“Our habitual pattern is that whenever we encounter anything undesirable and unappealing, we try little ways within ourselves to avoid it. We could watch ourselves doing that. The little things we do, the little areas in which we try to entertain ourselves — that process which takes place all the time — is both the product of suffering and the producer of suffering. It is the origin that perpetually re-creates suffering as well as what we are constantly going through as the result of suffering.” –Chogyam Trungpa
The four noble truths are a remarkably coherent picture of human suffering, and of the ways we can end the vicious cycle. The first two noble truths – the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering — are the diagnosis of the problem, while the second pair of noble truths, the cessation of suffering and the path, are the prescription.
The first noble truth is the simple acknowledgement of suffering. There it is. We can actually acknowledge that we experience suffering in our own lives. It’s not just something that happens elsewhere, we can cultivate enough attention to our experience that we can actually see suffering as it unfolds in our moment-to-moment experience. That’s an important first step.
The second noble truth acknowledges that suffering actually has a cause that is knowable. We can watch how that cause plays out in our own moment-to-moment experience. Last time, we were looking at the contrast between the Buddha’s teaching on suffering and the quintessential Judeo-Christian story of suffering, the story of Job. Recall in that story that Job is a good man, a righteous man, who is put through a series of tests by God, who was persuaded to do this by Satan as a test of Job’s faith. All of these terrible things happen to Job, and his friends all tell him that he must have done something terrible to deserve this outcome, because God should not let bad things happen to good people. This is the most traditional understanding of theodicy, and it goes back to the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy.
This is the crux of the story of Job – why would God let such terrible things happen to a good person? Ultimately, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind and basically says, “You can’t understand my reasons.” Which really seems to suggest that that the question of theodicy is largely irrelevant in the Judeo-Christian context. The story seems to acknowledge that one’s virtue is not sufficient to save one from pain.
This actually seems to jibe with our own experience as modern people. We know good people who have died from cancer, or in a car wreck, and we don’t spend our time speculating on what they may have done to deserve these fates. We know that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time and that thinking about some ultimate cause is basically fruitless.
The Buddha refrained from engaging in speculative discussions about the ultimate cause of suffering, and famously there were fourteen ‘unanswered questions’ about the nature of the universe that the Buddha specifically declined to address because they were not relevant to the problem of ending suffering.
Importantly, however, is that while the Buddha’s core teaching didn’t address theodicy, it did emphasize that there is a knowable cause of suffering. But instead of focusing on some ultimate answer, he focused on a much more proximal answer to the question of suffering, and this is the second noble truth. This is important – it’s not that the Buddha didn’t talk about the causes of suffering, but perhaps we can say he didn’t focus on the ultimate causes of suffering; instead, he focused on those causes that we can actually do something about.
About this, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.
So Trungpa very elegantly outlines the problem. Whenever we encounter some unpleasant experience, our tendency is to turn away from it, and to try to turn our attention to something pleasurable. We do this over and over again, and it is this very act of trying to turn away from what is difficult that feeds our suffering.
Trungpa goes on to say “. . . we prefer to spin around in circles rather than look around and extend outward. Our actions are colored or flavored by a kind of fundamental ape instinct. Our only guidance is our own very fermented body odor and mind odor. It is like the blind leading the blind. We are just sniffing around. In this stupefied state, you are willing to step into a corral or den, like an animal, not knowing that the consequences will be painful.”
This is the first pair of noble truths – first, understand the problem, then understand its proximal causes, the things you can potentially do something about. The third noble truth tells us that if we remove the causes of suffering, then suffering itself will dissipate. Trungpa goes on, “In order to cut the root of samsara, the strategy is to unplug or disconnect everything. We could actually unplug the refrigerator of samsara. It might take several hours to defrost; nevertheless, as long as we have unplugged that particular refrigerator, defrosting is going to happen. So we shouldn’t feel that we are stuck with those karmic situations. We should feel that we always have the opportunity to interrupt the flow of karma. First, we have to interrupt our ignorance and secondly, we have to interrupt our passion. By interrupting both our ignorance and our passion, we have nothing happening in terms of the samsaric world. We have already unplugged the refrigerator.”
We just passed the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor and an ardent anti-Nazi, one of very few in the German church and he was murdered by the Nazis in 1945. He was an important influence on the American Civil Rights movement and on Martin Luther King in particular. Much of his writing touches in different ways on the problem of suffering and theodicy, and in general he emphasized the need for people of faith to be active participants in the world.
In this concluding quote, he touches on what I think is an approach to the suffering that is consistent with the Buddhist teachings we have been discussing. He emphasizes the power of staying close to the the pain we feel and de-emphasizes the need to find some ultimate answer:
“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”