To be completely honest, I think the 4 noble truths are bullshit.
According to Buddhist thought, there are four axioms of truth that you must accept in order to make progress towards “enlightenment”. They are:
- Life means suffering.
- The origin of suffering is attachment.
- The cessation of suffering is attainable.
- The path to the cessation of suffering.
Definitions (in italics) taken from here, my editorial comments will be below each point.
Truth #1: Life means suffering
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
This is simply not true. At least, no more true than the statement that “Life is pleasure”. Why focus on the negative, guys? Why not realize that the suffering is just as impermanent as the joy? The former doesn’t outlast the latter, they are merely two sides of the coin of experience, emotions go up and emotions go down. Impermanence is as much a blessing as it is a curse. The beauty of spring is all the more beautiful because it comes and goes. The sadness of death is tinged with the joy of having had the chance to be alive. To focus entirely on the negative makes me think that you’re trying to play some kind of manipulative trick on me. To say that everything is painful and sad is simply not consistent with my own experience of the world. It would be more accurate to say that life creates in us a response of ever-changing joy and sadness, pleasure and suffering. One is no heavier or more real than the other. Life is a buffet of positive, negative, neutral, and mixed experiences. Therefore, truth #1 is not true.
Truth #2: The origin of suffering is attachment
The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a “self” which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call “self” is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.
This is saying that because we aren’t aware that the things we are passionate about are going to end, that the result will be suffering. Again, the elevation of importance of a single step in a long chain of reactions is out of place. You could just as easily say that the origin of pleasure is attachment. The pursuit of desires is highly pleasurable. The deep passion of engulfing oneself in the beauty of the world is one of life’s happiest pastimes. Sure, there is an arc to pleasure, and most pleasures must come to an end, but the resulting “suffering” also has an arc. The bittersweet process of mourning is not always suffering. Sometimes it is appreciation. Sometimes it is love. Would any child, upon the death of their beloved parent, wish that they had never loved their parent? That they had been indifferent? What about the “it’s better to love and to have lost, than to have never loved at all”? The lifecycle of desire, appreciation, passing, and remembrance is a net-positive experience, and one of the true joys of life. To love someone unconditionally, truly for their own selves, is a reward in itself, and can never be taken away. The same goes for a delicious piece of chocolate… the sadness of finishing a bite of chocolate only strengthens the enjoyment of it. Separation from an object of desire does not always end in suffering, and when it does, it does not cancel out the enjoyment. I just don’t understand this piece of logic at all and I call bullshit on it.
Truth #3: The cessation of suffering is attainable
The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dispassion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it.
Okay, this may be true. But it is a ridiculous idea. Dispassion as a goal, it seems to me that this is a strategy that only self-pitying fools would take. The assumption of this truth is that if living isn’t going to give us everything we want, then we will choose not to play that game. It’s like someone taking their ball away from the playground because the other kids didn’t let him win. It’s a sore-loser strategy. Saying that it’s not comprehensible for those who have not attained it is a cop-out. If you want a truth to be believed, it has to be falsifiable, and have some kind of argument for its validity. Personally, I see no reason to reject the playground of sensual craving, conceptual attachment, passion, desire, love, worries, trouble, complexes, fabrications, and ideas. I love this playground, all the more because it is a complex creature that doesn’t obey my every whim. It surprises, delights, and inspires. It is a lovely game, filled with lovely people. While I see some truth in #3 here, because it provides a strategy towards a goal that I don’t believe is valuable, it seems to me to be a useless truth.
Truth #4: The path to the cessation of suffering.
There is a path to the end of suffering – a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described more detailed in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The latter quality discerns it from other paths which are merely “wandering on the wheel of becoming”, because these do not have a final object. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.
First of all, nobody really believes in the cycle of rebirth anymore. It wasn’t even mentioned as one of the previous truths. It’s an old idea, unsupported by science, and probably believed to be a fairy-tale even by a good percentage of practicing Buddhists. Second of all, even if there were a cycle of rebirth, why wouldn’t one want to continue on it? Life is fun, if I could live multiple lives in a row as different people, I’d totally sign up for that. Thirdly, from the previous truths, it’s clear that the spectrum of pleasure and suffering is not very well understood, and I wouldn’t trust a “middle path” between extremes to be very nuanced. In fact, the Eightfold Path, while it does have some interesting points, falls victim to the same flaws in logic that the 4 noble truths do. Primarily, I believe that the Eightfold Path misunderstands that the cycle of creation and destruction is part of how the universe works, and part of its beauty. To place all of the importance on ending the cycle of creation and destruction is to disregard the primary method that this universe evolves and grows and continues to evolve. Natural selection requires experimentation, risk-taking, pleasure-seeking, engaged individuals and groups to test strategies that either succeed or fail, and which learn from their experiences and continue to improve over time. I believe that the 4 noble truths and the Eightfold Path encourage lack of participation, and slow down this process. And are therefore not only misguided statements, but counter-productive.
The 4 noble truths might be useful to someone too weak to take a little suffering in their daily routine. The truth that I understand includes the continued participation in the pleasure/pain suffering/joy playground of life, knowing that it is through these experiences that we continue to grow, enjoy, love, appreciate, and generally live. To take away these mechanisms of life is to take away the sweetest fruit of life. Much sweeter and more rewarding than simply the lack of suffering that they covet so highly.