Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 1

The First Truth (as taken from the primary Sutra first explaining the four noble truths: the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta):
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 — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.
The Buddha defines the five categories of clinging objects, or the five clinging aggregates as these:
  1. Material form
  2. Feelings
  3. Perceptions
  4. Mental formations
  5. Consciousness
A modern psychiatrist will see the description of the first noble truth as an expression of a depressed state of mind.

Let's start analyzing what the Buddha said, or supposedly said.


Why is birth suffering?  Yes, the infant cries and the process of labor can be quite painful.  But is that enough to call birth "suffering"?

Birthdays, especially the event of birth, are celebrated in communities all over the world.  Parents are congratulated for the birth of their child.  In general, parents, grandparents, family and friends feel genuinely and exceedingly happy at a birth event.  People look forward to this event.  Couples having difficulty conceiving spend huge amounts of money to have a baby.

All these point to the fact that birth is a desirable event for most people.  And yet, the Buddha calls it suffering.  Why?

During the ten-day Goenka Vipassana discourses, Mr S N Goenka claims birth is suffering because the child is stuck in the womb for a long time, and because the child screams as soon as it is born.  When somebody (in Mr Goenka's own words) explained to him that the screams may be the child's attempt to breathe on its own for the first time, Mr Goenka smirked and claimed that the desire for oxygen was a precursor for all other desires and so now the process of suffering had begun.  It can sound quite convincing to people who already find their lives woeful and are just looking to validate a negative and pessimistic outlook towards life.

If the Buddha meant that birth is suffering because it is the start of degeneration, then perhaps an expectation of non-degeneration is to blame.  Even so, by all accounts, an infant grows in health, intelligence and strength for the first twenty five years of its life.  After that time, perhaps, one can say that one is over the hill.  But how can birth be suffering?


Why is aging suffering?  It can mean more wisdom, more experiences, more opportunities to do what one could not do earlier.  After forty or fifty years, the body might need some care and medical help.  And yes, one is closer to death, which not many people consider wholesome.  Is that a justification to consider aging suffering?  To some extent, perhaps.

Why is aging suffering?  Is it because one expected to be forever young, or immortal?  Was that a reasonable expectation, or a neurotic one?


Sickness is indeed suffering.  Not many people will dispute that.  However, it is usually temporary and most ailments are now treatable, given advances in the medicinal sciences.  Analgesia (management of pain) is a full-fledged discipline in modern medicine to help diminish the painful effects of illness.

Notably however, for most people, periods of good health far outnumber periods of sickness.  By any account, most people are living longer, healthier lives in today's world than ever before.  Yes, sickness is something to avoid, but it is notable that the Buddha doesn't mention the joy of good health (having a good meal, taking part in an invigorating physical activity, having good digestion, and so on), but focuses on the "sickness is suffering" part.


Death is suffering, indeed.  However, death is the ending of life.  If death is to be considered suffering (as it is), then life cannot be.  

As an analogy, if Mr Maugham disliked the fact that dinner was ending, then he must have enjoyed it.


Sorrow, lamentation, pain and grief are other words for suffering (or for expressions of suffering), so the Buddha doesn't win any points for saying something deep.

It is true that life contains sorrow as well as joy.  And if joy inevitably gives way to sorrow, it is equally true that no sorrow lasts forever.  Time heals, the intensity of an ache or of a loss diminishes, a depression lessens in force, and one is able to again enjoy the pleasures that life has to offer.


Association with the loathed is suffering.  True, it can be irritating and somewhat boring.  But "suffering" is a rather strong word for this quibble.  Why loathe others in the first place?   Why not just recognize that people have their own agendas and levels of evolution and be defensive against their overtures or invitations?

One must keep in mind that the Buddha is not advocating being selective about one's company.  A few sentences forward in his discourse, and we will read him advocate a rather extreme solution to this nagging problem of human socializing.


Dissociation from the loved is suffering.  That does mean that association with them was pleasurable and desirable.


Not to get what one wants is suffering.  Yes, but if one is an adult, one admits a temporary defeat and then again pursues another goal, or the same one in a different way.


We have come to an end of a selective listing of the what Buddha considers the unwanted aspects of normal living.

The first noble truth is neither noble, nor true.  It is a pessimistic look at life as a plane of sorrow, and is a rejection of fulfillment and happiness in "worldly" life.

In my opinion, the Buddha is saying: Life is suffering because every joy, every pleasure, every good thing, comes to an end, and then one is again to strive.  That there is no "happily ever after."  And that therefore, there is no "happy now-and-then".

The above phrasing (if correct) and the Buddha's list of five clinging aggregates, and classifying them as suffering, is to look at life as a burden and as a journey of pain and little else.

If not for the belief in reincarnation, and if not for a belief in transcendence-over-the-span-of-many-lives, I do not know why a Buddhist wouldn't just commit suicide.

If the apocryphal story about Buddha not being allowed out of the palace, and then one day seeing an old man, a sick man and a dying/dead man and then being shocked into a journey towards "self-realization" is true, then a modern psychologist would characterize it as a severe maladjustment born of unrealistic expectations and of a heavily sheltered upbringing.

Though I do think that the story is almost certainly false.  There is no way a man can grow to his late twenties and not know that there is aging, disease and death.  What was the psychopathology of the start of Buddha's journey?  I don't think there has been worthwhile research in that.  Hagiography is not biography.

The first noble truth, that "There is suffering" is not only unremarkable (everybody knows life contains its measure of sorrow), the fact that it doesn't proclaim the joy of life inspires little confidence in it being an expression of a balanced mind.

There are two possibilities about what Buddha is saying in the first noble truth: a) That life contains suffering, b) That life is nothing but suffering.

(a) is obviously true, and therefore a trite observation.  (b) is obviously false.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This series is a great critique on modern-day Buddhism - good stuff!