The Search for Otherwise than Being in Levinas and Early Buddhism


Simon Critchley introduced a radically different interpretation of otherwise than being in The Problem of Levinas. Critchley proposed that Levinas’s solution to Heidegger’s finitude of being as ‘substitution’ is ultimately flawed because it replaces one encapsulation with another. In this I agree. Critchley proposed that fecundity produces the otherwise than being in the form of my child—my otherwise; the me but not me, the me otherwise for whom the child has a full measure of life ahead and the capability also to produce a child. I will agree that fecundity is a solution, but not in the way that Critchley proposed. For an alternative reading of otherwise than being through the notion of both responsibility and fecundity, I will turn to the Buddha’s conception of otherwise than being to bring forth what I believe is a richer and even more fecund explanation.


‘How do we get out of being’ is a challenging question. Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) asked this question in his monograph, “On Escape” in the days before World War II:

It is the path where we recognize the insanity of acts and thoughts incapable of taking the place of an event that breaks up existence in the very accomplishment of its existence. Such deeds and thoughts must not conceal from us, then, the originality of escape. It is a matter of getting out of being by a new path, at the risk of overturning notions that to common sense and the wisdom of the nations seemed the most evident (Levinas 2003, 73)”

Being tends to box in the idea of the person as a static entity with an unrestrained ego. To begin to think otherwise is to think towards otherwise than being and the implications that otherwiseness brings. Levinas thought that thinking otherwise permits one to substitute oneself for the other in order to be responsible for the other. This substitution would not be possible without one being capable of acting outside of an unrestrained ego. However, to get out of being Levinas said we must find a new path. Levinas saw that this begins in the event of the face of the other.

Levinas was not the first to ask this question about getting out of being, nor was he the first to seek a different path. The Buddha (fifth century BCE) had a similar critique of the unrestrained ego, but unlike Levinas, developed a practical process (the eightfold path) towards both self-responsibility and responsibility to the other through skillful means and compassion. The Buddha saw suffering as associated with the belief in a permanent self and soul, and otherwiseness as obviating this belief through the process of the eightfold path towards enlightenment.

Levinas defined the other as infinitely alterior from me and he explained that responsibility can reduce useless suffering in the idea of substitution—me for the other—in a state of radical passivity. However, Simon Critchley suggested that substitution removes me from one box into another and not into otherwise than being. I agree, but do not accept Critchley’s solution that the child of mine is the otherwise than being. Rather, I will show how the Buddha’s idea of fecundity of mind produces an even better explanation of the otherwise than being than either Levinas or his critic, Critchley. We will first explore how both the Buddha and Levinas came to understand their respective ideas of otherwiseness.

The Path Towards Otherwise than Being

The answer that the Buddha sought and Levinas sought were to the question: how do we get out of being? Levinas was uncomfortable with Heidegger’s ontological being towards death; and the Buddha was uncomfortable with the Vedic ceremonies and rituals that celebrated the emergence of the permanent self.

Recall from the stories about his life, that Siddhartha, the young man who would become the Buddha, begins his life in about the fifth century BCE in a hedonistic world where his father protects him from dukkha (unsatisfactoriness and suffering).[1] He is a precocious child which is the proof of an early prophecy, from a trusted advisor delivered to his father, that Siddhartha would challenge the assumptions we make about the world (Kalupahana 1982, 5). Frank Hoffman said that Siddhartha discovers dukkha and suffering outside the protectorate of his father when he sees a dead person, a sick person, an old person, and a renunciant (Hoffman 2013, 14). As the son of a king, Siddhartha is taught the basics of politics and leadership, but not suffering. He ponders the idea of suffering he has seen in its four aspects and then leaves his home, wife, and newborn son to enter into the life of an ascetic, first in the practice of yoga.

