Then he saw a monk — Suddhodana had kept monks and priests away too, just to keep Siddhartha from having any ideas of being a holy man — and learned that these monks were trying to find a way to escape from the unpleasantness. So once he had a son, thereby having done his duty to the family and all, he ran away to become a monk. He was determined to find an answer to the problem of how much life sucks.
Fast forward now to six years later — I promise I’ll tell the whole story another time — when Siddhartha had found an answer and first explained it to five friends who became his first followers. What he explained is called the Four Noble Truths:
- Life sucks. It’s full of anxiety, dissatisfaction, unhappiness.
- All the anxiety is in our heads; we do it to ourselves by trying to live in a make-believe world in which we can cling to pleasant things and shut out unpleasant things.
- We can release ourselves from the anxiety by seeing ourselves clearly, understanding what is real.
- And there are skills we can learn to help us live in the real world.
The Sanskrit word for the First Noble Truth is duhkha, which is normally translated as “suffering” — another translation by the Victorians that causes no end of confusion now. When we hear the word “suffering” we tend to think of something like the Edvard Munch painting “The Scream,” or one of those pictures of Saint Stephen the Martyr.
Which is fine, but it’s too narrow — duhkha is just anything that makes you unhappy, anything that’s unpleasant. In fact Siddhartha — they called him Buddha by this point — explained in some detail that duhkha comes in many forms. There’s the usual pain and suffering thing; stub your toe, it hurts, that’s regular duhkha, duhkha duhkha. (No really, duhkha duhkha is the way it’s said.)
But then there’s another kind, the kind where you’re anticipating suffering to come. The kind where you look at your 13-year-old cat and realize that you’re almost certain to outlive him, or the kind you feel on the next to last day of a ten-day cruise when you realize that pretty quickly you’ll have to go home and get your own breakfast.