We all know that dukkha is the first of the Four Truths. These are often called the Four Noble Truths, though a more accurate translation is Four Truths for Noble Ones. This change of translation is significant. It is not that affliction and the dark patches in life are themselves noble, nor is it that they are things to get rid of. Rather, it is that they play a crucially important role in the spiritual paths of noble people.
"Noble" here means spiritual. It means having the spirit to rise above adversity and not be crushed by life. It was such nobility as this that Buddha taught. In Pureland we see how this ability to be noble comes from having faith in (and gratitude for) something beyond oneself, something that is itself noble, and the most noble thing is the spirit of Buddha throughout time and space. It is the intuition of this pervasive "light" that constitutes the "awakening of faith" that is the core of Buddhist inspiration.
Thus, I do not teach that Buddhism will eliminate suffering from your life. It won't. However, it will bring you something wonderfully precious that is sometimes referred to as a "wish-fulfilling-gem" that has the seemingly magical ability to transform adverse circumstances into the spiritual path. At its core, this must be essentially the same as the Christian idea "Take up your cross and follow me," but the mode in which we take the idea is somewhat different in Buddhism, I think. Certainly there is no intention here to glorify affliction or cultivate a martyr mentality. There is suffering enough. Nor is there an idea that each person has a special suffering that they are supposed to endure and that doing so is itself noble.
Rather, in the Buddhist view, affliction is existential and inevitable and the quality of a life shows in how one responds to it - with eyes open or closed. We shall all encounter sickness, old age and death in ourselves and others. We shall all encounter separations and failures and circumstances that we hate. We all experience our own limitations, faults, failings and errors. We already live in a world where there is war, slavery, torture, disease, exploitation, and this world is such that many creatures cannot survive without devouring others. If we open our hearts, what are we going to experience? Surely this is why so many do not open them. Yet to be a "noble one" it is precisely such opening that is called for and it takes a lot of faith.
When we do open our hearts, we shall experience bliss, but we shall also concurrently experience the "great grief". This is like the yin and yang of the spiritual path. The more bliss, the more grief. The more grief, the more compassion. Dukkha, therefore, is a danger point. It is not that there is a danger that we might experience suffering, it is rather that there is a danger that in our desire to not experience suffering we close our hearts to light and bliss as well. It is the danger of spiritual anaesthesia. Spiritual anaesthesis is avidya. It is Mara - it is to be spiritually dead. Buddhism wakes the dead - brings the spirit to life. The awakening that Buddhism teaches is the shedding of such anaesthesia, but this itself means willingness to experience more dukkha: the dukkha of all sentient beings. This is why dukkha is a truth especially for noble ones.
Great dukkha yields great compassion. Great compassion yields great acceptance. Great acceptance yields the great path. How does it yield the great path? It does so because it yields a life that is real, that engages with the real situation, with the real person that one is, with the real person who stands before one, with the real existential situation that all sentient beings share. It is free from spiritual anaesthesis, from avidya. The Buddha called this a noble life because it involved a willingness to take on what is real, no matter that doing so involve dukkha or not.
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