Sunday, May 16, 2010
Life is Suffering
One pointed criticism of the Buddhist path is that the first Noble Truth states that “life is suffering.” There is a classic picture of the three vinegar tasters where three individuals representing Lao Zi, the Buddha, and Confucius stick their finger into the pot of life. The Buddha tasted life as bitter, full of suffering. Confucius tasted life as sour, in need to rules and discipline. Only Lao Zi tasted the pot of life, and smiled.
However, this is a misinterpretation of the First Noble Truth. The Buddha didn’t say that life is suffering. The first Noble Truth is the Existence of Suffering. It is acknowledging that there is suffering in the world. This is followed by the Origin, the Cessation, and the Way to End Suffering.
Joy is a large part of the Buddhist teaching. In fact, it is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (the others being mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). I’ve learned these factors are also a sequence: mindfulness leads to investigation, which leads to energy, which leads to joy, which stabilizes the mind in concentration, which creates equanimity, in which the truth can be seen. Without joy, there would be no motivation to practice.
It should be noted that the First Noble truth is not “There is suffering and suffering is bad.” It is simply the bare existence of suffering. In fact, if we can live according to the opening lines of the Xin Xin Ming, and accept life as it comes without picking and choosing, then this may be the whole of the path. There is suffering. Not, there is suffering which leads to a whole host of other actions. Just this, just “there is suffering.”
The poor reaction to this statement is to think that suffering is bad and we need to get rid of it. This is an unbalanced approach. The Tao is about harmony of yin and yang, not the promotion of one at the expense of the other. The Tao takes from the full and gives to the empty. When something rises to its peak, it begins to wane. This is the natural ebb and flow of the universe. Yet, still, we think we need to create a one-sided life that is full of joy and without pain. Yet joy and pain define each other.
The Second Noble Truth then traces the origin of suffering, to tanha, or craving. Again, keeping the Tao in mind, we do not eliminate craving by craving joy. This just creates more craving, and sets into motion the whole wheel of life and death. Instead, we are encouraged to eliminate craving by eliminating craving.
One way to do this is through radical acceptance, which brings us back to the first line in the Xin Xin Ming: Arriving at the Great Way is not difficult, if only there are no preferences. If we are able to accept everything as it is, then there is no craving. No craving, no suffering.
In my mind, this is the smile of Lao Zi. By accepting the vinegar of life for what it is, he can smile.