Buddhism’s Noble Truths: La Vie Est Magnifique, Sois Toi-Meme–NOT…

img_2116“Life is magnificent; be yourself.” These words are taken straight from a T-shirt, so hardly authoritative, but I don’t think any phrase could better demonstrate the differences between East and West, the West being something of a personality cult of ones own self, while the East—Buddhism, at least—denies the existence of a self entirely…

That doctrine of ‘no self’, anatta, translates to us most easily as ‘no ego’, something we are very familiar with, but in fact also refers to the idea of a transmigrating soul, or any permanent self, one that in Asian religious traditions is usually envisioned as forever returning, though a similarly permanent soul is envisioned in Western traditions on a one-way trip up there or down there…

IMG_0829But the most sublime result of the Buddhist ‘no self’ doctrine is the notion that what I am is constantly in flux, never fixed forever changing, and that is indeed liberating, the idea that I am not a brand, not a piece of meat on a supermarket shelf, produced and packaged and marketed for immediate consumption…

The five ‘aggregates’ (skandhas) of which I am composed are in constant contingent coordination with those of others, plus nature, so that ‘myself’ is a best guess, at best, and ample opportunity, at worst bad timing, a multiple choice option, in a deck of cards which is reshuffled every day—aaahhh…

And if it’s easy enough to laugh off the T-shirt pseudo-wisdom as “Oh, so French,” then it’s not so easy to laugh it off when an entire species of similarly ennobled creatures is endangered largely because of the ramifications of this egocentric attitude…

For one thing, I doubt that the saying is as harmless as it sounds, with respect to ego, but secondly, and maybe even more importantly, I doubt that life is as magnificent—on average—as portrayed here. Try telling that to a paraplegic, or a cancer patient, or an accident victim, or a Rohingya…

IMG_0835And, to be honest, that same criticism could be leveled at Buddhism, too, that the Second Noble Truth—that craving is the cause of suffering—can hardly be leveled at people whose only craving is to be normal. And don’t even think about suggesting to me that such people must have done something wrong in a previous life. To paraphrase a Jewish friend of mine: “I’m not THAT Buddhist!”

And if one of my secret desires as a Buddhist is to rid all Buddhist sects of past lives and other superstitions, so that we can move on to more important things, then another of my secret desires would be to tweak that second ‘Noble Truth’ so that it doesn’t unfairly lay blame on birth defectives and other accidental victims and misguided tourists…

While even if it may technically still be correct, that victims shouldn’t bemoan their fate, it is also true that they shouldn’t necessarily be relegated to it, either, not in this modern day and age of experimental miracles. And therein lies the crux of most of my complaints about Buddhism prior to my own flash of insight that led to my current membership in the faith, which is its passivity—if over-indulged in, i.e. reconciling oneself to a fate that is not necessarily insurmountable…

Of course the answer to that conundrum is built into the system—the Middle Path—so the only challenge is finding that sweet spot individually, the right balance of advance and retreat, aggression and concession, exertion and chillaxation. And if it’s hard for an individual to find that right mix of contending opposites, then it’s next to impossible for a society. Enter socialism, the Middle Path of politics, halfway between totalitarian communism and free-for-all capitalism cum democracy…

IMG_0683While acknowledging the ultimate truth of the Four Noble Truths, my own take is to place limits on it, literally, as the special case scenario—let’s call it ‘special craving’, and extend the same conclusions to all cases, regardless of whether it’s ‘true’ craving. Let’s call this ‘general desire’. After all, I don’t think someone should be castigated for ‘craving’ breakfast, though perhaps he should be castigated for craving another Mercedes…

This adjustment, when adopted, can put a damper on the whole ‘sky-is-the-limit’ narrative of the Wild Wild West—and that’s good. We need limits. Motivational speakers exude “Nothing is impossible!” like that is gospel for hungry sheep, and they are the ones who should be castigated, for selling illusions to desperate people at highly inflated prices…

Those narratives have had their day in the sun, and did quite well, thank you, but the dogma of unlimited growth has been run over by the karma of self-destruction. We need new paradigms and we need them fast. The only question now for a good Buddhist is: do I save myself, or do I save the world? Theravada or Mahayana? Decisions decisions…