Noble Truths

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.

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4 Responses to Noble Truths

  1. Ben Cressey says:

    I believe the idea is that pain is physical where suffering is emotional. Pain imposes restrictions, sometimes crippling ones. Suffering comes about when you contemplate the effect of those restrictions on your nominal free will, and seek to circumvent or alleviate them. The desire in question is the desire to control your personal fate.

    My sense is that Buddhists would say that free will is illusory and thereby reduce the question of suffering to a misdirected thought process.

    • midiguru says:

      I don’t believe in free will either. But if free will is illusory, then we have no control whatever over whether our thought processes are misdirected.

      I think we would need to interview some terminal patients with metastasized cancers to find out whether their suffering was the result of contemplating the effect of their restrictions and trying to somehow alleviate the pain, or whether, to them, pain and suffering were pretty much the same thing. I suppose it would be fair for someone in that situation to say, “I’m suffering because the nurse didn’t arrive with the morphine injection to alleviate my pain,” but I kinda don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.

  2. Conrad Cook says:

    Well, it depends on what you mean by “Buddhism.” Buddhism as it is understood and practiced in southeast Asia — is a religion. Do the right thing and be rewarded in the next life. Do the wrong thing and be punished. Have the holy men intervene for the benefit of yourself and your family.

    There’s a form of distortion caused by the academic filter imposed in the research, writing, and publication of books. Buddhism as it is taught in American colleges and represented in most books is not the Buddhism you find in pagodas in Asia, any more than the food you get from a Chinese restaurant is what they eat in China.

    They have been changed beyond recognition to suit American tastes.

    The cause of suffering is *attachment*. The cancer patient may feel physical pain, or may not. That’s not suffering. The suffering comes in because of the knowledge that they will die, and because they are not ready.

    When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor couldn’t deal with telling him, and wrapped up the message in impenetrable jargon. Cowardice brought on by sympathy. My mom was there, and a nursing student. Out in the truck on the way home, she told him, “You’re not going to get better, Dad.”

    He thought about it and said, “Well, I’ve had a full life.” And he had. He’d been retired for years, lived to see his grandkids. Spent his time in his woodshop working on projects.

    That’s a very different matter than a man with a wife and baby who finds he has cancer. And the difference is not in the physical pain. The difference is in the desire, the *attachment*, to continue living.

    Viktor Frankl said that people can endure anything if they can make meaning out of it. He had an old man for a patient who was utterly crushed by the death of his wife. He said it was unbearable. Frankl asked if he would rather that he had died first. The man said, “God, no! She couldn’t deal with this!” — and it became bearable, because by surviving her he had spared her surviving him.

    We see that pain is not the same as suffering when we think about going to the dentist. I needed to have a tooth pulled once that was so far gone that Novocain had no effect. I’d never felt anything even remotely so painful. I had to stop him to tell him I was about to start crying like a baby, and I didn’t want him to lose his focus. (Ten seconds later it was out.)

    But I wasn’t suffering. Why? Because I wanted the tooth out. It was bad for my health, a threat to my well-being.

    That same year, I started to see weird flashes of light for no reason. The first time I thought it was sunlight off a car that, unnoticed, had driven by outside. But it kept happening.

    I couldn’t go to the doctor because I had no health insurance, and I didn’t want to go and be told I had a brain tumor on no health insurance, because then I’d have a pre-existing condition. So for about a year I strongly suspected I had a brain tumor that was going untreated.

    Because of this, although I felt no pain, I suffered. –Found out later that I was having painless migraines.

    You see this even in children. If they scrape their knee they’re screaming their head off. But when you explain to them that when you were their age you scraped your knee, and — look! — it healed perfectly, and when other adults do too, and when they accept this, they’re out running around again.

    The scrape still hurts. But the pain was never the reason they were crying. They were crying out of fear that they had been damaged.

    Regarding your contrapositive truth, that life is sometimes not suffering, and indeed can be quite pleasing, there are two replies.

    First, just as Christ was not a Christian, but a Jew, similarly, the Buddha was not a Buddhist, but a Hindu: they were unlike prior Hindus and Jews, but they positioned themselves as within those traditions.

    Hindus believed (and still do) that the sensible world is an evil dream — Maya. So, yes, it can have pleasant parts, just as a nightmare can; but these were largely seen as set-ups for further suffering, or bait for evil actions.

    Life for us as middle Americans is probably easier than it was for 5th century B.C. Hindus.

    But, more significantly, the Four Noble Truths conform to the Vedic/Hindu medical procedure for diagnosing illness. (1) What is the disease? (2) What is the cause of the disease? (3) What is the prognosis? (4) What is the cure?

    Simply, the Buddha did not talk about pleasure because that is not what he was out to cure.


    • Conrad Cook says:

      ps to the above-

      Keep in mind that the Buddha knew that life could be pleasant. He grew up as a prince. So, certainly his failure to make pleasure a foundational principle of his philosophy is not a matter of neglect, but is deliberate.


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