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Examining the four noble truths Barry Magid June 11th 2022

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Folks over at our affiliate group, Peconic Bay Zen, are going to be studying the Four Noble Truths, and Parnel, who is going to be leading that discussion, asked me to take a look at the text that they are using, which is a translation or interpretation by the Buddhist scholar, Donald Lopez. So I want to go through that and try to say something about our own particular understanding of the Four Noble Truths and how it differs in some significant ways from what he’s presenting.

It begins: “All living beings experience suffering in one way or another. The world cannot be a place of lasting peace.” So we begin with this term suffering, but it’s left to us to try to understand the nature of that suffering, why it seems to be unavoidable, why the world cannot be a place of lasting peace. One place we can start is to ask ourselves, Well, what kind of suffering are they talking about? Traditionally, we focus on sickness, old age and death. We might ask: Are these problems in our life? Are there things that we should be able to solve but we can’t, and that’s why there’s suffering?

The alternative, as we’ve been discussing in other contexts, is to treat suffering not as a problem but as a koan. Then the issue is very different. If we treat suffering as a problem, if we look at things like sickness, old age and death as problems, we look for solutions, but even though the solutions might be very difficult or seem unattainable, at some level we think that they are at least theoretically possible to imagine. We can imagine someday being able to cure all sickness. Old age? Well, some researchers treat old age as a sickness. They think about all sorts of genetic alterations that might prevent us from aging. And death itself will get sci-fi visionaries who imagine consciousness can be uploaded to a computer. To exist eternally is the software, and some ask for the computer mind, thus achieving immortality. I personally think that’s an absurd idea, but there are people who may take something like death as a problem, and that’s where it leads them to, looking to more and more extravagant solutions to the problem.

The alternative, as I say, is to treat suffering not as a problem but as a koan. Therefore its existence or cessation comes from a whole different direction. We see that in a koan like “Where Can I Go to Escape the Heat and the Cold?” In summer the heat kills the monk, in the winter the cold kills the monk. It doesn’t say that we can’t sometimes treat heat and cold as problems to be solved. You can have your air conditioner, you can have your fireplace or oil heater. The koan is a whole other dimension in which the solution is not solving the problem, but solving the gap of separation. We see suffering as something that isn’t an intrusion into my life, by taking it away, leaving me intact and who I was previously, just minus the suffering. We see all the things we talk about as suffering as intrinsic rather than extrinsic to who I am. To take them away, it's no longer me, it’s no longer life. Either we see them as built in or we see them as intrusions. That’s the koan dimension of suffering versus the problem of suffering.

This thing goes on to the second truth: He expresses it this way: “Suffering has an identifiable origin: karma, the principle of cause and effect. The causes of karma are desire, hatred, and ignorance,” and he seems to be taking us down a very different kind of pathway from the one we spoke about, the koan pathway, so we want to take a look at this and see how we might understand it. Suffering has an identifiable origin, karma, which is the principle of cause and effect. But then the causes of karma are desire, hatred and ignorance, and that seems confusing to me because cause and effect seem very primary, something like gravity. It’s built into the nature of the world. We can talk about it as a principle of interdependence or interconnection. We exist only in terms of relations to everything else, and at least some of those relations are causal relations.

But when he then says the causes of karma are desire, hatred, and ignorance, I’m a little confused. He seems to be switching the meaning of karma from something fundamental like cause and effect to karma as when we speak about bad karma, which is more like the consequences of cause and effect. The extent to which desire, hatred and ignorance are causes, they give rise to effects, where the effects are going to lead to suffering, and the method by which they do so is the mechanism of cause and effect, so I think it’s a little misleading to talk about karma itself having a cause. The cause of cause is a confusing kind of translation or way of talking about it.

The other dilemma here is that when we talk about desire, hatred and ignorance, the cause of karma, and the cause of suffering in turn, sounds like we’re setting up a sequence of problems that we’re going to solve. Desire, hatred and ignorance are something we’re going to do away with. I think most of us would at least be willing to get rid of two or three. Yeah, I can do without hatred and ignorance, but when we add desire to that list all of a sudden it gets very complicated and we’re not exactly sure what we’re signing up for when we say we want to eliminate desire. That’s a whole other difficulty to discuss.