As an ascetic, he learns and practices the yogic techniques from two masters until he becomes a master. However, he finds even these advanced yogic techniques and their meditations inadequate to answer his question about the nature, cause and cure for dukkha. He continues on his ascetic journey for some time but then finds that not only has his fasting and his fastidiousness towards the ascetic lifestyle injured his health and well-being, but also this path like the path of his earlier life in hedonism does not produce the answers he seeks for the understanding of which he hopes will lead to the end of dukkha. He sits under the Bodhi Tree and meditates and by morning he has found his answer in the idea of dependent origination, that there is no static permanent being because everything has a prior cause and every new action or thought produces a new cause and often these causes are co-dependent upon each other. The otherwise than being for the Buddha begins in his understanding there being no permanent self (being) or anatman.

After On Escape, Levinas begins his own journey to discover the otherwise than being. In the intervening years he experiences the suffering of hard labor as a Jew in a military prisoner of war camp, not a concentration camp. The unsatisfactoriness of the whole Nazi system pervades his existence from his internment, his loss of most of his family and many friends, and his growing dissatisfaction with Martin Heidegger, not only because Heidegger joins the Nazi party early in the nineteen thirties, and becomes a fervent Nazi in his duties as the Rector of Freiburg University, but also because Heidegger’s philosophy is deeply rooted in the tragedy of being—the unsatisfactoriness of impermanence in the guise of ontology, and the being before death.

The Buddha is raised with the belief in samsara or rebirth.[2] The idea of the rebirth from the death of one into the embryo of the other is explained by Hoffman as the concept of, “continuity without identity of self-same substance (Hoffman 1987, 53).” This gives the Buddha a foundation from which to fashion his own eightfold path of the liberation of being in samsara into nibbana (nirvana) or the otherwise than being. Kashi Nath Upadhyaya explained this without identity of self-same substance through the idea of ever-changing forces which are always already there:

The entire mechanism of the process of rebirth envisaged by the Buddha can be understood empirically [not metaphysically]. When a man dies, his physical organism is dissolved, but the flux of the physical stream goes on to form a new conglomeration, since the ignorance and craving which feed the karmic forces [Paticcasamuppada] have not been destroyed. Impelled by the karmic forces, the last moment of the series of physical states [gandhabba] finds a new matrix suited to it. Evidently, it is not some identical entity (the soul) which passes from one to another place but the ever-changing forces which disappear in one state and appear in another. (Upadhyaya 1971, 372-373)

Levinas’s foundation for his own developing understanding of the otherwise than being was developed out of the idea of being itself which Heidegger so deftly explicated in Being and Time. Levinas concluded:

The elementary truth that there is being—a being that has value and weight—is revealed at a depth that measures its brutality and its seriousness. The pleasant game of life ceases to be just a game. It is not the sufferings with which life threatens us render it displeasing; rather it is because the ground of suffering consists of the impossibility of interrupting it, and of an acute feeling of being held fast. (Levinas 2003, 52)”

There is being, but is there an otherwiseness? Is suffering a permanent state as Levinas suggested? These are the questions that Levinas wanted to ask. For the question of suffering’s permanence, I first turn to Buddhism.

It is important to reflect on what dukkha means in the Pali and how the Buddha probably understood the term. As author explained: T. W. Rhys Davids and others translated dukkha into English as ‘ill’ for the texts written for the Pali Text Society at the turn of the twentieth century; Padmasiri de Silva added, “disharmony, anxiety and unsatisfactoriness” but he cautioned that dukkha is not angst; Sue Hamilton explained that, “…it is important for a proper understanding of dukkha means to realise that is being used to make a truth statement and not a value judgment…In particular it is not stating that human experience is unpleasant”; Therefore, if dukkha is a truth statement assigning the western concept of ‘evil’ to it would not be appropriate; Dukkha simply is (Author 2015, 116).[3]

The way out of dukkha for the Buddha is the eightfold path, a process that leads to nibbana or the otherwise than being. Levinas also sought a way to end useless suffering through responsibility in the idea of substitution: his concept of otherwise than being. Both were looking to critique suffering through the development of a process of ethics that can defeat suffering.[4]

