Buddha’s Truths apply to all Earth’s creatures, although only humans need to have truth stipulated. For me, this suggests that our desire for truth is a symptom of something we feel missing. For that reason, considering the widest possible scope of these truths gives helpful context for their application – ‘profound sameness’, as chapter 56 calls it.
The First Noble Truth is the existence of sorrow. Birth is sorrowful, growth is sorrowful, illness is sorrowful, and death is sorrowful. Sad it is to be joined with that which we do not like. Sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which cannot be obtained.
This truth applies to all living things to some degree. Increasing complexity of the nervous system through evolution resulted in an increasingly sophisticated neural response to environmental stimuli. The ensuing sophistication in perception of the primary survival emotions — need, fear, pleasure, and pain — results in the discernment of a more complex emotional experience. In other words, the innate survival drive of sentient animals to avoid pain and fear results in the experience we call “sorrow”. Simply put, pain and fear are the unavoidable complimentary aspects of pleasure and need. Both are innately necessary emotional responses in life. That is the Yin and Yang of life, so to speak.
The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is lust. The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in the net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
This truth also applies to all living things to a degree. Attraction and aversion (need and fear) are the driving forces behind life’s response to stimuli. For example, both a human sunbather and a sunflower experience a need for sunshine. The difference between the two is the capacity for thought. In humans, primal need admixes with thought and generates “desire” (expectation, lust, envy, greed). A human can project the desire into future expectations, and his imagination then allows him to dream, hope, and pray that his expectations can be met, if only…
The plants and non-human animals are spared most, if not all, of this thinking derived ‘baggage’. They simply deal with life in a moment-by-moment way. They act upon the attraction or aversion (need or fear) they feel in the moment. Humans do this also, but they also react to a multitude of cognitive projections arising out of primal attraction (need) and aversion (fear). In other words…
Primal attraction (need) + thought = desire, positive expectations. (1)
Primal aversion (fear) + thought = worry, anxiety, negative expectations. (2)
Lacking thought, animals and plants don’t desire or worry. They imagine no future and so can’t “cleave to” either positive or negative expectations. Animals with less means of “cleaving to things”, be they physical (goods) or mental (stories), have less “illusion of self”.
Then again, the more complex the nervous system, the more a sense of future may play a role. ‘Higher’ animals may feel a sense of future expectation, but lacking language would still not be able to get lost in an imagined future or past distinct from the reality of now.
The ability of humans to leave the present via thought disconnects them from experiencing an optimal sense of life purpose in the ‘eternal now’. The less connected to life’s purpose human animals feel, the more a “cleaving to things” will occur to serve as a pseudo connection to purpose and life’s meaning. The “cleaving” creates and sustains the “illusion of self” which becomes your closest friend, as it were — a connection with a few caveats, obviously.
The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of sorrow. He who conquers self will be free from lust. He no longer craves and the flames of desire finds no material to feed upon. Thus, it will be extinguished.
Animals, including our hunter-gatherer ancestors, have less opportunity, either biologically or circumstantially, to experience deep disconnection. Therefore, there is less “illusion of self” to “conquer”. Ancestral humans, having cognition, would have experienced desire and worry, but circumstances were still very conducive to connection and life purpose.
Importantly, the disconnecting consequence of civilization’s hierarchical social structure was absent. The intimate nature of the small tribal group existence, along with the survival necessity to stick together and survive in the wild, resulted in a far more egalitarian and cooperative social setting.
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 5. Right Living 2. Right Resolution 6. Right Effort 3. Right Speech 7. Right Thought 4. Right Action 8. Right State of Peaceful Mind
Notice how the Eight steps above only apply to humans. Plants and non-human animals don’t have the unique disease we humans have. As chapter 71 reveals, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. This disease of ours overstates life, distracts us, and we suffer. As chapter 16 says, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Plants and non-human animals know the constant; or rather, they are the constant. They feel the truth of extemporaneous survival. “Their will is bent on what they ought to do”. Their sole need “is the performance of their duty” to fitness. They can be present in their moment for they have no story, no belief, by which to escape their “ought to do”. They don’t rush off to seek any imagined ‘better choice’. Honestly though, humans embody these aspects too, albeit not as straightforwardly. In the end, we are also animals.
