Is there a doctor in the house?
One of the many obnoxious things one must endure after a conversion to Buddhism in a predominantly Christian community is the repeated inquiry of just what it is that you actually believe, the common insistence for a clearly stated theology, eschatology, cosmology, and weirdly enough, Christology. Speaking of which, I still haven’t found an appropriate answer for the inevitable, “Well, what did the Buddha think of Christ?” besides perhaps “Do you know how time works?”
This desire for a statement of belief over a method of practice makes sense in the overarching framework of Christianity, which of course emphasizes the power of faith and orthodoxy over any kind of action. But it puts Buddhists in a bind because the beliefs that we have – kamma, rebirth, dependent origination – cannot be separated from the actions they motivate. The Buddhist view of reality is less a self-consistent set of ultimate truths and more a diagnosis made for a prescription, which of course is the Noble Eightfold Path. And just as a normal doctor would come off as nihilistic and cruel if he consistently made a habit of breaking the bad news to patients without mention of a readily-available cure, so to are Buddhists in danger of appearing hopelessly glum if they allow the conversation about “Just what it is Buddhist believe” to focus on the bitterness of one Noble Truth – the fact that there is suffering – and not the sweetness of the other three.
With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves, when faced with verses like:
- When this world is ever ablaze,
why this laughter,
why this jubilation?
Shrouded in darkness,
will you not see the light?
- Behold this body — a painted image,
a mass of heaped up sores,
infirm, full of hankering —
of which nothing is lasting or stable!
- Fully worn out is this body,
a nest of disease, and fragile.
This foul mass breaks up,
for death is the end of life.
- These dove-colored bones are like gourds
that lie scattered about in autumn.
Having seen them, how can one seek delight?
- This city (body) is built of bones,
plastered with flesh and blood;
within are decay and death,
pride and jealousy.
How can we prevent those around us from seeing Buddhism as a self-hating, crotchety old man religion instead of the joyful, enriching set of teachings that it is?
To really get to the heart of the matter, we have to remember what the Buddha was all about: Dukkha, suffering. We cling to possessions, beliefs, ideas and concepts and when those things turn to shit, as they inevitably do, we suffer. That’s as true now as it was then – perhaps even more so. And as humans, but especially as Americans, when the things we cling to hurt us deeply, we blame ourselves for doing something wrong, for buying the wrong car or getting the wrong job or otherwise failing; like addicts, we indulge, hurt ourselves, and then indulge some more to numb the pain. This cycle of attachment trains us to seek out the things that hurt us the most and then self-medicate by starting the cycle again. There isn’t a human being alive who has no experience with this kind of pain, but even in the midst of scrambling to get all the right variables together and in the right spots, we’re all afraid to ask if maybe, just maybe, the equation is just a little fucked up.
Enter the Buddha, stage right. He tells you, no, that car, that girl, that job, that house, none of it is going to make you happy; when you delight in that which cannot last, when you cling to the things that are empty and rotting, you set yourself up for this unending personal Samsara of seeking, getting, losing, and seeking once more. He says that you will toil and suffer for millions and millions of births, again and again, and that to exist at all is to be filled with sorrow. He says you’re going to get sick and die and lose everything you love.
And if you leave it at that, it really is just a self-hating, crotchety old man religion.
But that’s not where he stopped. The Buddha went on to say that there is a real joy and happiness right here that we actively cut ourselves off from when refuse to let go of our worthless shit. The Buddha taught that attachment doesn’t fail tobring happiness, it succeeds in bringing suffering. The whole essence of the Dhamma is that there exists beyond the animalistic hoarding instinct a joy born of seclusion and renunciation. Suffering is not a default state that we attempt in vain to ward off with clinging and craving, but instead an alien experience we actively cultivate. In the Bhara sutta, he states:
The five aggregates are the heavy load,
The seizing of the load is man.
Holding it is misery,
Laying down the load is bliss.
For a simile, imagine a farmer fails to raise a healthy crop and, assuming that something is wrong with his land, asks for a man to come and examine his soil. The man finds that, although a rich supply of dirt exists below the hard, sun-baked upper layer, the farmer never digs deep enough to reach it. He goes to farmer and starts his advice by saying that the top layer is never going to bring him another good crop. If the farmer wails in despair and falls the ground in resignation, he’ll never hear the good news – that clearing away that top layer will reveal a deep and nourishing supply of everything he needs. In the same way, so many people see Buddhism as nihilistic and hopeless because sensual pleasure, attachment, and craving is all they know; when they hear a man say that these things are incapable of bringing happiness, they assume what he has said is that happiness cannot be gained at all. To represent Buddhism accurately, we cannot simply focus on the top layer of dirt. We have to dig deeper and reveal, through our words and deeds, a happiness and peace that exists below the pain that rides shotgun with desire. We have to show that the Dhamma is not a stoic admission of suffering’s inevitability but instead a joyful path toward its defeat.
The five groups are the heavy load, The seizing of the load is man. Holding it is misery, Laying down the load is bliss.