Some years ago I wrote a book called The Feeling Buddha. It has been, along with Zen Therapy, one of my two most popular books. In The Feeling Buddha I proposed a new way to interpret the basic teaching of Buddha that is traditionally called the Four Noble Truths. The classic interpretation is that Buddha taught that all suffering arises from desire, that desire can be overcome and that the path leading to the end of desire is that called the Noble Eightfold Path, namely right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
My suggestion was that Buddha was not overly concerned about ending all suffering. Buddha seems to accept that some suffering is part of life. However, when we suffer, feelings are aroused and these often lead us to act unwisely. I suggested that Buddha was very much concerned to help us avoid acting unwisely. Furthermore, the Eightfold Path cannot really be a path to something else because it is itself a description of the perfect life, it is the goal.
If we take this view then we can completely reframe the four noble truths and read them in the following way. 1. Life inevitably involves affliction; 2. With affliction come powerful feelings that can lead us astray; 3. We do however have choice in this matter and 4. If we choose wisely we shall find ourselves upon the Eightfold Path. I also noted that the word that is commonly translated as "right" in relation to the eightfold path can also be rendered "wholehearted". So choosing wisely when in situations of difficulty results in a wholehearted way of life. Many people have found this re-interpretation useful and inspiring.
The Eightfold Path is what Buddha discovered. He did not get to enlightenment by following it, he found it by getting enlightened. The Eightfold Path is a description of the lives of enlightened people, lives that are whole-hearted. It is a description of a noble life and a noble life is not one that shrinks before suffering. To avoid suffering is hardly a nobler goal than the life described in the Eightfold Path. A means to a spiritual end can hardly be something that is itself more noble than the end. That would amount to saying that if you live a perfect life you may succeed in arriving at a mediocre end, which hardly makes any sense.
No, I think that the basic message is that if you handle the afflictions that inevitably occur in a wise and compassionate manner, you will find yourself to be on a path of spiritual fulfilment, free of inner conflict. Doesn't that make sense?
As I say, many have found this message a valuable gateway. It is realistic. I do not think that it is possible to eliminate all suffering, nor do I think it is possible to eliminate all desire, nor do I think that doing either of these things would be a good idea even if they were possible.
Of course, I cannot know for sure whether my interpretation is right. Buddha is not around for us to ask him what exactly he did mean. Nonetheless, I think that my interpretation is in keeping with other things he said and with the general tenor of his teaching. Buddha was not the sort of chap to run away from a bit of hardship and he was passionate about people learning to live their lives in a noble manner. I am too.
So it is my intention to keep developing the philosophy proposed in The Feeling Buddha. If it is what Buddha intended, all well and good. If I am mistaken in that regard then Buddha and I perhaps part company. I'm fairly confident, however, that I am right, at least in the broad outline of what I have suggested. Nonetheless, it is also part of the noble life to go on and on learning, so, who knows, I might still be persuaded that there is an even deeper interpretation just waiting to be uncovered.
In fact I have added a few nuances since I wrote the book. I discovered, by attending a conference of language scholars, that “Four Truths for Noble Ones” might well be a better rendering than “Four Noble Truths”. This change, I realised, actually adds strength to my original argument. If these are four truths for noble ones then the first one, which is affliction, dukkha, is a truth for noble ones, which suggests that becoming a noble one is not actually a matter of getting rid of dukkha as the traditional commentaries suggest. This is just common sense, isn't it? Isn't nobility about taking affliction in a certain way, rather than avoiding it?
I also realised that since etymologically duk-kha means a dark space, it makes sense to think what we mean when we say, metaphorically, that we are in a dark place. We mean that we are in a place where we are gloomy, where our thoughts might let us down, where we might do something that is less than noble. Buddha was certainly capable of seeing life as a venture in which there are spiritual dangers. If we take dukkha to mean those times when we are in spiritual danger, then we can certainly see the second and third truths as how we get out of that danger, or how we transform that gloomy dangerous place into one of wholeheartedness. All in all, therefore, I am still inclined to think that the re-interpretation offered in The Feeling Buddha is a good way to construe the Buddha's meaning and that the goal is not how to escape from suffering, but how to live in an honourable way.