The Critique of Suffering

Both the Buddha and Levinas saw suffering (dukkha) as appearing to be intractable and a permanent state of the human. Each independently developed an idea of ethics from the problem of suffering (dukkha) by looking for ways to end suffering. Both understood that the idea of a static and permanent [totality in Levinas’s terms] being was not the way to build an ethics to end suffering. Suffering that both were concerned about is that which we bring upon ourselves and to others through our own actions and mistaken ideas about what suffering is. Ethics begins in the idea that there can be something otherwise than an encapsulated but unrestrained ego that cares only for itself.

The critique of suffering begins in the search for the otherwise than being for these two philosophers who lived twenty-five hundred years apart. We know that Levinas did not engage with Buddhist thought in the development of his ideas on otherwise than being—he came to the idea independently (Kalmanson 2013, 2, Introduction). While there has been much written about the idea of suffering, there has not been much written, outside of the Buddha (and his followers) and Levinas, about the critique of suffering as the quest or search for the otherwise than being.[5]

I will not offer, as have Gillian Rose and Slavoj Zizek, that Levinas’ ethics is a “‘Buddhist Judaism’ that posits an absurdly impossible ethical ideal and entails disastrous political consequences. (Kalmanson 2013, 102, In Eric S. Nelson’s, The Complicity of the Ethical)” Suffering is a universal problem for most religions and systems of thought. I do not seek to link Buddhism and Judaism as did Rose and Zizek but rather to posit the idea of otherwise than being in context of the two ethical systems of thought: Levinas and his responsibility to others, and the Buddha with his four noble truths.

Buddha’s chroniclers in the Pali Canon spent considerable time developing arguments for and explaining how nibbana and the end to suffering comes about through the process of the eightfold path.

To begin with we must understand how the Buddha saw the person. The process of the khandhas are the primordial state of the human, a state without singular self or soul because we are always changing. The state of otherwise than being in nibbana is the withdrawing of the fuels that fan the flames of the khandhas, the five process ‘groups’, ‘aggregates’ or ‘heaps’ (they include material form rupa, feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), dispositions or coefficients of consciousness (sankhara), and cognition or consciousness (vinnaṇa) that make up the human. These never coalesce and are constantly changing—hence there is no single self or soul.

However, what the Buddha saw as suffering is our endless search for permanence in an impermanent world. When he realized that the answer lay in the idea of dependent origination, that every thought or action has a prior cause, he realized that if he could teach others to understand this idea, he could help others begin to defeat suffering. From his experience under the Bodhi tree he developed his eightfold path to enlightenment and the end of suffering. The enlightened one is no longer in the state of being in dukkha: rather the enlightened one is in the otherwise state of nibbana.

Otherwise Than Being

Levinas developed no eightfold path for his ethics of the philosophy of the other and the radical passivity that leads to substitution for the other, his otherwise than being. Meaning, he developed no system of ethics. He said, “My task does not consist in constructing ethics; I only try to find its meaning. In fact, I do not believe that all philosophy should be programmatic. (Levinas and Cohen 1985, 90)” However, his project connects subjectivity and ethics, “For I describe subjectivity in ethical terms. Ethics here, does not supplement a preceding existential base; the very mode of subjectivity is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility. (Levinas and Cohen 1985, 95)” If ethical responsibility is knotted with subjectivity, there is an opening to disambiguate the ontological ‘being’ to allow for its otherwiseness to become. How is this done?

