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shadowleaver Veteran


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  • Critically thinking about the four Noble Truths

    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.

    1. Dissatisfaction is inherent in life. This is obviously true but just as obviously incomplete. There is also plenty of satisfaction and joy that comes from a great number of sources, for example, friendships, learning something new or experiencing something beautiful. It seems to me that by emphasizing some aspects of life and de-emphasizing others, Buddhism expresses a mere preference. We can just as well say that the Ocean is full of ice which, while being factually true, skews our view of the Ocean from its more tropical regions or even just plain summer time towards Polar regions and Winter.

    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?

    1. Dissatisfaction is caused by craving which is rooted in ignorance about nature of reality. In a simpler language this can be rephrased as the problem is inside you so you need to change your attitude, as opposed to making demands for things or of people. This is very often true indeed. By examining my challenges calmly and logically I have indeed often realized that my feelings about them are off base and found a better way of relating to them. In fact, a part of growing up seems to be seeing, over and over again, that what we instinctively want is not always what we actually need.

    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.

    1. There is an end to dissatisfaction. It does stand to reason that by living one's life a certain way, it can be made much happier. By applying various tidbits of wisdom, many coming from a Buddhist context, I have learned some skills that are making a marked and positive difference.

    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.

    1. The Path to end dissatisfaction. In itself, the 8-fold path is a great teaching on proper self discipline and ethics. All of the eight folds are found in different forms in many schools of thought that humanity has to offer. Pay attention to what you say or do, take time to reflect, do not hurt others etc- are features of all systems of ethics and self cultivation, to some extent. There is nothing uniquely Buddhist there.

    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, , 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.

  • Re: Critically thinking about the four Noble Truths

    Appreciate the thoughtful and to the point responses, @person ! I feel like I want to clarify where I am coming from with all my recent doubting.

    I have been to many retreats and have been a regular meditator for over 10 years, 7 of them as a part of a community. I have tasted that deeper happiness you are talking about, as a result of these practices. Seeing everything as coming and going (a major point of Buddhist insight) does at times provide an unexpected and wonderful stability and calm. A wider view of interdependence of all beings helped me experience more compassion and at times actually act on it.

    I guess what I am doing here is trying to point out that Buddhism in general and the 4NT in particular are prone to being interpreted as world- and self- denying, discouraging many important expressions of our psychologies. I guess my gripe is partially really with myself, as to some extent I used Buddhism to justify certain passivity and stasis in my own life. Fatalism and pessimism that can be gleaned from many Buddhist sources have not always helped me with being all that I can be. I have been exposed to Buddhist circles quite a bit and believe that I am not alone.

    To be clear, I still value my time invested into studying and practicing Buddhism. However, I feel that we need to pick and choose in order to arrive at a synthesis that better fits our time and place. I feel that without some creative reinterpreting of the dogma based on our time and place, we are at the risk of being left with just one more calcified ancient religion. Classical Buddhism by itself is a valuable tool and addition to my life but I feel that it alone cannot serve as an end all/be all.

  • Re: Love - shaped hole in Buddhism?

    @Bunks said:
    Ah. I see what you mean.

    There does seem to be a certain sense of "detachment" from the world if one is to fully realise this path in this life.

    Bear in mind, when you look at the bigger picture, we've all been brothers, mothers, sisters, cousins, friends, neighbours, co-workers innumerable times throughout this cycle.

    Nice to see you again :)

    Thanks, Mom :)

  • Re: beautiful women make me cry

    Are you in a committed relationship with a woman? Somehow I didn't see that critical piece of info in your post.

    If yes, try to work on the romantic side of the relationship.

    If no, try to get to know the said beautiful women. Maybe give them some flowers or invite for a coffee (one at a time :) )

  • Re: What is "Original mind"?

    Oh, someone already said it. Then I don't know.