I review Buddha’s Four Noble Truths during my yoga headstand every morning. Today, Truth #4 stood out, although not in any earth shaking way, more in a “well, duh” kind of way. First, though, here is his fourth truth:
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Middle Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty. He who is wise will enter this path and make an end to suffering. Eight steps on the Middle Path are 1. Right Comprehension, 2. Right Resolution, 3. Right Speech, 4. Right Action, 5. Right Living, 6. Right Effort, 7. Right Thought, 8. Right State of Peaceful Mind.
The unusual thing about this truth is the way it says life is work, and if you accept that fact, you are going to be a lot happier with your life. He says we will suffer less when our will is bent on what we ought to do, when our sole desire is the performance of our duty.(1)
The unusual thing about this truth is the way it says life is work, and if you accept that fact, you are going to be a lot happier with your life. He says we will suffer less when our will is bent on what we ought to do, when our sole desire is the performance of our duty.(1).
I find this fascinating for several reasons. First, we commonly do all we can to get out of doing our duty, postpone doing it, or find an easier way to get it done. Buddha’s solution is just plain work; on the other hand, we do all we can to make work as light and easy as possible. His solution clearly pushes back on our desire for a free ride, our desire to get something for nothing, and our wish to detour around any rough work that life brings our way.
When you see Buddha’s teaching for what it is, it is somewhat surprising that it took off as it did. I suppose charisma (and other factors) helped obfuscate his foursquare solution. I mean the idea that work will lessen suffering goes against our hope for an easy life. The images of him, like this statue (left), all peaceful and serene, help smooth over the work aspect of his teaching I imagine. On the other hand, isn’t it interesting how Christianity takes it to the other extreme with Jesus nailed up on the cross… work in the extreme!
Four of Buddha’s truths stand out particularly in how they focus on the mental work aspects of human nature.
|1. Right Understanding||2. Right Mindedness|
|7. Right Attentiveness||8. Right Concentration|
We can get lost right from the start if we don’t understand nature’s rules. Any ideals promising us a ‘secret’, easy, work-free way around difficulty keeps us treading water, shooting ourselves in the foot repeatedly.
Next, it is essential to remain mindful of what we know to be true, which if nothing else means accepting Buddha’s three preceding truths (i.e., truth of suffering, truth of the cause of suffering, truth of the cessation of suffering)
Now, to remain mindful, we need to be attentive, and concentrate more on where we’ve been, and are now, rather than on where we may be going. Keeping a sense of where we’ve been is essential to keep touching whatever truth we’ve realized. Those who forget history (in this case their own) are bound to repeat it, in cycles of sorrow.
The other four truths are directed at the quality of our action. This is where the rubber hits the road, as they say. This is where actions speak louder than words; where the proof is in the pudding; where we put our money where our mouth is.
|3. Right Speech||4. Right Action|
|5. Right Living||6. Right Effort|
It is such a straightforward solution, and yet so few see and understand it as such. Why? In my view, we simply cannot understand what we do not already intuitively know to be true. This simple path cannot be taught, it has to be found! The entrance lies within ourselves.
(1) As Buddha lay on his deathbed, his disciples implored him to tell them how they were to manage without him. “Strive on diligently” was his final piece of advice. “Strive on diligently” in colloquial speak could just as easily be, “get to work”, “buckle down”, “keep your nose to the grindstone”, “bite the bullet”, and even Nike’s “just do it”. The “on” aspect is specific to humans. In the wild, all other animals “strive diligently”, but not “on”. It is all done in the moment. Only we spend time in an imagined future, and a remembered past.
Buddha declined to speak to the mysterious, metaphysical, hypothetical side of life, which makes the greatest scientist of his time… perhaps of all time (in my view). He cut through all the noise and got to the main point: the cause of self, its suffering, and the most direct way to deal with it effectively.
To be sure, there is a profound and beyond words side of life. For me, the Tao Te Ching addresses that side superbly. The Buddha’s view anchors the plain truth of life; the Taoist view suggests a way to behold what lies beyond—nature’s mystery.
The common denominator between them is watchfulness. Watchfulness is essential whether we are working or resting. Watchfulness is always a factor, even in sleep, as animals in the wild superbly demonstrate. I see Zen as the blending of the Buddha’s path and the Taoist’s worldview, with watchfulness being the source spring for both.