A common request from those travelling around the Buddhist periphery looking for alternatives to traditional Buddhism is for innovators and critics to provide practical solutions and responses to the theoretical critique being made. I myself have been one of those who at various times in the past has asked for something practical to be done with all the theory and it behoves me now to do my part to bridge the gap between theory and practice but also remind listeners and readers that theory is itself the child of pragmatism and always results from action; the action of thought, contemplation, reflection, analysis, questioning, doubting and so on. Theory, therefore, will continue to be a cornerstone of practical, pragmatic approaches to engaging with Buddhism anew and makes up a great deal of the practical side of engaging with Buddhism from a post-traditional perspective.
Emphasising the role of theory is essential as one of the important contributing factors that has allowed Western Buddhism to give rise to its more problematic facets is the general US culture of anti-intellectualism that has accompanied the rise of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and now Donald Trump: I know I shouldn’t, but I simply couldn’t resist referencing these key figures involved in the dumbing down of American culture. Having been the Empire of the last century, The States has obviously had a very strong influence on Europe and the rest of the world and this includes not only its political and economic exports and political ideology but also in its exportation of cultural forms and styles, so that, although Europe generally does not suffer from the American suspicion of intelligence, nuance, subtlety and sophistication, it has accepted, in the world of Western Buddhism at least, a creeping form of anti-intellectualism, and in the world of the spiritual but not religious, an obsession with first person subjectivity and the cult of feeling. Starting out with the practical business of thinking, therefore, is an essential initial step because, as our more intellectual readers are all too familiar, theory, in the form of ideas and beliefs in particular, underlies, shapes and colours all of the practical stuff that our more down-to-earth brothers and sisters like to front.
Imagine a giant golden Buddha statue sat in front of you right now. The Buddha’s golden gaze stares out onto an invisible horizon, expressing an out of reach wisdom and supreme intellect. His hands are clasped in unifying grace and his legs are perfectly placed in a lotus posture. The statue gives off an aura of graceful bliss, of wisdom, compassion and perfect meditational equipoise. Surely this image represents the quintessence of Buddhist iconography, its most transcendent and instantly recognisable form.
Golden statues are accompanied by exotic robes in most traditional gathering places for Buddhists. Incense is lit and golden bowls may hold offerings for imagined beings. Other more mundane objects such as zafus still draw heavily on Eastern forms, colours and shapes and each adds to that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that inspires warm feelings in the bellies of curious seekers, and quite possibly a smidgen of confusion. Seekers of one kind or another are still attracted by the exotic, by other, by the symbolic matrices that accompany religion, and most likely always will be as we are visual, feeling creatures.
Although not up to Hinduism’s standards, Buddhism has its fair share of rich visual display that acts to seduce the observer. Why is it that we are so drawn to symbols? Why is it that so many are drawn to religion, in this case by Buddhism, through rich symbology and unarticulated appearance? Perhaps in part, such exotic symbolism provides us with an alternative experiential environment, within which, we can explore different meaning-making systems, and feel free, to some degree, to shed the binds that adhere us to pre-existing, culturally normalised realms of being. The exotic provides us with a back door exit from our mundane existence, and further, from the pain and suffocation of modernity. The problem is that such an exit can lead us not to freedom, but to escapism and the adoption of a new identity, a newly fabricated self that reflects its new environment, both ideologically and behaviourally. We become new all right. Though we emerge as a false image of a distorted self that is framed in new jargon, hidden and stifled beneath the surface in a prism that distorts our own voice, our own knowing, and lack of knowing, through the lens of a Buddhist persona.
This marks the beginning of a new series of posts on a post-traditional approach to Buddhism. This initial offering is on the Four Noble Truths. I realised that I needed to get to grips once again with this essential Buddhist teaching and do my best to rework it into contemporary language.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths was the first teaching given by Siddhartha after he awakened/achieved enlightenment. It is the first major teaching on the Buddhist path and is found in pretty much every Buddhist school. The Four Noble Truths is a summary of the path of awakening defined in four logical, interdependent steps. They have been defined quite differently throughout time and by different schools with ramifications for how they are understood and received. The number of people for example put off by one of the original translations into English of the First Noble Truth is impressive. ‘Life is suffering’ is certainly a turn off and fails to match the life experience of the average westerner. Life is clearly not a cesspit of misery. The pleasures of life attest to this and certainly defining it in such pessimistic terms is a non-starter, unless you happen to be a full-time masochist! A more approachable yet traditional phrasing is;
1.The truth of suffering
2.The truth of the cause(s) of suffering
3.The truth of the end of suffering
4.The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering
As advertising for the Buddhist path, it still kind of sucks, but at least we don’t need to all start drinking heavily to dull the pain and depression that the initial phrase might have inspired. I still find this wording though to be almost clinical, academic and a little unworkable. Here’s a contemporary rewording that, in my opinion, makes the teaching more accessible ;
1.Suffering, unsatisfactoriness, dissatisfaction, disappointment, illusion and confusion are an inescapable part of life.
2.There is a root cause for these.
3.There is a way to work with and eventually remove this cause.
4.There is a practical method for doing so accessible to anyone willing to apply themselves.