Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 4

Parts 1, 2 and 3.

The third noble truth of the Buddha is, on its face, just a statement about a destination.  It is not a definition, it is more of an assertion that such a destination exists, and obviously, that it is worthwhile.

The third noble truth asserts the existence of a state where there is no more suffering, as its causes are no more.  Buddhist texts refer to this state as Nirodha or Nirvana.

From the Wikipedia article on Nirodha:
In the context of the four noble truths, nirodha refers to the cessation of suffering and the causes of suffering. It is "the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again. It’s the removal, the final absence, the cessation of those things, their non-arising."
If suffering is the response to undesirable states, then a state of Nirodha can only mean that one has no more desires, or cravings.  It therefore implies that one is neutral to all states of affairs, not preferring one over the other in any way.  To prefer would indicate some form of desire in oneself, even if mild, and experiencing the non-preferred or the less-preferred can cause consternation or worse.

 So, no desires, no preferences, no attachments and only then: no suffering.

As long as the body is alive, it requires nourishment and protection from the elements.  And nourishment and protection require effort: even if that effort is to go beg others for food or clothing.  That is, the body requires a certain state of affairs to remain alive, and that state of affairs is not natural/spontanteous but contrived and effortful.

Anyone who wants to remain alive would therefore prefer nourishment and protection to starvation and exposure.  And to fulfill that preference, one would need to plan, think, avoid harmful situations, and spend effort at gathering food and other necessities.  Autonomic processes such as the beating of the heart or breathing require no effort or desire and are excluded from this analysis.

As we have noted earlier, preferring or desiring a state of affairs is not consistent with an absence of suffering.

Hence, someone who has attained Nirvana can no longer claim to have even the desire to stay alive.

To be fair, all spiritual traditions, and not just Buddhism, point to such a state and dangle it as a carrot to seekers.  It is a lofty reward: no more suffering, all bliss and happiness and peace.  But since no suffering equates to no desire which implies not even a desire to stay alive, such a state can only logically exist in an individual who is making no efforts to stay alive and is therefore going to die in a week or so.

Hence, Nirvana is a death wish, whether one realizes it or not.  There are many reasons why spiritualists don't openly advocate suicide (which they should, since the world is just one suffering after another, according to them):
  1. It wouldn't win them many adherents.  People do want to live and prosper.  Nirvana can wait till the kids are in college.
  2. It would expose their life-negative philosophy in a rather obvious way.  Much more pragmatic it is for them to say that life is suffering but there IS happiness if you transcend life-as-it-is.  People don't know much about transcendence, so they are happy that all is not lost and proceed to work towards that talked about destination while donating money and food to the transcendents.
  3. Spiritualists typically believe in life after life.  Whether that be another world (heaven), or a resting place for the soul, or its merging with the infinite, it doesn't matter.

    It is sometimes expressed (with a profound face) in contemplative circles that Nirvana is not for oneself, since there won't be a self to reap the rewards if one truly transcends it all.  But it is true nevertheless that all seekers are seeking Nirvana for themselves.  Even Buddha's last words were, supposedly: "Work out your salvation with diligence."  If spiritualists did not believe in life after life, then the promise of Nirvana considerably diminishes in appeal.  No point spending twenty years in meditation for one week left to die.
The third noble truth of the Buddha is not only not true, it is the re-assertion of a dangerous idea that while this life is all suffering, there is an end to it in some other place to which you must strive to go.

As long as one is alive, there will be states of affairs which will be cognitively or emotionally less acceptable than others.  That is pretty much what life is.  If a narcissistic individual wants life and the universe to be as per his wishes and desires, he will find that indeed, life is suffering and there seems to be no way around it.  And such an individual will find the third noble truth to be a breath of hope.  

But he should analyze this hopeful thought a little before getting too excited.

Only a dead body has no preference or desire, and therefore does not suffer, and is therefore in Nirodha.

1 comment:

Dr. Venkat said...

It is "the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again."
Undeniably, this can occur only in severely demented individuals with no self-care or awareness, or in brain dead people/comatose people. Every decision that one makes is based on avoiding unsatisfactory experiences, every waking moment of one's life is an attempt to avoid undesirable states. One may withstand prolonged suffering but there is always the picture of a long-term benefit in mind. If suffering is defined as experiencing something we don't wish to experience, even cognitively, then to be alive is to suffer.
Of course, there are various emotional states such as euphoria, mania, sadness, delight, depression, shock, dismay, and so on. But 'suffering' underlies everyday life- even a billionaire's!