(every week I'll post some questions that are intended to start some thoughts sparking - do feel free to share below on these questions, or on anything else that strikes you on reading the text - questions, insights, things from your own life that it makes you think of etc... no need for cleverness, we're all bombu beings, just share!)
- Does this description of the Four Noble Truths match with your own experience of life? If not where does it differ?
- When do you tend to be in dukkha, a dark space - spiritual danger?
- Have the choices you make changed in any way since you became Buddhist?
A good question about the four noble truths matching with lifes experience. I have taken this as given fairly much. Is it only suffering that leads us astray. Can we act unwisely when we are filled with joy? I think so. We can be at our most uncaring when we are joyful- or are we already trying to cling to this joy and measure its shortcomings? While I write I am using a tens machine on my hips, electro therapy. With a small nudge of the dial pleasure turns to pain and vice versa. Is the dial influencing samudaya? A facetious question, but sukha and dukkha seem like poles on a continuum and life seems to turn the dial.
Always in dukkha, though not always noticing. Is there a place where there is no spiritual danger? My sense here is that if we think we are not in spiritual danger, well that's the most dangerous place.
When did I become Buddhist? I was inspired by Buddhist teachings when I was a teenager and have done much sitting during my life. One measure is taking refuge. I did not know of this aspect of Buddhism when I was younger, but searching for teachings seems rather close to taking refuge. The last nine years since I first encountered Amida-Shu has not so much changed my choices as helped refine them. I ask more questions and feel less sure of path, less certain that there is merit in a particular approach.
Namo Amida Bu. I've missed hearing your 'voice' of late, Rob. Hoping to hang out a bit more here in the future & hoping you'll be here sometimes! I love the idea of a wheel /continuum of sukha/dukha.
The continuum of sukkha/dukkha reminds me of the karma of ordinary people. We make good and bad karma, but there is always self investment - so it leaves a trace - good karma can turn into suffering too. The Buddha doesn't create any karma. His or her actions are off the dukkha/sukkha wheel. Loving and spontaneous, they leave no trace in the mind, they don't stir the ego.
Good questions, Rob. Yes, i think that the Buddha thought that there is a sense in which we are always in spiritual danger. I think, for instance, that this is the message of the Fire Sermon. The Buddha frequently warms that the pursuit of pleasure is particularly dangerous. And, yes, i agree that refuge is the real key. Namo Amida Bu.
General thoughts... I've liked this interpretation of the Four Nobles Truths since I first read it, as it seems so much more life-affirming and realistic than the 'get rid of desire' approach. I still find it quite hard to get my head wrapped around ideas like this, I have to go over them again and again and somehow drum them in!
When am I in spiritual danger? I like the 12 steps acronym - HALT - be careful when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Also when I get stuck in the stickiness of compulsion, whichever particular compulsion it is - when I'm a quarter in it's easier to slide in the whole way! (ie finish the whole packet of biscuits!)
Namo Amida Bu.
Thank you for your questions.
The way Dharmavidaya gives description on the four Truths for noble ones, makes me very happy. For me it looks very much as a noble goal to be able to act in een noble way when in contact with dukkha. To be able to let go selfish thoughts buth really be inspired by compassion for the the "pain of the world", what we all share and connect with others who are in the same dukkha-space.
I feel I'm in spiritual danger when I hear rough harsh words and don't feel accepted for who I am and when I'm angry.
What I'm doing now when dukkha arrises is, look at it and see it less as "my" "problem" (where I have to worry about) but more as something of the human pain that visits me and connects me with others in the same situation and as something that will surely also will go away. This helps me a lot. Before I lost much energy overthinking all "my problems".
Namo Amida Bu
This is a beautiful way of thinking of dukkha, Vajrapala. It sounds like it takes some of the 'ego' away? I'm also glad you've written about how you feel inspired by this reading of the Four Noble Truths - me too - and that feels really important - if we are inspired then this will have an effect on us, even if this is only feeling inspired rather than any action, which will have an effect on others.
Yes, I agree. Very nice.