Marquis de Sade versus the Buddha

A philosophical dialogue, critiquing sadism and Buddhism

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GAUTAMA BUDDHA: If I’m not mistaken, you’re known as something of a libertine.

MARQUIS DE SADE: Well, in chanting their mantras to banish me, cowards and simpletons who recoil from the logic of my blasphemies would call me the libertine, the sadist and pleasure-seeker par excellence, just as I’m led to understand you’re the Buddha.

BUDDHA: Perhaps I was the first, but I urged people to sooner kill me than worship me as a guarantor of their salvation. Adoring the false power of symbols deludes rather than perfects the mind.

SADE: May I kill you then?

BUDDHA: [laughs] Are you afflicted with that unsavory urge too?

SADE: Not necessarily, but I’d have thought it rude to decline the invitation you extended. Or was that false modesty you meant to exude?

BUDDHA: False modesty?

SADE: [walks slowly closer to the Buddha] My dear sir, I took you to be so bold as to permit anyone who meets you to slay you on the spot, in part because you’re only a non-self, as you proclaimed with your anatman doctrine. Didn’t you manage to dissolve your emotional attachments to life? Mind you, I ask whether your offer was in earnest, as a prelude to apologizing in advance because I’m rather inclined to choke you to death only after I’ve buggered you for a spell. Shall we commit, then,to those proceedings forthwith?

BUDDHA: Alas, monsieur, I fear your courteous summons to an orgy of confusion is mooted by the fact that we’ve evidently both already expired: I walked the earth some two millennia before you stained it with your infamous delusions of grandeur. As to where we are now, that’s something of a mystery.

SADE: A pity! I refer not just to your bashfulness, but to your Jesuitical dodging of the matter at hand. I assess that such a fear of the truth’s unwholesomeness is the most appalling of our possible disgraces.

BUDDHA: What have I to fear?

SADE: The phoniness of your philosophy.

BUDDHA: I see, yet the proof of Buddhism is in the pudding, as might be said these days. Buddhism isn’t confirmed as a way out of the flawed life, by anything as hubristic as the twists and turns of philosophical reasoning. I only waved aside the overgrown foliage that obscured the entrance to the path to inner peace and you may take it or leave it. Try it for yourself and see if you prefer nirvana to the outrages of your squalid animality.

SADE: To borrow another piece of homespun wisdom, your pragmatic path is like slowly boiling a frog in a pot and relying on the frog’s bewilderment to cook the amphibian before the poor creature realizes too late that it’s in danger.

BUDDHA: In danger of what, the cessation of suffering? Check your definitions, monsieur, and you’ll find the dangers are outside that boiling pot.

SADE: An ignoble end to suffering is no great victory, my friend. A drugged person may not suffer or feel much of anything, because such a person is only half alive. Likewise, your Eightfold Path ends suffering by killing the spirit.

BUDDHA: Again, samsara, the dream-like illusion of passing from one disappointed craving to the next holds hostage the sleepwalkers who languish outside that pot of yours. I teach objective mindfulness, the awakening from ignorance, greed, and hatred, and from pain, frustration, and the pervasive unease, by realizing that we’re the causes of our problems: our delusion that things are substantial and unchanging gives rise to the unrealistic expectations that frustrate us. Rather than “kill the spirit,” as you say, I ask that you introspect to confirm there’s no such spirit, but only a series of mental and physiological states. Nor is there any independent substance in anything your senses encounter. The sleepwalker expects the world to match his confused dreams, whereas the awakened one lets things become as they will.

SADE: Just let things come and go as may be, you say. A fine principle! Why resist the rapist or the murderer, then, when his cold dagger against your neck would represent merely the appointed moment of your demise? — and the demise of nothing at that, but only a spillage in the void of swirling flotsam, the adapted convergence of cells and organs comprising a way station to nowhere we call “the self.” Why dwell in the halfway house of inner peace by virtual lobotomy, when you could bend your knee, sacrifice your life for the pleasure of the predatory libertine, and have the final peace of death?

BUDDHA: Are you still fixated on that lurid scenario? There’s no peace in death for those who slumber in ignorance, but only infinite rebirths. The tranquility arising from the right ways of thinking and acting isn’t a metaphysical standpoint but a felt state of estrangement.

SADE: Do you mean to concede that you furnished your gullible followers with that metaphysical balderdash of reincarnation only to deny that metaphysics is of any importance? — and all to have an excuse as to why the so-called awakened ones should endeavour to go on living or resist the murderous advances of their natural superiors? The impudence astounds me!

BUDDHA: Impudence? But you’re the one who talks of “nobility” and of “natural superiority” even as you deem yourself and your victims to be equal in their animality. Whence the superiority of one deluded creature over another in your monstrous universe?

