The essence of Buddhism can be found in the Four Noble Truths. These are:
- Suffering/anxiety/frustration exist
- The cause of suffering is attachment of “clinging”
- It is possible to be liberated from suffering
- Liberation may be found by following the Eight-fold Noble Path
For purposes here I’d like to focus on the first three of the Four Noble Truths.
With this declaration the Buddha was not introducing a novel concept to his earliest disciples. Nor is he revealing anything new to us. Rather, the Buddha stated what is 1) self-evident and 2) the primary motivation for seeking out the spiritual life. Regardless of any amount of human effort, action, or intention, all things arise and then fall away. Everything is impermanent. Existence itself is an ebb and flow, what the Buddha, relying heavily on the Hindu cosmology known to him, called the wheel of birth and death or the wheel of suffering.
The Buddha is not attempting to address the so-called “Problem of Evil.” Nor is he proposing that any given act or attitude can spare us from suffering. He is simply stating things as they are. In this sense the Buddha is the ultimate realist. It is essential to understand existence as it is — rather than how we wish it to be. Human existence is defined by happiness and sadness, love and loss, youth, old age, sickness, and death. Regardless of whether we recognize or accept it, existence is both beautiful and terrifying, fair and unfair, just and unjust.
A concept closely related to impermanence is dependent origination. This is the idea that nothing arises of itself. That is to say, every emotion, experience and action is the result of a confluence of events that came before. Such a view is not strict determinism nor is it fatalistic. The great wonder of sentience – and especially human consciousness – is the ability to recognize the relationship between cause and effect. Sentience is also be a great burden as we piece together causal relationships and instinctively act, as consequentialist thinkers might say, in such a way as to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Our continued inability sustain those things enjoy and value results in frustration that leads to suffering.
The Cause of Suffering is Attachment
The Buddha’s key insight was that such action is a fool’s errand; not due to any human failing but rather, the result of the incredibly myopic lens of consciousness and discriminatory thought. The Buddha recognized that there are numberless causes leading up to any given action or state of being. Yet, in a type of delusion we reduce this vast turning of the wheel to a handful of causal relationships we can both categorize and describe. This results in anxiety, frustration and suffering as we feverishly work in vain to make permanent that which is impermanent. It is not necessarily desire itself that causes suffering. Rather, it is the attachment to any given object of desire which leads to dissatisfaction.
Another implication of the Buddha’s insight is that existence in or appreciation of the present is hindered by attachment to our conceptions or expectations of the future. We ignore what is present now as we fixate on future outcomes. In my view this introduces a unique type of suffering wherein we find no joy in the present moment because our minds are too busy planning and plotting for a future state of affairs. The problem, of course, is that even if that state of affairs is achieved, we are very likely to be distracted by expectations and plans for the future. In other words, we are in a constant state of looking ahead such that we remain completely unaware of the present. This tends to breed a general dislike of the present as we operate under the faulty assumption not only that the future must be better than the present but also, that we are capable of a steady march towards an increasingly better future. In some regards this outlook is similar to the overly and, in retrospect, naive progressive ideas about the human condition commonly expressed from the late 19th century up until the horrors of WWI. WWI once again illustrated the tremendous horrors human beings were capable of creating and perpetuating. All in spite of the progress made in philosophy, government, and technology in the preceding centuries.
Liberation from Suffering is Possible
As mentioned above, desire itself is not the cause of suffering. Rather, it is the attachment which breeds a desire to maintain or sustain the impermanent which breeds suffering and frustration.
Consider a fan of the NFL following her favorite team. If the team has an excellent season, breaks through the playoffs and wins the Super Bowl, the fan will be excited and happy. The experience of watching a winning season with family and friends and then celebrating with the broader community is a great experience.
But what if this fan’s favorite team does not win the Super Bowl the following year or perhaps they have terrible losing season. Does this diminish from the experience of the winning season and Super Bowl win the year before? Of course not! That experience was good in itself and has absolutely no connection to what came before, nor what comes after. It is a wonderful moment of celebration. But simply because this moment is fleeting and impermanent, does not mean that the experience is somehow diminished or less-valuable.
Things must not persist in order to be inherently valuable.
Acting for the Future
While suffering may result by being attached to future outcome this does not mean that human beings should not be concerned with these outcomes. In the present we can identify injustice and act with a desire to make things better. But we must tread carefully. It is easy to become so focused on “fixing” what is presently broken as to create a skewed perspective of the present.
I have often heard it said that “if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.” But is anger the state in which we expect to work for positive change? Can we effectively promote increased kindness, tolerance, and justice through anger? Perhaps anger aids in sparking our initial desire to be an agent of change. But anger is neither sustainable nor effective in the long-term. At some point we must act out of pragmatic concern if we expect to influence positive change. Even in the most oppressive and egregious circumstances it is peaceful kindness and incredible patience which eventually leads to the easing of oppression and an improved state of affairs.
Last year a visiting Soto Zen priest visited our local Sangha. She has studied Zen for many years and was trained at the San Francisco Zen Center. She told a story of how Zen students in San Francisco would often participate in anti-war rallies and in support of equal rights and social justice. During one of these events these students carried signs and chanted slogans like “Fight for Peace!” In a moment of reflection some of these students saw the incongruity of such slogans and actions. At the next event, these students chose not to carry signs or chant but rather, brought their Zafus and Zabutons and sat in Zazen. The effect was immediate and positive. This act of sitting in quiet meditation brought a sense of calm and respite even to those not participating directly.
Of course, these students of Zen did not end their activism. Rather, they redirected their efforts to promote peace and understanding between ideological divides. Were these students “successful?” In bringing peace and compassion to a highly-charged, emotional, and potentially violent debate, they were a smashing success.
I believe we could all benefit from taking this approach, even in the face of great injustice, for two primary reasons. First, it would encourage a holistic view of the present wherein we can learn from both past failure and success rather than make hyperbolic claims either negative or positive. And second, it frees us from the notion that our present actions are valued based on some future persistence of outcome. Emerging evils in no way diminish the work of good moral women and men of the past. As such, our own present actions are not diminished by whatever may happen in the future. If human history teaches us anything, it is that human beings and civilizations prosper and fall. Governments now free will see future tyrants. Where there is peace will eventually be conflict. Likewise, where there is now war, peace will prevail. Those who suffer under oppression will freed from their oppressors. This is neither pessimism, nor optimism. It is simply the fundamental nature of existence.