Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bad Buddhist vs. the Four Noble Truths – All of 'em

Time to take on the Four Noble Truths. If I were a more logical Buddhist, that's where I'd have started this blog. Perhaps some viriya paramita was kicking in, compelling me to spring into action via the Eight Precepts — practice first, then theory. A bit backward.

But oy, the FNTs — they're an awfully big job!

David Brazier gives a provocative and appealing exegesis of the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma talk, which is where our friend Gautama describes his enlightenment experience and lays out the fundamental truths that constitute all human experience. I like to reread the book, The Feeling Buddha, after studying other sets of concepts such as the Precepts, the Paramitas, etc., to re-ground my understanding.

The book's cover blurb describes Brazier's project to present "a picture of the Buddha as a very human figure whose success lay not in his perfection, but in his method of positively utilizing the energy generated by personal suffering."

The Buddha's focus on the ordinary reality that everyone — everyone — experiences, and the easily recognizable habits and behaviors that we develop in response, are reflected in Brazier's accessible, sensible and compelling discussion.

Drat and blast, this is turning into a book review — much easier than tackling the FNTs by myself. What happened to all that viriya?

Well, I'll take help where I can get it. One aspect of Brazier's presentation that really struck me was his focus on the word "noble." The FNTs are often abbreviated as "life is suffering," which of course is only the first of four; the rest are often interpreted as a formula for escaping #1, as if suffering were a disease that could be remedied. That's an easy conclusion to reach when you look at the text:
  1. Life is suffering (dukkha)
  2. Suffering is caused by craving/attachment (samudaya)
  3. Suffering ceases when craving/attachment are let go (nirodha)
  4. Cessation of suffering comes from following the Eightfold Path (marga)
But Brazier rejects the construction that X is bad, X is caused by Y, Y can be eliminated, the cure for Y is Z. This would imply that X (dukkha) is something we should reject. But the Buddha didn't talk about the Four What-a-Drag Truths. He called them noble.

That's pretty intense. If something is noble, it probably shouldn't be avoided, rejected, or otherwise dissed. But that's what we all do all of the time, often in desperate, destructive, or just silly ways. We construct our lives and personas to protect ourselves against even the tiniest twinge. Brazier comments:

"The Buddha is saying that to be a human being who necessarily suffers is a dignified thing to be. What he is overthrowing is the idea that the spiritual quest consists of a flight from suffering. On the contrary, it is the flight which is undignified and shameful."

Brazier believes that the Buddha's wording targets something much deeper than our desire to avoid suffering itself; it goes straight to the real source of panic and flight, which is shame. Affliction, though it happens to everyone, makes us feel like we've been demoted somehow, like we've failed. So we try to deny and conceal our vulnerability by escaping into all the things the Precepts advise against: indulgence, intoxication, distraction, dishonesty, anything to maintain the illusion that we're not actually subject to life's indignities. But it's not suffering that is undignified; it's the ways we try to cheat so we don't feel it and it doesn't show.

This, by the way, includes swinging to the other end of the escape continuum: overzealous spiritual questing for transcendence. That might mean running away to a monastery, or just overdosing on Yoga Journal and two-day molasses-and-cayenne cleanses. (Full disclosure: I've read Charlotte Joko Beck's book Nothing Special at least ten times, and there's nothing Brazier or the Buddha or my boyfriend — or any other big B's — can say to make me stop.)

But that's really what I'm aiming to be "versus": undignified, tiresome and tiring flight. For my next Four Noble Posts, I'm going along with Brazier in thinking the Buddha knew us awfully well and, for all his talk about egolessness, knew exactly how our egos work and how to calm us down. Dukkha happens all the time to everyone everywhere, and to live in peaceful, sane accordance with it — rather than chickening out and seeking relief that can't last — is cool.

So noble up, comrades. We can handle this.
An excellent representation of what the Four Noble Truths feel like on first reading. Duck and cover!


Ah, much better. I like the ABCD layout — makes the whole FNT thing feel a bit more manageable. Like I said, I'll take help where I can get it.


According to David Snyder, author of The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists — Explained, "the absolute value of fulfilled expectations is greater than or equal to the sum total of all expectations." So there.

PREVIOUS POSTS

BAD BUDDHIST VS. BROUHAHA
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE LORD (AND CELINE DION)
BAD BUDDHIST VS. BOURGEOIS HEROES
BAD BUDDHIST VS. YOGA
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE EIGHTH PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE SEVENTH PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE SIXTH PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE FIFTH PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE FOURTH PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE THIRD PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE SECOND PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. THE FIRST PRECEPT
BAD BUDDHIST VS. BREATHING

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9 comments:

  1. The chatavari arya-satyani are not common truths for prithagjana but aryan truths realized by those who have at least entered the stream to nirvana who are called "arya-sravaka". The Buddha makes a clear cut distinction between the aryan and an-aryan/prithagjana. An excellent text on this subject is by Peter Masefield entitled, Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism.

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  2. Hi, Marie,

    who could resist a blog called "Bad Buddhist"? All helpless sinners, and like Thomas our mouths cannot find words to describe what our saviour is like. Nevertheless we embody her, through grace alone; that would be my opinion.

    To my mind, the Gautamid only pointed at everyman phenomena, and said here is the analysis of that phenomena that comes to me after I am freed. Not useful to anyone else unless they too are freed, in the moment.

    Everyone is free, from moment to moment; isn't it so?

    yours, Mark Foote
    zazen

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  3. Yes it is really tough but you know it makes sense. Difficult to commit to something when every part of one screams to be an individual - difficult for a determined free thinker to take a structured framework of thinking on board. But it works and it's true so what can you do?

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  4. Yeah man, we can handle this... take small baby steps everyday.

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  5. Little late, but who cares. I think that when they say "free from suffering", they do not mean "without suffering". It is more like "free from slavery of your sufferings" and accepting them.

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