The Four Noble Truths are said to contain the essence Of Gautama Buddha’s teaching. The truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering which is The Noble Eightfold Path.
The truth of suffering seems to me to be self-evident and I find myself asking what kind of an insight is this? We have to remember however that, according to the sources, the Buddha was shielded from much of the suffering that was immediately around him by his parents; a strange situation in itself. Imagine the lengths they would have had to go to in order to achieve that? But even the reality of suffering couldn’t be kept from him and he eventually witnessed it for himself first hand. Suffering is all around us, turn on the tv, surf the internet, and you are confronted with suffering. It’s all too real and we can’t hide from it. Many of us however, do exactly this, I know I do, finding myself turning to another channel when confronted with what seems to me overwhelming. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I should respond.
And then there is my own suffering. How do I deal with that? The sense of my own suffering led me to Buddhism. For many years of my life it manifested as a deep feeling of unease and fear, fear of death and a fear of life itself. There were many times when life itself seemed unbearable to me. Eventually we have to face and deal with our own suffering. My early exploration of Buddhism was based naively on the belief that the experience of enlightenment could lead me to find release from my suffering. In the India the Buddha grew up in people believed in an eternal round of birth and death, Samsara, and depending on your actions you would be reborn repeatedly, suffering the consequences, or the benefits of your positive and negative karma. Hindus still believe this, as do some Buddhists. The idea is that we should work to escape from this cycle by achieving or entering Nirvana thereby freeing ourselves completely from attachment to our greed, anger and ignorance. Our karma is finally resolved, snuffed out like a candle, free at last from Samsara. This seems like a long time to me and too much hard work. It’s a perspective of Buddhist teaching I don’t agree with and I’m surprised that some Buddhist sects believe it. Nonetheless, Buddhism for me offers some way of dealing with suffering, a place of refuge and support, if not complete release from suffering.
A couple of years ago I spent some time in a self-imposed period of prolonged practice with the specific intention of addressing the problem of my own suffering, a heightened sense of which, at the time, was causing me a great deal of sadness, loneliness and a deep feeling of isolation. I thought I had begun the process of shaking off this existential angst. Many years of practice had helped me but still something was there, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I would face this and deal with it once and for all. Or so I thought.
The Buddha said “I alone am.” A curious phrase. What did he mean? This was the moment of his great enlightenment and in that moment of unitive experience, that opening when he realised that sense of I am, his small sense of self dissolved and all his suffering vanished. Or so it seemed. He still went on to live and teach for forty years or so and was still subject to old age, sickness and death. He eventually died from food poisoning. The key thing is that he carried on practising, sitting and teaching, embracing his life fully. That phrase, “I alone am” has a flip side for me; and from the relative perspective it doesn’t feel so great. It is that sense of isolation that is the hallmark of much of my own suffering and the only thing that has ever helped is practice. I suffer, it is my nature as a sentient being, suffering is part of my Buddha Nature just as much as joy is; I never push joy away or pleasant sensations so why should I push suffering away? So, I came away realising and accepting that there will always be suffering. The Buddha himself said as much and, after his enlightenment, spent the rest of his life teaching it. The core of his teaching and his practice. ‘I teach suffering and the end of suffering’.
Buddhism teaches impermanence and that the cause of our suffering comes from our desire to attach to things which are not permanent. So, impermanence is not a problem in itself, it’s not something to be avoided. In fact, we can’t; life is impermanent. We cause our own suffering by wanting things to be permanent. The Sanskrit word we use for suffering, ‘Dukkha’, includes or implies unsatisfactoriness, imperfection. And a word I came across which I particularly like ‘bothersomeness’, the irritableness we feel when life doesn’t go as we want it to, the ‘musts’ and the ‘shoulds’ we impose on our life, which can easily escalate and become real problems. Then there is the idea of ‘the self’ and we start looking for a self, trying to locate it and fix it, looking for a permanent ‘me’. I know I certainly did this when I began Zen practice, asking myself over and over again, ‘What is Buddha Nature?’, ‘Is there such a thing?’. And if there is no self, anatta, what is it that suffers? I came across this by Buddhaghosa, a fifth century Theravadin teacher who said, “Suffering exists, but not the sufferer.” I like that, and I believe it but I wish I could really see it; alas, my own suffering feels all too real to me.
So, how do we deal with it? How do I deal with it? The Noble Eightfold Path? It would be great if I could just apply that recipe to my life, follow the rules, keep the precepts, job done. But the Noble Eightfold Path isn’t a set of rules or a linear path to follow. It contains a set of guidelines to help us cope with life. It is a skilful means, and I try to use it as such. The best way it is manifested for me however, is in each and every one of us, through the Sangha, without which it wouldn’t be much use. I think through sangha, regular sitting and working with a teacher is how we come to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. We eventually come to embody it, whether we consciously choose to follow it or not. It’s inherent in the practice. I don’t purposely set out to implement it in my life. I don’t periodically check in with myself to see if I’m following it; I don’t think many people do. Nevertheless, it’s there for us to use as we see fit; to help us cope and deal with the suffering that will always be there. I think this is what the Buddha realised and why he decided to teach after his enlightenment, he knew that remaining on the mountain was not an option. He had discovered a way to deal with suffering, something practical that would help, and so decided to develop it and teach it. There will always be suffering; exploring and working with The Four Noble Truths is a practical way of approaching our suffering. The Buddha once met a farmer who spoke of his problems, crops that would get ruined by flood, his wife who was sometimes cold with him, his children who always gave him trouble, until the Buddha said, “We’ve all got eighty-three problems, and that’s that,” and went on to give him advice. The farmer was furious and complained that the Buddha was supposed to be a great enlightened teacher and he rejected his advice. The Buddha responded by saying his advice might help him with the eighty-fourth problem. “What the hell is the eighty-fourth problem?” the farmer asked. To which the Buddha answered, “You don’t want to have any problems.”