Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The One Noble Truth

Sick the last couple days. Sucks.

Something dawned on me a while back, that felt like a big deal. The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is: Existence is suffering. I learned it in a comparative religions context, as part of the Four Noble Truths; as I understood it, the First is how it all starts rolling - existence is suffering, but we know what causes it and how to get out. Things suck (and if you don't believe that, you're stuck), but once you see it, don't worry, we can help you get out. In a nutshell, Wikipedia's introductory paragraph on Buddhism.

(That may be enough to get you into the game of self-inquiry, spiritual seeking, and all that good stuff. If so, great; I'm increasingly grateful for all the little seductions that pull people into something which, if they knew what they were getting into, they would've run at the first chance.)

But the First-Noble-Truth-as-gateway-to-eliminating-suffering is false. It's missing the whole point. The insight, for me, was that the First Noble Truth is, well, a Noble Truth, by itself. If we all truly lived it as truth, the world would change dramatically and fundamentally. It might be all we need.

(This "insight" isn't anything new, of course; see Thich Nhat Hanh, for example.)

So let's sit with the First as a Noble Truth for a bit, shall we? Here's what comes up for me:

1. Nothing is to blame

Most of us walk around as if the suffering in our lives was somebody or something else's fault. If only this thing was different, if only that person would act differently, if only that political party/religious group/ideological perspective would see things my way, then I would be satisfied. Not so. If existence is suffering, then there's nothing that can be done. This isn't to brush off real problems in the world; but once we have our needs met and are relatively healthy, if we're still looking for something out there to make everything always okay, we're playing a must-lose game.

What would the world really look like if we got this? What if our reaction to suffering (in ourselves or in the world) was care, concern, and grief first, looking for new possibilities and opportunities second, and only later asking if something needs to be changed?

2. Suffering unites us

If existence is suffering, then everybody suffers, everything suffers, from the beginning of time to the end. There is nothing separate from suffering. We can feel into the unity of suffering through compassion and empathy, when we recognize the suffering of another in ourselves and vice versa.

What would the world look like if we got this? I have no idea. But it feels big.

3. So what then?

The way in is the way out. The first two lead us here. Our normal projects can't work, because nothing is to blame; we're united with everything else in our suffering; but this need not lead to hopelessness and nihilism. If we dive in, it all cracks open.

Jesus said: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17) We've largely tried to be healthy, tried to be righteous, so we didn't need to dive in. The First Noble Truth tells us that's all part of the losing game; we are sick, we are sinners, we will suffer. Jesus on the cross is one model: willingly walking into the greatest suffering imaginable, and dieing, and something emerging on the other side. But you can see it everywhere-stars have to die and explode to spread heavy elements into the galaxy, the building blocks of planets; lower life forms die to give way to higher evolution; our own lives are full of what seem like failures in the moment, and only in retrospect reveal themselves as branches for new paths.

The way in is the way out, the way out is the way through. Fr. Richard Rohr calls it falling upward. I think the Buddha called it the First Noble Truth.

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