SADE: How do you not see that I could pose the very same question to you, my dear Buddha? “Right thinking and feeling and acting,” you say, and an “Eightfold Path to nirvana” — but why is nirvana better than reincarnation? Why tranquility rather than pain, disappointment, and malaise? And most importantly, why compassion rather than precious sadism? My answer to your question is clear: there’s no escape from monstrous nature except in death, whereupon there’s no preposterous reincarnation of the very immaterial essence the existence of which even you deny. Rather than escape I advise those who would be enlightened to surrender to natural impulses to spite the timorous peasants, with their fantasies of elevated, “civilized” conduct. The predator is superior to its prey, because the one chases down and devours the other. The aristocrat is superior to the herd of toiling, gullible dullards, because the former exploit the latter for their amusement. Such is nature’s monstrosity that works its way into all our affairs. The difference is only between a clean mirror and a grimy one: sadism, the strong man’s exploitation of the weak, reflects the world as it is; Buddhist compassion and flight into quietude are premised on denials of natural reality. There you have my answer. Pray tell how you answer the comparable question.

BUDDHA: Compassion for all creatures is the effect of being liberated from delusions. Reincarnation leads to dukkha whereas the Noble Eightfold Path leads to nirvana. The rightness of one over the other is a matter of optimality. Ignorance is disjointedness, a misunderstanding of the impermanence of natural states. Cravings and hatreds and frustrations are symptoms of that illness and I merely offer a cure.

SADE: Optimality? Do you mean to appeal to what biologists would call the concept of functionality, of adaptation to an environment? And who is better adapted to nature, the Buddhist monk who’s reduced to begging for food and to observing others living fuller lives or the aristocratic predator whose domination liberates him to indulge his every whim? If the rightness of your Eightfold Path is only the workability or utility of those techniques, being so many means that efficiently achieve the goal of ending suffering in all its forms, you should just as well praise the “rightness” of the eagle’s talons that make mincemeat out of rabbits, or of the lion’s fangs that break the neck of its prey. If the rightness of Buddhism is only its instrumentality, you haven’t answered the question I posed. I could just as easily expound on the superiority of certain techniques for the purpose of maximizing pleasure through murder, sex, and mayhem. Rouse yourself, for I fear you still slumber, Awakened One. Why choose your path rather than mine? Given your naturalistic assumptions, why seek to end suffering and be compassionate rather than revel in pleasure and pain as the animals we are?

BUDDHA: How easy it must be for the spoiled aristocrat to pretend he’s just an animal that can’t help himself from submitting to every base temptation he meets. Those “peasants” to whom you condescend have the potential to awaken to reality and to free themselves. We all do, but parasites and predators like you snuff out those lights, adding only to the darkness and confusion of samsara.

SADE: You think me spoiled? I spent years writing from prison because hypocrites would rather pretend they’re godly and innocent than allow my voice of subversive reason to be heard. And what is this “reality” you presume I’m blind to? Reason informs me that the real world is a godless arena of meaningless causality. You appeal now to fairness, equality and freedom like a liberal, yet I thought you’d acquired a vision of the insubstantiality and interdependence of all events that arise before the senses. Such a world is absurd, because nothing that happens has an ultimate reason why it’s so. The whole interconnected monstrosity of nature simply is what it is, and that includes the stars, the void, and the myriad creatures that evolve and rape and eat each other on this forsaken planet. A moment ago, you said the enlightened attitude is to accept that things come and go as they will. But did you know than certain acolytes of mine who call themselves Satanists say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”? Why not, then, let the predator and the prey be as they are? Why direct them instead to Buddhism?

BUDDHA: You don’t see nature as it really is, but project onto it your petty lusts and grudges. Like a spoiled child who inherited his wealth, you longed to be a tyrant, a libertine who demands his every passing whim be satiated. I was never interested in speculations because they distract from the immediate, universal problem of suffering in all its forms. The universe for you is monstrous, because you’re an overindulged aristocrat who was trained to be a monster. But the universe changes; that’s what the senses tell those who pay attention. Biologists say that animals evolved for hundreds of millions of years, and most of those creatures had little opportunity to avoid pain, fear, and disappointment. Then the world threw up a species that has that anomalous potential, to be at one with all things, to let go of fears and resentments arising from confusion, and to reflect the majesty of all that arises, in a state of bliss. You condemn or mock the world for its absurdity, because your monstrous impulses drive you to search for a weakness so you might overcome the world and save yourself. There’s no understanding of the universe; there is no universal whole, nor is there any intrepid self to dominate nature with his machinations. There’s only a flow of events. Go with the flow rather than dream you can stand apart from the river or become obsessed with a single ripple so that you build a castle around that ripple to protect it for eternity.

SADE: Now you sound like Aristotle, with your talk of potentials that ought to be fulfilled. What of the strong animal’s potential to be the most fearsome monster? What do you have against the monsters that arise? If you’ve freed yourself from attachment to any of the waves that come and go in the river, why divert those waves to your Eightfold Path? Why care about other people’s suffering?

