Four Noble Truths

‘Tis the season of peace and goodwill. The Marmite Journal tackles some big deal stuff with apologetic bows to those who know more and wonder at my audacity.

We live by certain “truths”—inalienable, if you will. We can fight them or we can live along with them, in accordance with them. Either way, they don’t change and they don’t go away. Every group of people has tried to put down truths they understand. Some overlap with others. Truths are arrived at in different ways, during different times in the history of humankind. Truths, unlike rules (commandments, precepts, etc.), seem to transcend any particular time period.

One of the definitions of “noble” is: “of an admirably high quality; notably superior; excellent.” As opposed to “ordinary” or “unexceptional.” So that’s cleared up.

The first notably superior truth is that human existence is characterized by sorrow. The Sanskrit and Pali word is “dukkha”. Sometimes translated as dis-ease, discomfort, or suffering. Sorrow. It seems true that dis-ease, discomfort, suffering, fear, depression, anger, rage, envy, misery, wretchedness are all caused by unrecognized and/or un-worked-with sorrow. Deep sorrow in our bones, in our cells. We experience it as psychic, emotional, or spiritual pain and it often ‘causes’ pain in the ‘outer’ body. Such a beautiful, scrumptious, full word. Sorrow. Breathe it. All the way down into the belly, into the seat, into the legs and feet. Roll it around in the head and neck. Like a bright, hard flame licking at the very core. Feel the richness of the word: more than sadness, deeper than fear. Red and lusty. Our very being.

It is said that the second exceptional truth is that this sorrow is caused by ‘attachment’ or ‘craving.’ From my experiences of this stuff, I think maybe we have taken hold of the wrong end of this stick. I would rephrase this—with apologies to all the wise ones who have gone before me—and say that all sorrow is caused by our understanding of loss. This understanding might cause us to crave or attach, but it is the deep knowing of loss that is the root cause of the sorrow. When said like this, it feels simple and real and not self-blaming. I can live with it.

Loss is multi-layered, many faceted, always and forever as long as we are human. To be born human is to suffer loss. Loss of the state of being not-human: whatever that state is. As we come through the birth canal, we lose the powerful and life-sustaining connection with the mother. Small m. Placenta, blood supply, oxygen, etc. Warmth, heartbeat, voice, touch. The separation becomes real and metaphor as we seem to lose connection with the big M, as well. Birth seems to be the separation of heaven and earth, embodied in the birthing process. Here we are then, skin-encapsulated. Cut off from everything, able only to breathe in and out, somewhat trapped, small orifices opening to the outside, most of our selves cowering in the shelter of flesh and ego. As we grow into this world and learn to love its dazzling gifts, we learn—from the deep voice within us and also from external experiences—that, in fact, we are doomed to lose all. What a great cosmic joke. Separated from all we know, cast into this world and, because we are naturally loving creatures, deeply in love, we are reminded over and over that the having of what we love is impermanent. All that we love will be taken away. Anything we stand on will be whipped out from under our feet. Life is impermanent. Our dogs will die, our spouses will die, our children will suffer and die. Our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters will die. This body we love will decay and rot. We will be abandoned by our jobs, our loves, our beautiful cars. It is not our attachment to all this that causes pain, and it isn’t that we don’t really have it to begin with. I think these two statements are used by many to describe this second truth, but they deflect in some way our encounter with the deeper truth—which is that we have and we lose. We love and we know we will lose. It’s a subtle difference, but it shifts the attention from our holding to the loss itself. It does away with the self-hating struggle against attachment. To be alive in any form is to love, to feel, to interact, to connect. To be human is to experience the loss of all that, and to understand the fact of the loss before it happens. Inalienable truth, and it hurts like hell.

The first two truths give rise to some death-idealization. If I were not alive as a human, I would not have to feel all this crappy crap. I posit that since we don’t know what happens after we die, it may not be worth taking the chance. Might as well do what we are doing here and try to do it as well as we can. Forget the escape. But it’s hard not to fantasize.

The third superior truth says that there is a way out of this pain and sorrow. It seems that this third truth is contrary to the first and second, and that offends my sense of flow. How can there be a “way out” of a truth? (Why do I deal in such absolutes?)

According to one essay I read, this third truth assures us that the above-mentioned pain and sorrow and loss and general horrors are not caused by any god or force. They just are. And we can move on to an existence not controlled by those truths. Only, not completely, as long as we are in human form. If enlightenment means finding a way out of this maze of loving and losing, I am not an enlightened being, and I don’t know any who are. I cannot believe that anyone who is still human is living outside the maze. Even the Boddhisatva, who has the capacity to transcend the maze, but who chooses not to, still feels all the pain and sorrow and craving and losing. It still must hurt; that’s the point of the great sacrifice.

It’s possible that the third truth isn’t about escape. Maybe it says that we can live along with the two previous truths without being imprisoned by them. This, I can go along with. Imprisonment by the first two noble truths happens when we feel really sorry for ourselves that we have to live with so much loss and the resulting pain; when we choose to curl up inside the pain and suffer it. There is no nobility in this kind of suffering, or dignity. What’s the alternative to self-pity? Think freedom? Adventure. Joy. To live side by side with the understanding of loss and suffering, to feel it when it arises, and to work with it—to be equal to it—that this is possible is a truth. I’ll call it the third truth. Maybe that’s what it’s been saying all along?

It is possible to do this. But it’s difficult because the drug of self-pity is extremely addictive. It’s a fine line to accept pain without feeling sorry for ourselves. To live with it neither distancing ourselves from it nor succumbing to it; to be in it and beside it at the same time. To hold it. Like holding a ball of fire but without being consumed by the fire. To be a-flame and still whole. We cannot be human and escape what comes with humanity. Loss and pain are inevitable. Our sorrow about the state of our souls, the state of the world, the state of our separation is immutable in a way that nothing else is. Fear, anger, escapism, jealousy in reaction to this sorrow are inevitable and can even be useful. Self-pity is useless, avoidable, self-defeating, imprisoning, and counter to the impulse towards Light and Life. The third truth says that we have a choice about how we will work with the first two immutable truths. Those present no choice. This is all about the choice we make. The third noble truth is that we have a way through and out if we make the choice to take it.

And the fourth truth lays out a way in which we can choose to light a candle in the darkness. There are many ways, and times have changed from the Gautama’s times even as they haven’t. Bodies and minds evolve, needs shift, the whole paradigm is different and the same. Figuring it out, finding a path what works in this age—that is a whole other thing. Practical day to day living in the world in such a way that we are able to forge a friendly relationship with our never-ending loss and the resulting pain in our fragile psyches and bodies. A moment-by-moment thing, never perfected, hardly ever even completely ‘good.’

But we try, don’t we? We try.

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