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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Four Noble Truths

It came to me during zazen last night that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, as commonly expressed, are a bunch of crap. These form the core teaching of Buddhism as normally taught, and are usually stated something like this:

1. Life means suffering.

2. The cause of suffering is attachment.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

4. The path to cessation of suffering is called the Eightfold Path.

No wonder Buddhism is commonly perceived as some depressive philosophy, or worse yet construed as some esoteric religion with a mystical path to Enlightenment. I think the problem of human existence might be better stated as:

1. The essence of human life is dissatisfaction.

2. The cause of dissatisfaction is the desire for satisfaction, or dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction.

3. One does not have to dwell in the endless reflection of dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction.

4. The cure for dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction is action in the present moment.

Thanks to Gudo Nishijima, Sensei, for the phrasing of the last one. My original version was "doing whatever the hell it is you're doing."

Of course, all of the above is just words, and words about fundamental understanding are never true. They are an attempt to reduce existence to language, and are sometimes true from a limited perspective, but must be false from others, because perspectives, if not beings, are indeed limitless.

For the most part, I have abandoned any attempt to attain truth through words. My least favorite part of any session of zazen, especially when it has been fulfilling for me, is when someone starts expounding truth at the end. Occasionally when a really good teacher gives a good dharma talk, I hear things which I realixe I always knew were true. This does serve to validate my experience, and of course to validate the teacher in my own mind. I do note that this only applies to live teaching; inevitably, everything read from a book, which I consider canned wisdom, sounds false. My "mind" argues with it, and the endless dialectic which is a symptom of the disease of language, which may have been held in abeyance by honest experience for a moment, is restarted. Thanks a lot, guys..

Sunday afternoon I watched a Buddhist teacher for whom I have respect dealing with the questions of an obvious newcomer about life and death, rebirth, and the nature of non-existence of the "self". Like most people on spiritual quests, the questioner really wanted to be assured that everything will be alright. We'd been discussing Dogen's Genjo Koan. She wanted to know how Buddhism allowed one to escape suffering in death. The real answer of course, is that it doesn't. It may at some level allow one to escape the desire to escape suffering, but you're still probably gonna scream like a bitch. A full acceptance of this may alleviate the dread you have at this moment of that future process. Or not.

Everything won't be alright. Human nature is not perfect. My fellow Board members on the Nashville Buddhist Festival are currently engaged in a debate about whether to accept the first five Precepts of Buddhism as a code of ethics for the Board. Now, I won't go into tiresome detail, but the precepts are unattainable. They are, in Zen, seen as Good Ideas, not rules for life. For example, the first one is Do Not Kill. Now I acknowledge that in a community of monks, or on the Board of a nonprofit corporation, it is a good idea for the monks or members not to be allowed to kill each other. I pretty much think this goes without saying. On the other hand, it is impossible to live as a human being without killing something. This is why I maintain that vegetarians are idealists; if you think animals don't die so that you can eat plants, you don't understand farming, the ecosystem, or your own digestive tract.

Human existence is not perfectible. I can live with that. You have to, too, whether you want to or not, so I advise you to try.....

As to the picture above: ugly little fucker, isn't he? I stole his picture off the ASZC website. He's probably unique and very expensive. Nevertheless, he looks like a newborn baby Buddha, all red and everything. Now for some Rufi:


teri said...

About reading and talking about the 'truth' - I'm the exact opposite. The only time I feel any sense of understanding what Buddhism has to offer is in the discussion of concepts, which I really dig. But always, the key to understanding is supposed to be to sit. I have been attempting meditation (almost daily with occassional breaks) for years now and have yet to attain a single insight. I think I am beyond the 'waiting for something to happen' phase; all I really want right now is a break from my weary, racing mind. Instead I inevitably sit there and daydream for 20 minutes and occassionally remember that i'm supposed to be focusing on my breath. I don't get it. I can't imagine continuing to pursue anything else that i was seeing zero results from in any other circumstance of my life. I think by now the practical thing to do would be to say screw it. Yet for some reason I still believe people when they say this is the key.

Anonymous said...

I can't get no satisfaction. Don't try.


Mettai Cherry said...

Hi Kozan,

It turns out that the hotei photo is "Mettai's First Buddha Statue", and was rather inexpensively purchased from one of the cute little Vietnamese feng-shui(junk) shops in Chamblee, GA. You are, of course, welcome to it.

On a more serious note, I'd like to comment on your concern about the Four Noble Truths (especially since my dharma name is the third one). I agree with you entirely that "suffering" is a hopelessly inappropriate translation for the actual Sanskrit word "Dukka". (In fact, I made a dharma talk about a month ago on just that subject - even got a paper cut from the "Dukka Sutra" that I printed from the internet.) I'm not sure I like dissatisfaction any better (since it also is too dualistic) although I did like your wording. You may be interested in this treatment of the word at Access to Insight.

aumeye said...

The picture of the cat on the cushion makes me happy.