As Simon Critchley explained, Levinas would only articulate otherwise than being ambiguously (Critchley 2015, location 1700). In his last major work, Otherwise than Being, Levinas explored the difference between the saying and the said. Critchley offered a crude explanation that the saying was the ethical and the said the ontological—in the context of its propositionality (Critchley 2015, Location 1700, Kindle edition). However, any saying must be said which means that the saying is thus betrayed, and by association, so is the ethical (Critchley 2015, Location 1700, Kindle edition). The saying becomes other than it was when it becomes a said because it comes to be a totality which can only be undone by another saying which comes to be a totality in a said and so on. The process of saying unto said and its repetition is one of the problems that produces suffering. Consulting Freud and his pleasure principle, Critchley rightly stated that Freud needed to go beyond the pleasure principle because, “The psyche is not oriented towards the fulfillment of wishes that result in pleasure. Rather, the psyche is organized in relationship to a trauma. (Critchley 2015, Location 1616, Kindle edition)” And, “To go beyond the pleasure principle is to assert that what trauma yields is compulsive repetition, and the compulsion to repeat overrides the pleasure principle (Critchley 2015, Location 1624, Kindle edition)”

The need to repeat, to be and become and be again produces the penultimate cycle of rebirth that is the Buddha’s samsara. In this repetition and samsara there is dukkha. There is always already dukkha for all sentient beings. Continuity without identity of self-same substance is why a moth can be reborn into a higher being and a human can be reborn into something less, depending upon the karmic forces and how one lives one’s life. The Buddha realized that dukkha and samsara (rebirth) are intertwined. Desire for existence is repeated over and over again through samsara, and the state of being is always already in dukkha. What must end for dukkha to end is the end of the desire for being. Being’s end is otherwise than being—nibbana.

The Ethical Subject; The Subject of the Ethical

How one lives one’s life was essential to Levinas; as Critchley said, “…the ethical subject is not a subject in general; it’s me. (Critchley 2015, Location 1643, Kindle edition)” The subject of ethics is me in Levinas because the subject of that ethics is how I understand my relationship to the other, both the other who stands before me and the other of society. The ethics of responsibility begins with the other’s face who appears before me. Granted, Levinas explained in the other’s face I can see God, but in that other, what reflects back to me is the understanding of my responsibility to the other, though this vision of the face does not explain just what this responsibility is. The saying of the other’s face presents to me the other’s infinite alterity which speaks to me as responsibility. That encounter repeats many times every day. The encounter with the other is trauma which brings me out of my enjoyment of dwelling within myself. This is suffering. However, Levinas differentiated between useless and non-useless suffering. Useless suffering is the trauma faced by the other when I am not responsible to the other, or worse. Non-useless suffering is the trauma of the ethical subject: me (Levinas 1988, 157-158).

Antoine Panaioti called Buddhism, “the great health” (Panaioti 2013, 3). The great health he posited is the curative practice of the eightfold path to show the right ways of living one’s own life. I think that the great health is incorrect, because it posits a very egoistic and narcissistic view of Buddhism and the way that the Buddha understood the path to enlightenment.

Wing-cheuk Chan compared three branches of Buddhism, Theravada as is attributed to the Buddha himself, Hinayana, and the more recent Mahayana, that scholar Nagarjuna deftly articulated. While the three branches have their differences, all agree in three Dharmas (teachings)” dukkha (as has been defined), anitya (the idea of impermanence), and anatman (no soul or no separate self) (Chan 1999, 228). Chan explained that the critique by Mahayana Buddhism of Hinyana Buddhism is that it is selfish and more like the great health of Panaioti, and, “…lacks empathy towards other sentient beings. (Chan 1999, 229)” Chan elucidated that the very nature of the Mahayana Bodhisattva, the enlightened one who is reborn again and again until all sentient beings are enlightened, is more like the idea of Levinas and his responsibility to the other because its compassion is infinite and everlasting until responsibility can be achieved through the end to dukkha (Chan 1999, 228 & 229). Mahayana Buddhism follows a similar path as Levinas, not to deny the ontology of the body, but to deny its permanence, its permanent ego or separate self (Chan 1999, 231). Said Chan, “From the Mahayana Buddhist slogans that all sentient beings can become Buddha and that Bodhisattva lives for the sake of the other, one can discover that Mahayana Buddhist indeed commits to the paradigm of ethics as first philosophy. (Chan 1999, 231-232)”

