Sunday, May 13, 2012

Four Noble Truths: Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

The Treachery of Images
I'm not sure why I haven't thought of this before. I should have. Really. I know this. At least I did at one point.

I'm talking about words here. The words we use represent agreed upon symbols for phenomena that occur in this world. A soda, for example, isn't really a soda. We've just all socially agreed that the substance we experience as a bubbly liquid will be called a soda (unless you are from Ohio, in which case you'll call it pop).

The symbols (words) aren't representative of real things that we have direct knowledge of. Rather, our symbols are representative of perceptions of phenomena that we only have access to from our own senses--not some direct knowledge of a "real" thing.

Have I lost you yet? At best I have a 50/50 chance of getting lost myself.

I've been thinking about this sort of things for years. Sitting under a tree in college (I'm being serious here, and no, it wasn't a Bodhi tree) the class read Alfred Korzybski and learned that the map is not the territory. Words (maps) do not entirerly represent the territory of phenomena that the maps (words) are trying to describe. Later in college I studied Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images (1928-1929), and learned that the image, like the word, does not represent the "real" thing. Still later I studied Michel Foucault and read his 1968 essay "This is Not a Pipe." I thought more about language being symbolic representations of phenomena that are never exactly "real." Lastly, in my doctoral program I spent an awful lot of time reading and writing about social constructionism. Identities aren't real things, I wrote. Identities are stories we communally create to describe our perceptions of the phenomena that are around us.

I better come back around toward my point. Things get lost in translation. I've known this for a long time. I just forget that I know this.

So here I am up late watching a documentary by David Grubin called The Buddha and was reminded that what we think to be true isn't exactly true. The first twenty times I've learned this lesson was not enough. Apparently I need a little more reinforcement.

The four noble truths of Buddhism, as they are popularly taught, are that (1) Life means suffering; (2) The origin of suffering is attachment; (3) The cessation of suffering is possible; and (4) There is a path of the cessation of suffering.

Suffering, of course, isn't actually suffering. The original meaning here has gotten lost in translation. I know this, or at least knew this, but forgot it at some point or another. The Grubin documentary reminded me once again that suffering is a translation of the word dukkha. Suffering is one understanding of the word--and an appealing one. It's short, simple, and speaks to all of us. Who doesn't want to have less suffering in their lives? Dukka, however, isn't exactly suffering. It means something more akin to dissatisfaction. The word speaks to our experience of never being quite happy--and if we do experience happiness it tends to disappear in an instant. Dukka speaks to our experience of dissatisfaction with the constantly changing experiences of our lives.

You say suffering, I say dissatisfaction. Let's call the whole thing off? Hold on a second more. If you stick with me I might convince you that we better call the calling off, off.

I wonder if the Gershwin brothers were trying to teach us the Four Noble Truths. They certainly captured some of the dissatisfaction that occurs when two people, with two different ways of understanding the world, come grinding together in a relationship (the first noble truth, suffering is inevitable). The brothers also got that we can let go of  this dissatisfaction about day-to-day gripes for a greater goal.
But oh if we call the whole thing off than we must part.
And oh, if we ever part than that might break my heart.
For we know we need each other,
we better call the calling off off,
let's call the whole thing off.
Back to the documentary--the Grubin documentary interviewed the Dali Lama. He said that many read the four noble truths and attempt to wipe out suffering and wipe out desire. "Where does enlightenment fit in without desire? Without desire, how how do we lead our life? Without desire, how can we achieve Buddhahood?" The Dali Lama goes on to talk about being cautious about choosing the right kind of desire. "Desire to be harmful, no that's bad."

I'm going to hazard the guess that the Dali Lama isn't suggesting that the right kind of desire to have here is for wanting the thing of romantic love, as the Gershwin brothers suggest. I'm going to guess that the Dali Lama considers the desire for compassion and joy to be the good desire. 

What's my take home message here? Look toward joy and compassion. Cultivate that if you want to have the good life. 

What's compassion and joy, you ask? I'll have to tackle that another time.

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