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So I am continuing on a wild existential quest to determine what place Buddhism has in my life. I know I have been rocking the Dharma Boat for some time now so please forgive me if you find my thoughts and words unhelpful. Thank you for bearing with me.
In this post I will try to explore the very foundation of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths.
I suspect that this fundamental viewing of the glass as half-empty, made a lot of sense in ancient India, in light of the horrendous socio-economic conditions of the day. Yet, I really question how well this negative-biased view serves me in the place and time that I am actually in.
In fact, I have found comfort in the First Noble Truth because of some psychological issues that hinder me from fully engaging with the world. I used it as a way to normalize my difficulties as opposed to trying to solve them. Instead of working towards a happier life, I lulled myself into a kind of sleep by telling myself that life is basically sad and there is not much to be done about that. While I see such embrace of suffering as a useful temporary coping mechanism, I suspect that viewing the entire life in terms of suffering is not the best way for me to be.
The key question here is: why not maximize joy rather than minimize suffering? Wouldn't framing one's direction in the former way yield a more optimistic and positive direction?
The pitfall here that I have fallen into, is to declare that actually, I do not need anything at all, that whenever I have any type of longing, it is a delusion rather than a valid sign that I am lacking something. The effort and energy then goes into de facto trying to make oneself not want, often ignoring a more direct and expedient way to go about the particular want. Take the two most basic wants that every Eastern spiritual tradition is at least somewhat suspicious of: sex and money.
For several years, under the influence of Eastern (not Buddhist) spirituality I took celibacy for my personal ideal. I am not going to go into the insane frustration and cycles of self blame I experienced as a 20 year old holy man wannabe. Let me just say that from those miserable years I came to a firm conclusion that sex is a basic psychological and physical need. The most expedient way of alleviating the suffering caused by it not being met is actually engaging in sexual activity (responsibly)- not meditating on it with the implied goal of seeing it as a delusion. And yet armed with Second Noble Truth, it is easy to deny one's basic biology as an impurity and instead live with significant and unnecessary frustration, which often can hurt more people than one's discretely and mindfully indulging their appetite (ideally in a committed long term relationship).
Similarly with money, here in America, if you don't have it, you end up living on the street. Looking at homeless people or those who subsist paycheck to paycheck living on minimum wage, I cannot help but think that pursuit of some measure of financial security is necessary for one's well being. For all intents and purposes, the sacrifice made for one's career, is, while often times grueling, significantly better than the alternative. Once again, instead of just admitting that more money is needed and acting accordingy, the inward focus of the Second Noble Truth may incline one to passively bear with suffering caused by insufficient funds, be it having inadequate diet, living in a bad neighborhood or lacking of quality leisure.
I have found that the implication in this Truth that can be problematic is that of some perfect state of being free of suffering. Of course, Buddhists have a name for it, "Nirvana". In Mahayana circles they also talk about lofty realms and beings, which are then incorporated into the worldview. One issue with this is the same as with any supernatural religious belief: the requirement to suspend one's rationality and, once suspended, open oneself to more unfounded dogma and cede control to religious authority.
The other issue with Nirvana, Pure Land etc is more subtle. These idealized notions give us an impossible yardstick to measure our lives against. We and our experiences always fall short of that yardstick. When I would become preoccupied with these higher realms, I would find myself departing from what actually is, appreciating it less and hungry for what I believe is ultimately impossible.
Of course, when we say "right X" or "right Y", which is what the Eight Fold Path is, the question is always about what "right" actually means. In other words, this is very open to interpretation. For example, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path , describes one interpretation that points to renouncing the self and "the world"- clearly not applicable to me or most modern people.
In writing this I am not trying to say that Buddhism is all wrong. I am only exploring how it appears in light of open questioning stemming from Western realities today. What is relevant and what should be let go of is really the point I want to get at. Thank you for reading, and may this help you to either strengthen your existing path or find one more in line with who you are.