BUDDHA: I care because I’m not afflicted with the delusions that prop up selfishness. Once you extinguish your fears, lusts, and hatreds, what is there left to feel but love of all things? The further you travel down the Buddhist path, the more compassionate you become as a matter of causality. The Buddhist isn’t lobotomized but purified. By contrast, the sadist is among the most deluded of persons, the most selfish and fearful not just of death but of being denied. The pity is that you didn’t realize the hollowness of your prejudices, that exploitation and domination are empty because they cycle back around against the perpetrator, either by inspiring the victims to avenge themselves or by provoking feelings of guilt in the sadist. I don’t lean on metaphysical speculations about purposes and potentials. But I do expect that monsters secretly long to destroy themselves to escape their carousel of desires.

SADE: I was lucky to be born into wealth, but unlucky to be hounded by the hypocritical herd. Who says bliss is a fair reflection of the natural flow of events? You contend that selfish pleasures and pains are empty, but I say they’re the motives we need as the animals we are. Love of all things is what’s left to the selfless Buddhist, you say, but does that compassion fall from the sky? If you want to end other people’s suffering, you must think suffering is unacceptable, but since suffering is endemic to the evolution of life, you must condemn the world. If not, let the world be with all its grotesqueness intact! Samsara is only a projection of selfish delusions, you say, but if you can appeal to pragmatism in recommending your Eightfold Path, why can’t the “dream world” of independent substances be likewise posited on a pragmatic basis? The self exists, then, as that which is needed to make sense of the unity of a life’s worth of decisions, and if we can’t perceive that unity by way of mindfulness, so much the worse for our limited senses! You haven’t seen the dark side of the moon, but you’d be foolish to deny the moon is a sphere. You talk of the unenlightened person’s dream world, but it’s the empiricism which doesn’t compromise with any abstract reasoning that lands us in the worst confusion. You and your mindful Buddhists stare so long at the trees, you forget they add up to a forest. Or are there no trees, rocks, or rivers either, just because we can directly perceive only fragmentary bits of information from one moment to the next? And you think such bean-counting is practical? The five senses didn’t evolve to be used by themselves — or didn’t you notice they’re connected to the brain, to the seat of our reasoning and feeling? Your mindfulness isn’t a form of thinking, but an escape from personhood. Buddhists are semi-living, ghostly little observers, not the endpoints of human evolution but bystanders to be brushed aside so the species might attend to its business.

BUDDHA: Does your idle philosophizing reassure you that your sadism is laudable rather than an outrage? Build your fortifications around that wave in the river, but your wave will plunge beneath the surface with all the rest. You were never a tyrant; you had no power, though the illusions of aristocracy convinced you otherwise.

SADE: Hypocrite! Slumbering Buddha, I summon Reason to lay low your sophistry. If I tortured you for a fortnight, your cries for mercy would amount to admissions that all isn’t equal, that the strong rule over the weak and have done so for millions of years all over the world. But perhaps your lobotomy would prevent you from flashing such primitive signs of your weakness, and you’d shed no tears and fill the chamber with no screams. In that case, I ask what you meant when you said earlier that you “walked the earth.” Did you conclude that the earth is solid enough to withstand your weight, though your fragmentary senses alone told you no such thing? If you walked the earth, you recognized the planet has greater power than that which could be generated by your mammalian frame. So if there are no substances and power inequalities are unreal, what vanity led you to take a step out from under your Bodhi tree?

BUDDHA: [approaches the Marquis, the Buddha’s eyes blazing with intensity] I set aside infantile reason and power games when I saw through the charades of egoism. Reason is a tool to keep you immersed in the dream world, reinforcing your conceits even while the flux of events prepares to sweep aside the strong and the weak alike. You Enlightenment philosophers and your Faustian bargain: what do your powers of science and technology avail you when your arrogance and greed despoil the planet and rally the elements to their defenses; when your descendants search for happiness in commercial jingles and plastic baubles and turn to demagogues or petty tyrants to boost their confidence after their secular boasts and progressive daydreams prove to be so many excuses for a “modern” version of age-old oligarchy? Your arguments are just shifts in your sleepwalking posture as you blunder into obstacles, taking each bump as a challenge to your dignity. The follies of your modern world’s “serious business” are endless and the self-destruction of your sadists and Satanists, philosophers and capitalists is assured, because you’re playing a game with rules that ensure a miserable end to all players. You and your kind end in defeat, as you personally died in poverty in an insane asylum, because you refuse to awaken and a sleepwalker can hardly be counted on to avoid disaster in the long run. I hold out the middle way, avoiding the extremes of self-gratification and asceticism while you slam your head into the wall, boasting that such a mighty savage as you can crash through anything.

SADE: If the reason-centered world ends in failure, so be it. As least we’ll have fended for ourselves rather than submit to religious frauds and promises of miracle cures. But let the Buddhists watch while real men plunder while they can. I always liked having an audience to marvel at my debauches. And be sure to advise your followers to be mindful only of snatches of sense data so they won’t recognize the crimes we’ll commit and call upon the authorities to bring them to a premature conclusion.

[The Buddha shakes his head and sits down to meditate while the Marquis searches for a girl to seduce.]

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Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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