Re + Ligare
The disconnecting circumstances of civilization drive humans to find refuge in uplifting and reconnecting paradigms that accommodate their hierarchical reality. For example, we have gods, kings, stories of humanity’s superior status, educational and social merit and such upon which to “cleave” and connect.
Interestingly, the word religion tells the story of its core purpose. The Latin root of religion is re- again, back, anew, against + ligare – to bind, to connect. Does religion work? To a degree perhaps, but the lingering depth of disconnection we ultimately feel is the outcome of the shift from an egalitarian classless way of life to a hierarchical one. Religion is probably at best a palliative, and at its worst, an elitist excuse to discriminate.
Civilization’s hierarchical structure imbues all of humanity’s institutions, e.g., politics, religion, sports, economy, military, etc. Each person finds a more or less comfortable niche in the hierarchy, which affords some sense of place and meaning. However, this is not equal to the sense of deep connection and belonging that an egalitarian social structure provides.
The benefit of greater material comfort and security created by the Agricultural Revolution naturally came with a cost. Balance is an essential quality of Nature — gain takes loss; loss gives gain.
The maturity that comes with aging is evident in all animals. Even so, humans don’t live long enough to reach sufficient maturity to balance the increased level of comfort and security civilization offers. Interestingly, civilization is in the process of fixing this imbalance through increases in longevity that advances in medicine bring. If this continues, at some point much of humanity will achieve a median life span long enough, to suffer enough, to gain the maturity necessary to recover some degree of balance.
De facto Buddha
I was musing over how we humans actually make ‘it’ up as we go along. ‘It’ being the cultural stories and truths we conjure up to guide us through life. Naturally, these also add legitimacy and meaning to life. However, these stories and truths are provisional and relative. Well, that is unless you believe God gave Moses those tablets of truth. To paraphrase chapter 1, “The truth possible to think, runs counter to the constant truth. The truth possible to express runs counter to the constant truth”. As I said, we make ‘it’ up as we go along.
Next, Buddha’s Fourth Truth came to mind. Everything we set ourselves to do, and especially the way we do it, is the actual de facto application of Buddha’s, “whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty.” Naturally, duty here is anything you sincerely feel a need to do right. This applies to conforming to any activity, physical or intellectual, e.g., ballet, sports, math, cooking, music, raking leaves, being in style, and of course religious practices. Indeed, I can’t think of anything in life that is exempt. When we take something seriously and sincerely strive to do it right, we are essentially implementing this fourth truth to the extent humanly possible for us personally. Now I wonder if Buddha knew that to be the case and therefore finished his four truths with what would be intuitively knowable by everyone. Actually, I see all four truths as being obvious. I just think that we may not want to accept such an honest assessment of life.
(1) Primal attraction (need) + thought = desire, positive expectations. This formula can make more sense by recognizing the difference between true love and the visceral attachment that arises from primal attraction (need, desire, expectation, pleasure, etc.). If the loss of something we think we love results in sorrow, our visceral attachment is the core cause. That’s not to say true love isn’t present; true love and attachment often commingle. However, recognizing there is a difference is useful on any path to self-honesty. So what is true love? Perhaps paraphrasing chapter 1 can help answer this…
Another way to fathom true love would be to correlate the word love. This mostly involves the process of discerning what true love isn’t.
(2) It is interesting that Buddha neglected to say anything about fear. Fear is the fundamental origin of need… from which desire, lust and the rest arise. Indeed, the life experience of all living things arises out of innate fear. Innate fear, in turn, arises from a biological aversion to entropy. Entropy is the fearsome enemy of life, of survival. Simply put, fear ≈ entropy. Fear also correlates to emptiness, nothingness, silence, the void, loss, failure, death, and so on. There is absolutely nothing we can do about fear, other than deal with it as best as our fears allow. Incidentally, the Bhagavad Gita says, “Even a little progress is freedom from fear”. Clearly, fear is the engine of life, so “freedom from fear” can only be found in facing, if not embracing, fear. (See also Fear & Need Born in Nothing, Fear Is The Bottom Line, Fear Rules, Reward, Fear & Need , The Worry Gene , Feeding the Worry Gene.)