Can we say the same about the Buddha? The Buddha never explained that all sentient beings could become enlightened. However, I believe if he were presented with the idea he would understand its implications. As I believe he understood it, the continuity without identity of selfsame substance that passes from rebirth to rebirth must have the capacity to exist in a mouse or a human because one could be reborn in either form of sentience. Therefore, any sentient being has the capacity from this continuity without identity of selfsame substance to embark down the path towards enlightenment. As the Buddha denounced the caste system, he might also have offered additional reasoning for this capability through the idea that the lowest as well as the highest of the Indian caste system in place during his time could become enlightened. In fact, Anguilimala the murderous robber, a story told in the early Pali texts, lives on the fringes of society and produces more dukkha with every day he lives. After encountering the Buddha and listening to his lessons, he reforms his ways and becomes enlightened. Angulimala attests to the fact that anyone who follows the eightfold path and produces no new bad karma can achieve enlightenment.

I believe with T. W. Rhys Davids that the Buddha did not conceive of nibbana as a transcendental state, but rather an ethical state (Rhys Davids 1921-1925, 405, Nibbana). I believe The Buddha (and Mahayana Buddhism) understand with Levinas that ethics is not a subject but a condition of the individual. In the case of Buddhist enlightenment, it is a state of perfection of the ethical idea where the fuels that feed the fires of passion have been withdrawn. This means that both the hedonistic pleasure and trauma of dukkha are defeated and the individual exists in a state of pure responsibility. This responsibility is bi-directional, both towards the self and others. To be responsible to myself is to prepare myself to be able to be responsible to the other. The great health is therefore better understood as a panegyric for dukkha or suffering. It is suffering that the Buddha wanted to cure, not just find enlightenment for himself. If all he wanted was his own health, he might have become a recluse. Instead he spread the word of his experience and his wisdom to others using skillful means so that they might learn how to enter the ethical state of nibbana. The Buddha’s turn I believe was made during his great hesitation just after he became enlightened where he considered whether to live a monastic life, largely away from people, or wade into society to teach people. He found room for both and continued his own meditation and teaching to the end of his living days.

How Dow We Escape from Finitude

Simon Critchley outlined Levinas’s problem as a question, “How can we escape from the Heideggerian tragedy of finitude? (Critchley 2015, Location 3069)” Finitude is the problem of facticity that we are thrown into the world in what Levinas might call il ya a, the there is. The there is means that we are given over into ourselves and cannot escape other than through death. Thus our existence is finite and ultimately our death is finite. This is why Heidegger called the angst of existence, the being before death. Death looms for the finite being who is thrown into the world.

The Buddha was opposed to the Brahman naming rituals of his time. The trouble he had with these rituals is much the same that Levinas had with Heidegger, they tend to cement the individual into a state of being (totality), a static finitude where a singular self is created and which, like Parmenides’s monistic being, is complete and continuous. In general, the Buddhist idea of dependent arising (that everything has a prior cause) has been conceived of as a critique of the Vedic myth of creation and the corresponding rituals of the Vedas that involve naming exercises towards completion and perfection of the self (Blanchard 2012, Gombrich 2009, Jurewicz 2000). The twelve traditional links of the Buddhist chain were constructed to undermine the veracity of the Vedic myth of creation in creating a self, and the rituals themselves that produce an ever more perfected self. Dependent origination (paticcasamuppada) can be thought of as stepping stones where one precedes another but not always in the same order of the traditional chain. The process of the eightfold path does not produce the perfected self as the Vedic rituals claim, rather the no self (anatman), meaning that humans are themselves a process.

