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Friday, 27 December 2013

Buddha's Four Noble Truths reconsidered

Gina Stoner, author of 'Talks With Al' has here condensed a talk given in a Zen group by the late Sexton Bourke in 2001. She explains that the talk so impressed her that she wished to share it more widely. She was careful to tell us that her condensation is a paraphrase that borrows nothing of the original talk except its essential argument.

The Four Noble truths are considered to be the bedrock of Buddhism, yet are merely an expression of something that words cannot define. They are not truth but expressions of the truth.

The first is the noble truth of dukkha or suffering. It states that life is suffering. Do you agree with this? Certainly, much of life is unpleasant and things seem so arranged that good and bad generally alternate, with just enough comfort around to stop us cutting our throats.

However dukkha is Pali word - a word from a language and culture that no longer exists. And so the original meaning could be obscure. Fortunately Buddha spoke a lot about dukkha. In fact he equated it with attachment, reaction to things - the process of getting caught, obsessed, intrigued with outward objects. And, once, he broadly defined dukkha as 'impermanence'.

So, in this context, dukkha is everything around us. Because everything we see is impermanent. Everything is subject to entropy. Even life or 'negative entropy' finally succumbs. Reality as we know it is subjective, dependent, conditional. It is a flux with no finality. An alphabet soup continually stirred.

The second noble truth states the origin of this dukkha, how it comes about. The standard explanation is the cause of dukkha, or suffering, is desire. An unwanted moral element enters in here. But if we take suffering as 'impermanence' then this interpretation does not stand. The second noble truth then becomes: 'impermanence is not absolute'. Unfortunately our egos are invested in 'impermanence' even though our hearts seek an absolute value. In this sense, ego is dukkha - impermanent.

So what then would the absolute be? It would be something that does not change. Not in the sense of a dead thing because this something would be intensely alive, creative, profound. And it would also transcend time - or, one could say, would have no beginning or end. A limitless thing - able to be sensed, perhaps, but impossible to define.

So we come to the third noble truth which is usually presented as the extinction of desire. Once again we are back in value judgements.

But, if we agree that the conditioned world is not absolute and that the ego is the cause of its arising, what, then, is the third noble truth?

Surely that suffering is ended by experiencing the absolute.

For some, this means manufacturing a kind of blankness. This is the blind alley that many Buddhists teachers warn against. The absolute is not a negation but the most lively affirmation possible. But even Zen, in this context, is merely a finger pointing to the moon.

The fourth noble truth refers to method - the eightfold noble path. This provides practical ways to approach the third - the experience of the absolute. It sets down precise codes of conduct irrelevant to the conversation here.

To restate:

1. Life is impermanence.
2. Impermanence is not absolute.
3. The angst of impermanence is ended by experiencing the absolute.

The advantage of this definition is that value judgements are negated. There is no longer a moral issue in the conventional sense. Simply an invocation to truly practise your spiritual tradition.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Pushing stones up-hill - the myth of Sisyphus

Among the books in the late Joy Lonsdale's library was Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus - which is, among other things, a polemic on the rationality of suicide. And inserted into this book was a note in Joy's handwriting that is possibly her own work. Appended here for your interest:

This King of Corinth earned the enmity of Zeus by informing and angry father that the King of the Gods had carried off his daughter, Aegina - who was to become great-grandmother to Achilles.

Zeus decided that Sisyphus must die, but did not wish to honour him by sending Hermes to conduct him to Tartarus (region of Hell). He sent a lesser messenger Thanatos, whose name meant 'death'.

However, Sisyphus, a man of infinite resource and courage, succeeded in binding Thanatos in chains and returned calmly to take his place among the living.

After some time, Thanatos was released and sent again to Sisyphus. This time, however, Sisyphus made another plan. He instructed his wife to omit any funeral rites and to offer none of the special gifts to Persephone which were supposed to placate that goddess of the underworld and ease the passage of the one who had died.

Persephone, thus, has no knowledge of Sisyphus's death and, when confronted by him, was persuaded that he had been conducted to Tartarus by mistake. She ordered him to be freed.

So Sisyphus again escaped Tartarus and resumed his life.

Now Zeus was determined that there should be no third escape. Sisyphus was taken again to Tartarus under strong guard and his impiety was blazoned forth for all to know. Once in Tartarus he was condemned to a unique punishment - to roll a huge rock up a hill. Just when the summit was reached, the rock rolled back and he was forced to resume his task at the bottom of the hill. And this went on through eternity.

In another legend, Sisyphus appears as the father of Odysseus. Indeed, the great voyager displayed the same kind of cunning and resourcefulness but never bent them to impious deed.

Here ends Joy's presumed rant on Sisyphus, the most crafty prince of the heroic ages. Where she found the information, we'll never know. We note that in Lempriere's Classical Dictionary of 1919, Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, is cited as the one who imposed the rock-rolling punishment. And the institution of the Pythian games is attributed to Sisyphus.

So where does all that leave you? Between a rock and a hard place?  You can read Joy's erudite books on Buzzword.