds, and I‘m including my own, follow these neat abstractions, but rather work in spiraling and habituated ways, unruly and hard to domesticate if you‘re trying to impose something, surprisingly diligent at times if you work in a way that serves their perceived interests. As a personal anecdote, one of my piano teachers had me practice from a book literally called „Der gerade Weg“ („The Straight Path“), designed to teach techniques according to someone‘s idea of an ideal progression, and the pieces in that book were dreadfully dull. I made much better progress working with a teacher who had me play pieces I liked, some below, others above my level of skill, picking up the techniques as I went along propelled by the joy and passion for music. So while I may plan out an entire path to the end of craving, that doesn‘t mean that it‘s practical for many if it’s all stick to the very end, where a big, juicy carrot might be waiting. Messy minds need to be shepherded from both sides, so to say, building the capacities for calm and inspection in parallel, igniting a passion for the path bit by bit. AN9.41 seems to suggest this two-pronged strategy (emphasis mine):

As you cite a sutta naming right view as a necessary prerequisite for right immersion, let me also quote MN9:

What is your strategy to build contentment and love?

That’s just the reasoning Hillside gives, that as long as someone doesn’t have right view then whatever they do isn’t for uprooting the defilements but for managing dukkha, so the dhamma is misused. This is also found in the suttas, there’s a sutta that says when a fool wields the dhamma improperly they hurt themselves.

Indeed, hence the virtue training and sense restraint comes before one can attain jhana, it’s a prerequisite.

I understand that you have your personal experience, but this is about what the suttas say, not what you perceive to work better or not.

In the suttas right view comes before right concentration, so the scope of this discussion was originally your interpretation of anapanasati, which you took to mean focusing on the physical sense of the breath, then the discussion shifted to enduring dukkha.

So I think the core question is how does one know if what they’re doing is merely “managing” dukkha or actually uprooting it.

My interpretation of the first noble truth is that it’s the symptom, and the second noble truth is the cause. So if you’re only dealing with the symptom, you’re only managing dukkha. If you’re dealing with the cause, you’re uprooting dukkha.

If your goal is to only get rid of dukkha temporarily, then any form of management can work: sensual desires, focusing on breath, yoga, massages, flowers, candle incense rituals, chants, affirmations, etc…

If your goal is to uproot dukkha and have a permanent reduction of dukkha, whether gradually or at once, then you must attack the cause, and that is craving.

Hence the fetter of rituals is destroyed when one has right view because anything that doesn’t deal with the true cause is a ritual aka “management”, it’s pleasant but not sufficient.

So the goal is to arrive at Right View, until then you’re considered ignorant and anything you do can end up harming yourself further, and others too if you teach them the wrong instruction. Trying to attain jhana before knowing and seeing the true cause, is at best a waste of time, at worst harmful and can lead to hallucinations, mental problems and other such issues.

The sutta MN2 says yoniso manasikara starves the unskillful and feeds the skillful. You can only get yoniso manasikara if you have an inkling of right view, which at minimum is the barebones understanding of idappaccayatā or the 3 characteristics. The root of the unskillful is the 3 poisons and the 5 hindrances need to be overcome to get at the 3 poisons, and in order to overcome the 5 hindrances one needs yoniso manasikara which requires hearing the true dhamma with yoniso manasikara.

“Endowed with (the) five (opposite) qualities when listening to the True Dhamma, one is capable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities. Which five?

“One doesn’t hold the talk in contempt.

“One doesn’t hold the speaker in contempt.

“One doesn’t hold oneself in contempt.

“One listens to the Dhamma with an unscattered mind, a mind gathered into one [ek’agga-citto].1

“One attends appropriately.” (yoniso manasikara)

“Endowed with these five qualities when listening to the True Dhamma, one is capable of alighting on the orderliness, on the rightness of skillful qualities.”

So again, the issue is not what comes after Right View, it’s getting to Right View in the first place.
Your earlier sutta reference MN 14 about using jhana to not return to sensuality comes later, way later.

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Thito •

Your wisdom is touching my heart, beautiful lecture, you hit the point.

Thank you for your detailed explanation.
If I‘m understanding correctly, you agree that Hillside Hermitage‘s interpretation of how to progress on the path is reflected in the suttas. Now, I still don’t understand entirely which consequences follow for one‘s progress in the Dhamma. Could you explain, in everyday terms (as I‘m having trouble translating the pali abstractions into an idea of moment-to-moment practice), what a typical meditation session looks like for you?

Well it’s not a technique, it’s an understanding that makes one practice correctly, which I explain further below.

Actually Arittha’s basic anapanasati version is sufficient enough to attain sotapanna/right view.

Sir, I’ve given up desire for sensual pleasures of the past. I’m rid of desire for sensual pleasures of the future. And I have eliminated perception of repulsion regarding phenomena internally and externally. Just mindful, I will breathe in. Mindful, I will breathe out. That’s how I develop mindfulness of breathing.”

  • SN 54.6

For Anapanasati for example, I discern the breath long/short in/out but not in detail, just enough to know the breath mentally. This causes the breath to become subtler, the body becomes tranquil and “invisible”, and one sees more mental images arise. If for example a mental image that is unwholesome arises like say pizza, I let it pass and return to knowing the breath. Eventually if you keep at it, mental images no longer arise, and then one is content in the present moment, and I’ve been able to spend an entire day like this, without even having to move. But if I have to move, then the mind is still content because it has been set up properly for the day.

This is reflected in the panner sutta

When they’ve been given up and eliminated, only thoughts about the teaching are left. That immersion is not peaceful or sublime or tranquil or unified, but is held in place by forceful suppression.

But there comes a time when that mind is stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi. That immersion is peaceful and sublime and tranquil and unified, not held in place by forceful suppression. They become capable of realizing anything that can be realized by insight to which they extend the mind, in each and every case.

  • AN 3.101

As well as dhamma viharin sutta

"Then there is the case where a monk studies the Dhamma: dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, question & answer sessions. He doesn’t spend the day in Dhamma-study. He doesn’t neglect seclusion. He commits himself to internal tranquillity of awareness. This is called a monk who dwells in the Dhamma.

  • AN 5.73

Once the mind is propely set up it’s important to not leave your territory, as the Buddha says, and enter Mara’s domain where you’ll be hunted, this is where proper understanding is required, if you have the wrong understanding you’ll take Mara’s domain to be your “self”, and then for sure you’ll suffer. Someone with proper understanding doesn’t enter mara’s domain by not assuming ownership/self over the body, mind, feelings, etc… Instead paticcasamuppada replaces identity view, and this whole mass of suffering is discerned.

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Thank you again. I‘ll consider your words carefully in the coming days.

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