The Buddha rejected this Vedic idea of a separate self. He noted that we never stop changing. Our body changes; our mind changes all the time so how could there be something that continues without change in all of that? He posited that we have the five process aggregates or heaps, the khandhas that make up who we are, but they are not linked together like a chain. They somehow work together but even they are continuously changing over time. The tragedy the Buddha saw is that there is dukkha, and that is the clinging and craving to rebirth of the same, and therefore by definition dukkha is unsatisfactory. The repetitive trauma of samsara is what the Buddha was trying to break with his eightfold path.

We might begin by thinking with David S. Henley that in Buddhism we must become an alienated being which Sartre called the authentic being to break dukkha (Henley 2015, 13). Henley referenced the Buddhist scholar Krishnamurti when he said that when one is released from the burden of the self, one does not replace it with another construct (Henley 2015, 16). This is also Critchley’s critique of levinas’s substitution that we replace one construct of encapsulation with another. Otherwiseness, as Henley explained, “Krishnamurti appears to imply that one can simply refrain from thinking about one’s own nature. (Henley 2015, 16)” How does one do this? I suggest that this letting go of thinking about being begins in the concept of fecundity of mind.

Fecundity As an Answer to the Escape from Being

The question before us is whether there a way out of the finitude of Heideggerian throwness of being into the world before death: the tragedy of being without resorting to substitution for the other or Critchley’s child for me? The concomitant is the Buddha’s question: Is there a way out of the Buddhist samsara or the suffering of rebirth?

Critchley thought that fecundity would be the solution to the problem of finitude. He suggested that the child is our otherwise than being. For Critchley it wasn’t, as Levinas posited, that substitution in the radical passivity of being responsible to the other is otherwise than being because, “Substitution for the other is not escape, it is just a different description of imprisonment, of captivity, of being held hostage by the other. (Critchley 2015, Location 3095)” Finitude is poured into a different vessel but retains the same monistic tragedy of being.

Critchley suggested that the child one produces is outside of being, the otherwise than being, has all the earmarks of the idea of infinitude, the extension of me and mine down many new possible paths. We recall a similar path for Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who endures three metamorphoses from camel, to lion, to child. He bears the burden of being as a camel, but resists that tragedy of being human in the form of an angry lion, and finally he crosses the bridge of wonder through the wide-open eyes of the child who does not carry the baggage of humanity, only the unfathomable notion of existence and the promise of the ubermensch, the superman—an otherwiseness of the human: man’s successor. Zarathustra’s metamorphosis is in the form of a metaphysical regression, not as Critchley describes his idea of Levinas’s notion of the child as a result of fecundity. Is there a difference between the fecundity of regression and the fecundity of the child?

I suggest that there is. This is where my concept of Levinas and Critchley’s Levinas diverge. My child is an otherwise than being but as another form of substitution. I turn to the Buddha again, not to drown the flames of passion (to end the tragedy of dukkha), but to use his regressive technique in order to create a fecundity of mind. The Buddha’s eightfold path and his teachings are a comedy designed to turn the mind around, to think in a different way, to think otherwisely and to enter the realm of otherwise than being he called nibbana. It is teaching the techniques of becoming otherwise that I believe can provide direction for Levinas in relationship to otherwise than being. Certainly the child becomes an otherwise and an otherwiseness who possesses some of who you are. The vessel of being and the vessel of substitution (of me for the other in the ethics of responsibility) are, as Critchley explained, ensconced within the ontology of being but in different forms. If the otherwise than being is the child, then the I encapsulated within being is still there in my, il ya a (there is), and remains the being before death. My shadow coffin contains my being even though I have a child. The child then suffers the same fate of being, reduced to a being before death.

