III. ESSAYS – DHAMMA

Dhamma

Life Isn’t Just Suffering

You’ve probably heard the rumor that Buddhism is pessimistic, that “Life is suffering” is the Buddha’s first noble truth. It’s a rumor with good credentials, spread by well-respected academics and meditation teachers alike, but a rumor nonetheless. The real truth about the noble truths is far more interesting. The Buddha taught four truths—not one—about life: There is suffering, there is a cause for suffering, there is an end of suffering, and there is a path of practice that puts an end to suffering. These truths, taken as a whole, are far from pessimistic. They’re a practical, problem-solving approach—the way a doctor approaches an illness, or a mechanic a faulty engine. You identify a problem and look for its cause. You then put an end to the problem by eliminating the cause.

What’s special about the Buddha’s approach is that the problem he attacks is the whole of human suffering, and the solution he offers is something human beings can do for themselves. Just as a doctor with a surefire cure for measles isn’t afraid of measles, the Buddha isn’t afraid of any aspect of human suffering. And, having experienced a happiness that’s totally unconditional, he’s not afraid to point out the suffering and stress inherent in places where most of us would rather not see it—in the conditioned pleasures we cling to. He teaches us not to deny that suffering and stress, or to run away from it, but to stand still and face up to it. To examine it carefully. That way—by understanding it—we can ferret out its cause and put an end to it. Totally. How confident can you get?

A fair number of writers have pointed out the basic confidence inherent in the four noble truths, and yet the rumor of Buddhism’s pessimism persists. I wonder why. One possible explanation is that, in coming to Buddhism, we sub-consciously expect it to address issues that have a long history in our own culture. By starting out with suffering as his first truth, the Buddha seems to be offering his position on a question with a long history in the West: is the world basically good or bad?

According to Genesis, this was the first question that occurred to God after he had finished his creation: had he done a good job? So he looked at the world and saw that it was good. Ever since then, people in the West have sided with or against God on his answer, but in doing so they have affirmed that the question was worth asking to begin with. When Theravada—the only form of Buddhism to take on Christianity when Europe colonized Asia—was looking for ways to head off what it saw as the missionary menace, Buddhists who had received their education from the missionaries assumed that the question was valid and pressed the first noble truth into service as a refutation of the Christian God: Look at how miserable life is, they said, and it’s hard to accept God’s verdict on his handiwork.

This debating strategy may have scored a few points at the time, and it’s easy to find Buddhist apologists who—still living in the colonial past—keep trying to score the same points. The real issue, though, is whether the Buddha intended for his first noble truth to be an answer to God’s question in the first place and—more importantly—whether we’re getting the most out of the first noble truth if we see it in that light.

It’s hard to imagine what you could accomplish by saying that life is suffering. You’d have to spend your time arguing with people who see more than just suffering in life. The Buddha himself says as much in one of his discourses. A brahman named Long-nails (Dighanakha) comes to him and announces that he doesn’t approve of anything. This would have been a perfect time for the Buddha, if he had wanted, to chime in with the truth that life is suffering. Instead, he attacks the whole notion of taking a stand on whether life is worthy of approval. There are three possible answers to this question: (1) nothing is worthy of approval, (2) everything is, and (3) some things are and some things aren’t. If you take any of these three positions, you end up arguing with the people who take either of the other two positions. And where does that get you?

The Buddha then teaches Long-nails to look at his body and feelings as instances of the first noble truth: they‘re stressful, inconstant, and don’t deserve to be clung to as self. Long-nails follows the Buddha’s instructions and, in letting go of his attachment to body and feelings, gains his first glimpse of the Deathless, of what it’s like to be totally free from suffering.

The point of this story is that trying to answer God’s question, passing judgment on the world, is a waste of time. And it offers a better use for the first noble truth: looking at things, not in terms of “world” or “life,” but simply identifying suffering so that you can comprehend it, let it go, and attain release. Rather than asking us to make a blanket judgment—which, in effect, would be asking us to be blind partisans—the first noble truth asks us to look and see precisely where the problem of suffering lies.

