Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Suffering is Interesting, Ending Suffering is Uninteresting

One of the most important statements of Buddhist philosophy is the Four Noble Truths. These were taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first discourse he made to the five ascetics, who he had worked with during his first years after becoming a monk.

The Four Noble Truths are stated thus:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. 

Existence is suffering.

The cause of suffering is craving.

The cessation of suffering comes from the giving up of craving.

The way to give up craving and reach the cessation of suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.

These may be true. They may be false. That is up to you to decide, as the Buddha himself said.

But what is intriguing to me is the relative levels of interest in each of the Four Noble Truths. If you check Google's search results, you get the following number of hits:

"First Noble Truth" - 54,000 results

"Second Noble Truth" - 30,100 results

"Third Noble Truth" - 31,700 results

"Fourth Noble Truth" - 28,100 results

So to judge accordingly, people are far more interested to find out that the Buddha thought the world is miserable than to find out how the Buddha proposed to deal with this predicament.

Less than 60% of the people who found the First Noble Truth insightful enough to quote it displayed any interest in finding out how to actually get rid of suffering. Of course, the Buddha may just be wrong about all this. But then why quote the First Truth in the first place?

Not only that, but having gotten to the end, we're told that the way forward is the Eightfold Noble Path.

"Eightfold Noble Path" - 17,800 results

This, of course, is even less interesting to people than the Noble Truths themselves, hence another third of people drop away. Oh, you mean he was actually serious about ending suffering, and gave a detailed description of how to get there? Bah, who's got time for that!

As a result, Buddhism more or less gets reduced in the popular conception to Brad Pitt's pithy phrase in 'Se7en'
"You're right. It's all f***ed up. It's a f***ing mess. We should all go live in a f***ing log cabin."
So why is the First Noble Truth much more interesting to people than the rest?

Perhaps they don't believe the rest. This is possible, but given the frequency of repetition, I hear the Brad Pitt version quoted as if it's the actual main point of Buddhism. I think most of the 24,000 odd people who don't get past Truth #1 honestly don't know what the others even say.

If they haven't heard the other three truths, it's because they didn't resonate in a way that made people want to repeat them. So why is that?

I suspect part of it comes from what The  Last Psychiatrist said about narcissism, here:
The unconscious doesn't care about happiness, or sadness, or gifts, or bullets.  It has one single goal, protect the ego, protect status quo.  Do not change and you will not die.  It will allow you to go to college across the country to escape your parents, but turn up the volume of their pre-recorded soundbites when you get there.  It will trick you into thinking you're making a huge life change, moving to this new city or marrying that great guy, even as everyone else around you can see what you can't, that Boulder is exactly like Oakland and he is just like the last guys.   And all the missed opportunities-- maybe I shouldn't, and isn't that high? and he probably already has a girlfriend, and I can't change careers at 44, and 3 months for the first 3/4 and going on ten years for the last fourth, and do I really deserve this?-- all of that is maintenance of the status quo, the ego. 
and here:
Grandiosity is only one possible manifestation of a psychic process that went awry.  The essence, the defining characteristic of narcissism is the isolated worldview, the one in which everyone else is not fully real, only part a person, and only the part the impacts you.
Narcissism is self-protective.  It simultaneously allows for the reduction of the other to prop status, while reassuring you that this perspective is not wrong or dangerous because it's not about superiority. 

The First Noble Truth, quoted alone and out of context, can sound ego-validating. Your suffering is a cosmic truth that is inescapable! The misfortune you're suffering is pre-ordained in the structure of the universe. It's not your fault - you're perfect the way you are!

Truths two through four, however, inform you that it is your fault. Whether you find this demoralising or inspiring says a lot about you. Your misery is due to your actions and thoughts, but it's something within your power to change. That should be great news, but of course it isn't necessarily. Faced with the choice between continuing to suffer and changing oneself, are you really surprised that lots of people prefer the former?

And the number that go on to find the details of how to actually do it is smaller still.

The Buddha, of course, was not a psychiatrist in the modern sense, and The Last Psychiatrist is no Buddhist either. But they find common ground in the following observation about the modern world - the main craving that people have is not really craving for material things or money, but attachment to their ideas of self.

So it's well worth pondering The Last Psychiatrist's description for how to deal with the problem of ego:
"Help me, please, I think I'm a narcissist.  What do I do?"
There are a hundred correct answers, yet all of them useless, all of them will fail precisely because you want to hear them.
There's only one that's universally effective, I've said it before and no one liked it. This is step 1: fake it.
You'll say: but this isn't a treatment, this doesn't make a real change in me, this isn't going to make me less of a narcissist if I'm faking!
All of those answers are the narcissism talking.  All of those answers miss the point: your treatment isn't for you, it's for everyone else.
If you do not understand this, repeat step 1.


  1. I am NOT getting notices from your feedburner widget. This is quite tragic!!!

  2. Noble Eightfold Path (with adjectives in opposite order) gets 406K hits. So there's that. Good on ya for writing about this, champ!

    1. Ha, this does undermine the thesis somewhat. Social science is always a messy process. :)

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