In this series I will be walking through the Four Noble Truths with you from the perspective of a Zen practitioner living in the 21st century.
When unpacking any teaching about meditation practice the first rule is to approach it with curiosity. What sort of eyes does one need to see through this? How do I hold it? Where does it go? Who left it here? What do I do with it?
The apparently straightforward teachings of Buddhism look nice sitting on there on the shelf, but they don’t do anyone much good. They become much more complex when applied to the messy experience of our lived lives. We need to get messy with them if we want them to work.
The Four Noble Truths offer an enticingly simple vision for ending our earthly woes.
Life is Suffering, suffering has a cause, it is possible to end suffering, here’s how, blah blah blah. Simple. Be done by Tuesday, it’ll be an easy week. But, why then do we know so few people who have succeeded? I don’t want to disappoint you, but wouldn’t it be a bit of a let down if it were actually that easy? This is the great riddle of the Universe we are talking about after all.
From the top: Life is Suffering.
Kind of a bummer as Noble Truths go, but hard to argue with. Life is indeed difficult. This is true for everyone I have ever met; rich, poor, young, old. But it is, obviously, not all suffering, so why focus on that? Well, the good parts aren’t really a problem so we can set those aside for the time being.
But then the word used here, dukkha, means something slightly different than just pain and misery. “Du” means “bad”, and “kha” means hole. Specifically, it refers to the hole in a wheel where the axle would go. So, a dukkha is a bad wheel, something that is off center, or just doesn’t feel right. We hear an echo of this in Shakespeare’s “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Life is like a cartwheel that is off balance. It’s wonky, it’s off.
We can feel this wonkiness even in the most subtle, intimate levels of our being, there is a rhythm of yearning. We can feel it in our very breath. What would life be like if we could just inhale into eternity and never have to breathe out? One long, continuous gratification of desire. But eventually we become full. No matter what it is we are filling ourselves with. Food or drink, or air.
Eventually we get to a point where continuing on in the same manner is painful. You get what you want, and then you have to change and want something else. You get tired, so you want to sit down. You sit down until your butt hurts and you need to stand up. And so our lives are characterized, even at the most minute level, by a constant adjustment. Constantly correcting to keep the balance because unbalance is at the center of our being.
And this, for me, is really the meaning of the first noble truth. That life is unbalance.
Existence could have been less than this. It could have been even and unchanging and uniform and just nothing. That would have been much easier for everyone involved, and more balanced. But because there is unbalance there are things, there are events, there are phenomena. Everything is. And this is our starting point, our riddle to solve.
Next week we can talk a little bit about what to do about that.