Other discourses make the point that the problem isn’t with body and feelings in and of themselves. They themselves aren’t suffering. The suffering lies in clinging to them. In his definition of the first noble truth, the Buddha summarizes all types of suffering under the phrase, “the five aggregates of clinging”: clinging to physical form (including the body), feelings, perceptions, thought fabrications, and consciousness. However, when the five aggregates are free from clinging, he tells us, they lead to long-term benefit and happiness. Of course, by “happiness” he isn’t here referring to the arts, food, travel, sports, family life, or any of the other sections of the Sunday newspaper. He’s talking about the solid well-being that comes when we treat the aggregates as factors in the path to the Deathless. The aggregates in themselves are neutral. The role they play in leading to true happiness or suffering lies in whether or not we cling.

So the first noble truth, simply put, is that clinging is suffering. It’s because of clinging that physical pain becomes mental pain. It’s because of clinging that aging, illness, and death cause mental distress. How do we cling? The texts list four ways: the clinging of sensual passion, the clinging of views, the clinging of precepts and practices, and the clinging of doctrines of the self. It’s rare that a moment passes in the ordinary mind without some form of clinging. Even when we abandon a particular form of clinging, it’s usually because it gets in the way of another form. We may abandon a puritanical view because it interferes with sensual pleasure; or a sensual pleasure because it conflicts with a view about what we should do to stay healthy. Our views of who we are may expand and contract depending on which of our many senses of “I” is feeling the most pain, expanding into a sense of cosmic oneness when we feel confined by the limitations of our small mind-body complex, shrinking into a small shell when we feel wounded from identifying with a cosmos so filled with cruelty, thoughtlessness, and waste. When the insignificance of our finite self becomes oppressive again, we may jump at the idea that we have no self, but then that becomes oppressive.

So our minds jump from clinging to clinging like a bird trapped in a cage. And when we realize we’re captive, we naturally search for a way out. This is where it’s so important that the first noble truth not say that “Life is suffering,” for if life were suffering, where would we look for an end to suffering? We’d be left with nothing but death and annihilation. But when the actual truth is that clinging is suffering, we simply have to look to see precisely where clinging is and learn not to cling.

This is where we encounter the Buddha’s great skill as a strategist: He tells us to take the clingings we’ll have to abandon and transform them into the path to their abandoning. We’ll need a certain amount of sensory pleasure—in terms of adequate food, clothing, and shelter—to find the strength to go beyond sensual passion. We’ll need right view—seeing all things, including views, in terms of the four noble truths—to undermine our clinging to views. And we’ll need a regimen of the five ethical precepts and the practice of meditation to put the mind in a solid position where it can drop its clinging to precepts and practices. Underlying all this, we’ll need a strong sense of self-responsibility and self-discipline to master the practices leading to the insight that cuts through our clinging to doctrines of the self.

So we start the path to the end of suffering, not by trying to drop our clingings immediately, but by learning to cling more strategically. In other words, we start where we are and make the best use of the habits we’ve already got. We progress along the path by finding better and better things to cling to, and more skillful ways to cling, in the same way you climb a ladder to the top of a roof: grab hold of a higher rung so that you can let go of a lower rung, and then grab onto a rung still higher. As the rungs get further off the ground, you find that the mind grows clearer and can see precisely where its clingings are. It gets a sharper sense of which parts of experience belong to which noble truth and what should be done with them: the parts that are suffering should be comprehended, the parts that cause of suffering—craving and ignorance—should be abandoned; the parts that form the path to the end of suffering should be developed; and the parts that belong to the end of suffering should be verified. This helps you get higher and higher on the ladder until you find yourself securely on the roof. That’s when you can finally let go of the ladder and be totally free.