How did the Buddha resolve this re-encapsulation? The enlightened one (Arahant) is a product of the khandhas processes, the same as any unenlightened one. The difference is that the fuel that flares the flames of passion associated with the desire for being have been shed like so much excess baggage by the Arahant. The Arahant has achieved a state of understanding that ignorance is ensconced in the mistaken idea of the durable self and soul. Once one understands that dependent arising is the way of the world, ignorance can be shed. The Arahant does not know everything, but the Arahant has the capacity to better understand the world using the right ways of the eightfold path. The unenlightened one does not have these same skills. The state of otherwise than being (nibbana) is no longer the state of dukkha because samsara is no longer an issue for the Arahant because the Arahant will not become again. The unsatisfactoriness of being behind him, the Buddha could prepare to enter paranibbana, which he understood as a deathlessness, but a state for which he had no knowledge because nobody could report back from that state.

Is fecundity a certain escape from being? Is the eightfold path a certain escape from being? When we bring Critchley’s Levinas together with the Buddha we find that there are great similarities of project but less certain outcomes for the tragedy of finitude. Critchley would like for there to be a divine comedy, a mysticism ensconced in the idea of love. In the intersection of Levinas and the Buddha, love might be the idea that endures. The Buddha’s love for all things gives all sentient beings the opportunity to engage in the process of enlightenment. In Critchley’s Levinas, love produces not only the eros of being with and for another, but also the child as continuity, not the same but not unlike the Buddha’s continuity without identity of selfsame substance. Yet, this Buddhist continuity is also the comedy of dependent origination. One knows that what happens next depends in part upon what has happened before. The comedy of dependent origination is the phenomenological process of trying to understand the world from how it presents itself over time. With comedy, the outcome evolves through the antics of the actors who live in the world of dukkha, suffering for their own efforts. Thus human foibles along with action produce what follows in a theatrical demonstration of dependent origination. In comedy, the path is outward and evolutionary as is the path to nibbana. However, in tragedy, one begins with the tragic self, the being ensconced in dukkha, forever doomed to repeat because the only outcome of each step in the process of dependent origination is towards self-destruction.

For Critchley’s Levinas, the everyperson hero dies but retains the hope that the child from fecundity and eros will begin with the same opportunity and become otherwise through a child of her own.

I suggest that in the end, Critchley’s Levinas desires being, but being in the guise of another, another form of samsara that is otherwise than transformative as the Buddha had discovered in his own regressive process to become enlightened. The Buddha saw eros not as the fire of passion but as the love for compassion in an ethical state he called nibbana. I see similarities of thinking otherwise with Levinas, but Levinas did not have the same transformative experience as the Buddha. What Levinas did was outline very carefully why being’s end begins with Heidegger, and offers as a solution: the idea of responsibility, a teleological recognition that I must substitute myself for the other in order to overcome the tragedy of being. Critchley rightly suggested that this is just another prison. Critchley’s ultimate solution through the ideas of Levinas of love, eros, and fecundity producing the child is a scintillating idea, but when juxtaposed against the Buddhist idea of love as understanding, knowledge, and compassion: the being towards, not death, but deathlessness, I suggest that Critchley’s fecundity of the child as an otherwise than being ultimately fails as another vessel to encapsulate being.

The Buddha would not have us be encapsulated in a thrown vessel. We are, of course, the product of our khandhas, but have no separate self that can be considered permanent and undifferentiated. We are in constant flux. We carry within us the seeds of past lives through the karmic forces and our continuity is tinged by what has come before. However, we have the wherewithal in our own lifetime, if we are willing to try to discover it, the power of deathlessness, or the otherwise than being. This is passion without the flames of passion, an eros of pure existence without the unsatisfactoriness of being. Certainly when we produce a child, this child enters the world with all the possibilities that are available to the human. However, what the Buddha saw was not the fecundity of the act of eros, but the fecundity of the process of enlightenment that is important.

The Buddha could have gone into the woods to live out his life like a hermit, instead he spent the rest of his life after he left the Bodhi tree, to teach others the power of the state of nibbana and the idea of deathlessness. The fecundity of the mind is what the Buddha taught and he worked hard to pass this down to his own son. It is the fecundity of mind, not just procreation, that I suggest is the comedy that replaces the tragedy of Heidegger’s being. The essence of comedy is thinking otherwise and expressing it as such. It is the twist, the reversal, and the unexpected, that emerges as humor. The comedy of the fecundity of mind that the Buddha teaches is to think otherwise in order to better understand how dependent origination brings forth the world to be perceived by one who is ready to see it.

