“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.