Number three is “Freedom from suffering arises when the causes of karma cease.” This is the idea that we’re going to eliminate desire, hatred, and ignorance through practice, and then we will be free from suffering. Now the problem again is that this seems very much like a problem- oriented kind of language, and we can say that to some extent, the Four Noble Truths were always themselves a kind of expression of the difference between problem and koan in that there’s an apparent superficial understanding of their meaning, and then a deeper, more esoteric understanding.

We can say that in some way the Four Noble Truths are written in a language that they can be “parish Zen” or “parish Buddhism,” a formulation of Buddhism that was simplified for the common person, not a person who necessarily is into the study of esoteric texts or engaged in monastic practice, but how do you spread the word to everybody? What form can you put it in that’s going to reach the widest possible audience? Therefore we use this language of freedom from suffering as if Buddhists found the answer. We know how this problem can be solved. It’s the carrot we use to tempt people into practice. But at some level we know suffering is not a problem to be solved. In some way it’s inescapable and in some way we’re simply going to have to change our perspective on its nature and change our perspective on what it means to be free of suffering.

The Fourth Noble Truth is: “There’s an Eightfold Path to the cessation of all suffering. The path consists of three groups of actions: training in ethics, meditation, and wisdom.” I’m grateful that at least he distills the eight down to three because I can never remember the Eightfold Path. It’s much like why I dislike Indian Buddhism. They love lists. I can never remember lists of things. But here we say it comes down to ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are going to mean the counterparts or antidotes to the three causes of karma: desire, hatred, and ignorance. I think their order is not quite the same. We would probably assume that meditation is the antidote to desire, ethics is the antidote to hatred, and wisdom the antidote for ignorance.

There is a question here about the relationship between ending desire and meditation. What does that mean? What’s the desire that we think we are ending by meditating? Ethics we can see as a way to get a grip on hatred, wisdom we can see as an alternative to ignorance, but with ignorance, we want to ask: ignorance of what? Probably we need to go back and ask: Hatred of what and why? There’s a problem built in here that treats desire, hatred and ignorance as somehow foundational, something that we use to explain karma, but there is nothing to explain the nature of desire, hatred and ignorance. Why do we have those? What do they arise from? What are we ignorant of? What do we hate? What do we desire that we can’t have?

I would like to suggest a modified reading of these Four Noble Truths. Let’s go back and instead of saying suffering has a definable origin in karma, we could go back and say, All of life exhibits two undeniable characteristics: impermanence and interconnection. Let’s put those on a level with karma, and let’s even say that we’re going to expand our understanding of the nature of karma as our resistance to the reality of impermanence and interconnection. Impermanence means everything changes. Interconnection means everything and everyone is inevitably dependent on others and other things. There can be no such thing as autonomy. There can be no such thing as independence. There can be no such thing as self-sufficiency.

It’s these that we run up again over and over and over again in our life. We can redefine suffering as the experience to control the uncontrollable. If we look at Lopez’s list of desire, hatred, and ignorance, we can say the fundamental problem of desire is the desire to control the uncontrollable. Hatred is our angry reaction to our frustration in not having that degree of control with our minds, our bodies, other people, the world. And ignorance is fundamentally the ignorance of not realizing the inescapability of impermanence and interconnection. We’re ignorant of that basic fact of life, like being ignorant of gravity, cause and effect. It’s just going to get you in trouble.

Now our practice, then, is going to get reoriented around ethics, meditation and wisdom and coming to terms with impermanence and interconnection. Meditation just forces us to see moment after moment the reality of change in our own lives, in our own bodies. Everybody comes to meditation thinking it’s going to be some kind of mind control: I’ll finally get my mind to quiet down, my thoughts won’t wander, maybe I’ll even experience bliss. I’ll get a little glimpse of those, and I’ll have them and I’ll try to hold onto them, I’ll try to get them again. I’ll fail, then I’ll succeed and then I’ll fail again, and we get this lesson over and over again, changing the uncontrollable nature of life. We run up against our frustration and pain and restlessness and anxiety, our hatred of how things are as opposed to how we want them to be. We should not be able to control the uncontrollable. And maybe very gradually a little wisdom sinks in, and the whole project of problem solving, the whole project of trying to escape suffering through control, through autonomy, through a series of techniques, we see is just basically wrong-headed, upside down. It can never succeed. When we settle back into life just as it is, we can leave everything alone. What happens to suffering then?

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