Once upon a time, there was a young man named Siddhartha in a place called Kapilavastu. Siddhartha was a good kid, but an astrologer named Asita had told his father Śuddhodana that Siddhartha was destined to be either a world conqueror, or a great holy man.
His father was the king — actually, it appears he was elected to the position, but I’m telling this the traditional way for now — and he really didn’t like this whole holy man thing at all. So he saw to it that Siddhartha was raised with everything, from palaces to gardens to hot and cold running dancing girls, and he protected Siddhartha from any knowledge of unpleasantness.
If you think of Siddhartha as the child of wealthy Hollywood types, raised in Beverly Hills, you won’t be far wrong.
Siddhartha was so protected, in fact, that he was an adult before he actually saw a lot of the unpleasantness in the world. Then he saw, first, an old man, then a sick man, and then a corpse.
And Siddhartha said, “This sucks!”
Then he found out that he would also eventually get old, and sick, and then die, and he said, “Wow, this really sucks!”
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.
Then there’s a third kind: the kind where you look at the universe and feel like it’s really not, somehow, good enough. This kind makes me think of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
What Buddha saw through was that it’s not the bad things that happen so much as it’s the way we think about the bad things happening. When we stub our toes, we don’t just think, “Ow!” We think: “Ow! That hurts! Damn, I wonder if I broke it? Am I going to be able to put on shoes today? If I can’t wear shoes I can’t go to work. But if I take a day off from work they’ll fire me. I can’t get fired, I’ve got a mortgage payment!” Or we think about losing a cat and we anticipate how sad it will be, and get depressed thinking about how sad it will be when it happens.
Or we think, late at night when we’re trying to sleep, that nothing ever seems to work out and there just doesn’t seem to be any point.
The First Noble Truth really comes down to saying: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this!”
The Second Noble Truth is Buddha saying: “So don’t do that!”
But that’s another column.