Words are so important. For those who haven’t yet realised it, they are extremely powerful and suggestive symbols. We can communicate in a way that helps understanding and that stimulates opening and curiosity, or we can communicate in a way that leaves people feeling cold and uninspired. What is important in presenting such traditional and timeless teachings is stimulating understanding, and being flexible in the way we express them so that they can be opened up to the genuinely curious. A core tenet of NLP for example is that ‘the meaning of your communication is what is understood or received’ and not necessarily what you intended to say. This puts the onus on the communicator to strive to make clear what they wanted to communicate and the form should ideally match the symbolic reality in which the interlocutor exists. I shall take this tack for these blog posts and attempt to offer updated interpretations of the Four Noble Truths to make them more accessible for a westerner. Here goes.
The First Truth (Note: have removed noble. I mean who says that these days)
Life features both ups and downs that cannot be avoided. The first truth points to this. It tells us that suffering, rather than being avoided, should be acknowledged as a fundamental aspect of a human life. The word suffering usually requires further explanation. Suffering is the typical translation of Dukkha, the Pali word found in the oldest Buddhist texts for the First Truth. Often the key terms that we find in Buddhist teachings, whether they emerged from Sri Lanka, Thailand or Tibet, express a concept rather than a straight word-for-word translation. Often misunderstanding arises due to word-for-word translations from inexperienced historians and academics. John Dunne, John Peacock and Rita Gross are among those working diligently to re-examine the culture of translation and the intended meaning of central terms and themes within Buddhist teachings. This has at times led to radically different interpretations of traditional teachings and central themes. Dukkha is one such example. Dukkha was often translated as misery, pain, and suffering in the first western texts on Buddhism, although it turns out it translates much more faithfully to its Pali origins as unsatisfactoriness. Suffering makes me think of pain and agony, and misery and despair, whereas unsatisfactoriness hints at an underlying quality in much of our less dramatic and more mundane existence.
If we are prepared to go further with these teachings, it is useful to consider the First Truth as a category of symptoms that most of us would admit to experiencing fairly often. This category includes unsatisfactoriness, dissatisfaction, frustration, disappointment, separation from what we want, separation from what makes us happy, loss, confusion, disconnection, the whole array of negative emotions and feelings, as well as a lingering sense of incompleteness. Suffering also means the inability to live life as fully as we would like. Pain is suffering too of course, but many teachers point out that pain in the physical is simply pain, whereas the added elements of reaction to that pain and interpretation of its significance are suffering. Some of us have fairly pleasant and stable lives of course, but even the richest, healthiest individuals on the planet experience a good deal of the above. And if their wealth and health should fall apart, they too will taste some of the more gross forms of suffering that the less privileged know all too well.
Although the Four Truths emerged at a time when much of the ease of modern living was not available, when suffering was much more in your face, visceral and raw, it still remains the starting point for the Buddhist path. Why is that? This first truth points to how much of our day-to-day existence is wrapped up in trying to keep ourselves separated from unpleasant experience. The central life goal for most people after basic survival is to be happy. Happiness though turns out to be an extremely subjective experience and an extremely difficult one to hold onto. It is, like all experience, temporary by design. Because it is so we tend to feel bad and a sense of loss when separated from it. Secondly, many of us spend our lives jumping through hoops to avoid looking at the presence of suffering around us and in the wider world. We close our eyes to it all. We separate and this turns out to be a central theme in how ‘Dukkha’ is sustained. By starting from an honest examination of the presence of unsatisfactoriness in our lives, we slow down and begin to get in touch with a more authentic experience of being human in the world that is less based on attraction and aversion. These two beasts are the primary reactive impulses that drive our search for happiness and our urge to get away from what we dislike.
The Second Truth
There is a cause to this suffering that runs very deep within us. It is sustained by the advertising industry, by the ‘me’ culture we are still living in, by TV, films, and so on. It is wrapped up in our name, our preferences, our sense of self-importance, and self-pity, by our place in society, our relationship with meaningful others. It is also embedded in our beliefs and the way we constantly frame and conceptualise experience. The primal cause for suffering and our distorted living is the belief that we exist as separate, external individuals that we have a self, an ‘I’ that truly exists on its own terms.
What emerges out of this phantom self is the need to sustain, defend, maintain and protect this construct from the world out there. Because of this we identify with experience and take life personally. My experiences are ‘my’ experiences. We get attached in all manner of ways to our possessions, our beliefs, our ideas, our goals, our sense of values, our categories of right and wrong, to those we have around us, to our feelings, our favourite emotions, and our identity. We incessantly attach to experience a subjective meaning with a self-referenced bias. We refer everything back to ourselves and because we hold this idea that we are a fixed identity, we believe somehow, against all logic, that the world should be fixed too. In order to meet our expectations we become very attached to very specific thoughts, feelings and emotions, which have the core function of running us in circles whilst feeding the same ideas, beliefs and personal mantras to confirm our position in the world. These are all fed by desire and our lack of awareness about the nature of change.