So the real question we face isn’t God’s question, passing judgment on how skillfully he created life or the world. It’s our question: how skillfully are we handling the raw stuff of life? Are we clinging in ways that serve only to continue the round of suffering, or are we learning to cling in ways that will reduce suffering so that ultimately we can grow up and won’t have to cling. If we negotiate life armed with all four noble truths, realizing that life contains both suffering and an end to suffering, there’s hope: hope that we’ll be able to sort out which parts of life belong to which truth; hope that someday, in this life, we’ll come to the point where we agree with the Buddha, “Oh. Yes. This is the end of suffering and stress.”

No-self or Not-self?

One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as no-self. This teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn’t fit well with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of kamma and rebirth: If there’s no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn’t fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there’s no self, what’s the purpose of a spiritual life? Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali Canon—the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings—you won’t find them addressed at all. In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside. To understand what his silence on this question says about the meaning of anatta, we first have to look at his teachings on how questions should be asked and answered, and how to interpret his answers.

The Buddha divided all questions into four classes: those that deserve a categorical (straight yes or no) answer; those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and qualifying the terms of the question; those that deserve a counter-question, putting the ball back in the questioner’s court; and those that deserve to be put aside. The last class of question consists of those that don’t lead to the end of suffering and stress. The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don’t, for example, say Yes or No to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be interpreted. The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him: those who draw inferences from statements that shouldn’t have inferences drawn from them, and those who don’t draw inferences from those that should.

These are the basic ground rules for interpreting the Buddha’s teachings, but if we look at the way most writers treat the anatta doctrine, we find these ground rules ignored. Some writers try to qualify the no-self interpretation by saying that the Buddha denied the existence of an eternal self or a separate self, but this is to give an analytical answer to a question that the Buddha showed should be put aside. Others try to draw inferences from the few statements in the discourse that seem to imply that there is no self, but it seems safe to assume that if one forces those statements to give an answer to a question that should be put aside, one is drawing inferences where they shouldn’t be drawn.

So, instead of answering No to the question of whether or not there is a self—interconnected or separate, eternal or not— the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between “self” and “other,” the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no “other,” as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely “other” universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness—one’s own or that of others—impossible. For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as “Do I exist?” or “Don’t I exist?” for however you answer them, they lead to suffering and stress.

To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of “self” and “other,” he offered an alternative way of dividing up experience: the four noble truths of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the noble truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not “Is there a self? What is my self?” but rather “Am I suffering stress because I’m holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it’s stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?” These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging—the residual sense of self-identification—that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone, and all that’s left is limitless freedom.

In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?

Nibbana

We all know what happens when a fire goes out. The flames die down and the fire is gone for good. So when we first learn that the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire, it’s hard to imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal: utter annihilation. It turns out, though, that this reading of the concept is a mistake in translation, not so much of a word as of an image. What did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians of the Buddha’s day? Anything but annihilation.

According to the ancient Brahmins, when a fire was extinguished it went into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist, it became dormant and, in that state—unbound from any particular fuel—was diffused throughout the cosmos. When the Buddha used the image to explain nibbana to the Indian Brahmins of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the impossibility of defining a fire that doesn’t burn: thus his statement that the person who has gone totally “out” can’t be described.

However, when teaching his own disciples, the Buddha used nibbana more as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to “seize” it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was “freed,” released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment—calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of fire imagery that involves two other related terms as well. Upadana, or clinging, also refers to the sustenance a fire takes from its fuel. Khandha means not only one of the five “heaps” (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness) that define all conditioned experience, but also the trunk of a tree. Just as fire goes out when it stops clinging and taking sustenance from wood, so the mind is freed when it stops clinging to the khandhas.

Thus the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali commentaries support this point by tracing the word nibbana to a verbal root that means “unbinding.” What kind of unbinding? The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences after this life. All input from the senses cools away, and he/she is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and limitations of existence or non-existence in space and time.

The Buddha insists that this level is indescribable, even in terms of existence or nonexistence, because words work only for things that have limits. All he really says about it—apart from images and metaphors—is that one can have foretastes of the experience in this lifetime, and that it’s the ultimate happiness, something truly worth knowing.

So the next time you watch a fire going out, see it not as a case of annihilation, but as a lesson in how freedom is to be found in letting go.