I review Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (p.604) during my yoga headstand every morning. Today, the fourth truth stood out, although not in a profound way, more in a “Well, duh” kind of way. First, though, here is the 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. Buddha 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 evade doing our duty by postponing it or seeking ways to make the work as light as possible. His answer to life’s sorrows clearly pushes back on our desire for a free ride, to get something for nothing, or our wish to bypass any rough work that life brings our way.
When you see the honesty in Buddha’s teaching, it is somewhat surprising that Buddhism took off as it did. Perhaps his charisma (and other factors) helped soften and disguise his straightforward no-free-ride solution. I mean the idea that work will lessen suffering goes against our innate desire for an easy life. The images of him, like this statue here, all peaceful and serene, help smooth over the work aspect of his teaching I suppose. 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 Comprehension||2. Right Resolution|
|7. Right Thought||8. Right State of Peaceful Mind|
We can get lost right from the beginning if we don’t comprehend nature’s rules. Any ideal promising us a secret, easy, or work-free way around difficulty often keeps us treading water and repeatedly shooting ourselves in the foot.
Next, it is essential to remain resolute of what we know to be true, which if nothing else means resolutely remembering constantly what we comprehend.
Now, to remain resolute, we need to be thoughtful, and that requires having a sufficient state of peaceful mind to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are now more than on where we wish to go. Having 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. Note, the catch-22 here is how emotion impedes one’s state of peaceful mind… See Buddha’s Second Noble Truth. Thus, it helps to view this work as a step-by-step process where one retraces Buddha’s eight fold path repeatedly throughout life, with each iteration building upon the previous one.
The other four truths focus on our actions. Here is where the rubber hits the road; 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? We simply—indeed innately—cannot understand what we do not already intuitively know to be true (p.254). This simple path can’t be taught, it must be found within oneself through personal experience!
(1) As Buddha lay on his deathbed, his disciples implored him to tell them how they were to manage without him. “All created things must pass, strive on diligently” was reportedly his final advice. Informally, “Strive on diligently” is just saying, “get to work”, “buckle down”, “keep your nose to the grindstone”, and “bite the bullet”. The “on” aspect is specific to humans. All animals in the wild strive diligently… but not “on”. They do life moment-to-moment. Only humans spend time in an imagined future and a remembered past.
Buddha declined to speak to the mysterious, metaphysical, or hypothetical side of life. 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. Surely, this makes him the greatest scientist of his time… perhaps of all time.
To be sure, there is a profound and beyond words aspect to life. The Tao Te Ching addresses some of that side beautifully. The Buddha’s view offers the plain truth of life, while the Taoist view suggests a way to behold nature’s mystery and what lies beyond.
The common denominator between the Buddhist and Taoist paradigms is watchfulness. Watchfulness is essential factor in survival itself for any animal. I consider Zen as the blending of the Buddha’s path and the Taoist’s worldview, with watchfulness being the foundation for both.