Misperception: The Buddha Was A Killjoy

[SAM_7325] PSE12
The Four Noble Truths sutta was the first teaching given by the Buddha after his awakening. In this teaching, the Buddha presented his enlightened understanding as a set of ennobling truths which not only diagnosed the human condition as ‘suffering’ but also prescribed a cure. On first hearing the Buddha’s diagnosis we might be tempted to object that it is overly pessimistic.  Either the Buddha is mistaken or he’s a killjoy!

 

 


 

MISPERCEPTION: THE BUDDHA WAS A KILLJOY

Introduction

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (sermon of the Four Noble Truths) is the first teaching given by the Buddha after his awakening. [1] In this teaching, the Buddha presented his enlightened understanding as a set of ennobling truths which not only diagnosed the human condition as ‘suffering’ but also prescribed a cure. On first hearing the Buddha’s diagnosis we might be tempted to object that it is overly pessimistic.  Either the Buddha is mistaken or he’s a killjoy! Since my purpose here is to argue against such wrong understanding I will be commenting mainly on the first and second of the Four Noble Truths.

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The First Noble Truth

“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering…” [2]

The Buddha realised that suffering and death are the consequences of birth. During our brief lives we all experience the pains of injury, sickness, youth and old age. We get angry and resentful on encountering unpleasantness and hardship, or when dreams and expectations are thwarted. We grieve over the loss of treasured possessions and people whom we adore and rely on.

The Second Noble Truth

“The origin of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is the craving that produces renewal of being accompanied by enjoyment and lust, and enjoying this and that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being.” [3]

Being born is cause for our experiencing a body as well as sensations, perceptions, volitions and conscious states that produce a strong sense of ‘self’ or ‘I’. We wrongly perceive these momentary phenomena, or ‘aggregates’, as constituting some enduring entity or ‘self’ that is eminently desirable, that wants and needs things, and is worth protecting. Attachment to our self-identity results in our performing unskilful acts that perpetuate suffering.

The Third and Fourth Noble Truths

The Buddha outlined his cure for our existential suffering in Noble Truths Three and Four. Briefly stated, the Third Noble Truth is that suffering ceases when clinging or attachment to the aggregates of self is abandoned. The Fourth Noble Truth is that we can end our suffering by ardently practicing the Noble Eightfold Path (a spiritual training regime that develops morality, concentration and wisdom) until we stop clinging to our ignorance, cravings and aversions. [4]

Are The Noble Truths Really True?

One might be tempted to think that the Buddha protests too much. Is life really as he described it? Sure, there are times when we suffer, but there are also joyful times and pleasures that make life worth living – good food, good companionship, creative pursuits, achievements, celebrations… etc. Where’s the suffering in those?

We shouldn’t be so hasty in rejecting the Buddha’s diagnosis.

Firstly, he never actually said that everything in life constitutes suffering. Nor did he deny the existence of pleasure – “Monks, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. A well-instructed disciple of the noble ones also… ” [5]

Secondly, his diagnosis of the human condition makes more sense when we realise that ‘suffering’ is a poor translation of the Buddha’s actual word, dukkha, which has a much broader meaning. ‘Dissatisfaction’, ‘unease’, ‘discomfort’, ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ are some alternative English words one might use, depending upon the context. [6]

But how is pleasure stressful or unsatisfying? To understand the Buddha’s meaning we need to appreciate that whatever he saw as impermanent he regarded as ultimately unsatisfying and unworthy of clinging. Why? Because any joy to be had in transient things is invariably mixed with sadness at the prospect of losing them and/or anxiety about having to acquire more of them. I believe the Buddha wanted us to remain open to pain and pleasure while dropping habitual ideas and expectations that create stress and dissatisfaction around our everyday experiences.

Most of us, I think, spend lots of time chasing pleasure and running from pain with the expectation of becoming happier now or in the future. According to Professor Robert Wright, “Psychologists refer to this as the Hedonic Treadmill… You keep trying, and keep striving after happiness [but] you don’t get any closer to it.” [7] In addition I would say our discomfort can be great or small, depending upon how strongly attached we are to the objects of our affection.

Conclusion

The Buddha presented his diagnosis of suffering and his prescribed remedy as a set of four ennobling truths: suffering is a fact of life, it originates in clinging, it ceases when clinging is absent, and the abandonment of clinging is achieved through practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. ‘Suffering’ is a poor translation of dukkha, which has a much broader meaning and allows the Buddha to offer a nuanced account of suffering that does appear to encapsulate our experience of living.

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Notes
[1] The Four Noble Truths by Ajahn Sumedho.
<http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books3/Ajahn_Sumedho_The_Four_Noble_Truths.htm >

[2] ‘Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth’ (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 13 June 2010.
< http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html >

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow’ (SN 36.6), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html>

[6] ‘Dukkha’, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca1/dukkha.html>

[7] ‘The Buddhist Diagnosis: The First Two Noble Truths’, video lecture given by Professor Robert Wright, Buddhism and Modern Psychology, Week 1, Coursera/ Princeton University online education course (accessed 19 November 2015).
< https://www.coursera.org/learn/science-of-meditation/lecture/ISGB1/the-first-two-noble-truths>

Image:‘Candlelit Buddha Shrine’ by PJL 2015
 

 

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