In the many stories in the Pali Canon, the Buddha is recorded as helping people to change their minds by asking questions that expose the absurdity of their beliefs. He didn’t stop there because he also helped the other replace absurdity with knowledge that they could use to improve the fecundity of their own mind towards reaching nibbana, which for some the concept also means joy. I believe that the Buddha understood that thinking otherwise is the way to escape the tragedy of samsara and the unsatisfactoriness of dukkha. Have the child; teach the comedy of fecundity of mind. Don’t have a child, but teach others the divine comedy, the metaphor of the fecundity of mind. Be responsible to others by all means, but be mindful that teaching the fecundity of mind is the most responsible thing you can do for the other.


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Henley, David S. 2015. The Logic of Enlightenment. Alresford, Hants UK: Iff Books.

Hoffman, Frank J. 1987. Rationality & Mind in Early Buddhism. Delhi, India: Motilal Banasaridass.

Hoffman, Frank J. 2013. Introduction to Early Buddhism: Philosophical Texts, Concepts, and Questions. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Research Centre for Buddhist Studies.

Jurewicz, Joanna. 2000. “Playing with fire: The Pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of vedic thought.”  Journal of the Pali Text Society 26:77-103.

Kalmanson, Leah, Frank Garrett, & Sarah Mattice, ed. 2013. Levinas and Asian Thought. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Kalupahana, David J & Indrani. 1982. The Way of Siddhartha. Boulder, Co.: Shambhala.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1988. “Useless suffering.” In The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, edited by Robert Bernasconi, & Wood, David, 156–167. NY: Routledge

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Standford University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel, and Trans Richard A  Cohen. 1985. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo: Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP.

Mayerfeld, Jamie. 1999. “Suffering and moral responsibility.”

Mishra, Pankaj. 2004. An end to suffering: The Buddha in the world: Macmillan.

Panaioti, Antoine. 2013. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Park, Yin Y. 2013. “Comparative Philosophy of Religious Responses to Suffering: A Panel Discussion.” Comparison Project, Drake University.

Reid, Donald. 2002. “Towards a Social History of Suffering: Dignity, Misery and Disrespect.”  Social History 27 (3):343-358. doi: 10.2307/4286911.

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Soelle, Dorothee. 1975. Suffering. Translated by Everett Kalin, R. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Sullivan, Daniel, Mark J. Landau, Aaron C. Kay, and Zachary K. Rothschild. 2012. “Collectivism and the meaning of suffering.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103 (6):1023-1039. doi: 10.1037/a0030382.

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[1] I will be using Pali terms (a derivation of Sanskrit) because the first manuscripts translated into English were in Pali. For simplicity I have consciously not used diacritic marks.

[2] Please note that I have elected not to use diacritical marks for Pali words. Pali words, other than person’s names, are in italics.

[3] This is not to say that evil ones do not produce or encourage dukkha. The Buddha’s deva (god) Mara is such a trickster who the Buddha calls evil because he tempts the Buddha and his followers to stray from the eightfold path back into the desire for being.

[4] For Levinas he calls the suffering he wants to overcome is useless suffering—that which others suffer and he suffered, for example, at the hands of the Nazis.

[5] For recent western scholarship on the idea of suffering other than Levinas, consult: (Amato 1990, Andorno 2014, Davies 2012, Frances 2013, Mayerfeld 1999, Reid 2002, Soelle 1975, Sullivan et al. 2012) For recent Buddhist commentary on the Buddha’s idea of suffering, consult: (Blanchard 2012, Gombrich 2009, Gombrich 2006, Mishra 2004, Park 2013)


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