Monday, July 2, 2012

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are core tenets of buddhism; virtually every buddhist knows and respects them, almost by definition - in that regard, they're somewhat akin to the Ten Commandments in christianity. If you want some basic information, let me kindly refer you to their page on wikipedia.

When I first started to write this, I initially planned to restrict it to the First Noble Truth. But I soon realized that this doesn't work - those four teachings are actually ONE teaching, expressed in four steps. If you take them apart, you can't make heads or tails of the parts you're left with.

  • The First Noble Truth simply states that "life is suffering".
  • The Second Noble Truth: Suffering is caused by reasons, and those reasons are ignorance, attachment and aversion.
  • The Third Noble Truth: The reasons for suffering can be removed, and if you remove them, the suffering ceases.
  • The Fourth Noble Truth: This is where the actual steps to overcoming suffering are laid out - meditation, a good life, etc.
In general, a good generalization

A lot can be said about the use of the word "suffering" (dukkha) here - that it refers not to suffering in the western sense, but more to a general notion of being unfulfilled, of an inherent unsatisfactoriness of life. And of course, "life" here seems to refer to life in an unenlightened state.

And we can go on and on, interpreting enlightenment, and reincarnation, and that the ultimate enlightenment is realizing that there never really was an unenlightened state to escape from...

But the truth is that, before we get there, we have to accept quite a lot. Sure, the explanation that suffering is caused by craving and aversion makes a lot of sense: When I want something that I don't have (like an ice cream, a relationship, sex, money), then I suffer; when I don't want something that I do have (like a flu), then I suffer. Better, then, to accept that things are what they are, and then go from there.

And I do agree that this is a good strategy, and a good explanation for quite a lot of situations.

It is extremely tempting to simply nod one's head - yes, when I desperately want that money, I suffer. Yes, when I want that aching tooth removed, I suffer. So the rest is true, as well. Suffering is universal.

The first question I'd like to raise is whether that generalization is indeed justified. Is it really true that attachment and aversion (and ignorance, which simply conditions the other two) are the ONLY reason for ALL suffering? Can they be removed under all circumstances? Will removing them also remove all suffering? And is it true, ultimately, that suffering (in this very broad sense of the world) is something that should be removed under ALL circumstances?

After all, in the buddhist worldview, every (non-enlightened) sentient being is prone to suffering: amoebae, plants, animals, humans, even spirits, demons and gods.

And that's what makes me wonder. Let's say that a heavy stone drops from some rooftop and chooses my right foot as an excellent landing spot. After all, my foot is softer than the concrete to its left or right.

Now, before the pain reaches my consciousness, it passes through a lot of unconscious, purely physical processes - shock, instinctive rigor, numerous hormonal reactions, and so on.

And then - only after all that - my conscious mind gets notified.

I argue that the buddhist description of suffering, and how to remove it, can only apply to that very last part. Meditation can change my cognitive processes, but not the biological, physical processes going on in my body. Sure, my instincts do create a kind of fight-or-flight reaction, lust and unlust, that might be interpreted as "craving and aversion" in some limited sense - but surely not in the sense that buddhist scripture has in mind. If part of my "craving and aversion" is strictly physical, then I highly doubt that even a whole life of meditation will change it. Or several lives. The buddha did feel pain.

Is the Buddha prone to suffering?

Am I not being a bit pedantic here?

Well, not if you consider the consequences. First off, this means that the buddhist idea of suffering only describes a very small part of what we usually associate with that word. Granted, I'm fairly certain that buddhist scriptures actually do acknowledge that the buddha still felt pain. He just wasn't annoyed by it.

Well, but then - what exactly is enlightenment supposed to mean? Yeah, I know, shit on a stick, form is emptiness, and all that fun we had, juggling around empty words and zennie paradoxes. I like it. I'm all in for that kind of games, I really am. But at the same time, I cannot avoid seeing that it just doesn't mean anything.

Well... okay, it does mean something. But it doesn't mean all that much. It doesn't mean quite what it pretends to mean.

If enlightenment only works on our conscious mind, and our conscious mind only makes up a very small part of our actual experience, then buddhist meditative and ethical practice cannot have an impact on my whole being - after all, I am, for a large part, unconscious and physical. And no amount of meditation will ever change that.

Is the amoeba prone to suffering?

The second issue is that, according to the buddhist worldview, suffering is an immanent property of all sentient beings. That amoeba has to be prone to suffering just as much as I do. If it doesn't, then it cannot produce karma; killing it cannot produce karma, either, because no suffering is produced. The amoeba would then be an example of an enlightened being, by virtue of lacking cravings. The whole buddhist system doesn't make much sense if there are kinds of suffering that are not covered by the Four Noble Truths. It makes even less sense if suffering is limited to human beings (or to mammals, which is probably more likely to be the case). But, since an amoeba lacks consciousness, it cannot create cravings and aversions - it simply reacts, on a purely physical level, almost like that stone reacted to gravity. It lacks cravings, and it lacks suffering. And yet it is alive, and it is arguably "sentient" in some sense of the word.

(If you want, you can say that the amoeba isn't sentient, and replace it with some other class of living beings: The point still stands. At some point, there is an edge case that just doesn't fit. Therefore, suffering in the buddhist sense is not universal; at the very least, you can never show that it is, because you can never possibly know all species of potentially sentient beings that ever were, are, or will be. Therefore, the system does not describe what it set out to describe. Therefore, it needs to be revised.)

Again, as with karma, we arrive at a point where we have to say that buddhism is a hasty generalization.

As I write this, I realize that I didn't even cover half of my original questions. So be it. Maybe I'll come back to that later.

At any rate, my conclusion is that buddhist mindfulness practice is a very helpful tool indeed - and the ethics associated with it are very compelling, too - and that's all there is to it. It's a strictly immanent, psychological affair, quite possibly with strong and positive social repercussions. It should definitely be practiced by more people! But it certainly doesn't have any "spiritual", religious implications beyond that one short life of mine. It is not universal.

Enlightenment, after all, IS shit on a stick!

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