When asked if I have a religious affiliation, I usually say I’m a crypto-Buddhist. By this I mean that I don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism, but what I know seems fairly sensible.
Buddhism isn’t really a religion; it’s a form of practical psychology. It has been transformed into a religion, I think, because human beings have an instinctive need for religion. But that’s a tale for another time.
While reading a book recently that makes use of Buddhist teachings, I began to have doubts. Specifically, I’m not sure about the first two of the Four Noble Truths. What the Buddha actually taught has, of course, been translated, elaborated, simplified, and reinterpreted. So maybe what I’m fussing over are the current views of these teachings.
The First Noble Truth is often rendered in English as “Life is suffering.” But if we get closer to the original teaching, we find something more like this: “Birth is suffering. Aging is suffering. Sickness is suffering. Losing what you love is suffering. Not getting what you desire is suffering.” The Buddha didn’t actually say that all of life is suffering; he merely noted that suffering is an inescapable part of life.
He might as easily have said, “Babies are joy. Growing up is joy. The wisdom acquired through living is joy. Recovery from illness is joy. Being with what you love is joy. Getting what you desire is joy.” Those observations would be equally true. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Buddhism has a reputation for emphasizing the negative.
The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering is desire. Some translations call it craving. This idea, it seems to me, is a lot shakier than the first one.
Consider a man who is wracked by pain because of cancer. Is his suffering caused by desire? Clearly not.
You might feel that’s an extreme example, so let’s make it more subtle. Possibly the Buddha never contemplated the idea of homeostasis — the tendency of a living organism to seek equilibrium. Let’s suppose you’re sitting in a chair, and after a while you notice that you’re thirsty. You have a craving for a glass of water. Your suffering — that is, your thirst — may be slight, or it may be intense, but in either case it’s not caused by desire. Quite the contrary: The suffering comes first, and the desire follows it. Your body is trying to maintain a certain equilibrium — a fluid balance. When the fluid balance is wrong, you suffer, and your suffering triggers a desire to take whatever action will return you to equilibrium.
The Buddha had it backwards. It’s not that desire causes suffering. Suffering causes desire.