contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Four Noble Truths

CRAVING THROUGH BUDDHIST EYES

“We are learning to unbind the mind from the grip of craving”, according to the teachers of my course on the Buddhist Four Noble Truths (1). The problem about unbinding the mind, they acknowledge, is that we usually can’t do it as a simple act of will. Going that way, we can end up at war with ourselves.

The purpose of practices like meditation, in this context, is to create a mental landscape that favours awareness and understanding. The craving impulse is likely tied to an underlying discontent – something wrong, or lacking, or missing. Through practice, we learn to create moments of pause in which we’re “sensitized to the impulse” of moving towards or away from bundles of feelings, thoughts, images and desires. As part of this increased awareness, we may learn to tolerate discontent, rather than automatically attempting to solve it. During such discontent, a question in the Zen tradition asks: ‘what in this moment is truly lacking?’. We may find ourselves discovering a sensitivity, kindness or capacity for gladness that begins to address our sense of lack and to calm the craving.

Going a little deeper, we can look at mythologies in our lives that tell us, ‘if only I had X, I would be happy’. This includes material objects and conditions, but also expectations of other people, in which we make them responsible for our happiness. We learn to identify our own habitual patterns built on assumptions of this kind We also learn to hold the tension of unfulfilled craving – whether because we don’t get what we want, or because we do get we want and remain unsatisfied. This in turn allows us better to understand the pay-offs, or lack thereof, of satisfying cravings. A different kind of strategy is to “acknowledge how much good stuff we have experienced and how much pleasure we have experienced”.

I notice that this discussion is highly psychologized and reflects the marriage of modern psychology and modern Buddhism with ‘mindfulness’ as their offspring. In a sense, we are witnessing a new kind of Buddhism. I have now read translations of some early Indian texts. Although the teachers of my Four Noble Truths course are versed in these texts and loyal to them, the cultural feeling tone – to me – seems vastly different. I would read from them that the real cause of suffering is being born at all. This is again different from the marriage of Taoism and Buddhism in China, birthing Chan (and subsequently Zen in Japan). Here the focus is on breaking out of a prison – of conventional language, thinking and identity –  for the encounter with ‘original face’.

So, behind the immediate concern with the Four Noble Truths (or ennobling tasks) there is another inquiry, concerned with what Buddhism (or post Buddhist Dharma) will look like as it becomes indigenized in the West, especially North America as the centre of gravity for these developments. When a new culture adopts an exotic religion, it will inevitably change it. This is happening now in the case of Western Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths course sheds valuable light on the evolution spiritual cultures as well as on how to deal (my own words) with a bitter sweet poignancy at the heart of life.

(1) This course is concerned with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, re-framed as four ennobling tasks. It 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.

 

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

LIVING WITH EASE

The first unit of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – left me with some contemplative exercises. The first one began by asking me to identify the difference between being completely happy and what I experience now. What makes the difference? What stops me from being completely happy – or, to put it another traditional way, ‘living with ease’?

I had to ponder that one, because I’ve reached a generally happy time in my life, though of course there are ups and downs. What was the deepest and most authentic answer to these questions? I find a pervasive background anxiety (my brand of dukkha). At this stage of my life it manifests as a felt sense of vulnerability in the world and of my capacity to navigate it as I age. This is turn is linked to an anticipation of increased personal frailty whilst witnessing a collective mismanagement of our world in the Anthropocene Age.

I believe that this anxiety is natural, largely realistic, and offers valuable information about me and my environment. I would not want to swat it with, say, a simple injunction to live in the present moment. It is true that, subjectively, I live in a flowing present and have never been out of it. Past and future do not exist. But memory and anticipation exist, as human skills, and are part of my flowing present. Anticipation gives me a limited power of foresight and prediction. It enables an awareness of actions and consequences. So, for me, imagining personal frailty and social stress in the future has a value. A measure of energetic arousal, which I might label ‘anxiety,’ is also not in itself a problem: it can be helpfully motivating.

But I do see problems, two of them. The first is identification with the anxiety, so that it becomes ‘me’, rather than the affective aspect of a message, whose cognitive aspect is a scanning for threats with my inherited ability to anticipate them. The second is feeling bad about the anxiety and wanting it to go away. If I am identified with the anxiety as well as feeling bad about it, I can end up feeling bad about myself. At worst, I can fall into a narrative of not coping, when in fact the initial experience may contain seeds of good coping.

My solution to the dukkha dimension here has two aspects. The first is disidentification. I am not my anxiety, which will come and go and change its taste and texture on the way. The second is acceptance. I welcome this anxiety into the field of experience. It has a place at my hearth. I don’t let go of my anxiety so much as my rejection of it – for it comes bearing gifts. This, I think, is what I mean by ‘living with ease’. I have always liked this phrase, because it has a sense of relaxing into enjoyment, an enjoyment which may hold anxiety itself within a larger loving awareness. Ultimately, it’s the larger loving awareness that makes the difference.

WOODEN TIGER, ENNOBLING TASKS

“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:

  1. The existence of suffering as an inescapable part of life
  2. 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
  3. The end of suffering, through taming the forces or greed, hatred and delusion either temporarily or (ideally) permanently
  4. 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

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015
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