Desire really is not the problem. It being co-opted to run the treadmill of a fixed identity is what creates the problem. Desire is just energy at the end of the day. It allows us to survive, procreate and spread our genes. The problem is we are fairly sophisticated animals and we manage to be subverted by a society built around the notion of satisfying trivial and immature wants. This is amplified by the consumerist dream of instant satisfaction being the right of each and every individual with a few quid in their pocket. So many of our values, priorities and dreams are artificial constructs inherited blindly from the society we are born into. The rest come from our families, educational experience, peers and our experiments with life. Desire feeds emotional and psychological games in the form of impulsiveness and when it becomes insatiable, desire turns into craving. That feeling of, “I’ve got to have it!” and, “I can’t live without it!”
Life is change and change is constant. How few us are really in touch with this and the fact we are ageing constantly? How few of us are extremely clear and sober of the fact we will die and that we could potentially pass away in any moment? These are the two unavoidable facts of life and yet we tend to ignore them both and avoid discussing them in any down-to-earth manner. Constant change in Buddhism is defined as impermanence. Simply put, nothing lasts. So why do we act as if it will? It’s important to add that intellectually we may believe we are clear on these topics. Rationally we may convince ourselves that death is inevitable, but it’s Ok we tell ourselves. We might feed ourselves the line that we should live for today and forget about tomorrow. Sure, it’s a strategy you can employ. What happens though when you find you’ve aged and death doesn’t seem so far away any more? How do you convince yourself then that your attempts at pushing reality away haven’t failed?
Death is the second socially taboo topic that Buddhism is grounded in. Because collectively we fear and avoid it, we kid ourselves with the belief that we are happier by doing so. Developing a deep appreciation for the finite nature of life though actually makes our lives vastly richer. By working with impermanence we begin to see directly the place of change in all aspects of our lives and how thoroughly natural it is. By loosening our grip on how we want things to be, we begin to experience more fluidity and a greater capacity to let go. This is the way of non-attachment. Not detached or distant somehow, but more present, awake and embracing of experience as it is while it lasts.
The Third Truth
Dukkha may end. That’s right. The Third Truth lets us know that we can actually learn to live differently, and radically so. We can end the complex network of interdependent patterns of psychological and emotional confusion that keep us living unconsciously. It lets us know that we can recognise the first two truths in our lives and the wider world and work with them. We can gain an adequate understanding of the importance of being conscious of the presence of Dukkha in our lives and start to change the way we live both internally and externally in order to find a door to open to a new possibility. The Third Truth lets us know that we can shake off this addictive identification with experience and learn to release the attachments we have to fixed forms and ideas in order to slowly start to see things as they are. The Third Truth lets us know that loosening up our self-obsession allows us to gain a little bit of freedom from impulsive, reactive living, and the comfort of our more self-indulgent patterns. By continuing to release our dependency on habitual patterns, we gain further and further freedom and a much richer experience of pleasure and happiness. The third truth tells us that by letting go fully of the illusion of a separate, independent self, of the striving to keep change at bay, we gain enormous freedom and begin to embark on the path of awakening.
The Fourth Truth
This is traditionally written as the path that ends Dukkha. The early schools of Buddhism emphasised the Eightfold Path as the fourth truth. Later schools invented all manner of technique and some very radical approaches to freeing oneself from addictive living. On a basic level though, anything that relieves suffering is the path. Any habit that gives us freedom from bad habits and attachments is the path. Since the Buddhist path though is one of radical transformation and the completion of the Third Truth, rather than a simple taste, or occasional holiday, it offers a complete system for working with our own personal collection of suffering, and also importantly, that contribute to the suffering of others. Yes, it turns out that shitting on other people and raping the planet does affect us directly too.
To change takes time. It requires work and discipline. Most of all it requires consistency. To break a pattern means establishing a new one to take its place, at least in the earlier phases of practice. The Fourth Truth holds at its centre the practice of meditation. This is supported, fed and sustained by the way we act, speak, use intention, and work.
It cannot be expressed enough that direct experience is what counts above all else. This is true for our own experience, relating these teachings to that experience, and for discovering the validity of much of what is written here. You must experience it for yourself. Theory, philosophy, intellectual understanding, beliefs and ideas all fall away in terms of value when compared to actually knowing the truth of your life directly.
The next post introduces the Noble Eightfold Path and the actual practices of working with the Four Truths.