The Buddha’s first Noble Truth is often translated as “Life is suffering”, but I prefer to think of it as saying “there is suffering.” There is no escape from this fact; that’s just the way things are.
Even though we can do things to “sugar the pill”, it’s just something woven into life, a point brought home in the Christian tradition by the image of God’s son on the cross. Even being the boss’ son doesn’t exempt you from pain and death.
I’ve often noticed in myself an underlying feeling of “why?” There’s a nagging question of “does it have to be this way?” Perhaps most importantly, “what do I need to do to be free?”
Recently, however, I’ve come to see just how dangerous these questions can be. The belief in a “way out” (just around the corner if you get your act together!) can actually generate more suffering if I’m not careful and honest.
Following the path of Truth means that you have to be open to recognizing Truth even when it is uncomfortable, upsetting, or shocking. You also have to learn to discern between what is actually Truth as opposed to what is mere belief or opinion.
This is very difficult because so many of our individual beliefs and opinions are bound up with cultural fancies and preferences in which we are immersed without noticing. A fish doesn’t notice the water around him, and we often don’t recognize that some of our most cherished beliefs are actually results of cultural programming and conditioning. This holds true for everything from food preferences to sexual habits to bodily grooming.
The question I have is : What if my desire to move beyond suffering is just an expression of a larger cultural longing to escape? Is there something particular about me as a 21st century American male that disposes me to looking for an escape in a particular way?
When Buddhism arrived in the west, it implanted itself within a cultural narrative (as it has done in all cultures it encounters). Despite the horrors of the 20th century, postmodern western society has held admitted, as the Beatles sang, that things are “getting better, a little better all the time.” We’ve dropped the theological dimension of this belief (that things will all be better in heaven, after we’re dead), but kept the underlying assumption that the best times are yet to come, perhaps in a Communist utopia, perhaps in a global free market system where everyone gets all the stuff they want.
It’s no surprise, then, that in this deeply individualistic cultural context, I often find myself thinking that it’s solely my responsibility to bring myself to enlightenment. Not only do I have the ability to get my act together and meditate my way to the “Pure Land”, but I also have the duty to utilize the resources I’ve been given to their fullest (a new branch of economics I call “precious human birth maximization”).
Naturally, this creates a lot of pressure to perform, achieve, and accomplish. Already, dealing with the realities of sickness, death, and never feeling satisfied is hard enough. Adding to that an additional layer that makes it seem as though I just have to work harder to get it to go away just makes it worse.
This is why perhaps that to get away from suffering, I have to see that I can’t get away from suffering. The more I fight against the basic structure of life, the more trouble I bring on myself. Part of this structure includes that I am a thoroughly enculturated creature, and while there’s no way around that, I can become more aware of the various ways in which a culture assumption passes itself off as universal and natural.
In the case of “making progress” I have to remember that I can only apply the stamp of “progress” if I know what the “better” state toward which I am marching is. If I haven’t the slightest clue about what enlightenment is, how can I tell if I’m moving toward it? Maybe what I see as forward motion is actually regression. Or maybe it’s misguided to even look at it in these terms.
I like to remember the Zen saying “don’t seek enlightenment, just cease to cherish your opinions.” Drop what you think reality should be, and just be open to what it is. Drop the resistance to suffering and thinking that life should be set up otherwise. Spot the ways in which culture influences and informs your relation to this suffering, and drop those too.
This is an unrelenting, unending process, one that can seem like a Sisyphean burden with no end, no progress, and no point..
But who ever said there had to be a point?