“A ferocious wooden tiger stands before the door you wish to enter, but he harms no-one”. According to the Kuan Yin Oracle (1), now is the time to put things to the proof, submit to the ordeal and separate the wheat from the chaff. It is the time of the seed and the pearl, when I am tasked to find “the hidden treasure behind the play of illusions”. The Oracle also suggests to me that it won’t be too hard to do this, because “basically, you are a realist”.
I started an online course yesterday, concerned with a fresh look at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, reframed as four ennobling tasks. This course is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/ – for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.
As part of its mission, “Bodhi College wants to recover core insights of early Buddhist teachings, so as to develop fresh ways of understanding the Dharma today. It seeks to provide a contemplative education that inspires students to realize the values of the Dharma in the context of this secular age and culture”.
Classically, the Four Nobles truths are framed as statements about suffering (dukkha) and what to do about it. Some people don’t like ‘suffering’ as the English translation and prefer to talk about stress, ‘the painful’, that which is hard to bear, unsatisfactoriness. My sense is that dukkha covers the range. One of the course tutors, Christina Feldman, calls it “the arguments we have with all that is unarguable” – things like illness, ageing and death, as the Buddha pointed out right at the beginning.
Taught as a doctrine, the Four Noble Truths assert:
- The existence of suffering as an inescapable part of life
- The origin of suffering in four forms of attachment: to sensory pleasures; to our opinions and views; to rites and rituals at the expense of genuine spiritual experience; to our belief that we exist as a solid, permanent self
- The end of suffering, through taming the forces or greed, hatred and delusion either temporarily or (ideally) permanently
- The path to end suffering, this being the eightfold path of right (or skillful) understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
The suggested problem with this presentation is that it asks people to take a position on a set of propositions – agree, disagree, partly agree/disagree, don’t know. The invitation of the course is to look at this in another way, which the tutors say may be truer to the earliest Buddhist teaching. The suggestion here is that Buddhism needed such metaphysical formulae to become a respectable Indian religion of the day, whereas the Buddha himself may have been something of a sceptic, immersed in creative conversations with inquirers and avoiding dogma as far as possible. However, the real issue is about what kind of Buddhism people want to develop today.
Here, the proponents of my online course are very clear. The four proposed tasks can be summed up in the slogan: understand, realise, give up, develop. So far, I take this to mean that I ask myself what if anything ‘suffering’ means to me and how I might know that I am experiencing it. How, in my understanding, does it come about? What could I do towards letting go of it and in what ways might this lead to a different kind of life? This exploration is tied to an ethical quest: how do I become the kind of person I aspire to be? How can I help to create the kind of world I want to live in? (Hence the notion of ‘ennobling tasks’). These are open questions, and I work on them in my own life, rather than generating opinions about statements. Relative to many other spiritual traditions, Buddhists tend in this direction anyway. This approach simply takes the spirit of inquiry further and perhaps gives it more freedom.
I’m only at the start of one brief online course (six weeks). I do know, already, that if I’m going to be involved more in the Buddhist world, this is a direction I would want to move in. I’m encouraged.
- Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009