The details of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths vary somewhat depending on the source. I recently dug up the source for the version that I long ago found to be most useful. Why useful? Because it was the most succinct I’d seen.
Nevertheless, I had a minor problem with how the Third Noble Truth was stated, and way back then changed a word or two. Rereading my original source makes me want to revisit this and ponder why I revised it in the first place. Here is the sequence of events:
The original says, “He who conquers self will be free from lust. He no longer craves and the flames of desire find no material to feed upon, thus they are extinguished.”
I changed the “conquers self” to “surrenders self”. I was immersed in the Bhagavad-Gita at the time which preaches surrender, e.g., “no man can be a Yogi who surrenders not his earthly will”. Perhaps the idea of ‘conquering self’ felt too aggressive to me.
A few years ago, I thought back on that and changed it back to what I thought was the original, “He who extinguishes self will be free from lust…”. Recently I came across that old book and saw the original ‘conquers self‘ phrase.
There is some ‘chicken and the egg’ irony in this. The Second Noble Truth points out “the illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self … (and so on)”. So how is one supposed to apply the Third Truth, “He who conquers self will be free from lust” when self is an illusion to begin with. If something isn’t real, what does ‘conquer’ mean in practice? It certainly is not the same as conquering a physical enemy coming at you with guns a-blazing.
Another peculiarity is the notion that, as the Third Truth says, “…the flames of desire find no material to feed upon and thus they are extinguished”. This material would seem to be the self, which after being conquered is no more and thus desire has nothing to feed upon. However, as the Second Truth says, the self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things, and lust gets the cleaving ball rolling in the first place. Yet conquering self frees you from lust. This feels oddly circular — chicken and the egg-y.
I get past the chicken and egg dilemma by simply keeping actively aware that my needs, desires, fears, and worries cause my sense of self. The illusion then has a hard time withstanding this stream of constantly watchful clarity. Conquering self then comes down to just maintaining enough perspective to avoid the tricks biology pulls on us — the bio-hoodwink (1) as I call it. In other words, the more aware I am of how biology is pulling my strings, the less convincing the illusion becomes. Conquering self is really a matter of seeing how the trick works. Once you clearly know how the trick (magic, illusion) works, it can no longer captivate you. (See It’s Like Magic) When the illusion of self no longer captivates you, you’ve conquered it, or at least you’ve established a truce.
One final thought on Buddha’s Second Truth. If I were to rephrase it, I’d put it this way: “He who conquers, surrenders, and comprehends self will be free from lust. He no longer craves and the flames of desire find no material to feed upon, thus they are extinguished.” The conquering comes first as you wage battle with yourself to ‘get your act together’. Next comes the surrendering when you realize that conquering your self is not possible, at least in the normal wage war sense of the word. Finally, seeing what is actually taking place, and comprehending how a bio-hoodwink is always pulling strings diminishes the “illusion of self” enough to return to one’s roots and just be who you innately are.
(1) Bio-hoodwink: I coined this term for the trick biology plays on perception. (See Peeking in on Nature’s Hoodwink.) Chapter 65 says: Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them. The oldest ‘of old’, when it comes to living things in nature, is the biological process of life… ‘Hoodwinks’, and all.
For example, a bio-hoodwink tells the brain that the richer the food, and the more you eat of it, the better. This was the case in the wild before we cleverly devised ways around natural limitations in order to make food as rich and plentiful as we wished. Alas, the bio-hoodwink is inherited DNA and out of sync with our clever yet ignorant innovations. The only counter-measure we have against this is understanding, which explains why Buddha put Right Comprehension at the head of his Eight Fold Path.