‘(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.
‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world – to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.
The Eightfold path is the Fourth Truth and it features eight arenas of practice. They are all inter-related. They can be followed sequentially if one is so inclined, although each feeds and amplifies the others. They are taught sequentially in order to give a theoretical framework and a direction for developing a practice that involves all areas of our lives. The Buddhist path is very often a logical one. It presents a problem, a solution and a systematic model to follow for creating change. In this regard it has a lot in common with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Like CBT it requires effort, consistency and follow-through in applying strategies in order to stimulate real, lasting change. It is not the passive perusing of books, but a hands-on approach to systematically working with how we have constructed our subjective experience of the world and the dismantling of great parts of it in order to give rise to authentic, awakened living. When looking at the eightfold path it’s important to understand that ‘our Eightfold Path’ is both created through volitional action, and met, through discovering a naturally emerging way of living that is in harmony with the flowering of awareness and presence. The key to understanding this classic teaching is to view it as an integrated and inclusive model for bringing awareness and presence to multiple arenas and aspects of our lives. It is a reliable basis for starting out and for coming back to when things get a little too confused. It is also a mirror of ideals and the potential present in applying ourselves to this cornerstone of the Buddhist quest. It reminds us that when our general communication is out of step with our aspiration to be a better version of ourselves, it weakens our ability to be present, connected and open. It remind us that our mindfulness is impacted by the way we act and work. The Eightfold Path helps us to appreciate the interdependent nature of human experience and how unconscious behaviour in one area of our lives will have consequences for the others.
The 8 Arenas of the Eightfold Path
1. Right View: our general outlook, core beliefs, ideas about ourself and the world
2. Right Intention: decision making, intending, choices
3. Right Speech: our general communication, how we use language
4. Right Action: our behaviour, both habitual and impulsive
5. Right Livelihood: our job, way of working
6. Right Effort: how we use our energies, how we apply ourselves
7. Right Mindfulness: how present we are and connected to experience, authenticity, meditation
8. Right Concentration: gaining insight, wisdom, mental discipline, understanding
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.